Should the UK act to stop ‘revolving door’ between politics and big business?

Facebook targeting government insiders as another ex-minister joins banking giant J.P. Morgan

Facebook targeting government insiders as another ex-minister joins banking giant J.P. Morgan
(Image credit: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images)

Facebook has hired ten former UK government policy officials with insider knowledge of regulatory processes since the beginning of 2020, an investigation has found.

The Times reports that the social media giant is “systematically hiring government insiders” in a recruitment campaign that will fuel concerns over the “close relationship between the government and technology companies”.

The new claims about the so-called “revolving door” between politics and the private sector come just a week after J.P. Morgan announced that former chancellor Sajid Javid has been appointed as a senior advisor to the banking giant.

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Why the concerns?

The officials hired by Facebook “left roles in government and with regulators” to work on policy and communications for the social media giant, “indicating that mandarins are being offered significant incentives to do so”, says The Times.

Facebook’s possible motives are key to critics’ concerns, with some senior Conservative MPs claiming that “Facebook was seeking to limit regulations before they were introduced”, the newspaper reports.

Julian Knight, the Tory chair of the Commons Committee on Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, argues that the public “have a right to question the cosy relationship between government and big tech at all levels”.

“The truth is big tech has taken over from the likes of banking, oil and pharmaceuticals in terms of their lobbying power,” he added.

The committee’s former chair, Tory MP Damian Collins, claims that Facebook is “clearly hiring people who have both direct personal knowledge” of the latest thinking in government and “extensive networks” among officials advising ministers.

“They are doing this to try and change the direction of policy before it is even launched,” Collins said.

Similar concerns were raised after Javid’s new banking role was announced last week. The former chancellor will continue his work as an MP while joining a panel of outside experts on J.P. Morgan’s Europe, Middle East and Africa advisory council.

The bank has refused to reveal his salary, which “is not expected to be on the same scale as [Tony] Blair, who was reportedly paid more than £2m a year” as a “global advisor” to the New York City-based multinational, according to The Guardian.

What are the current rules?

For former ministers and senior civil servants, the rules on work outside the political arena are fairly simple. All second jobs, or roles taken immediately after stepping down from government, must be cleared by the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments at the Cabinet Office.

This body decides whether it is appropriate for senior government figures to take up roles after leaving politics, or in the case of sitting MPs such as Javid, whether they must be “ring fenced” against revealing government policy and privileged information.

All ex-ministers must inform the committee of any employment they wish to take up within two years of standing down from their government role.

For example, when former Tory MP David Gauke rejoined law firm Macfarlanes as head of policy in May, he would have had to clear the role since he served as justice secretary under Theresa May until last summer.

However, when it comes to the type of officials Facebook is targeting, the rules get a bit more complicated. As The Times notes, the job moves “are not published in official transparency releases, either because the officials were not senior enough or because they worked for independent regulators such as Ofcom”.

“The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which vets appointments of former crown servants, only checks at director-general level and above,” the paper continues. “And its advice is non-binding.”

So should the regulations be beefed up?

Steve Goodrich, a senior researcher at anti-corruption organisation Transparency International UK, told The Times that “in theory, there are restrictions on former civil servants using privileged information to benefit their new employers”.

But “how much this is enforced in practice is up for debate”, he adds.

The latest influx of officials moving into the private sector is part of an ongoing trend, with official figures published in 2017 revealing that 52 former ministers had taken up jobs outside of Parliament in the previous 12 months. The politicians who crossed over included Frances Maude, an ex-Cabinet Office minister and industry minister, who took up nine external roles.

The disclosure fuelled “complaints that lawmakers are routinely making use of a ‘revolving door’ to pursue lucrative contracts in the private sector”, as The Guardian’s Whitehall editor Rajeev Syal wrote at the time.

The following year, the Committee on Standards in Public Life said that “MPs should be more transparent with voters if they have second jobs outside Westminster”, the BBC reported.

Labour also called for a “radical overhaul” of the “revolving door”, which the party claimed was “at the heart of how the British establishment survives and thrives across Whitehall”, according to The Independent.

But Labour made no specific recomendations and no reforms have been enacted since then.

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