Rupert McNeil: Acoba is a simplistic system ripe for overhaul – my recent experience proves it

Without reform, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments and its narrow way of operating could act as a serious deterrent for successful outsiders who are considering roles in the senior civil service
Former government chief people officer, Rupert McNeil. Credit: Louise Hayward-Schiefer

By Rupert McNeil

11 Aug 2023

Last October, I became chairman of Britain’s only active lithium-ion battery recycling business. It is a small business which I believe has enormous potential for the UK economy and its energy security. My new role is utterly different from my previous one, as government chief people officer. Our company has just seven employees. We all pitch in where needed. In our quarry near Weston Super Mare, I lift drain covers, climb fences and ladders, and check security cameras. I’ve taken on legal, environmental, operational and financial responsibilities.

Before taking up this role, I sought and was granted clearance from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments. Acoba has responsibility for advising on the probity of prospective appointments, for both ministers and the most senior civil servants, taken up during the two years after they vacate public office. Recently, Acoba hit the headlines for its role in advising on the prospective appointment of Sue Gray, former second permanent secretary, as chief of staff to Sir Keir Starmer.

The committee’s guidance to me was, essentially and reasonably: don’t use any information gained in government, and don’t “lobby”.

Earlier this year, a government agency detained several containers my company had in transit. This action threatened the survival of our business. It may ultimately mean that the UK’s only lithium-ion battery recycling business will either have to close or leave the UK. I believed the agency’s decisions were based on errors of fact and law. As a director of my company, I have a fiduciary duty to protect its interests, within the law. I took out my Acoba letter and examined it carefully.

The business appointment rules for crown servants define lobbying as: “Communication with government… with a view to influencing a government decision, policy or contract award/grant in relation to [a person’s] own interests.” I reached two conclusions. First, what I would be doing would be in the normal course of business of the company I was employed by. Second, pointing out errors of law and fact underpinning a decision is not lobbying. I was doing what any chairman would, could and should do.

The agency explained to me that there was no appeal against its decisions. As a result, I sent correspondence to the ministers, and their officials, to whom the agency is ultimately accountable. Given the agency’s position, I felt there was little other option open. Acoba deemed this to be lobbying.

One of my proudest achievements as chief people officer within the civil service was helping lead the work on making sure that all senior civil service vacancies are advertised externally by default. I am firmly persuaded that bringing private sector expertise into the civil service is one of the best ways to improve the delivery of services for the public. Indeed, I am not a career civil servant. I became government chief people officer after a career in the financial sector.

However, my experience with Acoba has led me to believe that any person who has achieved success outside of government would have to think very carefully about taking up a senior role in government. For two years after you leave, you face severe restrictions on your commercial activity and risk public censure for contacting a public body, even if done to correct errors of fact and law, and even if the life of your business depends on it.

The Labour Party has committed to abolish Acoba and establish an independent Ethics and Integrity Commission. It seems to follow that the highly anomalous Propriety and Ethics group within the Cabinet Office may, and in my view ought, to be abolished with it. I suspect that for the Conservative Party, too, the inconsistencies in our ethics oversight regime for former ministers and officials will result in their embracing a new approach. Whilst I would fully endorse improving these oversight regimes, I would urge all parties to reflect on the deterrent effect of a narrow and simplistic system of supervision. It is in nobody’s interests that people from the commercial world are soft barred from bringing their expertise into the public sector.

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