Rifkind and Straw in Trouble – Links Between Politicians and Government Suppliers Hit the Headlines

This week, two politicians, ex Foreign Secretaries both, have been in the news having been caught in a sting operation saying they could help private firms for cash. Jack Straw spoke of using his influence “under the radar” and Sir Malcolm Rifkind that he could arrange “useful access” to every British ambassador. Rifkind and Straw, whose day rates for consulting work appear to be £10-16,000 and £5,000 respectively, are now in trouble, and more of their activities are being questioned.

So Rifkind is a Director of a firm, Alliance Medical, that recently won an NHS contract to provide cancer scan services in the North West of England. Apparently that decision has already been challenged by a consortium of NHS Trusts who bid for the work and claim that their bid was £7 million cheaper. There is another curiosity here, as that contract was let by the NHS England Strategic Projects Team – that group also let the Hinchingbrooke Hospital contract!

I blame Tony Bair for this. Well, in part anyway. Every Minister must look at the millions Blair is making, often through representing very unsavoury governments and despots, and think “well, if he can do it, why not me”? Blair’s legacy is going to be a toxic one, I fear.

But this isn’t just an issue around politicians. It is less high-profile, but we also have to keep an eye on ex civil servants and other officials. Now no-one is suggesting that civil servants can’t work in the private sector once they leave or retire, but at some point there are risks. I have been told that it is not unknown for staff within MOD to go easy on defence suppliers because they see them as potential future employers. That is usually not the professional procurement folk we’re talking about, who frankly aren’t as attractive a catch for the private sector as uniformed officers with a nice title.

What the supplier is after is “Brigadier Burcher-Smith joins the Board of BigGuns Ltd to bring his huge knowledge of Big Guns (and the connection with his best mate who is still in charge of the Army budget for Big Guns)”...

Back to MPs though. I’m not one who thinks that the MPs' salary is ridiculously low, but it is a question of opportunity and of perception. If you are an MP on £67,000 and you can see everybody around you getting paid far more, and then an opportunity arises, it requires a lot of self-discipline not to crack. And in terms of that comparison – when the local MP visits her Town Hall and finds the Chief Executive of that city or county is on £200,000 plus, it must rankle a bit. Never mind the 26-year-old banker, consultant or lawyer already out-earning her considerably.

And matters are getting worse for civil servants too with recent pay freezes. Meanwhile, the body that regulates appointments is pretty toothless. The Telegraph reported this in 2011, but looking at their recent annual report, Acoba still doesn’t seem to say “no”!

“According to the annual reports of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba), it has considered 944 applications for private sector jobs by former top mandarins and ministers since 1996. Of these, 412 were approved with conditions, and 532 – 56 per cent – were approved unconditionally. None was rejected”.

The conditions Acoba sets are laughable really. The most common is “Mr X should not draw on privileged information gained whilst working as a Minister / for government.”

Now there is an interesting challenge – just try and answer a question or consider a problem without drawing on what you know. Personally I’m not very good at compartmentalising my brain in that manner.

So what can procurement people do about this? That’s a tough question. Obviously, don’t be overly impressed by the supplier who has a Board stacked with ex politicians or civil servants. It’s not a valid evaluation criterion. If you believe that a supplier has an advantage in terms of what they know about the project because of who the employ, then you can try and level the playing field by communicating well with every bidder.

And if you believe there is anything really dodgy going on – suppliers using their influence at the top level – then you can escalate it, or ultimately there is whistle blowing. Personally, I still think I would whistle blow with a brown envelope or a phone call (from a telephone box) to Private Eye, the Times or Spend Matters rather than through the official channels, but that’s a personal choice.

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