LONDON — If Boris Johnson wants to fix Westminster’s lobbying problem, he shouldn’t hang around.
That was the message from the U.K.’s revolving-door overseer Eric Pickles on Thursday, who told MPs the government could take “immediate” steps to shine a spotlight on the kinds of conflicts of interest that have dominated headlines all week.
Just don’t call Pickles a “watchdog.”
Westminster has been gripped by revelation after revelation about the extraordinary access afforded to the now-collapsed finance firm Greensill Capital during David Cameron’s time as prime minister, as well as his lobbying of serving ministers for the company once he’d left office.
It’s raised a whole host of questions about Britain’s lobbying transparency system and the restrictions (or lack of them) imposed on people leaving the government to work in the private sector.
The plot thickened this week as it emerged that a senior Cameron-era civil servant overseeing government contracts was simultaneously working for Greensill in his final months in government. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has launched an inquiry, and all civil servants are now being asked to reveal any outside jobs they hold.
Pickles, a former Cabinet minister who now leads Westminster’s oft-criticized Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, said Johnson doesn’t need to wait for that inquiry to report before beginning to fix the problem.
The government could act, he said, “well before the summer” to clarify the role of external advisers who are brought into government.
Under Pickles’ plan, anyone brought in to advise the government from outside should have to sign a memorandum of understanding clearly spelling out their responsibilities and any restrictions placed on them once they leave. Crucially, that information should be published “so everybody understands where they are.”
Yet Pickles, speaking to MPs Thursday, also made clear the limits of his own powers as ACOBA boss to do much about it, confirming its oversight role ends entirely two years after an ex-minister or official has left their government job.
ACOBA can impose conditions on ex-ministers and officials taking on post-government jobs but cannot sanction them. Cameron left office in 2016 and started working for Greensill two years later.
Pickles said he was worried about junior officials outside of ACOBA’s remit whose policing is left entirely to Whitehall departments, leaving a vast swath of ex-government figures who “are simply not covered by an ethics regime” and who he believes should be. Some departments, like Britain’s defense ministry, have a “pretty well-established” system for policing conflicts of interest, he said. But others don’t.
Out of 34,000 civil service exits last year, ACOBA got involved in just 108.
Pressed on whether his committee was up to the job, Pickles said he wanted to “stretch the envelope in terms of what is possible.” But he pointedly told MPs ACOBA is “not a regulator, it’s not a watchdog,” and only performs a “very limited” task, albeit “remarkably well.”
“We’ve seen a number of scandals in recent months,” he argued. “All of those have come from ACOBA releases. It’s not been the result of sort of intensive journalistic inquiry. It’s because we made a number of changes last year that increases the amount of transparency, increases the amount of information that’s available. And what I think we need is for there to be consequences for most of those actions.”