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Thu 29 July 2021

The Byline Intelligence Team and The Citizens report on yet more conflict of interest questions surrounding the Government’s procurement during the pandemic

Six out of the top 20 companies to have won the most money from COVID-related Government contracts have connections to the Conservative Party, the Byline Intelligence Unit and The Citizens can reveal. Twelve of the top 100 companies also have some link to the Conservatives.

We have analysed data compiled by The Citizens on thousands of pandemic-related contracts, to see which companies have won the most public sector money. According to our calculations, the total spending including framework agreements (contracts with multiple potential suppliers) amounts to £54.2 billion – more than the GDP of 140 countries and territories.

The top 50 companies on our list won £20.9 billion in individual contracts, around two-thirds of the total amount awarded in non-framework deals. So, 0.03% of companies awarded COVID-related contracts have won two-thirds of the total value of money awarded.

Several of these companies have links to the Conservative Party. Uniserve, for example, has won contracts that total the fifth largest for any company, for the provision of logistics and testing services. The firm’s owner, Iain Liddell, has contributed to the group Prosperity UK, the mission of which was to “[come] together to make Brexit a success”.

It has been reported by the Huffington Post that other members of the group included senior Cabinet ministers Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove, though Uniserve denies that Liddell met or communicated with either of them. It has been revealed that Uniserve is one of the companies that was channelled through the controversial ‘VIP’ procurement lane for firms with connections to MPs, ministers and officials.

“Mr Liddell does not have any relationships with Government ministers or the Conservative Party,” a company spokesperson previously told Byline Times. “Uniserve did not actively sell our procurement services to the DHSC: the Government’s PPE procurement team approached us because of our unique capabilities, our expertise, and our proven track record… We are immensely proud of the work that Uniserve has done, and continues to do, to get PPE to our frontline staff.”

The company to have won the 11th highest value contracts, Randox Laboratories, employs Conservative MP Owen Paterson as an advisor with a salary of £100,000 a year. Randox, Paterson and Health Minister Lord James Bethell held a meeting during the early stages of the pandemic to discuss COVID-19 testing. Randox has consistently insisted that Paterson had no involvement in its COVID contracts. “Randox’s award of the DHSC contract to provide COVID-19 testing was because Randox was and remains the largest healthcare diagnostic company in the UK,” a company spokesperson said.

The firm that is 19th on our list, Medacs Healthcare, is ultimately controlled by Conservative donor and former party deputy chairman, Lord Michael Ashcroft. 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.

The company that has amassed the fourth highest value contracts is Global Access Diagnostic (GAD). One of the firm’s directors, Ali Siddiqui, donated £8,634 to the Prime Minister’s brother, Jo Johnson, in 2017. 

GAD’s sister company Mologic said that “Global Access Diagnostics and Mologic are social enterprises that are structured to invest all profits into products and life science innovations dedicated to escalating epidemics and the next pandemic.” Fitchett’s company is trying to manufacture COVID-19 tests at a low price for distribution around the world and has not received accreditation for production in the UK. Fitchett also said he was unaware that one of his company directors had donated to Johnson.

There is no suggestion of any wrongdoing on the part of these companies or the individuals involved – nor evidence that they have directly leveraged their political connections to secure contracts during the pandemic.

Rather, Government rules state that departments must avoid perceptions of conflicts between official, commercial and political interests, even if direct influence has not taken place. Failing to do so can have “far-reaching consequences,” the rules say, including “undermining public confidence in the integrity of the organisation and Government as a whole”.

This has been a particular concern during the pandemic, as contracts worth at least £3 billion have been awarded to Conservative Party donors and associates.

Other Conservative-linked companies in the top 50 include P14 Medical, owned by Conservative councillor Steve Dechan and Ayanda Capital, linked to former Government advisor Andrew Mills. P14 Medical won £275 million in personal protective equipment (PPE) contracts and Dechan subsequently donated £7,500 to the Conservative Party. The Good Law Project has revealed that P14 Medical was also channelled through the ‘VIP’ lane.

A P14 Medical spokesperson said that Dechan “has not had any direct conversations with MPs, Ministers or Departmental officials about the awarding of NHS contracts.”

Byline Times has calculated that £615,000 has been donated to the Conservatives by individuals linked to firms that have won hundreds of millions in Government COVID contracts. All the firms cited in this article have been approached for comment.

“Ministers are not involved in awarding contracts. Proper due diligence is carried out for all Government contracts and we take these checks extremely seriously,” a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson previously told Byline Times.


Government by Redaction

There may be more companies with connections to the Conservative Party on our list of highest-value contract winners. Many Conservative donors do so privately, through dinner clubs or other proxy actors, making it hard to see where donations are coming from. Six of the 20 top companies are also ultimately based abroad.

It is no secret that the Government suspended normal procurement rules in March 2020 – invoking emergency procurement rules that allow public bodies to bypass competitive tendering. We have repeatedly asked the Cabinet Office when these regulations will no longer apply, and their response has been to say that they will continue to apply as long as there is an emergency that requires them. Whether a crisis meets this criteria seems to be assessed by the Government itself, not an outside body.

The UK Government is due to publish the results of a consultation on its Green Paper on changes to procurement rules, but whether the changes proposed will go far enough in bringing full transparency and accountability to public sector procurement is yet to be seen. 

“Transparency by contracting authorities remains inconsistent,” the Green Paper reads. “There is uncertainty about redaction of commercially sensitive information. Although there is increasing compliance with the requirement to publish contract opportunities and awards on Contracts Finder, there remain data gaps and limitations that make it difficult for the public sector, the private sector, civil society organisations and citizens to understand the full pattern of government procurement spend.”

Indeed, the current data that is published on the contracting websites neglects key details. For example, we talked to a spokesperson from Omega Diagnostics, who said that although the firm had been awarded a £374 million contract to make lateral flow tests, it has not received any money yet from the Government. What’s more, not all contracts published on the contracting websites have gone ahead. A £45 million contract for face masks awarded to Purple Surgical fell through with the company alleging fraud by its supplier. These facts make it hard to be sure about the accuracy of what is published on the procurement sites.

The Government has evidently identified these central problems with procurement transparency. But to stop conflict of interest claims, and accusations of clandestine, back-door dealings, there needs to be stricter rules about publishing a register of interests for every contract that is awarded.

All we can do, as part of the media, is to surface potential conflicts of interest and to put pressure on the Government to tighten up its processes. The pandemic has given it ample warning.

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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