News 13th Sep 2023

ACOBA reform delays increase 'revolving door' corruption risks

Jem Mills-Sheehy

Advocacy Officer

Jem is an Advocacy Officer working on Transparency International UK’s strategic engagement with Parliament and civil society to further the organisation’s goal of eradicating corruption in the UK and abroad. Jem joined in February 2023 and prior to this worked in partnerships at the Institute for Government, where he secured funding by engaging with commercial, academic and foundation-based partners in the UK and internationally. He completed a Master of Public Policy from the University of Sydney in 2019.

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Amid rumours about an impending government reshuffle, ACOBA Chair Lord Pickles is right to call on the government to give the watchdog the powers it needs to prevent abuse of the revolving door.  

With Parliament now back in full swing, rumours have been heating up about a more substantial government reshuffle in the late fall after last month’s mini-reshuffle. Political commentary is, perhaps unsurprisingly, focused on the potential promotions, demotions and implications for the next election – but less discussed is the corruption risk that these moments of upheaval bring.  

With some ministers facing the prospect of the backbench – and the reduced salary that comes with it – rightly or wrongly, some may feel compelled to seek or accept a second job or two.  And while the transfer of skills between the public and private sector can serve the public interest, there is a risk that insider knowledge and access to decision-makers will be used for the benefit of a new boss. Left unchecked, this can result in policy capture by vested interests and runs the risk of senior officials and ministers leveraging privileged information for their own personal gain. 

Considering these risks, ministers and senior civil servants are, in theory, already subject to a series of restrictions when leaving the public sector, referred to as the Business Appointment Rules. The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA), made up of political party nominees and independent members, administers these rules, with former Anti-Corruption Champion Lord Pickles serving as its current chair.  

However, recent scandals demonstrate ACOBA’s limits. When former Prime Minister David Cameron took on a job for Greensill Capital and the business was facing difficulties, he used his connections to lobby the Chancellor directly in an attempt to win public loans potentially worth billions. And while his efforts were ultimately unsuccessful, the former PM’s ability to secure direct access to one of the most powerful public offices in Britain exemplifies the risk the revolving door poses to taxpayers’ money. 

Importantly, everything David Cameron did was within the rules. As he had left government more than two years prior to taking on the position at Greensill Capital, he was no longer bound by any restrictions on his employment. This is regardless of whether his previous role as Prime Minister would continue to provide him with substantial and privileged access to the most senior figures in government.  

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, moving out of government and into a position that likely relates to (or involves) lobbying decision-makers is now commonplace. Our research from earlier this year found that between June 2017 and June 2022, nearly a quarter of all roles taken up by former ministers and senior officials had job titles that were advisory, such as ‘advisor’ or ‘Members of the Advisory Board’ – positions that can often involve providing counsel on how to lobby parliament or government. And almost one in ten of all those seeking advice from ACOBA did so in relation to taking on a position in a lobbying firm. 

In addition to weak rules, the current system is further undermined by non-compliance. Just last month, ACOBA concluded that former Government Chief People Officer Rupert McNeil breached the lobbying ban in his new role. In June, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson hadn't even sought ACOBA's advice before his new role as a columnist for the Daily Mail became public – another clear breach.  

Historically, ACOBA has not had the means to enforce these rules effectively nor do anything in cases of blatant non-compliance. So it was welcome news when this summer, after a series of high-profile reports on standards in government, and our years of campaigning, the government committed to giving ACOBA the power to use fines to punish non-compliance, by requiring ministers to sign undertakings that they would abide by ACOBA’s rules. And while the suite of government commitments does not go far enough – for instance, by resisting calls to place ACOBA on a statutory footing – they are a welcome improvement.  

Or they will be when they’re implemented. Regrettably, ACOBA is still waiting for the government to deliver on its commitment and finally give it some teeth. In the meantime, the rules governing post-public employment are little more than a paper tiger.  

And this is why Lord Pickles’ recent call to bring in new powers for ACOBA before the next reshuffle is so important: failing to do so risks creating a new cohort of former ministers beholden to little but self-restraint as the job offers come rolling in.