Putting the revolving door watchdog Acoba on a statutory footing would trap civil servants in “public serfdom” and undermine “dynamic” careers, Cabinet Office minister Chris Skidmore has argued.
MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (Pacac) are part-way through their fresh inquiry into the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba), the body which former ministers and senior officials are required to notify when they take up new jobs after leaving office.
Acoba is intended to reassure the public that government insiders are not crafting policy with their post-Whitehall careers in mind, or trading on their departmental contacts once they leave office.
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But Pacac’s predecessor committee argued during the last parliament that Acoba — which cannot block new jobs or issue formal sanctions — should be abolished because it lacked "adequate powers and resources" to do its job properly.
The Cabinet Office ultimately rejected the call by MPs for Acoba to be replaced with a tougher, statutory body able to take former ministers and officials to task for non-compliance with its rules.
"Transparency is great — but what we can see is this great pyramid of abuse and corruption" — PACAC member Paul Flynn MP
The debate resurfaced in stormy exchanges at a session of PACAC this week, when MPs grilled Cabinet Office minister Chris Skidmore on whether Acoba needed strengthening.
Paul Flynn — a veteran Labour MP and long-standing critic of Acoba — said the current system of regulation was resulting in former officials and ministers “prostituting their insider knowledge for their own private gain” and encouraged “the spinning of the revolving door” between Whitehall to business.
“Transparency is great — but what we can see is this great pyramid of abuse and corruption,” said Flynn. “What are you going to do about it?”
Skidmore said similar concerns had been voice “for decades”, and argued that the very existence of Acoba provided an “invisible arc” which deterred people from applying for inappropriate post-government jobs.
But he said it was “really important to recognise” that civil servants and ministers “want the flexibility that 21st century employment guarantees them”.
"Let’s not forget these are individuals who have families, who have mortgages — it’s not this simple dynamic, this binary choice between private and public" — Minister Chris Skidmore
“When it comes to the private sector, there is not a job for life,” he said.
He added: “I’m a new minister, I’m new to this game, and I look at my private office officials — they’re all younger than me. They may not be staying in the civil service for the rest of their lives. Let’s not forget these are individuals who have families, who have mortgages — let’s not forget the fact that it’s not this simple dynamic, this binary choice between private and public.
“If we want the best civil service that we can have, if we want to ensure that we’ve got a world class of leaders driving forward public service, then we need to ensure that we move forward and that we have a modern, dynamic civil service.”
Flynn dismissed that answer from the minister as “irrelevant to the question”, prompting Skidmore to say the Labour MP’s use of the “language of prostitution” was “simply embarrassing to the committee".
"Making big money"
Fellow Labour MP Kelvin Hopkins also rounded on Skidmore, saying the approach he had outlined, of officials and ministers moving in and out of Whitehall, increased the risk that they would treat their jobs in government as “just a run-up to making big money when they get outside”.
That suggestion was rejected by Skidmore, who accused the two Labour MPs of bringing “ideology” in to the debate and argued that beefing up Acoba would only serve to hinder the careers of talented people leaving government.
“There’s simple not a case of private versus public, four legs good, two legs bad,” he said.
“We’re in a modern, dynamic economy where we need to ensure the civil service is not hermetically sealed as some kind of monastic life. What I don’t want to happen is that we move away from public service and end up with public serfdom — which is the risk if we create a statutory body and if we turn around to people and say ‘I’m sorry, once you’re here, it’s a job for life’.
Skidmore added: “There is no job for life. I mean, for Mr Flynn it’s been a job for life — but you’re the exception to the rule.”
Last week Acoba itself set out a series of changes it argued would strengthen its role without the need for a change in the law, including bringing in an independent non-executive on each department's board to ensure the compliance with the rules on post-Whitehall appointments.