Soon-to-retire officials stand in the way of tackling 'cronyism', senior MP says amid Greensill scandal

Civil servants and politicians nearing the end of government careers "don't want to have the conversation", Bernard Jenkin says
Photo: REUTERS/Alamy Stock Photo/Fabian Bimmer

Government has failed to tackle the “culture of cronyism” that has once again been brought to light in the Greensill lobbying row because civil servants and politicians who are about to retire “don’t want to have the conversation”, an influential MP has said.

Sir Bernard Jenkin said today that the unfolding scandal in which David Cameron is alleged to have lobbied ministers on behalf of Greensill Capital revealed a culture that was “not acceptable” to the public.

Jenkin, who chairs parliament’s Liaison Committee and previously led the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee for 10 years, said the ex-PM’s behaviour reflected “a culture, a very casual way of running governments and running the country that didn’t start with David Cameron… this very informal way of conducting relationships about very important matters and the distribution of managing public money”.

“It’s been a culture in Whitehall that’s been building up for a very long time, that the people you deal with, the contracts you let, the businesses you deal with or regulate while you’re in government, you can then go and get a job with or benefit from when you leave government,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme.

He said that while he would not pass judgement on Cameron, most of the public would find the practice “questionable”.

But he said reforming the rules on where former civil servants or ministers can work, or when they can take up new appointments, would not fix the problem. At the moment, they must seek approval from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments to take up any new post in the two years after leaving government.

He also called Acoba “toothless”, because it cannot hand out sanctions to former ministers and officials.

He said a cultural change would be needed instead, which must be driven by changes to the civil service and ministerial codes.

“The lamest excuse for anything is ‘it was within the rules, I haven’t broken any rules’. What you need is a much stronger expectation generated in public life, that when people try and insinuate that ‘when you leave public life, we might be able to do something for you,’ you should report that, that should be called out.” He said this practice should be embedded in the ministerial and civil service codes to ward off “implied offers”.

Asked whether there should be a public inquiry into the Greensill scandal, Jenkin said the “sensible thing” would be to ask the prime minister’s adviser on ethics and the ministerial code to conduct such a code.

However, he noted that there has been no such adviser in place since Sir Alex Allan resigned from the role 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. “As soon as one is appointed, and I hope it’s very soon, that’s the person who should conduct an inquiry. And I hope it’s a condition that that person shouldn’t take the job unless they can do this.”

“This subject has been avoided for years and years,” he added. “There are too may at the top of politics and the top of the civil service who don’t want this conversation to happen because they’re about to retire.”

Asked how he thought the Greensill affair had affected public confidence in government, Jenkin said: “This is pretty devastating, pretty corrosive. It is exactly the kind of cronyism that we campaigned against in opposition and the Labour Party are now campaigning against in opposition. We ought to do something about it, and it starts with the civil service code and the ministerial code.”

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