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Lord Hunt: Government must replace current ‘feeble arrangements’ that scrutinize paid appointments after ministers leave office

3 min read

Labour frontbench peer Lord Hunt writes about his parliamentary question on 'Ensuring that all former Ministers seek advice from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments before taking up appointments within two years of leaving ministerial office'. 

Public concern about Ministers who accept plumb jobs the moment they leave office is a growing source of public concern

Boris Johnson’s lucrative contract with the Telegraph is the latest transgression where he blatantly ignored the rule that advice should be formally sought before accepting employment. George Osbourne is another prominent ex Minister who accepted a post without consulting the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments.

The Ministerial Code is explicit that Ministers seek advice from the Advisory Committee about any appointments or employment they wish to take up within two years of leaving office. It’s also clear that they must ensure that no new appointments are announced or taken up before the Committee has provided its advice.

The importance of observing the Code is to avoid any appearance that post Ministerial appointments are rewards for decisions made in office or that an organisation may gain an unfair advantage by employing a former Minister.

Whilst there are obvious advantages from people from Government and the civil service moving into business, the voluntary sector and wider areas of public services, the public seem to be increasingly unconvinced. This is exacerbated by the lack of any formal legal safeguards. The Advisory Committee is enormously hampered in its work since it has no statutory basis and there are no sanctions for non-compliance.

Sadly, the problem is not new. As far back as 2012, the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Committee reported on the failures of the scrutiny system. A follow up enquiry in 2016/17 concluded that “nothing significant has changed” and that “the problem has escalated”, with increased numbers of public servants moving between the public and private sectors, and a number of very high profile cases resulting in declining public confidence. 

The inquiry revealed numerous gaps in the Committee’s monitoring process with insufficient attention paid to the principles that should govern business appointments.  It described the Committee as a “toothless regulator” and concluded that the failures of Governments in this regard have damaged public trust in politics and public institutions and led to repeated scandals.

The time has surely come for the establishment of a statutory scheme. The Committee’s power only to give “advice” self-evidently weakens the authority of its judgements. This is compounded when senior politicians blatantly ignore the requirement to seek advice in the first place. Statutory status, accompanied by enhanced powers about the length of prohibited periods and sufficient penalty for failure to comply with these principles is the only way forward.

So far, the Government has resisted any attempt to do it. Yet the reputation of politicians sinks lower and some ex Ministers behave with impunity as there are no penalties they can be landed with.

I will be tackling Ministers in the House of Lords at oral questions this afternoon. It’s time for the current feeble arrangements to be swept away with the public reassured that former Ministers go through rigorous scrutiny before taking up jobs outside Westminster.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath is a Labour Peer

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