Departing ministers warned not to break anti-lobbying rules amid reshuffle

Acoba chair Eric Pickles has said not all ministers understand the rules for taking up appointments outside government
Eric Pickles. Photo: MI News & Sport/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

07 Sep 2022

The government’s anti-corruption watchdog has publicly reminded ministers leaving government in the new PM's reshuffle that they must seek advice before taking up a new job, following a number of breaches of the rules by ex-ministers.

Permanent secretaries in each department have written to their former ministers reminding them of their obligations on leaving office, while the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments has spelled out the anti-lobbying rules in a separate letter.

The letter from Acoba chair Eric Pickles said he was sending the reminder ahead of new prime minister Liz Truss’s cabinet reshuffle “to ensure all ministers understand the process and know what is expected of them”.

Anti-lobbying rules mean former ministers must not take up, or announce, a new appointment or job within two years of leaving office before they have first sought Acoba's advice.

The letter, published on GOV.UK yesterday, also detailes the rules on unpaid work and media appearances and encourages anyone leaving public office to get in contact with Acoba if they are uncertain about their responsibilities.

The public reminder comes after Lord Pickes raised concern about ministers' understanding of the rules in January.

"I am growing increasingly concerned that not all former ministers of the crown are sufficiently clear on the various standards of behaviour, rules and legislation that are incumbent on them,” Lord Pickles said after ex-health minister Steve Brine failed to seek advice before taking up a job at a pharmaceutical company.

Acoba scrutinises the post-government jobs sought by former ministers and the most senior civil servants for two years after they leave office to ensure they do not draw upon privileged information or receive rewards for decisions made in office.

Pickles said Brine had “confused” the rules by not seeking advice from Acoba before working for Sigma.

“As a former minister it is your personal responsibility to understand any other rules and regulations you may be subject to in parallel with your obligation to seek advice from Acoba under the government's rules,” Pickles said.

Acoba has called out a number of other ex-ministers over the last couple of years for failing to follow the rules.

Former work and pensions secretary Esther McVey was criticised twice by the committee for taking up roles without getting the moves cleared, while erstwhile chancellor Philip Hammond was reprimanded by Acoba for contacting a top Treasury official on behalf of a bank.

Pickles also raised concern about a lack of understanding of the rules in May after a then-Cabinet Office civil servant announced a move before seeking advice. Pickles said breaches are "most often caused by a lack of clarity on the various processes and obligations that exist".

The regulator cannot prevent those leaving office from taking up a role –  it can only advise them if a job is “unsuitable” – and cannot sanction them for breaching the rules. Acoba can prevent ministers from taking up a role for up to two years if it believes the appointment could cause sufficient public concern, however.

The committee publishes details of breaches on its website and reports rule-breaking to the government, which decides what action to take.

Pickles recently criticised departments for “rubber stamping” dodgy appointments, saying many routinely endorsed proposed appointments sought by ministers and former senior officials that should not be backed

In June, Pickles wrote to then-Cabinet Office minister Nicholas True, welcoming changes to the ministerial code made in May, which for the first time give the independent adviser on ministers’ interests the ability to recommend that the prime minister sanction ministers, including the potential for financial penalties.

Pickles said this "could now apply where there is a breach of the ministerial code in respect of the business rules".

However, Christopher Geidt, who resigned as independent adviser in June, has not yet been replaced and Truss has been evasive about whether she plans to keep the role so it is not clear who would have responsibility for advising the PM on this.

Pickles also warned True that “without further reform, there is an ever-present risk of another scandal which the system is ill-prepared for”.

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