One of David Cameron's former ministers is the latest MP to take a job with a "private office". These businesses make up a little-known but powerful industry that was recently described as being staffed by a "butler class" to the wealthy elite. Reason being: the people who work for these private offices manage the wealth of their clients, as well as looking after other family affairs. Kind of like a butler.
North West Norfolk MP Sir Henry Bellingham, who was a Foreign Office minister under the coalition and was knighted by Cameron in 2016, announced a new £30,000 per year job as a senior adviser to J. Stern & Co. in the parliamentary Register of Members' Financial Interests earlier this year.
Like other private offices, J. Stern was set up to look after the riches of one family – the Sterns, a European banking dynasty – before branching out and offering its services to other super rich folk. According to its website, "J. Stern & Co. was established to meet all investment and estate management needs of the Stern family", and now helps other rich people "manage their wealth as we manage our own".
Thanks to the increasing number of "ultra high-net-worth" individuals, business is booming for Britain's private offices. These firms – according to The Observer, citing an academic study carried out by researchers at Goldsmiths and Newcastle universities – are hiring a "growing butler class of financiers and lawyers handsomely rewarded to preserve the wealth and social position of the super-rich". Helping to make up this butler class, evidently, are a number of British MPs, with Bellingham the most recent addition.
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The former minister's new employer mostly promotes its services as "a private investment firm", helping the rich buy shares and make other investments. But like most other private offices, J. Stern also offers services that suggest keeping cash out of the hands of the tax man – particularly in relation to inheritance. Bellingham's new company offers to "understand and plan wealth", offering staff with experience in "tax products", "private client, family office and trust-related expertise", and knowledge of "trust and estate" issues – all of which suggests ways to minimise tax, perfectly legally of course.
Bellingham says he will be "providing legal advice, and advice on corporate governance and strategic direction" for the firm, which is run by Swiss national Jérôme Stern. Bellingham's new company already has some Tory links, with former Tory adviser and Big Brother contestant Derek Laud serving as a partner.
In recent years, former Tory MPs Esther McVey and Tony Baldry, and Labour's David Blunkett, all joined similar firms. McVey was MP for the Wirral until May of 2015, and had also been an employment minister who increased the government's powers to "sanction" unemployed people's benefits – a technique to get people back into work that has been criticised for leaving sometimes already vulnerable people in the lurch.
Last November, the Advisory Committee for Business Appointments, which polices the "revolving door" between government and business, announced that McVey had a new job. She would be starting as a "Special Advisor" to the "Floreat Group", a London-based "multi-family private office" – that is, a company that acts as a financial advisor, bank and general helper to a number of super rich families.
Floreat is mostly owned by Hussam and Mutaz Otaibi. The firm originally had a strong base in Switzerland, where its purpose was to "manage discreetly all financial and personal matters" of a group of rich families, and pursue investments for them. Floreat was reportedly targeting families from the Middle East and Europe, and hired McVey to work one week per month for "information gathering, performing due diligence and research".
In 2014, Tony Baldry, the veteran MP for Banbury and a former minister under Thatcher, became a director of Werner Capital, a multi-family office that offers financial advice to ultra high-net-worth individuals. As well as "real estate advisory services" on how to buy expensive property in London, Baldry's firm says it specialises in "establishing robust, complex, cross-border corporate governance structures for business and personal assets", which "protect assets from political upheaval, changes in legislation or unwarranted claims". Essentially, Baldry's firm claims it can protect international oligarchs and other magnates from unstable countries from losing their cash.
While Bellingham, McVey and Baldry are all Tories, Labour's David Blunkett showed that serving the super rich isn't a purely Conservative sport. In 2013, Blunkett took a job on the advisory board of Oracle Capital, an "independent multi-family office dedicated to providing personalised services to high-net-worth individuals and their families". Oracle puts particular emphasis on offering advice to Russian and Chinese multimillionaires about how to come to the UK while minimising tax.
In fact, it has a Q&A section on its website, in which one of the questions is: "Who should use an offshore company and what are most common uses and benefits of these companies?" The answer: "An offshore company may be of interest to a great number of people and it may be used for various activities. Mainly for tax mitigation and double tax avoidance, confidentiality and limiting liability."
As a former Home Secretary, Blunkett has particular expertise in the super rich emigrating to the UK. The former Labour minister took the job while he was a serving MP, and according to parliamentary records made £19,000 a year, at a rate of about £500 per hour. Blunkett stood down in the 2015 election, but still sits on Oracle's board.
Bellingham, McVey, Baldry and Blunkett joining the very niche business of the multi-family private office shows how the needs of the super rich distort our politics: it's an industry most voters won't have heard of, but there are enough oligarchs to bring a handful of leading MPs into this world. Members of Parliament are supposed to be public servants, but are increasingly being drawn into this new "butler class" – and as time has taught us, being the servant of two masters never works.
Update, 16th May 2016: This article previously stated that Hussam and Mutaz Otaibi have Bahraini backgrounds. This was incorrect and has been amended.
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