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Thu 28 October 2021

The proposed law would ensure that ministers cannot get away with awarding contracts to friends of the Government without facing scrutiny, reports Sam Bright

A new proposed law that would hold the Government to account for awarding contracts to its chums, has passed its first House of Commons hurdle.

Presented to the Commons by Scottish National Party MP Owen Thompson this afternoon, the Bill received the assent of MPs in the chamber – which means it will now be the subject of a formal parliamentary debate and vote.

The Ministerial Interests (Emergency Powers) Bill would ensure that MPs can interrogate ministers in the House of Commons about any personal, political or financial connections they may have to a company that is awarded a Government contract. 

Byline Times has reported extensively on the litany of Government contracts awarded to firms with links to the Conservative Party during the Coronavirus pandemic. Contracts worth at least half a billion pounds for the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE), for example, have been awarded to Conservative Party supporters and donors.

Indeed, in the process of giving out roughly £12 billion in PPE deals, the Government established a “high priority” lane that funnelled offers from firms with links to ministers, MPs and officials. One in 10 suppliers (47 out of 493) channelled through the high-priority lane obtained contracts, compared to less than one in a hundred (104 of 14,892) of those processed through the ordinary lane.

Despite the Government’s claims to the contrary, the National Audit Office (NAO) also found that frontline workers faced perilous shortages of equipment – particularly in the social care sector – while officials “wasted hundreds of millions of pounds” on PPE that wasn’t up to scratch. By the time the NAO filed its report in November, the majority of the 32 billion items of PPE procured by the Government still hadn’t arrived.

“It is appalling that while in-work poverty increases, billions of pounds in public contracts have been handed out like sweeties to friends and associates of the Tories with little to no transparency.”

– SNP MP Owen Thompson

COVID-19 testing services have also been heavily outsourced, spurring further questions about Government cronyism. 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.

And this trend extends beyond healthcare.

As revealed by Byline Times on 14 January, an IT firm that has donated £105,000 to the Conservative Party in recent years has won a £2 million Government contract for the provision of school laptops during lockdown. This followed the story of another firm, founded by a Conservative donor, that has been awarded deals for the provision of school technology devices worth nearly £200 million.

“I am urging the UK Government and MPs from all parties to back my Bill and enshrine this simple measure into law. If the Government has nothing to hide it will do the right thing and get on board. Those of us asking questions are not going to go away.”

– SNP MP Owen Thompson

Outsourcing public sector work, and responsibility, has been a concerted strategy of the Government during the Coronavirus pandemic. This outsourcing has come in many forms. On the one hand, the Government has been employing consultants from expensive, world-renowned consultancy firms to support the ‘Test and Trace’ programme – to the tune of roughly £2 million a day.

Yet, simultaneously, it has awarded contracts for the supply of PPE to companies with questionable healthcare backgrounds. Namely: a hotel carpeting company, a naval design firm, a Florida fashion designer, a four-month-old DNA analysis firm, a one-year-old ‘micro’ firm, a small “luxury packaging” company, a one-month-old firm owned by offshore finance specialists, a dormant firm, a company owned by an individual listed in the Panama Papers, a fast fashion supplier, and a lifestyle company with no employees or trading history.

While The Great Procurement Scandal seems to show no signs of abating, there is at least now impetus among opposition parties to reform a system riven with scandal.

The Bill has cross-party support, according to Thompson, who paid tribute to the those who have brought this scandal to public attention.

“The details are only public thanks to the efforts of many publicly-spirited citizens, legal experts, and investigative journalists who are working so hard to shine a light on what is going on in the murky corridors, such as those working at Byline Times, openDemocracy, Transparency UK and the Good Law Project.”

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