(4 weeks ago)Commons Chamber
Greensill Capital (UK) Ltd was approved by the British Business Bank for the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme and the coronavirus large business interruption loan scheme last year in accordance with the bank’s published guidance on accreditation. All decisions taken by the bank were made independently and in accordance with the bank’s usual procedure.
The criteria by which the decisions were made were based on those used in the existing enterprise finance guarantee scheme, dating back from 2009, and were set out in the CLBILS request for proposals, which was a publicly available document. These criteria included minimum requirements such as the ability to demonstrate a track record of lending to larger enterprises, provision of evidence-based forecasts, the ability to demonstrate sufficient capital available to meet the lending forecasts, a viable business model, robust operations and systems, that the proposed lending will not have unreasonable lender-levied fees and interest, and that the lender has all the necessary regulations, licences, authorisations and permissions to operate the scheme. All accredited lenders are subject to regular audit by the bank to ensure their compliance with scheme rules.
Following analysis of loan data as part of its standard due diligence, the bank opened an investigation into Greensill Capital’s compliance with the terms of the scheme in October 2020 and informed the Government of this on 9 October. That investigation is continuing and the Government’s obligations as guarantor under the CLBILS guarantee are suspended on a precautionary basis. It would not be appropriate to comment further on the investigation at this time.
I start by paying tribute to the Duke of Edinburgh, who was an extraordinary public servant. My thoughts today are with the Queen and the rest of the royal family as we all mourn his passing. They are also with the friends and family of Cheryl Gillan, and I would like to associate myself with the very moving tributes that we quite rightly heard a few moments ago.
I welcome the Minister’s presence, but it was the Chancellor who needed to come to the House today; the Chancellor who told David Cameron that he would “push” his team to amend emergency loan schemes to suit Cameron’s new employer; the Chancellor whose officials met with Greensill 10 times; the Chancellor who took the credit for Government business loan schemes when they were in the headlines and, indeed, who personally announced those schemes. Yet the Chancellor is frit to put his name to those loan schemes today. He has just spent £600,000 on communications. I would have thought that that would extend to communicating with Parliament. In the Chancellor’s absence, let me ask: what was the alternative that the Chancellor pushed his team to explore after David Cameron texted him? What discussions did the Government have with the British Business Bank about Greensill’s access to CLBILS after it had already been rejected for the covid corporate financing facility? Were the criteria for CLBILS amended so that Greensill could access the scheme? Why was Greensill the only supply chain finance firm accredited for CLBILS, and what due diligence was done?
Hundreds of millions of pounds of public money were put at risk by giving Greensill access to this scheme. With Greensill’s collapse, thousands of jobs—in Rotherham, Hartlepool and right across the country—have been put at risk. Those workers and taxpayers across the country deserve answers. The Chancellor said that he would “level with” the public. Why is he running scared of levelling with them on the Greensill scandal?
I associate myself with the hon. Member’s words about the Duke of Edinburgh and, of course, our colleague Cheryl Gillan, both of whom will be sorely missed.
The Chancellor wrote to the hon. Member last week with a comprehensive response to her questions regarding engagement between Greensill and HM Treasury. The Prime Minister has asked Nigel Boardman to conduct a review to look into the decisions taken around the development and use of supply chain finance and the associated schemes in Government—especially the role of Lex Greensill and Greensill Capital—and to set out any findings as necessary. The Government recognise the interest in the matter. It is right that we now let that review happen.
In the interests of transparency, the Chancellor has provided all the messages that were sent from him to David Cameron on this matter; they relate exclusively to Greensill’s proposals for the covid corporate financing facility. The Chancellor is right to push officials, as we all have, to explore all ways of capital getting to businesses—large and small. That is what all Members of this House were asking and demanding the Government to do at that particular point. It is important to remember that the Chancellor rejected the idea that he should rewrite the CCFF to include any banks.
