A worrying lack of scrutiny as former spook joins BP's board

Parliamentary Business: Sir John Sawers' wife caused a bit of a scare when she put pictures of him in swimming trunks on Facebook

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The Independent Online

Acoba sounds like a villainous organisation in one of the James Bond films, possibly a Roger Moore-era version where the baddies are hiding out in a space station or a secret submarine base.

It has certainly played a supporting, but crucial, role in what reads like a plot thread from an Ian Fleming potboiler: allowing the former head of MI6, who served two prime ministers – Gordon Brown and David Cameron – a seat at the top table of a global oil empire.

At that, an empire which in recent years has been demonised following an explosion on a rig that could almost be the title of a Bond film, Deepwater Horizon, which resulted in billions of dollars of environmental damage in the Gulf of Mexico.

Of course, BP’s appointment of Sir John Sawers, chief of the Secret Intelligence Service from 2009 to 2014, is not as sinister as the plot synopsis might suggest. He also isn’t a double agent – as much as that would add a 007-style twist to this eyebrow-raising real-life narrative.

And Acoba is no Spectre, Smersh or Quantum. Those organisations stick relentlessly and mercilessly to their mission statements of trying to take over the world.

Sadly, Acoba does not seem to understand its own raison d’être, which is to vet the business appointments of former ministers, senior civil servants and other high-ranking Crown officials. In other words, to make sure that state secrets and sensitive intelligence cannot be used for a company’s commercial gain.

In giving Acoba its full title, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, we can see a fundamental problem in the first word. Acoba should be a statutory rather than an advisory body – it starts off with no teeth, steel or otherwise, and doesn’t seem to bother even attempting a Jaws-like clampdown on appointments that most of us would rigorously question.

Allowing BP to hire Sir John, a former foreign affairs adviser to Tony Blair when he was PM, is a startling example of Acoba’s so-relaxed-they’re-horizontal attitude.

The 59-year-old left MI6 only in November. Six months later he is announced as a non-executive of one of the world’s biggest oil companies, one which relies heavily on geopolitical nous to secure major contracts and see off its equally Machiavellian competitors.

There’s no secret to why BP should want Sir John’s services, nor would anyone blame it for taking the opportunity to hire him. As its chairman Carl-Henric Svanberg says, Sir John “brings experience of international affairs and geopolitics”. BP wants to pick the brain of a man who is Britain’s best briefed on global security threats and the tactical responses required to stave them off.

Acoba published its recommendations regarding Sir John’s hire only last week, yet the Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond, had approved the move, on the committee’s advice, in January. In other words, a matter of only weeks after Sir John left MI6.

Sir John was also allowed to take the chairmanship of Macro Advisory Partners, which claims to provide “clients with a competitive advantage in a global decision-making context”.

Acoba’s advice was that Sir John should not take up either role until three months after his last day at MI6; that he “should not draw on privileged information available to him from his time in Crown service”; and that he cannot lobby the British government on behalf of those companies, their parent companies or their clients for two years.

The first of these points is remarkably inadequate: investment banks, for example, will put their staff on “gardening leave” for up to a year so that they don’t risk spilling secrets. The third is insufficient, given that many of Sir John’s contemporaries are still likely to be around in a couple of years – he will still be able to get BP great access to the top of Whitehall, if he chooses to do so.

But the second point is, frankly, ridiculous. Sir John has worked for the Government in international affairs and security for 36 years. There is no other experience for him to draw upon.

Moreover, anyone can make a mistake – information can accidentally slip out. There was, for example, a minor scandal in the summer of 2009, just before he took over at MI6, when Sir John’s wife caused a bit of a security scare when she put pictures of him in swimming trunks on Facebook.

Finally, the oversight of the activities of former ministers and high-flying civil servants seems to be based largely on trust.

There is no evidence that Sir John will not be as good as his word, and it should be pointed out that his is but the latest in a long line of weak decisions. But it is not right that the “revolving door” between government and business is not better guarded. Every senior move from government to business needs proper scrutiny – let alone that regarding Britain’s top spook.

Three years ago, the Conservative MP Bernard Jenkin complained of the “opaque procedures” of Acoba, arguing that it should be replaced with statutory regulation.

Acoba’s new chairwoman, Angela Browning, took up the job in  January. A former Tory MP, Baroness Browning must look to overhaul Acoba immediately, otherwise we continually risk the sort of implausible security breaches that fuelled Roger Moore’s worst outings as 007.