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PM: Government needs to understand extent of private sector Civil Service links

Patrick Daly, PA Political Correspondent
·4-min read

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he agreed with ethics chief Lord Pickles that the Government needs to “understand” the relationship between Whitehall and private sector lobbying.

The comments come after a furore developed in Westminster over lobbying by former prime minister David Cameron on behalf of Greensill Capital and the revelation that a top civil servant worked for the failed firm while still employed in his public sector role.

Lord Pickles, chairman of the committee which vets the appointment of senior ministers and officials, told MPs “immediate address” was required to introduce greater transparency over the relationship between Government and businesses.

His comments came after it was discovered that former head of government procurement Bill Crothers began working for collapsed firm Greensill as a part-time adviser in September 2015 – a move approved by the Cabinet Office – and did not leave his Civil Service role until November that year.

The approval of the work meant that, when Mr Crothers took up a job with Greensill later, it did not need to be approved by Lord Pickles’ Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba).

The Conservative peer warned that Mr Crothers’ case highlighted “a number of anomalies within the system” and predicted that it was unlikely to be an “isolated” scenario.

The Prime Minister, asked about Lord Pickles’ comments, told broadcasters: “I think the most important thing is for us to get to the bottom of it properly and I want all ministers and civil servants to be making the information that needs to be known, known to Mr Boardman, and let’s see what he has to say.

“You’re absolutely right, we need to understand what’s gone on here.

“I agree thoroughly with Lord Pickles,” Mr Johnson said, during a visit to the Britannia Royal Naval College in Devon.

Mr Johnson’s endorsement comes after a series of investigations were announced into the Greensill affair.

As well as the review commissioned by Downing Street, led by lawyer Nigel Boardman, the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee (PACAC), Public Accounts Committee (PAC) and Treasury Committee have all announced probes.

David Cameron's lobbying on behalf of Greensill Capital has come under scrutiny
David Cameron’s lobbying on behalf of Greensill Capital has come under scrutiny (Jacob King/PA)

The PAC said it intended to invite Mr Cameron to give evidence during its inquiry.

A spokesman for Mr Cameron previously said he would respond “positively” to any request to give evidence to any of the inquiries that are taking place once the terms of reference have been established.

The controversy over the relationship between Government and the private sector follows disclosures that Mr Cameron personally lobbied Chancellor Rishi Sunak on Greensill’s behalf and was able to arrange for its founder, Lex Greensill, to have a “private drink” with Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

The former Tory party leader has insisted he did not break any rules but acknowledged there are “lessons to be learned”, and that as a former prime minister, any contacts with Government should be through the “most formal channels”.

Mr Johnson’s own concerns over the Greensill affair have led to Cabinet Secretary Simon Case calling on all Whitehall departments to notify him of any senior officials with paid jobs outside Government by the end of the week.

Lord Pickles has called for 'immediate address' regarding transparency over moves by ministers and civil servants
Lord Pickles has called for action to improve transparency (Nick Ansell/PA)

Lord Pickles said the public was “entitled” to know the arrangements for second roles being approved by the Cabinet Office, such as in Mr Crothers’ example, and called for a “full and frank” explanation.

“I mean, if Mr Crothers had decided he wanted to have a milk round or something, I don’t think we would be terribly worried,” he told PACAC.

“But his particular position, in terms of running procurement and working for a commercial organisation, is something that does require a full and frank and transparent explanation.”

Lord Pickles told MPs it was “not unusual” for civil servants to have paid second jobs, but not at Mr Crothers’ rank, and admitted to being “surprised” by the official’s “excuse” in justifying his former part-time role with the specialist bank.

Sir David Normington, a former Home Office permanent secretary, said it was “absolutely baffling” to learn of the situation surrounding Mr Crothers’ career switch, telling the BBC he had “never come across anything like it in my over 40 years in Whitehall”.

He said it was “essential” for Acoba to sign off on new moves as he pushed for greater oversight on top officials when exiting Whitehall.

The Government used its Commons majority this week to defeat an attempt by Labour to force the creation of a new committee of MPs specifically to examine the issues of lobbying and the Greensill controversy.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said it was “wrong” of the Government to vote the proposal down and that the current lobbying rules “obviously aren’t working”.

“Increasingly we’re seeing a murkier and murkier picture, whether it’s the way contracts are handed out, the lack of due process, or the lobbying, which is not a revolving door but now an open door into Government,” he told reporters during a campaign visit to south Wales.