UK MPs call for stronger regulation of ‘revolving door’ between government and business

By on 26/04/2017
‘Revolving door’ between public office and business has damaged trust in politics and public institutions.

The UK’s system for regulating the ‘revolving door’ between public office and business is “ineffectual” and its weakness has “damaged” trust in politics and public institutions.

That is the main conclusion of a report published today by MPs from the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PASAC) on the processes in place to scrutinise the transition of former ministers and officials into private sector roles after leaving public service.

The report was critical of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA), the main regulator for this area, which PASAC describes as “toothless”.

MPs said ACOBA has failed to improve the climate of opinion around business appointments, pointing to various gaps and loopholes in the body’s monitoring processes. ACOBA is tasked with ensuring that public servants don’t trade insider knowledge into jobs with suppliers and lobbyists, and may take actions such as placing time-limited restrictions on former public officials’ new roles. However, the committee has no powers of investigation, and no powers to sanction those who ignore its rulings or fail to seek its approval before moving jobs.

What’s more, the committee says, civil servants at lower levels who have responsibility for commercial management or developing policy are not regulated by ACOBA. Yet they might easily experience conflicts of interest when they move into private sector roles.

The committee calls for “major reform” of the current system, including an “urgent review” of the business appointment rules that govern the take-up of employment by former ministers and officials.

PACAC notes that similar recommendations were made four years ago by its forebear, the Public Accounts Select Committee, but that “nothing has significantly changed”.

“Meanwhile, the problem has escalated, with increased numbers of public servants moving between the public and private sectors, and with declining public confidence in a system that was set up to command trust by mitigating any breaches of the rules,” the committee says.

The committee also calls for the Cabinet Office to aggregate and publish data on applications made by civil servants below a certain grade looking to take up roles in business. Officials below SCS3 grade currently fall outside ACOBA’s remit but are among the group most likely to move into the private sector, the committee says. The collection and publication of information on civil servants from all government departments and agencies looking to move into business would improve transparency and public scrutiny, the committee adds.

Chair of PACAC, the Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin MP, said: “Without greater clarity and understanding of what moral behaviour is expected of public servants, the culture has become established in public life that individuals are entitled to capitalise on their public sector experience when they move into the private sector without clear boundaries. This is the ‘new normal’, and public confidence in the effectiveness of ACOBA’s advice to former ministers and civil servants will continue to diminish further.

“The government must take steps to ensure that the ACOBA system is improved swiftly. In the long term, failure to do so will lead to an even greater decline in public trust in our democracy and our government.”

A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office, which has oversight of transparency and accountability matters across government in the UK, said: “We will consider the committee’s report and respond to its recommendations in due course.”

Some observers have noted that PACAC’s report comes soon after former Tory chancellor George Osborne controversially accepted the job of editor of the London Evening Standard, even whilst retaining his role as an MP and various advisory positions. Osborne received criticism for only notifying ACOBA of his new job a couple of days before his appointment was announced publicly, and before the committee had made any ruling.

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See also:

UN leaders look to private sector for sustainable development goals cash

Report claims US civil servants earn more than private sector

Brexit: UK government should try to win back officials from European Commission by offering ‘more than competitive pay’, committee says

About Ben Willis

Ben Willis is a journalist and editor with a varied background reporting on topics including public policy, the environment, renewable energy and international development. His work has appeared in a variety of national newspapers including the Guardian, Daily Telegraph and Times, as well as numerous specialist business, policy and consumer publications.

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