Politicians and their money: 1 ACOBA
Published in www.politics.co.uk on 4 November 2011 with italic passages deleted
I am incurably inquisitive about Peter Mandelson’s money. I knbow I shouldn’t be but I am. The condition has lasted since 1997 and just when I think I have overcome it, some new story makes it revive. The latest is his reported offer for an £8 million house. I decided to search through public records to find out how he could afford it. The result was a long expedition, but with very few discoveries. It is easier to find the source of theNilethan to find the source of ex-politicians’ money.
The first stage of my expedition took me to the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments. It likes to style itself ACOBA, which sounds like a fashionable healthy nut or berry. It was created in 1975, and ex-ministers and senior civil servants are expected to notify it before they take up any paid appointment. More recently, special advisers were added to its remit.
ACOBA’s website leaves an unfortunate impression – of a watchdog which is rather less fierce than the Andrex puppy. Its guidance begins with a remarkable statement: “it is in the public interest that former ministers with experience in government should be able to move into business.” That statement is not self-evident and it has never been debated in Parliament or endorsed by voters. Many might disagree. It is at least arguable that British politicians should see ministerial rank as the summit of a career not as a stepping stone to wealth in another life. That is how they used to behave, and it had its advantages. It kept ministers’ minds on their job of running the country, it helped to maintain barriers between government and corporate interests, and, above all, it boosted public trust in politicians. Whatever their other failings, no one believed that they were in politics to make money.
To give just one example of how ex-ministers used to behave, when Labour’s great postwar Premier, Clem Attlee, died in 1967 his estate was valued at only £7,295.
Anyway, back to ACOBA. Mandelson declared three appointments to them: speaking engagements and writing newspaper articles, senior adviser to Lazards, the bankers, and chairman of Global Counsel LLP, described as a “global advisory partnership serving non-British companies or organizations and working with British companies or organizations outside theUK.” (This is only a little more descriptive than the company formed during the South Sea Bubble “for carrying on an undertaking of great advantage but no one to know what it is.” ) ACOBA set some time limits on his right to use “privileged information” and to be “personally involved” in lobbying UKgovernment ministers or Crown servants.
These are typical ACOBA conditions. They appear regularly on other entries for ex-ministers. It is not clear what “privileged” information means. If it means information subject to the Official Secrets Act, then ACOBA’s condition is supererogatory: it is simply re-stating the law which ex-ministers have to obey like anyone else. The meaning “personally involved” is equally obscure. Mandelson and other ex-ministers cannot lobby people themselves, but can they advise others on whom to lobby and how to do it?
I tried to look up Tony Blair, to see if he notifies ACOBA in advance of his burgeoning business appointments and what it thinks of them, but he does not appear on the website. Nor does Sir John Major, another ex-Premier who has gone into business, although far more discreetly and tastefully than Blair. The website lists several dozen lesser fry, and sometimes ACOBA gets testy with them for failing to seek advice before taking up a job. But on the evidence of its website ACOBA has never told any ex-minister not to take up a job, and I find it hard to imagine this happening. Maybe if an ex-minister said “I intend to work for a Russian gangster and advise him on whom to assassinate” it might raise an eyebrow, although only to ask him to wait 12 months.
Moreover, ACOBA, as the name suggests, is only an advisory body. Its advice can be over-ridden by the government of the day – and there are no sanctions against any ex-ministers (or former civil servants or special advisers) who ignore it.
ACOBA serves little useful purpose either as a watchdog or as a source of public information. As to the latter, it should ascertain – and publish – far more information about the intended business of former ministers, civil servants and special advisers, the nature of the services they are expected to contribute, and the scale of reward they expect. It should also publish annually their actual earnings from any business or employment which it has approved. As to its watchdog powers, these will be effective only if it is turned into a regulator rather than an advisory body. A powerful preliminary step would be a change in the law to ensure that ministers, civil servants and special advisers are lifelong servants of the Crown, and require its permission for any subsequent occupation other than Crown service.
The present membership of ACOBA is drawn exclusively from “the great and the good”, including one member from each of the major parties. How about inviting two volunteers from the general public?