The government's anti-corruption watchdog has rapped a senior Cabinet Office civil servant for a "lack of awareness" of the rules after he announced his appointment to a new job before seeking its advice.
Advisory Committee on Public Appointments chair Eric Pickles wrote to the Cabinet Office to say that – due to the breach – the watchdog has refused to issue advice on the application by Grenfell Tower Inquiry secretary Mark Fisher to become chief executive of the Greater Manchester Integrated Care Service.
The watchdog also criticised a hospital trust for prematurely appointing another senior Cabinet Office official.
Fisher announced his appointment on his LinkedIn profile in March, with the care service also publicising the hire the same month. But Fisher did not make an application to Acoba until 13 April.
The director general, who =will leave his role in June when hearings are also set to finish, apologised for breaking the rules. He explained that he was advised by the recruitment consultant for the Greater Manchester Combined Authority role that Acoba rules did not apply.
“My mistake was not independently to verify this, believing mistakenly that Acoba processes did not apply to transfers between parts of the public sector,” he said.
"I can only apologise to members of the committee for this oversight.”
Writing to Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay, Lord Pickles said: “This lack of awareness of the rules is a cause for concern.
“Although breaches of the rules remain a very small proportion of the casework Acoba sees, they are most often caused by a lack of clarity on the various processes and obligations that exist.
“I therefore remain concerned that not all former ministers and crown servants are sufficiently clear on the various standards of behaviour, rules and legislation that are incumbent on them.”
Pickles said it would be up to the Cabinet Office to decide what action to take, adding “given the public sector nature of the role and the lack of overlap with Fisher’s responsibilities in government, I believe it would be disproportionate to take any further action in this case”.
He also suggested that the government consider public sector roles “as part of its ongoing work to reform the government’s business appointments process”.
The Committee on Standards in Public Life recommended a series of reforms to the government in November, including strengthening Acoba’s powers. The CSPL is currently waiting for the government to respond to its recommendations.
Pickles raised similar concerns in January after ex-minister Steve Brine fails to seek advice before advising a pharmaceutical company.
‘Unacceptable’ breach of the rules
Acoba has also refused to give advice on the appointment of Matthew Coats, director general for Government Business Services and former Brexit DG , as West Hertfordshire Hospitals NHS Trust’s chief exec.
The Cabinet Office wrote to Acoba on 6 April, seeking advice on the appointment.
The Acoba rules state that new appointments or employment must not be announced or taken up before advice is provided, but the trust announced his appointment at a public board meeting the next day.
Coats, who will leave his Cabinet Office role in July, had told the trust that it needed to wait until the business appointments process had been completed.
Pickles said the hospital trust’s premature announcement was “unacceptable”. He said it had chosen to “put its needs before that of the rules” and put Coats in an “untenable position”.
“To fulfil the remit given to it by the government, Acoba must be able to consider applications fully and freely before offering its advice – which may be that the role is unsuitable or include conditions on the employment to protect the integrity of government – such as a waiting period,” he said.
“It is impossible to do this in a way that will command public confidence and avoid embarrassment to the applicant, if a proposed appointment is already in the public domain.
“While it is the committee’s experience, the risks under the rules in appointments with public sector organisations are usually limited, it is unacceptable to share details of a possible appointment where an applicant has yet to receive advice.”
Coats had told the committee the trust had felt an anonymous announcement did not create enough certainty after the deputy chief executive had also departed on 5 April, Pickles added.
Phil Townsend, chair of the NHS trust, said the announcement was “important for the credibility and stability” of the trust and its partners.
“A number of days had elapsed without any announcement which was developing a risk to the credibility and transparency of the appointment,” he said.
“Therefore, I made the judgement to make the announcement on 7 April… This was made in good faith and with the best interests of the health economy at the heart of this decision.
“It is unfortunate that this was inconsistent with the governance arrangements within the civil service and we take note to reflect on how this could be managed more effectively in the future.”