Tomorrow the Sunday Telegraph will has some provocative comments on the uselessness of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments. The man controversially appointed to police the jobs of former ministers is on the look out for jobs himself. Lord Lang is. of course, a former minister. I voted against his appointment for precisely that reason. He is part of the revolving door problem not the solution.
Some time again The Independent reported:
"Lord Lang's appointment to Acoba was not without controversy. The Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) questioned him and concern was expressed that he had a number
of lucrative directorships. The committee concluded he had the "professional competence and personal independence required" to perform the chairman's job, but said it had "serious concerns about the appointment of a former Cabinet minister with business appointments of his own to a role that needs the perception of independence if it is to attract public confidence".
A Labour member of the committee, Paul Flynn, voted against Lord Lang's appointment and questioned the make-up of Acoba: "There are no waitresses, bus drivers or people independent of the new great and the good on Acoba. They are all people who think it's normal for an MP being paid £65,000 for a full-time job to take on five other jobs."
The Independent article is written by Antony Barnett the investigative journalist who led the Dispatches investigation 'Politicians for Hire'. The programme invited Lord Lang to a sting interview. It was not broadcast even though it was a fascinating insight into the incestuous nature of top appointments.
Barnett discloses today that 'One senior former minister who came in to chat about potential employment was Lord Lang of Monkton. Remember him? He was the Secretary of State for Scotland under Margaret Thatcher and the President of the Board of Trade under John Major. Gordon Brown gave the Conservative peer an important new job: chairman of the Prime Minister's Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, or Acoba as it's known.
This is the critical Whitehall committee supposed to be the public's watchdog when it comes to former ministers and senior civil servants taking up jobs in the private sector. Its remit is to ensure that they don't use their government contacts for private gain within two years of leaving office.
The committee has faced criticism that it's toothless. It has no enforcement powers – it can only make recommendations to the Prime Minister.
So what happened when Dispatches contacted Lord Lang, who must safeguard public interest in this area, about taking a job with our fictional company?
In our initial phone exchange Lang expressed a desire to take a job, but made it clear that doing lobbying was out of the question. When we told him Anderson Perry did communications work he said: "PR becomes sensitive. It brings the word 'lobbying' in, which is very sensitive in Parliament."
Despite this "sensitivity", Lang did come into our St James's offices to discuss a possible position on the advisory board of our made-up firm. Once again he made it very clear that he would not do any lobbying for Anderson Perry or its clients, nor would he make any introductions to ministers or civil servants. And he also added for good measure that he would refer any job offer to Acoba, even though he didn't have to.
Lord Lang explained: "I do not charge a day rate but operate under an agreed annual fee, for which I am available as required, around a basic structure of an agreed number of regular meetings." He recommend that we consider hiring the lobbying outfit called Quiller Consultants, a firm with close connections to the Conservative Party.
In a follow-up email to our undercover reporter, Lord Lang wrote: "Jonathan Hill heads it [Quiller], whom I know and respect from his days in 10 Downing Street. It might be worth having a meeting with Jonathan – feel free to mention my name."
Three hours after his interview with our undercover reporter, Lord Lang emailed her his CV saying: "I enjoyed meeting you this morning and was interested in all you had to say." His impressive CV listed his business interests – and as an unpaid member of the House of Lords he is free to earn a living as he wishes. Given Lord Lang's position as chairman of the watchdog, I believe it's important to disclose his interest in a position with our bogus US company, even though he made it clear he would only offer strategic advice.
Lord Lang told The Independent: "I did not express an interest in joining [Anderson Perry]. I went to a meeting to try and find out more about it. I also made it very clear that I would not do corporate lobbying of any kind and I would need to find out a lot more about the company. Most of the members of the committee have business interests, as I do."
Regular readers may recall the dis-agreement among members of PASC that I blogged about previously. My attempt to reject Lang's appointment was frustrated not only because of the merits of the case. This was a unique Retrospective Pre-appointment" hearing. It was a foul-up. Lang had been appointed before we held our hearing. There would have many red-faces if we had rejected an appointment that had already been made.
The next Government must look again at Acoba. The cosy arrangement of former ministers with a clutch of business appointment themselves deciding on the appointments of their pals cannot continue. Independence is essential. That does not include a head of ACOBA who is sending out his CV in search of more lucrative appointments himself.
Had it not been for the idiotic behaviour of Byers-Hoon-Hewitt , the Lord Lang job search could have been a fascinating Dispatches programme in itself.
A Whitehall scandal that's bigger than lobbying?
Revealed: the top public officials involved in awarding companies lucrative contracts - and who then go to work for them
It was the week that Bell Pottinger, one of Britain’s largest lobbying firms, was secretly filmed bragging of its intimate access to government. But there is a potentially even worse scandal than lobbying: the practice known as the “revolving door”, where ministers, officials or military officers involved in controversial public-sector contracts then go on to work, at high salaries, for the beneficiaries of those same contracts.
The stakes here are higher than Bell Pottinger’s boast that the Prime Minister will take your phone call. Billions of pounds of public money are on the line. In one of the biggest-spending departments, the Ministry of Defence, almost 250 staff – including 20 generals, admirals or air marshals – have joined defence companies in a single year, new figures obtained by this newspaper show.
And a Sunday Telegraph investigation has established that the organisation supposedly responsible for vetting the most senior “revolving-door” appointments has not vetoed a single application in the last 15 years.
