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Covid Inquiry: Byline Times Discovered Billions in Conservative Crony Contracts Two Years Ago. Are There More?
In March 2021 we and The Citizens calculated that £2bn in Covid contracts had been given to Conservative associates. Will Baroness Hallett investigate the final total?
As Baroness Hallett’s public inquiry into the UK’s handling of the Coronavirus begins its first major public hearing, Byline Supplement is reprinting this article from March 2021 summarising the research of Sam Bright, Matharu and Katie Tarrant for Byline Times, and Max Colbert, Daisy Bata for The Citizens. Project supervised by Peter Jukes and Hardeep Matharu for Byline Times, and Iain Overton for The Citizens
Since the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic, 15 individuals with strong connections to the Conservative Party, parliamentarians or Government representatives have been linked to companies awarded more than £2 billion in COVID-related contracts, Byline Times and The Citizens can reveal.
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On Monday, our ongoing investigation revealed that contracts worth almost £1 billion had been awarded to firms with links to Conservative Party donors.
Today, we can report that 15 firms with non-financial ties to the Conservative Party and the Government have been awarded a further 29 COVID-19 deals, worth £2.07 billion. Of these contracts, 87% were published after the 30-day limit that is required of the Government, while 53% of the £2 billion total was awarded using emergency procurement procedures.
Byline Times and The Citizens exclusively revealed contracts awarded to firms linked to six of the 15 individuals mentioned below.
Combining the contracts awarded to Conservative Party donors and associates, the total amount surpasses £3 billion – some 11.4% of the Government’s total spend on COVID-19 contracts.
Early in the pandemic, the Government triggered a loophole in EU law that would allow contracts to be awarded without competition in the event of an emergency. This would trigger what the spending watchdog, the National Audit Office (NAO), last November estimated to be some £10 billion in contracts awarded under these terms.
In addition to this, a ‘VIP fast-lane’ was created to funnel companies recommended by MPs, ministers and officials towards public sector contracts. VIP suppliers were 10 times more likely to win a contract than other firms, according to the NAO, yet the Government failed to extensively track any potential conflicts of interest.
“The amount we have borrowed [during the pandemic] is only comparable to the amount we borrowed during the two world wars,” Chancellor Rishi Sunak said in his 2021 Budget – referring to the vast sums spent by the Government over the past year.
The Government awarded contracts to associates and political allies – whether actively or merely coincidentally. There is no suggestion that the companies have engaged in any wrongdoing or that they were unable to carry out the work. Indeed, they were merely taking advantage of the opportunities presented by the market. This is public money, and it is the Government’s responsibility – as stipulated in the Ministerial Code – to avoid both reasonably perceived and real conflicts of interest.
It is therefore concerning that Byline Times and The Citizens have found links between COVID-19 contracts and firms connected to members of the House of Lords, current MPs, former political aides, current Government advisors and people closely associated with the Prime Minister’s former chief advisor Dominic Cummings and the Vote Leave campaign.
All of the companies mentioned in this investigation have been approached for comment.
Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock has been the face of the Government’s emergency effort to procure personal protective equipment (PPE) during the COVID-19 pandemic. However, several other health and procurement officials also took a lead behind the scenes – not least PPE ‘Tsar’ Lord Paul Deighton.
As reported by Byline Times, a close business associate of Lord Deighton was awarded a £300,620 contract in August for the supply of human resources (HR) to the Tsar’s department.
Jean Tomlin, majority owner of Chanzo Limited, which won the contract, has worked closely with Lord Deighton for several years. The pair are both directors of Hakluyt & Company, a “strategic advisory” firm based in London. Lord Deighton sits as chairman of the company while Tomlin has held a non-executive director role since 2018. During the 2012 London Olympics, Lord Deighton was appointed CEO of the organising committee and Tomlin served as director of HR.
Lord Deighton is not the only peer-turned-official linked to contract awards. Health Services Laboratories (HSL) Pathology LLP received a £38 million contract in September 2020 for the provision of testing equipment under emergency procurement conditions. The Department of Health and Social Care’s (DHSC) Health and Procurement advisor, Labour peer Lord Patrick Carter of Coles, is the chairman of HSL Pathology LLP.
There is no evidence to suggest that either Lord Deighton or Lord Carter used their influence within Government to secure contracts for favoured firms. However, the deals raise conflict of interest concerns.
“There was a lack of documentation recording the process for choosing the supplier, the justification for using emergency procurement, or any considerations around potential conflicts of interest”.
– NAO, November 2020
Another benefactor has been PPE Medpro. As we first revealed last September, the firm was awarded £200 million for the supply of gowns – just 44 days after the company had been incorporated. The PPE Medpro website states that it is “a specialist manufacturer” of PPE and that its founders have extensive business experience. Indeed, two of its directors have worked for Knox House Trust, a tax advisory and wealth management firm run by the businessman Douglas Barrowman.
PPE Medpro said that Baroness Mone has “no function or role” within the company and that it was selected as a Government supplier due to the company’s “ability to deliver the requested products reliably, on time and at very competitive prices, based on the very considerable combined experience of the team”.
