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Sun 25 October 2020
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Sam Bright reports on how Boris Johnson’s Government appears to be violating several elements of its own anti-corruption agenda

Fronted by then Home Secretary Amber Rudd, in 2017 the UK Government launched a new anti-corruption strategy to tackle the issue at home and abroad.

“Although the UK enjoys higher levels of integrity than many other countries,” Rudd noted. “We are not immune from the effects of corruption.”

The 72-page document goes on to explain the multi-faceted ways that corruption will be expunged – or at least restrained from flourishing – both domestically and internationally.

In the domestic sphere, one of the top five priorities is procurement: public sector contracts awarded to private firms. “Greater procurement transparency” is one of the goals, alongside “Greater confidence in efficient and legitimate contract management.”

“As a core element of this, we will also strengthen our procurement processes to ensure public money is spent honestly and well,” the strategy adds. The Government points to the fact it publicly releases contracts on a central portal, as evidence that it is committed to tackling corruption in procurement.

However, just last weekend, an alliance of MPs and legal experts raised concerns about the Government’s failure to release £3 billion worth of procurement contracts. The total Government budget for the procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the Coronavirus pandemic is £13.8 billion.

Despite its stated commitment to procurement transparency, the Government is now being taken to court over its failure to release documents into the public domain.


The Rules Don’t Apply to Us

On several other counts, the Government also seems to be falling short of its commitments. A range of contracts have been unearthed, several by this newspaper, which show million-pound deals awarded to small or newly-formed firms, many of which don’t have a history of supplying PPE. Through legal pressure, it has been revealed that some of these contracts haven’t delivered the promised goods, yet for the vast majority of other deals we simply do not know.

Ultimately, the procurement process may have been above board. But, if one of the Government’s objectives is to instil “greater confidence” in the procurement system, awarding contracts to firms with abnormal backgrounds, while hiding the details of these huge deals, is not the best strategy.

In addition, the vast majority of contracts granted during the Coronavirus crisis haven’t followed a competitive tender process. In other words, the Government has been able to pick and choose the recipients of contracts without anyone else being allowed to challenge for the work.

Due to the UK’s desperate need procure PPE during the early stages of the pandemic, the Government used an EU loophole that allows for the streamlining of procurement in an emergency. However, it seems the Government broke its own anti-corruption policies in doing so.

Indeed, when you consider the deals worth at least £364 million awarded to firms with links to the Conservative Party – including several party donors – the Government’s commitment to “honest” spending seems pretty laughable.

In an additional dose of irony, the Government’s Anti-Corruption Champion, responsible for implementing the anti-corruption strategy, is John Penrose MP. He is the husband of Baroness Dido Harding – head of the Test and Trace programme and acting Chair of the National Institute for Health Protection (NIHP). Harding’s recent appointments have themselves been marked by controversy, with many questioning why a former retail boss has been appointed to several major health roles in the midst of a pandemic.

Consequently, despite its attempts to dodge scrutiny on this issue, the Government has been facing mounting pressure from MPs in recent days. On Wednesday, the Labour Party convened a House of Commons debate, dissecting the Government’s decision to outsource the country’s Test and Trace regime.

Writing for Byline Times yesterday, Labour MP Rachel Reeves – who led the debate – expressed her concerns. “With little regard for any transparency or value for money, this Conservative Government has abandoned common sense to waste billions indulging its addiction to outsourcing,” Reeves wrote.

Posing the question assertively to House of Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg yesterday, Labour MP Kevin Brennan asked: “Can we have a debate about the public appointments and the awarding of contracts by this Government?”

He went on to suggest the Conservatives shouldn’t be so high-minded about the spending of public money, when evidence shows that contracts worth hundreds of millions have been awarded to friends of the regime.

“That’s an outrageous question, beneath the Honourable Gentleman,” Rees-Mogg shot back, tersely, in response.

However, when the Government’s actions appear to breach its own anti-corruption policies, it is surely a question well worth asking.

John Penrose has been approached for comment.


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