Former communities secretary Eric Pickles has been picked as the government’s preferred candidate to chair anticorruption watchdog the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments.
Pickles – who joined the House of Lords in 2018 after standing down as MP in the previous year’s snap general election – will succeed Baroness Angela Browning as chair of Acoba if he is approved by parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee next week.
Pickles suggested he had a wealth of ideas for tackling the culture of influential Westminster and Whitehall figures taking up well-paid private sector positions to trade on their inside knowledge after leaving public service.
“I look forward to discussing with the select committee how I hope to tackle concerns about ‘revolving doors’ and lobbying, whilst balancing the benefits of attracting talent from the voluntary sector and private sector into the civil service,” he said.
Former cabinet ministers and senior civil servants are supposed to seek Acoba’s consent before taking up new roles for two years after leaving government as part of measures to ensure transparency and prevent a revolving-door culture between government and the private sector.
It is entitled to recommend appointments are not taken up – or that they are taken up if particular conditions are observed, such as a commitment on the part of former ministers or civil servants that they steer away from particular areas where they have privileged information.
Acoba has come under regular fire in recent years for its lack of power in enforcing the rules under which it operates. Boris Johnson was criticised by the watchdog for resuming his £275,000-a year Daily Telegraph column before gaining its consent after he stepped down as foreign secretary in 2018. Johnson had also ignored the advice of FCO perm sec Sir Simon McDonald on the issue.
The previous year Acoba registered its “concern” that former GCHQ director Robert Hanigan’s appointment to a new role with US cybersecurity firm BlueteamGlobal had been made public before it had given its view.
However, voicing such sentiments is about the limit of Acoba’s powers – and it does not publicise individual applications that it advises former ministers or civil servants not to take up.
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said he believed Pickles would prove a feisty chair of Acoba and would build on a four-decade record of challenging sharp practices in public office.
“With over 40 years dedicated to public service, Lord Pickles will be a superb chair of Acoba,” Gove said.
“He has the insight and integrity to make the business appointments process work fairly, sensibly and transparently.”
The Cabinet Office said Pickles had overseen the establishment of a new ethical regime in local government when he led the Department for Communties and Local Government, including taking steps to stop commercial lobbying by councillors of their own council.
It said DCLG had also ended the “then common practice” of government bodies hiring lobbyists to lobby government under Pickles, and became the first Whitehall department to advertise all its jobs online to open up recruitment.
Pickles, who is currently the government’s special envoy for post-Holocaust issues and co-chair of the Holocaust Memorial Foundation, is due to appear before PACAC on Tuesday.
Baroness Browning will serve as Acoba chair until the end of this month.