Chair of Westminster’s lobbying watchdog under investigation for alleged breach of transparency rules

Lord Eric Pickles
Lord Eric Pickles, the chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments.

  • The chair of Westminster’s lobbying watchdog is under investigation for alleged breaches of transparency rules.
  • Eric Pickles, a Tory peer, declared he is the director of Oakworth Services, a consultancy firm.
  • House of Lords rules require peers to describe the company’s business, which Pickles did not.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The chairman of Westminster’s lobbying watchdog is under investigation over an allegation he breached transparency rules when disclosing ties to a consultancy firm he runs.

Eric Pickles, a member of the House of Lords and a former Tory minister, is the chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA).

ACOBA is responsible for applying rules that forbid former ministers, senior civil servants and senior special advisers from lobbying after they leave the government.

Pickles, along with his wife, is a director of Oakworth Services Ltd. The firm’s entry on Companies House describes Pickles’s occupation as a “Consultant”.

Pickles’s entry on the House of Lords register of interests says only that Oakworth Services Ltd is a “consultancy”, providing no further details on its work, openDemocracy reported on Thursday.

On Friday, the House of Lords Commissioners for Standards announced that Pickles’s registration of an interest was the subject of an inquiry.

The rules of the House of Lords require peers to “give a broad indication of the company’s business, where this is not self-evident from its name”.

Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP and former chair of the influential Public Accounts Committee told openDemocracy: “There is a problematic lack of transparency in the Lords”.

Pickles told Insider that the company had not received any income since he became chair of ACOBA.

He also said that he had given up all paid outside interests since becoming chair and that all previous clients were declared separately.

Pickles, along with the other peer on ACOBA, also gives notably less forthcoming disclosures as part of his work on the committee.

In ACOBA’s register of interests, both Pickles and Labour peer Larry Whitty, refer to their entries on the House of Lords register of interests, which deal only with their personal affairs.

Meanwhile the seven other members of ACOBA also disclose the interests of close family members, such as the jobs of their spouses and children, as well as their past paid work.

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Lobbying scandal: Civil servants must start declaring conflicts of interests, says anti-sleaze watchdog

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  • A register of interests for senior civil servants and special advisers in the UK should be published, a top civil servant has been told.
  • Lord Eric Pickles, chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, says the government has to introduce further transparency measures.
  • The call follows the scandal involving David Cameron, senior civil servantsm and the collapsed firm Greensill Capital.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Senior civil servants and special advisers should start publishing any external work they undertake in a public register of interests, in order to prevent any repeat of the lobbying scandal involving David Cameron and senior civil servants, the chair of the watchdog that oversees post-governmental jobs for ministers and senior civil servants has said.

Lord Eric Pickles, the chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, has written to Alex Chisholm, the Permanent Secretary of the Cabinet Office urging him to make the changes following revelations about the role of senior civil servants in the lobbying scandal involving the collapsed firm Greensill Capital.

The scandal has led to a series of reviews of the rules governing outside interests and post-governmental appointments for those working in Whitehall.

“The critical question”, Pickles writes, “is whether the government will introduce the transparency necessary to provide assurance around this process”.

He says there should be the “publication of an appropriate register of interests for senior civil servants, and special advisers in line with the approach taken for departmental board members”.

Departmental boards are chaired by the Secretary of State, and include the department’s ministers, permanent secretary and senior civil servants in that department, as well as non-executive members. Non-executive members provide advice to departments on strategy – not policy – and are frequently recruited from the commercial sector, and are paid government appointees.

At the moment, this approach requires departmental board members to declare “any private financial or non-financial interests of your own, or of close family members, which may, or may be perceived to, conflict with your public duties”.

But the approach taken for departmental board members is not consistent across Whitehall. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s 2019-2020 accounts states “BEIS has an established procedure for considering, approving and recording conflicts of interest […] In 2019-20 there was only one conflict of interests registered during the meeting and it was addressed accordingly.”

It does not contain a register of interests for the board members.

The Cabinet Office, meanwhile, does publish on an annual basis a register of its board members’ interests.

The possibility remains in Pickles’s suggestion that just as, thanks to unclear definitions, senior civil servants can sidestep scrutiny from ACOBA – as reported by Insider this week – so too might they avoid having their entries on a register of interests published.

‘The lack of transparency… is alarming’

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Pickles’ letter calls for stronger action than previously suggested by the UK’s top civil servant.

Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, told MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee in April that “to ensure that our processes are robust and transparent”, he would be introducing reforms requiring senior civil servants to “declare any relevant interests to their permanent secretary on at least an annual basis.

“Departments should also ensure that as part of or alongside their Annual Report and Accounts they publish a register of relevant interests for all members of the Departmental Board, including senior civil servants,” he added.

Pickles also calls for “a clear, published, policy demonstrating how the integrity of decision making in office and any access to sensitive information (whether commercial/regulatory or policy related) in government service is protected in such cases”.

But campaigners say Pickles is not going far enough. Susan Hawley, executive director at Spotlight on Corruption, told Insider: “The lack of transparency in how conflicts of interest are managed whether it be those of civil servants or politicians is alarming. There should be a centrally managed public database with registers of conflicts of interest for all those in senior positions in government.

“But it can never be enough just to declare a conflict of interest. Conflicts need to be proactively managed and there need to be clear and robust sanctions for those that breach conflict of interest rules.”

The latest edition of the register of ministers’ interests is due for publication at the end of the month by the independent adviser on ministers’ interests, Lord Geidt.

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