Appointments Committee needs clear rules and a sanctions regime to deal with revolving door of ministers
A busy old time is anticipated for the tiny office supporting the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) over the coming weeks.
A wave of applications is expected from ex-ministers vying with former top civil servants, both seeking advice on a new life after government office. I chair the independent committee that oversees this process, and it is a system that is badly in need of reform.
The government, not the committee, sets the rules governing the propriety of these appointments. We deal with former ministers and top civil servants; the vast majority of cases, covering most of the 34,000 civil servants that leave every year, are the responsibility of government departments. ACOBA is concerned about an inconsistent approach adopted by individual departments.
The system is advisory and widely criticised as toothless. We agree
The rules are intended solely to protect the integrity of government so that information and contacts are not exploited for personal gain, and decisions in office are not tainted by the prospect of a future appointment.
The system is advisory and widely criticised as toothless. We agree. ACOBA and many other ethics bodies, including the Committee on Standards in Public Life, have recommended major reform; some critics even call for a new statutory system.
ACOBA has made change, moving to a more “risk based” approach to cases to focus our resources on the most complex cases and improving our transparency on what is and is not acceptable. But without reform of the system itself, there is an ever-present risk of another scandal which the system is ill-prepared for.
It is the duty of the new government to assure itself that the right system is in place to protect its own interests when someone leaves, after having privileged access to government information and contacts.
We have suggested some basic changes to the current system that do not need to wait for legislation and could be implemented in a matter of weeks.
First, government needs to set a clear risk profile. The rules should set clear expectations on what the government regards as acceptable risk when individuals leave office. For example, saying that senior officials and former ministers must not join lobbying firms or take up jobs in areas they had regulatory responsibility for, or where they made commercial decisions affecting that sector or employer. Conversely, the rules should say what sort of roles it considers low risk and acceptable on leaving office, subject to some basic conditions to protect the integrity of government. For example, unpaid applications or those delivering a service to the citizen within the public sector. That would allow the system to focus on the cases that pose the most risk to government probity.
Second, we need a sanctions regime. Although there has been small improvement with the introduction of consultation with ACOBA on honours and membership of the House of Lords, without a recognisable compliance regime including sanctions, the rules will not get over the threshold of credibility in the public’s eye
Recent changes to the ministerial code which bring in, for the first time, graduated sanctions are welcome. This could help in setting out penalties that might apply where there is a serious breach of the ministerial code in respect of the rules. I also welcome the government’s commitment to strengthen civil service employment contracts accordingly.
Finally, we need assurance across government departments. The lack of oversight, assurance and transparency at this level negatively impacts the system as a whole.
Movement between public service and other sectors is a good thing; we need to make sure the system works properly to allow individuals to move on, while knowing that the integrity of government is protected. I urge the new government not to waste the opportunity to reform the system before it is too late.
Lord Pickles, Conservative peer and chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments.
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