Ex-civil service HR chief condemned for ‘blatant’ breaches of lobbying rules

Rupert McNeil reprimanded for ignoring Acoba advice and falling foul of the rules in the process
Rupert McNeil. Photo: Cabinet Office

By Jonathan Owen

05 Jul 2023

The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments has censured McNeil, who stepped down as civil service chief people officer last year, for multiple breaches of business appointment rules.

Details of the breaches were exposed in correspondence released by Acoba yesterday.

Lord Pickles, Acoba's chair, has written to Oliver Dowden, deputy prime minister and chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, to report McNeil for breaking the rules and “blatantly” ignoring the committee’s advice.

The ex-senior civil servant contacted four cabinet ministers and two senior officials in April this year “on behalf of Storm Energia (and Lincoln Storm Group more widely)", the report said. He had taken issue with a decision by the Environment Agency that affected his new employers and which he believed was wrong.

McNeil had previously been advised that any “contact which sought to influence a government decision, regardless of which department, would not be in keeping with the lobbying ban which applies under the rules.”

Lord Pickles added: “It is disappointing he chose to blatantly disregard the advice provided.”

He warned Dowden that McNeil “could be seen to have used his time in government to influence decisions and actions within government and its arm’s length bodies for potential commercial gain.”

His letter concluded: “It is now a matter for you to decide what appropriate action to take.”

Acoba had imposed a two-year lobbying ban on McNeil, who had sought the committee’s advice on a new job with the Lincoln Storm Group, a lithium-ion battery materials recycler that he started last September. The former senior civil servant subsequently became the founder and chairman of Storm Energia, a licensor of Lincoln Storm.

Earlier this year Defra informed Acoba that McNeil had approached a number of ministers and officials in April 2023. These included the environment secretary; business and trade secretary; energy secretary; and the science, innovation and technology secretary. He had also contacted the government chief scientific officer and the chief executive of the Environment Agency.

This prompted Lord Pickles to write to McNeil in May to demand “an explanation in respect of your contact with government on behalf of Lincoln Storm Group Limited/Storm Energia as it appears incompatible with the Rules and the advice you accepted to abide by".

In his letter, the Acoba chair said that McNeil had sought “to influence decisions of the Environment Agency and DEFRA".

He stated: “You were advised that contact with the government to influence a decision would be incompatible with the lobbying ban. You appear to have disregarded that advice on multiple occasions.”

But in his response, dated 30 May, McNeil denied any impropriety and claimed he had complied with Acoba’s advice.

He said: “I was not seeking to influence a decision of the Environment Agency or DEFRA.”McNeil argued it “would be absurd” to suggest “writing a letter to draw attention to a mistake and the consequences of it not being corrected would amount to lobbying or seeking to influence a governmental decision or policy".

He had chosen to go through official channels rather than personal contacts, he added.

“I have sought advice from senior counsel and confidently maintain my position that I have acted with integrity, honour and within the letter and spirit of the Acoba advice and rules under which Acoba operates.”

However, McNeil’s arguments were rejected by the Acoba chair. In a letter sent to McNeil yesterday, he reiterated that any “contact which sought to influence a government decision” would not be in accordance with the lobbying ban which applies under the business appointment rules.

Lord Pickles said: “Your correspondence sought to impact decisions made within the department and one of its agencies…moreover, as a former senior official with a knowledge across the civil service and therefore all departments it was inappropriate to directly contact senior government officials and a minister to seek to influence decisions and actions on behalf of the company paying you to do so.”

He added: “Your actions were a clear disregard for Acoba's advice and are unacceptable.”

Asked to comment on the advice letter, McNeil told CSW: "I do not agree with the position in the response to my letter.  The response did not engage with the facts or the correct interpretation of the business appointment rules.  My letter addressed both.

"It cannot be right in the letter or spirit of the business appointment rules that an officer of a company (also an owner) cannot point out errors by public bodies. That is not what the business appointment rules is there to regulate.  As I said recently to PACAC, we need to replace Acoba with something appropriate: the rigorous and sensible Boardman recommendations are there to be used."

In a statement provided to CSW, a Cabinet Office spokesperson said: "We note the letter received on 4 July 2023 from Acoba. We are currently considering the matter and will respond in due course."

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