News 25th Apr 2023

Managing revolving door risks in Westminster

Rose Whiffen

Research Officer

Rose is a Research Officer specialising in political corruption. Her work covers issues of money in politics, lobbying, the revolving door and open governance. She was a key researcher and writer of Transparency International UK's 'House of Cards' report which explored access and influence in UK housing policy and contributed to other reports, such as 'Track and Trace', which explored Covid procurement. She's previously held roles at Democracy Club and Spotlight on Corruption, and completed an MA in Corruption and Governance from the University of Sussex.

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Related Publication

How two cases of the revolving door demonstrate shortfalls in the current rules and how we need to update them. Read more in our new paper ‘Managing revolving door risks in Westminster’.

In the summer of 2016, for reasons we shan’t go into here, two of the UK’s most prominent politicians were out of their ministerial jobs. The former Prime Minister, David Cameron and the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, were free to pursue new career paths. However, like all those leaving high office, when securing new employment, they were both subject to the Business Appointment Rules and had to seek advice from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) – the body responsible for oversight of the so called ‘revolving door’ between the public and private sector. When they did accept new jobs, the limits of ACOBA’s powers were put into sharp relief. 

George Osborne was the first to test the watchdog’s teeth.

In January 2017 he obeyed the rules and sought the advice of ACOBA before taking up an advisory position with Blackrock, the global investment management company. On the one hand, the Committee quoted the Treasury’s Permanent Secretary saying that he had ‘no concerns’ with the position. Yet on the other, it explained that when he was Chancellor, he had been in contact with both Blackrock and its competitors and he was responsible for general policy that would have affected the investment management industry. This cognitive dissonance claimed no risk of impropriety while looking one right in the face. Within a month of seeking the Committee’s advice, the former Chancellor took up the job, only five months after leaving the second highest office of state in the UK.

Critical media reporting at the time highlighted this oversight.

Surely there’s a risk if you have a senior minister going to work for a firm directly related to their previous policy brief? What guarantees are there that they don’t use privileged information when entering this role to their new employers’ advantage? Is there not a risk that they had half an eye on joining that industry while still in public office, and potentially went soft on it to increase the chances of a favourable landing when leaving their role?

Whilst there’s no evidence of impropriety by George Osborne, the risks associated with such a move loom large. And this is not an isolated incident.

Our new research found that nearly a third of all new jobs taken by former ministers and senior officials had a significant overlap with their previous brief. This is a substantial proportion, with some of these roles being taken-up within months of someone leaving public office. In this context, there’s a strong case to have tighter rules where a former official has had significant and direct responsibility for policy relevant to their new employer.

And this just one of many areas in need of reform. Another is the ban on lobbying for those leaving public office, as highlighted by David Cameron and the Greensill Debacle.

Years after George Osborne made headlines for his role with Blackrock, his former boss also hit the papers for all the wrong reasons. Whilst employed as an adviser for the company Greensill Capital, being paid hundreds of thousands of pounds, the ex-prime minister persistently lobbied senior officials and ministers asking for financial support – sending a barrage of at least 45 messages, many of which to their private phones. Although ultimately unsuccessful, his aim was to secure a government backed Covid loan for Greensill that could have been worth billions of taxpayer’s cash.

His actions show that many of his contacts were still in power and he was still able to command their attention despite him leaving office four years previous. Additionally, Cameron could deftly deploy his knowledge of the machinery of government by targeting various senior civil servants, which any other employer of a private company might not have had the knowledge to do.

Taking up these kinds of position that could involve lobbying is not uncommon. Our research has found that a quarter of those who seek advice from ACOBA undertake advisory roles after leaving office, whether that be ‘Member of the Advisory Board’ or ‘Advisor’. These roles are currently within the rules if they don’t involve lobbying the government for two years after an individual has left office. However, the Greensill saga makes a strong case for extending this lobbying restriction to at least five years and with potentially a longer restriction for the most senior roles, such as Prime Minister and Chancellor of the Exchequer.

To compound the narrow scope of the rules, what little safeguards there are remain meaningless because the body responsible for these rules is toothless. We count at least four cases in 2022 alone where a former office holder has breached the appointment rules and the only consequence has been to write to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster about it. Deterring cavalier attitudes to government ethics rules requires more than just a strongly worded letter.

Lastly, this body, should be placed on a statutory footing ensuring that it can’t be easily scrapped due to political whim. Whilst this would not make it immune from being dismantled, it would make it politically harder to do so.

When revolving door stories make the papers, they often don’t pass the public’s sniff test of what is deemed acceptable behaviour. Being in office is an honour and a privilege, and decision makers should not be seen to cash in on their governmental experience. Our research has identified ten ways this can addressed. The current Prime Minister has an opportunity to deliver on his commitment to integrity and accountability in government by making these ideas a reality.