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UK's anti-corruption tsar accused of defending COVID ‘cronyism’

Exclusive: Tory MP husband of Test and Trace boss Dido Harding criticised for appearing to blame ‘transparency measures’ for delaying government's COVID response

profile2.jpg Peter Geoghegan
Martin Williams Peter Geoghegan
25 March 2021, 9.11am
Tory MP John Penrose, the UK’s anti-corruption tsar, defended the government’s slow pandemic response
Suzanne Plunkett/Reuters / Alamy Stock Photo

Boris Johnson's anti-corruption tsar, John Penrose, has been criticised for using a keynote speech at an international conference to defend the government's response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Conservative MP, who is the husband of Dido Harding, the NHS Test and Trace boss, made the comments amid mounting accusations of cronyism in the Conservative Party and in the wake of last month’s court ruling that the government acted unlawfully over transparency.

The government has also faced widespread criticism over Harding’s NHS Test and Trace programme, after a string of multi-million pound contracts were handed to companies without competition.

Speaking at the OECD Global Anti-Corruption and Integrity Forum on Tuesday 22 March, Penrose defended the government’s efforts – and appeared to blame transparency measures for slowing down the pandemic response.

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“Our government procurement and buying, while it had all sorts of transparency measures, is too slow when you are trying to work in COVID time,” he said.

“When the chips are down, when there’s a pandemic on, you absolutely have to move at enormous speed. And any shortcomings, any weaknesses in your procurement processes, will be cruelly exposed if you’re not very careful.”

Highlighting the need for fast action, Penrose added: “We need to come up with a process which is much faster, which is more transparent by design, which is more digital, and which therefore has inbuilt controls and much greater scrutiny to provide that speed while at the same time delivering the anti-corruption measures that we all regard as important.”

Critics say his comments are divorced from reality, with the procurement system still open to what “some see as being a ‘chumocracy’”.

The SNP’s shadow health secretary, Philippa Whitford, told openDemocracy that Penrose “seems to be trying to get the government’s excuses in, in advance of any future inquiry as to why so many Tory contacts and donors with no experience of PPE were given lucrative contracts for millions of pounds.”

She added: “Rather than saying that in times of crisis anything goes, it should be that systems are slick enough to maintain standards – otherwise every crisis can be used as an excuse for loss of transparency or corruption.

“It’s important that the UK sets a good example to other countries, rather than appearing a hypocrite.”

Penrose’s comments come a month after a London court said Matt Hancock’s Department of Health and Social Care acted unlawfully over its failure to release details about lucrative deals with firms that had no experience of medical procurement.

Last year, a damning report published by the National Audit Office found that companies with political connections were assigned to a “high-priority” list for government contracts, where bids were far more likely to be successful.

Businesses that have won COVID contracts include Medacs Healthcare plc, a health firm ultimately controlled by the leading Conservative Party donor, Lord Ashcroft. In January, openDemocracy revealed the company had received a £350m contract as part of the vaccination roll-out.

Dido Harding has also defended spending £1,000-a-day on consultants for the contact-tracing scheme, which has had “no clear impact” despite its £37bn budget.

In parliament this morning, Labour shadow minister Fleur Anderson questioned the government about Penrose's comments at the anti-corruption conference, pointing out that he has "very close family interest in this government's pandemic response". 

"Does the minister agree with me that this anti-corruption post of the champion must be independent from party politics, to avoid the growing conflicts of interest within government," Anderson asked.

Tory minister Julia Lopez responded: "I have no questions or concerns about the integrity about the Honorable Member for Western Super Mare." 

Speaking to openDemocracy, Paul Heywood, professor of politics at the University of Nottingham, said: “Given the findings last November of the National Audit Office investigation into government procurement during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the recent High Court judgement on the government’s failure to publish details of contracts, these comments by the Anti-Corruption Champion would seem somewhat divorced from the reality of what has actually been taking place in the UK."

He added: “The government’s Green Paper on procurement reform makes some of the right noises in relation to corruption risks, but it remains some way from being translated into legislation. In the meantime, the current system remains open to the type of decision-making that some see as being a ‘chumocracy’.”

Without greater transparency over public contracting, there will remain a deep suspicion among many that something is being withheld

Steve Goodrich, senior research manager at Transparency International UK, said: “[The] government was entitled to expedite procurement during the pandemic so long as it was justifiable, but the way in which it has managed these contracts has given rise to a strong perception of impropriety.

“Without greater transparency and accountability over public contracting during the pandemic, there will remain a deep suspicion among many that something is being withheld from public view.”

Penrose’s speech at the OECD Global Anti-Corruption and Integrity Forum came a week after openDemocracy revealed that British aid spending on foreign anti-corruption work is set to be cut by up to 80%. The decision puts several major projects at risk, including law-enforcement efforts to stop the flow of illicit finance, as well as flagship schemes in Africa and the Middle East.

This is not the first time Penrose has faced criticism. In October he came under fire in the row over free school meals, for suggesting that “chaotic parents” were to blame for sending their children to school hungry. He added that plans to extend free meals were "sticking-plaster solutions" which "increase dependency".

Penrose is also on the advisory board of a right-wing think tank that has called for the NHS to be replaced with a health insurance system, though he explained that he does not “necessarily agree” with all of its views.

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