openDemocracyUK: News

‘VIP’ lane led to ‘systemic bias’ in UK government COVID contracts

More than £2bn in contracts politically connected to Tories may have come through priority channel, suggests new report

Adam Bychawski
22 April 2021, 5.00am
Boris Johnson’s government has been accused of ‘bias’ in its awarding of COVID contracts
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Tayfun Salci/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News

The UK government’s fast-tracking of suppliers recommended by officials and politicians may have led to “systematic and partisan bias” in the awarding of contracts for personal protective equipment (PPE), according to a new report.

Last year, the existence of a high-priority channel to assess potential PPE suppliers referred by government officials, ministers, MPs, peers, senior NHS staff and other health professionals, was revealed by the National Audit Office.

A report by Transparency International UK published today found that knowledge of the VIP lane appeared to be "confined to only those within the party of government in Westminster".

The anti-corruption group said this would have made it likely that “only those with connections to this party and its members would be referred through this route”.

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The report criticised the government for prioritising politicians over medical professionals, such as the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nursing, with expertise in sourcing PPE.

The Cabinet Office said that the high-priority lane was “was widely advertised across government as a way of more quickly triaging offers of support”. A spokesperson told openDemocracy that it did not have a breakdown of how many opposition MPs used it.

The report also found that the UK government has awarded more than £2.1bn worth of COVID contracts to companies politically connected to the Conservative Party.

Knowledge of the VIP lane appeared to be 'confined to only those within the party of government in Westminster'

More than two dozen contracts were handed to companies controlled by individuals who are either Tory party donors, linked to senior party figures, or party members, according to the report.

The government is refusing to reveal the names of companies who were given contracts after being referred through this channel, despite Freedom of Information requests from openDemocracy.

Transparency International said it was “feasible” that all 24 politically connected contracts came through the VIP lane. One in ten companies who passed through the VIP lane were awarded contracts compared to just under one in a hundred through normal channels.

Transparency International identified a further 46 contracts, worth £1.6bn , awarded between February and the end of November last year with at least one or more corruption 'red flags'.

Red flags are factors that regulatory authorities have credibly tied to improper or illegal practices, but are not proof that wrongdoing took place.

Transparency International said it had found evidence of several flags, including gaps in contract documentation, contracts being awarded to companies that are based offshore or have no experience of delivering a product, and sub-contractor fraud.

Almost all COVID-related contracts, worth £17.8bn , awarded between February and November last year, were given to suppliers without any form of competition, many without adequate justification, said the report.

There are now very serious questions for the government, with more than a fifth of the money spent on purchases raising red flags

Since the pandemic started, an emergency exemption to procurement laws has allowed the government to award contracts without having to give different companies a chance to bid for them.

The measure has resulted in numerous COVID contracts being awarded without competition, or with terms being kept secret, or other measures which bypass normal transparency requirements.

Earlier this year, openDemocracy revealed that a healthcare company ultimately controlled by leading Tory donor and former party chairman, Lord Ashcroft, received a £350m contract as part of the government’s COVID-19 vaccination roll-out.

“There are now very serious questions for the government to answer, with more than a fifth of the money spent on purchases in response to the pandemic raising red flags.

“We must now have full accountability for the eye-watering amounts of taxpayers’ money spent on the response," said Daniel Bruce, chief executive of Transparency International UK.

Labour’s shadow cabinet office minister, Rachel Reeves, said that “the scale of corruption risk to vast amounts of taxpayer money revealed in this report is shocking, as is the evidence of endemic cronyism flowing through the government's contracting.”

The Cabinet Office said, “During the pandemic our priority has always been to protect the public and save lives, and we have used existing rules to buy life saving equipment and supplies, such as PPE for the NHS front line.

All PPE procurement went through the same assurance process and due diligence is carried out on every contract - ministers have no role in awarding them."

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