The reason the Chancellor is not here is that the question is about the CLBILS. I suggest to the hon. Lady that she asks her question in a different forum or that she asks a different question, because the coronavirus large business interruption loan scheme, to which this question pertains, is administered by the British Business Bank. The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy is the sole shareholder in the bank. As such, the responsibility for the delivery of the scheme sits with BEIS. The accreditation process for any of the covid loan schemes is run independently by the British Business Bank; neither BEIS nor HM Treasury had a role or were involved in the CLBILS accreditation decision for Greensill.
There were two other non-bank lenders accredited under the CLBILS, with over 75 accredited for the CBILS. It was an important feature of the covid loan schemes that there was a diversity of lenders to ensure a broad range of choice for borrowers, enabling them to access the finance they needed to survive and recover from the pandemic. Greensill was not accredited to provide supply chain finance through the CLBILS. It was only accredited to provide invoice finance, term loans and revolving credit facilities.
Indeed; all the decisions were taken independently, and that included rejecting Greensill from being able to access the higher level of loan facility, the only request for which came from the shadow Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey).
I express my condolences, on behalf of the Scottish National party, to the family and friends of Cheryl Gillan and Shirley Williams. I also wish my constituents, and everyone celebrating, Ramadan Mubarak and a happy and peaceful Vaisakhi.
This scandal further exposes the depth of cronyism at the heart of this UK Tory Government—and it is not new, because back in November the National Audit Office expressed concerns about a VIP list of suppliers, with those on the list 10 times more likely to get a contract than those who were not. The Financial Times reports today that £19 billion of covid contracts were awarded without rival bids.
There remain serious questions about the role of Greensill while Mr Cameron was Prime Minister and about who exactly is being afforded similar influence in the UK Government today. It is absolutely galling that some have hoovered up so much Government support while millions who do not happen to have ministerial phone numbers get absolutely nothing at all.
Will the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and Secretary of State for Health and Social Care come before the House to explain their actions? How can we have confidence in the inquiry that has been announced when, from the Home Secretary’s bullying to the race equality report, this UK Government have such a woeful record on marking their own homework?
A number of the issues the hon. Lady raised were slightly wide of the mark in respect of this urgent question. The review will do its work and Nigel Boardman has had assurance from all parties that they will co-operate and offer any information required. He is due to report back at the end of June.
The furlough scheme, the self-employment income support scheme and the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme have been lifelines for many thousands of my constituents in Redcar and Cleveland, and across Teesside almost 500 businesses have benefited from CBILs worth well over £100 million. Will the Minister confirm that all those businesses have gone through the appropriate checks to be approved and that HMRC will take action against any fraudulent abuse of the scheme?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: any business applying for any of the Government schemes—I have talked about the accreditation required to deliver those schemes—has to go through a robust procedure. HMRC and other organisations will indeed make sure that we are hot on fraud, because this is taxpayers’ money that we are talking about. That is why, in the instance that this question is about, it is important to remember that the Chancellor rejected the suggestion that was put forward. The process is doing its job.
When an urgent question of a similar nature came before the House just before the recess, I asked the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy whether a list of all the organisations that have received loans—whether they were under the bounce back loan scheme, CBILS or any of the other schemes—would be made available, because the Minister has said previously that that will be done “in due course”. When I asked the Secretary of State on that occasion, he said to me that he will “try to see” what can be done to put that list of businesses in the public domain. I hope the Minister agrees that many of these questions are arising because of a lack of transparency in the way that some of the support has been awarded. Will he tell me how the Secretary of State is getting on with publishing that list?
As the hon. Lady will know, at the time of delivery we were trying to deliver money to businesses as quickly as possible. The fact that businesses have accessed support—especially the larger loans under CLBILS—will appear in their accounts, and will obviously be reported to the European Union should that be required for state aid purposes.
I remind the Minister that one of David Cameron’s last big acts as Prime Minister was to hold a large anti-corruption summit in London, with some hard-hitting findings. Will the Government recommit to delivering on all the promises made in the subsequent anti-corruption strategy? Will the Minister confirm that if any changes need to be made as a result of the inquiry that is just starting, they will be brought to Parliament as soon as they possibly can be?
