Ian Livingston / Bloomberg
/ By Alan Gallindoss /
When the Chief Executive of British Telecom (BT), Ian Livingston, was two weeks ago appointed the new UK Minister of Trade by David Cameron’s government, and is being kicked upstairs to the House of Lords to enable this to happen there were lots of oohs and aahs – finally somebody competent from the business world was in the government again. Not since the elevation of John Davies from the Confederation of British Industry to become Minister of Industry and Trade in Edward Heath’s conservative government at the time 40 years ago had there been such a coup it was said by some business stalwarts.
While at BT he did an astoundingly good job there too, has been pretty much everyone’s opinion as well. Lawrence Sugarman, telecoms analyst at Liberum Capital, typically, said to British newspaper The Express at the time of the announcement: “Ian Livingston’s departure is surprising news. His performance and reputation have been excellent. There is no doubt he has been heavily instrumental in the BT turnaround story”.
When he announced the appointment British Prime Minister David Cameron hailed Livingston as “an outstanding business leader” while the outgoing BT boss said it had been “an immensely difficult decision” to step down from his current position.
Livingston added: “I am immensely proud to have led this company over the past five years. We have made huge progress but I know there is so much more that BT can and will do.”
Well, now he is on board with the government there has been time for some reflection, and now there is concern about possible conflicts of interest as he remains a major shareholder of BT holding approximately US$25 million of shares in his former company. The practice of cross-fertilization between government and industry is still not as common in the UK, where somehow it is vaguely considered philosophically to be rather dubious, for no good reason, as for example it is in the United States where it has long been common-place.
So the outgoing boss of BT who will become a government trade minister later this year is now facing questions about “unprecedented” conflicts of interest over his multimillion-pound stake in the British telecoms giant.
Despite David Cameron’s own promises on transparency and accountability, Downing Street has failed to offer “robust” safeguards to deal with issues caused by bringing Ian Livingston directly into the government from BT, according to one (probably rather jealous) former trade minister, as he will become a Minister of Trade in the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) which directly oversees the industry where the telecommunications giant competes.
The government’s rules stipulate ministers must “scrupulously avoid any danger of an actual or perceived conflict of interest between the ministerial position and their private financial interests”. However BIS has issued no specific orders to the new minister, and said, in line with “normal practice”, he will be placing his massive BT share holding in a blind trust. And of course when Lord Livingston leaves the government he will regain immediate control of his BT shares at whatever becomes their new price level in the mean-time.
The opposition Labour party is in a poor position to criticize the appointment, however, as their own policy while in office under the “New Labour” philosophy of both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown had also been to recruit from the private sector.
It all reminds one somehow of the saying of China’s former leader Deng Xiaoping, now deceased: “… it does not matter if a cat is black or white as long as it is good at catching mice…”.
As a senior businessman now operating in a giant fishbowl of scrutiny, it is the opinion of this writer that Ian Livingston will have little trouble managing his conflicts, if any should arise, in a satisfactory way – ethical people simply do this all the time. The act of choosing such people carefully in the first place is indeed also the most effective safeguard.
About Ian Livingston
The fourth generation son of Polish-Lithuanian Jews who arrived in Scotland over one hundred years ago, the family eventually owned a factory that made flight jackets and uniforms. Brought up in the Kelvnside neighbourhood of Glasgow, his father was a doctor and Ian Livingston is the youngest of four children to the couple who wanted him to also become a doctor. He was educated at Hillhead Primary School and the independent Kelvinside Academy.
Later he went on to graduate very young, obtaining a degree in economics from Manchester University at the age of 19, before articling as an accountant. After a variety of jobs gaining experience he joined British Telecom and rose to become their CEO in 2008.
Livingston is also a non-executive director of Glasgow Celtic Football Club. He married in 1989, and Livingston and his wife met while at University. The couple and their two children (one son, one daughter), now live in Elstree in Hertfordshire.