Anti-corruption watchdog Acoba faces new reform call
Shadow Cabinet Office minister describes current arrangements as "not fit for purpose"
A Labour MP has launched a stinging attack on anti-corruption watchdog the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, dubbing the panel a “weak and often ignored” pillar of the establishment.
Shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett said Acoba, which reviews post-government jobs sought by senior civil servants and former ministers for two years after they leave office, was “toothless” and had “not once refused a single appointment to a public servant”.
Trickett pointed to former chancellor George Osborne’s announcement of his appointment as editor of London’s Evening Standard newspaper before Acoba had approved the move and ex-PM David Cameron’s “special status to hold talks with China on behalf of Britain” as examples of a revolving-door culture.
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In an opinion piece in The Times, Trickett said Acoba was “not fit for purpose” and that there was “no sign” ministers were preparing to toughen up the rules.
“The failure of Acoba gets to the heart of how the British establishment survives and thrives across Whitehall,” he said.
“Ministers and special advisers are able to take up jobs in the private sector lobbying on behalf of firms and sectors they used to be responsible for regulating and overseeing, and the culture of second jobs in Westminster is wholly incompatible with the role of members of parliament as representatives of their constituents."
Recent appointments taken up by former senior civil servants or ex-special advisers that have won the backing of Acoba have included a role with the City of London Corporation for former Department for International Trade perm sec Martin Donnelly and numerous consultancy roles for ex-No 10 strategy head Ameetpal Gill.
Last year, Acoba criticised former GCHQ director Robert Hannigan, whose appointment with US cybersecurity firm BluteamGlobal was made public before the panel’s endorsement had been given.
Acoba publishes its advice letters to former ministers and senior civil servants after it has approved their applications – sometimes well after a new role has been commenced.
While Acoba cannot prevent an individual from taking up an appointment, it can advise applicants that a job is “unsuitable” but in such cases it does not publish details of the person, the job being sought or its reasoning.
In its 2017 annual report, the watchdog said there had been eight instances over the past year in which applications had been withdrawn. One reason applications are withdrawn is that the individuals concerned have been advised the role is “unsuitable”.
Trickett said Labour wanted to see a radical overhaul of the system to “break open the cosy club of the British elite”.
“The establishment is a former health secretary advising health firms, a water minister working for the water industry, an energy minister for an oil firm, a city minister for a stock exchange,” he said.
“Public servants should not be profiting from the expertise built up whilst working in government and members of parliament must concentrate on their jobs as public servants.
“People need to believe that this country is run by people like them, in their interests. And it is the Labour Party’s ambition to deliver this.”
An Acoba spokeswoman told Civil Service World the business appointments rules that the committee advised on were owned by the government.
“Any changes to the remit or role of the advisory committee would be a matter for the Cabinet Office," she said.
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