I admire my hon. Friend’s work on anti-corruption. It is important to keep raising the issue, but it is also important to keep a sense of perspective and to tackle actual corruption rather than speculate on other issues for political purposes. As I say, it is important to remember that in these circumstances the process has worked well: it was right to push for as much capital as possible to flow to small and large businesses, but it is important to remember that the Chancellor did reject the suggestion put forward by Greensill.
I would like to wish all celebrating the Hindu new year a happy Navratri and the Sikh community a happy Vaisakhi today.
The Bank of England is rightly independent of the Government. Can the Minister confirm whether or not Bank of England officials were requested by the Treasury to make amendments to its covid corporate financing facility to suit Greensill Capital after the former Prime Minister had texted the Chancellor?
If we can put to one side the blatant political opportunism here, there is a scandal behind this. Greensill failed because it overextended itself to GFG Alliance. That was signed off by Grant Thornton, GFG’s auditors, effectively on a business model that included borrowing hundreds of millions of pounds based on the security of a very insecure, possibly non-existent order book. Will my hon. Friend bring forward his intended reforms to the audit regulatory system and make sure that Grant Thornton’s role in this is properly investigated?
My hon. Friend will appreciate the audit reforms that we are consulting on. It is absolutely right that the markets work when they are transparent and open, which is why we are determined to make sure that, in the light of recent failures, we get these audit reforms through, and I look forward to his contribution to that debate.
It is incredibly sad and disappointing that, throughout this pandemic, we have seen too little transparency from Government about every aspect of how taxpayers’ money is being spent. The Government keep saying to the House, “Well, it was terribly difficult in those first two months.” We are now a year on, and we are still uncovering more. Is the Minister really satisfied that a six-week inquiry, dragged out as an announcement by the Prime Minister yesterday, is enough to shine sunlight on the millions of taxpayers’ money that has been given to organisations such as Greensill, backed by Government and therefore a loss to the taxpayer when things go wrong? Is six weeks enough, and will he commit to far more transparency, including, if necessary, calling witnesses before this House?
The hon. Lady talks about two different things. There is a review into supply chain finance and the request from Greensill Capital, but there is also the wider view of how taxpayers’ money was spent when the Government were working about as close to real time as they will ever get to do. Business owners will understand the huge difference between the speed at which business and Government work. We will review how taxpayers’ money has been spent, but we will also make sure that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Redcar (Jacob Young) said, we chase people who have used Government grants and support inappropriately.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Chancellor and a number of Ministers reflected the view of the House that we wanted to push to make sure we had that diversity of finance and capital available to businesses of all different types. We should be proud of the support that has been given out, which has allowed companies to get through this incredibly difficult time, and it remains a difficult time.
In responding to this story, David Cameron said that “important lessons” must be learned—I should certainly think so, given these shady back-door lobbying efforts with Cabinet Ministers. My question is simple: if serving Ministers are found to have breached or been in breach of the ministerial code, will they resign?
Clearly, at the beginning, when the pandemic first struck, it was vital that we as a Government moved very swiftly to ensure the protection of small and medium-sized enterprises. Does my hon. Friend agree that it was right that the Treasury listened and gave consideration to all the potential options to support businesses to survive the pandemic given the extraordinary and unprecedented challenges facing UK SMEs last spring?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The scheme that we are being asked about today for large businesses protects many jobs in those companies, but it is right that we also looked at a diversity of lenders and of approaches to cover small businesses, as they do not always have the resilience and capacity of those larger businesses to survive and respond in these tough times.
I assumed that “whatever it takes” meant making sure that people got the help and the support that they needed, not deploying Treasury officials to try to mangle the rules in order to protect David Cameron’s shares. Just how many people and how many hours did the Chancellor devote to Mr Cameron’s concerns as opposed to those 3 million excluded self-employed people whom this Government have abandoned?
The Chancellor and other Ministers have spent many, many hours speaking to lenders and to businesses of all sizes to make sure that we can best reflect on and flex the support that is given to them. The system worked when the Chancellor was asked to change the scheme inappropriately, because, rather than having the banks involved in the CCFF, it was a Government-backed scheme with the Bank of England. That is why he rejected that approach, which meant that the procedure went well.
