Today
Fri 17 September 2021

John Lubbock explains how the Coronavirus pandemic has unravelled the Government’s glib commitment to openness over public contracts

In February 2011, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government launched its ‘Contracts Finder’ website, a new portal that aimed to make it easier for small businesses to win public sector contracts and for us all to access Government data.

At the time, Prime Minister David Cameron said that, “We need to make the system much more open, more competitive and transparent.” Government minister Francis Maude said it was “the most ambitious open data agenda of any government in the world”.

Ten years on, the UK Government is facing daily accusations of impropriety in the awarding of its contracts. It is only though the work of journalists like those at Byline Times and The Citizens, auditors at the National Audit Office and lawyers at the Good Law Project, that we now know many more details about the conflicts of interest involved in the awarding of these contracts, as well as the background of questionable suppliers, and the huge delays in the publication of contracts.

However, there is a lot that we do not know about the billions of pounds in taxpayer cash awarded to private sector firms during the pandemic. I have been stalking the Contracts Finder portal since June 2020 as part of my work compiling data on the Government’s response to the pandemic for The Citizens, and it is clear that there have been severe failures in transparency and accountability. 

A redeveloped Contracts Finder website was launched in February 2015 alongside the Public Contracts Regulations 2015, which enshrined the EU’s Public Contracts Directive 2014 in British law. The new rules put in place “various improved safeguards from corruption,” such as “requirements on contracting authorities to put in place appropriate safeguards against conflicts of interest.” 

In the intervening years, both the Institute for Government (IfG) and the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) have issued recommendations about how the Government could further improve transparency in contracting. The CBI recommended that “when a contract isn’t published or is in any way redacted, there should be a clear explanation of why this has been done and at whose request”.

Not only do none of these suggested recommendations seem to have been implemented, but the pandemic has led to massive backsliding in transparency around contract tendering. 

In March 2020, at the outset of the crisis, the Cabinet Office issued guidance indicating that public bodies could invoke ‘emergency’ regulations that would allow them to bypass normal contract tendering procedures. Many public bodies continue to invoke these regulations to issue contracts without competitive tender more than a year after the pandemic began and – according to the Cabinet Office – can continue to do so for as long as the minister in charge of the department deems it necessary. 

There is no central website for all of the UK’s published public contracts. To make the list of all COVID-19 contracts, I have been forced to conduct hundreds of searches across multiple websites using a variety of different search words. There is no one portal, nor one search, that surfaces all the deals that the Government has signed during the pandemic.

Before Brexit, UK-wide procurements had to be published on the EU’s Tenders Electronic Daily (TED) website. This has now been replaced by Find a Tender. As well as this site, there is Contracts Finder, which is just for contracts in England and Wales with a value of more than £10,000, while similar sites for the devolved nations also exist: Public Contracts Scotland for Scotland, Sell2Wales for Wales, eSourcing NI and eTendersNI for Northern Ireland.

That’s six different websites. Balkanising procurement in this manner reduces transparency and accountability because it makes it harder for members of the public and press to obtain overarching details about how procurement is conducted.

Contract notices are also duplicated across these sites, which give different kinds of data, displayed in different formats. Data is often entered incorrectly, and much of it is redacted. Many contracts for personal protective equipment (PPE) during the pandemic have been heavily redacted, including details of the total number of items purchased and how much was paid, making it difficult to estimate the price per unit. ‘Commercial interests’ are invoked to justify this wilful obfuscation of how the Government has spent our money.


Mission Accomplished?

What’s more, from all the information released by the Government about its contracts, the most important data point is conspicuously absent: whether the contract was actually delivered.

As an illustrative case study, here’s a contract for PPE awarded to a firm called Gulf Resources, first on Find a Tender and then on Contracts Finder

I issued a Freedom of Information (FOI) request about this contract – awarded to a company owned by an Iranian national living in the UK – and was informed that it “was cancelled on 29 June 2020 before any items were supplied against it.” The Government evidently held this information, but didn’t release it on any of its contracts portals.

Additionally, when awarding contracts, public bodies have to submit information on any conflicts of interest – i.e. whether anyone involved in the awarding of the contract also has ties to the private company. These declarations are logged by the Government, but are only available to auditors, not the general public.

In its November 2020 report, investigating contracts awarded during the pandemic, the National Audit Office (NAO) said that, “Although we found sufficient documentation for a number of procurements in our sample, we also found specific examples where there is insufficient documentation on key decisions, or how risks such as perceived or actual conflicts of interest have been identified or managed… While we recognise that these were exceptional circumstances, there are standards that the public sector will always need to apply if it is to maintain public trust.”

Nick Davies, Programme Director at the IfG, told Byline Times that while there had been progress in improving the quality of data the Government releases, “the UK lags someway behind leading countries.”

“As the pandemic has illustrated, a key issue is adherence to the existing rules,” he added. “Some parts of the public sector are much less transparent than others. And while it was understandable to suspend normal procurement practices in March and April last year, the extensive use of direct awards and failure to publish contracts in the required timeframe has continued for far longer than is justified.”

Even after Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock was found to have acted unlawfully in not publishing contracts within the usual 30 day timeframe, I continue to see contracts that were awarded in March and April 2020 only being published now. Far too much was paid for some PPE at the start of the pandemic – via some of the contracts now trickling through the system – but the agenda has largely moved on a year later, which is very convenient for the Government.

The reporting of data on contracts is inadequate, and holding the Government to account for how it has spent the public’s money in response to the pandemic has been difficult. The Government itself acknowledges that the current situation could be improved, proposing various improvements in a 2020 Green Paper. While this includes a commitment to better data standards, it does not go far enough. 

There needs to be a minimum standard required for the data released on Government contracts. Data should be consistent, and easier to access. Conflicts of interest declarations should be public, not just for auditors, and should state whether any directors of the winning companies have ever worked in the public sector, been an elected official or donated to a political party.

Any future inquiry into the Government’s response to the pandemic should look at how public money was spent and what lessons can be learned from the mistakes that have been made. The Government should recommit itself to greater transparency and never again be allowed to use a crisis as cover for predatory profiteering by cronies and financial elites.

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