Press release 27th Jul 2022

Randox contracts investigation highlights need for lobbying and procurement reform

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The COVID-19 pandemic has required a rapid public health response on a scale and speed unseen in modern times. Whilst those procuring goods and services have sought to expedite the emergency response, we observe a pattern of behaviour whereby critical safeguards for protecting the public purse have been thrown aside without adequate justification.

Emerging evidence from investigative journalists, the National Audit Office (NAO) and public interest litigation highlights these in startling detail.

Using evidence from these reports and analysis of available data, we identify two key issues concerning procurement practices during the pandemic. We also identify a third, more general issue relating to the mechanisms for ensuring integrity in public office.

From these findings, we propose ten steps that could address some of the concerns raised over the last year, and help avoid similar mistakes being repeated in the future. None of these are particularly costly, with three either complementing or endorsing proposals already included in the UK Government’s Green Paper for reform. If implemented effectively, they have the potential to increase transparency, deliver greater accountability, and reduce the risks associated with contracting, both during a crisis and in normal times.

We hope this provides a critical, yet constructive contribution towards recent debates. Some of what we propose may be uncomfortable for those of which we ask it – subjecting oneself to greater scrutiny is seldom a natural imperative for those in public office – yet these steps are critical to setting the record straight.

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July 27, 2022 - A select committee investigation into the award of £777million in COVID-related contracts to healthcare firm Randox underscores the need for urgent reform to bring lobbying out of the shadows, Transparency International UK said today.

In a highly critical report, the Commons’ Public Accounts Committee (PAC) concludes that it was “impossible to have confidence” that these contracts “were awarded properly”.

The Committee highlighted “woefully inadequate record-keeping” by the Department of Health and Social Care, including failing to meet even basic requirements to report ministers’ meetings with external parties publicly or deal with potential conflicts of interest. This was “despite clear concerns about Randox’s political connections”.

Transparency International UK previously raised concerns over the firm’s employment of Owen Paterson, who resigned as an MP in November last year after having repeatedly broken parliamentary rules on lobbying, as well as the opacity of some of the company’s meetings with Matt Hancock, who was then Secretary of State for Health and Social Care (DHSC).

Transparency International UK’s research on pandemic procurement for COVID-19 identified 73 contracts worth more than £3.7 billion with corruption red flags, equivalent to 20 percent of all COVID-19 contracts by value between February and November 2020. This total includes £479 million of the £777 million worth of contracts awarded to Randox investigated by the PAC.  

 

Rose Whiffen, Research Officer at Transparency International UK, who provided written evidence to the PAC’s investigation, said:

“The Committee’s findings illustrate vividly the opacity of Whitehall and underscore the need to overhaul the rules regulating lobbying in Britain. When hundreds of millions of pounds in taxpayer money is on the line, knowing who met key decision makers, when and what was discussed, is an essential safeguard against potential foul play. It’s heartening to see the Committee hold DHSC to book for its transparency failings, but this is just one of many examples where the lobbying of government has been withheld from public view.

“You’d expect bids from companies with political connections to face greater scrutiny, but this report adds to the growing body of evidence that during the pandemic the opposite was true. Instead of asking whether businesses’ political ties presented an insurmountable conflict of interests for ministers, they were bumped to the front of the queue. Until we have full and candid disclosure over the government’s procurement ‘VIP lanes’, we’re left with an overwhelming suspicion of conspiracy and cover-up.”

 

Transparency International UK calls on the government to:

  1. Implement the transparency recommendations from Committee on Standards in Public Life and the Boardman review in full, which would require departments to publish more frequent and comprehensive information about ministers’ engagements with lobbyists.
  2. Bring forward legislation to introduce a new, comprehensive, statutory lobbying register in the next Parliament to bring the UK into line with other Western democracies, like the US, Canada and Ireland.
  3. Amend the Procurement Bill to set a time limit on emergency procurement during a pandemic without further parliamentary approval, and provide full and candid disclosure over the operation of the COVID-19 procurement VIP lanes, including:
  • the names of the companies referred to the VIP lane
  • the source of the referral
  • the decision for the referral
  • the status of the referral
  • any conflicts of interest identified for these referrals

 

Notes to editors:

Transparency International UK submitted written evidence to the committee's investigation.

A freedom of information request by Transparency International UK revealed previously unreported details of an overnight stay by Matt Hancock at a country estate owned by the head of Randox. 

Randox has published a response to the PAC report