Today
Tue 21 September 2021

Sam Bright reports on the latest Government contract awarded to a firm that has funded the Conservative Party

A contract worth £2.1 million for the provision of school technology devices to support children during the Coronavirus pandemic was awarded to a company that has directly donated £105,000 to the Conservative Party in recent years.

Byline Times can reveal that, in October, the Government awarded a deal to a company called Specialist Computer Centres (SCC) for the provision of 10,000 devices from October 2020 to October 2021.

The contract forms 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.

SCC is owned by Rigby Group Plc, which has donated substantial sums to the Conservative Party in recent years. In 2019, the firm gave £50,000 to the central party, following a donation of £55,000 in 2017.

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SCC is an IT company with annual revenues of £2 billion, so there is little doubting its expertise in this field. However, this contract does play to a concerning trend during the pandemic, with many deals awarded to companies with close links to the Conservative Party.

Indeed, just last week, Byline Times revealed that a firm owned by a Conservative donor had been awarded deals worth £99.4 million for the supply of school laptops – adding to the £96 million in contracts the firm had already secured.

This trend was also very apparent during the Government’s desperate attempt to procure personal protective equipment (PPE) last year. Deals worth at least half a billion pounds were awarded to firms with close links to the Conservative Party, as Government ministers were forced to admit that “informal arrangements” had been used to find suppliers.

Remarkably, given the public backlash to these contracts, a similar approach has also been adopted in relation to the procurement of COVID-19 testing services.

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 Health and Social Care Secretary Matt 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.

Unlike many other deals, the contract awarded to SCC was under a framework agreement – effectively a shortlist of firms, selected through competition, that are able to bid for Government contracts in a certain field.

However, despite the desperate attempts of Education Secretary Gavin Williamson to secure laptops during lockdown, the system appears to be afflicted by the underlying incompetence that has marred the Government’s response to the pandemic.

According to The Times, teachers at just one in 10 schools say that all their pupils have adequate access to laptops. The Department for Education has issued 700,000 devices to schools in England so far during the pandemic, and this week announced that a further 300,000 would be provided.

This isn’t the only source of crisis for Williamson’s department. Due to the implementation of UK-wide lockdown measures, schools are expected to be closed until mid-February at the earliest. The department has therefore been forced once again to implement a way, outside schools, for parents to receive free school meals for their children.

A social media campaign has caught fire in recent days, after one parent showed the (lack of) food she had been supplied, to feed her two children for 10 days. The company involved in delivering the meal has apologised, while Williamson has publicly admonished the firm for short-changing this parent.

This of course follows last year’s furore over exam results, caused by the department artificially downgrading the results of poorer students via what Boris Johnson labelled a “mutant algorithm”.

The Department for Education declined to comment on the record. Byline Times has approached SCC for comment.


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