Revealed: Dozens of UK former senior officials profit from fossil fuel corporations, rubber-stamped by Whitehall committee

By Mark Curtis, Declassified UK, 4 February 2021

New research finds that dozens of senior UK defence, foreign office and intelligence officials find employment with oil, gas and mining corporations once they leave public office, rubber-stamped by a Whitehall committee which pays little attention to potential conflicts of interest. Such private profiting from energy companies is likely to restrict Britain taking stronger action to address climate change.

New analysis by Declassified UK has discovered the striking extent to which former senior public officials often find lucrative employment in oil, gas and mining companies after they leave office.

Dozens of former secretaries of state, ministers, heads of intelligence agencies, ambassadors and chiefs of the British military take advantage of a revolving door that allows them to work for corporations in a sector whose interests some have promoted while in office.

Former secretaries of state Sir Michael Fallon and Philip, now Lord, Hammond, are among the beneficiaries of a process which has been criticised for being at “the heart of how the British establishment survives and thrives across Whitehall”. 

The exchange of personnel between government and energy firms goes both ways. Former staff of Anglo/Dutch oil giant Shell, who are also senior executives at large mining corporations, currently sit on the boards of the Ministry of Defence (MOD) and the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), playing a role in shaping UK foreign and military policies.

The ease with which former officials can move from public office to energy companies is being largely rubber-stamped by a government-run body which is meant to scrutinise conflicts of interest when former officials take up employment in the private sector.

The body, the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) – which is chaired by a former Conservative minister, Lord Pickles – is routinely allowing ministers and officials to work for energy companies with only minimal conditions placed on their terms of employment.

Boris Johnson’s government recently brought in a new policy to end direct government subsidies for fossil fuel projects overseas. This would see “the UK end export finance, aid funding and trade promotion for new crude oil, natural gas or thermal coal projects, with very limited exceptions”.

However, the new research suggests that fossil fuel companies are deeply embedded in the corridors of Whitehall and in the career paths of ministers and civil servants. 

The findings suggest that the revolving door between the most senior UK public officials and fossil fuel companies is likely to impede the government bringing in more changes to curb the influence and activities of energy companies to address climate change.

BP and Shell

There has long been a close association between Whitehall and the UK’s two largest oil companies – BP and Shell – which are among four global businesses responsible for over 10% of the world’s carbon emissions since 1965 (the other two being Chevron and Exxon).

Sir John Sawers, chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, known as MI6) from 2009-14, has been an independent non-executive director of BP since May 2015, a position which was referred to ACOBA and approved by then foreign secretary Philip Hammond. 

Sawers has earned £699,000 with BP since 2015.

Mark Allen, the head of MI6’s head of counter-terrorism unit who had extensive links with Libyan intelligence in the early 2000s, left the service in 2004 and in October of that year joined BP as a special adviser, working on Libyan oil contracts, again with the approval of the British government. 

In 2005, Allen accompanied BP chief executive Lord Browne to meet Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi. Knighted in the same year, Allen was close to both the CIA and the Gaddafi regime as they pursued a counter-terrorism policy which included “enhanced interrogation techniques” and the secret transfers of dissidents and terror suspects, including individuals who had sought refuge in Britain.

One senior military figure who became an adviser to BP, in the year after leaving his army position, was General Nick Houghton, who was the chief of the defence staff – Britain’s most senior military officer – in 2013-16. Houghton also became an adviser in 2020 to oil artificial intelligence firm White Space, a company which works closely with Shell.

A current BP advisor, and also a shareholder in the company, is Lord George Robertson, a Labour defence secretary in the late 1990s who went on to become NATO secretary-general. Robertson was also non-executive chair of BP Russian Investments Ltd, a subsidiary of BP plc, until March 2020.

Conservative and Labour governments alike have long courted the corporation. Sir John Browne, BP’s former chief executive, was ennobled to become Lord Browne in the first wave of “people’s peers” under Tony Blair. “He has enjoyed nights at the opera and power breakfasts with the prime minister”, it was reported in 2002.

Last month Boris Johnson established a new Business Council to advise the government on post-Covid economic recovery, one of whose members is Bernard Looney, BP’s current chief executive. The company’s previous chief, Bob Dudley, sat on then prime minister David Cameron’s Business Advisory Group.

