Mon 18 October 2021

As a shortage of laptops ostracises children from education, Sam Bright reports on new contracts awarded to a company with Tory ties

A series of Government contracts worth £99.4 million for the provision of school technology devices during the Coronavirus crisis have been awarded to a firm co-founded by a Conservative Party donor.

In October, Private Eye reported that British IT company Computacenter had been awarded deals worth £96 million for the provision of laptops, tablets and Wi-Fi devices for schools, to help pupils learn online during lockdown.

Byline Times can reveal that, since that time, additional contracts worth almost £100 million for the provision of school technology equipment have been awarded to the firm. On 1 December, the Government released details of two contracts awarded to Computacenter for the provision of 59,900 devices, worth a total of £12.4 million. These devices were required to be delivered to the Department for Education (DfE) by 13 November.

Yesterday, the Government then released the details of an £87 million contract awarded to the firm – again in November – for the supply of an unspecified number of devices.

Due to the timing of these contracts, it is likely that the DfE was responding to an upsurge of COVID-19 cases in the run-up to Christmas – which forced many children to learn from home. Indeed, the latest school figures released on 15 December estimated that between 7% and 9% of pupils in state-funded schools were not attending them due to the pandemic.

Now that a new, super-infectious variant of the disease has pushed the country back into lockdown – forcing schools to close wholesale – it seems likely that further contracts will be on their way, whether to Computacenter or others.

The contracts awarded to date have all formed part of the Government’s ‘Get Help With Technology’ programme, which aims to provide digital devices and internet access to pupils during the pandemic – particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. As reported by Byline Times earlier this week, it is estimated that 9% of families in the UK still don’t have access to a laptop, desktop or tablet at home – resulting in 1.78 million children being cut-off.

Computacenter is an IT company with experience in this field, posting annual revenues of roughly £5 billion, but the people behind the company are also not exactly indifferent to party politics.

Sir Philip Hulme, the firm’s co-founder – who remains a non-executive director and shareholder – has ties to the Conservative Party. Prior to the 2019 General Election, his wife Janet donated £100,000 to the party’s war chest. In 2013, Philip Hulme himself donated £10,000 to the then Conservative MP Nick Herbert, who sat in the House of Commons from 2005 to 2019. On 15 November 2019 – a day after Janet Hulme’s donation – an individual called George Hulme also gave £50,000 to the Conservative Party, though it is unclear whether they are related.

In response to Private Eye, Computacenter said that it was “very proud to have played a small role in this vital programme to support the educational needs of some the most disadvantaged young people” during the pandemic. The company declined to issue a further comment, when approached by Byline Times.

A Department for Education spokesperson told Private Eye that the contracts were “awarded based on the need for children and young people to receive the support they required as soon as possible. To suggest anything else is fundamentally untrue”.

A Lucrative Lockdown

The Government has faced intense criticism for the way it has awarded contracts to private sector companies during the Coronavirus pandemic.

Roughly £15 billion has been spent on private sector deals for the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE), and a £22 billion budget has been set for the development of the country’s testing and contact tracing programme.

A large number of these contracts have been awarded to consultancy giants, often at expensive rates. As revealed by Byline Times earlier this week, there are now more external consultants working for the ‘Test and Trace’ system than civil servants working for the Treasury.

Additionally, the Government has been plagued by accusations of cronyism. Contracts worth at least half a billion pounds for the supply of PPE have been awarded to firms with links to the Conservative Party, with several of these companies holding private meetings with the Government.

There have also been a series of deals awarded to firms with links to Conservative ministers – notably Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock.

As reported by the Guardian in early December, the Government awarded a multi-million-pound contract for the supply of test tubes to the ex-landlord of Hancock’s local pub. A couple of weeks later, Byline Times revealed that a £5.5 million deal for the provision of mobile testing units was awarded to a firm with ties to Hancock’s family. The chairman of EMS Healthcare, who has been a director of the company since 2013, is Iain Johnston – a former business partner of Shirley and Robert Carter, Hancock’s mother and stepfather.

The Government has repeatedly denied giving contracts on the basis of personal connections throughout the pandemic – though an overwhelming amount of evidence points in entirely the opposite direction.


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