Greensill inquiry could recommend tougher rules on lobbying and ministers’ behaviour

Cross-party panel will look ‘without fear or favour’ at reforms and sanctions to stop abuse

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
@andywoodcock
Monday 19 April 2021 18:43
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A parliamentary inquiry into the Greensill scandal could recommend tougher sanctions and regulations on lobbying, as well as a rewrite of the codes of conduct for ministers, advisers and officials, it has emerged.

The terms of reference for the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee probe show that its investigation will range far beyond the specific case of David Cameron’s lobbying for the collapsed finance firm and look into the whole question of behaviour inside government and the “revolving door” culture which sees ex-ministers and senior civil servants move from Whitehall into the private sector.

Committee chair William Wragg said the cross-party panel is ready to make recommendations “without fear or favour” on tightening up rules to ensure high standards in public life.

Meanwhile, a second inquiry by the Commons Treasury Committee confirmed it will call Mr Cameron and chancellor Rishi Sunak to give evidence in person about the appropriateness of the Treasury’s response to lobbying on behalf of Greensill.

The developments came as Downing Street confirmed it will publish the findings of a review by cabinet secretary Simon Case into the scale of “double-hatting” by senior mandarins working for private companies at the same time as holding down Whitehall jobs.

Boris Johnson today insisted the problem was not widespread.

Speaking on the local election campaign trail in Gloucestershire, the prime minister said: “People should not, in my view, form the impression that the upper echelons of the British civil service have got loads of people who are double-hatting, as it were, doing two jobs – it just isn’t true.

“We’ve got one of the best civil services in the world.

“They are fantastically hard working people, they have been doing an amazing job throughout this Covid pandemic, apart from anything else, and I just wouldn’t want people to get that impression. It is simply not the case.”

Alarm was sparked across Westminster by revelations that the government’s former chief commercial officer Bill Crothers was working for Greensill while still an official in the Cabinet Office, and went on to become a director of the firm after leaving government.

Labour’s shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth today demanded details of Mr Cameron’s lobbying of Matt Hancock on behalf of Greensill’s payday loan business Earnd.

Mr Ashworth told the House of Commons that the scheme “wasn’t an act of altruism to staff in a pandemic but an investment plan to package up loans to sell to investors with the former prime minister, not nurses, in line for a payday windfall”.

A leaked email showed that Mr Cameron told NHS officials that Mr Hancock was “extremely positive about this innovative offer” as he sought access for the company to electronic records of NHS staff.

Mr Ashworth said there had been “a parade” of meetings and communications between Greensill and the most senior NHS officials, including former minister Lord Prior and Track and Trace boss Dido Harding “all because the Secretary of State succumbed to his old boss, Cameron’s lobbying”.

He demanded that Mr Hancock publish in full all communications with Mr Cameron and details of all meetings with Greensill.

“NHS staff deserve a pay rise and support, not payday loan apps,” said Mr Ashworth. The Greensill scheme was “forced on the NHS by speculators trying to make money out of the pandemic”, he said, asking Mr Hancock: “How can (you) possibly defend this?”

Mr Hancock - who is known to have attended “private drinks” with Mr Cameron, Mr Crothers and the company’s founder Lex Greensill - responded that he believed local NHS employers were “best placed to decide” whether to take up Greensill’s scheme, and that ministers were not involved in such decisions.

Setting out the scope of his committee’s inquiry, Mr Wragg said: “Standards in public life are vitally important, and I think most politicians and civil servants fulfil their roles honourably. 

“Maintaining and defending that honourable position matters – that’s precisely why this affair has to be scrutinised. 

“We will look in to whether the rules need tightening up and clarifying and we will make any necessary recommendations without fear or favour.”

He said the inquiry - one of seven announced into the affair - will look at whether the codes of conduct for ministers, special advisers and officials properly reflect the behaviour expected from them; whether rules on conflicts of interest and employment after leaving public service should be tightened; whether requirements for declaring lobbying activity should be widened; whether private consultants are used in proper way by government; and whether strong enough punishments are available for those who break the rules.

Treasury committee chair Mel Stride said his inquiry will focus on the financial aspects of the scandal.

“There are questions to be answered in relation to Greensill Capital regarding the operation of the UK’s financial system and its regulation,” said Mr Stride. “Also, whether the Treasury responded appropriately to lobbying from Greensill during the pandemic.”

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