Prime minister Boris Johnson has spoken in defence of senior civil servants as the Greensill Capital lobbying scandal has shone a spotlight on top officials’ second jobs as well as former PM David Cameron’s work for the firm.
Johnson said it would be wrong to conclude it was common for senior officials to have second jobs following the revelation last week that former chief commercial officer Bill Crothers was on the payroll of Greensill while he was still a civil servant.
On a campaign visit to Gloucestershire, ahead of next month’s local government elections, Johnson said top officials moonlighting was rare, although details have yet to emerge of departmental second-job figures demanded by cabinet secretary Simon Case last week.
“People should not, in my view, form the impression that the upper echelons of the British civil service have got loads of people who are double-hatting, as it were, doing two jobs – it just isn’t true,” Johnson told reporters.
“We’ve got one of the best civil services in the world.
“They are fantastically hard-working people, they have been doing an amazing job throughout this Covid pandemic, apart from anything else, and I just wouldn’t want people to get that impression. It is simply not the case.”
Johnson was speaking on the day that MPs on two influential select committees published the terms of reference for their separate inquiries into the Greensill scandal.
The Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee pledged a “full inquiry” which will look at “significant concerns about the propriety of governance” and the effectiveness of the so-called “Nolan Principles” introduced in the 1990s to combat sleaze in government.
PACAC’s terms of reference for the inquiry said that the Greensill revelations risked undermining public trust in government and that rules to prevent conflicts of interest – and the regulation of access by current and former politicians and officials – would be part of the work.
It will also take evidence on the codes governing the conduct of ministers, special advisers and civil servants – including how well they are understood and complied with.
Other areas of interest are the way potential conflicts of interest are managed, and the scope of the government’s Business Appointment Rules.
Last week it emerged that Crothers and the Cabinet Office did not believe the rules applied to his post-Whitehall appointment as a Greensill director because the former chief commercial officer had already been cleared to work for the firm as a civil servant. Lord Eric Pickles, chair of watchdog the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, said he was not convinced by the argument.
Over the weekend, PACAC chair William Wragg said he hoped to take evidence from all living former prime ministers as part of the probe. The Nolan Principles were published in 1995 and contained in the first report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, chaired by Lord Michael Nolan and set up by the government of John Major.
Setting out the terms of reference for PACAC’s inquiry, Wragg said he believed most politicians and civil servants fulfilled their roles “honourably” but that it was time to examine the robustness of current checks and balances.
“Maintaining and defending that honourable position matters – that’s precisely why this affair has to be scrutinised,” he said.
“We will look in to whether the rules need tightening up and clarifying and we will make any necessary recommendations without fear or favour.”
Treasury Committee chair Mel Stride told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme he was also hoping that his panel would take evidence from former prime minister David Cameron. Cameron was employed as a lobbyist for Greensill from 2018 – and made direct personal contacts with chancellor Rishi Sunak and other Treasury ministers to seek helpful treatment for the company.
The Treasury Committee’s probe is described as a “short inquiry” and will look at lessons for the financial system and its regulation from the failure of Greensill Capital and lessons for HM Treasury and its associated public bodies from its interactions with the firm.
Last week the prime minister set up a lawyer-led “Review into the Development and Use of Supply Chain Finance (and associated schemes) related to Greensill Capital in Government”. It is being spearheaded by Nigel Boardman, who is lead non-executive director at the Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
Public appointments commissioner gets term extended
On Monday the government announced that it was adding five months to the term in office of public appointments commissioner Peter Riddell to allow for “a proper handover period” with his successor.
Riddell’s five-year term was due to end this month, but a statement from Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove acknowledged that the recruitment process for the next commissioner was still ongoing.
“I am grateful that Peter Riddell has agreed to extend his tenure as commissioner for public appointments for a short period, allowing good time for parliament to undertake pre-appointment scrutiny of the government’s preferred candidate as the next commissioner – once announced – and a smooth transition in this important role,” he said.
The statement said the recruitment process for Riddell’s successor was “close to conclusion” but that his term in office was being extended until the end of September.
Riddell has been highly critical of standards in government in recent months, expressing concerns over unregulated appointmentns – such as that of Baroness Dido Harding at NHS Test and Trace – and advance briefings focused on preferred candidates for other public positions.