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Thu 29 July 2021

An ‘administrative error’ omitted meetings with companies that went on to win £1.14 billion in Government contracts, reports Sam Bright

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) failed to declare 27 meetings held by Health Minister Lord James Bethell at the outset of the Coronavirus pandemic, Byline Times can reveal. The companies involved in these meetings went on to acquire public sector contracts worth £1.14 billion.

Yesterday, the DHSC updated its records for the ministerial meetings held with external individuals and organisations during the period from April to June 2020. The DHSC did not declare which meetings had been added to the register – merely noting that a number of meetings had been “left off the original publication due to an admin error”.

However, Byline Times has uncovered that 27 meetings held by Lord Bethell between 1 April and 6 April 2020 were omitted from the original publication and only added yesterday. The original publication was released on 29 October last year – meaning that these previously undeclared meetings were published eight months late and 14 months after they took place.

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The vast majority of these meetings related to the Government’s response to the pandemic – in which Lord Bethell led the effort to find private sector suppliers, as the records show.

The release of these 27 previously undeclared meetings may have been spurred by the work of the Good Law Project, which earlier this week revealed that Lord Bethell held a meeting with Abingdon Healthcare on 1 April without disclosing it in his transparency data. Lord Bethell went on to hold several meetings with Abingdon during this period, which subsequently secured two contracts from the DHSC totalling £85 million for testing services. Both deals were awarded without competition.

The companies involved in these 27 previously undeclared meetings were awarded £1.14 billion in Government contracts for the supply of various COVID-19-related products and services.

“One week’s worth of meetings from Lord Bethell’s returns were not included in the previous transparency returns, due to an administrative error,” a DHSC spokesperson said. “This has now been corrected with the full list of meetings, including those from the 1 April – 5 April, available to review in the usual way.”


An Ongoing Affair

Even before the details of these undeclared meetings had been uncovered, Lord Bethell’s summits with private firms during the early stages of the Coronavirus crisis have attracted scrutiny.

The records showed that Conservative MP Owen Paterson attended a meeting on 9 April between Lord Bethell and Randox – a firm that employs Paterson as a consultant to the tune of £100,000 a year. Randox has now been awarded nearly £500 million in public sector COVID-19 deals for the supply of testing services.

There is no material evidence to suggest that Paterson had any involvement in securing COVID-19 contracts for Randox, while the firm has repeatedly denied any involvement on the part of the MP.

“Randox’s award of the DHSC contract to provide COVID-19 testing was because Randox are the largest healthcare diagnostic company in the UK, have almost 40 years of experience in that field, were one of the first companies in the world to develop a COVID-19 test and have developed extensive laboratory, IT and logistic infrastructure to support large scale testing operations,” a company spokesperson previously told Byline Times

“To insinuate this award was based on anything other than merit would be false and misleading and undermine the achievements of our staff who are working extremely hard to process tens of thousands of tests per day, now totalling nearly 12 million since the beginning of the pandemic.”

The records also showed that Lord Bethell held a meeting with Meller Designs on 6 April. The register previously said that Lord Bethell and Meller discussed the provision of COVID-19 testing services. However, the record has now been amended to say that the pair discussed the supply of personal protective equipment (PPE).

A month after the meeting, beginning on 6 May, Meller Designs was awarded a series of DHSC contracts for the supply of PPE. The firm has now accumulated Government PPE contracts worth at least £163 million. Meller Designs is owned by David Meller, who has donated nearly £60,000 to Conservative politicians and the central party since 2009. He was also the finance chair of Michael Gove’s 2016 Conservative leadership campaign and donated £3,250 to the cause.

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.”

Lord Bethell has been coming under increasing pressure in recent days due to his ministerial conduct. The Health Minister, who is a close ally of now-departed Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock, has come under fire for his use of private emails for government business.

Downing Street yesterday admitted that the peer had used private emails for government work, despite denying it 24 hours earlier. “In terms of the use of private email, can I just reassure members that I have read the Ministerial Code, I have signed the Ministerial Code, and I seek to uphold it in everything I do,” he told the House of Lords.

Keeping emails off government servers potentially makes it easier to avoid transparency requirements and Freedom of Information laws.

“The Government must immediately publish all of Lord Bethell’s private email correspondence regarding government contracts, and his private emails must be secured for the public inquiry,” Angela Rayner, Labour’s Shadow Chancellor for the Duchy of Lancaster, told the Guardian.

“Lord Bethell should be sacked by the Prime Minister after the Prime Minister’s shameful failure to show any leadership or judgment by sacking Matt Hancock.”

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