Dark Money Investigations

Government outsourcing of COVID-19 response is “national scandal” says select committee member

Labour’s Dawn Butler says pandemic being used as a “cover” to avoid accountability, comments come in wake of latest openDemocracy COVID contracting revelation.

Adam Bychawski
2 October 2020
A drive-through COVID testing site in Greater London run by Serco, one of the companies awarded contracts to help run the NHS's Test and Trace programme.
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PA Images

The government has been accused of presiding over “a national scandal” by awarding multi-million COVID contracts to companies with minimal oversight and accountability. 

Labour MP Dawn Butler told openDemocracy that many of the firms that had received lucrative government contracts had failed to deliver. 

“There is public money being given to companies that are not delivering a good service. I think the pandemic is being used as a cover,” said the member of the House of Commons science and technology select committee. 

Butler’s comments, made in a live webinar, came after openDemocracy revealed a PR firm close to Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove that has received more than £1million worth of government contracts without any competition had been hired to clean up the A-level exams result fiasco.    

Government contracts are usually awarded after a tender process which allows multiple providers to compete to provide the best value.

But since the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the government has used an exemption in procurement legislation to avoid having to open up public contracts to tender. 

Government departments have handed huge sums of money out to private firms under the emergency rules since the beginning of the pandemic.

Last month, openDemocracy revealed that outsourcing giant Serco was awarded an additional £45m to provide COVID test centres.

Serco’s test site contract does not appear to have been advertised or open to public competition. Nor has the government published it, despite government guidance that this should be done within 20 days of the contract being awarded.

In August, the government admitted that 10,000 contract tracers had managed to speak to an average of only 2.4 people each. Staff in a travel agency, one of 29 companies subcontracted by Serco to do contract tracing work, told openDemocracy that they “did not have a clue how to help some people”.

This week, ministers will decide whether to renew contracts that could be worth a further £500m with Serco as well as contact centre company Sitel. Staff in contact tracing centres told openDemocracy that they have already been informed work will continue beyond October.

“I believe the more people who hear what’s going, the more people that will be outraged by it,” said Brent Central MP Dawn Butler during an openDemocracy webinar yesterday. 

“Put money on those companies donating to the Conservative Party next time there is a general election,” she added.

An openDemocracy investigation found that property tycoons have given more than £11m to the Conservative Party in the past year. The revelations came after Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick admitted unlawful “apparent bias” in overruling local officials who rejected a Tory donor’s £1billion housing development.

Lucrative contracts given to private sector firms have also been criticised by some within government, with Cabinet Office and Treasury minister Lord Agnew writing privately that Whitehall has been “infantilised” by an “unacceptable” reliance on expensive management consultants to do work that could be done by the civil service.

Whitehall departments have given £56m to big consultancy firms including Deloitte, PWC and McKinsey to help deal with the pandemic without giving other companies a chance to compete for the work.

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