An SNP minister’s unrecorded dinner with businessmen at the centre of the David Cameron lobbying scandal has sparked calls for an investigation into whether he broke the ministerial code.
Rural economy secretary Fergus Ewing dined with banker Lex Greensill, steel billionaire Sanjeev Gupta and two of their senior colleagues in Glasgow in 2017.
A Freedom of Information request by the Sunday Mail has revealed Mr Ewing had no officials with him, no notes were taken, and the Scottish Government claims to have no emails, texts or phone records about the meeting.
It was was reported on Sunday that UK health secretary Matt Hancock met former prime minister David Cameron and Mr Greensill for a “private drink” in 2019 to discuss a new payment scheme for the NHS.
It is the latest in a series disclosures about Mr Cameron’s lobbying of four government ministers on behalf of Greensill Capital, including unsuccessfully attempting to increase access to government-backed loans during the coronavirus pandemic.
The loan applications were rejected and Greensill Capital subsequently filed for insolvency, rendering Mr Cameron’s reported tens of millions of share options in the firm worthless.
It has been reported that financial deals struck between the Scottish Government, Mr Gupta and Mr Greensill exposed taxpayers to hundreds of millions of pounds of debt following the company’s collapse.
Mr Gupta had previously been given millions in state support to buy metal and power plants in Lanarkshire and the Highlands.
In 2015, the Scottish Government lent his firm, GFG Alliance, £7 million to purchase the struggling Dalzell and Clydebridge steelworks from Tata.
GFG Alliance then bought a smelter in Fort William and a Highlands hydro plant from Rio Tinto in 2016 in a £330 million deal.
As part of the deal brokered by Mr Ewing, the Scottish Government guaranteed to buy power generated by the Lochaber hydro-plant for the next 25 years.
But the future of more than 100 workers at the Highland plant, and those of thousands of UK steel workers, is now at risk following the collapse of Greensill Capital, the main lender to Mr Gupta’s GFG Alliance.
The Scottish Government said Mr Ewing attended the dinner with Mr Greensill, Mr 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 said the “themes of discussion” were recorded by Mr Gupta’s company and reported a “positive relationship” focused on “derisking” both parties while maximising plans for growth at the Lochaber smelter and hydro.
Scottish Labour insisted the ack of any official record of the meeting and no correspondence about it for a month either side of the dinner’s date requires “serious explaining” from Mr Ewing.
But the SNP said any suggestion the Inverness and Nairn MSP broke the ministerial code is “baseless”.
The code states 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.”
Scottish Labour economy spokeswoman Monica Lennon said: “Fergus Ewing has some serious explaining to do over this dinner and there needs to be an investigation into whether the ministerial code of conduct has been adhered to.
“Scottish taxpayers could end up paying out hundreds of millions of pounds over the next 25 years as a result of a deal involving these businessmen – and it’s increasingly unclear how safe that investment is or whether it ever represented good value for money.
“What on earth was a Cabinet minister doing having a cosy dinner at a posh West End restaurant without any officials present when government business was clearly on the agenda?”
Ms Lennon said it is “beyond belief” that there are no official records of the meeting at all beyond the notes taken by the businessman in attendance and warned the fallout for the people of Scotland is “potentially catastrophic.
“Over £350 million which could have been spent on hospitals, schools and public services could simply disappear,” she added.
An SNP spokesman said the meeting was “properly recorded within Government, and opposition attempts to make mischief around this issue are utterly baseless”.
He added: “Civil servants do not attend every dinner or engagement a minister goes to – that would be a ludicrous waste of public money – and the ministerial code does not require them to.”
But Scottish Liberal Democrat leader Willie Rennie backed calls for for an independent investigation into any potential breach.
He said: “The collapse of Greensill has exposed a shady network of backroom deals across the Scottish and UK Governments.
“I’m completely unsurprised that there are no records from this meeting – by now it is clear that this is the SNP’s standard mode of operation.”