Britain’s revolving door rules are broken – so where are the government’s promised reforms?

18 April, 2024 | 4 minute read

Nine months ago the government promised it was introducing “a wide-ranging programme of reform to strengthen ethics and integrity in central government.” In particular, it promised “fundamental reforms” to the Business Appointment Rules which manage how conflicts of interests are governed when ministers and senior civil servants take up roles outside of government. 

With the press speculating last week that even the Prime Minister is eyeing up employment opportunities after an expected electoral defeat, the government’s reforms however are alarmingly nowhere in sight. 

Chief among the reforms promised was a new ‘ministerial deed’ to make the rules legally binding. There was even talk last September that ministers would face fines of £19,000 if they breached the deed – a fine that would be paltry compared to the six figure sums ministers can earn after office, but was at least a step in the right direction. 

In January this year, a government minister promised the House of Lords that reforms to these rules “were very much actively underway.” Just earlier this week, another minister said the work on the deed was “ongoing” and that an update would be provided “in due course” – although the same statement was given in response to a question in Parliament last November.

But as an election draws closer, there is a growing risk that those in government are making the political calculation that it is no longer very attractive to introduce such a deed. In addition to at least seven cabinet ministers who the polls are predicting may lose their seats, there are a further 10 former or current ministers who would be bound by the rules if an election is called in November who have said they are stepping down at the election. They will all be job-hunting.

Without a deed, these ministers and former ministers will be treated under existing rules for post-government business appointments which are widely regarded as unfit for purpose. That means that if they breach the rules once they leave office, either by failing to get clearance for new high paying positions or by ignoring any stipulations against certain activities or lobbying, they will face zero meaningful consequence.  

Broken and toothless

The mechanism to police the UK’s revolving door has been swinging off its hinges for sometime. Back in June 2023, after Boris Johnson had (once again) broken the Rules, Lord Pickles – who chairs the Committee responsible for policing them – wrote a stinging letter to the government about his lack of powers. 

His committee – the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) – he wrote, had been asking for a “modern framework” to deal with business appointments for “in excess of two years.” These were reforms that Pickles said could be implemented “in a matter of weeks.” 

Pickles in particular called for proper sanctions given that breaching the rules currently results solely in “an unpleasant letter from me and a couple of days of bad publicity in the press.”

Pickles is not alone. Parliament’s Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC), has been calling for reform to the Rules since 2016, when it called ACOBA a “toothless regulator.” In 2022, it called for the Business Appointment Rules to be made legally enforceable noting that “a regulatory regime which holds no possibility of sanction for those that do not comply with it is clearly flawed.”

International pressure

Back in 2017, the 49 member Group of States Against Corruption (GRECO), of which the UK, like the US, is part, also called for the UK to strengthen the “status, remit and powers” of ACOBA and give it more resourcing, as well as to introduce sanctions for those who breach the rules. 

Despite two compliance inspections since 2017, the UK has failed to take concrete steps on this and other recommendations including about improving lobbying transparency. The UK is expected to report to the Council by June 2024 about any progress. 

Addressing ACOBA’s resourcing constraints is particularly critical given it is likely to face a huge deluge of applications if there is a change of government. In 2010, when there was last a major change of government, applications to ACOBA doubled.

But the Committee currently has just four members of staff and an annual budget of £302,000 to police its workload which in 2019/20 was around 200 applications a year. This lack of resourcing may account for why ACOBA hasn’t published an annual report detailing its activities for the past three years.

Cynical legacy

It’s worth remembering that the Rules are there to prevent ministers and civil servants from taking decisions while still in office influenced by potential jobs they might pick up when they leave it. They are also there to prevent them from profiting from their knowledge and contacts in government or providing an unfair advantage to particular firms by doing so.

The government already rejected the more ambitious proposals for reforming the Rules made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life in 2021, including:

  • a two-year prohibition on taking up appointments with a firm that the minister or civil servant has had direct responsibility for either in terms of policy, regulation or contracting, 
  • giving ACOBA powers to impose five- year lobbying bans where appropriate, and 
  • putting ACOBA on a statutory footing.

It would be a cynical legacy indeed if the current government were to leave office without fulfilling even the limited commitments it has made. Without legally binding Rules, and the prospect of facing more than a slap on the wrist for breaching them, there is little to prevent ministers from cashing in on their time in office with wild abandon.

Stock image of a revolving door

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