Press release 09th Jun 2021

Court ruling highlights need for full audit of all COVID-related contracts awarded to companies with political links

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Track and Trace

Publication

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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A court ruling that the government acted unlawfully in its award of £560,000 to a PR company with political connections underscores the need for a full audit of all COVID-related contracts with political links.

The High Court today ruled there was a "real danger" of bias in awarding the contract to market research agency Public First because it was run by friends of the prime minister's former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, and no other options were explored.

Research by Transparency International UK  has concluded that the way the Government handled bids for supplying personal protective equipment (PPE) and other COVID-19 response contracts appears partisan and systemically biased in favour of those with political access.

Our Track and Trace report identifies 24 PPE contracts worth £1.6 billion that were awarded to companies with known political connections to Conservative Party.

Between February and November 2020, 98.9 percent of COVID-19 related contracts by value (£17.8 billion) were awarded without any form of competition, many without adequate justification.

 

Daniel Bruce, Chief Executive of Transparency International UK, said:

“This judgement confirms what many already believed – that awarding more than half a million pounds in public money, without competition, to a company with close links to Number 10 gave a strong impression of bias. 

“Perhaps more concerning is the fact that this is just one of dozens of contracts that were awarded, without competition, to companies with links to the Conservative Party. This threatens taxpayer value for money, the level playing field for other business and assurance that firms have only been selected on the basis of merit.

“Our research has identified billions of pounds in taxpayers’ money that went to firms owned or run by people with links to ministers, peers, and senior officials. With the Government recently announcing an injury into its handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is essential that a full audit of these contracts is conducted to assess the integrity of public spending.”

 

Notes to editors:

Transparency International UK is the UK’s leading independent anti-corruption organisation and part of the global Transparency International movement.

Published last month, our Track and Trace report is the most comprehensive study to date of public procurement during the pandemic and involved a painstaking review of nearly 1,000 contracts worth a total of £18 billion.