Only 108 appointments were scrutinised last year out of the 34,000 people leaving the civil service, the head of the “revolving door” watchdog has said.
Lord Pickles, chair of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (ACOBA), warned of the challenges scrutinising new jobs for officials as he said there did not appear to be “any boundaries at all” between civil servants and the private sector.
The “revolving door” of top officials joining businesses has created the assumption among them that they will be “looked after” by the next cohort of officials, he told MPs.
It comes as Cabinet Secretary Simon Case told all Whitehall departments to notify him of any senior officials with paid jobs outside Government by the end of the week.
In an appearance before the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC), Lord Pickles demanded a “full and frank” explanation over how a top civil servant was allowed to work as a part-time adviser at Greensill Capital while still in Whitehall.
He said he had been “surprised” to discover that Bill Crothers’ position at the now collapsed firm was green lit by the Cabinet Office in September 2015, despite the fact that he did not leave his civil service role until November that year.
“I mean, if Mr Crothers had decided he wanted to have a milk round or something, I don’t think we would be terribly worried,” Lord Pickles said.
“But his particular position, in terms of running procurement and working for a commercial organisation, is something that does require a full and frank and transparent explanation.”
Lord Pickles said the case “highlights a number of anomalies” in vetting of ex-ministers and civil servants, adding: “There does not seem to have been any boundaries at all.”
He said he was “really unhappy” with gaps in the ethics system and has been “warning of the possibility of a scandal” for some time.
Lord Pickles told MPs: “I was worried that there was an element of a tick the box in terms of the responses that were coming from departments.
“Perhaps uncharitably I had the vaguest feeling that you might be looking at a cohort entitlement, whereby the existing cohort looked after the cohort that just left, in assumption that the cohort that was coming up would look after them.”
He warned that most of the problems were due to “a lack of leadership from those in authority”, blaming frontbench politicians on all sides and civil service bosses.
“Those who have power have a responsibility to set a very clear tone,” he said.
Lord Pickles revealed that only 108 appointments were scrutinised out of 34,000 people who left the civil service last year, but said Acoba only had four employees and limited resources.
But he rejected suggestions for new sanctions to punish those breaking revolving door rules because it would cost too much.
“There’s perhaps a danger that we spend an enormous sum of money in trying to slay a paper tiger or a paper dragon,” he said.
“Most people obey the law, most people obey the rules, most people just get on with it, and it’s only a tiny minority who cause a problem.”
During the hearing, chairman William Wragg announced a “full inquiry into the topical matters around Greensill” amid a deepening row triggered by David Cameron’s lobbying activities on behalf of the firm, where he worked as an adviser after leaving No10.
The Commons Treasury Committee has already announced their own probe into the firm’s collapse, which threatens thousands of UK jobs at Liberty Steel, which relied on the group’s financial backing.
Former Home Office permanent secretary Sir David Normington said that he was “absolutely amazed” that a top civil servant was permitted to work as a part-time adviser at Greensill Capital while still in Whitehall.
“I thought it was absolutely baffling. I’ve never come across anything like it in my over 40 years in Whitehall,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“I know (Cabinet Secretary) Simon Case is checking whether there are any other similar cases – I would be very surprised if there were.
“I’m absolutely amazed that Bill Crothers should be allowed to work for Greensill while he was still in the civil service.
“But worse, I think, this enabled him to evade scrutiny of his appointment after he had left the civil service, and that is completely unacceptable.”