Public Administration Committee - Minutes of EvidenceHC 404

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Oral Evidence

Taken before the Public Administration Select Committee

on Thursday 22 March 2012

Members present:

Mr Bernard Jenkin (Chair)

Alun Cairns

Charlie Elphicke

Kelvin Hopkins


Examination of Witness

Witness: Peter Campbell, Senior Corporate Affairs Officer, the Business Services Association, gave evidence.

Q250 Chair: Welcome to this session of evidence about the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments. Could you identify yourself for the record please?

Peter Campbell: Yes, my name is Peter Campbell. I am the Senior Corporate Affairs Officer at the Business Services Association.

Q251 Chair: We are extremely grateful that you have come to give us evidence today. You are in a rather unique position; you are a former special adviser, having worked in Downing Street, and you are now working in the private sector. You have therefore been through what we call the ACoBA process. Could you start by telling us when you first became aware that you would be subject to this process overseen by ACoBA?

Peter Campbell: I think it is in the special adviser code of conduct, which you are actually given when you are employed as a special adviser, so I think I have been aware right from the very start that there were rules and restrictions and I would have to put in an application.

Q252 Chair: You say you "think". I should imagine that, at your triumphal entry into Downing Street, this was not at the front of your mind.

Peter Campbell: Leaving it at that stage was not at the front of my mind, but obviously the code of conduct contains lots of things that we need to be aware of in our jobs as special advisers. I am fairly sure it was in there; it was certainly in some document around that time and I think it is in the code of conduct.

Q253 Chair: Have you found it restrictive?

Peter Campbell: No. I found the process actually quite efficient and easy. It has not really restricted my ability to get a job outside of government at all.

Q254 Chair: Can you just briefly describe what it was like going through the process?

Peter Campbell: Yes. I put in an application. It took just over a month from the start to the end of the process. I applied via the then permanent secretary at Downing Street, because they have to put in their own views, I understand. I got a preliminary recommendation back from the committee, which seemed very clear, robust and straightforward. They said, "If you’re unhappy with it, you can meet the committee." I said it all seemed very clear and straightforward. I had some supplementary questions to ask in terms of the kinds of things I could and could not do. They got back and answered those within a week. I then said it was all fine. They sent off the recommendation to the then Cabinet Secretary, it was all agreed and I resigned. The whole thing, including the extra week, took just over a month and, since it was during the summer, I think that is particularly efficient.

Q255 Chair: Were you required to take gardening leave?

Peter Campbell: No. I was actually on holiday for much of that time anyway but, no, I was not.

Q256 Chair: You did not have any period when you were without a salary or prepared to be without a salary.

Peter Campbell: No.

Q257 Chair: But you are subject to a lobbying ban.

Peter Campbell: Yes.

Q258 Chair: What do you understand "lobbying" to mean?

Peter Campbell: One of the benefits of the ruling is that it is quite clear as well as being robust, which is basically meaning personally involved in lobbying, which is obviously something I do not do. If for example the BSA arranges a meeting with a minister, then I will not go and lobby the minister. I don’t get personally involved in lobbying.

Q259 Chair: Do you think that ban is substantive? Obviously you would discuss with people before they went off to meet the Minister exactly what they might discuss. You would draw on your experience to advise them.

Peter Campbell: From looking to the evidence that people have given to the Committee, Sir Christopher Kelly for example-and I think the committee’s own notes may say this-there are three things the rules are meant to try to avoid: firstly, people in government having an eye on a job outside government and that affecting their work in government; secondly, people, once they have moved to the private sector, using their contacts wrongly for commercial purposes; and thirdly, people in the private sector using for commercial purposes any secret information they have got in their work in government. Obviously all those three things are wrong and they need dealing with.

My understanding is that the lobbying ban is basically meant to deal with the second of those two things-people using contacts wrongly. If you are not lobbying the contacts, you are not using them wrongly, so I think that is a very clear rule.

Q260 Chair: You think that is a substantive restraint.

Peter Campbell: It is clear. It is not substantive in that it has not hugely changed the nature of my job, but it is substantive in that it is robust and clear, and therefore it would stop people wrongly using their contacts in the private sector for commercial purposes.

Q261 Chair: Have you been subject to any adverse press comment as a result of your move?

Peter Campbell: Not that I can recall. I think there have been a couple of small articles about me moving in the public affairs press, but I don’t recall there being any adverse comment.

