Since the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, Byline Times and The Citizens have found that 57 contracts – worth some £944 million – have been awarded to 15 companies with directors, or people with controlling interests over these companies, who have donated £12 million to the Conservative Party.
Byline Times and The Citizens have exclusively exposed the contracts awarded to 12 out of these 15 companies.
Our ongoing investigation reported, in February, that COVID-related contracts worth £881 million had been awarded to donors that had given £8.1 million to the Conservative Party. However, just a month on, we have uncovered a further seven links to contract-winning Conservative donors.
The Government’s spending surged in the wake of the pandemic in March 2020. In the months that followed – as the Prime Minister went into and then left intensive care, and his chief aide Dominic Cummings took a drive to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight – healthcare workers raised concerns about shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE). Reports emerged of NHS staff being asked to treat COVID-19 patients without protection, amid a desperate scramble to source masks, gloves and coveralls.
Emergency powers were quickly implemented in response. The argument was made that the Government should be able to source PPE and other health equipment unshackled from the protocols of the normal procurement process. Contracts no longer had to undergo a rigorous tender process and a ‘VIP fast-track’ system of procurement was put in place. As these checks and balances lifted, questions were raised about a number of firms awarded contracts that had links to the Government and the Conservative Party.
At the time of writing, our investigation has logged more than 2,000 contract awards and counting and, within them, lie ever-rising concerns about the handling of taxpayers’ money. Indeed, we have found that one-third of contracts were awarded through emergency procurement without tender, and 77% were not published within the legal time limit of 30 days.
There is no suggestion that the companies did anything wrong or that they are unsuitable suppliers of PPE. Rather, the Government incubated this system, awarded the contracts and has staunchly defended its actions. If there has been a great procurement crisis, it has been state-sanctioned.
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Softcat won the first of what was to be £16.2 million in COVID-related contracts at the very beginning of the pandemic. Businesswoman Vin Murria is a director of the company and has donated £125,000 to the Conservative Party since 2019 through her company VM.AV Corporate Services Ltd. Softcat also boasts Lord John Nash as an ex-director and current shareholder. Lord Nash is a Conservative peer and non-executive director at the Cabinet Office. He and his wife have donated nearly £667,000 to the Conservative Party in recent years.
Computacenter, co-founded by Sir Philip Hulme, was the next in line. The IT firm began to rack up what would become more than £200 million in contracts to supply school children with devices as part of the ‘Get Help With Technology’ programme – which intends to supply laptops, tablets and Wi-Fi devices to children learning from home during the pandemic. These contracts were largely exposed by Byline Times.
Prior to the 2019 General Election, Philip Hulme’s wife, Janet, donated £100,000 to the Conservative 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.
Hulme told Private Eye that he was “proud” to be part of “this vital programme to support the educational needs of some of the most disadvantaged young people”. The company, which posts annual revenues of £5 billion, has long worked with the Government but, in the past year, Computacenter’s shares have increased by 66.6%.
That same month, March 2020, saw the first contract awarded to Efficio, which has accumulated contracts worth £6 million during the pandemic so far. The company, which describes itself as “the world’s largest procurement consultancy”, was formerly overseen by Livingbridge – an investment company controlled by Oluwole ‘Wol’ Kolade, who also sits on the board of NHS Improvement with ‘Test and Trace’ chair Baroness Dido Harding. Kolade has donated £678,000 to the Conservative Party.
Efficio would not comment on the specifics of the awarded contracts but described Livingbridge as “a minority investor in our business”. In February, Livingbridge announced that it has now agreed to sell its stake in Efficio to the company’s management team. A spokesperson added: “We are proud to partner with colleagues in the public sector and of the work we have done together during this period of unprecedented national challenge.”
A month later, in April, Scott Fletcher’s cloud computing company ANS Group was awarded a £2.5 million deal for supporting the Test and Trace operation. The firm’s parent company – Project Daytona – has donated more than £240,000 to the Conservative Party.
This was also the month when a horse-racing friend of Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock was awarded a £14.4 million contract for the supply of PPE, as revealed by Byline Times. CH&L Limited was incorporated just a few months before the contract was awarded, owned by Frances Stanley, whose husband had donated £5,000 directly to Hancock in June 2019. After the contract was published almost a year later, Stanley admitted to Byline Times that she had been unable to fulfil the contract and had returned the money.
