Public want ban on revolving door appointments

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

The British public wants a ban on ‘revolving door’ appointments, where former ministers and civil servants join private companies they have worked closely with while in government. The findings come in a new briefing published today by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. The briefing, called Redefining Corruption, also finds that the public disapprove of the common practice of accountancy firms advising government on tax policies, only to use the insider information gained to help corporate clients avoid paying tax.

The findings come at a time of growing concern over revolving door appointments and overly close relationships between government departments and private interests. In April, Baroness Browning, chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, told MPs there had been an increase in ex-ministers seeking employment in sectors they were previously responsible for. She called for tougher rules to make it more difficult for ex-ministers and civil servants to pick up lucrative private sector appointments.

The briefing – Redefining corruption – by Professor David Whyte and Dr David Ellis of the University of Liverpool – reports on an online survey of 1,745 people, conducted by the polling organisation YouGov. According to the briefing:

  • 73% agreed that ex-ministers should be banned from joining company boards if it meant they were profiting from experience gained while in office.
  • 75% felt that ex-civil servants should not become paid advisers to companies they have had a close working relationship with while in government.
  • 62% wanted a ban on accountancy companies using insider knowledge to advise clients on how to avoid tax.

The briefing also looks at public attitudes towards government contracts with private sector providers:

  • 68% were in favour of a ban on Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contracts for buildings like new hospitals and schools, because of the large profits made on such deals by the private sector.
  • In the case of private companies being found to breach agreements with the government to boost profits, 10% said they felt the government should be held accountable for such failure, 33% said the company should be held responsible and 44% said both government and company should be brought to account.

The questions in the survey were based on real life examples, including:

  • The regular appointment of ex-ministers to the boards of private companies.
  • The relationship between senior civil servants at HM Revenue and Customs and private companies involved in tax negotiations. This was recently described as ‘unduly cosy’ by the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee.
  • The appointment of the ‘big four’ accountancy firms to advise on tax policy. The Public Accounts Committee expressed serious concern at ‘the way that the four firms appear to use their insider knowledge… to sell clients advice on who to use those rules to pay less tax’.
  • Private sector companies making windfall gains on PFI projects through refinancing and sale of equity.

The Prime Minister is hosting an ‘anti-corruption summit’ on Thursday, 12 May, focusing on issues such as tax avoidance and bribery. The collusive, and currently legal, relationships between government and private interests is not expected to feature in the discussions.

Professor David Whyte, one of the report authors, said:

‘The government's idea of the public interest is clearly out of tune with the public's. The revolving door and the ever closer relationship between the private sector and government is leading to growing public concern about collusion at the expense of the public purse.

‘Many now question in whose interest government ministers and civil servants are working: public service or private benefit?’

Will McMahon from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies said:

‘The boundary between illegal corruption and legal collusion is an ever shifting one. Some legal activities can be as damaging as illegal and corrupt practices.

‘This briefing suggests that the UK public feel there are problems of collusion between the government and private interests. The favours granted and profits made, all under the guise of legality and accepted practice, is corrosive of the public good.

‘There is a clear need for transparency across the piece. Regular concerns raised by parliamentary committees also need to be taken far more seriously.’