Businesses in Dudley South want support to go to the businesses that need it as quickly and effectively as possible rather than just falling back on how things have always been done when the times are far from ordinary. Can my hon. Friend assure them that, while processes will be transparent and due diligence will be done with taxpayers’ money, his Department will continue to look at all the options to make sure that the necessary support is getting to where it is needed rather than just going with traditional processes of distributing funds?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. What the Chancellor, the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and other Ministers have done throughout is to make sure that, rather than just reacting to events, we can flex and respond as best we can by speaking to businesses large and small and by speaking to stakeholders to try to smooth out those cliff edges of support. As we get to that road map, as we start to reopen and recover our economy, it is as important as ever to make sure that we have that flexibility within our support.
It is apparent in the text messages sent in April 2020 between the Chancellor and David Cameron, now published by the Treasury, that the Chancellor pushed the team to explore an alternative with the bank regarding cheap loans for Greensill. Will the Minister explain what those alternative arrangements were and why Greensill was deemed such an important recipient of public funds, even after the Bank of England refused to authorise Greensill’s entry into the covid corporate financing facility scheme?
The Bank of England refused Greensill’s entry because there were no banks in the scheme. It was a way for the Government and the Bank of England to get money to businesses and of underwriting it rather than its being a separate loan scheme. That is why Greensill was accredited for CLBILS. The only other request to expand Greensill’s reach came from the shadow Front-Bench team, who asked for it to receive the higher level—up to £200 million.
The Chancellor now washes his hands of the covid public lending schemes that he set up. It is laughable given the fanfare and fuss he made of their launch. I almost feel sorry for the Minister. He has been sent here to defend the actions of senior Ministers who are not even in his Department. Given that the Chancellor is the person who we know received lobbying texts from David Cameron, can the Minister tell the House what he thinks the Chancellor is afraid of?
The Chancellor has delivered £356 billion-worth of support, I think it is currently, to businesses. He has flexed at every opportunity across Government in devising and designing loan schemes, which are overseen by the British Business Bank, which is overseen, as the single shareholder, by the Secretary of State for BEIS. That is what we should be proud of. The Chancellor is not afraid of anything here. The question is about the coronavirus large business interruption loan scheme, which is administered by BEIS, and that is why I am here to answer it.
I understand and share my colleagues’ concerns about lobbying, but, like other corporate financial scandals such as Enron, we need to follow the money. We know that it was the German Greensill Bank that made the loans to Sanjeev Gupta and also supported the use of the private jets on which our former Prime Minister made many journeys, and that the bank is now under criminal investigation as many thousands of German people face bankruptcy. What conversations has the Minister had with the German prosecutors about the CLBILS loan scheme, and will they be invited to give evidence to the inquiry?
As I said in my opening statement, the bank opened an investigation into Greensill Capital’s compliance with the terms of the scheme in October 2020 and informed the Government of that on 9 October. That is continuing. The obligations as guarantor of the CLBILS scheme are suspended on a precautionary basis, but it would not be appropriate for me to comment on further investigations at this time as it is ongoing.
As if the billions of pounds of crony covid contracts was not bad enough for hard-working Brits to stomach, we now have a former Tory Prime Minister sending private text messages to the Chancellor and other Treasury Ministers lobbying for Government loans for a firm in which he himself is a shareholder and that is now insolvent; we have him going for a private drink with his financier friend Lex Greensill and the Health Secretary; and we have a Chancellor who messaged back to say that he would “push” his team to find a solution, and now has neither the courtesy nor the courage to come to this House to be held accountable for his actions. Does the Minister agree that this just stinks—downright stinks—not just because we are talking about former and current Tory Ministers all in it together, but because it is not merely the Chancellor’s money that has been put at risk but the British taxpayers’ hard-earned money that is at stake?
