The Treasury’s top civil servant has confirmed that David Cameron lobbied him by mobile phone on behalf of finance firm Greensill, telling an MPs’ committee it was “quite natural” for officials to take calls from people they had previously worked with.
Permanent secretary Sir Tom Scholar told the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee that Mr Cameron had his work mobile number because he had worked from him during his time as prime minister.
He told the committee – which has launched an inquiry into the company’s lobbying of government – that he received a number of text messages from Cameron in March and April 2020, but the 7 April call was the last contact he had with the former PM, who was employed as a lobbyist by Greensill.
Meanwhile, Sir Tom’s second-in-command Charles Roxburgh confirmed that he held nine conference-call meetings with Greensill to discuss its request for access to Covid support funding and its proposal to act as a conduit for loans to businesses hit by the pandemic.
Challenged by committee chair Meg Hillier over whether other lobbyists would have found it as easy to access him as Mr Cameron, Sir Tom said: “From time to time I have calls from other senior people – maybe senior private sector people – who I’ve previously worked with in another capacity.
“I think it’s natural when somebody that you know asks to speak to you, it’s quite natural to take that call.”
Scholar told the committee that Greensill made clear from its first approach to the government that Mr Cameron was acting as its adviser.
And he said officials were aware that the former PM had spoken to chancellor Rishi Sunak – who promised to call him in a text message on 3 April – as well as ministers Jesse Norman and John Glen.
But he said he did not feel “at all” under pressure to treat the company differently because of these contacts.
“We certainly knew that he had spoken to the chancellor, because the chancellor immediately after taking that phone call reported the content of the call through his private office to the department,” Sir Tom told MPs. “It’ exactly what he is supposed to do.”
Mr Roxburgh said that he “did not feel under any undue pressure or inappropriate pushing from the chancellor or the economic secretary, who are the two ministers I deal with most and who relayed to me their conversations with Mr Cameron”.
He told MPs: “I did not feel under any pressure. I was following my normal process to listen to representations, consider them, advise ministers and then – as you have heard – reject them.”
Mr Roxburgh said his meetings with Greensill spanned March to June 2020, when he was leading the Treasury team developing the Covid Corporate Financing Facility (CCFF) to shore up large firms in difficulties due to the pandemic.
He had three calls with the company’s founder Lex Greensill and director Bill Crothers – previously the government’s chief commercial officer – but all came on his work phone and none on his mobile, he said.
Greensill was rejected for CCFF funding because it did not meet the criteria for the scheme, and its proposal to distribute Covid loans on behalf of the state was also turned down, he said.
MPs repeatedly challenged Mr Roxburgh over amount of time senior Treasury figures spent in discussions with Greensill, a relatively new firm offering an unconventional approach to speeding up supply chain payments.
“I talk to a lot of companies,” said Mr Roxburgh. “It’s a very important part of my job.
“During this period, I was talking to a lot of companies about the situations facing them, the crisis and how to respond.”
Ms Hillier told the committee that there was “a danger of government by WhatsApp”, referring to the encrypted messaging system favoured by many in Westminster.
Sir Tom said he was not aware if there was a ban on Treasury officials using WhatsApp.
But he told the committee: “We do have very clear rules that all of our business needs to be conducted in the correct way and needs to be recorded.”
He said that the Nolan principles which govern standards in public life recognised that there was a role for lobbying of government .
And he said it was “essential” that civil servants were able to advise ministers confidentially on policy issues, without fear that their words would be made public.