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Mon 30 November 2020
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Byline Times and The Citizens have discovered dozens of deals awarded to firms with apparent ties to a little-known Christian group

More than 20 companies with links to an evangelical Christian sect have been awarded central and local government contracts for the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) worth up to £1.1 billion since March, an investigation by Byline Times and The Citizens has found.

One of the largest recipients, a global commercial interior design firm called Unispace, has accumulated deals worth some £670 million for the supply of PPE. Byline Times and The Citizens research suggests this is one of the largest hauls amassed by any company from PPE contracts.

Two people have significant control of Unispace Global: Anthony Hazell and Gareth Hales. The former is Unispace Global Director and the latter is CEO. Australian Gareth Hales has a religious background, as the son of Exclusive [Plymouth] Brethren world leader Bruce Hales. Unispace admits that the founders of the company met through the church in 2008, although denies that the company is owned or run by the Brethren directly.

The Plymouth Brethren is an evangelical Christian movement that believes and practices a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. The name of the group stems from the idea of separation: that Brethren members should avoid contact with non-Brethren as much as possible, because the outside world is morally corrupting. Members are generally expected not to socialise, eat or drink with outsiders.

“We have to get a hatred, an utter hatred of the world,” world leader Bruce Hales said in 2006. “Unless you’ve come to a hatred of the world you’re likely to be sucked in by it, and seduced by it.” The Church says these comments were taken out of context.

The 45,000 Brethren members worldwide – and roughly 20,000 in the UK – are encouraged to be educated at Brethren-run schools, of which there are hundreds across the world, find employment at a Brethren business and marry a Brethren partner.

More than 1,000 UK businesses run by the Brethren turn over £2 billion a year, according to The Times, while UK Brethren charities achieved revenues of £138 million in 2013 alone.

This turnover appears to have burgeoned during the Coronavirus crisis, through a series of Government PPE deals. Indeed, based on previous research undertaken by Byline Times, it was revealed by The Citizens in October that PPE contracts worth up to £951 million had been awarded to 11 firms with links to the Brethren. The Citizens is a non-profit organisation that has been investigating contracts awarded during the Coronavirus pandemic.

However, now, contracts awarded to approximately 20 firms with apparent ties to the Brethren have now been discovered, with their revenues from these deals stretching up to £1.1 billion.

It is not suggested that the companies involved do not have the appropriate manufacturing expertise, but in light of concerns over the way the Government has selected suppliers during the pandemic, this trend is worthy of attention. Indeed, the total outlay of the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) on all private sector contracts prior to the pandemic, in 2019/20, was £1.1 billion.


Inivos

Between mid-May and late June, a decontamination company called Inivos Limited was awarded three contracts by the DHSC for the supply of face masks and gowns, worth £126.5 million.

Inivos is run by five members of the Fentiman family, including Warrick Fentiman, who was described by a witness in a court hearing as being “well respected within the PBCC (Plymouth Brethren Christian Church) community”.

Fellow Inivos boss Gordon Fentiman, who is listed as a director at parent company Specialist Hygiene Solutions, has two public LinkedIn interests: Inivos and the consultancy Universal Business Team (UBT).

UBT is listed on the Brethren website as part of its network. UBT provides “advisory and group buying services,” and runs corporate training sessions for Brethren members.

Inivos also supplies aforementioned Unispace, run by the son of Brethren world leader Bruce Hales.

Inivos has been approached for comment.

A screenshot from the Unispace Health website.

CMT Equipment

From March to August this year, CMT Equipment – also known as CMT Group – was awarded five PPE contracts worth up to £3.2 million.

Specialising in safety products, including PPE, the firm has received these contracts from local administrations – Norfolk (two contracts), Doncaster, Redcar and Cleveland, Norfolk, and Leeds – rather than central government. The total amount earned by CMT Equipment is likely to be less than £3.2 million, as three of the contracts were awarded to multiple suppliers.

The majority shareholder of CMT Equipment is Anthony Hazell, the Unispace Global Director. For his part, Hazell also appears to be a trustee of the Manor Gospel Trust, which “provides and maintains gospel halls” for the Brethren.

CMT Equipment has been approached for comment.


Acopia Group

Another firm, Acopia Group, won a contract from County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust for the supply of PPE, worth £249,000.

The Managing Director of Acopia, Russell Lynes, says on LinkedIn that he has conducted work on behalf of the Rapid Relief Team – a Brethren-run charity group that responds to natural disasters, and provides assistance to disadvantaged groups, including the homeless.

“Acopia is a company which has been supplying consumables for over 43 years and has been built on a foundation of strong core values,” the company told Byline Times. “The individual beliefs and charitable work of the employees and directors has no bearing on the company’s ability to sell products and secure contracts for essential goods required by many enterprises. We are very proud of our employees who have worked extremely hard to help the nation at this critical time.”


Ascot Signs

In late April, the DHSC awarded a contract worth £2.3 million for the supply of face visors to Ascot Signs, another firm potentially linked to the Brethren.

Ascot Signs is run by Roger Parsons and what appears to be several members of the same family: Laurence, Alan, Garth, Andrew and Terry White.

A Roger Parsons and a Laurence White are listed as senior figures at a Brethren-run Focus School – called OneSchool Global – in Knockloughrim, Londonderry, Northern Ireland.

