openDemocracyUK: News

MPs mock UK government for claiming it was transparent on COVID contracts

MPs said the Department of Health’s boast that it has ‘gone above and beyond’ to be open about pandemic spending is ‘risible’

Adam Bychawski
18 November 2021, 4.58pm
Labour’s Angela Rayner said the government had to be ‘dragged kicking and screaming’ to release the information
Allstar Picture Library Ltd/Alamy Live News

MPs have mocked the government for boasting about its transparency record after it finally published a list of politically connected companies that won COVID contracts following months of resistance.

The list shows which firms were given lucrative contracts to supply personal protective equipment (PPE) after being referred to a ‘high priority lane’ by MPs and political insiders.

The government said publishing the information was “above and beyond” its transparency obligations, but claimed it had done so as “a measure of our commitment to openness about procurement processes during the pandemic”.

In reality, it had tried to block the list from being released since January – and finally relented only after being ordered to do so by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) last month.

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“They have had to be dragged kicking and screaming through the Freedom of Information and ICO process to, reluctantly and at long last, publish this list of VIP PPE cronies,” Labour Party deputy leader Angela Rayner told openDemocracy.

The SNP’s Brendan O’Hara said: “The idea that this government has gone ‘above and beyond’ in ensuring openness and transparency into who were fast-tracked into the VIP PPE supply lane and how this was done, is risible.”

He added: “Just about everything that has been released by the government in relation to the awarding of these PPE contracts has had to be dragged out of them, and just yesterday a government minister tied herself in knots admitting that she has been ‘unable to locate a formal note of that meeting’ between Randox and her department.”

Details of the government’s wasteful and extortionate PPE contracts have had to be dragged out of them

Meg Hillier, Labour MP

Meg Hillier, the chair of the Public Accounts Committee, which has examined the government’s procurement process during the pandemic, told openDemocracy that the cross-party committee “has not seen anything but a cavalier approach to transparency and accountability”.

“Details of the government’s wasteful and extortionate PPE contracts have had to be dragged out of them one committee hearing, FOI request and court case at a time since the National Audit Office first revealed the existence of a ‘VIP lane’ exactly a year ago,” she added.

A report by the National Audit Office last year found that companies referred to the VIP channel were given high priority by the Department of Health procurement process. They were 13 times more likely to secure contracts than companies processed via normal channels.

A total of 493 suppliers came through the lane, of which 47 were awarded contracts. It has now been revealed that ministers, Tory MPs and government officials were among those who had recommended the successful companies.

Matt Hancock, the former health secretary, recommended contracts for four private companies, while former Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove referred a company co-owned by a Tory donor who financially supported his leadership bid.

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

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In January, the Good Law Project asked the Department of Health for the names of companies that came through the VIP lane through a Freedom of Information request. The department took nearly three months before refusing – and a further four months to review the refusal.

After the case was referred to the ICO, the department was told to release the information by 22 November, but the list leaked in advance.

Good Law Project’s director, Jo Maugham, said: “Characterising the publication – after 18 months of resisting and only because they were ordered to – of bits of their VIP sleaze as a ‘commitment to openness’? Well, I guess I admire the front."

“Next up, Owen Paterson characterising his decision to leave Parliament as a commitment to raising parliamentary standards,” he added.

openDemocracy also asked the Department of Health for the list in February but had its request refused.

The government is continuing to withhold the names of unsuccessful bidders as well as the names of those who referred them to the VIP lane. openDemocracy plans to appeal the decision.

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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