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Sam Bright reports on how officials have struck-out crucial information in two uncomfortable cases
Two cases over the past 24 hours have stoked claims that the Government has been excessively redacting key elements of official documents.
The Government is defending a legal challenge from the Good Law Project in relation to the awarding of personal protective equipment (PPE) contracts during the Coronavirus pandemic, which saw proceedings in court yesterday. The Good Law Project, along with EveryDoctor campaign group, are challenging the rapid ‘VIP’ lane used by the Government to process politically-connected suppliers under emergency procedures that limited competition.
However, the Government has so far produced “partial and incoherent evidence, heavily redacted”, according to the Good Law Project. Many of the email chains submitted by the Government redact – i.e. strike out – the names of individuals involved in the procurement process for certain VIP firms.
An email from an individual working for one of the firms that secured a PPE contract, presented in court yesterday, said: “I believe that you are… struggling to find us on your system… See dialogue below with REDACTED and REDACTED, we are also [known] to Steve Oldfield in the Department of Health and Social Care and REDACTED whom REDACTED is working with.”
The Good Law Project claims that the “Government has been doing everything it can to keep a lid on the names of VIP contacts and those responsible for putting them in the VIP lane”, which is the reason for the redactions.
According to the Government, the purpose of the VIP lane was to enable civil servants to more effectively process a large number of offers from firms to supply PPE – in order to decide which offers were worth pursuing.
The judge agreed that the identity of individuals can be relevant to the case and should be publicly available if they were involved in the procurement process or had a significant role in decision-making, in particular on companies referred to the VIP lane. He has asked for the Good Law Project to highlight the specific details on specific documents that it wishes to make public. Its application will be heard next week.
The Good Law Project also claimed that no WhatsApp messages, text messages, file notes or submissions to ministers were supplied by the Government to the court, which it believes may have been relevant to the case.
This process of redaction has also been seen in another case over the past day. At 8pm yesterday, the Government released 30 pages of correspondence between the Treasury and Lex Greensill, the founder of Greensill Capital – a firm that has recently filed for insolvency protection.
Greensill has been at the centre of a lobbying scandal in recent weeks involving former Prime Minister David Cameron, who made approaches to senior ministers on behalf of the firm after he left Downing Street.
Lex Greensill was particularly keen to roll-out his model of supply chain finance to the public sector, as the documents show. Supply chain finance essentially involves a middle-man company quickly paying the invoices owed by certain firms or organisations to others and then recouping the money from the suppliers.
Greensill was hired as a senior advisor by Cameron and, in October 2012, the then Prime Minister announced his Government’s commitment to supply chain finance and, with it, a scheme to ensure fast payments to pharmacies. For the first six years, the scheme was run by Citibank, Greensill’s former employer, until Greensill Capital won the contract in 2018.
However, the published correspondence between Greensill and the Treasury during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic appears to omit key details. For example, an email from the Permanent Secretary of the Treasury, Tom Scholar, to Second Permanent Secretary Charles Roxburgh, notes that he had “some incoming” from his “old boss” – referring to Cameron. But the details of Scholar’s conversation with Cameron are fully redacted.
The documents also show that Cameron was copied into emails between senior civil servants and Lex Greensill. However, the names of some of the other individuals included in the emails are similarly redacted.
The Government will argue that it has a responsibility not to reveal private or commercially-sensitive information. However, as with all Government releases, it must assess whether the public interest outweighs these considerations. Officials have evidently decided to proceed with the upmost caution.