Acoba urged to crack down on ex-ministers joining 'secretive' firms
Exclusive: Backlash over Nicola Blackwood getting the go-ahead to join Peter Mandelson's outfit.
The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments has been urged to take a tougher stance with secretive lobbying agencies after giving a former Tory minister the green light to join Peter Mandelson’s firm.
PAN reported last month that Nicola Blackwood was to become a senior adviser at Global Counsel. She spent a year as parliamentary under secretary of state for public health and innovation before losing her Oxford West and Abingdon seat in the 2017 general election. She was also chair of the Commons science and technology select committee.
Acoba gave Blackwood (who is now called Nicola Blackwood-Bate) the go-ahead to take up the part-time post subject to the usual lobbying restrictions. But in a letter to the body’s chair Baroness Browning, transparency campaigner Richard Heller says that “the case raises some public concern, since Global Counsel has always been highly secretive about its clients and the work it does for them”.
Referring to reports that Lord Mandelson sidestepped a requirement for peers to disclose certain business clients after exploiting a loophole, he adds: “I believe that this policy may have put your Committee in an invidious position. Unless Global Counsel or Ms Blackwood-Bate provided it, exceptionally, with a full account of its clients it would have no idea of whom she might be working for and what she might be doing for them.
“With this information, your Committee might have been minded to recommend a ban on her working for certain current clients or even against taking up this appointment at all. May I ask whether ACOBA sought this information, and with what result?”
The letter continues: “Global Counsel’s secrecy is in contrast to the great majority of public affairs consultancies and practitioners, who as members of the Association of Professional Political Consultants publish a full list of their clients every quarter.
"I suggest that as a matter of policy your committee declines to approve any appointment with a public affairs consultancy which does not publish its clients in full, either voluntarily or through the APPC. This would enhance the principle of transparency in public life. At the very least, your Committee should take into account whether or not a political consultancy which is the subject of an application is a member of the APPC. I would appreciate a response on this.”
A spokesperson for Acoba confirmed that the letter had been received but did not say whether the body had sought to obtain Global Counsel’s client list. They stressed that the body only had an advisory role and that the Department for Health had not raised any concerns about Blackwood joining Global Counsel.
"Any changes to the rules including a blanket ban on the types of organisation an individual can work for after being a minister would be a matter for the government,” said the spokesperson
Meanwhile the APPC was clear that it would not allow an agency run by a sitting peer to be a member as this would constitute unethical lobbying.
Chairman Paul Bristow said: "We'd be delighted to consider membership of Global Counsel as APPC members but it would be impossible to currently do so whilst it's run by sitting parliamentarians. Lord Mandelson and Lord Myners both declare senior roles at an organisation involved in shaping public policy and regulation on behalf of third-party clients here in the UK.
"The APPC is emphatic that it's a direct conflict of interest for sitting members of the House of Lords to be paid both as parliamentarians and third-party lobbyists."
Under the current rules, former ministers are banned from directly lobbying government for the first two years after they leave office.