BP’s chief scientist, Dame Angel Strank, who has worked for the corporation for over 35 years, currently serves on Boris Johnson’s Industrial, Infrastructure and Manufacturing Business Council that was announced in 2019. She has been honoured in the Queen’s birthday awards for “services to the oil and gas industry”.

Shell also has particular connections to the British government. On its board sits Sir Nigel Sheinwald, who served in the diplomatic service from 1976 to 2012, including as ambassador to the USA. A non-executive director of Shell since July 2012, Sheinwald is also a non-executive director of arms corporation, Raytheon UK.

Another former foreign office official working for the company in a senior position is Joanna Kuenssberg, Shell’s current vice president of government relations with Russia, who joined the company directly from spending four years as British high commissioner to Mozambique.

In 2015, Sir Iain Lobban, the former chief of Britain’s largest intelligence agency, GCHQ, became an advisor to Shell. The company has been accused of employing two former MI6 men as part of an alleged corrupt oil deal in Nigeria, which was investigated by Italian prosecutors. 

In early 2017, senior Shell executives were charged in Italy for their role in the scheme, which deprived the Nigerian people of over a billion dollars.

The revolving door between BP, Shell and government also opens the other way. Within days of Labour’s 1997 election victory under Blair, former BP chairman Sir David Simon was ennobled and made Minister for European Trade and Competitiveness.

John Manzoni, who spent 24 years at BP, including on its main board, became permanent secretary to the Cabinet Office – one of the UK’s most senior civil servants – and Chief Executive of the Civil Service from 2014-20.  

Shell’s former special advisor in charge of “international government relations and regulatory affairs”, Thomas Reilly, went on to become British ambassador to Morocco from 2017 to 2020.

The UK’s current high commissioner to Uganda, Kate Airey, spent six years working for Shell before becoming an “African energy adviser” at the foreign office where her job included “political analysis and lobbying Nigeria Oil and Gas.” Britain’s current high commissioner to Mozambique, NneNne Iwuiji-Eme, previously worked as an economist for Shell.

Secondments are another way the close connections are forged. 

For example, Simon Collis, who went on to become British ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Syria and Qatar, went on secondment to BP between earlier diplomatic postings in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates. In that position, he acted as BP’s political and government relations manager for the Middle East.

Similarly, Kate Smith, the UK’s current ambassador to Greece, went on secondment to Shell between senior roles in the foreign office. She served for the company as international government relations adviser before returning to the foreign office as director for the Americas. 

Directing ministries

Senior oil company executives sit on the boards of several government departments. Simon Henry, who worked at Shell for 30 years, including as its chief financial officer and executive director from 2009 to 2017, is a member of the UK Defence Board, the MOD’s highest committee.

The Defence Board is “responsible for the full range of defence business, other than the conduct of operations”, including setting the MOD’s “strategic direction”, the government says.

Henry, who is also a non-executive director of British mining giant Rio Tinto, is chair of the Defence Board’s Defence Audit Committee which “monitors how the MOD’s income is spent”.

Sitting on the board of the FCDO is Ann Cormack, who was appointed as non-executive director in October 2020. Cormack spent 20 years “in front-line business executive roles at Shell International” and now heads up global human resources at the diamonds miner, De Beers Group.

Similar to the Defence Board, the FCDO board “provides strategic direction, oversight, support and challenge for” the department, the government says.

Energy corporations have traditionally been well-represented on other government boards. On the board of the Department for International Trade sits Sir Stephen O’Brien, who was parliamentary under-secretary of state for international development from 2010 to 2012. O’Brien is currently vice-chairman of Savannah Energy plc, a British oil company that works in Nigeria and Niger.

In 2014, O’Brien was reported to have been “instrumental” in the signing of a production sharing agreement between Niger’s government and Savannah Petroleum. As a minster, O’Brien answered parliamentary questions for the government about Nigeria 

Dame Ann Dowling, a member of BP’s board, was a non-executive board member of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy from 2016 to 2018. The former lead independent director of the Department for International Development was Vivienne Cox, who spent 28 years at BP, and was also a director of the British oil and gas multinational BG Group and Rio Tinto. 

