Lord Cameron is under pressure to finally tear up an agreement with Europe amid intensifying anger that £2.34bn of “world-changing” funds from the sale of Chelsea FC are still in limbo after 18 months.
Roman Abramovich first promised proceeds for “all Ukraine war victims” after putting Chelsea up for sale on March 2 last year, eight days before facing sanctions over alleged links to Vladimir Putin.
However, as previously detailed by Telegraph Sport, the huge fund has remained untouched in a frozen account since the club’s sale, in part because of “bureaucratic quagmire” between the government and Europe.
Despite the sale of the club taking place entirely within UK jurisdiction, ministers signed a unilateral declaration in May with the European Commission stating the money would be spent “exclusively” within Ukraine.
Cameron’s appointment as Foreign Secretary, however, has led to renewed efforts to have the funds released, with calls coming from Save the Children and Mike Penrose, a former Unicef UK chief executive who was set to finally launch the proposed independent foundation that would control the money.
After months of frustration, Penrose says he hopes the “heavyweight” return of Cameron, the former Prime Minister, to frontbench politics could spark a long-awaited breakthrough.
“The unilateral declaration can be withdrawn at any time,” explained Penrose. “This is a former Prime Minister who had increased Britain’s standing in terms of humanitarian work. His partnerships of the past put Britain as probably the leading humanitarian nation on the planet. I am looking forward to speaking to him when he’s back from his initial trips, and I’m quite hopeful that he will have the vision to make this work.”
That call was backed by James Deneslow, head of the conflict team at Save the Children, who told Telegraph Sport: “With a new Foreign Secretary in place, we will continue to advocate for this vast amount of sanctioned money to be used to support the humanitarian consequences of the war in Ukraine.
“As we have maintained, the funds must be released and should be made available to all victims of the war in Ukraine - whether that is within Ukraine’s geographical borders, supporting Ukrainian refugee in Europe or funding food programmes in East Africa, where food insecurity has been exacerbated by the war.”
‘Stature, understanding and experience’
Penrose has set up legal undertakings to make sure the money cannot fall back into the hands of Abramovich. The Government will have board input and Jan Egeland, a senior Norwegian diplomat who once advised Kofi Annan at the United Nations, has been brought in as interim chairman.
In recent weeks, No 10 has discussed the possibility of “disapplying” the Human Rights Act to an emergency bill in an effort to force through plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda
Penrose, who had previously been dealing with James Cleverly, compared that case to the dilemma facing Cameron. “I just go back to the Government and say ‘if the EU disagrees with you on this, you have the right to have moral courage and push back on the EU’,” Penrose added. “The right thing to do is to help Ukrainians everywhere and all people affected by the war, including families hosting them in the UK.”
The licence granted by the UK government setting out the next stage in this process expires on Nov 30. This has been extended by a joint agreement in the past and it is all-but-certain to be extended yet again.
Penrose says he had yet to deal with Cameron directly since he was appointed Foreign Secretary, but a meeting will be arranged in the coming weeks.
“Having worked with people who’ve worked with him before and knowing his legacy, I’m confident that someone of his stature, understanding and experience will see the opportunity that this presents to make Britain a leader in humanitarian aid,” Penrose said.
“I think he’ll understand the issue of breaking the deed of undertaking and why it’s the right thing to do to - we can help people in the UK, we can help refugees in Moldova and Poland, we can help people starving to death because of the Ukrainian grain interruptions. Not just people inside Ukraine.”
A breakthrough has remained elusive despite British families hosting Ukrainian refugees launching a petition urging the Prime Minister to “break the political deadlock”.
Over the summer, Action Against Hunger joined Oxfam, Save the Children and a host of organisations on the ground in Ukraine in criticising government delays.
The difference of opinion on the purposes of the foundation stems back to before the Chelsea sale to a consortium led by American businessman Todd Boehly was completed on May 30 last year. Sources close to the process said Abramovich had signed a deed of undertaking with the Government stating the charity would be for “Ukraine and the consequences of Ukraine”.
However, in a unilateral declaration, the Government stated last year: “The Treasury will only issue a licence which ensures that such proceeds are used for exclusively humanitarian purposes in Ukraine.” Saleh Saeed, of the Disasters Emergency Committee, also supported Penrose’s position that humanitarian need extends beyond the borders of Ukraine.
Kate Cavalier, 44, who has been hosting a family of Ukrainians for 15 months at her home in England, also appealed for Cameron to intervene.
“The UK has welcomed many Ukrainian families since the war broke out,” she said. “I’m so proud that our country has provided shelter and care to over 160,000 Ukrainian people fleeing from war - mostly women and children. However, many of their friends and family haven’t been so fortunate and are in desperate need of humanitarian support as the war enters its second winter.
“This money could make such a huge difference, but instead it remains tied up in bureaucracy, stuck in a sanctioned bank account. I’d ask Lord Cameron to use his political experience to break through this bureaucracy; to release these sanctioned funds and to create a humanitarian foundation that the UK can be proud of.”
The Government rejects any suggestion it has been sitting on the money, with multiple sources telling Telegraph Sport they believe it was the agreement from the outset to only spend the money inside Ukraine. One insider with knowledge of talks said they thought it unlikely Cameron would adopt a new Government position, insisting “this money was meant always for Ukraine”.
Abramovich’s approval would be required for the funds to be released in line with those terms.