May I respectfully suggest to the hon. Gentleman, through the Speaker, that if he wants the Chancellor to come to answer a question, he might ask a question that relates to the Treasury rather than one that comes under the British Business Bank, which is a responsibility of BEIS? As for the Chancellor, as I say, the system has worked. The hon. Gentleman may be touting his Opposition day debate tomorrow about wider things, but the Chancellor asked his officials to push for wider capital flows to be able to go through larger and smaller businesses, as we all wanted, and he rejected Greensill’s ask to try to change the CCFF scheme to involve banks including Greensill. That process worked.
From a former Prime Minister texting Ministers in pursuit of his own financial interests to concerns over Russian state access to the other place, it is little wonder that questions have arisen as to the integrity of decision making in the UK. I acknowledge the Government’s commitment to investigate the Greensill debacle, but will they go further by implementing the Intelligence and Security Committee’s recommendations regarding undue influence in decision making, particularly in the practice of Lords for boards, to safeguard the transparency of our democratic decision making?
I have written to Ministers on behalf of businesses in Chesterfield—many other MPs have written too—and have waited months for a reply while a business was on the brink, yet Greensill gets 10 meetings in three months with Treasury officials, and the junior Minister has the audacity to stand there and say that this is a system working well. When David Cameron was the Prime Minister, he said corporate lobbying was
“money buying power, power fishing for money and a cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest.”
He could not describe this grubby, shabby Government any better, could he?
Treasury Ministers, like other Ministers, have had a number of meetings with lenders of all sorts, because as we heard earlier it is so important to have a diversity of lenders involved to create an understanding of their model and what support they can give. The accreditation itself was determined independently by the British Business Bank.
The inquiry announced by the Prime Minister seems to focus on the actions of David Cameron, but it is quite clear that the bigger consideration is the actions of Government Ministers and how they interacted to get Greensill what it wanted. It goes along with Government business as usual: crony appointments to the House of Lords and crony appointments to external bodies and regulators. Tory peer Baroness Harding was appointed to roll out the failed track and trace system. Then we have all the dodgy PPE contract awards. Surely it is not a short inquiry that is needed, but a public inquiry into the entire actions and dealings of this Government.
The public deserve answers. This is not the Prime Minister’s money, the Chancellor’s money or the Conservative party’s money; it is public money. Can the Minister explain why Greensill Capital met Treasury officials 10 times last summer, as my hon. Friend the Member for Chesterfield (Mr Perkins) said, when the most meetings any other coronavirus business interruption loan scheme lender secured with the Treasury was two? The vast majority of lenders did not even have any meetings with his Department.
Lenders and businesses have had many, many meetings across Government without favour, to make sure that we can get that information to ensure a diversity of lenders and that we could flex. The various loan schemes were added to and amended along the way to make sure that we could take the temperature of exactly how that lending was or was not working.
I would like to associate myself first with the comments made earlier about Cheryl Gillan from all sides of the House.
Many Members will remember that seven years ago, when David Cameron was putting his lobbying Bill through this place, he point blank refused to adopt any new clauses or amendments that would bring greater transparency to the corporate lobbying industry. I wonder why he did that. All these years later, is it not time to put that right and introduce greater transparency—not to stop corporate lobbying, which is a perfectly legitimate business to engage in, but to introduce greater accountability—so that we and the public know who is being lobbied and by whom?
I started off by talking about how the market works when there is transparency and openness, and lobbying comes within that. We should always review what is and is not there. The lobbying register should be working, and we need to make sure that that continues to work, but we always should be able to review lobbying activities to make sure that they are, as the hon. Gentleman says, transparent.
Is the central fact not that there was communication between a former Prime Minister and Ministers about his private interests? Will the Minister confirm that that is a breach of the long-standing British value that high office is not a grubby route through to great riches in the afterlife? Will he indicate that he could take immediate action while we wait for this inquiry, which sounds like a whitewash to me, to remove the impression that powerful wealth dominates public institutions? He could stop the revolving door between Ministers and the private sector. He could stop immediately all forms of lobbying within Westminster and Whitehall. Finally, he could stop the process of outsourcing to Tory chums.