Ian Davis, who was previously on BP’s board, was also a non-executive board member of the Cabinet Office.

Intelligence connections

Declassified previously revealed that the last three heads of MI6 all joined oil or gas-producing companies after they left the service.

Sir John Sawers’ predecessor as chief of MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, who served in the organisation for 38 years, has been a member of the board of Kosmos Energy, a US oil company with operations in Africa and Mexico, since December 2012. Dearlove has earned more than £2-million from the company.

Another former head of MI6, Sir John Scarlett, became an advisor to Norwegian oil giant Statoil (now called Equinor) in 2011. He was given “unconditional approval” by ACOBA, meaning he was immediately free to lobby his former colleagues in intelligence and parliament on behalf of the firm.

Another intelligence chief, Dame Stella Rimington, who was director-general of MI5 from 1992 to 1996, joined the board of BG Group in 1997, the year after she left service. Rimington stepped down from the board in 2005 when the company was bought by Shell for £47-billion.

A former chair of the joint intelligence committee until 2007, Sir Richard Mottram, who was prime minister Gordon Brown’s chief security and intelligence adviser, joined in 2008 the “international advisory board” of GardaWorld. The company works with clients in “high-risk markets around the world, focused in particular on the global oil and gas, and mining industries”.

The military-fossil fuel complex

British defence secretaries have long found employment in energy corporations after serving their terms in office.

Early last year, Sir Michael Fallon, who was defence secretary during 2014-17, was appointed as a senior independent non-executive director and deputy chairman of Genel Energy, an oil and gas company incorporated in Jersey which operates in the Kurdistan region of northern Iraq.  

Fallon’s biography at Genel states: “Sir Michael was Energy Minister in the UK Government from 2013-2014: responsible for oil, gas, electricity, nuclear and renewables”.

In his defence role in government, Fallon met the prime ministers of Kurdistan and Iraq and approved and witnessed British military training of Kurdish forces in the north of the country.

The year after Fallon left office he took up a position as an advisor to Klesch & Company Limited, which ACOBA described as “a global industrial company specialising in the production and trading of oil, chemicals and metals”. Fallon provided “strategic advice on business development” to the company in 2018.

At least two of Fallon’s recent predecessors also went on to work for energy companies. Sir Malcolm Rifkind, who was defence and then foreign secretary from 1992-7, was from 1997-2005 a director of Sea Energy plc, an offshore energy services company based in Aberdeen which held a number of oil and gas investments in Europe.

Rifkind also began acting as a consultant to giant oil and mining corporation BHP Billiton in 1997 and spent several years advising them, he said in 2015. “I was mainly advising them on potential opportunities in the Middle East”, Rifkind noted. He is also reported to have lobbied for the company to secure oil contracts in Iraq.

Rifkind’s immediate successor as defence secretary, Michael Portillo, who served during 1995-7, worked after leaving office for US oil giant Kerr-McGee from 1997 to at least 2013. He was said to advise the company on international affairs and for some of that time worked as a director of the firm.

Corporations operating in the energy sector have also attracted some former heads of the British military.

General Sir David Richards, the chief of the defence staff from 2010-13, was from 2014-16 a director of Arturius International, which was described by ACOBA as a logistics and engineering company providing services to the oil and gas, mining, defence and construction industries.

An earlier chief of the defence staff (1997-2001), Field Marshal Charles Guthrie, became a director of Gulf Keystone Petroleum, an oil company which operates in Kurdistan region of Iraq, in 2011. He also became a non-executive director of Russian gold mining company, Petropavlovsk plc.

Guthrie is currently a “senior adviser” to Ron Wahid, the chair of global intelligence firm, Arcanum and of Magellan Investment Holdings, an investor in energy and natural resources, among other markets.

Foreign office and oil companies

The policies of the FCDO, like the MOD, have long been focused on securing oil interests, especially in the Middle East, which have led governments into close, supportive relations with repressive states, notably Saudi Arabia, the world’s leading oil producer.

Senior government officials regularly act as de facto high level lobbyists for energy corporations, as when then foreign secretary Philip Hammond led a delegation of business leaders to Egypt in 2015, a country under the authoritarian grip of president Sisi, accompanied by the chief executives of BP and BG Group, among other companies. 

