A loophole in the ministers’ code of conduct has allowed officials to keep the lobbying of companies like Greensill Capital off of public records, according to an ex-civil servant, who says ministers are not bound to report unofficial calls, texts and emails.
Gaps in the ministerial code are being scrutinised in the wake of the Greensill lobbying scandal, in which former prime minister David Cameron tried to secure the lender special access to the UK’s largest emergency Covid loans scheme by messaging ministers, including the chancellor Rishi Sunak, and Whitehall officials last year.
Those messages were not reported in transparency filings. An independent government investigation was launched on Monday, partly focusing on Cameron’s lobbying efforts on behalf Greensill, which appointed him as an adviser in 2018.
Alex Thomas, a former senior civil servant who spent 17 years working in the Cabinet Office, Department of Health, and Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, believes ministers did not breach any rules. However, he says the code itself is at fault.
“The fact that ministers do not declare telephone conversations or private meetings or text messages is, in a sense, a loophole,” said Thomas, who is now a director at the Institute for Government thinktank.
“It means that their contacts [with lobbyists] are not publicly available. And I think the threshold at the moment is too high, and a bit arbitrary,” he added.
The code, which was formalised in the 1990s, says ministers who meet and discuss official business without another official present, “for example at a social occasion or on holiday”, should pass any “significant content” back to the department as soon as possible afterward. Those meetings are meant to be published in transparency filings, released four times a year.
Tom Brake, a former Liberal Democrat MP who helped design the lobbying register while he was deputy leader of the House of Commons, has written to the cabinet secretary Simon Case, asking him to review what appears to be a “gaping hole” in the rules.
He has also urged Case to clarify whether Sunak and others including Jesse Norman – a junior Treasury minister who Cameron also contacted – should have reported their discussions with the former prime minister in quarterly meeting reports.
“Ministers have either broken ministerial code repeatedly by failing to log these contacts with [Cameron] and potentially any number of other ex-conservative ministers, or the ministerial code is so weak that it is meaningless,” Brake said.
“The ability of ministers to evade the transparency rules by simply having a private phone conversation, means that the code is fundamentally defective” said Brake, who now works for the campaign group Unlock Democracy.
Cameron released a statement on Sunday, saying he accepted that he should have communicated with ministers “through only the most formal of channels” and there were “important lessons” to be learned.
A government spokesperson said: “The chancellor has acted in line with the ministerial code.”