PM's watchdog dragged into politicians' jobs row

Antony Barnett reveals what Lord Lang said to undercover reporter
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Indy Politics

In the aftermath of our Dispatches documentary on Monday there has been much speculation over which politicians did and which didn't come in for a discussion about a possible position on the advisory board of our fictional US company Anderson Perry.

I can disclose that one senior former minister who came in to chat about potential employment was Lord Lang of Monkton. Remember him? He was the Secretary of State for Scotland under Margaret Thatcher and the President of the Board of Trade under John Major.

Last summer Gordon Brown gave the Conservative peer an important new job: chairman of the Prime Minister's Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, or Acoba as it's known.

This is the critical Whitehall committee supposed to be the public's watchdog when it comes to former ministers and senior civil servants taking up jobs in the private sector. Its remit is to ensure that they don't use their government contacts for private gain within two years of leaving office.

The committee has faced criticism that it's toothless. It has no enforcement powers – it can only make recommendations to the Prime Minister.

So what happened when Dispatches contacted Lord Lang, who must safeguard public interest in this area, about taking a job with our fictional company?

In our initial phone exchange Lang expressed a desire to take a job, but made it clear that doing lobbying was out of the question. When we told him Anderson Perry did communications work he said: "PR becomes sensitive. It brings the word 'lobbying' in, which is very sensitive in Parliament."

Despite this "sensitivity", Lang did come into our St James's offices to discuss a possible position on the advisory board of our made-up firm. Once again he made it very clear that he would not do any lobbying for Anderson Perry or its clients, nor would he make any introductions to ministers or civil servants. And he also added for good measure that he would refer any job offer to Acoba, even though he didn't have to.

Lord Lang explained: "I do not charge a day rate but operate under an agreed annual fee, for which I am available as required, around a basic structure of an agreed number of regular meetings."

Although Lord Lang stressed he didn't want to do any lobbying for us personally, he did recommend that we consider hiring the lobbying outfit called Quiller Consultants, a firm with close connections to the Conservative Party.

In a follow-up email to our undercover reporter, Lord Lang wrote: "Jonathan Hill heads it [Quiller], whom I know and respect from his days in 10 Downing Street. It might be worth having a meeting with Jonathan – feel free to mention my name."

Three hours after his interview with our undercover reporter, Lord Lang emailed her his CV saying: "I enjoyed meeting you this morning and was interested in all you had to say." His impressive CV listed his business interests – and as an unpaid member of the House of Lords he is free to earn a living as he wishes. Given Lord Lang's position as chairman of the watchdog, I believe it's important to disclose his interest in a position with our bogus US company, even though he made it clear he would only offer strategic advice.

Lord Lang's appointment to Acoba was not without controversy. The Public Administration Select Committee questioned him and concern was expressed that he had a number of lucrative directorships. The committee concluded he had the "professional competence and personal independence required" to perform the chairman's job, but said it had "serious concerns about the appointment of a former Cabinet minister with business appointments of his own to a role that needs the perception of independence if it is to attract public confidence".

A Labour member of the committee, Paul Flynn, voted against Lord Lang's appointment and questioned the make-up of Acoba: "There are no waitresses, bus drivers or people independent of the new great and the good on Acoba. They are all people who think it's normal for an MP being paid £65,000 for a full-time job to take on five other jobs."

Lord Lang told The Independent last night: "I did not express an interest in joining [Anderson Perry]. I went to a meeting to try and find out more about it. I also made it very clear that I would not do corporate lobbying of any kind and I would need to find out a lot more about the company. Most of the members of the committee have business interests, as I do."

He said he informed Acoba's secretariat about the meeting before the Dispatches broadcast. "I believe I behaved entirely properly in everything I said in the meeting with the so-called company." Lord Lang said he had mentioned Quiller as a "helpful passing suggestion".

Antony Barnett is an investigative journalist who led the Dispatches investigation 'Politicians for Hire'