The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba) has called on the UK government to implement new fines for ex-ministers who violate lobbying restrictions, along with tightening regulations on former civil servants.
Eric Pickles, the head of Acoba, has long advocated for penalties for those who disregard the committee’s rules, which aim to prevent individuals with insider information from engaging in lobbying activities.
However, several cases have emerged where former politicians have ignored Acoba’s advice without facing consequences, leading Pickles to describe his own committee as “toothless”.
The government has announced plans to strengthen the ethics regime by requiring ministers and senior civil servants to sign undertakings to abide by Acoba’s rules, and imposing penalties for non-compliance.
Pickles welcomed the proposed reforms but cautioned against any delays, suggesting that measures should be in place by the time Rishi Sunak makes his next government appointments, which many anticipate will occur in the autumn.
He emphasised the need for financial penalties to be applied judiciously, targeting only the most egregious cases. Pickles expressed optimism about the reforms, asserting that they would improve public life.
He believed it was possible to have the measures in place before the next reshuffle, arguing that the civil service had an obligation to act promptly to avoid embarrassing the prime minister.
Pickles also called for Acoba to have oversight of appointments taken by civil servants who previously held roles in commercial, procurement, or regulatory sectors.
He warned that such appointments could become the next major lobbying scandal, as utility, water, and media companies recruit individuals who formerly oversaw their sectors in government.
Currently, Acoba monitors appointments at the highest level of the civil service, while departments oversee the vast majority of appointments without imposing any conditions.
Pickles highlighted a case where an ex-minister applied for a job at a firm established by a former member of their private office in the same sector they had overseen in government.
He discovered that the department had not imposed any conditions on the appointment. The Observer recently revealed that two-thirds of major water companies in England employed key executives who previously worked at the regulatory watchdog responsible for overseeing them.
Acoba reprimanded Boris Johnson recently for notifying the committee only half an hour before announcing his newspaper column in the Daily Mail.
However, Pickles stated that media-related jobs were not his primary concern. The proposed rule overhaul would adopt a lighter touch approach to regulating unpaid positions and potentially media hirings as well.