UK cronyism watchdog queries civil servant’s dual job

LONDON — The chairman of Britain’s cronyism watchdog says the public should be given a “full and frank” explanation as to how a senior civil servant held down a part-time job with a now-bankrupt financial firm that won lucrative government contracts.

The revelations about Bill Crothers are the latest in a tide of information about links between Greensill Capital, a financial services firm that collapsed last month, and former British Prime Minister David Cameron, other government ministers and civil servants. Greensill Capital’s bankruptcy threatens thousands of jobs at a British steelmaker the firm helped finance.

Earlier this week, it emerged that Crothers, who oversaw government purchasing, began working as a part-time adviser to Greensill’s board in September 2015, two months before he left his job as the government’s chief commercial officer.

Eric Pickles, who chairs the U.K.’s Advisory Committee on Business Appointments, said the public was “entitled” to know the arrangements for second roles approved by the Cabinet Office — the government body that helps coordinate policy between government and the civil service.

“I mean, if Mr. Crothers had decided he wanted to have a milk round or something, I don’t think we would be terribly worried,” said Pickles, who was in Cameron’s Conservative-led Cabinet during 2010-2015.

“But his particular position, in terms of running procurement and working for a commercial organization, is something that does require a full and frank and transparent explanation,” he added.

News reports over the last month revealed that Cameron had lobbied senior government officials on behalf of the finance firm founded by Australian banker Lex Greensill, himself a former adviser to Cameron’s government.

Greensill Capital was given a lucrative role in “supply chain finance” arrangements that saw it pay contractors on behalf of the government before receiving reimbursement from the Treasury. The system was designed to expedite payments to contractors, including pharmacies supplying the National Health Service, but critics say the government should just have paid the contractors directly.

Cameron, who quit as prime minister in 2016 after U.K. voters opted to withdraw from the European Union, also worked as a part-time adviser to Greensill in 2018 and held shares in the company.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government defeated an opposition effort to force a parliamentary inquiry into allegations of cronyism and improper lobbying. It has launched its own investigation, led by a lawyer, but opponents doubt it will get to the truth.

However, the House of Commons’ influential cross-party Treasury Select Committee announced that it would begin an investigation next week into Greensill’s collapse and the “appropriateness” of the U.K. Treasury’s response to lobbying. The committee has the power to call witnesses, potentially including Cameron and Treasury chief Rishi Sunak.

A spokesman for Cameron said he would respond “positively” to any request to give evidence in any of the inquiries once the terms of reference have been established.