Row between ex-civil service HR chief and Acoba chair gets personal

Thinly veiled insults are being traded in an escalating dispute over Acoba’s decision to censure former senior civil servant Rupert McNeil
Former government chief people officer, Rupert McNeil. Credit: CSW/Louise Hayward-Schiefer

By Jonathan Owen

01 Sep 2023

A long-running dispute between McNeil and Lord Pickles, chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, over the anti-corruption watchdog’s decision to censure McNeil for “blatant” lobbying escalated this week.

Newly released correspondence between the pair reveals a stand-off over Acoba’s actions, with Lord Pickles refusing to back down amid accusations by McNeil that the Acoba chair has made things “personal.”

It stems from the watchdog’s decision earlier this year to reprimand the former civil service chief people officer for multiple breaches of lobbying rules in his new role as the chair of a lithium-ion battery recycling firm.

McNeil contacted four cabinet ministers and two senior officials in April this year to dispute a decision by the Environment Agency that affected his new employers and which he believed was wrong. His actions were described by Lord Pickles as “unacceptable” and amounting to a “clear disregard for Acoba’s advice.”

Acoba had imposed a two-year lobbying ban on McNeil, who had sought the committee’s advice on a new job role with the Lincoln Storm Group, a lithium-ion battery materials recycler, which he took up in September 2022. He subsequently became the founder and chairman of Storm Energia, a licensor of Lincoln Storm.

McNeil has denied any impropriety and claimed he had complied with Acoba’s advice. The former senior civil servant  is continuing to protest his innocence. In an opinion piece for CSW last month he warned that Acoba’s "narrow way of operating” threatens to “act as a serious deterrent for successful outsiders who are considering roles in the senior civil service.”

In the latest exchange of letters between Lord Pickles and McNeil, released by Acoba this week, McNeil outlines his “serious concerns” around “the adequacy and transparency of the process adopted by you and the conclusions that you set out”.

In his letter to Pickles, dated 25 July, he said that he considers the process as “flawed and lacking in transparency, and that your conclusions are analytically flawed and wrong".

McNeil went on to accuse Lord Pickles of expressing “seemingly personal, and damaging, opinions.” He defended his decision to contact officials and ministers as being “within the letter and spirit of the Rules.” 

The letter stated that contact was made “to point out errors of process and mistakes of fact in the Environment Agency’s consideration of ongoing licensing and regulatory matters.” It claimed that the “blunt interpretation” of lobbying rules by Lord Pickles sets an “erroneous precedent” which could “have a chilling effect on the ability to attract the talent needed in government.”

And McNeil concluded: “One thing our exchange of views shows is that ACOBA is not fit for purpose.”

But Lord Pickles is standing by Acoba’s decision to censure McNeil for breaking business appointment rules. His response to McNeil’s latest letter stated: “My views on your actions remain unchanged.”

He added: “Given your blatant disregard to the Committee’s advice no reasonable person would believe ACOBA’s interpretation of the Rules on this matter goes too far. You were specifically advised that contacting the government to help secure a licence or solve a regulatory issue would not be in keeping with the lobbying ban, but you still chose to do so. The desire to encourage a smooth interchange should not be used to disguise covert lobbying or a failure to follow advice.”

In a statement to CSW about the dispute with McNeil, Lord Pickles said that the business appointment rules “are there for a reason” and “allow people to move between sectors while making sure a government address book doesn’t give their new employer an unfair advantage.”

He added: “It is in every applicant’s interest to manage the propriety of an appointment and carefully consider the advice they receive and follow it - particularly when it comes to the risk of being seen to offer unfair access to government or privileged information.”

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