The latest breach of anti-corruption rules by a minister is yet another example of how “out of date” the rules are, Eric Pickles has warned.
Former culture minister Nadine Dorries has broken the business appointment rules by failing to await the advice of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments before taking up a job at TV channel TalkTV.
She informed the committee, which is chaired by Pickles, on Friday that she would be hosting a weekly chat show on the channel for 26 weeks and confirmed to the media she would start the role on 3 February.
However, anti-corruption rules state that when ministers leave government, they must seek and await the advice on any outside role before announcing it or taking it up.
In a letter to Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden, sent and published on Friday, Pickles said: “This case is a further illustration of out of date the government’s rules are. I know that you personally share my view that the rules require revising and I look forward to working with you to achieve this as soon as possible.”
But he did not recommend any sanction for the breach due to the role's "transparent nature".
“It is a matter for you to decide what appropriate action to take. However, given the transparent nature of Ms Dorrie’s role which is limited to presenting (not dealing with the commercial aspects of Talk TV business) I believe it would be disproportionate to take any further action in this case,” Pickles said.
In his letter to Dorries, Pickles explained how she could have avoided the breach.
“Acoba encourages early approaches if applicants are unsure about whether an application is required,” he said.
“Had you approached Acoba in good time before agreeing to the 26 week contract or publicising the role in the media it would have allowed us to advise you appropriately in advance.”
Pickles added that previous ministers who sought advice in time before taking on media roles have generally been subjected to a standard set of conditions preventing individuals from drawing on privileged information and lobbying the UK government. This standard advice was given to former Cabinet Office minister Jacob Rees-Mogg on Friday ahead of him starting a role as a GB News presenter.
The Acoba chair, along with the Committee on Standards in Public Life and others, has regularly called for business appointment rules to be beefed up to give the regulator more teeth since he became chair in 2020.
Pickles has raised alarm bells about ministers' understanding of rules, saying last year he was “growing increasingly concerned” that not all ministers understand the ACOBA rules for taking up appointments outside government, following a series of breaches.
The CSPL recommended a series of reforms to the government in November 2021, including strengthening Acoba’s powers. The committee said departments should be given the power to issue a five-year lobbying ban for top officials, and that rules should be enforced via their job contracts.
The government did not respond directly to the recommendations but made changes to the rules in May which mean breaches can now also affect decisions on whether to award honours.
At the same time, the government made changes to the role of the prime minister's independent adviser on ministers’ interests, which gives them the ability to recommend that the PM sanction ministers, including potential fines. Pickles said this "could now apply where there is a breach of the ministerial code in respect of the business rules".
Pickles welcomed the changes in a letter to then-Cabinet Office minister Nicholas True but warned the minister that “without further reform, there is an ever-present risk of another scandal which the system is ill-prepared for”.
Lord True said, in September, the government would continue to work to improve the transparency of the rules, "taking into account steers” from the prime minister.
However, MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee have since demanded far greater powers for Acoba, in a report in December which suggested the watchdog should take legal action against rule-breakers .
The Cabinet Office said it will respond to the letter "in due course".