After Greensill, we need lobbying reform to shine a light into the dark corners of Whitehall
The Greensill scandal has brought into sharp focus the need for reform of our lobbying laws to ensure there is complete transparency and robust rules for ex-Ministers, Civil Servants and former Prime Ministers which actually have teeth.
In 2010, David Cameron said of lobbying that “it is the next big scandal waiting to happen. It’s an issue that exposes the far too cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money.’
Little did we appreciate how seriously Mr Cameron would become enmeshed in scandal himself with the collapse of Greensill Capital which has exposed his “far too cosy” relationship with its eponymous founder. When Mr Cameron was Prime Minister, Lex Greensill was given access to and a desk in Downing Street. He had his own No.10 business card and an access all areas pass across Whitehall as a Crown Representative making it easier for him to mine the public sector for business opportunities.
The full list of texts and calls David Cameron made read more like stalking than lobbying
At the height of the pandemic as thousands were dying, Mr Cameron sought to use his many contacts in government and with senior civil servants to obtain preferential treatment for Greensill Capital. A company from which he has earned millions and from which he hoped to earn very much more. The full list of texts and calls Cameron made has now been made public and they read more like stalking than lobbying.
During the Treasury Select Committee hearing, Mr Cameron maintained that he had acted appropriately and without self-interest. His assertion that he was merely trying to help a UK fin-tech pioneer rings increasingly hollow. There are more revelations about the dubious conduct of Greensill and its’ twisted ‘symbiotic’ relationship with the Gupta family of companies.
The Serious Fraud Office has now announced an investigation into suspected fraud, fraudulent trading and money laundering involving both groups. The German regulator is pursuing criminal enquiries into the behaviour of Greensill Bank. There are still unanswered questions about why Greensill Capital was suddenly accredited by the British Business Bank as a conduit for taxpayer backed loans worth hundreds of millions of pounds which it appears to have then promptly lent overwhelmingly to the Gupta businesses. We do not yet know the cost to the public purse of the collapse of Greensill Capital, but it could be in the billions.
This growing scandal has brought into sharp focus the need for reform of the lobbying laws to ensure that there is complete transparency, more timely information and robust rules for ex-Ministers, Civil Servants and ex Prime Ministers which actually have teeth. With the current Prime Minister presiding over it, the Ministerial Code is as Hamlet would say, “more honoured in the breach than the observance.” Nor is Acoba, which exists to authorise any outside jobs ex Ministers and Senior Civil Servants can take upon leaving Whitehall, faring any better.
The revelation that the government’s Chief Commercial Officer, Bill Crothers, circumvented the rules entirely and worked for Greensill at the same time as he was employed in Whitehall was a jaw dropping example of how far expectations of probity have collapsed under this government.
Their conduct during the pandemic in creating VIP lanes for procurement for Conservative party donors and mates, has made a deteriorating situation truly perilous. The brazen award of billions of pounds of lucrative government contracts to friends without competition has made it worse.
The existing lobbying Act was actually a partisan attack on the right of Charities and Trade Unions to express an opinion and campaign in the run up to a General election. It did nothing to regulate the activities of Mr Cameron or Mr Greensill. Their behaviour would have gone unnoticed without some outstanding investigative journalism drawing it to our attention. It is now time to shine a light into the dark corners of Whitehall and regulate lobbying properly.
Angela Eagle is the Labour MP for Wallasey.