Boris Johnson today backed Lord Pickles after the government watchdog warned over a lack of ‘boundaries’ in civil service links to business and said ‘excuses’ are being used to avoid checks.
The PM said he ‘thoroughly’ agreed after the peer, head of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, delivered a damning assessment of the revolving door between Whitehall and the private sector.
The former Cabinet minister said his ‘eyebrows raised the full quarter-inch’ when it emerged procurement chief Bill Crothers had been allowed to join Greensill as an adviser in September 2015 alongside his £149,000 role.
The permission was given through an internal ‘conflicts’ process at the Cabinet Office – meaning he was never required to run it past Acoba.
Giving evidence to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee – which has launched an inquiry – Lord Pickles said he wanted to know how many other civil servants had a similar arrangement.
Asked about Mr Crothers not requiring Acoba’s approval before moving to take a post with Greensill Capital, the former Cabinet minister said: ‘That raises some of the problems.
‘This is not particularly unusual in terms of civil servants having second jobs but it is not usually seen at this level of the civil service.
‘At the level that Mr Crothers was, the kind of way the system would have been used would have been to allow them to offer advice to Citizens’ Advice or some other voluntary organisation, or sit on a board of a housing association or be involved with a health authority.
‘That usually would present no problem because it would not usually involve any remuneration.
‘So I was surprised with regard to the excuse and it did seem, talking to other colleagues who had enjoyed being civil servants in the past, that they also shared my surprise – this seems to be a new thing, or a new excuse.’
Lord Pickles said many of the outside interests taken on by civil servants were harmless.
In an apparent reference to his time as Communities Secretary, the peer said: ‘When I was Secretary of State I had a director whose husband ran a large travel agency, she was a director in that. I couldn’t see a problem in that.’
Lord Pickles, head of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, delivered a damning assessment of the revolving door between Whitehall and the private sector
Bill Crothers (pictured left) spent several months as Government procurement head and a Greensill board adviser. The then Cabinet Office permanent secretary John Manzoni (pictured right) is thought to have approved the arrangement
The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee chaired by William Wragg (pictured) has launched its own inquiry into lobbying
Lord Pickles said: ‘If Crothers decided he wanted a milk round I don’t think we’d be terribly worried, but his particular position in terms of running procurement and working for a commercial organisation is something that requires a full and frank and transparent explanation.’
In a nod to the lack of powers for the watchdog, Lord Pickles pointed out that around 34,000 people left the civil service last year but Acoba only covered appointments for 108. He also insisted there needed to be ‘consequences’ for people who did not obey its guidance.
Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, the UK’s most senior civil servant, last night ordered Whitehall’s top mandarins to notify him of any second jobs.
Lord Pickles said contractors and consultants to the Government should have to sign a memorandum of understanding about the restrictions that would be placed on them after completing their public sector work.
Explaining some of the ‘anomalies in the system’ regarding Lex Greensill’s work in Downing Street, the peer said: ‘Contractors, consultants, people who arrive and offer assistance, maybe during the pandemic or maybe as Mr Greensill did, they are not covered at all.
‘I think that needs addressing and I think it needs addressing urgently.’
He said there were steps that ‘could be taken now’ to have in place ‘well before the summer’.
‘Someone in Mr Greensill’s place or someone offering advice on health equipment, they should at least sign a memorandum of understanding which would outline their responsibilities, outline the restrictions that would be placed on them once they left working with the Government,’ said the former communities secretary.
‘And I believe that memorandum of understanding should be a transparent one and should be published so everyone understands where they are.’
David Cameron has suggested he will give evidence to a parliamentary inquiry into the Greensill lobbying storm
The Treasury’s probe will almost certainly examine how Lex Greensill enjoyed such access to the heart of government during the Cameron administration (pair pictured in Saudi Arabia in 2020)
Lord Pickles said that the public was ‘entitled’ to know the arrangements for second roles being approved by the Cabinet Office, as with the Bill Crothers case.
‘I would expect it to be recorded in a register, I would have expected that register to be transparent, I would have expected the rules to be known,’ he told the MPs.
‘So far as I know, the rules have never been published, therefore I have asked them to publish the rules – this is not a satisfactory situation.
‘And I think, not only you are entitled to know or I am entitled to know, I think the wider public are entitled to know what these arrangements are, how they apply, what criteria is raised, what checks are raised, what conditions are made on an agreement to do so.’
