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‘No record’ of Matt Hancock meeting Tory donor who owns stake in £346m COVID contract

Exclusive: UK government accused of ‘very serious’ transparency failure over meeting with private health firm investors before pandemic

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6 July 2021, 11.00am
The government has no record of how Matt Hancock arranged a meeting with private health firm investors
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The British government has “no record” of how a meeting was set up between former health secretary Matt Hancock and a firm that has donated more than £1m to the Conservatives.

The company, Bridgemere Group, holds a significant stake in a private health firm that was later awarded a multimillion-pound COVID contract.

The Department of Health has been accused of “very serious” transparency failures after openDemocracy learned that another healthcare investor was also present at the same meeting, but not named in official records.

In January 2020, Hancock met Bridgemere chairman Steve Morgan to discuss “NHS use of private sector capacity”. The company owns a “significant stake” in one of the UK’s largest private health companies, Circle Health, which was later awarded a £346.6m contract to provide hospital beds during the COVID emergency.

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Also present at the meeting was Martin Hughes, the CEO of Toscafund, which is the majority shareholder in Circle Health via its associated companies.

But neither Hughes nor Toscafund was named in official government transparency data.

The revelations come amid growing concerns over government transparency. Ministers have admitted using private email addresses to conduct government business, and Hancock and other ministers have been accused of not declaring meetings with firms that later won COVID contracts.

The Department of Health told openDemocracy that it was “unable to establish who may have arranged this meeting”. A spokesperson did not comment on the failure to disclose the fact that Toscafund was present.

The minutes and agenda from the meeting are also not held by the department.

Secretaries of state should not be having shady meetings with major Tory party donors

“These are deeply troubling revelations. No ifs, no buts – secretaries of state should not be having shady meetings with major Tory party donors,” Labour MP Margaret Hodge, the former chair of the Public Accounts Committee, told openDemocracy

“Why are there no proper records of the meeting? Where is the chain of accountability? Was the government trying to sell off more of our vital NHS on the eve of the pandemic?

“This whole thing absolutely stinks of another abuse of power by Matt Hancock,” she added.

Since Hancock resigned last month after breaching COVID rules by kissing a colleague in his ministerial office, it has emerged that he and other health ministers used private emails to discuss COVID contracts with business leaders.

The Sunday Times also reported that Gina Coladangelo – the adviser whom Hancock was pictured embracing – conducted government business on her private Oliver Bonas email address, the retailer set up by her husband.

According to its accounts, Bridgemere is owned via a holding company based in a tax haven. One of its subsidiary firms planned to continue claiming furlough support from the government.

Bridgemere donated £1m to the Conservative Party ahead of the 2019 election – a few months before the January 2020 meeting with Hancock. The firm has continued to donate a further £250,000 since the start of the pandemic.

Transparency failure

Revelations about Hancock’s meeting with Bridgemere have also exposed failings in the government’s handling of Freedom of Information requests.

Two separate requests about the meeting were submitted independently; one by openDemocracy, and the other by a freelance journalist. But despite asking the same questions, they received different responses.

openDemocracy was told that “no record” was held of who attended the meeting. But a freelance journalist – who shared the response with openDemocracy – was provided with the names of four people, including Toscafund’s Martin Hughes and Bridgemere’s Steve Morgan. Bridgemere and Toscafund are major financial backers of Circle Health.

It also reveals that a document discussing Circle Health was circulated in relation to the January 2020 meeting. The document says: “More use should be made of the independent sector to speed up patients’ access to care”.

It adds: “Overall independent sector has c8,500 beds, with similar spare capacity.”

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Reports say the government paid around £200m a month for 8,000 private sector hospital beds when the COVID emergency hit.

Previously, the only public acknowledgement of the meeting was a reference in Hancock’s list of appointments. This list fails to mention Toscafund’s presence.

It also claims that “Circle Group” attended the meeting – in an apparent misnaming of Circle Heath. However, Circle Health categorically denies going to the meeting and none of its staff are listed as being present.

Sue Hawley, senior director at Spotlight on Corruption, said the failure to keep records of Hancock’s meeting was a “very serious breach of transparency requirements”.

“There is no excuse whatsoever for these kinds of meetings with party donors, which raise potentially very egregious conflicts of interest not to be recorded and declared,” she said. “This requires proper investigation and those responsible for this lapse need to face real consequences."

The Labour Party has called for an independent investigation into the use of private emails by ministers during the pandemic. The party’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, has now told openDemocracy that this should also investigate undeclared meetings.

“Matt Hancock’s first priority was always enriching his mates, not protecting the public,” she said. “This racket must end.”

This government seems intent on avoiding scrutiny... We should all be asking: what have they got to hide?

The SNP’s health spokesperson, Dr Philippa Whitford, also condemned the failure to keep records of the meeting. She said it was “utterly inappropriate... regardless of whether there’s no record because they used private emails, or no record because no record was kept”.

“If negotiations were carried out through private emails – which are not recorded and not documented – that’s just unacceptable.”

Emails released by the Good Law Project yesterday show that companies trying to win COVID contracts were directed to a Gmail account to be fast-tracked if they had connections to ministers.

A so-called “VIP lane” was already known to exist for companies offering to provide PPE during the start of the pandemic. But a second VIP lane for Test and Trace contracts has now also been revealed.

Gemma Abbott, legal director of the Good Law Project said: “This government seems intent on avoiding scrutiny, so it comes as no surprise to hear there’s no record of how a meeting with a Conservative Party donor came to pass.

“Politicians and officials relying on private communication channels to govern the country flies in the face of transparency and accountability. We should all be asking: what have they got to hide?”

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