While it is difficult to corroborate whether these are the same individuals, the registered office address of Ascot Signs is also in Londonderry, less than an hour’s drive away from the school.

What’s more, a Nick Walker is listed as a trustee at the Knockloughrim school, alongside Parsons and White. A Nicholas Walker is similarly listed as a director at Antrim-based Clandeboye Agencies, which has been awarded two contracts by the DHSC worth more than £107 million for the supply of PPE. There are connections between this Nick Walker and the Ascot Signs owners: namely, fellow Clandeboye director Andrew Walker is linked to a firm called Causeway Vision, one of the directors of which is Garth White of Ascot.

Ascot Signs has been approached for comment.


Yewdale

Then there’s Yewdale Corporation – an Essex-based window screening supplier that won a £570,000 contract in May for the supply of face masks.

The company is seemingly run by the Parsons family: Garth, Matthew, and Ryan. LinkedIn shows that both Matthew and Ryan were educated at Brethren-runs schools, the Focus School Wellgrove Campus and ‘Focus School’ respectively. Garth, meanwhile, appears to have volunteered for the Brethen-run Rapid Relief Team since September 2018, according to his LinkedIn.

A man named Ryan Parsons is also a trustee at the Chelmsford Gospel Hall Trust in Chelmsford, Essex, which maintains gospel halls for the Brethren.

Yewdale Corporation has been approached for comment.


Total Protection

Next, a workplace safety firm called Total Protection (UK) was awarded a £287,800 contract for the supply of respirator masks by Guy’s & St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust.

The Managing Director of the company is a man named Matthew Calder, while its business development assistant is Amos Calder. The latter’s LinkedIn profile states he was educated at Brethren-run OneSchool Global Europe.

The firm’s website also claims that a company called BACA Workwear & Safety acquired “certain assets of Total Protection UK Ltd in April 2017”. BACA is run by Marcus Calder and Benjamin Calder, the latter of whom lists the Rapid Relief Team and UBT among his LinkedIn interests.

Total Protection has been approached for comment.


Ureka Global

Another firm with potential Brethren links is Ureka Global – an adhesives supplier that won a contract in March worth up to £375,542 for the supply of PPE to Bristol City Council.

Again, the company appears to be owned by a family, the Nunn family: Alan, Alex, Daniel, Mary and Richard. Companies House lists Alex Michael Nunn as one of the directors of Ureka – the same, full name as a trustee listed at the Brethren-supporting Cardiff Gospel Hall Trust. The gospel hall is based less than an hour away from Ureka’s registered office in Bristol.

Richard Nunn of Ureka also has the Rapid Relief Team and the Brethren OneSchool Global listed among his LinkedIn interests.

Ureka Global has been approached for comment.


Agile Medical

And then there’s Agile Medical. The company was awarded an £18.4 million contract by Guy’s & St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust to deliver ventilators. Agile is based in Grimsby and is run by Anita, Christopher, Conran, Daniel, and Nicola Glass.

A Christopher Glass is a trustee at Haven Gospel Hall, a Brethren facility, located just 15 minutes away from Agile’s registered office.

Agile Medical has been approached for comment.

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Arrow County Supplies

Meanwhile, cleaning products company Arrow County Supplies was awarded two PPE deals worth up to £496,000 by Bristol City Council and Prosper Procurement, the latter acting on behalf of housing associations.

Two of the directors of Arrow County Supplies, based in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, appear to be trustees at Holyhead Road Gospel Hall Trust in the same town.

A Richard Allen Blackledge and a Robert Blackledge are listed as being associated with both Arrow County Supplies, and the gospel hall trust.

Confirming this link, Robert Blackledge says on LinkedIn that he gained a qualification from the Brethren-run consultancy and training group, UBT, and appears to be a representative at the Brethren’s OneSchool Global Atherstone Campus.

Arrow County Supplies has been approached for comment.


SMI Int Group

Finally, workwear supply company SMI Int Group has been awarded multiple deals up to £5.9 million for the supply of PPE to various authorities, including the YPO and Wiltshire Council.

The company is run by the Prisgrove family: Blake, Carlos, Donovan, Elaine, Giles and Paul.

Carlos Prisgrove says on his LinkedIn page that he was educated at Eastbrook Education, otherwise known as Brethren-run Focus School, Gloucester Campus. His interests on LinkedIn also include the Brethren-operated Rapid Response Team and UBT.

Giles Prisgrove, meanwhile, attended OneSchool Hindhead Campus, has gained two qualifications from UBT and has volunteered for the Rapid Relief Team for the past five years.

SMI Int Group has been approached for comment.


Of course, there is no suggestion of wrongdoing on the part of these companies. Many of the firms have a background in PPE and healthcare supply, which isn’t disputed.

But given the National Audit Office’s criticism of PPE procurement during the pandemic, the fact so many firms with apparent ties to a little-known religious group have been awarded contracts worth – by our calculations – up to £1.1 billion, equalling the entire DHSC private sector expenditure last year, is worthy of investigation.

“Like any other religious group or church, many of our members run their own businesses, and these organisations are completely separate from the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church,” a Brethren spokesperson told Byline Times. “Any contractual agreements between the Government and these independent businesses are totally unrelated to the church.”


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