Crothers quizzed on role with firm that sold NHS wage app to Greensill

Appointments watchdog seeks answers from government's former chief commercial officer over involvement with venture-capital company PUBLIC Group
Photo: Photoshot for CSW

By John Johnston

29 Apr 2021

The Advisory Committee on Business Appointments has sought an explanation from Bill Crothers over his involvement with a venture capital firm which later sold a wage app to Greensill Capital.

The lobbying watchdog has written to Crothers, who was the government's chief commercial officer until November 2015, asking him to detail his involvement with PUBLIC Group, a venture capital firm owned by former David Cameron adviser Daniel Korski.

Crothers, who had already taken up a role as a director of Greensill Capital in late 2016, was listed as a member of PUBLIC Group's advisory board when it launched in early 2017, which was less than two years after leaving government, and therefore within the period where it would need to be declared.

A statement from the PUBLIC Group at the time said the advisory board would help "steer" and "support" companies involved with its GovStart programme, which helps start-ups win public sector contracts.

One of those firms later involved in the programme, FreeUP, was purchased in late 2019 by for an undisclosed sum before being renamed Earnd UK.

Crothers is already facing scrutiny over his apparent failure to disclose other roles to Acoba, while a series of lobbying inquiries into Greensill will examine his role as an adviser, and later a director, to the collapsed financial firm.

A PUBLIC Group spokesperson said Crothers had been invited to join its advisory board but that ihe board had never met and was later dissolved. They added that while Crothers had spoken to some companies involved with GovStart, the list did not include FreeUp.

Earnd UK was rolled out to the NHS earlier this year, with the company claiming it allowed "thousands" of NHS employees to access their wages before payday, but was placed into administration on 31 March following the collapse of Greensill.

Acoba said it had not received an application about the role, despite an obligation on former ministers and senior government officials to consult the watchdog about any appointments they plan to take up within two years of leaving the civil service.

A spokesperson for the anti-corruption watchdog told CSW sister title PoliticsHome: "I can confirm that the Committee did not receive an application about this role. We have written to Mr Crothers seeking an explanation for this.

"In line with our policy on transparency, the correspondence will be published in due course."

Crothers was listed as a member of the advisory board in a series of reports published by PUBLIC Group throughout 2017 and 2018. However, the company said the advisory group had never eventually met and had been dissolved in mid-2019.

A spokesperson said: "Bill Crothers was never remunerated for any work with PUBLIC. When PUBLIC was established in 2017 we invited people to join an advisory board but it never met and was dissolved.

"We invited a range of people to speak to startups and he was one of those who did.

"Bill Crothers had no involvement in PUBLIC beyond that. At the time of FreeUp's inception, PUBLIC had no relationship with Bill Crothers. He played no role for PUBLIC in the sale of FreeUp to Greensill."

They added: "While the advisory board's membership was listed in our reports, and did occasionally change, its members had no role in the business and the group never met.

"As a result, by mid 2019, the advisory board had been deemed unnecessary and was dissolved."

According to Companies House documents, Crothers went on to become a director of FreeUp Financial Limited in April 2020, just months after it was purchased by Greensill – where he was still a director – and less than a fortnight before it was renamed to Earnd UK.

Crothers remained a director of the firm, which he said offered "significant benefits to employees", until February this year.

Before being placed into administration, the company had also brought on former Labour home secretary Lord David Blunkett and former homelessness tsar Dame Louise Casey to join its advisory board.

In a blog post in December 2019, Korski claimed the advance-wage app "grew out" of an idea he had in 2015, and that Greensill had purchased the firm because it "recognised the incredible potential of the idea even before it launched its full offering".

Earlier this month, it was revealed that former prime minister David Cameron had attempted to lobby NHSX chief Matthew Gould for access to NHS data to support Earnd's activities.

In emails seen by The Sunday Times, Cameron approached Gould on behalf of "one of the businesses I now work with", saying the payment app "addresses one of your key priorities: helping all NHS employees’ welfare, morale and wellbeing".

He added: "As you can imagine, [health secretary] Matt Hancock... as well as the many trust CEOs are extremely positive about this innovative offer."

Bill Crothers has been approached for comment.

John Johnston is a reporter for CSW's sister publication PoliticsHome, where this story first appeared.

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