Public officials' privates under the spotlight

The 'revolving door' through which public officials pass into lucrative private-sector roles is 'spinning out of control'. Like the blades on one of Geoff Hoon's helicopters?

by Dave Waller
Last Updated: 06 Nov 2012
Transparency International is urging a clampdown on the movement of ministers, MPs and civil servants into cushy private-sector roles, which it believes may constitute a glaring conflict of interest and lead to corruption.
This follows a report from the campaign group that found increasing numbers of ex-ministers taking up consultancies and lucrative contracts with firms, often related to their former public roles. Talk about perfect timing: it’s just emerged that former defence secretary Geoff Hoon is taking up a full-time job with helicopter company AugustaWestland. That’s just over a year after Hoon got clobbered telling undercover reporters he looked forward to translating his ‘knowledge and contacts’ into money.

Of course, Hoon’s not the first to pull this trick: when Patricia Hewitt stood down as health secretary she was consulting for Alliance Boots within seven months, not to mention taking a £55k role at Cinven, which bought 25 private hospitals from Bupa.
And of course Tony Blair left the UK premiership and was immediately advising Swiss financial giant Zurich on ‘developments and trends in the international political environment’, while doing similar things at Morgan Stanley – and further boosting his contacts book by chairing the World Economic Forum.
Defence, energy, transport and healthcare are all common destinations for public officials – and all areas where the Government is a major client. Sir Kevin Tebbitt became chairman of the UK wing of Finmeccanica – an Italian defence builder that had won a lucrative contract to supply helicopters while he was permanent undersecretary at the MoD. Then there’s Stephen Byers, caught in an undercover sting last March saying he was a ‘cab for hire’, who would help wrangle secret deals with ministers for £5k a day.

It’s not hard to see the potential conflict in such moves, i.e. the possibility of officials making decisions while in office to favour certain suppliers, with half an eye on their employment situation afterwards. Or of heading out into the business world and using confidential information from their public role to get them work.

Transparency International wants to create a statutory body to regulate the employment of ministers and civil servants when they leave office. And to impose a three-year ban on lobbying by such characters if they’ve had responsibility for awarding contracts.
Such practices probably aren’t a great way to win back public trust in officialdom, which is still in the doldrums following the expenses fall-out. But these ex-public servants have to do something when they leave office; is it that unreasonable for them to look for work that touches on their area of expertise? Besides, would David Cameron ever sanction such a crackdown? It might scupper his future lobbying job with News International…

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