U.K. Watchdog Calls for Urgent Lobbying Reform on Greensill
(Bloomberg) -- The head of the U.K. watchdog scrutinizing politicians and top civil servants taking up private sector jobs called for urgent reform, warning there are no “boundaries at all” to prevent conflicts of interest.
Eric Pickles, chairman of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, was responding in a parliamentary hearing Tuesday to the revelation that Bill Crothers -- then the government’s chief commercial officer -- was allowed to work for the now insolvent Greensill Capital while still in post in 2015.
In a candid takedown, Pickles warned anomalies in the system must be addressed immediately to prevent a repeat.
“Part of the problem we’ve got is it’s not been clear where the boundaries lay,” he said on Thursday. “There doesn’t seem to have been boundaries at all.”
This week Pickles poured fuel on the Greensill lobbying scandal by releasing a trove of correspondence on Crothers laying bare the revolving door between business and government.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson said it was vital “to understand what’s gone on here.”
“I think the most important thing is for us to get to the bottom of it properly,” he said in a pooled broadcast interview. Johnson urged “all ministers and civil servants” to release all necessary information to Nigel Boardman, who is leading an inquiry for the government.
The furor had centered around former prime minister David Cameron, who joined Greensill after leaving the office, and his lobbying of ministers including Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Health Secretary Matt Hancock. The government has said both Sunak and Hancock acted correctly.
Now more public figures are being dragged into the row, which is reviving memories of the lobbying scandals that plagued the Conservative government of the 1990s and helped usher in 13 years of Labour rule.
The Telegraph newspaper reported that former Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe was a paid adviser to Greensill while he was still sitting on the board at the Cabinet Office.
It is the close links between government and business, and especially with Greensill, whose founder Lex Greensill developed close ties to Cameron’s 2010-2016 administration, that lie at the heart of the controversy.
“I haven’t really come across anything quite like this before,” Pickles said at the hearing. “I have been warning of the possibility of a scandal with regard to this for some time. This is not where I expected it to come from.”
He said advisers like Greensill, who don’t have formal positions, should be made to sign public memorandums of understanding outlining responsibilities -- and restrictions placed on them when they stop working for the government.
Pickles also warned some government departments are not providing enough information to ACOBA about the movements of senior civil servants, describing it as a “cohort entitlement whereby the existing cohort looked after the cohort that just left, in assumption that the cohort coming up would look after them.”
Out of 34,000 people who left the civil service last year, only 108 were scrutinized by his committee -- suggesting there are likely more cases of bureaucrats taking on positions with potential conflicts of interest.
Pickles was speaking to the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, which announced Thursday it is launching its own inquiry into Greensill. That adds to other investigations including that of the Treasury Committee, which is looking into how Sunak responded to Greensill’s overtures, and the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s review of lobbying rules.
In a statement on Sunday, Cameron said he hadn’t broken any rules in his work for Greensill. He didn’t need to report his role to ACOBA because the two-year cooling-off period had elapsed.
Johnson promised a probe led by Boardman in a bid to draw a line under the affair. Yet the premier is also facing pressure in his own party to overhaul the rules on lobbying. Some Tory members of Parliament publicly criticized them during Wednesday’s debate in the House of Commons.
Bob Seely, who represents the Isle of Wight, described the U.K. as an “influence peddler’s paradise.”
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