Matt Hancock, the health secretary, acted unlawfully by handing out Covid-19 contracts without publishing details in a timely manner, a High Court judge has determined.
A legal challenge had been brought by the Good Law Project and three opposition MPs over contracts – many running into hundreds of millions of pounds – to supply face masks another personal protective equipment (PPE), which were awarded without competition.
Mr Justice Chamberlain found that Hancock should have obeyed government transparency principles mandating the publication of details of contracts within 30 days.
The ruling, released be the High Court on Friday, found: “There is now no dispute that, in a substantial number of cases, the Secretary of State breached his legal obligation to publish Contract Award Notices within 30 days of the award of contracts.”
It stated: “The Secretary of State spent vast quantities of public money on pandemic-related procurements during 2020. The public were entitled to see who this money was going to, what it was being spent on and how the relevant contracts were awarded.”
In a statement released after the judgement, the Good Law Project – fronted by barrister Jolyon Maugham QC – said: “When government eschews transparency, it evades accountability. Government’s behaviour came under criticism in the judgment.
“If it had admitted to being in breach of the law when we first raised our concerns, it would have never been necessary to take this judicial review to its conclusion. Instead, they chose a path of obfuscation, racking up over £200,000 of legal costs as a result.
“We shouldn’t be forced to rely on litigation to keep those in power honest, but in this case it’s clear that our challenge pushed government to comply with its legal obligations.
“Judge Chamberlain stated that the admission of breach by government was ‘secured as a result of this litigation and at a late stage of it’ and ‘I have no doubt that this claim has speeded up compliance’.
“It begs the question, if we hadn’t brought this legal challenge, what other contract details would have remained hidden from view?”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We have been working tirelessly to deliver what is needed to protect our health and social care staff throughout this pandemic, within very short timescales and against a background of unparalleled global demand.
“This has often meant having to award contracts at speed to secure the vital supplies required to protect NHS workers and the public.
“As the 2020 National Audit Office report recognised, all of the NHS providers audited were always able to get what they needed in time thanks to the effort of government, NHS, armed forces, civil servants and industry who delivered over 8 billion items of PPE to the frontline at record speed.
“We fully recognise the importance of transparency in the award of public contracts and continue to publish information about contracts awarded as soon as possible.”