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Eric Pickles is right: the rules for post-government jobs do not work

Lord Pickles has written to the government to criticise the rules that ACOBA is responsible for overseeing.

Eric Pickles
Lord Pickles has dismissed the rules for ministers and officials taking on new jobs after leaving government as out of date.

The chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, Lord Pickles, has written to the government to criticise the rules that his organisation is responsible for overseeing. He is completely right, says Tim Durrant

The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) has found that Boris Johnson committed "a clear and unambiguous breach of the government's rules and requirements" 12 Rt Hon Lord Pickles, Letter from ACOBA to the Cabinet Office regarding breach of the Rules (Daily Mail), 27 June 2023,  by only requesting advice on his new role as a newspaper columnist half an hour before announcing it online.  

This verdict on the former prime minister will not surprise anyone, and his actual breach was fairly minor. As committee chair Lord Pickles said, there is a low risk that a columnist will use inside knowledge to lobby the government and Johnson is not involved in the business side of his new employer. But upholding the principle of the business appointment rules is important – people moving in and out of government (both ministers and officials) is a good thing, but using knowledge and contacts gained during public service for private gain is not.  

Johnson’s case has seen further calls for reform of the business appointment rules that ACOBA oversees – including by Lord Pickles himself, who has dismissed the rules as out of date and conceived for a mythical past when ‘good chaps’ could be relied upon to behave honourably without any need for enforcement. Pickles’ verdict is correct – and the case for reform is clear. 

Change is needed to ensure ACOBA’s rulings are enforced 

To ensure that other former ministers cannot disregard the ACOBA process as easily as Johnson did, and to avoid worse potential conflicts of interest, the committee needs to be able to enforce both the requirement to ask for its advice and to abide by whatever conditions it lays down on post-government employment. As Nigel Boardman suggested nearly two years ago, when asked to investigate the Greensill finance scandal, post-employment restrictions issued by the committee should be legally binding for both former ministers and civil servants.  

But enforcement is not the only change that is needed. Pickles also argued to the Cabinet Office that post-government roles “with a known low-risk profile” – that is, those where the former minister or official will not face a substantial conflict of interest between their new role and their knowledge from their previous work in government – should be removed from the requirement to declare them to ACOBA. More certainty on what the committee will and will not recommend will provide greater certainty to both ministers and officials, which will help with bringing qualified, capable people into government.  

On the other hand, Pickles has said more work is needed to ensure that the business appointment rules are properly applied by government departments, which are responsible for enforcing them for all departing officials below the top two grades of permanent secretaries and directors general. 14 Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, Correspondence between ACOBA Chair and the Cabinet Office regarding reform of the business appointments system, 17 June 2022,…;  He argues that potentially differential enforcement across government “negatively impacts the system as a whole”, bringing it further into disrepute.  

Pickles is not the only one who thinks the rules needs reform  

While Lord Pickles has a front-row view of the failings of the business appointment rules, his is not the only voice calling for change. Nigel Boardman’s review of 2021 18 Cabinet Office, A report by Nigel Boardman into the Development and Use of Supply Chain Finance (and associated schemes) related to Greensill Capital in Government: Recommendations and Suggestions, 5 August 2021,…;  said that ACOBA needs “a more powerful mechanism for enforcement” of its advice, and called on the government to work out how it can better work with this important committee. 

Similarly, later in 2021, the independent Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) 19 The Committee on Standards in Public Life, Upholding standards in public life, Final report of the Standards Matter 2 review, November 2021,…;  argued for wholesale reform of the business appointment rules process, calling for stronger restrictions on certain post-government jobs, including lobbying, and recommending that the committee’s rulings should be legally binding on former ministers, civil servants and special advisers.  

And last year, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) added its voice to the chorus, in a report echoing many of the recommendations from Boardman and CSPL. 20 House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, Propriety of Governance in Light of Greensill, 2 December 2022,   We have also made several similar recommendations at the Institute.  

The government’s response to PACAC is now over four months delayed, though there is an expectation that this year will see ministers unveil a package of reforms to how ethical standards are defined and enforced in government.

It may have taken Boris Johnson to bring ACOBA back into the headlines, but Pickles’ latest criticism is a vital reminder that the status quo cannot continue.  

Political party
Sunak government
Cabinet Office
Public figures
Boris Johnson
Institute for Government

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