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Advisory Committee on Business Appointments

Volume 792: debated on Monday 10 September 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they are taking to ensure that all former Ministers seek advice from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments before taking up appointments within two years of leaving ministerial office.

My Lords, the Ministerial Code was updated in January 2018 to underline the importance of the business appointment rules to both current and former Ministers, and reiterating the requirement to seek advice from the independent advisory committee before announcing or taking up any new appointments. In addition, the Minister for the Cabinet Office has recently written to ministerial colleagues reminding them of the importance of the rules in maintaining public confidence in the integrity of our public servants.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that response but he will know that the committee so ably chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Browning, is an advisory committee, not a statutory committee, and can impose no sanctions on any former Minister who does not seek the committee’s approval. Essentially, it remains as a code of honour. We should not be surprised, I suppose, that the latest transgressor of this system is Mr Boris Johnson, who perhaps seems to have a rather distant acquaintance with the notion of honour. When will the Government agree to make this a statutory committee and be able to impose sanctions in order to make the system work?

I join the noble Lord in paying tribute to my noble friend Lady Browning, who chairs ACOBA. Until I read its annual report, I had not realised quite how much work it did—some 230 appointments in a year—or how complex some of the cases were. The noble Lord suggests that the system should be statutory. ACOBA has been non-statutory since it was established in 1975. I see two problems in making it statutory. First, it would be much more difficult to amend it and bring it up to date—it would become less flexible; at the moment it can be updated overnight. Secondly, if you make it statutory I suspect that decisions would take longer to deliver but, crucially, they would then be justiciable: they could be challenged in the courts. I think there is a real risk of crystallising a potential conflict between the rules of ACOBA and the common-law right that individuals have to earn a living in their own right.

My Lords, the Ministerial Code clearly states that,

“Former Ministers must ensure that no new appointments are announced, or taken up, before the Committee has been able to provide its advice”.

It goes on to say,

“Former Ministers must abide by the advice of the Committee which will be published by the Committee when a role is announced or taken up”.

Of course, there is a minimum three-month waiting period on resignation. Boris Johnson breached all these elements of the Ministerial Code, which explains the very strong tone of this letter. Should there not be some comeback when Ministers who have signed the Ministerial Code breach it within days of leaving office?

The noble Lord refers quite rightly to the stern rebuke from my noble friend in her letter to the Foreign Secretary:

“The Committee considers it to be unacceptable that you signed a contract with The Telegraph and your appointment was announced before you had sought and obtained advice from the Committee, as was incumbent on you on leaving office”.

The former Foreign Secretary should not have treated with such insouciance the rules, which had been brought to his attention and which he acknowledged he had read as recently as January this year. I am not an apologist for the former Foreign Secretary—that requires a portfolio of skills that I do not have. However, in his defence, the rules are designed to prevent a Minister, using the knowledge he acquires and the relationships he develops in the department, from rolling the pitch for a lucrative job subsequently in a related organisation. In the case of the former Foreign Secretary, after two years he reverted back to a career in journalism, a career for which his qualities are perhaps better suited. Therefore, while I do not in any way undermine the seriousness of his offence, what he did was not quite the revolving door that one normally sees—and the revolving door ended up with him back where he started.

My noble friend will be aware that the full ACOBA rules were appended to the Ministerial Code at the request of the ACOBA Committee. The point about honour is very well made: any non-statutory body, whether it involves the Ministerial Code or the ACOBA rules, will only work if it is dealing with people of honour. I commend to my noble friend the definition of honour made at the funeral of the late Senator John McCain. Perhaps my noble friend could communicate to the Cabinet Office that as far as the Ministerial Code is concerned, for which I have no authority whatsoever at ACOBA, consideration should be given to in some way debarring people who do not behave with honour, or a penalty should be imposed so that they cannot hold public office for a limited amount of time—two years would probably be a good idea—after they have flagrantly ignored both the Ministerial Code and the ACOBA rules?

My noble friend makes a good point about honour. When one joins your Lordships’ House we subscribe to the Code of Conduct, and part of that is an injunction to act,

“always on … personal honour”.

Those words have been used for centuries to describe the conduct that one should follow in the House. The former Foreign Secretary seems to defy the laws of political gravity. I certainly take my noble friend’s point: once you are no longer a Minister you are not subject to the Ministerial Code, so there is no formal sanction. However, as my noble friend suggested, I will certainly pursue her suggestion with the Cabinet Office. But at the end of the day, a Prime Minister is free to appoint whomever he or she wants, but I hope that whoever may hold that office will take into account the behaviour of Ministers when they defy the Ministerial Code.

My Lords, some years ago I served on this committee and grew increasingly frustrated by the revolving doors, but could not interest the then Prime Minister in any changes. Is it not the time to have an independent and thorough review of its workings; to tighten things up and lengthen the period before which officeholders can take up new posts—and, better still, to warn them early in their careers that they will not be able to glide as quickly into new posts; and to have sanctions where there are breaches?

I take very seriously the suggestions of the noble and learned Lord, who served on this committee. The ACOBA is monitored closely by a Select Committee in the other place—the so-called PACAC committee—which has produced a series of reports making a number of recommendations, to which the Government have responded. We propose to tighten the current non-statutory scheme with increased transparency, awareness and monitoring, and we are also sharing any letters with prospective employers so that they are aware of any restraints on those who join their organisations. Finally, most of the people who come before ACOBA are people in public life with a high profile—indeed, many of them are Members of your Lordships’ House—and I suspect that many will not want to take the reputational hit of being publicly criticised by ACOBA. The prospective employer may wonder why they should take on somebody who has so recently flouted the rules of their previous employer.