A former top civil servant who went on to serve as a director of scandal-hit Greensill Capital is facing questions over a string of meetings he held with the head of the Cabinet Office after leaving Whitehall, as a Guardian investigation shows he had a shareholding in Greensill potentially worth $8m before the lender collapsed.
Bill Crothers, who worked in Whitehall for eight years and founded the Crown Commercial Service, controlling more than £40bn of government purchases, is being accused of benefiting from a “culture of impunity” at the heart of government.
Greensill is at the centre of a high-profile lobbying scandal, after the former prime minister David Cameron, who was a special adviser to the Greensill board and partly paid in share options, was found to have sent texts and emails to ministers as he sought approval for policies that would benefit the lender. On Monday, an independent government investigation was launched into Cameron’s lobbying efforts, and the role that the lender’s founder, Lex Greensill, held as a special adviser in the prime minister’s office during his premiership.
Crothers chaired the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) from 2012 to 2015, collecting a salary of up to £149,000 a year before leaving for the private sector. Eight months after leaving Whitehall in 2015, he became a director at Greensill in August 2016, according to records at Companies House.
The UK’s largest public procurement agency, operated from within Whitehall, CCS buys everything from the services of locum doctors to laptops, police cars and electricity. During his time in Whitehall, Crothers is reported to have helped Greensill insert itself within the government’s purchasing activities.
Greensill’s business model centred on offering small companies and employees advance loans on invoices and pay cheques, for a fee. Under Cameron, Greensill’s founder lobbied to expand supply chain finance within state contracts, including between the NHS and pharmacies.
Australian documents, which detail shareholdings in Greensill’s parent company, show Crothers stood to benefit financially from the lender’s success. He held at least 3,653 shares in 2019, and Greensill Capital’s annual report for 2019 claimed shares issued to employees could be worth about $2,163 each, valuing Crothers’ stake at an estimated $7.9m (£5.7m).
The stake could have been worth much more if Greensill had successfully floated on the stock market at the $7bn valuation being touted by the lender to potential investors last year. Instead, the company collapsed into administration in early March, rendering shareholdings worthless.
“It seems to be a sort of culture of impunity, that people like both Cameron and Crothers, have the untrammelled right to exploit their knowledge of people, their knowledge of how government works, and have the right to benefit privately financially out of it,” said the Labour MP Margaret Hodge. “It’s just extraordinary.”
After leaving office, Crothers held at least five meetings with a Whitehall official between 2016 and 2020.
Transparency records show he met the permanent secretary John Manzoni, who was in charge of the day-to-day running of the Cabinet Office until last year, in April 2016, December 2016, January 2018 and May 2018. The last occasion was a breakfast meeting in February 2020.
Details about the purpose of these meetings are vague, and information that would have been provided by Manzoni in the transparency documents has described the discussions on “commercial capability,” “stakeholder relationship” and “business issues.” Crothers is not declared as having approached Manzoni on behalf of any private company.
Company records show Crothers incorporated his own management consultancy two months before leaving office, in September 2015. He named the company “Commercial Common Sense”, after one of his own catchphrases from his time at the CCS, and mirroring the government agency’s own acronym.
The ex-civil servant also attended a “private drinks” meeting between Matt Hancock, David Cameron and Lex Greensill in October 2019, according to the Times. That meeting was not logged in government transparency filings. However, Hancock reportedly fed the relevant information to officials at the department of health and directed Greensill to speak with NHS trusts directly, according to the minister’s allies, cited by the Times.
The shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, Rachel Reeves, said: “Every day the Greensill scandal brings new concerning questions.
“These details on shareholdings and continued a lack of transparency underline how important it is that David Cameron – and those Conservative ministers caught in the web of the Greensill scandal – come before parliament to bring all the facts out into the open.”
It has previously emerged that Crothers’ decision to take a role at Greensill was not reported to the advisory committee on business appointments (Acoba). Former ministers and senior civil servants are expected to report any new roles taken within two years of leaving office to their former departments, and the information is passed on to Acoba to review.
Acoba gives advice on how to avoid conflicts of interest based on the government’s wider business appointment rules, but those are not legally binding. It does not have the power to block appointments.
Crothers has declined to comment.
The Cabinet Office declined to provide any further detail on Crothers’ meetings with Manzoni. “Senior officials and ministers routinely meet with a range of private sector stakeholders,” a government spokesperson said. “These meetings are published in line with transparency procedures to ensure appropriate scrutiny of such meetings,” they added.
Cameron broke his silence on Sunday, but has still not confirmed the value of his own shareholding in the company. The Observer revealed over the weekend that Cameron stood to benefit from a $30m Greensill employee benefit trust registered in Jersey.
Crothers was a consultant at Accenture for 21 years before entering government in 2007. He remains a fellow of the accountants’ professional body, the ICAEW, and received a CBE for services to business in 2018.