British lobbying scandal deepens as Health Secretary Hancock accused of 'cronyism'

Health Secretary Matt Hancock was accused of "cronyism" over the award of contracts to a company he owns shares in. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (BLOOMBERG) - The controversy engulfing the British government over its ties to business intensified as it emerged a second official held a position at Greensill Capital while still in post, and Health Secretary Matt Hancock was accused of "cronyism" over the award of contracts to a company he owns shares in.

NHS Wales gave Topwood two contracts worth £150,000 (S$275,220) for "confidential waste destruction" last month.

Mr Hancock, who is responsible for the National Health Service in England, has declared in the register of interests for members of Parliament that he owns 15 per cent of shares in the firm.

His sister, Ms Emily Gilruth, is a director of the firm, according to official records.

Mr Hancock "acted entirely properly in these circumstances" and "no conflict of interest arises", a government spokesman said.

His connection with the company was first reported by the Health Service Journal.

The furore over lobbying began with former prime minister David Cameron's advocating on behalf of Greensill, but it is rapidly widening to the potential overlap between official and personal interests and threatens to taint Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservative administration.

Mr Hancock's connection to Topwood reveals the "cronyism at the heart of this government", Mr Jon Ashworth, health spokesman for the main opposition Labour Party, said on Twitter.

'Tory sleaze'

It comes after Labour leader Keir Starmer told MPs on Wednesday (April 14) that the growing scandal surrounding Greensill Capital was "just the tip of the iceberg" for the government.

"Dodgy contracts, privileged access, jobs for their mates," he said. "This is the return of Tory sleaze."

Late on Thursday, it emerged that Mr David Brierwood took up a post as a "Crown Representative" in the Cabinet Office in October 2014, joining Greensill two months later, his LinkedIn profile showed.

A person familiar with the matter confirmed the two positions overlapped.

The former Morgan Stanley banker held both roles for more than three years before quitting his government post in June 2018. He left Greensill in February, and the lender collapsed in March.

Mr Brierwood did not immediately respond to an e-mailed request. His dual roles were first reported by The Guardian.

The Cabinet Office said in a statement that Mr Brierwood's government role did not touch on supply chain finance, Greensill's specialist area.

Two jobs

While there is no suggestion that Mr Brierwood broke any rules, the fact that he was able to hold the two posts for more than three years will highlight that such a phenomenon was not uncommon.

It follows the revelation earlier this week that Mr Bill Crothers joined Greensill as an adviser to its board in September 2015, two months before he left his post as the government's Chief Commercial Officer.

The company's founder, Mr Lex Greensill, worked as a government adviser when Mr David Cameron was prime minister, and Mr Cameron then took a post at the firm after leaving office.

He went on to lobby at least four current government ministers on behalf of the company, including Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak and Mr Hancock. Mr Cameron served as prime minister between 2010 and 2016.

'Propriety checks'

"All Crown Representatives go through regular propriety checks and cannot work with a supplier where there could be a conflict of interest," the Cabinet Office said in a statement.

It added: "Crown Representatives do not participate in the procurement process nor are they able to award any contracts. They are part-time senior executives recruited for their working knowledge of a sector to help ensure value for money for the taxpayer."

Mr Johnson has ordered an inquiry into supply chain financing and the government's interactions with Greensill.

The controversy has instigated a series of parliamentary probes into the potential conflict of interest at stake for people holding a job in the public and private sector at the same time.

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