Acoba chief Pickles sets out proposals for beefed-up scrutiny of post-government jobs

Boosted transparency and spectre of honours impact form part of anti-corruption watchdog’s drive
Lord Eric Pickles PA images

By Jim Dunton

26 Feb 2021

Former senior civil servants and ministers who flout rules on post-government appointments will have their actions subjected to greater levels of publicity and could see their failings impact on honours awards, under new crackdown proposals.

Lord Eric Pickles, chair of anti-corruption watchdog the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, said beefed-up transparency would be key to improving the way the system worked. 

The Conservative former communities secretary said departing senior officials and ex-ministers could also expect to see any justification of the appropriacy of a new role being sought published alongside Acoba’s decision – whether it was from the individual or a their former department.

Pickles’ proposals came in a letter to William Wragg, chair of parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, which accompanied Acoba’s latest annual report. The letter was sent last week but only published by PACAC on Tuesday.

The peer, who took over as Acoba chair last April, said he was “not convinced” the government's business appointment rules were “embedded strongly enough within the culture of public office” and that more could be done to increase transparency across the system.

Pickles said the “time is now right to build on and extend transparency” over the rules for jobs that ministers and senior officials take on within two years of leaving the government.

“Applicants and departments will be required to provide clear evidence to demonstrate a role they wish to take is appropriate for someone who held their position in government,” he said. “Any such submission will be published in full alongside the Acoba’s advice.”

Pickles added: “Where Acoba is made aware that an individual has failed to seek advice or may be acting in a manner contrary to advice received, we will refer this to the government and, where relevant, write to the employer. This correspondence will be published in full by Acoba.

“Any failure to comply with Acoba’s advice will be taken into consideration as part of the vetting process in awarding honours.”

Often criticised as a toothless watchdog, Acoba has in the past chastised prime minister Boris Johnson and former GCHQ director Robert Hannigan for failing to seek its approval to take up post government appointments. Johnson’s offence was resuming work at the Daily Telegraph after he quit as foreign secretary in 2018 without getting the go-ahead from Acoba.

More recently Acoba has criticised former Conservative ministers George Freeman, Richard Harrington and Stephen Hammond for failing to get clearance for new roles – which is a breach of the ministerial code. All essentially said they had not understood the rules in published correspondence. In recently-published letter, Freeman apologised for his misunderstanding, despite having demanded an apology from the panel in an earlier exchange for suggesting he broke the rules.

In his letter to Wragg, Pickles said Acoba’s strengthened stance would become increasingly clear in the publications posted on the watchdog’s website as new appointments were taken up.

He added that Acoba also planned to introduce a streamlined approach that would offer “prompt, predictable and consistent advice” on proposed appointments that were unpaid or had no relation to an applicant’s work in government. Pickles said the shift would allow panel members to “concentrate their attention on more complex cases”.

The former communities secretary – who is also the government’s special envoy for post-Holocaust issues – said he believed there was more work for government to do on enforcing appointment rules below the level Acoba operates at.

He said he had been in contact with the Cabinet Office to raise the prospect of additional resourcing for Acoba to work with departments and other government agencies to “share best practice”.

Acoba’s annual report for 2019-20 said the committee had “observed a gap” in the transparency of the government’s approach to staff at arm’s-length bodies, who are not employed under the civil service management code and are not subject to the same appointments rules.

It said ALBs could have equivalent arrangements in place and that it was for sponsoring departments to agree how the propriety of outside appointments would be addressed. 

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