More recently, in early 2020, Lord Hammond, who was also previously defence secretary as well as chancellor, took up a paid, part-time job with the government of Saudi Arabia.

The Spectator wrote last year: “Hammond has had a close relationship with Saudi Arabia for several years. In 2015 when Foreign Secretary, he came under fire for accepting a watch worth nearly £2,000 from a Saudi businessman, despite a ban on ministers accepting expensive gifts. And in July last year, Hammond visited the country as Chancellor, to promote economic and social reform. On the trip, paid for by the taxpayer, he met the Minister of Finance who would later offer him a job.”

Hammond was foreign secretary when Saudi Arabia began air strikes in Yemen at the beginning of the war in early 2015 and presided over extensive British support for Riyadh. He told parliament in June 2015 that “Saudi Arabia is an important ally of the UK. Our relationship is vital to our domestic national security and gives us access to senior levels of the Saudi Arabian leadership”.

ACOBA approved Hammond’s appointment as a Saudi adviser, subjecting it to certain conditions such as that he should not draw on privileged information from his time in ministerial office or personally lobby the British government on his new employer’s behalf for two years after leaving office.

Also approved by ACOBA was Hammond’s employment in March 2020 as a partner of Buckthorn Partners LLP, a company which invests in energy-related services businesses including in the oil and gas sector.

Ministers have while in office been shown to have personally lobbied on behalf of oil corporations. In 2011, it was revealed that then foreign secretary William Hague lobbied officials in Uganda to help British firm Tullow Oil avoid paying a £210-million tax bill. Tullow had donated £50,000 to the Conservative party.

Lord Hague, as he is now formally known after being created a life peer by his former boss, prime minister David Cameron, has since September 2015 been a director of ICE Futures Europe. The company operates futures and options contracts for crude oil, natural gas, coal and other commodities. 

Before becoming an MP, Hague had worked for Shell. Another former Shell employee, former foreign office minister Sir Alan Duncan, has particularly close ties to the oil industry and is a former oil trader. He told parliament in January 2015: “I have been involved on and off in the energy markets, principally in oil, for 35 years”. 

While an MP, Duncan registered as a non-executive chairman of Fujairah Refining in the United Arab Emirates, for which he received £8,000 a month for a job involving three weekend meetings a year.

Duncan also previously declared incomes from Arawak Energy, a company involved in oil exploration and production, and Harcourt Consultants, a firm he established to advise clients on the oil and gas industry.

As foreign minister for the Americas in 2018, Duncan noted in a speech on Venezuela, where the UK has been openly trying to remove president Maduro: “The revival of the oil industry will be an essential element in any recovery, and I can imagine that British companies like Shell and BP will want to be part of it”.

He also said: “We cannot talk about Venezuela without understanding the central role played by oil since the early 20th Century, I speak as a former oil trader myself”. 

Another former foreign minister, Alastair Burt, became in 2015 a non-executive director of President Energy, an oil and gas company operating in Latin America. The appointment took place while Burt was an MP and before he became responsible for the Middle East during 2017-19.

Sometimes the connection between public and private employment is very close. Mark Simmonds, who was foreign minister responsible for Africa in 2012-14, is now a non-executive director of Lekoil, an African oil company with operations in Nigeria. 

As a minister, Simmonds told parliament in 2014 that “we have discussed” oil issues with the Nigerian government and that “we have lobbied on increased transparency in the oil and gas sector in Nigeria”. 

Ambassadors and oil

British ambassadors regularly go on to work for corporations related to the extractives sector, and to their previous work, after they leave office. Sir Dominic Asquith, who was Britain’s ambassador to Libya in 2011-12, during Britain’s war that overthrew Gaddafi, went on to become adviser to Libya Holdings Group, an investor in Libya’s oil and gas industry.

Sir William Patey, who held four ambassadorial postings in his diplomatic service career, including as ambassador to oil-rich Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Sudan, now “advises businesses entering and operating in the Gulf region, in particular in the oil and gas sector and financial services and defence industries”.

