Departments ‘rubber-stamping’ dodgy appointments, watchdog says

Anti-corruption chief Eric Pickles says government has been “extraordinary lucky” to avoid another major scandal
Eric Pickles. Screengrab: Parliament TV

By Jim Dunton

10 Jun 2022

Anti-corruption watchdog Eric Pickles has spoken of his increasing concerns about departments’ monitoring of the post-government jobs  taken on by officials leaving the civil service.

Lord Pickles, chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, told members of parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee that the lack of procedures to monitor work taken on by departing staff was “deeply worrying”.

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 told MPs his experience of departments’ interaction with Acoba was that many routinely endorsed proposed appointments sought by ministers and former senior officials that should not be backed – prompting serious questions about jobs that fall below the watchdog’s radar.

“Government departments are rubber stamping things that are plainly wrong,” Pickles told yesterday’s committee session.

“You almost have to go through a process of explaining to the government departments themselves that there is a problem they need to address. If we’re seeing that at the very top, it makes you wonder about what’s going on further below the surface.”

Pickles told the MPs, who are looking into lessons from the Greensill lobbying scandal, that middle-ranking and lower-level officials being courted by big business looking for inside information from government were potentially a bigger risk than former high-fliers.

“If I was a predatory company seeking to get information from government I don’t think I would care an awful lot about senior civil servants or ex-ministers,” he said.

“It would be the people actually doing the regulating, people actually doing the day to day.”

Pickles said he had particular concerns about Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport officials involved with market regulation and counterparts at Ofsted.

He said it would be “ridiculous” for Acoba to be given oversight of all the jobs sought by the 30,000 civil servants who leave government every year, but suggested that departments needed to exercise greater scrutiny themselves.

“Right now it’s supposed to be the responsibility of the board of each department to do that,” he said. “You could probably achieve that by training a relatively small number of people to apply an ethics procedure and  to look at those at greatest risk.”

Pickles said that although Ofsted inspectors were “very well paid”, their roles were still below the level that Acoba focused on. “Rather a lot of them seem to be going off to the private sector,” he said. “It might be perfectly reasonable to do so.  But I would feel much more comfortable if there was, within there, a set of procedures where very careful consideration was given to matters at risk.”

He added that the civil service had rejected Acoba’s offer of assistance with training, and had so far not instigated its own training processes. Pickles suggested the problem was one of inertia among senior officials, rather than “active resistance” but said there was a need to keep moving on the issue.

“The government has been extraordinarily lucky that there hasn’t been a major scandal on this at levels below Acoba,” he said.

Sympathy for Bill Crothers in Greensill scandal

In direct relation to the Greensill lobbying scandal, Pickles said he had some sympathy for former chief commercial officer Bill Crothers – who at one stage was simultaneously working for the government and Greensill Capital.

“I’ve always felt really sorry for Bill Crothers,” he said. “I think he tried to do the right thing and he was advised not to do the right thing.”

Pickles said then-Cabinet Office ethics chief Sue Gray had made an “inappropriate” decision in relation to her advice to Crothers at the time, and that Acoba could have been of assistance. Revelations about Crothers' overlapping work for the government and Greensill prompted a cross-Whitehall probe of officials’ second jobs.

Pickles told PACAC members he was “not confident” that another Greensill scandal would not happen because departments had yet to put robust and clear systems in place to prevent repeats. However Pickles said senior civil servants were alert to the consequences of the kind of decisions that  were made in relation to Greensill and the “genie is out of the bottle”.

He added that ministers were looking very closely at ways to tie in adherence to the government’s business-appointment rules to civil service contracts and expected changes to make them “much more specific with regard to penalties”.

“Clearly,  if they’re going to do that for civil servants, it would be utterly ludicrous not to do it for members of parliament,” he said.

Lobbying register should include in-house work of top former officials

Pickles also spoke of his belief that the Register of Consultant Lobbyists should be expanded to include former cabinet ministers, prime ministers and senior civil servants who work as in-house lobbyists for companies.

Former prime minister David Cameron controversially worked as an in-house lobbyist for Greensill Capital after leaving office, and exploited his Downing Street contacts book in return for a reported £7.2m salary from the financial services firm,  which collapsed last year.

Cameron’s work for Greensill was conducted more than two years after he left government and so fell outside of Acoba’s remit. He was not on the Register of Consultant Lobbyists, but a subsequent probe found that he did not need to be as he was employed to lobby for Greensill in-house.

Pickles said that adapting the existing register rules to accommodate very senior former ministers and civil servants would be a cost-effective way to boost transparency.

“Mr Cameron, had he been able to do so, should have been on the register,” Pickles said. “His life would have been a lot easier and a lot more straightforward if that had been possible.”

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