Q262 Chair: Substantively, the process has been for you quite friendly, quite constructive and where you stand has been made perfectly clear to you.

Peter Campbell: Absolutely, yes.

Q263 Alun Cairns: Was there a dialogue between you and ACoBA or did you just simply complete the application and then receive the reply?

Peter Campbell: There was no dialogue apart from, as I say, I asked some supplementary questions. I basically sent an email with some supplementary questions after they sent the preliminary ruling. They came back within a week; I then said that was all fine, and that was that. They offered a meeting if I was unhappy, but I was not unhappy, so that was all; there was no further dialogue.

Q264 Alun Cairns: Did you feel that the members of ACoBA who were considering your application adequately understood your role in government?

Peter Campbell: It is a bit difficult to say, not knowing what the private deliberations were, but I think the ruling was appropriate to my role in government. My role in government was not policy or strategy, for example. It was basically a kind of briefing role, and I had an opportunity on the application form to say that. I was basically briefing largely for parliamentary occasions, so it is not that I would have access to lots of secret inside information that I could use. I think the ruling was appropriate to the job. Quite how they discussed that internally, I am obviously not aware.

Q265 Alun Cairns: It seems that your experience was quite efficient. Have you read reports and seen the evidence from previous sessions of this Committee of where maybe it has not always been as efficient? Can you offer an explanation of maybe why yours worked relatively efficiently compared with others?

Peter Campbell: I cannot offer any explanation. I think you would probably need to ask the committee that. When I was invited here, I thought I had better read the other evidence, which I have done. I think perhaps some of the cases were slightly more complicated, so you would get other things in addition to a lobbying ban, and that might apply, for example, if you had access to secret information, you were dealing with procurement, for example, policies that had not yet been announced or something like that. I can imagine that would be a bit more complicated and might take a bit longer, and the restrictions might be slightly more complicated than simply a twoyear lobbying ban.

Q266 Alun Cairns: Finally, two brief questions: do you think it was useful that people understood your role or do you think it would be even more useful if there was a former special adviser, for example, on the ACoBA panel, in terms of coming up with their deliberations? Then a completely separate issue, but to save time I will ask it: what about the policing of you lobbying? How is that managed or monitored or not?

Peter Campbell: Firstly in terms of the makeup of the committee, I guess it is quite difficult to have a committee with everybody and every sector represented. I had not really considered that you would need to have a special adviser on there. Also, special advisers’ roles differ so, even if you had a special adviser, they would not necessarily know about the different roles of different special advisers. It is not something I feel particularly strongly about.

In terms of the policing, it is quite an interesting one, because obviously the committee does not have an enforcement role. Basically, it is enforced by a mixture of integrity and transparency, and clear and robust rules. The transparency is important, because if ministers are publishing who they meet, and freedom of information as well, that means that there is likely to be an extra spur on the integrity side of things. My understanding is that there is no great policing or enforcement mechanism, an official body that polices it.

Q267 Kelvin Hopkins: The Business Services Association represents a number of organisations certain to be bidding for public sector contracts. Would you have taken up your current post if ACoBA had not been there to provide a degree of what we might call "moral cover"?

Peter Campbell: I would not wish to misuse any position that I had anyway, with or without ACoBA. Indeed, the kind of role that I do makes use of wider skills-briefing skills, communication and analytical skills-that I have built up over quite a long time. I would not want to misuse any contacts that I would have in either direction. Obviously it is helpful to have clear rules, because then you know what you can and cannot do, and that is helpful in any walk of life, but I do not think it would have stopped me applying otherwise.

Q268 Kelvin Hopkins: If I may pursue that a little bit further, can you say a little bit of what you actually do at BSA? Are you, in your work, advising BSA members on government contracting procedures?

Peter Campbell: That sounds a bit overly commercial. I think our members are able to do their contracts themselves. I do not think that is the kind of thing that we would normally get involved in, in terms of individual contracts. What we do is represent the interests generally of the services sector. That means everything from publishing consultation responses, if a government does a consultation-the EU procurement changes, on which the Cabinet Office did a consultation on its negotiating stance, PFI and realtime information are three recent examples-spreading best practice in terms of a social responsibility report we have done-we are about to do some work on apprenticeships-hosting roundtables with interested bodies, meeting government, opposition and backbench MPs, doing articles in the media and basically promoting the services industry.

