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Sat 17 April 2021

The company owner has donated more than £2.5 million to the Tory Party in recent years

The Government has released details of a £14.4 million contract awarded to a company owned by a Conservative Party donor, Byline Times can reveal.

Published on 9 March, the document shows that Pickerings Hire Limited was awarded the multi-million-pound deal by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) in September 2020, with the contract ending in March 2021.

Pickerings was commissioned for the “maintenance and removal of specialist trailers and hire of equipment including services in relation to the LTS project”, the document states. The LTS project is not publicly defined, but other companies commissioned to work on the scheme have assisted with the construction of modular buildings for the UK’s COVID-19 testing programme.

Companies House records show that Pickerings is owned by John Stuart Bloor and Bloor Holdings Limited.

Bloor, a billionaire who also owns Triumph Motorcycles, has donated significant amounts of money to the Conservative Party in recent years. He has racked up £2.5 million in gifts to the central party and local candidates since 2007, almost exclusively via his company J.S. Bloor (Services) – including £950,000 in the run-up to the 2019 General Election.

Bloor has also been embroiled in another conflict of interest case recently. His housing development company, Bloor Homes, made an unsuccessful planning application to build 1,000 new homes at Sandleford Park, Newbury. The appeal was due to be heard by the Planning Inspectorate, but Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick has now enacted the power for his department to make the final decision. The Government has insisted that Jenrick did not personally ask for this decision to be made in-house.

Pickerings is a Derbyshire-based company established in 1969 that recorded turnover of £38.1 million in the year up to 30 June 2020. The DHSC contract was awarded on a call-off framework, which is essentially a mini-shortlist of firms that can bid for certain public work.

There is nothing to suggest that Pickerings is not capable, from a practical standpoint, of implementing the Government contract.

However, the awarding of the contract corresponds with a litany of deals, awarded during the Coronavirus pandemic, to firms with connections to the governing Conservative Party.

So far, Byline Times and The Citizens have calculated that £900 million in COVID-related contracts have been awarded to firms that have donated to the Conservatives, either directly or via their owners.

A number of other beneficiaries also have links to Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock – not least a firm with links to his family, which was awarded a £5.5 million contract for COVID-19 mobile testing units, as well as a family friend of Hancock who was awarded a £14.4 million deal for the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE). The former landlord of Hancock’s local pub also messaged him to enquire about securing a COVID-19 contract – before being awarded £30 million of Government work to supply test tubes.

This is not the first time that a Conservative donor has been awarded a contract to assist the DHSC’s LTS project, either.

Last week, Byline Times reported that a company had been awarded a £18.7 million deal to supply building facilities for COVID-19 testing sites – having donated nearly £60,000 to the Conservatives since 2001. This contract was also awarded under a framework agreement.

The overall cost of the UK’s ‘Test and Trace’ scheme has been the subject of confusion and anger over the past week, after it was announced that its budget is burgeoning to £37 billion – considerably more than the GDP of Latvia – while NHS nurses have been denied a pay rise of more than 1%.

Test and Trace, run by Conservative-appointed peer Baroness Dido Harding, has relied heavily on private-sector providers, paying £1,000 a day for an army of 2,000 consultants to work on the programme.

The way in which contracts have been awarded over the past year has also been the subject of intense criticism from public bodies and MPs. In two reports released last November, the National Audit Office (NAO) said that the Government had failed to record basic conflicts of interest or the reasons why certain suppliers were selected.

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 stated.

The High Court has also found that Hancock acted unlawfully in failing to promptly publish details of COVID-related contracts. While he 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. Ministers are not involved in awarding contracts. Proper due diligence is carried out for all Government contracts and we take these checks extremely seriously.”

Pickerings Hire Limited did not respond to Byline Times’ request for comment.

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