Mr Johnson said he agreed ‘thoroughly’ with Lord Pickles that reforms were required.
Speaking to broadcasters at Dartmouth College in Devon, Mr Johnson said: ‘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.’
Other former civil servants were today dragged into the row.
The Daily Telegraph reported that Stephen Kelly, who was the government’s chief operating officer from 2012 to 2014, also had roles at three tech companies that briefly overlapped.
‘Upon his appointment as chief operating officer, Stephen resigned all outside commercial directorships, including roles at angel invested companies, and did not attend board meetings relating to previous appointments,’ his spokeswoman told the paper.
The Telegraph also said Lord Hogan-Howe, the former Metropolitan Police Commissioner, was a paid adviser to Greensill at the same time as working at the heart of Whitehall.
‘I advised on product and organisational development but not on opportunities in the Cabinet Office or government,’ he told the paper.
Meanwhile, David Cameron has suggested he will give evidence to inquiries into Greensill as the government reels from another wave of lobbying revelations.
A spokesman for the former PM said he will ‘respond positively’ to any approaches from MPs or the official probe by lawyer Nigel Boardman.
Yesterday the Commons Treasury Committee launched an inquiry into the financial firm’s collapse, which threatens thousands of British jobs at Liberty Steel.
It came after Tory MPs, whipped by the Government, blocked a Labour motion to create a committee to specifically drill down into the lobbying saga.
But the Treasury’s probe will almost certainly examine how Lex Greensill enjoyed such access to the heart of government during the Cameron administration.
And how Mr Cameron, later an adviser and shareholder, used his influence and contacts to lobby ministers and officials on Greensill’s behalf – including texting Rishi Sunak in an unsuccessful effort to secure coronavirus loans.
The Conservative ex-premier has already denied breaching lobbying rules but acknowledged he should have communicated via formal channels.
A spokesman for Mr Cameron said he ‘will respond positively to all such requests when the terms of reference of each inquiry are made clear and any invitations to provide evidence are received’.
‘While he was an adviser to the business and not a board director, he is keen to ensure that lessons from it going into administration are learned,’ the spokesman said.
Boris Johnson (pictured this morning with dog Dilyn) has also tasked City lawyer Nigel Boardman with heading an inquiry into Greensill and lobbying
In a letter to permanent secretaries, Simon Case said the disclosures were a cause of ‘acute concern’.
Sir David Normington, former permanent secretary of the Home Office, this morning said it was ‘absolutely baffling’ Mr Crothers was allowed to have a dual role.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I’ve never come across anything like it in my 40 years in Whitehall. I know Simon Case is checking whether there are any other similar cases, I’d be very surprised if there were.
‘I’m absolutely amazed that Bill Crothers could be allowed to work for Greensill while still in the civil service. But worse this allowed him to evade scrutiny of his appointment after he left the civil service – it’s completely unacceptable.’
Sir Alistair Graham, former chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, said Mr Cameron remained silent about Greensill for so long out of ‘pure embarrassment’.
He told GMB: ‘How else can you explain it. The story unfolded over a long period of time, and the more it unfolded, the worse it got for him. As we found he’d arranged for Greensill and key colleague in Greensill to have a quiet drink with the Health Secretary to try to, and succeed to some extent, sell one of Greensill’s services.’
Cabinet Secretary Simon Case has ordered the heads of all government departments to search their ranks for civil servants taking money for a second job that could pose a potential conflict of interest
Yesterday the Prime Minister insisted he had not spoken to Mr Cameron about his role in the Greensill affair
Mr Johnson has also tasked City lawyer Nigel Boardman with heading an inquiry into Greensill and lobbying.
Yesterday the Prime Minister insisted he had not spoken to Mr Cameron about his role in the Greensill affair.
Speaking at PMQs, he said: ‘The honest truth: I cannot remember when I last spoke to Dave.
‘But if she [Labour MP Ruth Cadbury] wants to know whether I’ve had any contact with him about any of the matters that have been in the press, the answer is no.’
Greensill, a firm that specialised in supply-chain financing, cratered into administration in March this year.
It was a key backer of Liberty Steel, which is now in jeopardy and jobs hang in the balance.
Mr Greensill, an Australian venture capitalist, was brought into government by the late former Cabinet Secretary Lord Heywood under Mr Cameron.
He was given a desk and had a Downing Street business card describing him as a ‘senior adviser’ to the prime minister.