NICOLA Sturgeon has denied an SNP minister’s dinner with banker Lex Greensill and steel billionaire Sanjeev Gupta can be likened to the Greensill scandal in Westminster.
Fergus Ewing, Rural Economy Secretary in the Scottish Government, dined with the pair and two of their senior colleagues at one of Glasgow’s top restaurants in 2017.
A Freedom of Information request (FOI) by the Sunday Mail has revealed that the minister had no officials with him, no notes were taken, and the Government claims to have no emails, texts or phone records about the meeting.
Financial deals struck between the Scottish Government, Gupta and Greensill have since exposed the Government to hundreds of millions of pounds of debt after the latter’s finance group, Greensill Capital, collapsed.
The collapse of Greensill, a major lender to the steel sector, hit headlines after it emerged that Cameron sent text messages to the Chancellor bidding for the Government to support the struggling firm during the pandemic.
The offer was turned down, according to the Treasury, leaving Greensill to fall into administration, putting thousands of jobs in the UK steel industry at risk.
Sturgeon described the two cases as “very different”.
Sophie Ridge asked the First Minister: “The SNP minister Fergus Ewing had a dinner with Lex Greensville and Sanjeev Gupta in 2017. This is according to the Sunday Mail. No officials were there, no notes were taken. If there’s no record of what happened, how do we know it’s aboveboard?”
Sturgeon responded: “Well that was recorded in the usual way, in the register of meetings. Look, I understand the temptation to draw an analogy between the scandal that we see developing around David Cameron and the UK Government and the Scottish Government’s dealing with GFG, the two things are very different.”
Gupta had previously been given millions in state support to buy metal and power plants in Lanarkshire and the Highlands.
But GFG Alliance is reportedly now in jeopardy because of Greensill Capital, its largest financial backer, entering administration.
In 2015 the Scottish Government lent GFG Alliance £7 million to purchase the struggling Dalzell and Clydebridge steelworks from Tata and it later bought the Lochaber plant from Rio Tinto in 2016 in a £330m deal.
As part of the deal brokered by Ewing, the Scottish Government guaranteed to buy power generated by the Lochaber hydro-plant owned by the company for the next 25 years.
The FM added: “We work directly with GFG to firstly, save the Dalzell Steelworks in 2015. There was virtually nobody employed there at the time and it now employs more than 100 people.
“And secondly, with that company to see Bukoba out Aluminium Smelter. And you know there is more than 100 jobs have been protected there with more created as a result.
“The guarantee that was agreed to support that takeover of the smelter, the Committee of the Scottish Parliament approved that.
“It’s not the lobbying scandal that we see elsewhere and I think people should be careful in trying to draw that analogy with all the proper due diligence has been done.”
She concluded: “Things like the way in which they have tried to use the NHS, which David Cameron allegedly lobbied for, that’s not what happened in Scotland and we’ve not had some of the stuff around Covid loans. I can see the temptation at but the two things are not the same.”
The Scottish Government said Ewing attended the dinner with Greensill, Gupta, Tim Haywood – who was later fired from fund management firm GAM Holdings for alleged misconduct – and Jay Hambro, but does not know who paid for the meal.
According to the Sunday Mail, the Government response to the FOI said the “themes of discussion” were recorded by Gupta’s company, GFG Alliance, and reported a “positive relationship” focused on “derisking” both parties while maximising plans for growth at the Lochaber smelter and hydro.
The lack of any official record of the meeting and no correspondence about it for a month either side of the dinner’s date requires some “serious explaining”, Scottish Labour has said.
But the SNP said last week that suggestions that the Inverness and Nairn MSP broke the ministerial code are “baseless”.
Fergus Ewing has been accused of breaking the ministerial code
The code states that a private secretary or official should be present for all discussions relating to government business, with the basic facts of formal meetings to be recorded, including the reasons for the meeting, attendees and the interests represented.
It adds: “If ministers meet external organisations or individuals and find themselves discussing official business without an official present – for example, at a party conference, social occasion or on holiday – any significant content (such as substantive issues relating to government decisions or contracts) should be passed back to their private offices as soon as possible after the event, who should arrange for the basic facts of such meetings to be recorded.”
It comes as Labour’s Anneliese Dodds told Rishi Sunak he has “ultimate responsibility” for money lent through Government Covid support schemes, as she accused him of “hiding” from questions over the Greensill Capital affair.
The shadow chancellor has written to Sunak criticising his decision not to go to the House of Commons last week to answer questions about the controversy surrounding lobbying by former prime minister Cameron.
The Government instead sent a junior business minister to answer an urgent question about the issue that has engulfed Westminster, in a move that Labour said “erodes public trust and does a disservice to the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer”.
Officials said business minister Paul Scully was chosen to respond to Tuesday’s question because Greensill was selected as a lender for the Coronavirus Large Business Interruption Loan Scheme (CLBILS) by the British Business Bank, which is overseen by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.
But Dodds said information released via freedom of information requests showed that the Treasury was involved in talks with Greensill, which has since collapsed, about being involved with the scheme.
“As the custodian of HM Treasury, you have ultimate responsibility for any and all public money lent through the Government Covid emergency loan schemes, which were designed by your department and launched by you personally,” she told Sunak in her letter.
Shadow cabinet member Dodds told Sunak in her letter that she was “concerned” his dealings with the former Conservative party leader “may have constituted a breach of the ministerial code”.
Labour said internal Treasury emails revealed that Greensill discussed its application to be a CLBILS affiliate with Sunak’s officials on April 24 2020 – the day after the Chancellor sent the second of his two text messages to Cameron.
The readout of that meeting showed Greensill representatives reacting to “news” that they were “very pleased to hear”, said the party.
Dodds, in her letter, set out 21 questions that the Opposition wants answers to regarding the Greensill controversy.
The questions include asking for more information about the “proposals” mentioned by Sunak in a text to Cameron and why a further meeting between Greensill and Treasury officials took place on May 14 2020 “at the Chancellor’s request”.
“The Chancellor is running scared of scrutiny over his role in the Greensill affair, but the public demand answers,” said Dodds.
“From secret conversations with his old boss David Cameron to questions about how Greensill got access to hundreds of millions of pounds of taxpayer-backed loans to how much the Chancellor knew about what they were doing with it, Rishi Sunak must now come clean about his role in the return of Conservative sleaze.
“He should come out of hiding and explain himself.”