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Boardman review needs to lead to change in government

What matters is that changes follow from Nigel Boardman’s review

Setting out the facts of Lex Greensill’s appointment and the role he played in government is useful. But what matters is that changes follow from Nigel Boardman’s review, says Tim Durrant

The Cabinet Office has published the review into Lex Greensill’s role in government, his supply chain finance product and David Cameron’s lobbying on his behalf.[1] While Nigel Boardman was never intending to make recommendations in this review – they will follow later in the year – there is a risk that the government considers the matter closed and does not take any action. That would be a mistake – there are lessons to be learned and urgent changes to be made.

Greater transparency of direct appointments is needed

The first question Boardman set out to address was how Greensill first got a job in government, and what he was doing. Lord (Jeremy) Heywood, the late cabinet secretary, was a key supporter of Greensill, and pushed for him to be brought into government. Normally, a direct appointment like this would require ministerial sign-off, but Boardman was unable to find any records that this was granted. There is no suggestion that Heywood acted for any reason other than to support what he thought was a promising innovation, but Greensill’s appointment, seemingly on the merit of Heywood’s support alone, and with no more formal processes to agree contracts, wait for security checks to or to formalise the sign-off, is worrying.

As Boardman argues, “this area of public appointments is opaque and ill-defined. The process should be more clearly delineated, and requires greater transparency to maintain public confidence.” The Cabinet Office have said that a more robust process is now in place, but details are vague. As the Institute has argued, much greater clarity over the roles and remits of direct appointees, regardless of whether they are appointed by ministers or the cabinet secretary, is needed.

The Cabinet Office should also explain the new process, and how it is properly understood and applied in government, to avoid repeats of the instances where, as Boardman documented, senior officials “assumed that all relevant processes had been followed.” There must be confidence that those giving out No.10 business cards are in post on merit, and that those who appoint them can explain why.

The watchdog on post-government jobs needs to have the powers to enforce the rules

Boardman’s review also looked into the clearance given to Bill Crothers, a former Crown Representative, to work for Greensill. The Cabinet Office approved Crothers' work at Greensill during the last few months of his period in public employment, but after leaving government Crothers neglected to get approval from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) for a new role at Greensill. As Boardman says, Crothers clearly believed his initial clearance from the Cabinet Office was enough – it was an unintentional mistake rather than a deliberate attempt to get around the rules.

But the fact that Crothers could take on a new role at Greensill without seeking clearance from ACOBA shows that the current system is not working. As we have argued in the past, the rules for post-government jobs need to be strengthened, with ACOBA given a statutory footing and the ability to fine people who do not seek the required approval, or who breach its conditions.

The rules on lobbying need strengthening as well

Boardman’s review also looks into former prime minister David Cameron’s role in lobbying for Greensill, particularly at the start of the pandemic. Despite concerns about the actions of Cameron and Crothers, Boardman argues that “the current system and those operating within it worked well” because Greensill was not ultimately awarded any government support. However, this downplays the fragility of the rules on lobbying.

To avoid former ministers putting themselves, their predecessors or senior officials in the same situation, the rules need to be strengthened. The ban on former cabinet ministers from lobbying the government should be extended from two to five years after leaving office, and all lobbyists, whether working in-house or as consultants, should have to join the official lobbying register. Government departments also need to take their commitment to transparency much more seriously, publishing high-quality information on all their ministers’ and senior officials’ meetings and discussions (whether by phone, email or messaging app) with outside groups. Only then will the public be reassured that the government is not trying to hide things.

Boardman will publish his recommendations ‘shortly’, likely to mean the autumn. If so, they will be accompanied by a number of select committee reports into the Greensill affair. The prime minister is also due to update the ministerial code. So by the end of this year we will know whether the prime minister is willing to take the action necessary to improve standards in government. Johnson does not have a good record on propriety and ethics, but he will soon be given an opportunity to bring about much-needed change.

  1. Cabinet Office, Findings of a Review into the Development and Use of Supply Chain Finance in Government, 22 July 2021…
Political party
Prime minister
Johnson government
Cabinet Office
Public figures
David Cameron
Institute for Government

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