Gabriel Pogrund and Caroline Wheeler
Source: Sunday Times
Downing Street today became embroiled in the “biggest lobbying scandal in a generation” after new evidence emerged of attempts by David Cameron to influence the Government.
The former prime minister intervened on two fronts to promote the company run by disgraced financier Lex Greensill. The Sunday Times can disclose:
• Cameron emailed Boris Johnson’s senior special adviser at No 10 last year within hours of the Treasury rejecting an application from Greensill to access a Covid emergency loan scheme
•He said it was “nuts” to exclude Greensill’s company from a multibillion-pound Covid loan scheme and demanded the government reconsider
•Cameron wrote: “What we need is for Rishi [Sunak] to have a good look at this and ask officials to find a way of making it work”null
•His lobbying led the Treasury to reconsider its decision rejecting Greensill’s application
•In a separate development, it can be revealed that Cameron brought Greensill to a “private drink” with the health secretary in October 2019
•Cameron and Greensill lobbied Matt Hancock to introduce a payment scheme that was later rolled out within the NHS.
•With the help of one of Cameron’s former ministers, Greensill, 44, also met with Dido Harding, the then head of NHS Improvement, and Sir Simon Stevens, the chief executive of the NHS, to pitch his ideas.
•Greensill later launched a partnership with NHS Shared Business Services, jointly run by Hancock’s department allowing up to 400,000 NHS to be paid daily
•The Australian banker planned to make money from the scheme, which was awarded without tender or an open process.
The former prime minister is at the centre of a lobbying scandal after it emerged he contacted ministers on behalf of Greensill Capital, a financial services company he advised and held tens of millions of pounds of share options in. It has since gone bust, threatening 55,000 jobs.
In October 2019, Cameron, 54, arranged and attended a “private drink” with Hancock, and Greensill, an Australian banker whose eponymous firm wanted to introduce a scheme to pay doctors and nurses either daily or weekly, ahead of their usual payday.
They were joined by Bill Crothers, the former head of government procurement who became a director at Greensill Capital. He joined a year after leaving the civil service, where he first met Greensill.
The meeting with Hancock came two months after Greensill had personally sent a letter to the minister proposing a collaboration and claiming senior NHS officials were “overwhelmingly positive” about it. Off the back of that email, Hancock commissioned advice from civil servants about the idea.
One of those copied into the correspondence was Lord Prior, the chairman of NHS England and a minister under Cameron.
Prior, 66, who was awarded a peerage under Cameron, arranged meetings between Greensill and Stevens and Harding, two of the NHS’s most powerful officials. It is understood that Stevens met Greensill briefly at Prior’s behest.
The disclosure means Hancock, the health secretary, is the fourth minister to become embroiled in the biggest lobbying scandal in a generation: the others are Rishi Sunak, who told Cameron he “pushed” officials to consider changing a government scheme, and two other Treasury ministers.
There are no minutes of Hancock’s meeting with Cameron and Greensill. It is not logged in transparency releases and civil servants did not attend.
Allies of Hancock insist he fed relevant information back to officials at the Department of Health. They say that, while generally supportive of Greensill’s ideas, he encouraged him to work directly with NHS trusts on the basis that it was at no extra cost to staff or the taxpayer — and that other suppliers were free to offer the service.
However, months after the encounter, in April last year, NHS Shared Business Services (NHS SBS), a joint vehicle owned by Hancock’s department and a French IT firm, announced a pilot with Earnd — a payment start-up then owned by Greensill. It later said it was being rolled out to “all” NHS organisations.
In practice, it meant 400,000 employees who use NHS SBS for their payroll services became entitled to use Earnd and download it onto their payroll app. Private firms cannot automatically house their services on such platforms and are typically required to bid to get potentially lucrative access to the health service’s vast workforce. In this instance, there was no procurement process or open competition.
Greensill Capital’s subsidiary, Earnd, offered the scheme for free to workers, who could opt to receive their wages daily or weekly. The organisation actually providing the immediate payment in such instances was Earnd, who would later recoup staff salaries from the NHS.
Greensill framed the scheme as benevolent, saying the aim was to help alleviate stress facing NHS workers during the pandemic. But two senior former employees say the plan was to convert the NHS’s future payments into bonds and sell them internationally. They also used the credibility of working with the NHS via the service, and a separate pharmacy scheme signed off by Cameron during his time in office, to demonstrate their credibility with investors.
The partnership still required individual trusts to opt-in to take part: in the end, some of the country’s biggest trusts, such as the Royal Free in London signed up 10,000 employees, and Earnd claimed that 22 trusts were taking part or in the process of doing so. But the disruption of the pandemic slowed progress and, last month, Earnd filed for administration.
The company’s collapse poses questions as to the circumstances in which NHS SBS entered the partnership. The entity is not a public body and there was no transparency surrounding the agreement.
Hancock, Harding and Prior will all face questions about what they knew and whether they granted Greensill special treatment or access to officials.
Following her meeting with Greensill, Harding is understood to have introduced Greensill to Sir James Mackey, who was chief executive of NHS Improvement. He now runs a trust where he considered introducing the scheme.
Last night, NHS England said it did not take the proposals forward: “The NHS has a duty to support staff while using taxpayers’ money wisely and so officials do meet organisations who may be able to provide good value services which are effective, and when ideas are taken forward, contracts are put through the appropriate and transparent tendering processes.”
A Department of Health spokesman said: “The well-being of NHS staff is the top priority of the department and health secretary. Our approach was and is that local NHS employers are best placed to decide how different pay flexibilities fit with their overall pay and reward offer for their staff. “EconomyUK politics