Calls by Labour for a watchdog to probe the extent of government access offered to Greensill Capital have been rebuffed.
In a letter to the Committee on Standards in Public Life, the Labour Party asked it to investigate the role David Cameron played in lobbying on behalf of the financial services firm after he left office.
In response, the Committee’s Chair, Lord Evans, said that it “does not have a remit to investigate individual cases.”
Cameron lobbied on behalf of the company not long before it declared bankruptcy and it is alleged that he gave Greensill privileged access to Whitehall departments.
A former chair of the standards committee, Sir Alistair Graham, has called for a full inquiry calling the revelations a “genuine scandal”. But on Tuesday, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng argued that Cameron “did nothing wrong” and resisted calls for an inquiry saying people “should just move on”.
It comes as calls grow to tighten up the UK’s lobbying rules in the wake of the furore.
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Eric Pickles, former Conservative minister and chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA) which reviews former ministers taking jobs in the private sector, has called for a review of lobbying following the revelations about Cameron.
The scandal shines a light on the weakness of current British laws and regulations governing lobbying and business appointments for former government figures. Cameron is, after all, far from alone in picking up lucrative positions in high-profile financial institutions. All three former chancellors – George Osborne, Philip Hammond, and Sajid Javid – have taken work from a variety of City firms. Javid even works as senior adviser to JP Morgan while still a backbencher.
Under current rules all former ministers have to submit any business appointments they plan on accepting to the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments for review for two years after leaving office and are banned from lobbying the government for two years. Senior civil servants face similar rules.
This relatively short period means that there was no examination of Cameron’s appointment to Greensill Capital – which appears to have taken place just after the required disclosure period expired.
The only law that deals directly with lobbying itself is the 2014 Transparency of Lobby Act – passed by Cameron’s own government – which forces lobbyists to register and provide basic information about themselves and their clients.
However, loopholes in the law mean that many who work as lobbyists don’t have to register – including Cameron himself, as he worked as an in-house lobbyist for Greensill, not an independent lobbyist. An amendment to the 2014 law which would have closed this loophole was defeated in the Lords. The lobbying law is already under review following criticism by the Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) of which the UK is a member.
If the UK is serious about toughening up lobbying laws, Ireland and the US are instructive examples. The former introduced tough new transparency requirements in 2015, largely in reaction to a slew of scandals that followed the 2008 financial crash. Irish laws not only set up a register for lobbyists but also require disclosure of any lobbying activity undertaken. Lobbying and lobbying activities are both defined very broadly, which helps to avoid loopholes. Failures to register or provide proper information can result in up to two years in prison. The reforms have since been hailed as a gold standard for lobbying regulations.
The US, meanwhile, also sets the bar very high when it comes to regulating the affairs of former government officials. Under US laws many former officials are required to keep a register of business interests for their entire lives, not just for two years after leaving office. They can also face lifetime bans on lobbying the government on policy issues that they have worked on directly.
Introducing similar laws in the UK would go a long way to cleaning things up lobbying practice in Westminster. The question is whether the government has the will to do so.