Former business minister Richard Harrington has been rapped by the anti-corruption watchdog for breaching the Ministerial Code by failing to get its go-ahead to take up a consultancy job.
Correspondence published by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments this week shows that Harrington tried but did not succeed to submit the relevant forms to Acoba before taking up a position at the advisory and advocacy communications consultancy APCO Worldwide last year. In the absence of a response from the watchdog, he took up the post last May.
After exchanging a number of emails with the ex-MP, wrote to Harrington this month saying it is “not open to applicants to assume, in the absence of any communication, that they may proceed to take up a role”.
“It is a breach of the government’s rules, and the requirement set out in the Ministerial Code, to fail to seek advice. It is also a breach of those rules to take up a position without first receiving advice,” the letter said.
Acoba first wrote to Harrington in January saying it had become aware that he had taken up a position at APCO Worldwide via a media enquiry.
In an email, published along with the rest of the correspondence this week, Cat Marshall of Acoba’s secretariat wrote that Harrington had not sought Acoba’s advice on the matter before becoming a senior adviser at APCO, which it announced in May.
Harrington was also named UK chair of the global company last month. In an announcement on 12 January, APCO said his “in-depth knowledge of industry and government make him an extremely valuable resource for [its] clients as they navigate post-Brexit Britain”.
Former ministers must obtain Acoba advice before taking up any position outside government for two years after stepping down. Harrington, a businessman and former property developer, stepped down in summer 2019.
“The government's business appointment rules exist to protect the integrity of government. The rules also state retrospective applications will not normally be accepted, and no new appointments should be announced, or taken up, before the committee has been able to provide its advice,” Marshall wrote.
In his response the next day, Harrington said he had been “shocked” to receive Marshall’s email and that he had applied for Acoba advice on the position last year.
“I didn't hear anything from Acoba, but spoke to other former MPs in a similar position, who also confirmed that they had uploaded information when this arose. In March 2020, my mother died, and I had Covid shortly afterwards,” he wrote.
“After this, I assumed that as no issues had been raised with me, it was in order for me to proceed with my part time consultancy, as I assumed that you would only get back to me if there was a problem.”
He added: “If I have been remiss in my adherence to the procedure, I apologise, but I had every reason to believe I had acted correctly. If it had crossed my mind that I was breaking the rules, I would not have gone ahead.
“I hope this clarifies matters and that this can be resolved without public attention which would be very damaging to my reputation.”
In a follow-up email a few days later, Harrington said he had found his initial application, dated 21 February 2020.
“I did apply but didn't wait for an answer. I apologise for that. Covid and my mother's death are not an excuse, but I forgot about it, and didn't chase for a response,” he wrote.
“I believed what I was doing complied with the Ministerial Code, so I wasn't concerned. I hope that helps and the committee will accept my apology for not chasing up.”
But responding in a letter on 5 February, Acoba stressed that ministers must not decide to take forward an appointment without its say-so.
The committee said that while it recognised Harrington had provided evidence that he had downloaded the relevant forms and tried to send in an application in February 2020, it could find “no record or reference to this application or your work with APCO Worldwide” on its systems.
“Had you contacted the committee again to check on progress with your application and the committee’s advice, this would have been picked up,” it added.
It added that the correspondence was being published “in line with our policy of transparency”.