Eric Pickles has told MPs he is keen to introduce changes to the employment contracts for senior civil servants as part of tougher rules on post-government appointments when he becomes chair of anti-corruption watchdog Acoba.
The former communities secretary, now Lord Pickles, told members of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee that he was more interested in the post-government jobs of civil servants than of politicians and had particular fears about post-Brexit roles sought by officials.
He aired his concerns at a pre-appointment hearing for the role of chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which is tasked with vetting the acceptability of new jobs sought by former ministers and senior civil servants for two years from the day they leave government. He is the government’s preferred candidate to succeed Baroness Angela Browning, whose five-year term is due to end.
Asked why he wanted the role, Pickles said it was clear to him that the nature of the civil service had “changed dramatically” in the 28 years since he became a member of parliament, and that change had happened particularly “rapidly” over the past five or six years.
“I think that increasingly it is going to become the norm for civil servants to move in and out of the civil service; into voluntary organisations, local government, the private sector and come back and go out again,” he said.
“I don’t think that in the way we currently operate we really understand that and there are three areas that cause problems. First is regulation; second is procurement; and third is contract negotiations.”
He said there was a great deal of benefit in greater fluidity for talented people moving between sectors to share their knowledge and skills – and cited his former Department for Communities and Local Government perm sec Lord Bob Kerslake as a good example. Kerslake had been chief executive of Sheffield City Council before moving to the Homes and Communities Agency and then DCLG.
But Pickles told PACAC he believed that current checks and balances designed to stop former ministers and ex-civil servants trading on privileged information they obtained in government were not strong enough.
“I do think it’s important for us to reassure the public that people do not personally get financial remuneration on the basis of privileged information they’ve obtained,” he said.
“That needs to be addressed, particularly in a Brexit world, where there’s going to be an awful lot of people engaged in negotiations. And there’s going to be an awful lot of new procurement.
“If we don’t get it right, it’s one of those things that will rot government from the inside.”
Pickles said that while he was keen for civil servants to get experience in different sectors before returning to Whitehall there had to be a clearer understanding of what acceptable behaviour in the jobs market looked like.
“I would expect them to earn money from that process,” he said. “But where it becomes a problem is if they’ve been involved in a regulatory job or if they’ve been involved in negotiating contracts, if they’re involved in procurement or if they’ve been involved in setting out grants to people.
“That’s the point where I think there’s been a degree of fuzziness in the system, and that’s the point where I think it needs to be addressed.”
In a seeming reference to related trade-deal negotiations, Pickles said “changes that are likely to lie ahead over the next 18 months” would require “precision” in the appointments rules.
“Many top civil servants are privy to, and I suppose some politicians are, very market sensitive information,” he added.
“Not just about their potential employer, but also about their competitors. That’s why I think it just needs a little bit of attention. Down the line you can see a problem coming.”
Pickles was asked by committee member John Stevenson whether he thought there should be a review of the “actual employment contract for senior civil servants” to include private-sector-style restrictions to protect contracts and other information.
“That’s exactly what I’m talking about,” the former Brentwood and Ongar MP replied. “Clearly these things need to be taken gently and reasonably and with appropriate regard to human resources and personnel. But we need to start moving forward on this, and I think it’s a view that is held by a lot of people in government.”
Pickles told 17 March’s hearing that while there was media interest in the post-government jobs of ministers – such as Boris Johnson’s un-sanctioned resumption of his Daily Telegraph column following his 2018 resignation as foreign secretary – jobs sought by former civil servants were “the real worry”.
“We have a regulatory regime in the civil service that assumes that somebody is going to come in from university and work their way through and retire; and that while they may move ministries and have different grades and different jobs, nevertheless they remain in the public sector,” he said.
“I just don’t think that’s going to be the case anymore. And I just don’t think that we’ve got a system that reflects that. I don’t think it requires an enormous change, I just think we need to bear down on those parts.
“Politicians are rarely involved in procurement decisions, other than a general supervisory.”
Asked directly about Johnson being chastised over restarting his Telegraph column without Acoba’s approval – and against the advice of FCO perm sec Sir Simon McDonald, Pickles was dismissive.
“I saw that process and it did strike me that nobody came out of it terribly well,” he said. “You got a kind of Life of Brian response from the government… ‘he’s not the former foreign secretary, he’s a very naughty boy’.
“I want to use transparency far, far more. This is about people benefitting from their position in government, either politically or as an official.
“That’s what we should be concerned with, not a former journalist going back to being a journalist.”