Government has taken 'no tangible steps' to strengthen Acoba, international body says

Anti-corruption organisation GRECO salutes strengthened role of PM’s ethics adviser, however
Greco press conference with president Marin Mrcela (middle). Photo: Associated Press / Alamy

By Tevye Markson

25 Aug 2023

The UK government has failed to enhance the remit and powers of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, but has strengthened the position of the independent adviser on ministers’ interests, the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption body has said.

The Group of States Against Corruption in 2017 asked the UK to implement 12 recommendations to prevent corruption, half for central government and the other half for law-enforcement agencies. 

GRECO’s progress report, published today, has concluded that the UK has satisfactorily implemented seven of its 12 recommendations and partly implemented four recommendations. One remains completely unrealised – the strengthening of Acoba, a reform that independent watchdogs in the UK, including the revolving-doors committee itself, have also been requesting for many years.

The Council of Europe anti-corruption body, in 2017, asked for the status, remit and powers of the body advising on business appointments of former ministers and senior civil servants be strengthened, with accompanying resources to carry out its functions effectively. It said persons entrusted with top executive functions (PTEFs) in government should not only be required to apply for advice before taking up employment upon leaving office but breaches of rules on post-employment restrictions should be subject to “adequate” sanctions.

Six years later, GRECO has noted that Acoba’s staffing and budget levels have increased, but it said “no tangible steps” have been taken to address either part of this recommendation.

“Acoba has still not been transformed into a statutory body, its remit and powers have not been broadened, and no adequate sanctions have been introduced for breaches of post-employment rules by PTEFs,” it said.

The government in 2022 introduced a form of sanction whereby breaches of the rules would be take into account in the award of honours and nominations to the House of Lords. The Cabinet Office has also said it is considering introducing additional sanctions for breaches of the rules. GRECO said it was “encouraging to learn” that the Cabinet Office is considering additional sanctions for not respecting contractual obligations, but added that “the nature of such sanctions, as well as the breaches that would trigger them, have not been articulated”.

The international anti-corruption body said the business appointments regulation system is “still reliant mostly on self-regulation, integrity and reputation”.

“Regrettably, the remit and powers of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments have not been enhanced, even though its staff and budget has been increasing,” the report concluded.

“In view of the above, GRECO cannot consider this recommendation as implemented, even partly.”

Earlier this month, former civil service chief people officer Rupert McNeil described Acoba as a "narrow and simplistic system of supervision" in an opinion piece for CSW after the watchdog was reprimanded for "blatant" breaches of the lobbying rules.

Ethics adviser role "strengthened considerably"

At the other end of the scale, efforts to boost the role of the independent adviser on ministers’ interests have met the international body’s expectations, joining the list of fully implemented recommendations.

GRECO had asked the government to strengthen the status, role and remit of the ethics adviser to allow them to investigate, where they consider it appropriate to do so and on their own initiative potential ethical misconduct or conflicts of interest.

In June 2022, then-prime minister Boris Johnson gave the adviser the power to initiate his own investigations into ministerial conduct, albeit only with the PM’s approval.

GRECO said: “Even though consent of the prime minister is still required for an investigation by the independent adviser, it can be initiated by the latter upon his/her initiative, which strengthens this function considerably. It is also worth noting that in case such consent is not given, the reasons for an investigation not proceeding should be made public, unless they undermine the grounds for non-initiation of an investigation.

“This is a welcome development which has a potential to strengthen the independent adviser’s function and enhance public trust in it.”

Along with the enhancement of the independent adviser role, the government has fully implemented one other recommendation: Clarifying and broadening the scope of what is considered “relevant interests” in ministers’ declarations of interests for the purpose of their publication.

The five other completed recommendations relate to law enforcement agencies.

The UK now has until 30 June 2024 to show progress in the remaining five incomplete recommendations, four of which are recommendations for central government.

The three recommendations that the government has partly implemented are:

  • Establishing a centralised mechanism for analysing and mitigating risk areas of conflicting interests and corruption in respect of PTEFs at central government level – GRECO said the government’s approach continues to fall short of a holistic approach by mainly focusing on conflicting interests and not on broader anti-corruption risk assessment
  • More transparency around meetings held by ministers, special advisers and senior civil servants with third parties, including lobbyists – GRECO said some measures are under way to enhance transparency but until they have been accomplished, it cannot consider this recommendation as implemented satisfactorily
  • Extending the scope of the registry of consultant lobbyists to add third parties operating with “in-house lobbyists” and include the lobbying of special advisors and senior civil servants involved in policy making – GRECO said no final outcome has emerged from the government’s scrutiny of the Transparency of Lobbying Act, and no relevant policy or legislative steps have been taken to comprehensively address the recommendation

Publishing the report on its GOV.UK site, the Ministry of Justice said: “HM Government is committed to fighting against corruption and supporting the work of GRECO; we will provide an update to GRECO ahead of its June 2024 deadline.”

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