“We had wanted to help source PPE at a time when the country urgently needed supplies and so put forward a detailed proposal to DHSC,” Stanley said. “This proposal was accepted and a deposit was paid by DHSC. However, due to unforeseen logistical circumstances, we weren’t able to help and the deposit was returned in full to DHSC. I had planned to donate any profits to a local charity. At no point did I ever talk to Matt Hancock about our plans to help, only DHSC purchasing officials involved in the process.”
Amid the scramble for PPE, firms rushed to China to find scarce goods. This brought its own problems. As Byline Times revealed, the Government purchased face masks manufactured by a Chinese company that used state-imposed Uyghur Muslim labour in its factories.
The owner of P1F Medical, who provided more than £60 million of PPE to the Government, described to Byline Times the chaos of procuring equipment during the early months of the pandemic. “Those factories were almost like fish markets,” he said “in how other countries and other companies were trying to negotiate.”
Our ongoing investigation has also recently discovered that, at the same time, two PPE contracts were awarded to MDS Healthcare worth some £2.5 million. New records show that it subsequently donated £5,000 to the Conservative Party in July 2020, a couple of months after its contracts were awarded. The firm maintains that the donation was entirely unrelated to its PPE work during the pandemic.
In the UK, the Government was desperate to return things to normal. On 4 July, England was ‘re-opened’ on what was dubbed “Super Saturday”.
At the same time, Meller Designs – which had previously supplied home and beauty products to high-street retailers – won its first PPE contract. The firm has now accumulated contracts worth at least £163 million. Its owner David Meller has donated at least £60,000 to the Conservatives in recent years and was the finance chair of Michael Gove’s 2016 leadership campaign – to which he donated £3,250.
Records show that, on 6 April, Health Minister Lord James Bethell and Lord Andrew Feldman held a meeting with Meller Designs, “to discuss COVID-19 testing”.
In a previous comment to The Times, a Meller Designs spokesperson said: “We are extremely proud of the role we played at the height of the crisis and managed to secure more than 150 million items of PPE.”
As the Government’s hasty removal of social distancing restrictions began to backfire, the contract bonanza continued. On 10 September – 18 days after its director donated £10,000 to the Conservatives – Globus Shetland was awarded £94 million to supply respirators. Company CEO Haraldur Agustsson is a member of the exclusive ‘Leader’s Group’ – which gives access to Conservative politicians in exchange for large donations to the party.
In total, Agustsson’s companies have donated more than £425,000 to the party. Agustsson’s other company, Alpha Solway, has also won £10 million in six COVID-related contracts.
In the same month, as exposed by Byline Times, Pickerings Hire was awarded a £14.4 million contract 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.
Pickerings Hire is owned by John Stewart Bloor, who has also donated £2.5 million to the Conservative Party since 2007.
On 21 September, Byline Times and The Citizens covered reports that a firm called Clipper Logistics had won a £1.3 million contract to distribute PPE. Clipper’s founder and executive chairman Steve Parkin has historically donated more than half a million pounds to the Conservative Party. This contract has yet to be officially published by the Government.
Pulling together a year of evidence, Byline Times and The Citizens can reveal that deals worth billions have been awarded to top Conservative Party associates during the Coronavirus crisis
By Autumn, in what was a desperate scramble to find technology devices for schoolchildren learning in lockdown, a firm that had donated £105,000 to the Conservative Party was awarded a £2 million IT deal.
Byline Times revealed that Specialist Computer Centres (SCC), owned by Rigby Group PLC, had been awarded a contract to supply 10,000 devices. In 2019, it gave £50,000 to the Conservatives, which followed a donation of £55,000 in 2017.
A month later, in November, a £19 million contract was awarded to Wernick Buildings Limited for the supply of temporary buildings to the COVID-19 testing programme. S Wernick & Sons (Holdings) Ltd – the parent company – had donated nearly £60,000 to the Conservative Party since 2001, including £30,000 since 2019, we revealed.
“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.
Despite Wernick’s reassurances, a pervading issue has been the lack of transparency in Government contracts. For instance, on the 1 December, officials told The Citizens that they did not intend to publish “the list of suppliers” who were awarded PPE contracts in the VIP fast-track lane “as there may be associated commercial implications”.
