Dark Money Investigations: News

UK politicians who referred PPE firms to ‘VIP lane’ to be named

Government agrees to reveal details of how companies were fast-tracked to win lucrative COVID contracts, after months of blocking transparency

Jenna Corderoy profile2.jpg
Jenna Corderoy Martin Williams
13 August 2021, 12.57pm
Matt Hancock’s health department previously blocked the release of information on the ‘VIP lane’
PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The UK government has said it will reveal the names of companies that won lucrative COVID contracts through a fast-tracked ‘VIP lane’ – and the ministers who recommended them.

The news follows a months-long transparency battle, after the Department of Health initially stepped in to block the VIP list’s release to openDemocracy.

The existence of a separate channel for politically connected firms wanting to supply personal protective equipment (PPE) has been the source of sustained criticism, with a number of companies linked to Conservative MPs receiving major government contracts.

A report by MPs in February said the total value of contracts awarded through the VIP lane was £1.7bn.

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Ministers were found to have “lobbied” officials involved in the VIP lane on behalf of firms that had personal connections.

Last year, 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.

A parliamentary committee found that of the 47 successful bidders, 12 were referred by MPs, seven by peers, and 18 by government officials. In another five cases, it is not known who referred the companies.

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The VIP lane is at the centre of legal action by Good Law Project, which revealed that civil servants were “drowning” in referrals from politicians and officials.

The companies so far known to have gone through the VIP lane include Uniserve Limited, which last year landed a £300m PPE contract and reportedly shares the same address as a cabinet minister.

Another VIP firm, Meller Designs, is run by a major Tory donor, David Meller. The Guardian revealed that he lobbied a government minister to speed up a £65m PPE contract that was awarded to the company.

And PestFix won a multi-million-pound contract after being added to the VIP lane in error. Emails have since emerged showing that a government official referred PestFix’s offer of PPE to a colleague, saying: “Thanks for doing this! He’s an old school friend of my father-in-law, but on this occasion it does look like he might have something.”

Responding to the commitment to reveal details of the VIP lane, the director of Good Law Project, Jolyon Maugham, said the government had finally agreed to “come clean about which ministers successfully guided VIPs to PPE bonanzas”.

He told openDemocracy: “This government is to scrutiny as a vampire is to sunlight, so I have my doubts about whether it will actually happen. But if it does, it will be a welcome, albeit belated, step towards undoing some of the harm done by this government’s approach to pandemic procurement.”

This government is to scrutiny as a vampire is to sunlight

The Department of Health has refused to say when the list will be published. It is also refusing to release the names of unsuccessful bidders on the VIP lane, and the individuals who referred them.

A spokesperson said: “At the start of this global pandemic we took every possible step to get protective equipment to our frontline health and care workers to keep them safe.

“COVID-19 procurement went through robust assurance processes and due diligence is carried out on every contract – ministers have no role in awarding them.”

Steve Goodrich, head of research and investigations at Transparency International UK, said details of the VIP lane should be made public “imminently”.

“Knowing who passed through this priority channel for COVID-19 contracts is critical to providing accountability over billions of pounds of public money. Failing to follow through on this commitment in a timely manner would only reinforce suspicion that the government has something to hide.”

He added: “It appears that only a few within Whitehall and the party of government knew about the VIP lane. Such exclusive knowledge of this triage system would have created systemic bias in the prioritisation of contracts, elbowed out thousands of other offers, and could have cost taxpayers millions more than they would otherwise have paid for vital equipment.”

Why should you care about freedom of information?

From coronation budgets to secretive government units, journalists have used the Freedom of Information Act to expose corruption and incompetence in high places. Tony Blair regrets ever giving us this right. Today's UK government is giving fewer and fewer transparency responses, and doing it more slowly. But would better transparency give us better government? And how can we get it?

Join our experts for a free live discussion at 5pm UK time on 15 June.

Hear from:

Claire Miller Data journalism and FOI expert
Martin Rosenbaum Author of ‘Freedom of Information: A Practical Guidebook’; former BBC political journalist
Jenna Corderoy Investigative reporter at openDemocracy and visiting lecturer at City University, London
Chair: Ramzy Alwakeel Head of news at openDemocracy

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