Former civil service chief commercial officer Bill Crothers did not create a conflict of interest when he took up an advisory position at Greensill Capital, one of the country’s former top officials has said.
Sir John Manzoni, who spent six years as civil service chief executive before leaving last year, told a committee of MPs yesterday that both he and the Cabinet Office’s ethics tsar had signed off on Crothers taking a secondment to work as an adviser to the supply chain finance firm.
And Crothers himself – appearing before the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee alongside Manzoni – that descriptions of his conduct as “double hatting” were “not appropriate”.
Concerns have been raised about potential conflicts of interest around Crothers’s adviser role, which overlapped with his civil service job by around three months in 2015. Greensill Capital went on to win a large contract providing early payments to pharmacy staff in 2018, and employed former prime minister David Cameron to lobby aggressively for further public sector contracts.
But Crothers told the MPs his position was a “transitional arrangement”. He had originally intended to leave the civil service and return as a contractor, while at the same time taking up a part-time appointment with Greensill Capital, but was told that would not be appropriate. He said the then-head of the civil service, Jeremy Heywood, had been keen for him to stay on and continue working on a programme to improve commercial capability in the civil service.
“I would like to say that my intention was to completely follow the rules, in spirit and in form,” Crothers said, adding that Greensill Capital had “no plans to do business with the public sector” at the time.
Corroborating this story, Manzoni said that although he became chief exec just three days before Crothers went from full time to part time and took up his Greensill adviser role, “I suppose it was me” who officially approved the secondment.
Manzoni said that despite Crothers’s title, “he was not doing that job”. At the time, the Crown Commercial Service, which manages government procurement, was reporting to Manzoni, he said, while he worked on reforming the civil service using his “functions”-based structure.
“When Bill was around, he had the title but he was not doing the procurement. But in any event, his role until September as defined – and this is written down – was all about capability in the civil service. In fact, he wrote to me saying, ‘I will do three things. I will continue worrying about commercial capability in the civil service; I will advise on big deals, if there are any’ – it turns out there were none; ‘and I will help you find my successor,’ and it turns out he did not. His role was quite specifically defined absolutely not to do with procurement.”
When Crothers began advising Greensill, Manzoni said, “there did not appear to be any conflict”. He said the organisation did not get its first public sector contract until 2018.
“I have seen the correspondence between him and me and Sue [Gray, then-head of propriety and ethics in the Cabinet Office] saying, ‘This all seems fine,’” he added. “In fact, there is an email where Sue says, ‘That is fine. I will talk to the head of Acoba because, for future roles, Bill will want to talk to Acoba about any roles that he took.’”
Crothers’s dual role has come under particular scrutiny amid the Greensill lobbying row because there is no record of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, which signs off on private-sector jobs for civil servants leaving government, having been involved in the process.
“It is important to understand this. Bill through this time… was genuinely trying to do the right thing here. He was not trying to shirk stuff. He was sort of asking for advice from the person who we all felt was in control of this [Gray]. Sue thought quite carefully... But we did not feel there was any conflict to be managed, frankly, at the time.”
Pressed on whether he could understand why people were concerned about Crothers’s position at Greensill overlapping with his commercially-focused government job, Manzoni stressed that he thought it was “important to understand the timeline”.
He conceded that Lex Greensill, the head of the company who was a crown representative in 2014 and had an ill-defined adviser role in No.10, “may well have” had an agenda when he hired Crothers.
And he said civil service leaders should have issued better guidance to Crothers on what he was allowed to do after leaving government – in the same way Acoba does when it comments on appointments.
“I must admit, in retrospect, we probably should have said, ‘By the way, Mr Crothers, you must not lobby or do any of those things for a period after you have left the civil service.’ In retrospect, we probably could and should have been tighter in doing that.”
However, he stressed that Crothers “absolutely” was not lobbying for Greensill in those two years – “not with me anyway, because I was not talking about the Greensill work with him for a long time until he came into my office with Lex” to discuss specific proposals.
Asked about his contact with Crothers once he had left the civil service, Manzoni said he had met Crothers on several occasions, which he would put “under the general category of care and maintenance of relationships with senior people, which is what I do all the time”.
He stressed that those conversations could not be construed as lobbying by Crothers.
Manzoni also said he had met Lex Greensill “a few times”, sometimes with Crothers, and that those meetings were always recorded. He said he played a “convening role”, bringing in the Treasury and Ministry of Defence to discuss various proposals to provide supply chain finance to the government, but that those were also not lobbying but discussions about “specific pieces of business”.