politics

'£2bn of Tory contracts' in the firing line – 5 key deals you should know about


Labour has demanded the government publish the details of meetings that led to Tory-linked firms being fast-tracked to plum pandemic contracts.

Research by Labour published last week suggests the value of contracts awarded to companies with connections to the Tories amounts to almost £2 billion – a figure they say has doubled since October.

And now Shadow Cabinet Office Minister Rachel Reeves and Deputy Leader Angela Rayner have written to top officials, demanding details of meetings between ministers and the companies involved.

Labour is also calling on the Conservative Party to tell the companies to publish their profit margins for contracts awarded by the government in order to “demonstrate to the British people that taxpayers’ money is being spent wisely and effectively”.

It comes after the High Court heard evidence about a contract handed to Public First, a firm run by friends of Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove.



Dominic Cummings, a former top aide to Boris Johnson, who left No10 last year

In a letter to Cabinet Secretary Simon Case, Ms Reeves raised concerns about the Cabinet Office’s “VIP” fast-track to contracts.

A National Audit Office report found companies referred through this track, including friends of ministers and MPs, were ten times more likely to secure government contracts.

“The government so far has declined to publish full details of the companies who won contracts through this lane,” Ms Reeves wrote.

She said doing so would help to “restore public confidence and address repeated concerns of cronyism.”

Meanwhile, Ms Rayner wrote to Conservative Party Chair Amanda Milling.

In the letter, she warned: “This lack of transparency is compounding fears of growing “cronyism” at the heart of this government’s pandemic procurement, with taxpayers’ money seemingly handed out to companies with close links to the Conservative Party, or companies who have donated money to the Conservative Party, with no discernible track record and in many cases a failure to deliver for the public.”

Research by Labour found a string of Tory-linked companies had been awarded contracts worth nearly £2 billion, according to publicly available data.

A government spokesperson said they would respond to the letters in due course.

They said: “All government contracts are published as part of our commitment to transparency, and all PPE contracts went through the same eight stage official assurance process, including quality checks, price controls and other due diligence.

“The dedicated PPE Mailbox allowed officials to more quickly triage offers of support, including from MPs of any political party and government officials.

“The NAO report found no evidence of ministerial involvement in procurement decisions, and ministerial meetings with external organisations are routinely published on gov.uk.”

Here are five deals you should know about.

Public First

Campaigners took legal action against the Cabinet Office over the decision to pay more than £500,000 of taxpayers’ money to research firm Public First and questioned the involvement of Mr Cummings.

Lawyers for the Good Law Project argued on Monday that there was “apparent bias” in Michael Gove handing a contract worth hundreds of thousands of pounds to the firm, which is run by friends of Mr Gove and Mr Cummings.

Public First – co-owned by Mr Cummings’ former associate James Frayne, and Rachel Wolf who co-wrote the 2019 Tory manifesto – was paid for “extremely urgent” research, development and consultancy on Covid-19 for six months from March 3.

In a written submission, Mr Cummings told the court he was “friends” with Mr Frayne, Ms Wolf and Gabriel Milland, another member of staff.

But he added: “Obviously I did not request Public First be brought in because they were my friends.



James Frayne

“I would never do such a thing.”

Rival arguments were considered at a virtual High Court hearing on Monday and a ruling is set to be delivered on a date yet to be fixed.

Public First was contacted for comment on this story but did not respond by time of publication.

After the hearing, Natascha Engel, former Labour MP and deputy speaker, who led some of Public First’s research, said: “At times like this, governments choose who they think are going to do the best job.

“Our work had a huge positive impact on how the Government spoke to the public.”

She added: “Given James Frayne hasn’t spoken to Dominic Cummings in several years and neither he nor Rachel Wolf spoke to Dominic Cummings or Michael Gove about Covid research, the idea this was some sort of quiet arrangement between friends is clearly wrong.

“Everyone in Government knows which research agencies can deliver in a crisis and it’s no surprise Public First was chosen given our record.”

Serco

Outsourcing giant Serco has been handed a number of contracts during the pandemic, including a £108 million-deal to help run the Test and Trace system.

It was also awarded a £57 million contract for support at testing sites in November last year.



Rupert Soames, CEO of Serco

Its chief executive Rupert Soames is the brother of former Tory MP Sir Nicholas Soames. Rupert’s wife Camilla donated £4,995 to the Tories in November 2019.

Health Minister Edward Argar also worked as a senior executive at Serco before becoming an MP in 2015.

Serco declined to comment.

Randox

Randox Laboratories Ltd received a number of contracts for Covid-19 testing, including one for up to £346.5 million in November and another for £133 million in May.

Conservative MP and former Cabinet Minister Owen Paterson is employed as a paid adviser but Randox denied he had any involvement in securing the contracts.

A spokesperson for Randox said: “The Rt Hon Owen Paterson MP played no role in securing any Randox contract with DHSC and any insinuation that he did would be false and misleading.

“Randox is one of the UK’s most experienced diagnostics companies, having operated since 1982, and received a contract from the UK Government on merit.”

Meller Designs

Meller Designs is co-owned by David Meller, who has donated £65,000 to the Conservative Party in the past decade.

The firm, which supplies home and beauty products, was awarded contracts to provide PPE, including a £65.8 million deal to supply face masks to the NHS.



David Meller, co-owner of Meller Designs

The firm did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.

A spokesman previously told the Sunday Times: “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.”

P14 Medical Ltd

The firm P14 Medical Limited, run by a former Tory councillor, was awarded a contract worth more than £116 million to supply face shields to the NHS.

It also secured a deal worth more than £156 million to provide isolation gowns.

Its director Steve Dechan was a Conservative councillor on Stroud Town Council until last summer and campaigned for the local MP Siobhan Baillie at the 2019 election.



PPE shortages at the start of the pandemic prompted a scramble to secure supplies

A spokesperson said the firm has been supplying medical supplies, including PPE, to the NHS for nearly a decade.

“At the outset of the Covid-19 crisis it became clear that one of the key challenges faced by the NHS was the ability to acquire the PPE vital to keep staff safe and help reduce infections,” the spokesperson said.

“P14 were able to work with our network of suppliers across the world to manufacture and develop the vital products needed for NHS staff.

“P14 has reached out to the Labour Party to help them understand our role in the delivery of PPE but has not yet heard back.”





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