Watchdog rebukes Cummings over post-government touting for business

Written by Beckie Smith on 17 September 2021 in News
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Acoba chief says future applications will not be considered unless former adviser co-operates with committee

Credit: Yui Mok/PA Wire/PA Images

The government's anti-corruption watchdog has refused to advise on Dominic Cummings's bid to take on a mysterious consulting job, months after he was rapped for failing to wait for advice before offering paid consultancy services in areas such as data science, digital marketing – and how to “win an election”.

Eric Pickles, chair of the Advisory Committee on Public Appointments, wrote to the Cabinet Office saying it had refused to issue advice on an application by the prime minister's former top political adviser to provide consulting work for a company, the name of which was redacted from the letter.

However, according to a report from Insider, metadata embedded in the file uploaded by the committee suggests that the firm in question is Babylon Health - the company that provides the NHS GP at Hand virtual consultation service which citizens in some parts of the country can choose as their registed doctor. Cummings is understood to have previoulsy undertaken work for Babylon before rejoining government in 2019. The Cabinet Office, Acoba, and Babylon did not respond to Insider's requests for comment.

"The Cabinet Office has submitted Mr Cummings’ completed application for advice to work with [redacted]. The committee understands this work is consulting, to be carried out under a consultancy offering services which overlap with those Mr Cummings is already advertising online without first receiving the benefit of the Committee’s advice," Lord Pickles wrote.

"This failure to seek and await the committee’s advice was a breach of the rules reported to the Cabinet Office in July."


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Pickles wrote to Cummings in June asking why he had not sought advice for paid services he was advertising on a blog, for which he was also taking subscription fees. Services offered include advice on use of digital platforms and data-analytics – as well as advice for anyone wishing to “win an election”.

When Cummings did not reply to Acoba’s letter, Pickles reported the breach of the business appointment rules to then-Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove.

In the new letter, dated 10 September, Pickles wrote: "As you will know, the government’s business appointments system relies on the cooperation of applicants and departments. The committee takes compliance with the rules seriously, investigating and reporting any beaches where appropriate. This application to consult for [redacted] relates directly to his previous breach of the rules and, as a consequence, the committee refuses to provide advice on this occasion."

He added: "Before the committee would consider further applications from Mr Cummings it requires a full reply to our previous correspondence and written assurance of full cooperation with all future applications."

'Services for payment'
Pickles wrote to the ex-special adviser in June after it emerged Cummings was offering “various services for payment” via his blog, which was also generating subscription fees.

At the time, Cummings was waiting for a response to an application he had submitted to Acoba to offer consultancy services – the same application Acoba has now refused to consider. Officials and politicians must seek guidance from Acoba on business appointments for two years after they leave government.

“It is not clear if this is the same service you are promoting on this blog, or if this is a separate set of services. The committee does not appear to have received or advised you on an application in relation to the specifics of the business described on your blog,” Pickles said in the June letter.

A blog posted on his Substack blog on 10 June said Cummings was available for speaking engagements, and that “I/my network may be able to help” with particular "problems".

He encouraged people to get in touch if “you want to win an election; you want to improve your marketing / communications/digital marketing…[;] you have management problems; you want to predict something but don’t know how; you are a government minister/CEO-type figure in an organisation and want to shift from the old world of Powerpoint + Excel to: code + prediction/keeping score + dashboards (and dashboard of dashboards!) + ‘Analytical Private Office’ of the sort I set up in No.10 to support the PM i.e a team with the skills for data-intensive science, reasoning under extreme uncertainty and supporting project management.”

He said he would publish some content for free on his freshly-launched blog, including "a lot of stuff on Covid" and "some stuff on my time in No.10", while some posts on this subject would be only for subscribers.

"More recondite stuff on the media, Westminster, ‘inside No10’, how did we get Brexit done in 2019, the 2019 election etc will be subscriber only. Subscribers will also get some extra features like community/regular ‘ask me anything’, and a serious dissent section — I’m interested in the best arguments against what I say," he said.

"Subscribers will find out first about new projects that I make public. Only subscribers can comment."

He said subscribing would enable him to provide free help to people campaigning for an immediate parliamentary inquiry into the government's coronavirus response, and to get others to help him,

In his letter on 24 June, Pickles wrote: “The government's business appointment rules exist to protect the integrity of government; and make it clear that new appointments/employment should not be taken up or announced before receiving advice. It appears you may be in breach of these rules.”

He asked Cummings to clarify why he had not sought or wanted for the watchdog’s advice before promoting and being paid for services. He also said this was a chance for Cummings “to tell us about any steps you have taken to ensure the probity in this work”, given his former No.10 job.

Two weeks later, Pickles wrote to then-Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove saying Cummings had failed to reply. He said he was writing to draw Gove’s attention to a breach of the business appointment rules.

Reiterating the importance of the rules, he added: “The committee is independent, with a remit to consider applications received under those rules, consider the risks and advise on the conditions that should apply.”

“The committee will not advise retrospectively in these circumstances,” he wrote.

“It is our policy to act transparently, including making public any failure to follow the rules that it is made aware of. It is now a matter for the government to decide what appropriate action to take.”

 

About the author

Beckie Smith is acting deputy editor of PublicTechnology sister publication Civil Service World, where a version of this story first appeared. She tweets as @beckie__smith.

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