Concern as former UK ministers take up consulting roles

31 July 2017 5 min. read

The number of former public servants and members of government taking up consultancy roles has led to growing concern at a “revolving door” culture within the UK. The publication of reports from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee and the National Audit Office have all stressed that more care could be taken in preventing former servants of the state abusing their former privilege.

According to official figures disclosed by the annual Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba) report, the ministerial jobs watchdog claims the number of former ministers taking up jobs outside parliament has risen by nearly 60% in a year. The steep rise to 52 former ministers follows complaints that elected officials were increasingly treating Parliament as a stepping-stone to pursue contracts in the private sector.

Of particular concern were a number of former cabinet ministers who had since gone on to join the consulting industry. Critics are concerned this poses a serious conflict of interest, with former members of the government potentially able to exploit their insider knowledge of weak-spots in public policy to generate business.

One example pointed to by the report was Ed Davey, a former Energy Secretary, during the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government of 2010. Davey, who is now the MP for Kingston and Surbiton, declared eight different commissions from his independent consultancy, which specialises in energy and climate change. The independent firm Davey established has taken on work from Engie UK, SIT Group, and NextEnergy Capital since he left office in 2015.

Francis Maude, Ed Davey and George OsborneFrancis Maude, the former Cabinet Office Minister and Industry Minister under former Prime Minister David Cameron, took up most of the jobs listed, with nine such contracts. Since leaving the cabinet in 2016, Maude, who also set up his own consultancy, has taken on multiple advisory roles, including consulting on Brexit for the international law firm Covington and Burling.

Since leaving the cabinet in 2016 meanwhile, former Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne has taken a £650,000-a-year advisory post at the investment bank BlackRock, among a number of other lucrative engagements, including the editorship of London-based newspaper the Evening Standard. Osborne, who stood down as an MP in July, received intense criticism after accepting this last position without waiting for advice from Acoba. Former ministers are required to seek and abide by the watchdog’s advice before taking up appointments in the two-year period after they leave office, however Osborne faced no reprimand.

Acoba was subsequently branded “toothless” by the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee earlier in the year, and it emerged Acoba had advised a total 52 former ministers in relation to 104 appointments in the year leading to March 2017. The leap of 60% from the previous year has broadly been attributed to the regulatory body being inconsistent in its application of rules to prevent conflicts of interest.

The current dispute in the UK echoes recent controversy regarding the Statement of Ministerial Standards in Australia. In theory this holds that ministers should not take personal advantage of privileged information to which they had access as ministers – however the convention had done little to prevent former trade minister turned consultant Andrew Robb taking an economic advisory role with a Chinese company which operates the international port in Darwin.

Civil Servants

A separate National Audit Office (NAO) report issued in July meanwhile found that rules designed to stop civil servants abusing their contacts and knowledge in the private sector were not being consistently applied or monitored either, echoing recent concerned voiced in Parliament concerning a former NHS CEO.

Phil Morley, who set up a consultancy following his apparent retirement earlier this year, was accused by Labour MP Diana Johnson of going into business to "offer his services to the NHS.” A report earlier in 2017 from National Audit Office found that in 2015 the government spent £1.3 billion on consultants alone, and with funding for the under-resourced NHS remaining an area of increasing anxiety, MPs were especially concerned that operations like his could become a further drain on the ailing health service.

Morley had left the Hull and East Yorkshire Hospitals NHS Trust in April 2014, narrowly before the release of a report from conciliation service Acas, which alleged a culture of bullying had set in at the trust. He then became chief executive of The Princess Alexandra Hospital Trust, in Harlow, Essex, retiring months after the trust fell into special measures last October, after the Care Quality Commission found its standards to be "inadequate.”

In response to the criticism, the government’s incumbent Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom also voiced concern at Mr Morley's case, telling Ms Johnson, "You raise what sounds like an extremely concerning issue regarding one individual, but also that bigger issue around the fact there is a sort of revolving door of people who failed in one job and who move on to another one – very often at significant expense to the taxpayer."