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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Boris Johnson’s former Communications Director skipped scrutiny from regulator before taking job with The Sun

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Boris Johnson’s former Director of Communications James Slack.

  • EXCLUSIVE: Boris Johnson’s former Director of Communications, James Slack, will avoid scrutiny of his post-government jobs.
  • The Cabinet Office say Slack, soon to become deputy editor at The Sun, does not need to consult the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments.
  • A former senior government official told Insider: “There is a total disregard for [the regulators] from the top down in this administration.”
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Boris Johnson’s former Director of Communications, James Slack, managed to avoid scrutiny from the official watchdog overseeing the post-government appointments of civil servants, before taking a job with The Sun, Insider can reveal.

In a move that one former senior government official described to Insider as a “humiliation” to the regulator, officials judged that Slack was not required to consult the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments [ACOBA], despite his predecessors having done so.

Slack was made Director of Communications from the beginning of 2021 following nearly four years as the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesperson.

Slack, who held both positions as a civil servant, not a political special adviser, had formerly been a journalist at the Daily Mail.

In March 2021, it was announced Slack had been appointed deputy editor-in-chief at The Sun, joining the paper in the “coming months”.

However, Insider has learned that despite four predecessors in the role having to consult ACOBA following their departure from Number 10, it was judged that there was no such requirement on Slack.

Under the Business Appointment Rules, only the two most senior grades of civil servants and their special adviser equivalents must seek advice from ACOBA before taking up a new role after leaving Crown service.

Responding to the Cabinet Office’s claim that Slack was not in the two most senior grades, a former senior government official told Insider: “It’s clear there is a total disregard for ACOBA from the top down in this current administration. If ACOBA can be ignored without penalty in this manner, it might as well be scrapped. Of course, former Directors of Communication at No 10 should be held accountable as to what they do when they leave office and how they use their excellent contacts.

“Let’s not pretend this is transparency when clearly it’s anything but. Mr Pickles [the chair of ACOBA] should seriously consider how much longer he can swallow the humiliation.”

A second former senior government official said: “This seems very odd. James was always careful to keep his status as a civil servant, and it seems he has also been careful to stay out of ACOBA’s remit.”

Steve Goodrich, head of research and investigations at Transparency International UK, told Insider: “When senior officials move from public office to private employment it can give rise to conflicts of interest that require careful management, especially when they go to work for the media.

“Whilst in theory there are strict rules to oversee this revolving door, in practice there appears to be sporadic compliance and no credible deterrent to ensure they are followed.

“There needs to be a complete overhaul of government’s post-employment controls to better protect against potential impropriety and provide clarity over what is and is not acceptable after someone leaves public office.”

An organogram, published by the Cabinet Office in January 2021, concerning the structure of civil servants working in Downing Street in October 2020, shows Slack was paid £140,000 to £144,999 in his role as the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson, at senior civil service grade 2.

Lee Cain, the then Director of Communications, was paid the same salary, according to the annual report on special advisers’ pay. Insider understands that Cain is required to consult ACOBA for any appointments he is taking up since leaving the Government.

A job advert for the position of the Prime Minister’s Official Spokesperson, created after Slack’s promotion, likewise describes that role as being senior civil service grade 2 and reporting to Slack as the Director of Communications.

Insider contacted Slack asking for comment but did not receive a response.

Asked to comment, a government spokesperson said: “All the correct procedures have been followed.”

A government source told Insider that Slack had the standard conditions of not being allowed to use privileged information or to engage in lobbying for two years after office, applied to him. Applications by former civil servants that do not require seeking advice from ACOBA are handled entirely within the department of the former civil servant, in this case, the Cabinet Office.

Concerns over Slack’s activities in the period between his new role being announced and him taking it up were revealed by the Daily Mirror, who reported that Slack had continued to attend meetings with the Prime Minister a week after the announcement.

The rules on taking gardening leave after resigning from senior posts in Downing Street were unclear, the Mirror reported.

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