TORY ministers were among the “main routes” in which the Government awarded controversial PPE contracts during the pandemic, a court has heard.
Internal emails revealed as part of a legal challenge brought by the Good Law Project (GLP) found Cabinet Office minister Lord Agnew, the health minister Lord Bethell and one of Matt Hancock’s most senior officials were among the “main routes” through which well-connected people were referred to a “VIP” channel to supply PPE.
The GLP is bringing claims over contracts awarded to three firms – Crisp Websites (trading as Pestfix), Clandeboye Agencies and Ayanda Capital – to supply various types of PPE.
In the emails civil servants also explained that the “high priority lane”, provided companies referred via political connections with a personal service including “hand-holding”.
One official, who has remained anonymous,explained to Max Cairnduff, a Cabinet Office procurement director, that referrals came from a handful of “main routes”, including Bethell, Agnew and Jonathan Marron, the director general of the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) “working to Matt Hancock”. Companies referred by Bethell, the official said, “require a personal response”.
The official added that they tended to deal with “super senior/politically sensitive” referrals, and had a team of three who responded to suppliers “within the hour”.
The official said last April that the team was overseeing approximately 60 bids, which ranged from “semi-dubious individuals” to large corporations offering to donate PPE.
Companies processed via the VIP route had a 10 times greater success rate for winning contracts than the thousands of companies offering to supply PPE not given priority, the National Audit Office (NAO) has reported.
The Tory Government have continually refused to publish the names of companies that were referred to the VIP route and why but the GLP named four more companies as part of its legal challenge. Hancock, named as the defendant, argues that the VIP route and the contracts awarded were lawful in order to combat the PPE shortage.
But a barrister representing the GLP outlined concerns about the disclosure of information at a preliminary online High Court hearing on Thursday. He said a substantial proportion of the PPE procured under the contracts was unsuitable for use by the NHS and “unfit for purpose”.
The court disclosures revealed the following companies were used:
- Run by the Conservative councillor and donor Steve Dechan, introduced by a senior official at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
- Awarded £276 million in PPE contracts
- Run by prominent Tory donor David Meller
- Previously supplied PPE to the government and
- Awarded contracts worth more than £160m
- Design company
- Awarded a £26m contract after being referred by an unnamed MP
- Confectionery company
- Awarded £180m PPE contracts after its application was supported by the director of NHS Wales
Yesterday, Michael Bowsher QC, who represented Hancock, disputed the Good Law Project’s claims about information disclosure in the contracts which are reported to be collectively worth £650m.
He said the Good Law Project wanted to “expand” the scope of a disclosure exercise and “fish”.
Justice O’Farrell made no criticism of Hancock when ruling on information disclosure issues.
Coppel told the judge the case concerned contracts for the supply of personal protective equipment, ranging in value from £32m to £252m, which the Government entered into in April and May 2020.
Justice O’Farrell ordered the government to disclose further documents, including any instructions or decisions made by Hancock or other ministers relating to the setting up of the VIP route
The full hearing of the judicial review application is due to be held on May 17.
It comes as Ian Blackford has said Boris Johnson’s correspondence on Covid contracts must be published before he “dumps his mobile phone”.
The SNP Westminster leader pleaded with Lord Geidt in a letter published today to prioritise investigating the PM’s communication before he gets rid of his mobile, amid reports his private number was available online.
Geidt, a crossbench member of the House of Lords, was appointed on Wednesday as the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests.
In the letter, Blackford said publishing correspondence relating to Covid contracts should be an urgent priority given the mounting allegations of breaches of the ministerial code of conduct, and that evidence is at risk of going “missing”.
Earlier this week, a new poll revealed half of voters in the UK now believe there is a “culture of sleaze” in the Tory government.
The poll follows a string of revelations of cronyism and lobbying from lucrative Covid contracts for Tory donors to former prime minister David Cameron lobbying the likes of Chancellor Rishi Sunak and other ministers on behalf of his new employer Greensill Capital.
It follows an Opinium poll published on Sunday that showed 38% of UK voters believe the Tory party are corrupt, rising to 53% amongst Scottish voters.
The new survey, conducted by Redfield & Wilton Strategies for the i, questioned 1500 people over the weekend asking whether they agree with the statement that “there is a culture of sleaze in the UK Government”.
It found that 50% of voters in the UK agree with the statement, just 11% disagree and a further 29% neither agree nor disagree. It also found that even Tory voters are more likely to agree than disagree.