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Thu 3 December 2020

Boris Johnson’s administration is stubbornly refusing to answer questions from MPs about the PPE procurement scandal, reports Sam Bright

The Government is avoiding scrutiny of the billions of pounds it has awarded to private sector firms during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock has been quoted as saying there is a £13.8 billion Government budget for procuring personal protective equipment (PPE) from private sector firms. Despite a general lack of transparency from the Government, various questionable contracts have been unearthed, including those given to Conservative Party donors.

However, Boris Johnson and his administration has been intransigent to scrutiny, rebuffing MPs and journalists seeking more information.

Indeed, it has now been more than a month since Labour MP Rushanara Ali penned a letter to the Prime Minister, seeking clarity on a number of PPE deals – including several exposed by Byline Times.

A few days earlier at Prime Minister’s Questions, Johnson had invited Ali to detail her concerns – promising to address any questions she had. Granted, the Prime Minister has been busy over the past month, but Johnson should not invite questions from MPs if he is simply going to bury them.

But this habit is not confined to the Prime Minister. On 24 July, Hancock was questioned by members of the House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee about the Government’s initial response to the pandemic.

Labour MP Dawn Butler in particular pressed Hancock about the emerging controversy surrounding Government outsourcing deals. She asked Hancock about Topham Guerin, the maverick social media firm awarded a £3 million contract to handle Government Coronavirus communications, as revealed by Byline Times. She also asked Hancock about a £25 million deal for face masks handed to a lifestyle firm with no trading history; as well as the string of contracts awarded to Public First, a consultancy firm with close ties to Dominic Cummings and the Conservative Party.

Hancock was hostile to this line of questioning and acted oblivious to Butler’s questions. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he said, in response to Butler’s scrutiny about Public First – despite the news attention given to the award of these contracts.

“If the Secretary of State is not aware of them, perhaps we can ask him to write to the Committee with the details,” Committee Chair Greg Clark proposed in response.

However, Hancock has continued to stonewall Butler’s questions, failing to reply over the past two-and-a-half months.

Butler, who represents Brent Central, also subsequently sent a letter to the Prime Minister on 23 September, further probing him about the contracts his Government has awarded.

“During a crisis or not, I believe we need transparency and accountability over how our public money is spent,” she noted in the letter. Butler is likewise still awaiting a reply.

“This Tory Government’s lack of transparency on the many large contracts it’s handed out without tender is frankly baffling,” Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Rachel Reeves told Byline Times. “If they have nothing to hide, they should have no problem with being open with the British public. There are far too many unanswered questions from the Government on its knee-jerk habit of giving big private companies contracts instead of supporting public services that can – and do – serve local areas better.”

Labour is due to host a House of Commons debate on procurement tomorrow, co-ordinated by Reeves, though Byline Times understands the topic of the debate may be switched in light of Boris Johnson’s new lockdown announcements.


Splashing the Cash

It is not as though the Government’s dealings have been without controversy.

Byline Times has uncovered that at least £364 million in PPE deals have been awarded to backers of the Conservative Party.

Elsewhere, the Government has awarded contracts to a month-old firm, a company owned in a tax haven, a dormant company, and several firms linked to an evangelical sect.

The need for the Government to procure PPE at the start of the pandemic was indisputable. A decade of public austerity had run down the country’s stockpile, leaving a dangerous shortage of many items. They had to be replenished.

However, when lockdown areas in the north of England are now being told they will have to survive on a less generous Government furlough scheme because money is tight, it is legitimate – imperative – to question whether billions of pounds in taxpayer cash have been wisely spent.


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