What I can do is explain the difference between an output and an outcome. An output means that any number of meetings, any number of requests— unless you block the number, any Minister will receive those texts. An outcome is what actually happens as a result, and I was absolutely clear that the Chancellor rejected what was put forward by Greensill and rejected what was put forward by David Cameron.
This process is just another example of where covid contracts are becoming a genuine source of public concern. The allegations are further undermining public confidence and cultivating among the public a feeling of suspicion about all the activities of this Government. How do the Government propose to rebuild public trust in the wake of the emergence of yet another scandal?
Having been in opposition at a local level, I know what causes speculation and mistrust among the public, and it is that chipping away, the politicisation of some of these issues. But the Chancellor has been particularly robust in his actions and his outcomes here. There is a review; Nigel Boardman will do his work. People have committed to be open and transparent with him, and the review will report back at the end of June, and will show results for the public to see.
Was the British Business Bank approached by senior civil servants or Ministers about Greensill’s having access to the coronavirus large business interruption loan scheme? Did Greensill exceed its authority and lend more than it was authorised to lend—£400 million to the Gupta group alone, all of which has now been lost?
I am not aware of any communication between Ministers and the British Business Bank about the accreditation of Greensill, which was made independently of Government. There is an ongoing investigation into Greensill, so it would be inappropriate for me to comment at this time.
Five years ago this week, the former Member for Bolsover was asked to leave the Chamber for using unparliamentary language towards David Cameron regarding his personal finances. Does the Minister now agree that he was, and indeed remains, dodgy?
When businesses continue to collapse and charities fold in our constituencies because they have not received a penny of support, it now appears that not everything that the former Prime Minister did was for the record, as exchanges took place to procure hundreds of millions of pounds out of the Treasury for a company that he was profiting from. The very loopholes that Labour tried to close in his lobbying legislation left sufficient room for that corruption. So will the Minister stop hiding the detail and now publish a timeline of every meeting, call, text message and conversation between the former Prime Minister and Members of this current Conservative Government and their officials—publish them before this House, so that we can understand the extent of his lobbying?
The Chancellor has published his text messages and there is a review that, rather than hiding, will go into the detail. As I said, all the parties involved have pledged their commitment to comply with that investigation, which will report back at the end of June.
The simple fact is that, again and again, Members from all parts of the House pleaded with the Chancellor to meet us to hear the plight of millions of people who were excluded from any Government support, and the Chancellor would never find the time for such a meeting; but a few texts from dodgy Dave, and Greensill has got 10 meetings and a ream of correspondence with senior Treasury officials—the type of access that most businesses in this country could only dream of. So I ask the Minister why it was that, in correspondence between Greensill and a senior Treasury official, they put in words:
“Whilst not using this precise phrasing, we have crafted a formulation both in substance and form which provides an even stronger political position.”
Why is a private company advising Treasury officials about political positioning; and does not this show that, despite his protestations, it is ludicrous that the Business Minister is here, not the Chancellor? If the Chancellor had nothing to fear, he would have nothing to hide and he would be here to answer the questions.
I am afraid that in Government we have to deal with details, and that includes asking the right question in the first place. If a question is asked about a BEIS responsibility, I think it is fair and reasonable that a BEIS Minister should come here and answer it. However, I come back to the point that the hon. Gentleman can come up with all he likes about process, but what businesses want are outcomes, and that means capital flowing through those businesses. The outcome in this situation was that the Chancellor rejected such a proposal, but the detail that the hon. Gentleman talks about will be investigated by Nigel Boardman, and that review will be published by the end of June.
Just three weeks ago, I asked Ministers to back an independent investigation into the actions of crony Cameron. At that time, they refused to answer, so I welcome the U-turn that has again taken place. However, the public expect and want total accountability and transparency, so will the Minister back a wider review into the dishing out of covid contracts to Tory donors and friends?
I am not sure I recognise the name that the hon. Gentleman calls the former Prime Minister, which I think is inappropriate. There is a review, which is investigating as we speak. With regard to covid, as I say, there are a number of things that we will look at when we are past this pandemic. We will look back at what has happened and at the support that the Government have given—the many hundreds of millions of pounds that the Government have given to small and large businesses.