Treasury permanent secretary Sir Tom Scholar has told MPs probing the Greensill Capital lobbying scandal that he always takes calls from former ministers who want to talk to him.
Scholar’s comments came at a Public Accounts Committee session yesterday where he and Treasury second perm sec Charles Roxburgh were quizzed about their contacts with Greensill, which employed former prime minister David Cameron to lobby for it before the business crashed last month.
Scholar told MPs Cameron had called and texted him in March or early April last year to chase up proposals from the financial firm to take part in the government’s Covid Corporate Financing Facility support scheme. The proposals were ultimately rejected.
The perm sec said he had not taken part in any “physical meetings” about Greensill’s proposals, but joined one conference call in early April.
“Mr Cameron spoke to me on the telephone at around about the same time and sent me some text messages,” he said. “This is end of March, beginning of April 2020. As far as I know, from the records I’ve seen to date, I had no further contact after that phone call on the 7 April.”
Scholar said the former prime minister had been “drawing to our attention the proposal that Greensill had made and asking us to look at it, which we were doing”. He added that the calls had been made to his Treasury mobile phone, and that Cameron would have the number as Scholar used to work for him.
PAC chair Meg Hillier asked Scholar if he took calls lobbying on behalf of Greensill “more readily” because they were made by the former prime minister.
Scholar replied: “If a former minister that I’ve worked with asks to talk to me, I will always do that. The call I took from Mr Cameron was not a substantive discussion of the proposal. I’d been sent a copy of the original proposal and I knew from that letter that Mr Cameron was an adviser to the company. It was simply a call to draw it to my attention.
“I said: ‘Thank you very much. This is something that we’re looking at. Charles Roxburgh is the person leading it’. So it was not a call with any more substance than that. In terms of the actual discussions with the company over their application to the CCFF, I just joined one phone call. I think it was less than half an hour and that was the entirety of my involvement in it.”
Scholar added that he took calls from “private sector people who I’ve previously worked with in another capacity” and that it was “quite natural”.
Cameron also lobbied chancellor Rishi Sunak and other Treasury ministers on the Greensill proposals. The Treasury published text messages sent by Sunak to the former PM earlier this month. It did not publish Cameron’s original messages, however.
Scholar acknowledged that Greensill had behaved “quite persistently” towards the Treasury but insisted the fact its proposals had been rejected demonstrated the firm had been dealt with appropriately.
After the PAC session, HM Treasury published a raft of email exchanges between Greensill and the department underscoring that persistence in response to an FOI request.
One email between Roxburgh and Scholar details a phone conversation between Cameron and the second-perm sec following the rejection of one of Greensill’s proposals. “He wanted to stress the importance of Greensill to SMEs and the UK economy,” Roxburgh wrote. “They were ready to revise their proposal to make it acceptable. He was very confident that a solution could be found.”
Roxburgh said Cameron had sought insight on chancellor Rishi Sunak’s opinions on the decision. “He asked whether CX had a particular view,” Roxburgh wrote. “I said he’d of course had a paper on the decision, but I wasn’t sure whether anyone had discussed it with him. We would keep him closely informed.”
The Treasury also published a letter from economic secretary to the Treasury John Glen, which thanked Cameron and Greensill boss Lex Greensill acknowledging the effort both had put into making the case for extending the CCFF to cover supply-chain finance.
At yesterday's session, Roxburgh told the PAC he had nine meetings with Greensill between March and June last year.
“I talk to a lot of companies. It’s an important part of my job,” he said “I often talked to companies during this period and I was talking to a lot of companies about the situations facing them, the crisis and how to respond.
“It’s quite a normal process for policymaking to talk to companies. Oftentimes you get an idea from talking to an individual company then consult with a range of companies and you decide to go ahead with it or not. That’s a very normal way of making policy.”