Randox Lawyers’ Attempts to Stall Parliamentary Report on Covid Testing Contracts
MPs have made public the correspondence between Schillings and the Public Accounts Committee over the publication of their report on the £600 million in Covid contracts
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One of the country’s biggest law firms tried to stall the publication of a highly critical report into the controversial awarding of hundreds of millions of pounds of Coronavirus testing contracts to Randox Laboratories – the firm that employed former Conservative MP Owen Paterson as a paid consultant, whose actions Boris Johnson defended from punishment for repeatedly breaking lobbying rules.
Correspondence released by MPs has revealed that Schillings used a 48-hour gap between the release of the embargoed report and its publication by the Commons’ Public Accounts Committee last July to demand it, and an accompanying press release were withdrawn until a revised report vetted by the company was agreed.
The committee refused to do so and strongly defended the accuracy of the report.
Schillings was told by the committee that “freedom of speech in Parliament is a fundamental constitutional principle” and that its report “cannot be altered or withdrawn”.
A spokesperson for Schillings told Byline Times that it had not tried to suppress the report or subvert parliamentary privilege, but was legitimately pointing out procedural flaws by the Public Accounts Committee which had not sought submissions from their client Randox, despite having a duty to do so.
“This issue invokes our client’s rights under Article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights as well as the basic and fundamental principles of fairness underscored by ‘maxwellisation’,” a spokesperson told Byline Times.
‘Maxwellisation’ is the process of sending proposed criticisms of an individual to them for their comment.
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MPs decided to make the dispute public and release the confidential correspondence after Schillings said it would report the MPs to the Speaker of the House of Commons.
Randox – based in County Antrim in Northern Ireland – was already under scrutiny after it was revealed that former Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson had acted as a paid consultant for the company. He lobbied ministers and officials and was found by the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner to have broken lobbying rules for MPs. Rather than be suspended from Parliament, and after a failed attempt by then Prime Minister Boris Johnson to save him, he resigned his safe North Shropshire seat.
The committee’s report was highly critical of the Department of Health and Social Care’s handling of the contracts, concluding that “it was impossible to have confidence that the Randox contracts were awarded properly” because of “woefully inadequate record keeping” and a failure to deal with conflicts of interest.
The law firm sent two emails to MPs marked “not for publication or dissemination” demanding that the committee withdraw the report and press release, claiming that pre-publication media inquiries had already damaged the company’s reputation.
“Such publication will undoubtedly cause our client serious and irreparable harm to its reputation as well as serious financial loss, for which the PAC is liable,” Schillings said. “This includes a down-turn in its consumer-facing business, loss in relation to existing contracts as well as the loss of potential new contracts. Indeed, our client’s customers and partners will not want to support or work with a company that it (wrongly) thinks exploited its position at the height of the pandemic to maximise its profits.
“Not only are such assertions defamatory, but they are also manifestly false and misleading. They appear to be based on nothing other than conjecture and assumptions arising from a lack of record-keeping by the DHSC.”
The lawyers then made six demands:
“We invite you again to confirm by 6pm today that you will:
Immediately disseminate an email (sight of which is to be provided to us in advance) withdrawing all the Documents from publication. Should you have already disseminated the amended Press Notice, that should be withdrawn also;
Provide a copy of the amended Press Notice to us and accompanying email seeking confirmation from the recipients that the content of the previous Press Release should be disregarded and removed from any draft copy;
Provide our client with no less than 48 hours to review any pre-recorded interviews, and remove any false and/or defamatory allegations contained therein before print or broadcast;
Provide our client with no less than seven days to review and provide further comments to the matters contained within the Documents and amended Press Notice;
Provide final versions of the updated press release and report to our client no less than 48 hours before further dissemination.
Our client’s right to take further legal action is expressly reserved should you not agree to these entirely reasonable requests.”
Two months later Schillings wrote a third letter of complaint. The law firm cited a 1723 judgement from Lord Justice Fortescue saying: “The laws of God and man both give the party an opportunity to make his defence” and Lord Denning’s ruling that the crook Robert Maxwell had a right to know what he is alleged to have done in advance.
Schillings said it was untrue that Randox’s profits had arisen one hundred fold as a result of the contract, that its large repeat contract worth £777 million in the report (which Randox say was eventually only worth £469m), was awarded without competition because of a public “call to arms” by the ministry and Randox Laboratories was the only company capable of doing it. The company also dispute that they were not adequately prepared to do all the work or used the so called “VIP line” to get preferential treatment for its products. They insisted they had not been consulted.
This led Dame Meg Hillier, the Labour chair of the committee to write a very strong letter back last month disputing everything Schillings said. She pointed to Randox Laboratories accounts.
“Randox’s accounts for the financial year ended 30 June 2021 show a reported profit of £177 million for that year, compared to a restated profit for the previous 18 months of £1.225 million. This means that the reported profit for the year to June 2021 is over a hundred times more than the profit reported for the previous 18 months, as stated in the Report.”
She said the report referred to other contracts not Randox using the VIP lines and strongly disputed that the company did not have the opportunity to be consulted or give evidence to the inquiry.
A spokesman for Randox said:
“Randox continues to reject the superficial and misleading conclusions drawn in the PAC report and the Dame Meg Hiller letter of 20 October.
“Specifically, we take issue with the report’s partial conclusions regarding Randox’s performance, capabilities and profits, as well as the company’s supposed ‘non-engagement’ with the inquiry. We believe the process surrounding the conduct of the inquiry was flawed and in breach of natural justice.
“Such conduct left us with no choice but to seek fair representation of our position through legal engagement. Our lawyers continue to act to refute elements of the PAC report and of Dame Meg Hillier’s letter of 20 October.”