Q269 Kelvin Hopkins: It seems to me that there might be some fairly close relationship with your previous job, but putting that to one side, do you think your experience at Number 10 was relevant to your being offered a post at BSA?

Peter Campbell: Not really, because that they were emphasising in the interview the general skills in terms of analytical skills and briefing skills. I had worked for 20 years before Number 10, largely in opposition and in various different roles. It is obviously helpful to have a general background knowledge of how the political system works, in terms of how laws are made, how parliament works and general knowledge about government policy. All those things you can pick up in all sorts of media or political jobs. You don’t need to have worked in government to do that. I don’t think it is of direct relevance, no.

Q270 Kelvin Hopkins: I am not underestimating your talents, abilities, experience and so on, but your experience at Number 10, surely that was the goldplating on your application, wasn’t it?

Peter Campbell: Not that I am aware of, no, because it was not the thing that was emphasised in interviews. The BSA employs people from all political backgrounds, so it is not the case that they only employ people from one political background.

Kelvin Hopkins: I remain to be persuaded that working at Number 10 is not an attractive bit to have in your CV, shall we say, but I will leave my questioning there.

Q271 Chair: Can I just press you? We are all grownups, aren’t we? The experience you have gained as an adviser in opposition and then as a special adviser in Number 10 makes you a pretty rare sort of person; there are not very many of you about. I would say you are quite a catch for the Business Services Association. They might not want to admit that and you might not want to admit that, but it is the truth, isn’t it?

Peter Campbell: There are three different types of experience and knowledge. The first is the one that I talked about, the general experience that you get from any walk of life or any kind of work, which is the kind of analytical experience, briefing experience and communications experience. The second one is general knowledge about government policy, which of course you can get in a political environment, and, as you say, I worked for a couple of decades in opposition as well as in government. The third type of thing is secret inside information, which you get while working at Number 10. The first of those two are good; the third one is bad.

Q272 Chair: Yes, I agree with that, but there is also an insight into how key individuals in government are likely to think, are likely to be reacting to certain events and are likely to react to certain approaches. That is not something you can unlearn and it is a valuable commodity.

Peter Campbell: I would say two things. Firstly, I think I do need to emphasise, just for honesty’s sake, that I had a briefing role, not a policy or strategy role. My role was briefing, helping to brief and helping a team to brief on current government policy, not developing new policy.

Q273 Chair: I am not accusing you of anything-I am really not-but I am just saying we ought to be quite robust about it. It is perfectly legitimate that you will have that knowledge, and it is perfectly legitimate, isn’t it, that you will draw on that knowledge in your present role? The question is: what constitutes abuse of that knowledge? A direct approach would look like an abuse, which is why it is bad. Drawing on your skill and knowledge of how this government and the personalities in it work, you cannot unlearn that. As it has been put to us, it is like a surgeon trained in the National Health Service having a twoyear ban before they can be a surgeon in the private sector, because they have gained those skills and knowledge in the National Health Service. It becomes an absurdity, doesn’t it?

Peter Campbell: The point that I would make on that is that it is certainly true that I have gained, over a long period of time in opposition and government, a kind of view of government policy, of Conservative/Lib Dem policy, but then I would have gained that in any political or media job, and I would have gained that if I had taken an interest in politics. All politicians have a tendency not to keep their views quiet.

Q274 Chair: In fact, I could offer you an even better answer, which is if you had gone straight from opposition into the BSA, you would have had all that knowledge about the personalities in the government, but you would not have been subject to ACoBA’s rules. You could have gone straight into a lobbying job.

Peter Campbell: I do not think the issue is really the personalities, because I would not want to use my contacts with personalities at all, even if I had not gone into government. The issue is: do you have a knowledge of government policy and the approach that government takes on things? Those are things that you can get from any media or political environment. No senior politicians have a tendency to keep their views quiet on policies; they make speeches and put their policies into practice in government, policy papers in opposition or whatever. It is perfectly possible and natural to have a view on those policies and to know what those policies are, without having worked either for government or in opposition.

Q275 Kelvin Hopkins: I have been around politics long enough to know that I make judgments about individuals and you hear stories. If you just said to one of your companies, "Be careful of that minister; they’re sharp, abrasive and difficult," or, "Don’t worry about that one, because he’s dim and completely in the hands of his civil servants," or "That one is lazy and will sign anything," these kinds of things are quite significant when you are negotiating.

