Senior civil servant who took up Greensill role insists ‘no conflict happened’

A former Government chief commercial officer who became an adviser to Greensill Capital while still working as a civil servant has insisted there was no conflict of interest, amid questions over the firm’s lobbying.

Bill Crothers told MPs on the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) that his intention was to follow the rules “in spirit and in form” when appointed to Lex Greensill’s collapsed financial services firm.

Links between Greensill Capital, a company which was founded by the financier, the Government and David Cameron have come under scrutiny amid controversy over the former prime minister’s lobbying on behalf of the firm.

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Mr Crothers began advising Greensill in September 2015 but remained in his Civil Service role until November that year, after which he carried on working for the financial services firm.

The businessman told MPs: “My intention was to completely follow the rules, in spirit and in form. I was transparent in all that I did and no conflict happened.”

Mr Crothers, who had a long career at Accenture before moving to Whitehall, said it was always his intention to return to the private sector and that he had expressed this to colleagues.

He said that after eight years in the Civil Service, his initial plan was to leave the position of chief commercial officer and immediately contract back as an adviser, while also becoming an adviser with Greensill.

But Mr Crothers said that the Whitehall ethics chief at the time, Sue Gray, advised that it would be more appropriate instead to become a part-time civil servant while taking on the Greensill role.

Lex Greensill
Lex Greensill (House of Commons/PA)

“In the press, the phrase ‘double-hatting’ has been used, and I just feel that is not appropriate – this was a transitional arrangement,” he told MPs.

Mr Crothers said that at the time, Greensill did not have any public sector work and that his responsibilities in the Civil Service were amended after taking on the position at the private firm.

Also appearing before MPs, Sir John Manzoni, permanent secretary for the Cabinet Office between 2015 and 2020, defended the decision to allow Mr Crothers to take on the role at Greensill while working as a civil servant.

He told the committee: “I think it’s easy to throw outrage at this because it sounds so terrible, but I have to say, first of all it’s a complicated area, but second, understand the timeline.

“Do I think we might have been able to be tighter? Yes, fully accepted, but I don’t think there was mal-intent.”

Mr Crothers said that he had discussed joining the board of Greensill with the late former Cabinet secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, who Mr Crothers said had been “extremely positive” about the prospect.

“He said to me that Lex Greensill was a man of the highest integrity and he was supportive of me joining Greensill Capital’s board,” he added.

Mr Crothers said that the endorsement from Sir Jeremy, who died in 2018, was “clearly an influence” in his decision to join the company as an adviser, a role which initially worked out at one day a month.

The businessman said that Sir Jeremy had also “made it clear” that he would like Mr Greensill to become a crown representative in the Cabinet Office, a role the Australian financier was appointed to in 2014.

Ex-Cabinet Office minister Lord Maude of Horsham also appeared before the PACAC committee on Tuesday, as part of its inquiry into matters of public interest around the Greensill controversy.

He said that Sir Jeremy had brought Mr Greensill into Government and had introduced him as “a very clever guy who is going to help you save lots of money” with his supply chain finance proposals.

Lord Maude said that he did not think Mr Greensill’s ideas “stacked up” and could not see how it might help his team, which was tasked with cutting the costs of running the Government following the 2008 financial crash.

Lord Maude authorised Mr Greensill’s initial temporary appointment to the Cabinet Office as an adviser in 2012, but he told MPs: “I have been told that I authorised it, but I have absolutely no recollection of it.”

Details have continued to emerge in reports over recent months, including a business card from Mr Greensill, which saw him titled a “senior adviser, Prime Minister’s office” with a personal Number 10 email address.

Lord Maude said that it was “surprising that he had all that Number 10 paraphernalia” when asked by MPs if it was normal for unpaid advisers to have this level of access.

Greensill provided so-called supply chain finance to businesses, which meant the finance firm would pay a company’s invoice immediately after it was sent, therefore cutting out the usual delay which can restrict companies’ cash flows.

The company was placed into administration in March, threatening thousands of UK jobs at Liberty Steel, which was dependent on its finance.

Nigel Boardman has been tasked by Prime Minister Boris Johnson with looking into the Government’s use of supply chain finance, while committees other than PACAC have launched their own inquiries into the Greensill controversy.