There have been concerns over some of contracting decisions made by the government for critical medical supplies © AFP/Getty Images
There have been concerns over some of contracting decisions made by the government for critical medical supplies © AFP/Getty Images

UK government faces legal action over undisclosed contracts

12 October 2020

Government procurement practices have been branded a “real cause for concern” as £3bn worth of pandemic-related contracts have not been made public.

Three cross-parliamentary MPs and non-profit the Good Law Project have filed a judicial review against the government over its “persistent failure to disclose details of Covid-related contracts”, which is “in breach of the law and its own guidance”.

Caroline Lucas (Green), Debbie Abrahams (Labour) Layla Moran (Liberal Democrats) said following a pre-action letter, the government disclosed that £11bn in contracts were awarded by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).

However, they said data analysed by Tussell suggested over £3bn worth of contracts have not been made public, leading to “mounting concerns over government's Covid procurement processes”.

They said there was an “explicit legal requirement” on the government to publish contract award notices within 30 days but the government was taking on average 72 days to publish Covid-related notices.

The government had also failed to publish the contracts alongside the contract award notice and “entirely failed to address this persistent breach in its correspondence”, they said.

Jolyon Maugham QC, director of the Good Law Project, said: “What we know about the government’s procurement practices during this pandemic gives real cause for concern. 

“Huge sums of public money have been awarded to companies with no discernible expertise. Sometimes the main qualification seems to be a political connection with key government figures. And I have seen evidence that government is sometimes paying more to buy the same product from those with political connections.

“We don’t know what else there is to discover because the government is deliberately keeping the public in the dark. We are left with no option but to push for transparency through the courts.”

Lucas said: “When billions of pounds of public money is handed out to private companies, some of them with political connections but no experience in delivering medical supplies, ministers should be explaining why those companies were awarded the contracts. It's completely unacceptable that, as an MP, I'm prevented from being able to scrutinise those decisions.”

Abrahams said: “Whilst I understand that in the beginning of the pandemic we needed to move quickly, this does not justify the government’s wholesale disregard for transparency. It is essential that Parliament is able to properly scrutinise Covid contracts.”

Moran said: “Government delaying the publication of Covid contracts makes it far harder to find out what has gone wrong with some of them. We already know that some of the PPE procured by the government never even reached the NHS. It is totally unacceptable for the government to avoid scrutiny during a public health crisis.” 

The government has 21 days to respond to the proceedings. 

A DHSC spokesperson said the government had carried out “proper due diligence” on the contracts. 

Last month, the head of the National Audit Office said it was looking at procurement of personal protective equipment, ventilators and the Nightingale hospitals.

Malcolm Harrison, group CEO, CIPS, said in a blog: “I am sure that in [the pandemic] rush to secure the best outcomes there will have been many mistakes made. But, I am also sure that buyers took decisions mostly with good intentions at heart.”

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