Two weeks later, we were to find that Medacs, a company run by Impellam, won a £350 million contract to supply medical and clinical services in laboratories. Former Conservative Party treasurer Lord Michael Ashcroft has a significant interest in Impellam. He has also personally donated £176,104 to the party since the pandemic began – and £851,029 since 2001.
Lord Ashcroft’s spokesman told the Guardian that he was not involved in the negotiation of Medacs Healthcare’s contract with the DHSC and did not know about it until after it had been awarded.
Impellam said that the company “has not benefited from any connections that any non-executive may hold”. Indeed, Lord Ashcroft currently acts as chairman of the company. “The non-executive directors do not have any involvement in the award of contracts or the operational, day-to-day management of the company,” the firm added.
“This Tory Government’s approach to procurement has fallen far short of what this country deserves. The National Audit Office has shown how, at best, this incompetent Government can’t even get basic paperwork right. At worst, the Government may be deliberately attempting to cover their tracks, avoid scrutiny or withhold information from the public while wasting taxpayer money.”
– Shadow Cabinet Office Minister, Labour MP Rachel Reeves, November 2020
Despite the concerns arising from such awards, it was not until January 2021 that Parliament turned its attention to COVID-19 cronyism. In the last week of that month, Scottish National Party (SNP) MP Owen Thompson introduced the “Crony Bill” in Parliament, aimed at holding the Government to account for the sorts of issues we had uncovered.
Against this backdrop, more contracts were being awarded to firms with links to Conservative Party donors. In February 2021, Pertemps Recruitment won a £2.5 million contract to employ staff at testing sites. The lifetime president of that company Tim Watts donated £7,000 to Conservative Party candidate Saqib Bhatti in 2019. Pertemps has also donated £7,500 to the party since 2005.
“The Pertemps Group of companies comprises a number of specialist recruitment and employment businesses with decades of experience of supplying permanent and temporary staff in a number of sectors, including in the medical sector and to the NHS,” a spokesperson told Byline Times. “Any donations made by Tim Watts or the Pertemps Group to the Conservative party were minimal over the past two decades, and have no correlation to any contracts awarded.”
So, a year on from the first COVID-19 lockdown, our ongoing investigation has found that more than 1,200 companies have been awarded in excess of £26.5 billion in COVID-related contracts. Nearly a billion pounds of this spending has been awarded to companies with strong and direct links to Conservative donors.
“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.”
– SNP MP Owen Thompson, January 2021
It is worth noting that the Conservative Party has received some £68 million in donations from 2019 to 2021, with half coming from businesses. It is therefore perhaps inevitable that, with so many wealthy individuals and business people linked to the Conservative Party, that some will be involved in Government work. All the firms included in this article have been approached for comment.
However, the sheer scale of public sector work won by Conservative donors during the past year, and the emergency procurement mechanisms that have sanctioned these deals, has given rise to public concern.
Indeed, our scorecard does not even include the up to £1.15 billion in two COVID-19 contracts that have been awarded to Global Access Diagnostics. One of the firm’s directors, Ali Siddiqui, appears to have donated £8,000 to the Prime Minister’s brother, Jo Johnson, in 2017, but we did not include it in our figures as the now Baron Johnson of Marylebone is no longer a serving MP.
Nor have we included Ciga Healthcare, a company that has won two contracts worth £5.3 million. We found that Toby Baxendale, a director of sister company Ciga Healthcare Holdings, has donated £104,000 to the Conservative Party.
Our scorecard also omits Conservative funders Peter Hargreaves, Ric Lewis, Christopher Mills and Colin Howell. Despite combined donations of £2.4 million to the Conservatives, the fact that they are shareholders and not directors of Omega Diagnostics meant that we did not include the firm’s £374 million Government contract.
While there is no assertion that any of the contracts detailed above were gained through improper means, nor that the suppliers were unsuitable for the work, there is still grave public concern.
In a month when the Prime Minister accredited the UK’s success in vaccinations to “greed” and “capitalism” – before asking MPs to forget he said it – our ongoing investigation throws light upon the conflicts of interest, lack of transparency and apparent nepotism that pervades the very heart of British politics.
We must ask, as we continue to combat a disease that has devastated the country, how the pandemic has fuelled cronyism and fundamentally undermined trust in the public services that the Government provides.
Additional reporting by Nafeez Ahmed, Stephen Delahunty and John Lubbock
This article was updated on 12 January 2022, removing the suggestion that MDS Healthcare shipped some of its equipment from China.