Peter Campbell: There is absolutely no way that I have said any of those things or anything like any of those things to any of our members, and would not do so.

Q276 Charlie Elphicke: Part of the issue that lies at the heart of this inquiry is that, on the one hand, I go down Dover High Street and people say to me, "We cannot have a political system where people are able to work in government and then go off, influencepeddle and do over the competition." On the other hand, people have got to eat. You have to eat. Once you have finished working in government, you then have to go and have a day job that is not in the public sector. Where is your sense of where the balance lies between the inevitable public concern, on the one hand, and the necessity for you to be able to carry on living and not starve in the street on the other?

Peter Campbell: A revolving door, as it were, is not necessarily a bad thing. It is good to have interaction between public and private sectors, whether that is getting advice from the private sector or whether it is people in the public sector being allowed to have careers and jobs outside the public sector at some stage. That is not necessarily a bad thing. What is a bad thing is if that is misused. The balance is between not discouraging proper interaction and the revolving door, if you want to put it that way, and making sure that abuse does not happen. Those three things that I mentioned, which have been defined by Sir Christopher Kelly, in his evidence, and other people, are the three ways in which abuse could happen. Provided there are clear and robust rules stopping that happening, backed by transparency and integrity, that is the right balance.

Q277 Charlie Elphicke: Christopher Kelly saw it in his evidence to us very much as an issue of access. He put together that donors give money, he believes, because they want access. In the same way, regarding people leaving government and going to public affairs companies, his concern was very much founded on access. Do you think that is the key part of it-the key concern? What do you do about it?

Peter Campbell: That is one of the public concerns. It is absolutely undoubtedly the case, because lobbying has been quite a big media story. It is quite right that people are concerned if that is being misused. What you do about it is have the clear robust rules stopping people misusing their contacts. The other two things that are potential difficulties are also potential problems, in terms of people having their eye on a job and that affecting their work in government, or people using secret information in government for commercial purposes outside government, but the wider and more likely to occur one is the access and lobbying one. That is why there are rules to stop that happening.

Q278 Charlie Elphicke: The other thing that strikes me is it is not just people in government who have access to secret information or a strong understanding of whether Ministers are on top of their brief or are complete duffers, in the waiting room for ejection, and it is not only people in government who have access. It also applies to journalists. Is there an argument that these rules should apply equally to journalists and the media, as much as people working in government, if they want to go off and lobby? Basically, they should take the rough with the smooth.

Peter Campbell: Actually, there are quite a huge number of people who could potentially have access. Journalists are one example; there are people who work in Parliament, MPs, people who work in constituency offices, and then you move on to friends and relatives, and former contacts. The list could be quite large. Obviously it is not good. It is unethical, leaves a bad taste and potentially illegal if any of these people use contacts wrongly, but the issue is where you draw a line. My understanding, maybe even informally, is that the line at the moment seems to be drawn at people who have actually taken taxpayers’ money, so officials who work in government and ministers are usually paid for by the taxpayer. There may be something particularly bad about someone using a job that is paid for by the taxpayer as a platform to then misuse that in the commercial sector afterwards. Once you then extend that line, there is an interesting issue as to whom exactly you extend it, because the list of people could be quite large.

Q279 Charlie Elphicke: Looking at where the balance is at the moment with ACoBA, you are, as they say, banned from lobbying, and that effectively is an attempt to deal with the access issue. It seems to me that both the Committee on Standards in Public Life and ACoBA are very much focused on the access point. Leaving aside the access point and saying that has been dealt with appropriately, does the public need to have any real concern, or is this effectively being dealt with?

Peter Campbell: The answer to that depends on whether we think that the rules are currently being broken or being got round. I do not know the answer to that; I have no evidence that they are, but the Committee will have listened to more evidence than I have, so I do not know. If they have been broken, then clearly there is a reason to be concerned. If they have not, then there is not. I think that is the answer.

Q280 Charlie Elphicke: It strikes me very strongly that, looking at you, you clearly have a photographic memory; you clearly suck in information, process it and put the views forward. Here, you are very articulate and very measured in your answer to questions. You would get a job anywhere, wouldn’t you? You do not need to be in public affairs. In terms of the skill set that is offered, people would think in terms of access, lobbying and all the rest of it, but maybe we should be fairer to our public officials and indeed ministers and say, "Actually, there is a much wider skill set that they bring to the party."

