Lord James Bethell’s comments appear to validate leaked documents revealing an expedited system for the awarding contracts to “high profile contacts” of the Boris Johnson administration

A health minister has said that the Government used “informal arrangements” to procure personal protective equipment (PPE) during the first wave of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Conservative peer Lord James Bethell, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), was today scrutinised in the House of Lords over the awarding of private sector contracts during the crisis.

Labour’s Lord Jonathan Harris asked Bethell to explain meetings held by the minister earlier this year in relation to private sector procurement, exposed by Byline Times this week. Harris cited a meeting between Lord Bethell, former Conservative Party chair Lord Andrew Feldman and a firm called Meller Designs on 6 April.

“The noble lord must realise that he is in danger of appearing complicit in the stench surrounding these procurements,” Lord Harris said, observing that Meller Designs – a firm owned by a Conservative Party donor – was later, coincidentally or not, awarded a series of PPE contracts worth at least £154.7 million by Lord Bethell’s department.

“What was discussed on 6 April?” Lord Harris asked, “and will the noble lord, the minister, publish all documentation relating to every one of these VIP and fast-tracked procurements, including emails or messages suggesting specific contractors, and show how decisions were based on value for money rather than favouritism?”

Lord Bethell responded by saying that the global supply of PPE “completely collapsed” earlier in the year and, as a result, “we relied on a very large network of contacts and informal arrangements in order to reach the people who could manufacture, often moving their manufacturing from one product to another”.

Indeed, Meller Designs typically specialises in supplying home and beauty products to high street retailers, including Marks & Spencer.

A Meller Designs spokesperson previously told The Times: “We are extremely proud of the role we played at the height of the crisis and managed to secure more than 150 million items of PPE.”

The firm has repeatedly failed to respond to Byline Times’ requests for comment.


Conflict of Interests

Lord Bethell stated that contracts worth an estimated £8.3 billion had been awarded to private sector suppliers by the DHSC for the delivery of PPE during the pandemic, while contracts worth £6.1 billion had been outsourced for the management of the country’s ‘test and trace’ programme.

This, however, does not take into account contracts awarded by other Government departments and for other Coronavirus-related work.

One such contract is the £3 million deal given to digital communications agency Topham Guerin by the Cabinet Office to help run the Government’s online response to the pandemic. Another company known to the Government, Topham Guerin notably ran the Conservative Party’s social media operation during the 2019 General Election.

Asked whether the Government would publish the tender that was subsequently issued for the contract, Topham Guerin’s research findings and and its evaluation of the firm’s work, Lord Bethell again avoided answering the question. He merely said that the work of Topham Guerin and other firms evaluating the public’s response to Coronavirus messaging has been “absolutely critical” to the Government’s strategy.

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“Asking the public to step up to hugely challenging requests from the Government is something that requires a huge amount of analysis,” he said.

Rounding off the debate, Labour’s Baroness Glenys Thornton drew Lord Bethell’s attention to the ministerial code, which contains specific provisions to deter conflicts of interest.

“Ministers are responsible for ensuring no conflict exists, or appears to exist, between their personal interest and their public duty,” Baroness Thornton directly quoted.

Referring to rules about healthcare procurement, she said that a conflict of interest exists when a “reasonable person would consider that an individual’s ability to apply judgement or act in the context of commissioning, delivering or ensuring taxpayer-funded health and/or social care services is or could be impaired by another interest they hold”.

The baroness questioned whether Lord Bethell had declared the interests arising from the meetings exposed by Byline Times and, if they had been, where these were published.

Lord Bethell responded by saying that “transparency is key” and that “I take that responsibility very seriously”. He also pointed out that contracts are released on a public portal.

Today’s comments by the Conservative peer seem to suggest that large PPE deals were awarded by the Government to contacts on an “informal” basis, albeit under the strain of a rapidly diminishing stockpile of equipment. This would appear to validate leaked documents published by the Good Law Project last week, revealing an expedited procurement system for “high profile contacts” of the administration.

The individuals and firms awarded contracts have, in some cases, benefitted to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds. It is essential to question whether this was a proper and effective use of taxpayers’ money.


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