According to the annual reports of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba), it has considered 944 applications for private sector jobs by former top mandarins and ministers since 1996. Of these, 412 were approved with conditions, and 532 – 56 per cent – were approved unconditionally. None was rejected.
Among the most heavily criticised deals of recent years is that for the Royal Navy’s two new aircraft carriers, which will cost taxpayers more than £6 billion, even though one will be immediately mothballed and the other will carry no aircraft until 2020. At least four top military officers and ministers, including the heads of the Navy and the RAF, a former vice-chief of defence staff and the former minister for defence equipment, Ann Taylor, have since joined companies with an interest in the aircraft-carrier project. Their appointments were approved by Acoba.
Paul Flynn, a Labour MP who has campaigned on the issue, said: “Rather than crawling off in shame and going to live in a hut in the Hebrides, some of the people involved in this disaster are taking high office in the companies responsible. I am not suggesting misconduct by any individual here , but the prospect of retirement work is potentially corrupting.”
Acoba is chaired by the Conservative peer and former trade secretary Lord Lang, who himself has an extensive portfolio of business interests, including the chairmanship of Marsh & McLennan, a large business consultancy.
Lord Lang was one of the politicians secretly filmed by Channel 4’s Dispatches last year offering his services to a fake lobbying company set up by the programme, though he told them that he would not do any lobbying personally.
According to Mr Flynn, a member of the Commons’ public administration select committee, which conducts pre-appointment hearings into some public posts, the committee wanted to veto Lord Lang’s appointment to Acoba, and did not do so only because the appointment had already been announced.
When Lord Lang appeared before the committee earlier this year, he insisted that Acoba “works extraordinarily well”. The proportion of appointments it approves with conditions – such as that the appointee should not carry out any lobbying for a set period – has risen in recent years. However, Lord Lang admitted that Acoba has “no powers either to police or enforce” its conditions.
The Sunday Telegraph has also established that seven former ministers and top civil servants this year alone did not bother to approach Acoba for approval before taking up private-sector jobs, even though they are obliged to do so. Acoba retrospectively approved six of the jobs, declined to consider the seventh, and took no action other than noting its “concern” on its website. The seven jobs represent a quarter of the cases considered by Acoba so far this year.
Among other cases approved by Acoba in the past 18 months is that of John Suffolk, who has moved from the highly sensitive post of chief information officer at the Cabinet Office to global cybersecurity officer for Huawei, a Chinese company accused by the Pentagon of having “close ties” to China’s military.
Huawei is moving heavily into Britain after being blocked from expansion in America amid security fears. Its activities are currently being probed by the US House of Representatives’ intelligence committee. Huawei denies any intelligence links and Acoba has imposed a condition that Mr Suffolk must not “draw on any privileged information” from his time at the Cabinet Office, though it is unclear how this can be enforced.
Acoba has also recently green-lighted the moves of three top officials and a former minister to lobbying companies. Sir Brian Bender, former permanent secretary at the Department for Business, joined Mandate Communications. Acoba gave unconditional approval without even imposing the normal 12-month ban on lobbying government.
Lord Hunt, the former Labour health minister, was cleared to join Cumberledge Connections, a health lobbyist run by a former Tory health minister, Baroness Cumberledge, with a 12-month ban on lobbying government.
Sir Liam Donaldson, former chief medical officer, was cleared in May to work for the lobbyist Acpo Worldwide. Although Acoba approved the appointment with a 12-month ban on lobbying government, the ban took effect from Sir Liam’s last day in office, which was in May last year, so he was able to lobby from his first day in his new job. Acoba has never imposed a lobbying ban of more than two years. Lord Lang told MPs that longer bans would be a “restraint of trade” and against the applicant’s human rights.
Many other former ministers have taken up posts in areas for which they previously had responsibility, with Acoba’s approval. Baroness Smith of Basildon, the former Cabinet Office minister responsible for government information technology, has joined Vertex Data Science, a computer outsourcing company.
Lord Knight, the former employment and schools minister, has joined a training company which has many contracts with his former departments or bodies funded by them.
The most controversial area, however, is in defence, which is plagued by colossally expensive contracts delivering poor value for taxpayers. Acoba does not consider jobs taken by military officers below the rank of general, admiral or air marshal, or civil servants below the rank of director. Such lower-level appointments are cleared by the MoD and figures are not easily accessible.
However, Freedom of Information Act requests show that in 2009/10, the latest available year, 326 MoD officials or military officers were cleared to join the private sector. Of these, 240 – almost three-quarters – went to defence sector employers.Mr Flynn said that there “must be some connection” between the MoD’s overspending on its contracts and the fact that so many of its staff go on to work for defence contractors.
“This is potentially even worse than lobbying,” he said. “Thirty years ago, top public sector jobs were seen as the pinnacle of someone’s career. You were never going to do anything more important. Now, the danger is that they are seen as merely a stepping stone to private-sector riches – and that, rather than serving the taxpayer, becomes your prime objective.”
A spokeswoman for Acoba said that a number of ministers’ and officials’ applications for job approval had been withdrawn because of advice that Acoba provided. These figures were not included in the annual reports, she said.
She added that Acoba’s membership was a matter for the Prime Minister and she defended Lord Lang’s role, saying that in the Dispatches sting “no offer of employment of any kind was made or accepted”, and that Lord Lang would have cleared any such offer with Acoba before taking it up.