Peter Campbell: I think it is true to say that somebody, for example a special adviser, will often have had their background in politics before. It is a bit difficult afterwards to become a doctor or something, because it is just not what you have been used to doing, even before working in government or ever. It is true to say that a lot of people would want to try to return to jobs similar to what they had before they were in government. It is similar if you recruit someone to government from business.

Obviously, one of the concerns that has been expressed is whether the rules are discouraging people going into government, because they are concerned that, once they leave, they are not going to be able to get their old job back. I think that is possibly slightly less of a problem with special advisers, because quite often those people have been attached to the relevant Ministers before and they have the job they want to do. Whether it is a problem in terms of getting people in from other sectors, from business into government positions, I do not know. It is obviously a privilege working in government, so I do not imagine it would be too much of a restraint, but I don’t know.

Q281 Charlie Elphicke: Is there anything about the whole ACoBA system that you would change, from your experience of it or, indeed, how you have seen others-friends, colleagues and so on-treated by it?

Peter Campbell: Not really. I don’t have any particularly strong objections to anything that I have seen happen.

Q282 Charlie Elphicke: Have you ever sought speculative advice from ACoBA without a specific new role in mind, or was it just this one and you went straight into it?

Peter Campbell: No, I was not aware that I was able to, but I had no particular reason to.

Q283 Charlie Elphicke: Do you think maybe the political class, in terms of the Prime Minister, secretaries of state, politicians and special advisers, should stick up for themselves a bit more? Actually, people are not here for the money, and they could earn a lot more elsewhere. They are here because they actually care about the country and the future direction of the nation.

Peter Campbell: I would hope that was true but, if rules are being broken, then people have a right to be concerned about that, so there need to be clear and robust ways of stopping that happening. We need to make sure that the rules are there. I understand exactly what you are saying and it would be wrong to go overboard and think that abuse is happening when abuse is not happening, but clearly we need robust rules to stop it happening.

Q284 Charlie Elphicke: Finally, do you think the balance of the rules now is about right and that you would not change anything?

Peter Campbell: Yes. They have already been strengthened in the last couple of years, I think, in terms of special advisers and other groups as well. There is no reason to believe that they cannot be strengthened further, but I am not exactly sure where that would be or how that would be. I am sure it is an ongoing process, and maybe the evidence that you have heard will lead to certain conclusions that will lead to them being strengthened.

Q285 Chair: Supposing, in cases where the rules have not been broken and the spirit of the rules has not been broken, as a result of your stepping into the limelight in public today there is now some outrageous newspaper article adding two and two to make nine and half, would it be reasonable to expect a spokesman from ACoBA to make clear that you have gone through the correct procedures and that what the newspaper is writing is incorrect? Would that be reasonable?

Peter Campbell: It is an interesting question. I don’t know whether ACoBA takes-

Q286 Chair: I can tell you that at the moment it does not seem to. We have taken evidence from people who feel that they have been left swinging in the wind.

Peter Campbell: It is a bit difficult to comment on that without knowing the circumstances. Obviously the rulings of the committee are public, and people can therefore see in that sense whether the rulings have been abided by or not. I don’t know in what circumstances there would be question marks over that, so it is a bit difficult to comment without knowing the cases. There is always an issue with the public bodies and how much of a public affairs role you want them to take. With it being an advisory body, I suppose they may say that their role is slightly different from if they had an enforcement role.

Q287 Kelvin Hopkins: Just following up on my earlier questioning, without commenting on the specific characters of particular Ministers or civil servants, have you actually suggested contacts in government who might be helpful to your colleagues, either in BSA or in the companies that it covers-just guiding somebody? I do this myself, not for commercial purposes, but if I want to get a particular view across, I say, "Well, you ought to speak to soandso."

Peter Campbell: Not in terms of individuals, no. Obviously if someone asked me who the Business Secretary is, then I would say and that would be the right department to start at if someone wanted to write on government policy to do with business, but not beyond that-not in terms of, "This individual would be a good individual and this individual would be a bad individual."

Chair: I think we are done. I think you are an example of a happy customer and we wish you every success in your new role.

Peter Campbell: Thank you for inviting me, Mr Chairman, and everyone else.

Chair: We are very grateful for your appearing before us. You have been very helpful. Thank you very much.

Prepared 24th July 2012