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Tue 21 September 2021

Firms which have donated money to the governing party have now been awarded COVID-19 deals worth £900 million, though the latest firm denies any political interference

A new £19 million Government contract has been awarded to a firm that has donated thousands of pounds to the Conservative Party, Byline Times can reveal.

On 26 February, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) released details of an £18.7 million deal won by Wernick Buildings Limited, based in Essex. The contract, signed in November but only publicly released in the last few days, relates to the supply of modular building facilities for COVID-19 testing sites. The contract was awarded under a framework agreement – essentially a mini-shortlist of firms that are able to bid for certain public sector work.

Electoral Commission records show that S Wernick & Sons (Holdings) Limited – the parent company – has donated nearly £60,000 to the Conservative Party since 2001, including £30,000 since 2019.

S Wernick & Sons (Holdings) Limited recorded turnover of £6.2 million in 2019, while Wernick Buildings Limited recorded turnover of £31.4 million.

Wernick’s website states that it is the “largest independent manufacturer and hirer of portable and modular accommodation” in Britain, with a history stretching back to 1934.

There is no suggestion that Wernick is an unsuitable supplier and no evidence to suggest that it benefitted from preferential treatment due to its links with the Conservative Party.

“All contracts awarded to us during the pandemic have been both tendered for and awarded through the relevant bodies that we are an approved contractor on and at no stage has there been any involvement or interference by a politician,” company chairman David Wernick told Byline Times. “We were on these approved lists well before anyone had ever heard of Coronavirus.  There is zero linkage between our support for the Conservative Party and our business activities.”

However, there has been a marked trend during the Coronavirus pandemic, which has worried both MPs and public bodies – with billions of pounds in public contracts awarded to firms with ties to the Conservative Party.

This deal included, Byline Times and The Citizens have calculated that £900 million in Coronavirus-related contracts have been awarded to firms that have donated £8.2 million to the Conservatives, either directly or via their owners. This doesn’t take into account the firms owned by former Conservative advisors or the companies with demonstrable links to ministers – including a string of firms with direct ties to Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock.

These deals have not been concentrated in one area of the Government’s pandemic response. As revealed by Byline Times, a firm with links to Hancock’s family was awarded a £5.5 million contract for COVID-19 mobile testing units, while a family friend of Hancock was awarded a £14.4 million deal for the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE).

As acknowledged by the National Audit Office (NAO), this process has eroded the public’s confidence in the Government’s procurement system. The spending watchdog explained in two reports last November how Hancock’s department had failed to record basic conflicts of interest or the reasons why certain suppliers were selected.

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There has been “a lack of documentation recording the process for choosing the supplier, the justification for using emergency procurement, or any considerations around potential conflicts of interest,” the first report said.

A fortnight ago, the High Court also found that Hancock had acted unlawfully in failing to promptly publish details of COVID-related contracts. While Hancock has maintained that he did nothing wrong, a global coalition for transparency and anti-corruption has now put the UK ‘under review’. “The UK Government’s reputation for openness and accountability is in freefall,” the Open Government Partnership has said.

Consequently, MPs are attempting to take action. Scottish National Party MP Owen Thompson has introduced a ‘Crony Bill’ to the House of Commons and, if passed, the legislation would ensure that MPs can interrogate ministers about any personal, political or financial connections they may have to a company that is awarded a Government contract. 

As noted by Thompson when he introduced the Bill in the Commons, it is incumbent on ministers to avoid both “actual or perceived” conflicts of interest – as stipulated by the Ministerial Code.

“As part of an our response to this global pandemic, we have drawn on the extensive expertise of a number of private sector partners who have provided advice and expertise to assist in the Government’s vital work,” a DHSC spokesperson said. “Bids were invited from a range of suppliers following an open and transparent call to market, and this contract was awarded to the business best placed to deliver this particular end-to-end service. Proper due diligence is carried out for all Government contracts and we take these checks extremely seriously. Ministers are not involved in awarding contracts.”

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