Today
Tue 22 June 2021

Two Tory peers and a Government ‘advisor’ have close ties to a firm tasked with revamping Downing Street, Sam Bright reveals

A company tasked with upgrading Downing Street and its estate has ties to the Conservative Party, and has a Government ‘advisor’ sitting on its board, Byline Times can reveal.

Newly-released Cabinet Office records show that a facility management firm called Mitie has been paid at least £699,000 in February and March this year for work on Downing Street renovations. The various Cabinet Office receipts for this work say that Mitie has been tasked with ‘additions – buildings’ on ‘Downing Street’ and the ‘70 Whitehall Estate Modernisation Programme’.

As Tim Walker of the New European reported in January, the Government has spent well over £1.5 million on the modernisation programme since Boris Johnson became Prime Minister and entered Downing Street in July 2019. It appears as though this is a continuation of the modernisation programme launched by the Government in 2006.

Mitie’s executive team and board includes several individuals with ties to the Government and the Conservative Party. Simon Venn, the firm’s Chief Government and Strategy Officer, acts as a ‘senior advisor to the UK Government,’ according to his profile on the Mitie website. Venn’s profile claims that he was appointed to Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Overseas Business Risk (OBR) board in 2010, which “provides security advice and intelligence to UK companies”.

According to his LinkedIn profile, Venn also claims to be an ‘Outsourcing Industry Forum’ advisor to the Cabinet Office. We understand that the forum allows the Government to liaise with various representatives from outsourcing firms that are engaged in public work.

Meanwhile, one of the members of the Mitie board is Philippa Roe, known as Baroness Couttie. For five years between 2012 and 2017, Baroness Couttie served as the leader of Westminster City Council, representing the Conservative Party. She was nominated for a peerage in former Prime Minister David Cameron’s resignation honours list after unsuccessfully seeking the Conservative Party’s nomination for London Mayor in 2016. Baroness Couttie was appointed to the Mitie board in November 2017.

Yet Mitie’s links to Conservative peers do not end there. Baroness McGregor-Smith, nominated as a Conservative life peer in August 2015, served as the CEO of Mitie for more than a decade – from 2006 to 2017. Baroness McGregor-Smith currently sits as a non-executive director of the Department for Education.

Another member of the Mitie board, appointed in June 2017, is Nivedita Krishnamurthy Bhagat – who for 12 years worked as a senior staff member at Infosys Technologies, a firm co-founded by Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s father-in-law, N. R. Narayana Murthy.

There is no evidence to suggest that Mitie has benefitted directly from any of its connections to the Conservative Party or the Government, or has in any way acted improperly. It’s understood that the firm took over the contract for Downing Street renovations, which had previously been awarded to the construction firm Interserve, when Mitie completed its takeover of Interserve in December 2020.

Mitie is no stranger to Government contracts, however. The firm is believed to earn some £700 million a year from public sector work – amounting to roughly a third of its annual income. This has recently included work on the UK’s COVID-19 ‘Test and Trace’ programme, hotel quarantining, and immigration detention. 

A Cabinet Office spokesperson said: “A facilities management contact was awarded by the Cabinet Office to Interserve. This framework went through a competitive procurement process, which included due diligence checks.”

A Mitie spokesperson said: “This work was inherited by Mitie last year, following its acquisition of Interserve – who originally won the contract in 2016 following a formal and transparent tender process. This contract was also announced, publicly, by the Cabinet Office.”


Cash for Curtains

It is interesting and perhaps ironic that a private firm with ties to the Conservative Party and the Government is now conducting Downing Street renovations – given recent stories about Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s upgrade to his living quarters.

Indeed, a media storm has been swirling over Johnson’s decision to allegedly spend £200,000 on a refurbishment to the four-bedroom flat situated above Number 11 Downing Street. Johnson claims that he personally paid for the revamp, though reports suggest that at least part of the sum, £58,000, was funded by the Conservative Party via donor and peer Lord David Brownlow.

An inquiry has been launched by the Electoral Commission into the source of funding for the upgrade and whether the Prime Minister has properly declared any donations or loans that he may have received. According to reports, officials became increasingly concerned about the flat renovation in February 2020, just a few weeks after the World Health Organisation declared the rapid spread of COVID-19 as a “public health emergency of international concern”. 

The cross-pollination of public sector work and private sector companies has been a deeply controversial topic during the pandemic. Having failed to guard against a disease like COVID-19, the Government shelled out billions in contracts to private firms during the early stages of the outbreak, deploying emergency procurement rules that prevented competition.

In the process, the Government bought personal protective equipment (PPE) that will last several years, at highly inflated prices. While the Government has approved roughly £15 billion of PPE spending this year, in normal times the total cost would have been just £2.5 billion, according to the the National Audit Office (NAO).

Subsequently, Byline Times and The Citizens have uncovered that contracts worth at least £3 billion have been awarded to firms with ties to the Conservative Party during the pandemic. This constitutes some 11.4% of the Government’s total spend on COVID-19 contracts. Meanwhile, Government departments are still using emergency procurement procedures for pandemic-related deals, with no timescale for the reintroduction of competitive tendering.

The Government is now facing court challenges from the Good Law Project over a number of its awarded contracts, most notably its use of a ‘high priority’ VIP lane for suppliers with links to ministers, officials and MPs. The case, and our investigation, is ongoing.

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