Former No.10 comms chief warned over risk of breaching anti-corruption rules

Acoba says listings on speaking-agency websites could land Guto Harri in hot water
Guto Harri

By Tevye Markson

02 Dec 2022

Former Downing Street director of communications Guto Harri has been told to remove his profiles from the websites of two speaking agencies to avoid the risk of breaching anti-corruption rules.

Harri was No.10 director of comms from February to September this year, leaving the role when Boris Johnson resigned as prime minister. He has online profile listings for Chertwell Speakers Bureau and Atlantic Speaker.

While Harri said he has not given any speeches or received any payment and has no contract with either company, anti-corruption watchdog the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments said the listings put him at risk of breaking its rules.

Acoba raised concerns about Harri being listed on the Chertwell website as a keynote speaker in a letter sent on 5 October. Acoba chair Lord Eric Pickles said Harri appeared to be in breach of the committee’s rules by not seeking its advice.

Harri said in a response sent the same day that he had not given any speeches or been paid by the company. He then confirmed in a further letter that he was also listed by Atlantic but said he had not signed any agreements with the companies.

He said he had been listed by both speaking agencies many years ago but had not been given work by either in more than a decade. Harri said that when he left No.10, he had agreed for both agencies to update his listings, however.

Pickles said if Harri was to decide at a later stage to enter a formal arrangement with these agencies, this would be a breach of the revolving-door rules, designed to stop senior officials and government ministers profiting from roles they have just left.

“You are listed on a website with two speaking agencies as a former director of communications at Downing Street and it appears you are advertising your availability to work via them,” he said.

“Though you confirm you have signed no contract, received no funds, and ‘there are no obligations on either side’ this does not provide sufficient clarity with regards to the requirements of the rules.

“For example, should you decide at a later stage to enter into a formal arrangement with these agencies, you would be open to reasonable criticism that you had advertised this work in advance of doing so without first seeking advice – which would be considered a breach of the rules.

“I advise that you take down these listings; and should you decide to sign up to either agency’s services at a later date, this will require an application.”

While Acoba allows for one-off activities, such as speeches, without needing to apply to the committee for advice, applications are needed for long-term arrangements, such as joining a speaking agency.

The letters between Harri and Pickles also revealed a miscommunication between the former communications chief and Acoba.

Harri said he had not received a response after asking on 26 August for advice on setting up as a consultant but Pickles said the committee had sent a response, outlining its advice, on 23 September. Acoba resent the letter and Harri said he has agreed to its recommendations.

The listings are still up as of 2 December.

Meanwhile, the committee has placed an extra-long restriction on when former Competition and Markets Authority chief executive Andrea Coscelli can start a role as a partner at consultancy firm Keystone Strategy.

Acoba secretariat Cath Marshall said the committee felt it was necessary to put a “significant gap” between Coscelli’s decision-making and access to information at the CMA and him working at Keystone.

Marshall said there were risks from the role at the strategy, economics and technology consulting firm that "cannot be mitigated with restrictions alone"

“In particular, the perception that he offers a significant advantage to potential clients due to his unique access to information and influence at the very centre of UK regulation on antitrust/competition and markets," she said.

The committee imposed a six-month restriction, starting from 24 June 2022 – the date when the CMA began placing limitations on Coscelli’s role to actively manage risks of insight and influence derived from any information he had access to as chief executive. Coscelli will therefore not be able to join the company until Christmas.

Acoba had a busy end to November, also rapping former health secretary Matt Hancock for his appearances on TV shows I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here  and SAS: Who Dares Wins  without seeking advice.

Hancock said he did not believe he needed to seek advice as "each of these separate activities is not a ‘longer term arrangement’, but are each individual appearances, albeit substantial ones".

But Pickles said it was “clear” from Aboba’s guidelines that a series of media events would require an application.

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