Obituary: Sir Peter Green

In the summer of 1982 Sir Peter Green was rewarded for his achievements as a reforming chairman of Lloyd's with a ceremony accorded to fewer than a dozen members of that venerable and problematic institution in this century; less than two years later he was in disgrace.

Trading stopped at half-past twelve, and the Lutine Bell, a hallowed trophy for traditionalists and an irritating piece of flummery for those impatient with the mythology of the insurance market, was rung twice, the time-honoured signal of good news. Then Green was awarded the Lloyd's gold medal.

He was so honoured for the decisive way in which he responded to early signs of serious underlying problems at Lloyd's. Few realised that he himself was caught in the web of secret insider deals he was trying to brush away. His own subsequent fall from grace was evidence that few, if any, of the insiders in the Lloyd's market succeeded in escaping the cosy insider deals and double standards bred by an atmosphere of privilege and secrecy.

By 1979 ominous clouds were already plain on the Lloyd's horizon. It was in that year that a group of determined and remarkably well-connected Names refused to pay up like gentlemen when they discovered that they had lost a great deal of money because their underwriter, Frederick "Tim" Sasse, in flagrant breach of Lloyd's rules, had "given his pen" to American insurers with Mafia connections. Precisely because, as the angry Names' lawyers pointed out, Lloyd's had broken two of its Fundamental Rules, the market had no alternative but to pay up.

Meanwhile the Fisher report, commissioned from the merchant banker and Queen's Counsel Sir Henry Fisher to look into the structure of Lloyd's, pointed out serious, institutionalised conflicts of interest in the way the Lloyd's market had come to work, and recommended a number of changes that could only be carried out with the direct consent of the member Names and with an Act of Parliament.

Green acted rapidly. At an extraordinary meeting - in both senses of the word - in the Albert Hall, he persuaded all but 57 of more than 13,000 Names present or represented by proxies to vote with the Committee for drastic change, and Parliament duly ratified these reforms in the Lloyd's Act of 1982.

But by that time, Lloyd's was in open trouble, and so was its chairman.

Green was born a marine grandee. His family had been in shipping since the 18th century. In Victorian times and up until three years before his birth in 1924 they owned the Orient Line. Green's father, Toby Green, was a leading marine underwriter. Peter Green was educated at Harrow and Christ Church, Oxford. In 1943 he joined the Royal Navy and served as a Sub-Lieutenant in HMS Musketeer on Arctic convoys and in the Mediterranean.

After the war he became an active underwriter in the Janson Green marine box at Lloyd's and a keen yachtsman. In 1952 he crewed the Lloyd's boat, inevitably called Lutine, in the Bermuda race, and in 1957 he was one of the founders of the Admiral's Cup. From 1961 to 1964 he was commodore of the Royal Ocean Racing Club.

Once when he told his secretary to give a journalist his private telephone number she asked briskly, "The flat, the farm, the boat or the Rolls?"

Green was a tough, direct man. "Spectacular losses," he liked to say, "are just marvellous free advertising." He used to emphasise what was meant by the unlimited liability accepted by Lloyd's Names by asking prospective members of his syndicate to sign a blank cheque. He would then tear the cheque up, saying "That's the risk you're now taking on as a member of Lloyd's!"

The touches he imported into the chairman's elegant office in the old Lloyd's building in Lime Street suggested robust naval good-humour rather than any purist or aesthetic taste. The rump of a stuffed racoon stared down, if that is the right word, from the wall behind his desk, and on a side table the backsides of soft toy pink piglets protruded from a soft toy pink sow.

The first sign of poor judgement and of Green's failure to understand the growing anger in many quarters about the way Lloyd's insiders had used secretiveness to cover up favouritism came in the Seascope/Unimar affair in 1981. As chairman, Green chose, most unusually, to investigate personally and single-handed a deal involving Peter Cameron-Webb, a former colleague of Green's and of his father's who was later the central figure in one of the most notorious Lloyd's scandals. Green proceeded to slap Cameron- Webb and the others involved on the wrist, hastening to say that "no dishonesty was involved", even though Cameron-Webb thought it wise to pay back over $400,000 to Names and to move abroad.

By 1983, with scandals exploding around Lloyd's like shells in an artillery barrage, the Bank of England imposed the first outside chief executive, the distinguished accountant Ian Hay Davison, on Lloyd's, and Green was obliged to reveal to the 1,000 members of his own syndicate, who had been kept in the dark about this and many other of their collective affairs, that he had benefited personally to the tune of $182,000 from reinsurances sent by a Janson Green syndicate to a company in the West Indies, Imperial Insurance, in which Green and his brother owned shares.

The letter led to investigations by the Inland Revenue, and in 1984 Green announced his resignation from active underwriting, though he remained chairman of the Janson Green underwriting company, a subsidiary of the broker (and travel agent) Hogg Robinson.

In 1987 a disciplinary tribunal found that Green had failed over five years to ensure that the reinsurance arrangements he made on behalf of his syndicate were fair to the members on it.

The tribunal found that Green had not acted dishonestly or in bad faith, but it did find him guilty of "serious or gross negligence" and of conduct "detrimental to his Names". Green appealed to a tribunal chaired by the eminent judge Lord Wilberforce but that, too, upheld the verdict. "A failure of duty on the part of a person highly regarded, charged with such responsibilities," the appeal tribunal found, "has to be regarded with great severity." It confirmed the fines of pounds 50,000 imposed by the tribunal of first instance.

Whether or not Lord Wilberforce's language consciously echoed A.C. Bradley's classic definition of tragedy, it was hard to avoid seeing Sir Peter Green as a tragic figure. He was certainly highly placed by fortune and by his own abilities. Few who knew him, even among those who were bitterly critical of the unconsciously arrogant way in which he defended the privileges of the old order at Lloyd's, found it easy to believe that he had been deliberately dishonest. Some felt that the motive for the Imperial reinsurances was simply that Green loved to go deep-sea fishing.

There was perhaps more to it than that. The old Lloyd's in which Green grew up was riddled with casual favouritism and with a certain contempt for all forms of regulation. Baby syndicates were regarded as an entirely legitimate device for creaming off the best business, leaving the trusting Names (whose cheques Green liked to tear up in such a theatrical way) stuck with the rougher edge of the underwriting experience. Green was far too intelligent not to perceive the impossible position of a chairman who was trying to impose discipline on malefactors in the market guilty of offences virtually indistinguishable from what he was doing himself. The leniency with which he treated those responsible for other Lloyd's scandals suggested that at some level he simply did not understand why people were so furious at the way Lloyd's was run.

Green's personal tragedy was that, although a genial and essentially well-intentioned man, he brought dishonour on himself and on the institution which he tried so hard to rescue and modernise.

Peter James Frederick Green, insurance underwriter: born 28 July 1924; chairman, Janson Green 1966-86, chairman, Janson Green Holdings 1986-89; chairman, Lloyd's 1980-83; Kt 1982; married 1950 Pamela Ryan (died 1985), 1986 Jennifer Whitehead; died 27 July 1996.

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