Watchdog warns of potential for ‘predatory’ firms to tap up mid-ranking officials
Eric Pickles suggests companies could exploit potential of recruiting digital regulation specialists and warns ‘departments are rubber-stamping things that are plainly wrong’
Anti-corruption watchdog Eric Pickles has spoken of his increasing concerns about agencies’ monitoring of the post-government jobs taken on by officials, flagging particular concerns about the possibility of “predatory” firms seeking to recruit civil servants from the digital department.
Lord Pickles, chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, told members of parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee that the lack of procedures to monitor work taken on by departing staff was “deeply worrying”.
Acoba scrutinises the post-government jobs sought by former ministers and the most senior civil servants for two years after they leave office to ensure they do not draw upon privileged information, or receive rewards for decisions made in office.
“Government departments are rubber stamping things that are plainly wrong,” Pickles told a committee session that took place last week. “You almost have to go through a process of explaining to the government departments themselves that there is a problem they need to address. If we’re seeing that at the very top, it makes you wonder about what’s going on further below the surface.”
Pickles told the MPs, who are looking into lessons from the Greensill lobbying scandal, that middle-ranking and lower-level officials being courted by big business looking for inside information from government were potentially a bigger risk than former high-fliers.
“If I was a predatory company seeking to get information from government, I don’t think I would care an awful lot about senior civil servants or ex-ministers,” he said. “It would be the people actually doing the regulating, people actually doing the day to day.”
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Pickles said he had particular concerns about Department for Digital, Media, Culture and Sport officials involved with market regulation, as well as their counterparts at schools inspector Ofsted.
He said it would be “ridiculous” for Acoba to be given oversight of all the jobs sought by the 30,000 civil servants who leave government every year, but suggested that departments needed to exercise greater scrutiny themselves.
“Right now, it’s supposed to be the responsibility of the board of each department to do that,” he said. “You could probably achieve that by training a relatively small number of people to apply an ethics procedure and to look at those at greatest risk.”
He added that the civil service had rejected Acoba’s offer of assistance with training, and had so far not instigated its own training processes. Pickles suggested the problem was one of inertia among senior officials, rather than “active resistance” but said there was a need to keep moving on the issue.
“The government has been extraordinarily lucky that there hasn’t been a major scandal on this at levels below Acoba,” he said.
In direct relation to the Greensill lobbying scandal, Pickles said he had some sympathy for former chief commercial officer Bill Crothers – who at one stage was simultaneously working for the Crown Commercial Service and fintech outfit Greensill Capital.
“I’ve always felt really sorry for Bill Crothers,” he said. “I think he tried to do the right thing and he was advised not to do the right thing.”
Pickles said then-Cabinet Office ethics chief Sue Gray had made an “inappropriate” decision in relation to her advice to Crothers at the time, and that Acoba could have been of assistance. Revelations about Crothers' overlapping work at CCS and Greensill prompted a cross-Whitehall probe of officials’ second jobs.
Pickles told PACAC members he was “not confident” that another Greensill scandal would not happen because departments had yet to put robust and clear systems in place to prevent repeats. However, Pickles said senior civil servants were alert to the consequences of the kind of decisions that were made in relation to Greensill and the “genie is out of the bottle”.
He added that ministers were looking very closely at ways to tie in adherence to the government’s business-appointment rules to civil service contracts and expected changes to make them “much more specific with regard to penalties”.
“Clearly, if they’re going to do that for civil servants, it would be utterly ludicrous not to do it for members of parliament,” he said.
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