The appointment of senior civil servant David Frost as Chief Executive of the Scotch Whisky Association, one of the alcohol industry’s most aggressive lobby groups, is just the latest high profile case of the revolving door between government advisers and large corporations.
Frost, currently a director in the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) responsible for European trade, will take the helm next year. His appointment and its timing raise some serious questions.
Frost has been part of a BIS team responsible for implementing minimum unit pricing in Scotland. But although legislation has been approved by the Scottish Parliament, Scotland isn’t an independent member of the EU and his department acts as a bridge between Scotland and the European Commission on trade-related issues like minimum pricing.
As Peter Rice, Chair of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems, asked: “Will he continue to represent the UK government in trade discussions involving alcohol until he takes up his SWA post? When did his relationship with the SWA start and what role has he played in the development of his department’s policy on minimum unit pricing?”
Make no mistake
The SWA is dominated by large alcohol producers (though it doesn’t represent the whole whisky industry). Diageo, the global drinks firm behind brands such as Guinness and Smirnoff, in particular has a dominant interest in SWA: at least 17 of its 53 members are from Diageo subsidiaries.
And make no mistake about the importance the SWA places in fighting minimum pricing. It has been at the forefront of the alcohol industry’s battle against it, managing to postpone its implementation by launching a subsequently unsuccessful legal challenge. The move by Gavin Hewitt, the current SWA chief, from a Scottish-based alcohol lobby group to a European one coincided with the fight against minimum pricing moving from Scotland to Europe. Like Frost, Hewitt also has a background in public service.
Then there’s Miles Beale, who became Chief Executive of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association in 2012 after leaving a directorship in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and before that the Cabinet Office.
All these appointments to senior alcohol lobby positions suggest that the industry finds their skills and experience useful. And the industry is able to pay for what is effectively inside information on how policy works.
While there isn’t anything directly corrupt in this relationship or evidence that confidential or proprietary information changes hands, it’s clear that such recruits give the industry an advantage.
Guidance from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) says where “feasible, [the official should] be excused from current duties that could constitute a conflict of interest” and has said any conflict resolution should favour the public interest.
Yet there seems no provision in the UK to manage this from when job offers are discussed until exit from public service. It isn’t regulated in any meaningful way. The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments simply advises public servants on cooling-off periods or whether to take particular jobs, it doesn’t monitor compliance or sanction any breach of its advice.
We aren’t able to say if or what Frost has been excused from since his first contacts with the SWA in relation to his job offer, the formal announcement or since. Nor can we say in any detail whether he has been involved in activities that pose a conflict of interest. But we do know about some issues he’s been involved since he has tweeted about them.
His work-related tweets mainly refer to international trade negotiations and in particular the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) - a prospective deal negotiated in secret to “tackle barriers behind the customs border”. In other words, free trade trumps public protection laws.
Frost’s tweets suggest he strongly supports TTIP and reveal his close involvement. He had his “fingers crossed” for a deal, before tweeting: “Great #TTIP deal tonight”. The deal is of course also great news for the whisky industry, which has publicly supported it.
It’s hardly surprising given Frost’s gung-ho support for TTIP, his experience of international diplomacy and negotiation and his connections with both industry and government, that the industry might see him and officials like him as desirable ambassadors.
Nearly three weeks before his new job was announced, he was exchanging tweets with Hewitt of the SWA about Scottish football. A week after his appointment was announced, Frost tweeted the organiser of World Whisky Day saying he still had “the day job”.
Public servants like Frost are supposed to defend the public interest. Close involvement in a trade deal which will significantly benefit industries such as whisky shows that this problem is not only a matter of post-employment, but also the structure of public service. It’s time that better monitoring and management of apparent conflicts of interest - at both national and EU level - should begin.