Call for ex-Government officials to face sanctions after Sunday Times' MoD exposé

The comms industry has called for tougher sanctions to be brought against former government employees who ignore official constraints against lobbying their contacts, following a Sunday Times exposé.

Former military man: Sir Trevor Soar (Rex Features)
Former military man: Sir Trevor Soar (Rex Features)

The paper secretly filmed six retired military officers boasting about lobbying to win multi-million-pound defence deals for arms firms. Lieutenant General Sir John Kiszely, president of the Royal British Legion, subsequently resigned.

The revelations, which come as the Government draws up plans for a statutory register of lobbyists, have shone a spotlight on the role of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA).

ACOBA supposedly prevents all government officials from exploiting ‘privileged access to contacts in Government or sensitive information’ through lobbying activity for two years after leaving office. However, it has no powers to punish those who begin lobbying while they are still subject to the ban, to which one of the former generals, Sir Trevor Soar, alluded when he told one investigator, ‘you basically ignore it [ACOBA’s rules]’.

Both the PRCA and the CIPR have called for an immediate strengthening of ACOBA’s powers, while APCO Worldwide senior counsel Lionel Zetter told PRWeek there was ‘a strong argument’ for ACOBA to be given powers to punish those who did not comply.

PRCA chief executive Francis Ingham told PRWeek: ‘This ridiculous situation of advice being offered to former senior public servants, requesting they don’t lobby former colleagues for a set period of time, needs to stop. It needs to stop because the people concerned clearly treat it with contempt.’

Phil Morgan, CIPR comms director, added: ‘If these rules are not being enforced, or are being ignored, then the Government must decide what it needs to do to ensure compliance.’

A number of high profile officials have passed into private sector comms roles without having to wait for the prescribed two years, such as government comms executive director Jenny Grey, who joined US banking giant Citigroup earlier this month, and Home Office comms director Yasmin Diamond, who moved to InterContinental Hotels.

It is understood these officials may make such a leap if they promise ACOBA they will not carry out direct lobbying work for a prescribed time.

Cabinet Office yet to decide on boosting ACOBA powers

The Sunday Times exposé comes after ACOBA faced calls from a powerful Commons committee to be abolished and replaced by a beefed-up body.

The Public Administration Select Committee issued a report in July stating that ACOBA ‘lacks adequate powers and resources; does not have appropriate membership for its function; and should be abolished’.

The committee called for the Government to legislate to establish statutory ethics regulation with a code of conduct and enforceable statutory penalties, overseen by an independent ethics commissioner. The committee also stated that ACOBA’s procedures were ‘opaque’ and ‘not helpful to departing public officials who may need guidance’.

ACOBA is currently waiting for the Government’s response to these recommendations, but a spokesman  told PRWeek that any decision about strengthening its powers would need to be made by the Cabinet Office. 

The Cabinet Office told PRWeek that it was ‘currently considering issues in relation to business appointments’ as part of its response to the PASC report.

ACOBA’s existing role was illustrated by No 10 policy adviser Sean Worth’s move to MHP last month. In line with ACOBA rules, he is only permitted to offer advice and will not directly lobby Government.

How I see it

Eben Black, Head of media and director, trade and government relations, DLA Piper.

If there is supposed to be a ban, then it should be enforced. What angers me about these ‘exposés’ is that the targets are always identified as ‘lobbyists’, which they are not in the same sense as public affairs firms such as ours are, and they would not be subject to statutory regulation, which DLA Piper supports.

Mike Granatt, Director, Luther Pendragon.

ACOBA rules should be part of every crown servant’s contract and the names and terms of their purdah period should be on a public register. What’s good enough for lobbyists is surely good enough for retiring mandarins.

Key stats

£500m Figure Lt Gen Richard Applegate described for an Israeli arms deal*

£1.8m Former head of the Army Lord Dannatt’s reported pension*

£400m Figure Dannatt discussed for contract  ‘targeting’ MoD’s top civil servant*

24 Number of hours after exposé that Lt Gen Sir John Kiszely resigned**

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