Cummings broke anti-corruption rules, Cabinet Office finally confirms

After 14 months, Cabinet Office finally admits former top aide to Boris Johnson broke lobbying rules
Dominic Cummings. Photo: Mark Thomas/Alamy

By Tevye Markson

08 Sep 2022

The Cabinet Office has finally confirmed that Dominic Cummings broke anti-corruption rules after more than a year of silence.

Anti-lobbying rules mean former special advisers, ministers and senior civil servants must not take up, or announce, a new job within two years of leaving office before they have first sought advice from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments.

Cummings asked for the committee's advice on a piece of consulting work last summer after leaving his role as Boris Johnson's top adviser – but failed to approach the committee before setting up a blog offering paid-for services.

Acoba told the Cabinet Office in June 2021 that Cummings had broken the rules by running the blog. In September 2021, it said that due to the earlier breach, it would not give advice on the consultancy work.

Some 14 months after Acoba's first letter, the Cabinet Office has finally replied. 

On 2 September, then-Cabinet Office minister Nicholas True said: “My assessment is that Mr Cummings, in this and other matters, did not follow the rules correctly.”

Back in June 2021, Acoba chair Eric Pickles had asked Cummings to explain why he had requested advice on consultancy work for a mystery company but not for his blog.

Two weeks later – with no reply from Cummings – Pickles wrote to the Cabinet Office, saying Cummings had broken the business appointment rules by going ahead with the paid Substack service without seeking the committee’s advice.

Informing the Cabinet Office of its refusal to offer an opinion on the ex-spad's planned consultancy gig in September, the anti-corruption watchdog said it understood the work would “overlap with those Cummings is already advertising online without first receiving the benefit of the committee’s advice”. It was therefore directly related to his previous breach of the rules, Acoba said.

Lord True, who left his Cabinet Office minister role on Tuesday to become leader of the House of Lords, said Cummings’s actions had highlighted wider flaws in the business appointment rules.

“I apologise for the length of time it has taken to reply to you on this issue. The delay was caused – in part – by the manner in which the issues outlined in your letter served to highlight some of the challenges inherent in administering the business appointment rules effectively,” he said.

“We have therefore considered this matter in the context of wider reform to the rules which we had hoped to be in a position to announce prior to now.”

True said the case had highlighted how, once Acoba has decided not to rule on an application, there is no mechanism for the applicant – in this case Cummings – to remedy a breach of the rules.

He said the current system “offers too few avenues to achieve effective redress” and a review of business appointment rules “needs to be accelerated and completed”.

Acoba, parliament's Committee on Standards in Public Life and others have repeatedly called for reform of the rules to give the watchdog more teeth. Pickles warned in June that “without further reform, there is an ever-present risk of another scandal which the system is ill-prepared for”.

In the letter confirming Cummings’s breach of the rules,  published yesterday, True said: “I know that you are understandably keen to see progress on strengthening the rules, and I share your ambition.”

True also highlighted changes to the rules that the government made in May, which mean breaches can affect decisions on whether to award honours.

He added that the government would continue to work to improve the transparency of the rules, "taking into account steers from the new prime minister". Earlier this week, Acoba publicly reminded ministers of their responsibilities when leaving government amid the current reshuffle by new PM Liz Truss.

True said the government has also piloted new training that will assist departments in their decision making after Pickles criticised departments earlier this summer for “rubber stamping” questionable appointments.

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