Dark Money Investigations: News

Record profits for Tory donor's firm that won huge PPE contracts

Pandemic was an 'unprecedented opportunity' says Meller Designs, which was fast-tracked in the government’s ‘VIP lane’

Martin Williams
8 September 2021, 12.01am
David Meller, who part-owned Meller Designs
Crown Copyright

A company linked to the Conservative Party that won 'VIP contracts' has boasted of record £13m profits – saying that the pandemic provided an "unprecedented opportunity to support the government".

Meller Designs Ltd was awarded £160m in deals provide personal protective equipment (PPE), all without competitive tender.

The company was fast-tracked by the government through a ‘VIP lane’, after being recommended by a government insider.

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Until January this year, it was co-owned by a prominent Tory donor, David Meller. Reports say that he personally lobbied Lord Bethell, a health minister, to speed up the awarding of one of the contracts.

Accounts now reveal that Meller Designs Ltd – which is normally a fashion manufacturer – made more than £13m profit after tax in 2020. The year before, it managed just £144,000.

David Meller has donated more than £63,000 to the Conservative Party since 2009 and was previously a trustee of Policy Exchange, a right-wing thinktank.

Although he no longer co-owns the company, he is still a director of a management firm that pays the wages of Meller Designs bosses.

Company accounts say: “When the pandemic was at its height in April 2020, we responded to the government’s request for private-sector companies to play their part in the pandemic and offered our services,” it says.

“We are extremely proud of the role we played in the pandemic, knowing that NHS workers could go about their vital tasks protected by the equipment we were able to source for them from halfway around the world.”

'[The pandemic] provided us with an unprecedented opportunity to support the government...'

Meller Designs Limited, company accounts

Last month, the government committed to naming every company that was referred to the ‘VIP lane’, as well as revealing the individuals who recommended them. But it is not known when the information will be published.

The announcement followed a months-long transparency battle, after the Department of Health and Social Care initially stepped in to block the release to openDemocracy.

An investigation by the National Audit Office found that companies fast-tracked by ministers were ten times more likely to win a deal. In total, 493 suppliers were placed on the VIP list, of which 47 were awarded contracts without competitive tender.

The names of some of the firms on the VIP list were previously revealed amid legal action by Good Law Project, which shows how civil servants were “drowning” in referrals from politicians and officials.

“Meller Designs – run by a large Tory donor – won its PPE contracts through the VIP lane,” said the director of Good Law Project, Jolyon Maugham. “Indeed we know he contacted Lord Bethell for help to get his contract signed off. This is really ugly stuff.”

Alex Runswick, senior advocacy manager at Transparency International UK said: "When lucrative deals are awarded to those with political connections without competition, taxpayer money could easily be wasted on overpriced equipment or substandard services.

"With more spent on PPE than the annual budget of the Home Office, the public have a right to know if their money was spent wisely and properly along with wider scrutiny of the response."

In February, a report by the Public Accounts Committee criticised the government’s PPE procurement operation, saying it had been left open to “accusations of poor value for money, conflicts of interest and preferential treatment of some suppliers”.

“The Cabinet Office is still too defensive about the lack of transparency over contract awards,” it said.

The Department of Health and Social Care has repeatedly defended the way contracts were awarded. A spokesperson previously said: “Proper due diligence is carried out for all government contracts and we take these checks extremely seriously. This process involves all contracts complying with robust rules and processes that prevent conflicts of interest.”

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