In a report published today, Wednesday 25 July 2012, the Public Administration Select Committee (PASC) says the current Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACoBA) lacks adequate powers and resources; does not have appropriate membership for its function; and should be abolished. Instead, the Committee says, Government should legislate to establish statutory ethics regulation with a code of conduct and enforceable statutory penalties, overseen by an independent ethics Commissioner. Statutory regulation would signify the importance that should be attached to ethical conduct in public office.
The new Commissioner would also take over the role of the Prime Minister's Adviser on Ministers' Interests—who advises on ministerial conduct—and PASC renews their call for the power to initiate investigations into the Ministerial Code on his or her own initiative. Enforceable statutory penalties should be introduced for failing to comply with the Commissioner’s recommendations.
Government reforms are implementing increasingly close working between public servants and the private and voluntary sectors. Changes to public service delivery—including the outsourcing of public sector functions and the active promotion of "interchange" between sectors—are blurring the boundaries between the public sector and other organisations. This could present greater opportunities for public officials to use their position for personal gain, and may give rise to public concern about the probity of former, and serving, public officials, which is damaging to the individuals concerned and to wider public trust in Government.
The Committee says that ACoBA’s procedures are "opaque" and not helpful to departing public officials who may need guidance about what appointments may be regarded as inappropriate for them to take up. It does nothing to deter misleading and damaging mis-reporting of individual cases. When misleading reports do appear (i.e. when someone has taken up an appointment which has in fact been approved under the rules) neither ACoBA nor the Government is quick or robust in response to unjustified vilification.
Bernard Jenkin MP, Chair of the Committee, said:
"Civil service reforms and changes to public service provision mean there will only be more interchange between Government and the private and voluntary sectors - which can be a very good thing. It is very much in the public interest to exchange valuable skills and knowledge. But the current system of rules governing the so-called ‘revolving door’ between business and Government does not command public confidence and needs to be reformed.
Because of confusion about the rules and the opaque way ACoBA administers the system, individuals who have observed the rules and procedures are still subject to savage media criticism about the appointments they take up, leading to unfair and potentially irreversible damage to their reputations. Government should be much more robust in countering such reports.
ACoBA does what it says on the tin – it is only "advisory" and has no statutory powers and functions to do what is increasingly expected. It should be replaced with a system of clear, statutory regulation, with enforceable penalties, overseen by an independent ethics Commissioner with the power to initiate his or her own investigations. It would also be rational to give this same commissioner responsibility for overseeing the Ministerial Code. The proper and ethical conduct of public office holders is very important to the British public, an independent ‘watchdog’ with some teeth is necessary to command their confidence."