Today
Fri 17 September 2021

Company behind £450,000 donations to the Conservative party awarded a series of emergency COVID-19 work, alongside contract for new prison build, Max Colbert reports 

A construction company run by major Conservative Party donors has won £7.2 million in emergency Coronavirus contracts from the Ministry of Justice (MoJ), a joint investigation by the Byline Intelligence Team and The Citizens can reveal. 

Two contracts providing “works relating to emergency COVID” responses for the MoJ have been awarded to construction and development firm Wates Construction. The contracts started on 19 March 2021 and will run until 2023. 

Between 2001-2017, Wates Group Services Ltd gave £450,000 to the party. The Wates family, who own the group, has also donated extensively to the Conservatives. Former CEO Sir Christopher Wates donated a further £15,000, including £10,000 to Conservative MP for Hastings & Rye Sally-Ann Hart in 2019.

Today, Wates Construction is one of several subsidiaries of the Wates Group and is one of the largest family-owned construction companies in the UK. It deals in privately-owned construction, residential development and property services. Its annual turnover in 2020 was £1.45 billion.

The Wates Group reported achieving a record-breaking forward order book in 2020, totalling over £6.6 billion and securing £2.4 billion in new work. This was a 13.5% increase from 2019 – an increase that was announced prior to them receiving the £7.2 million in COVID-related work from the MoJ.

More recently, the Wates Group, along with building conglomerates Kier, ISG, and Laing O’Rourke, also secured a new £1 billion development project deal with the Ministry of Justice’s New Prisons Programme. The scheme involves building four new adult male prisons in East Riding, Yorkshire, along with three locations to be confirmed, as well as a £37 million affordable housing contract from Hounslow council.

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


Donations and Influence

Other political connections held by the Group raise other concerns about potential conflicts of interest. Alongside donations to the Conservative Party, Group Chairman, Sir James Wates sat on the board of former Prime Minister Theresa May’s corporate governance review body. The body was established in 2018 in a bid to crackdown on excessive executive pay and “aggressive tax avoidance” in private companies, following scandals involving BHS and Sports Direct.

The appointment of Wates drew criticism from Shadow Cabinet Members, and the Labour Partry questioned whether he was the correct person to be put in charge of a voluntary code to end improper behaviour in large private firms.

Other links to the Conservative Party with the Wates family are also well established. Both Sir James and relation Timothy Wates attended functions of the Leaders Group, the Conservative dining society that grants access to Tory ministers. In 2019, openDemocracy reported how group members had given more than £130 million to the Conservatives since 2010. Annual membership fee of the group is £50,000.

While the experience of the Wates Group isn’t in doubt, the contracts reflect a trend during the past 18 months of companies where known associations of the Conservative Party have won major COVID-19 Government contracts.

New research from Transparency International has also shown that one in every five pounds of all donations to the Conservative Party between 2010-2020 came from property developers. Its ‘House Of Cards’ report said: “this unhealthy high reliance on those with certain interests creates a risk that ministerial decisions are incentivised by their party’s financial ties to housing developers, major landowners, and those with large property portfolios”.

Despite personal donations from family members, a spokesperson said the Wates Group had “not made any political donations since 2017 and all contracts awarded to Wates Construction by the Ministry of Justice have been won through a competitive tendering process.”

The spokesperson added how the company’s “financial resilience and long-term perspective mean we are well placed to not only deliver buildings that help improve rehabilitation and cut reoffending for the Ministry of Justice but also boost the UK’s transition to net zero and create real social value for the local communities and economies where we operate.”

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