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Tue 21 September 2021

The company has won two more contracts worth £46.1 million, Sam Bright reports

A company owned by a Conservative Party donor has surpassed £200 million worth of Government contracts during the Coronavirus pandemic, Byline Times can reveal.

On 8 January, this newspaper reported that Computacenter had been awarded £99.4 million worth of contracts for the provision of school technology devices – following deals worth £96 million, previously reported by Private Eye.

Since that date, two new deals have been released, worth another £46.1 million, taking the total to £241.5 million.

The latest two contracts are for the provision of 228,000 technology devices to the Department for Education’s ‘Get Help With Technology’ programme – which intends to supply laptops, tablets and Wi-Fi devices to children learning from home during the pandemic.

Both the contracts were awarded under a framework agreement – a mini-shortlist of firms that are allowed to bid for certain Government work.

According to Byline Times’ estimates, more than £900 million in COVID-related contracts have been awarded to firms owned by Conservative Party donors. Computacenter is the second largest beneficiary.

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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.

Computacenter is an IT company with extensive experience, posting annual revenues of roughly £5 billion. There is no suggestion that it is an unsuitable supplier or that there has been any wrongdoing on the part of the company.

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 COVID-19 pandemic.

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”.

Rather, there has been a marked trend during the pandemic of large amounts of public work being awarded to companies with connections to the Conservative Party.

Even in the field of school technology devices, for example, other firms with connections to the party have been awarded contracts – namely a £2.1 million deal, awarded in October, to a firm with an owner who has donated £105,000 to the Conservatives in recent years.

This has been an issue of concern for both public bodies and MPs. In two reports released last November, the National Audit Office (NAO) evaluated the Government’s procurement of services during the pandemic – noting that officials 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.

Indeed, The New York Times found that roughly half of the Government’s £15 billion expenditure on personal protective equipment (PPE) was awarded to firms “either run by friends and associates of politicians in the Conservative Party, or with no prior experience or a history of controversy”.

This, as it has turns out, has included several firms with direct ties to Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock.

Mike Galsworthy breaks down the Government’s (mis)spending of COVID-19 funds on Byline TV

The Government has also recently increased the annual budget for its ‘Test and Trace’ system to £37 billion – meaning that these two elements of the UK’s Coronavirus pandemic response will amount to £52 billion (comfortably more than the country’s annual defence budget).

Consequently, opposition parties are applying pressure on the Government to change its procurement rules – not least through a ‘Crony Bill’ introduced to the House of Commons by Scottish National Party MP Owen Thompson. 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. 

Especially now that money is tight – so tight that nurses will not be receiving more than a 1% pay rise – people are understandably keen to know how their tax has been spent.

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