Top commercial official ‘worked for civil service and Greensill at same time’

Anti-corruption watchdog tells Cabinet Office to publish its conflicts of interest policy as clearance loophole emerges
Former government chief commercial officer Bill Crothers

By Jim Dunton

14 Apr 2021

Former government chief commercial officer Bill Crothers was cleared to work for Greensill Capital at the same time as doing his Whitehall day job, the Cabinet Office has revealed.

Hours after prime minister Boris Johnson ordered an independent inquiry into government’s use of supply-chain finance and the collapsed financial firm Greensill Capital, new details emerged of the process that allowed Crothers to take up a role with the firm.

Former prime minister David Cameron’s lobbying on behalf of Greensill has been the focus of much attention in recent weeks. But last month Crothers’ 2016 appointment as a director of Greensill came under scrutiny for being made without the involvement of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments.

The anticorruption watchdog, currently chaired by Lord Eric Pickles, scrutinises new appointments sought by former ministers and top civil servants for two years after they leave office to ensure individuals are not seeking to benefit from privileged information.

Correspondence between Cabinet Office perm sec Alex Chisholm and Pickles published yesterday says Crothers was cleared by an internal departmental process to take up an advisory role with Greensill in 2015 while he was still a civil servant and did not need new clearance in 2016 after he left the civil service.

In a response to Chisholm, Pickles wrote: “Mr Crothers and the Cabinet Office have both informed ACOBA that he joined Greensill in September 2015, as an advisor to its board, whilst he was still employed as a civil servant.

“This was agreed by the Cabinet Office under its internal conflicts of interest policy. The Cabinet Office confirmed that as the government’s rules relate to new appointments or employment, an application would only be required for new appointments, or if a role substantially changed.”

Pickles called on the Cabinet Office to publish its conflicts of interest policy, give details of the “historic and current” number of officials cleared to take up jobs under it, and to publish an appropriate register of interests in line with the government’s transparency requirements.

Pickles concluded: “The lack of transparency around this part time employment with Greensill may have left the misleading impression that Mr Crothers had wilfully ignored the obligation to seek advice.”

The Greensill inquiry announced on Monday will be chaired by Nigel Boardman, a legal expert and lead non-executive director at the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

The government has not set a timeline for the investigation, but said Boardman will report his findings to Johnson “no later than the end of June”.

Shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves questioned whether the inquiry would be truly independent.

She said it had “all the hallmarks of another cover-up by the Conservatives” and smacked of the governing party attempting to "mark its own homework".

“We need answers on Greensill now – that means key players in this cronyism scandal like David Cameron, Rishi Sunak and Matt Hancock appearing openly in front of parliament as soon as possible to answer questions,” Reeves said.

Liaison Committee chair Sir Bernard Jenkin said the prime minister’s adviser on ethics and the ministerial code would be best placed to lead a public inquiry into the scandal.

The Conservative MP said it was unfortunate the role had not been filled since Sir Alex Allan resigned over Boris Johnson’s handling of an inquiry into bullying by home secretary Priti Patel.

“The sooner there is a new appointment, the better,” he said, adding that it should be a requirement that candidates should not take the job on unless they were able to conduct such an inquiry.

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