Business information

Correspondence between the President of ACOBA and the Cabinet Office regarding the reform of the business appointment system

June 17, 2022

Dear True Lord

Thank you for your letter dated June 8, 2022 regarding the government’s work to reform and improve the business appointment system. Your personal commitment to reform is very reassuring. I know you share my frustration with the lack of progress over the past twelve months.

I strongly support the government’s view that the exchange between the public and private sectors is essential for a modern government to provide better service to the public. With this comes the need for clear and unambiguous ownership transparency to reassure the public.

I welcome the small incremental changes made to support the current system you refer to in your letter. Similarly, the Advisory Committee on Professional Appointments (ACOBA) has made incremental changes to streamline the process into one based on risk and certainty for applicants. However, without further reform, the risk of a new scandal for which the system is ill-prepared is always present. The aim of any reform must be for the government to ensure that it has the right system in place to protect its interests when someone leaves, having had privileged access to government information and contacts.

ACOBA has suggested some basic changes to the current system, these have been with the Cabinet Office for many months, some of which are described below. One of the advantages of this approach is that it does not need to wait for legislation and can be implemented within weeks.

1. Establish a clear risk profile

The rules should set clear expectations about what the government considers an acceptable risk when people leave office. For example, stipulating that the highest civil servants and Ministers of the Crown should not take on roles to join lobbying firms; or where a conflict with their time in the public service is likely to arise due to their responsibility for matters directly affecting the sector and/or employing organisations.

The rules should also stipulate what types of roles are considered low-risk and initially acceptable, subject to certain basic conditions to protect the integrity of government. For example, unpaid applications and those within academia or providing a service to the citizen in the public sector.

2. Introduce a clearer sanctions regime

Government rules are rightly criticized for being “toothless”. In recent weeks there have been minor but significant improvements with the introduction of a consultation with ACOBA on honours, and a similar consultation with the House of Lords Appointments Committee and on public appointments coming. Even with these improvements, without a recognizable compliance regime including penalties, the Rules will not pass the threshold of credibility in the eyes of the public. I therefore welcome the recent amendments to the Ministerial Code, which for the first time provide for graduated sanctions – including the possibility of imposing financial sanctions. This could now apply in the event of a violation of the Ministerial Code with regard to the Rules. I also welcome the government’s commitment to strengthen public service employment contracts accordingly.

Rules reform will be in vain if it does not pass the threshold of credibility. To achieve this, two things are necessary: ​​a sanctions regime is clearly present; that former ministers and civil servants receive equal treatment.

3. Provide assurance in all departments, below ACOBA level

Transparency is slowly improving and you note the need to properly focus on the more junior grades given the increasing movements in and out of government and the private sector. I am concerned that there remains a lack of assurance as to the application of the rules by individual departments below the ACOBA level (which are the vast majority). This has a negative impact on the system as a whole. I have said before that with the right resources, ACOBA could be well placed to share best practices and raise awareness. However, it is the result of this work that I focus on and not where it is.

This assurance work should result in the sharing of best practices and the provision of targeted support and advice where it is most needed. Perhaps most importantly, this work must be led from the top, creating a culture of compliance and transparency consistent with the Seven Principles of Public Life.

Thank you for the time and effort you have devoted to moving this work program forward. In particular, I look forward to an update on the work to define clearer consequences for non-compliance.

Yours sincerely The Rt Hon Lord Pickles

Copy to: Darren Tierney, Managing Director, Cleanliness and Ethics, Cabinet Office and The Right Honorable Steve Barclay, MP, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

June 8, 2022

Dear Lord Pickles,

I am writing to inform you of the government’s work to reform and improve the rules on professional appointments. We both want to see progress in this area in order to maintain the integrity of the public service, ensuring that the system can operate efficiently and with public confidence, while not impeding legitimate exchanges between the public sector and the private sector.

I am grateful to you and to your committee for the work you are doing, in particular by paying greater attention to cases where the rules have not been respected. However, as we discussed, it is also important to improve how the rules can be enforced. Mechanisms are now in place for violations of the Rules to be taken into account in the awarding of honours. The government is in talks with the independent House of Lords nominating committee to implement a similar process, with their agreement. We are also currently considering how to implement the same approach in relation to public appointments. In addition to these elements, we need to further examine the consequences for potential employers and for people who do not meet their contractual obligations.

Clarity of rules and requirements is also an important aspect of the proper functioning of the system. The Government today released revised information on GOV.UK, with the facility to ensure that all applicants, of all ranks, understand their obligations and the process they must follow. At the departmental level, published advice is now accessible from a single page, allowing potential employers and others to see transparently the decisions made for the departure of senior civil servants below the ACoBA level. Further work to move this to a searchable database will be undertaken and we are working with your Secretariat to consider integrating this with the ACoBA guidance so that there is a single source of information.

This year, the departments’ annual reports and accounts will also contain more information on how they applied the appointment rules within their departments. This focus on lower grades is necessary given the greater porosity and movement between the civil service and the private sector. The government encourages this movement as an important part of bringing broader skills and expertise into the civil service and recognizing the different career paths that span the public and private sectors. Training is now available for HR practitioners to improve consistency of judgment and advice, and the application of company appointment rules to newly seconded employees is now clearly defined as part of onboarding processes.

The government remains committed to a labor law-based system, rather than a tailor-made legislative solution that would target civil servants. We are looking carefully at recommendations from Nigel Boardman’s review of the use of supply chain finance and the Committee on Standards in Public Life to consider longer-term reform on a contractual approach (equivalent to which would apply in a private sector employment context). Further information will be communicated to the Parliament in due course.

I hope this letter reassures you both of the government’s broader goal of improving the rules on professional appointments and of my commitment to continue working with you on these issues. I am convinced that by carrying out the work described above and focusing on the work ahead, we can make a visible and significant difference in the application of the Rules.


Lord True CBE