Britain’s current ambassador to Iran, Rob Macaire, left his previous post as high commissioner in Kenya to become director of government/public affairs and political risk at BG Group. After working at the corporation for five years, he became ambassador-designate to Tehran before taking up the full post.

Roderic Lyne, Britain’s former ambassador to Russia, is now non-executive chair of mining company Petropavlovsk while Richard Ralph left his post as ambassador to Peru in 2006 and became chairman of Monterrico Metals, which mined copper in Peru. 

Ralph was later fined £118,000 for insider trading after he bought shares in Monterrico while negotiating in takeover talks.

Norman Ling, a British diplomat for over 30 years, latterly served as ambassador to Ethiopia. After leaving office, he became involved with development of the mining industry in Ethiopia and is currently a non-executive director of Kefi Gold and Copper, a company which works in Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia.

Former British high commissioner to Nigeria, Andrew Lloyd, was given ACOBA approval in 2012 to become an adviser to Equinor (then still known as Statoil). He joined the company immediately after leaving the diplomatic service and now serves as vice president for global politics and public affairs.

Another advisor to the Norwegian oil giant illustrates that the British revolving door goes beyond the intelligence, defence and foreign ministries, and opens across other Whitehall departments. Former secretary of state for energy and climate change, Amber Rudd, was in 2020 given approval by ACOBA to become chair of Equinor’s advisory group.

Rudd had been a strong supporter of the oil and gas industry while in office, introducing a bill in 2016 focusing on “meeting our commitment to support the development of oil and gas in the North sea… and to maximise recovery of resources in the North sea to the benefit of Britain’s energy security”. 

“The government are clear that the broad shoulders of the UK are 100% behind our oil and gas industry, the hard-working people it employs and the families it supports”, Rudd told parliament in February 2016.

Her government set up the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) to regulate and promote the UK oil and gas industry and in 2014 the OGA appointed the Managing Director of BG Group’s exploration and production in Europe, Andy Samuel, as its chief executive. The OGA is a “government company” controlled by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

The executive chair of Tullow since 2018, Dorothy Thompson, is a director of the Court of the Bank of England, where she chairs the audit and risk committee and is the senior independent director.

Approving ACOBA

Many of the appointments taken up by former public officials were approved by ACOBA’s nine-person committee chaired by Lord Pickles, who also served as the prime minister’s “anti-corruption champion” from 2015 to 2017. 

ACOBA says it provides “independent advice to the government” concerning public officials who wish to take up appointments within two years of leaving office. However, while the committee consists mainly of figures outside Whitehall, Pickles also acts as a special envoy for the government, on the subject of post-holocaust issues, having been appointed to the role in 2015.

ACOBA’s recommendations apply to “the most senior members of the Civil Service, armed forces, diplomatic service, and intelligence agencies”.

Declassified found several senior officials, for example former ambassadors, taking up jobs in the private sector, who do not appear to have been required to go through the ACOBA process. 

Most ACOBA recommendations state only, as in the case of Lord Hammond, that when former officials take up new positions they should not draw on privileged information from their time in ministerial office. 

They also routinely state that former officials should not be personally involved in lobbying the government on their new employer’s behalf for two years after leaving office.  

More conditions are occasionally recommended, as for example to General Nick Houghton when he became an adviser to BP in 2017. Houghton was also advised that for two years from his last day in post he should not work in the “UK Defence market” or provide advice to any company concerning any bid or contract relating to the work of the MOD.

ACOBA noted that Houghton’s work with BP would involve around two days’ work per month over three years and that he “would be providing independent strategic advice at board level on operating, and the related geopolitical risk, in: Turkey, the Middle East and North Africa – including crisis preparedness and response management.”

The ACOBA process has long been the subject of criticism. In 2018, Labour’s shadow cabinet office minister, Jon Trickett, said the body was “toothless” and had “not once refused a single appointment to a public servant”.

“The failure of Acoba gets to the heart of how the British establishment survives and thrives across Whitehall”, Trickett said.

He added: “Ministers and special advisers are able to take up jobs in the private sector lobbying on behalf of firms and sectors they used to be responsible for regulating and overseeing, and the culture of second jobs in Westminster is wholly incompatible with the role of members of parliament as representatives of their constituents.”