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Tory MP facing lobbying probe helped firm win 'VIP lane' PPE deal

Leak reveals ministers and MPs, including former health minister Steve Brine, referred private firms to ‘VIP’ list for lucrative COVID contracts

Jenna Corderoy
Jenna Corderoy Adam Bychawski
16 November 2021, 4.37pm
Steve Brine is among Tory MPs to have referred companies to the government's VIP lane
Parliament TV

A Conservative MP who is under investigation for possible undeclared lobbying was among the political insiders who helped companies to secure lucrative COVID contracts, leaked documents show.

Steve Brine referred a business that produces packaging, CCS McLays, to the government’s ‘VIP lane’ last year. The firm went on to secure a £11m contract to deliver personal protective equipment (PPE).

It comes as an investigation was launched into Brine last week by the registrar of consultant lobbyists. Reports say the MP took part in a video conference with the vaccines minister and Sigma Pharmaceuticals – which pays him £20,000 a year as an adviser – months before the firm won a £100,000 government contract.

Brine, who is a former health minister, is one of a number of MPs and political officials who referred private companies to the government’s controversial VIP lane for PPE suppliers.

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Documents leaked to Politico show that Matt Hancock, the former health secretary, recommended contracts for four private companies – Excalibur Healthcare, JD.com, Monarch Acoustics Ltd and Nine United Ltd.

Boris Johnson’s former top adviser, Dominic Cummings, also referred a company called Global United Trading to the VIP list.

Brine reportedly took part in call with firm that pays him £20,000 a year and the vaccines minister

The VIP channel was set up at the start of the pandemic, to fast track offers to supply PPE. But it has become the source of sustained criticism and allegations of cronyism. The government has repeatedly blocked attempts by openDemocracy to access more information about it.

Now, the leaked documents reveal 47 companies that were referred to the lane – along with the names of political insiders who recommended them.

They include fashion manufacturer Meller Design Ltd, which was co-owned by prominent Tory donor David Meller. The company boasted of record profits after securing a PPE contract and described the pandemic as an “unprecedented opportunity”. Documents now reveal that Michael Gove, the former Cabinet Office minister, had recommended the company for contracts.

The former Conservative Party chairman, Andrew Feldman – who worked as an adviser at the Department of Health during the pandemic – was the source of referrals for three companies.

The peer, who used to play tennis with former prime minister David Cameron, was separately reported to have initiated a government contract for a client of his lobbying company.

MPs Julian Lewis, Esther McVey and Andrew Percy also recommended contracts for companies.

Lord Agnew, a Cabinet Office minister in charge of procurement, was the source of referrals for three companies

Lord Agnew, a Cabinet Office minister in charge of procurement, was the source of referrals for another three companies: Euthenia Investments, Uniserve and Worldlink Resource. In April, he was accused of having a conflict of interest after it emerged that he holds shares in a firm that helps companies to bid for government contracts worth millions.

Another company, Ayanda Capital, won a £250m contract for protective equipment that could not be used because it supplied the wrong type of masks. But it went on to see its profits increase by more than 2,600%. Leaks now confirm that the company was referred to the VIP lane by a Cabinet Office official.

‘Drowning in VIP requests’

Last year, the National Audit Office (NAO) found that firms referred to the high-priority lane were ten times more likely to be given government contracts to supply PPE.

​​A report by the Public Accounts Committee in February revealed the total value of contracts awarded to suppliers through the VIP lane was £1.7bn.

In a challenge brought by the Good Law Project and the health non-profit EveryDoctor, emails showed civil servants were “drowning in VIP requests”.

Requests to release information about the VIP lane have been blocked by the government - and as revealed by openDemocracy in May, the government told the NAO not to divulge the names of the suppliers.

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In February, openDemocracy asked the Department of Health and Social Care for the names of companies that came through the VIP lane. A total of 493 suppliers came through this lane, of which 47 were awarded contracts. openDemocracy also asked for the names of those who referred these suppliers to the high-priority lane.

The request was initially refused, but the DHSC overturned part of its decision, and said that it was to release the names of the 47 companies and those that referred them to the high-priority lane.

But after months of chasing, the government department was not forthcoming with its response. It was given a deadline of 22 November to release the information, but the list was leaked in advance.

The department is continuing to withhold the names of unsuccessful bidders as well as the names of those who referred them to the VIP lane. openDemocracy is currently appealing this decision.

openDemocracy has contacted Steve Brine with a request for comment.

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