News 01st Jun 2021

Answers to key questions over PPE ‘VIP lane’ are needed to set the record straight

Steve Goodrich

Head of Research and Investigations

Steve is Transparency International UK’s Head of Research and Investigations. He is responsible for managing TI-UK’s research unit and is our specialist on lobbying accountability, party funding and open governance. Before joining TI-UK in May 2015, Steve worked as a Senior Policy Adviser at the Electoral Commission. He has over five years’ experience working on political finance regulation, legislation and data.

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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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It’s over a year now since COVID-19 hit the UK. A year of lockdowns, closed schools and face masks. A year when over 120,000 citizens, including those working on the frontline against the virus, tragically lost their lives to an invisible enemy. The government’s war-like rhetoric, evoking the Blitz spirit, has sought to help us keep calm and carry on during these challenging times.

For a time politics was put aside to focus on the pandemic. Yet since, this united front has cracked. What started as a trickle has turned into a flood of revelations concerning the connections between those awarded public contracts and the party of government in Westminster. Since then allegations of ‘cronyism’ and ‘a chumocracy’ have rung-out from headline after headline, and within Parliament itself. Although we are still yet to see all the relevant facts, what we do know gives understandable cause for concern.

Whilst one or two of these instances could be ruled out as coincidence, our research has found at least 28 (and counting) contracts worth over £3.7 billion – over 20 per cent of all COVID-19 contracts by value – which surely cannot be a matter of chance. And thanks to the Government’s spending watchdog, National Audit Office, and litigation in the courts we know a bit about why.

During the NAO’s investigation into COVID-19 contracts, it uncovered a secret channel via which offers of assistance were fast-tracked to the front of the queue. Out of a total of over 15,000 suppliers, just over 400 went through this ‘VIP lane’. One in ten of these select 400 went on to receive a contract compared to only 0.7% (104) of the 14,892 who went through the usual channels.

To us, this deserves further explanation.

The official response so far is threefold. First, this was a means of sorting credible offers from those less able to deliver. Two, that it was a means of expediting credible offers of supply to ensure protective equipment reached the frontline faster. And three, all those referred through the VIP lane were subject to a stringent eight-point check to ensure the contractor’s suitability for the job, and not subject to any ministerial involvement.

Undoubtedly there was merit in triaging offers of help. Government couldn’t possibly review all of those 15,000 approaches identically. Yet the rest of the rationale does not hold up well to closer scrutiny. Even before discussing whether the lane achieved its intended aim, which is currently being debated in court, there are several unanswered questions. These include who knew about this lane, when did they know about it, why them and not others, and whose offers of help went through it?

By all means prioritise, but why give this role to politicians? In other walks of life, such as banking, the involvement of a public official or elected office holder would subject a transaction to greater scrutiny and slower speed, not the opposite. The lack of engagement with several key groups, including medical professionals, who were likely to be better placed to judge whether or not the product on offer is suitable, makes this choice even more baffling. This is so far unexplained.

More troubling, though, is which politicians knew about it. The VIP lane was not advertised on any government website, and was disclosed to a still-unknown group of people. Our efforts, and those of public interest reporters, to uncover more details have so far been rebuffed. What we do know from Westminster debates and a parliamentary inquiry is that knowledge of this route into Whitehall was far from universal.

Lastly, the fact that all those funnelled through the VIP lane were subject to an eight-point check is moot. It only explains that the contractors ticked all the boxes but not why they’d got to the front of the queue in the first place. If a supplier’s chance of getting their foot in the door depended on who they knew, and this group of gatekeepers was more select than we’re being led to believe, then there was systemic bias in the award of these contracts. Additionally, the assertion that ministers were not involved in any way is contradicted by recent media reports.

What would help address these charges would be full and candid disclosure, and a thorough audit of all contracts under question, yet these have not been forthcoming. Government has so far rejected requests to publish the details of who went through the VIP lane on the basis that it could prejudice commercial interests. Given the amount of money involved and the issues at play, having this information out in the open is overwhelmingly in the public interest. It has also not provided a complete view of those privy to knowledge about this route. If it were something like a circular to all MPs and Peers, providing a copy of this evidence should not be too hard, but again we have nothing so far. And whilst the National Audit Office’s excellent report on COVID procurement helped advance public understanding about how these deals worked, we need a more detailed review of those COVID contracts with red flags. In our report we count 73, yet the number is likely to have risen since.

What we do have is the snippets, insights and evidence provided by over a year of articles, inquiries and court cases, which are combined into our comprehensive review of procurement for COVID-19, launched in April. By waiting till now we have had the time to let the dust settle and political temperatures drop whilst we review the cold, hard evidence of what’s happened and why. Whilst we hope this will help move the debate forward, including ten constructive proposals for change, we still lack answers to many of the key questions that would help set the record straight.