LONDON — Former British Chancellor Philip Hammond was told off by Westminster’s lobbying watchdog for contacting high-ranking Treasury civil servants on behalf of his new employer, OakNorth, a London-based lender.
In a letter published Wednesday, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) said Hammond’s attempt to pitch OakNorth services to officials at the Treasury, even on a non-profit basis as far as the bank was concerned, was inappropriate.
Hammond’s messages were “not consistent” with the rules and “not acceptable,” due to “the privileged access you obtained for OakNorth,” the watchdog said. The ex-chancellor in turn accused ACOBA of trying to prove its own relevance and challenged it to point to a specific breach of the rules governing jobs for ex-ministers.
The row comes amid heightened scrutiny of lobbying in the U.K. after revelations ex-Prime Minister David Cameron pressed for access to a Treasury lending scheme on behalf of the now-defunct Greensill Capital.
ACOBA’s remit does not allow it to apply any sanctions to Hammond over the contact with the Treasury, although it has referred the case to Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, who can decide whether or not to take action.
In his letter to Gove, ACOBA chair Eric Pickles said while he had “no doubt Lord Hammond sincerely believed his contact with his former department was appropriate,” there was “a reasonable concern that direct engagement with the Second Permanent Secretary at HMT[reasury] was only made available to OakNorth Bank as a direct result of his time as Chancellor.”
And he said it was not in “keeping with the letter or spirit of the government’s Rules for the former Chancellor to contact HMT on behalf of a bank which pays for his advice.”
Hammond, who cleared his appointment to OakNorth with ACOBA, hit back at the watchdog’s findings in his own correspondence with Pickles, saying he was “perplexed by your letter and the conclusion you reach.”
He wrote: “I realise that ACOBA is under a lot of pressure to demonstrate that it is not “toothless,” but it is a public body, subject to a requirement to act reasonably when making findings following an investigation of an alleged breach.”
The ex-chancellor urged the watchdog to “withdraw the draft letter and re-craft it to focus specifically on the only question that is relevant here: were the ACOBA restrictions, imposed upon me in respect of my engagement with OakNorth, breached by my sending the email of 24th July 2020?”
Hammond is only one of the current and former top officials OakNorth is rubbing shoulders with.
An FT report from July said the bank’s chief was also the host of an “elite Tory donors” gathering which is held regularly and is attended either by the prime minister or current chancellor Rishi Sunak.
The watchdog’s verdict is likely to revive Westminster’s debate over the way post-government work for former ministers is policed.
Francis Ingham, director general of the Public Relations and Communications Association — which represents U.K. lobbyists – said many in the industry were “exasperated” with another story about ex-ministers, describing the Hammond row as “a slightly low-market rerun of the David Cameron saga” that exposed gaps in Britain’s transparency set-up.
Ingham, whose body is among those pushing for reform of Britain’s lobbying regulations to cover a much wider range of influencers, said the Hammond spat with ACOBA showed the need for Westminster’s “revolving doors to be slowed down,” with a five-year ban on former ministers taking up lobbying appointments.
“Secondly, it shows that ACOBA is a really weak organization because he’s getting a rap on the knuckles,” Ingham said of Hammond. He added: “The government ought to amend the lobbying act, ought to address the revolving door problem, and ought to make ACOBA a much more powerful organization than they are today.”