Issue 276: 2021 04 22: Conflicts of Interest?

22 April 2021

Conflicts of Interest?

Probably not.

By John Watson

It is all in the remit.  To those who know the reputation of Nigel Boardman or have dealt with Slaughter and May, the firm in which he became a partner in 1982, there can be little doubt that he will get to the bottom of the Greensill affair and that he will do so fairly, accurately and disinterestedly.  Of course he is an establishment figure – Slaughter and May is a magic circle firm – but enquiries as to who lobbied who, and how, are enquires into the workings of the establishment, and Boardman, who would not have achieved his stellar reputation without aggression, integrity and general toughness, has exactly the background which will enable him to follow the nuances and get at what really occurred.

The real question however is whether this enquiry will go far enough.  It is all very well to find out what happened at Greensill, but a general clarification is needed as to the boundaries which need to be observed by those who work or have worked in the public sector (whether as politicians or officials) and go on to take roles outside that sector.

It must of course be accepted that those who leave the public service may go on to work elsewhere and in areas in which they have built up in expertise.  If that was not the case, public service experience would be lost in career terms and that would prevent the brightest and best from entering officialdom to the detriment of the nation at large.

“No, no,” the careers consultant would say.  “Far better to spend those early years in a commercial firm building up a reputation which you can use later.”  In the private sector it is accepted that you use the experience built up with one employer to sell yourself to the next.  It would be bizarre if the position in the public sector were any different.

So what does the ex public servant take away with him which could give rise to difficulty?  The obvious answers here are contacts and inside information.  Beginning with the contacts, a politician or a civil servant worth his salt rubs shoulders with all sorts of people, and indeed gets fed information and lobbied by them.  He or she also makes contacts within the public sector so that when the time comes to move on there is quite a network in place, supported by an understanding of who to talk to when an issue needs to be discussed or progress needs to be made.  Suppose, then, that the new employer has a deal to put to government.  Is there anything wrong with the ex public servant using his knowledge to ensure that the proposal ends up on the right desk with the right person?  It is hard to see why there should be. Suppose, after all, that someone had obtained a similar network of contacts at work in the private sector.  No one would think it wrong if they were to use that network on behalf of a subsequent employer.

Of course this answer has to be qualified.  If an ex-official were to use relationships with contacts to deliberately mislead the public service as to the merits of a proposal, it would be disgraceful.  But so it is when anybody deliberately issues a false proposal.  It would not be right either for a public servant to distort decisions when in office in the hope of obtaining a lucrative consultancy later.  But dishonesty on that scale is probably fairly rare.  It is very hard to see why an ex public servant should not lobby in the interests of a later employer provided it is done honestly.

More difficult is the question of information.  Those who work in the public service often get an insider’s line on government policy not available to the general public.  Sometimes, of course, the information is covered by the Official Secrets Act.  At other times, however, that is not the case but knowledge picked up while working for the state is definitely exploited later in the career.  One can see why that might be regarded as an unfair advantage, and perhaps it is, but in reality the position is little different from that in commerce generally.  Again, experience and industry knowledge gained with one employer are subsequently used for another.  That is the general rule.  Why should it be different because that original employer happens to be the State? Why should the State not just protect itself with normal  requirements for gardening leave to make sure that any confidential information has gone a bit stale before it can be used?

Of more concern is the position where a civil servant or politician holds concurrently a position with a private company.  There are strict rules here as far as ministers are concerned, but there are currently suggestions that the civil service may have been too tolerant.  Clearly such an arrangement has its dangers.  Confidential information available as a civil servant may be being used to assist the private employer.  There might be other conflicts of interest.  That, however does not necessarily make it wrong and the country would be much poorer if venture capitalist Kate Bingham had not agreed to use her contacts and skills to arrange vaccine supplies.  Perhaps the best answer is simply that the arrangement should be public so that everyone can see exactly what has been done and judge whether in the circumstances it is all fair enough.

As a result of the Greensill affair much of the press is suggesting that the interaction between the public and private sector leads to sleaze and corruption.  Mr Boardman will tell us whether this was the case in relation to Greensill, although it seems likely that it was not.  The problem there was surely not so much that Mr Cameron sought to introduce Greensill to his former colleagues as that the business then went belly up. noone walks away smelling of roses when thhat happens.


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