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Beefed-up UK ethics rules may target pensions of ex-ministers and officials

Former UK ministers or officials who break the rules concerning lobbying risk losing some of their state pension under proposals unveiled on Monday by the anti-corruption watchdog.

The recommendation by the Committee on Standards in Public Life comes just months after the Greensill affair, the biggest lobbying scandal in Britain in a generation.

Lord Jonathan Evans, chair of the committee and a former head of the domestic security service MI5, announced proposals on Monday to beef up the system of monitoring the jobs taken by former government figures.

The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba) has been branded as “toothless” given that it has not applied any sanctions in its 30 years of existence.

Monday’s final report by the committee, an independent body that advises the prime minister on ethical standards, is the first sweeping review of the government’s ethics checks and balances since 2013. It said Acoba and government departments should be able to issue a lobbying ban of up to five years for serious cases — more than double the current two-year cap.

“The lack of any meaningful sanctions for a breach of the rules is no longer sustainable,” the report said.

Sanctions for breaching the rules could include a ban on taking up a certain business appointment or “the recouping of a proportion of an office holder’s pension or severance payment”, the report said.

The committee called for Acoba to be given a formal regulatory function — with binding decisions — rather than its current advisory status.

“The committee should also be able to undertake investigations into potential breaches of its decisions . . . the Cabinet Office should then decide on sanctions or remedial action.”

The report is submitted to the prime minister, who decides whether to accept any or all of the recommendations.

In March the Financial Times revealed that former prime minister David Cameron messaged various senior figures in the Treasury and Downing Street on behalf of his employer Greensill Capital.

The government subsequently revealed there were 56 such approaches by Cameron, who a decade ago predicted that lobbying was “the next big scandal waiting to happen”.

Greensill went bust in March this year and its relationship with GFG Group, a metals company, is now being examined by the Serious Fraud Office.

Since then 13 separate inquiries or investigations have been launched into various elements of the Greensill scandal.

Cameron demonstrated a “significant lack of judgment” over his lobbying on behalf of Greensill, a report by MPs concluded in July.

The standards committee said on Monday that high ethical standards underpinned public confidence in Britain’s governing institutions and attracted overseas investment. “However . . . the existing standards framework is not functioning as well as it should.”

The standards committee was formed in 1994 after the MPs’ “cash for questions” scandal. Previous governments have adopted many of its recommendations, including the creation of the Electoral Commission and the appointment of an independent ethics adviser to the prime minister.

The report said lobbying was a legitimate aspect of public life but added that public trust was undermined when it was associated with “money, undue influence and secrecy”. “The current system of transparency around lobbying is not fit for purpose,” it said.

The committee said it was too difficult to find out who was lobbying government, information was often released too late, descriptions of the content of government meetings were ambiguous and lacking in detail while transparency data was “scattered, disparate and not easily cross-referenced”.

It said releases should be collated by the Cabinet Office and published in a “searchable database” instead of the current, opaque system where they are spread across different departmental web pages.

The report also called for transparency rules to be expanded to special advisers and to civil servants below the level of permanent secretary.

The committee expressed concern that transparency releases included emails but not alternative messaging systems such as WhatsApp and Zoom.

“The categories of published information should be revised to close this loophole,” it said. “Any such representations should be disclosed when the lobbying attempt is serious, premeditated and credible, or is given substantive consideration.”

However, the committee rejected calls for the current lobbying register, which only includes third-party lobbyists, to also include those working in-house.

The report called for greater independence in the regulation of the ministerial code, saying it lagged behind similar arrangements for MPs, peers and civil servants.

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