A UK Cabinet minister endorsed a telecoms firm that gave £21,500 to Conservative MPs

Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden, Conservative Party MP for Hertsmere, leaves 10 Downing Street in London.
Culture secretary Oliver Dowden. David Cliff/NurPhoto via Getty Images
  • EXCLUSIVE: A firm that gave £21,500 to Tory MPs received support from a senior minister.
  • Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, spoke at the virtual launch of IX Wireless’s network.
  • James Wharton, a Conservative peer and donor, is a director of the firm’s controlling company.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

A telecoms company that gave more than £20,000 to Conservative MPs benefitted from the ringing endorsement of a senior UK Cabinet minister, Insider can reveal.

Oliver Dowden, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), appeared at a virtual launch event for IX Wireless’s broadband network in Blackburn, England, in early June.

Dowden’s department is responsible for the UK communications regulator, Ofcom.

On Wednesday, seven Conservative backbench MPs declared a total of £21,500 in donations from IX Wireless between January and July 2021. Dowden was not one of them.

Here are two entries Wednesday showing the donations:

IX Wireless donation record Matt Vickers
A parliamentary record of a donation from IX Wireless to Conservative MP Matt Vickers. UK Parliament
IX Wireless donation record Simon Fell
A parliamentary record of donations from IX Wireless to Conservative MP Simon Fell. UK Parliament

In a promotional video released by IX Wireless, Dowden can be seen in his ministerial office speaking with IX Wireless executives:

IX Wireless Blackburn Launch from on Vimeo.

They include its founder, the businessman Tahir Mohsan, and CFO Philip Walker.

Dowden praised the firm and its Blackburn network, saying: “I am delighted to join you for the virtual opening of your Blackburn gigabit network, which is really going to provide some of the fastest broadband on the planet to tens of thousands of people across the North West.

He describes its work as “part of this government’s once-in-a-lifetime upgrade to the digital infrastructure.”

“I would like to really pay tribute to you and other alternative network providers in that mission, particularly in the North West. The Blackburn network has been built in only nine months and I know you have got very exciting ambitions to reach another 250,000 premises this year and to reach 4 million premises by 2025.”

Dowden’s claim the network had only been built in only nine months is at odds with previous releases from the firm, which first announced the network in mid-2019, ISPreview reported.

Dowden tied the company’s work in with the government’s wider “leveling up” agenda, saying: “I think this is some of the most important work that we are doing in government, particularly in our bid to level up the north and the rest of the UK.”

Dowden said he hopes to support the company in the future “through many many more moments just like this.”

Companies House records show IX Wireless is controlled by Cohiba Communications. One of Cohiba’s three directors is James Wharton, a former Conservative MP who now sits in the House of Lords as a Tory peer.

Wharton’s entry on the House of Lords’s register of interests says he is providing consultancy services to IX Wireless.

Another of his clients is the firm Aquind, which has similarly made donations to Conservative MPs and gained the support of government ministers, as well as lobbying them, The Times of London reported.

Wharton is also the chair of the Office for Students and has made political donations to the Conservative party while claiming furlough support from the government, Insider has previously reported.

Most of the MPs who received funds from IX Wireless represent constituencies near the area the firm are planning to build their network in northwestern England.

But one MP, Matt Vickers, holds a constituency on the other side of the country – Wharton’s former seat of Stockton South.

Anneliese Dodds MP, chair of the opposition Labour Party, told Insider: “Boris Johnson’s decision to reward James Wharton with a peerage continues to pay off for the Conservatives.

“This isn’t the first time we’ve heard about companies with links to Johnson’s chum dishing out cash to Tory MPs.

“Day after day we hear of new cases of Tory sleaze. The Conservatives have to clean up their act and put an end to this grubby cronyism.”

Steve Goodrich, Head of Research and Investigations at Transparency International UK told Insider: “When elected to Parliament, it is critical our representatives scrupulously avoid any activity that could give the perception of being in the pocket of vested interests.

“Donations from companies and wealthy individuals have the potential to create conflicts of interest if the concerns of MPs’ financial backers are at odds with those of their constituents.

“Voters need to be able to trust that decisions are always being taken in the public interest and not on the basis of a commercial relationship.”

A DCMS spokesperson told Insider: “We work closely with the telecoms sector to boost digital connectivity and level up the country and Ministers regularly support industry announcements.

“This event was handled by the department in the usual way and the Secretary of State has no personal connection to the company in question.”

Insider asked DCMS if Dowden was aware of the links to Conservative Party figures or donations when he launched the network, but the department did not respond to this question.

Insider contacted Wharton and IX Wireless but did not receive a comment by time of publication.