Conflicts of Interest

Conflicts of Interest

The concerns (scandal, if you prefer) in the Greensill affair are not primarily about lobbying, convenient as it is for current Ministers, Labour and journalists to describe it thus. Convenient for Ministers because they can stick it to a foolish, greedy ex-PM they don’t much care for and can claim to have it sorted by fiddling about with some more rules on lobbying. Convenient for Labour who can go on about Tory sleaze. Convenient for journalists since it is a simple way of categorising a complicated set of facts.

But it is wrong. The heart of the story is about conflicts of interest. Were those who brought Greensill into the heart of the civil service and government (long before Cameron became its employee) aware of and able to manage the potential and actual conflicts of interest which were – or should have been – obvious from the start?

A supplier of services does not have the same interests as the buyer. A supplier who also acts as advisor to his client has a conflict and should, if acting properly, put the interests of the client above his own or those of his employer. A client who acts as advisor and creates schemes from which he and his employer potentially or actually benefit has multiple conflicts. Did Greensill understand or care about this? Did Ministers? Did Jeremy Heywood? What, if anything, did the Civil Service’s Conflicts of Interest Policy say about any of this? It is not enough simply to register an interest. The conflicts – whether actual or potential – need to be managed. That means that those making or influencing the decisions are not those benefiting or hoping to benefit from those decisions. It is not at all clear that any of this was either understood or implemented by Ministers or senior civil servants.

The latest revelation – that the then Head of Government Procurement, Bill Crowther, was allowed to work for Greensill while still a civil servant seems, to put it mildly, surprising. How could anyone have any confidence that he was not – even unconsciously – doing what was best for his soon to be new employer rather than taxpayers? Doubtless he and others involved thought that what they were doing was for the benefit of government. Of course they did. The technical term for this is marking your own homework. Or, more accurately, self-interested nonsense.

Bill Crowther is no longer a civil servant. David Cameron is an ex-PM. But Sir Edward Lister was, until mid-February, Chief of Staff to the current PM (and, in that role paid a six-figure salary as a special advisor) at the same time as being paid by two property developers, one of which was involved in a property deal on which he was advising the government. More conflicts of interest. How many others are there in government, in the civil service, working as advisors, or in some other undefined role, in a similar position?

There is an opportunity here for Labour. And a trap. The opportunity is to paint a picture of Tory sleaze, cronyism, one rule for them, another for the rest of us, corruption, of people at the top looking out for themselves and their friends with scarce regard for good administration, good governance and maintaining trust in public institutions. It is a story which can resonate though, if it does, it will likely take time. Resentment of people at the top thinking of themselves and ignoring the plight of others has been a strong motivation in recent votes. Labour should want to capitalise on that. It should be making the case that good governance and administration are necessary for the public goods voters say they want – a good education system, health service, law and order etc. A government which degrades the civil service by imposing or encouraging it to ape its own lack of ethical values harms those goals.

The trap for Labour is two-fold

(1) Focusing too much on process rather than outcomes. Money has been lost because of this imbroglio, money which could have been spent more effectively on what voters want and need. That is what voters care about not Ministerial codes or internal procedures. Labour’s criticisms need to make that link – and in a way which resonates. Starmer’s audience is not a courtroom or a judge. He does not always appear to understand this.

(2) It needs to be willing to criticise public servants. Too often its default assumption is that Tories / bankers / private sector are bad boys in it for themselves and only Labour is on the side of hard-working public servants. But even they can behave badly or unwisely. Being a public sector employee does not make you immune from sleaze or corruption or stupidity or incompetence. Labour needs to be willing to criticise its core supporters and voters. It needs to appreciate its own conflicts if it wants to show voters that it is better than this government and understands the value of good administration and good governance.

Does it? Can it? My guess is that this will just end up being an incomprehensible story, background noise, another example of something a bit dodgy, maybe, but nothing to do with the real world voters care about. A pity. Good governance, good administration are something Britain takes for granted. We will miss them if they go.


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