In addition to the House of Lords, several Members of the House of Commons have been linked to contract-winning firms.
Investment firm Ayanda Capital won a £253 million contract for the supply of PPE in July 2020. That deal was brokered by Andrew Mills – who sat as an unpaid advisor on the Board of Trade, chaired by International Trade Secretary Liz Truss.
As the NAO detailed in November 2020, officials did not record a potential conflict of interest when awarding this contract. Mills told ITV News that the DHSC was “from the outset” aware of his role on the Board of Trade.
In addition, a firm called Luxe Lifestyle – which won a £26 million contract for the supply of PPE – also has links to Ayanda, via one of its directors. As we reported in July 2020, Luxe does not publicly list any employees or trading history.
Contract links also extend all the way to Matt Hancock himself. Derek Johnston, the chairman of EMS Healthcare, a company awarded a £5.5 million contract for COVID-19 mobile testing units, is a former business partner of Shirley and Robert Carter – Hancock’s mother and stepfather. Johnston and Hancock’s stepfather, Robert Carter, were also one-time mutual directors at GB Mailing Systems.
“Ministers are not involved in awarding contracts. Proper due diligence is carried out for all Government contracts and we take these checks extremely seriously.”
– DHSC spokesperson, March 2021
Meanwhile, it has been reported that one of the largest logistics suppliers during the pandemic, Uniserve, has ties to a pro-Brexit lobbying group. The company’s owner, Iain Liddell, has contributed to Prosperity UK, the mission of which was to “[come] together to make Brexit a success”.
It was later reported by the Huffington Post that other members of the group included senior Cabinet ministers Rishi Sunak and Michael Gove, though there is no evidence to suggest that Liddell met with them. Uniserve has been awarded contracts worth £777 million without competitive tender.
“Mr Liddell does not have any relationships with Government ministers or the Conservative Party,” a company spokesperson 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.
“It is our understanding that the DHSC asked a number of suppliers for urgent support at the height of the PPE crisis, including major international logistics companies. Uniserve was the only one who said we could get the job done, and we have not failed to deliver on any of our commitments. We are immensely proud of the work that Uniserve has done, and continues to do, to get PPE to our frontline staff.”
One firm with incontrovertible links to the Conservative Party, however, is P14 Medical. The medical equipment company, owned by former Conservative councillor Steve Dechan, has been awarded £276 million in Government contracts during the pandemic. Dechan resigned as a Conservative councillor last August due to media scrutiny over the contracts, but has subsequently donated several thousand pounds to the party.
“We’ve absolutely done this on merit,” Dechan told The Times. “We’ve sent things by plane, by train, by ship. We’re delivered everything we were asked to deliver.”
“We’re done very, very well out of the pandemic,” the former Conservative councillor has also observed, with The Times further reporting that Dechan has recently bought a £1.5 million, 17th Century Cotswolds mansion with 100 acres of land.
The onset of the novel Coronavirus demanded an intense research effort from the Government, along with communications strategies to inform the public.
Several of the firms which have benefitted from this effort are linked to Conservative and pro-Brexit political campaigns.
As we revealed in July 2020, the Kiwi-run advertising firm Topham Guerin, which oversaw the Conservative Party’s social media operation during the 2019 General Election campaign, was awarded a £3 million contract to handle digital communications during the pandemic.
“The public needs to know who made these decisions. There are what appears to be some very irregular contracts awarded and I will be seeking to establish the facts and to ensure this information is in the public domain.”
– Labour MP Dawn Butler, July 2020
Public First, a policy and polling firm run by James Frayne and Rachel Wolf, meanwhile, was awarded £956,000 worth of contracts to conduct urgent research work for the Government – and was reportedly paid £564,393. Frayne is a former colleague of the Prime Minister’s chief aide for much of the pandemic, Dominic Cummings, while Wolf co-authored the 2019 Conservative Manifesto.
The awarding of this contract has been challenged by the legal campaigning group the Good Law Project, which claims that there was “apparent bias”.
Cummings, for his part, admits to recommending Public First. “I am a special advisor and as such I am not allowed to direct civil servants,” he wrote. “However, as a result of my suggestion I expected people to hire Public First.”
“Everyone in Government knows which research agencies can deliver in a crisis, and it’s no surprise Public First was chosen given our record,” a Public First representative said in response to the Good Law Project’s challenge.
Another firm involved in recent right-wing political campaigns has been data firm Faculty AI. The company has been tasked with processing data to assist with the country’s response to the pandemic – winning five contracts to the tune of £2.2 million.
Faculty is very popular in 10 Downing Street, having worked for the Vote Leave group during the 2016 EU Referendum, which was run by Cummings and fronted by Boris Johnson. After taking over as Prime Minister in summer 2019, Johnson hired Faculty data scientist Ben Warner as an advisor on data and technology. His brother Marc Warner is the co-founder and chief executive of Faculty.
