Beef up departmental boards to police "revolving door", watchdog suggests

Acoba suggests "senior, independent, board-level oversight" could help ensure compliance with rules governing post-Whitehall careers of former officials and ministers

By Matt Foster

24 Oct 2016

Departmental boards could be given a greater role in scrutinising the new jobs of former civil servants, under plans floated by the so-called "revolving door" watchdog, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba).

MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) are carrying out their latest inquiry into the work of Acoba, the committee which former ministers and senior officials are required to notify when taking up new jobs outside of Whitehall.

The rules are aimed at stopping former government insiders from trading on their contacts, but an inquiry carried by PACAC's predecessor committee in the last parliament said Acoba should be abolished, because it lacked "adequate powers and resources" to do its job properly.

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Instead, the MPs called for a new independent commissioner to be established by law to police the rules, and given the power to sanction former ministers and officials who failed to comply.

The government rejected that proposal, however, and PACAC is now looking again at the watchdog's work after identifying "ongoing challenges" in the way it vets appointments.

In newly-published written evidence to the group of MPs, Acoba acknowledges its limits as a merely advisory committee, with the final say on post-Whitehall appointments still resting with the prime minister.

But it insists that it considers each application "on its merits in light of the facts of each case", and suggests several ways that its work could be bolstered, including calling for a full cost-benefit analysis to be carried out into bringing in a statutory "prohibited period" for former officials and ministers. 

While Acoba says that such an analysis must be carried out either by the MPs or the government itself because of its own lack of resources, it suggests such an exercise should look into the "pros and cons" of limiting, by law, the ability of former government insiders to move into sectors they have "previously regulated or had policy responsibility for while in public office".

It adds: "Other specific factors likely to require consideration would include: how should such statutory restrictions be framed; what specific activities (such as lobbying) might be prohibited; what sanctions would apply to breaches, how would they be investigated and enforced, and by whom; what exemptions to statutory restrictions might be appropriate; whether a discretion would be required to dis-apply restrictions in some cases - e.g. where there was a clear public interest, and in whom might such a discretion be vested; and what time periods might be appropriate."

Acoba also sets out a series of changes it argues would strengthen its role without the need for a change in the law, including bringing in dedicated independent scrutiny to each department's board to ensure the organisation is complying with the revolving door rules.

Acoba's evidence says it would "welcome the appointment of a non-executive director on each departmental board with responsibility for oversight of the Business Appointments Rules".

It adds: "Senior, independent, board-level oversight would help to facilitate good governance of departments’ business appointment processes.

"This would both ensure the appropriate collation and retention of data needed when considering applications, and counter the possible perception of applicants being given preferential treatment by their former civil service colleagues in departments, whose advice the committee currently draws upon."

Last week Acoba came under fire from Ian Hislop, editor of Private Eye magazine, who told PACAC's inquiry that it was "disgraceful" that former HM Revenue and Customs chief executive Dave Hartnett had been able to take on work with consultancy Deloitte and banking giant HSBC after leaving the civil service.

Hislop's Private Eye colleague Richard Brooks – himself a former HMRC official – said Acoba's most pressing task should be "clearing out the office and putting up the ‘sorry, we are closed’ sign".


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