Deputy prime minister Oliver Dowden has backed a decision by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments to censure former civil service chief people officer Rupert McNeil for breaching the business appointment rules.
Acoba reprimanded McNeil earlier this year for repeatedly breaking lobbying rules in his new role as the chair of a lithium-ion battery recycling firm. The committee had imposed a two-year lobbying ban on McNeil, who had sought its advice on a role with the Lincoln Storm Group, which he took up in September 2022. He subsequently became the founder and chairman of Storm Energia, a licensor of Lincoln Storm.
Acoba censured McNeil after it emerged that he had contacted a number of ministers and senior officials in various departments in April to dispute a decision by the Environment Agency that affected his new employers. McNeil has denied any impropriety and claimed he had complied with Acoba’s advice.
In a letter to Acoba chair Lord Eric Pickles, published yesterday, Dowden states: “I accept that Mr McNeil may have considered that his actions were permitted under the rules and the conditions imposed on his employment.”
But he added that individuals have a “personal responsibility to manage their compliance with the rules” and that he agrees that “Mr McNeil failed to follow the committee’s advice in this case”.
Dowden will be writing to McNeil “to make this clear and remind him of his responsibilities under the rules”. He added: “I will also explain that this breach will be taken into account when considering any future honour or public appointment.”
The deputy prime minister accepts that there is a wider issue of how the rules are understood, and states: “we are working to increase awareness of the rules across all departments.” He stressed the government’s commitment to reforming the current system, with a focus on “improved enforcement” and protecting “the integrity of government”.
Responding to Dowden’s letter, McNeil told CSW: “I’m pleased that Oliver Dowden acknowledges that I did not believe that I was breaking the business appointment rules. I’ve explained why I believe I did not break them in my published correspondence.”
He added: “I’m also pleased to see that he acknowledges Acoba needs reform. My experience suggests we need a rigorous, clear and consistent process.”
It also emerged yesterday that the government plans to make any media work done by former senior officials or ministers exempt from the current business appointment rules.
In a letter to Pickles regarding Boris Johnson’s breach of the rules by giving Acoba just 30 minutes notice that he would become a Daily Mail columnist, Dowden describes the risks around media work as “limited”. He ruled out any formal action against Johnson on the grounds that it would be “disproportionate”.
As part of reforms to the existing system, “the government is minded that media appearances, books or journalism should in due course be formally exempted from the business appointment rules,” Dowden said. “This recognises also the importance of the rights to free speech within the law.”