When we reported recently on Faculty’s current Government contracts, the firm said: “We have procured all of our public-sector contracts via the correct channels and as part of competitive procurement processes. With regard to the Vote Leave campaign, we did not anticipate that working as a contractor for an official campaign would come to be seen as so controversial… We no longer work for any political parties or on any political campaigns.”
Finally, the strategic advisory firm Hanbury has won two COVID-19 contracts worth £640,000 in total. Hanbury has a number of political connections – not least, its co-founder Paul Stephenson, who worked with Cummings as director of communications for Vote Leave. One of Hanbury’s partners, Ameet Gill, is also the ex-strategy director for former Prime Minister David Cameron.
A Hanbury spokesperson previously told the Guardian that “our team includes some of the UK’s leading experts in polling and data strategy”.
More links between the former Prime Minister and COVID-19 contract winners have also been revealed. Freud Communications, owned by Matthew Freud, was paid £55,000 to provide the ‘Test and Trace’ operation with “reputation management”, according to the Guardian. Freud is a longstanding friend of David Cameron.
“We’re proud of our long-term association with Public Health England and the DHSC for whom we have worked continuously for over 15 years,” a Freud spokesperson told the Guardian.
In addition, we have reported on a number of meetings held between Junior Health Minister Lord James Bethell and firms that had won, or were soon to win, COVID-related contracts.
The healthcare firm Randox – which has now been awarded nearly £500 million in public sector COVID-19 deals for the supply of testing services – met Lord Bethell in a closed meeting on 9 April.
It is not particularly surprising for a Government contractor to meet with a minister. However, also in attendance was backbench Conservative MP Owen Paterson, who is paid some £100,000 a year as a consultant for Randox. It is not known if Paterson attended the meeting as a representative of the Government – despite not holding a ministerial role – a backbench MP or a representative of the company.
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 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.”
Just three days earlier, Lord Bethell held a meeting with another company, Meller Designs, “to discuss COVID-19 testing”.
As we reported on Monday, Meller Designs – a firm that typically specialises in supplying home and beauty products to high street retailers such as Marks & Spencer – is owned by Conservative Party donor David Meller.
A month after the meeting between Meller and Lord Bethell, the Government began awarding contracts to Meller Designs, worth at least £163.5 million to date. None of the contracts released so far have gone through the normal competitive process.
The topics of conversation at that meeting are unknown and we are unaware of how the meeting was arranged. When questioned on the matter in the House of Lords, Lord Bethell said that “informal arrangements” had been used in selecting Government suppliers during the pandemic.
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 and Meller were joined in their meeting by Lord Andrew Feldman, former chairman of the Conservative Party, who had been assisting the Government’s private sector procurement process.
Lord Feldman also works as the managing partner of PR consultancy firm Tulchan, which has clients such as Bunzl, an international distribution company that also has a healthcare division. Bunzl was awarded a £22.6 million contract, without competition, for the supply of PPE in April 2020.
“This role was advisory and Andrew took no part in decisions made to award contracts or place orders with any companies,” Tulchan told openDemocracy.
‘Plagued by a Lack of Transparency’
Byline Times and The Citizens have uncovered many other links between contract-winning firms and the Conservative Party during the pandemic, but not all of them met our strict criteria for inclusion in the final scorecard.
For instance, the Guardian has reported that a firm owned by the ex-landlord of Matt Hancock’s former local pub – The Cock Inn – was awarded a £30 million contract to supply COVID-19 testing equipment. The pair communicated about the prospects of a deal over WhatsApp.
Alex Bourne’s company, Hinpack, was at the time manufacturing disposable catering items and had no experience in the highly regulated medical products sector. In the intervening period, however, it “retooled” and began manufacturing components for COVID-19 tests. This was “by no means complicated” and was “well within our client’s existing skillset,” Bourne’s lawyers told the Guardian.
Our investigation later spotted that Hancock appeared to have a photograph of the pub in question on his wall, in the spot from which he would give television interviews. After our tweet on this was seen by one million people, this picture disappeared.
We have also not included the management consultancy firms that have earned up to half a billion pounds in Government contracts during the pandemic. Various executives at these conglomerates have connections to political parties, including the Conservative Party – a ‘revolving door’ that we have also reported on.
Our investigation, however, has revealed more than £3 billion in COVID-related contracts that have been awarded to firms that have financial and non-financial links to the Conservative Party, MPs, Lords, Government officials and advisors.
While the Government has maintained that it undertook adequate due diligence and that it had to work urgently to procure necessary supplies during the pandemic, public concern has grown during the course of our reporting, even prompting Hollywood stars to wade in on the debate.
It has also become a political issue. Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Rachel Reeves last month told the BBC that: “This Government’s contracting has been plagued by a lack of transparency, cronyism and waste and they must take urgent steps to address this now – by winding down emergency procurement, urgently releasing details of the VIP fast lane, and publishing all outstanding contracts.”
There is little public evidence to show the deliberate channelling of public money to Conservative donors and associates. But there is certainly a worrying trend of repeated COVID-related contracts going to firms close to the Conservatives and the Government.
Our investigation continues.
Additional reporting by Nafeez Ahmed, Stephen Delahunty and John Lubbock
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