The lobbying watchdog was branded “toothless” by Labour this morning after the regulator gave the green light for former chancellor Lord Hammond to take up a role advising the Saudi Arabia finance ministry.
Despite flagging concerns about Philip Hammond’s close links with Riyadh during his time in government, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba), which vets jobs taken up by former ministers, last month paved the way for the former foreign and defence secretary to help Saudi Arabia modernise its finance system.
It comes after a furore in Westminster in recent months over lobbying on behalf of failed finance firm Greensill Capital by former prime minister David Cameron, and revelations about the close links between former senior ministers and civil servants.
Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner said Acoba’s approval for the Conservative peer to take up the job with the Saudi government shows the current lobbying safeguards are “completely unfit for purpose”, labelling the committee “toothless”.
Committee chairman Lord Pickles, in his letter to Lord Hammond, said there were concerns that, having worked with the administration in Riyadh while in government, the role risked creating a “perception you may be offered this work as a result of your time in office” and that his inside knowledge could put Saudi Arabia at an “unfair advantage”.
Saudi Arabia ties
Lord Hammond travelled to Saudi Arabia five times while chancellor and had “numerous meetings” with its finance minister, as well as an audience with King Salman, during his Treasury tenure, the committee was told.
However, former Tory Party chairman Lord Pickles, in his letter about the approval, said consultation with Lord Hammond’s former departments had helped satisfy concerns.
The Treasury said the fact that the ex-cabinet minister had been out of office for 22 months meant he would “not be privy to any live policy issues” concerning Saudi Arabia, while also being bound by ministerial confidentiality.
The Foreign Office, meanwhile, said it supports the veteran politician’s attempts to modernise a UK ally.
The committee approved Lord Hammond’s appointment, which comes via his personal consultancy business, although Labour peer Lord Whitty recorded “his dissent from the majority”.
Ms Rayner said: “This is yet more evidence that the system of rules and regulations that is supposed to prevent the revolving door between government office and lobbying is completely unfit for purpose.
“The Acoba system is pointless and toothless. If anything, it causes more harm than good by giving a veil of respectability to the rampant cronyism, sleaze and dodgy lobbying that is polluting our democracy under the Tories.”
Labour said the time limit on former ministers lobbying government after leaving office should be extended from two years to five, vowing to replace Acoba with an “Integrity and Ethics Commission” to stamp out sleaze.
Lord Hammond stood down from the Commons at the 2019 general election after being stripped of the Tory whip by Prime Minister Boris Johnson following his rebellions over Brexit, but was last year afforded a peerage.
His ban on lobbying government contacts is due to lapse.