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Chair of committee that exposed civil servant's Greensill role not seen 'anything like it'

Sky News logo Sky News 15/04/2021
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The chair of the committee that exposed how the former government chief commercial officer was able to take a job at Greensill Capital while still working in Whitehall has said he's "not really come across anything like it before".

Lord Pickles' Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba) revealed how Bill Crothers worked as a part-time adviser at Greensill for the last three months he was at the Civil Service.

On Thursday, he gave evidence to the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) amid "acute concern" over the affair, which has seen the government accused of a "return to Tory sleaze".

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he agrees "thoroughly" with Lord Pickles.

Lord Pickles told the hearing: "It's fair to say, to misquote PG Wodehouse, my eyebrows did raise the full quarter inch when I heard about it," he told the committee.

"I have been involved in public service a long time and I have not really come across anything like it before."

Lord Pickles said it was not unusual for civil servants to have second jobs, but "certainly not at this level".

"If Mr Crothers had wanted a milk round," he said, "I don't think we would have been terribly worried, but his particular position in terms of running procurement and working for a commercial organisation, is something that does require a full and transparent explanation."

Mr Crothers had been the government's chief procurement officer prior to being taken on by Greensill.

He began working for Greensill as a part-time adviser to the board in September 2015 - in a move approved by the Cabinet Office - and did not leave his Civil Service role until November that year.

David Cameron wearing a suit and tie smiling at the camera: Lord Pickles is giving evidence after David Cameron, Bill Crothers and Lex Greensill have all been in the lobbying spotlight. Pics: PA/Ian Tuttle/Shutterstock © PA Lord Pickles is giving evidence after David Cameron, Bill Crothers and Lex Greensill have all been in the lobbying spotlight. Pics: PA/Ian Tuttle/Shutterstock

Lord Pickles, a former Conservative cabinet minister, added: "Part of the problem we have got is that it has not been clear where the boundaries lay.

"In fact, I hope this does not seem rude - there does not seem to have been any boundaries at all."

The affair, Lord Pickles suggested, had raised questions about a "revolving door" between Whitehall and the private sector with an assumption among civil servants that they will be "looked after".

He said that culture had produced an "entitlement whereby the existing cohort looked after the cohort that just left, in the assumption that the cohort coming up would look after them".

"What we need to demonstrate is that if you break the rules there are consequences, and there are a number of consequences without going to thermo-nuclear option," he said.

The prime minister, speaking after Lord Pickles appeared in front of the committee, said: "I think the most important thing is for us to get to the bottom of it properly.

"I want all ministers and civil servants to be making the information needs to be known, known to Mr Boardman and let's see what he has to say.

"We need to understand completely what's gone here, I agree thoroughly with Lord Pickles."

There also appears to be confusion over Lex Greensill's role, the hearing with Lord Pickles was told.

David Cameron was prime minister when Greensill started to seek government work.

Mr Greensill does not seem to have been a special adviser, Lord Pickles said, but the Australian financier had a business card describing himself as a "No 10 adviser".

If he had been a Special Adviser (known as a SPAD) he would have been covered by the remit of Acoba and his role would have come under scrutiny, but as a "No 10 adviser" he was not.

Signage is seen outside the offices of collapsed finance firm Greensill near Warrington, northwest England, on April 12, 2021. - Pressure mounted on Britain's former premier David Cameron on Monday as the government announced an inquiry into his lobbying of ministers prior to the collapse of finance firm Greensill. (Photo by Oli SCARFF / AFP) (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images) Signage is seen outside the offices of collapsed finance firm Greensill near Warrington, northwest England, on April 12, 2021. - Pressure mounted on Britain's former premier David Cameron on Monday as the government announced an inquiry into his lobbying of ministers prior to the collapse of finance firm Greensill. (Photo by Oli SCARFF / AFP) (Photo by OLI SCARFF/AFP via Getty Images)

Lord Pickles said he believed the public had a right to know when and why the Cabinet Office approved, or not, applications for second roles.

He said: "I would expect it to be recorded in a register. I would have expected that register to be transparent. I would have expected the rules to be known.

"So far as I know, the rules have never been published. Therefore, I have asked them to publish the rules - this is not a satisfactory situation."

The government's links with now-collapsed Greensill first came under scrutiny following disclosures that Mr Cameron personally lobbied Chancellor Rishi Sunak on the company's behalf - and was able to arrange for its founder, Lex Greensill, to have a "private drink" with Health Secretary Matt Hancock.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ordered a review into the activities of the finance firm following weeks of allegations about the links between Mr Greensill, Mr Cameron and government ministers and officials.

But Labour has pushed for a wider inquiry into lobbying.

Speaking on Thursday, Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: "What we are talking about here is lobbying of governments for procurement contracts of millions, sometimes billions of pounds.

"Increasingly we are seeing a murkier and murkier picture, whether it's the way contracts are handed out, the lack of due process or lobbying. Its not a revolving door, it's an open door into government.

"I think its absolutely a sackable offence if somebody is not declaring what they are doing, then they should be removed from office."

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