The watchdog responsible for vetting new jobs sought by former senior civil servants and recently-departed ministers has reported a 44% increase in the number of submissions in its latest annual report.
The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments said in its just-published report for 2019-20 that it had dealt with 205 requests for clearance from former ministers and senior civil servants over the period, up from 142 the previous year.
Ex-ministers need to get Acoba’s clearance before starting any new roles within two years of their last day in office. Civil servants who were ranked at Senior Civil Service pay band 3 and above also need to get Acoba clearance.
The process is designed to stop former ministers and civil servants with access to privileged information benefitting from that information and their contacts immediately after they leave office.
Acoba’s annual report said former crown servants were responsible for the majority of applications received in 2019-20: a total of 108 requests for clearance to take on new roles, made by 38 individuals. The remaining 97 requests came from 36 former ministers.
Acoba said that while the 2019-20 figures were an increase on the previous year, they were in line with expectations for an election year or a change of administration – both of which occurred in 2019, when ministers were more likely to leave office.
The watchdog said that “a small number of cases” had “raised significant risks under the rules and would have been considered unsuitable had the applicant proceeded with their application as initially described”.
It said that in some cases the committee had explained it was minded to advise the application was unsuitable, and those applications were subsequently withdrawn. In other cases the applicant revised the role and Acoba recommended a number of conditions that would mitigate the reduced risks.
Acoba only publishes details of cases in which it has approved a proposed job, or where a reprimand is issued for a failure to comply with the rules. However its report said that 18 applications were withdrawn and a further 41 applications were not taken up during the 2019-20 reporting year.
Acoba chair Lord Eric Pickles, who took the helm of the watchdog last April, said he felt strongly that it was “time to build on and extend transparency to maximise the committee’s impact” within the current system.
“It will be made clearer to applicants that where there are significant overlaps with their time in office, they must demonstrate why it is proper for them to take up the proposed role consistent with the government’s business appointment rules,” he said.
“Where the risks cannot be mitigated by conditions these applications will be deemed to be unsuitable. Retrospective applications will be unambiguously treated as breaches of the rules.”
The report said that in 2019-20 eight retrospective applications had been received from individuals who had already started the new jobs they were seeking clearance for.
Six of those applications came from former officials at five different departments: the Cabinet Office, the Crown Prosecution Service, the Department for International Trade, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry Of Defence.
Resourcing problems hit transparency
Acoba’s report accepted that its own publications had not been as prompt as they should have been – including the release of the annual report, which came 10 months after the end of the reporting period it relates to.
“Due to reduced resources in the secretariat, publications on the Acoba website have not been sufficiently timely in the reporting period, including a delay in publishing this report,” it said.
“As this is an area of utmost importance to the committee, the secretariat has now increased its resources to enable it to prioritise this area of its work.
“The committee will be looking to further increase transparency around its work in 2021.”
Arm’s length body concerns
The report also said Acoba had “observed a gap” in the transparency of the government’s approach to staff at arm’s length bodies, who are not employed under the Civil Service Management Code and are not subject to the same appointments rules.
It said ALBs could have equivalent arrangements in place and that it was for sponsoring departments to agree how the propriety of outside appointments would be addressed.
“The committee notes there is no standard requirement across arm’s length bodies to make an application or publish the outcome of any consideration or decisions made upon leaving public office, unlike senior civil servants,” it said.
“The committee has raised this with the Cabinet Office who will build consideration of this issue into its ongoing work with public bodies.”
Acoba said it would argue for a “strong and robust assessment” of how the principles of the appointment rules were being applied in ALBs.
“The committee understands the limited resources available and would suggest the government takes a risk based approach to prioritise those where assurance is most needed, such as major regulatory bodies,” it said.