Cummings called out by watchdog over paid-for blog

PM’s former chief adviser failed to get official clearance for subscription web service says Acoba
Dominic Cummings Credit: PA

By Jim Dunton

13 Jul 2021

Dominic Cummings has fallen foul of anti-corruption watchdog the Advisory Committee on Business appointments over his paid-for blog sharing insight from his time at the heart of government.

Cummings, who was chief adviser to prime minister Boris Johnson from July 2019 until the end of 2020, last month launched a service on Substack that promises to talk about his time in No.10, coronavirus, the 2019 general election and Brexit. Some of the Substack content, including question-and-answer sessions. are subscriber-only.

Cummings has followed two explosive appearances before parliamentary select committees by publishing a range of information from inside government on Substack. One included a WhatsApp exchange with the prime minister dating back to March 2020 in which the PM appeared to call then health secretary Matt Hancock “Totally f***ing hopeless”.

Earlier this month it emerged that the Cabinet Office was actively exploring ways to silence Cummings, including the General Data Protection Regulation and the Official Secrets Act.

But now Acoba has said Cummings is in breach of the government’s business appointment rules over his Substack service because he did not seek approval from the panel before starting it up.

Under the rules,  former ministers and ex-crown servants – including senior civil servants and special advisers – must get Acoba approval before starting any new role within two years of their last day of paid government service.  Cummings started his Substack blog seven months after walking out of No.10 with his possessions in a cardboard box.

Letters published by Acoba this week show committee chair Lord Eric Pickles wrote to Cummings on 24 June seeking further information on the Substack service and asking the former adviser to explain why he did not seek clearance from the committee before launching the paid-for blog.

A letter to Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove dated 9 July, also written by Pickles, describes Cummings as having breached the government’s business appointment rules.

“I understand that Mr Cummings has made an application via the Cabinet Office to the committee for consideration,” the letter says.

“However, in the meantime it appears that Mr Cummings is offering various services for payment via a blog hosted on Substack, the blog for which he is also receiving subscription payments.

“Mr Cummings has failed to seek the committee's advice on this commercial undertaking, nor has the committee received the courtesy of a reply to our letter requesting an explanation.

“Failure to seek and await advice before taking up work is a breach of the government’s rules.”

Pickles’ letter to Cummings gave the former chief adviser until 5 July to respond if his comments were to be published alongside Acoba’s letter this week.

Even if Cummings had sought approval for his Substack blog, Acoba may well have taken exception to its proposed contents.

While, Cummings’ Substack blog offers some content for free – including reflections on Covid-19 and government are free, his blog states: “More recondite stuff on the media, Westminster, ‘inside No10’, how did we get Brexit done in 2019, the 2019 election etc will be subscriber only.”

Standard Acoba advice approving former crown servants to take up new roles usually includes  the condition that they “should not draw on (disclose or use for the benefit of himself or the persons or organisations to which this advice refers) any privileged information” that was available to them in government.

Cummings joins former boss Boris Johnson and a host of others in being chastised for breaching the appointment rules. However there is no formal sanctions the watchdog can take, other than drawing attention to the breach and refusing to issue advice retrospectively on a new job.

Earlier this year, Pickles told members of parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee that Acoba needed more powers to enforce its rules and greater sanctions for those who flouted them.

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