Ministers have been accused of “completely unnecessary secrecy” after refusing to disclose which companies have been awarded multimillion-pound coronavirus contracts through a VIP channel for firms with political connections.
With ministers already under fire for fostering a ‘chumocracy’ at the heart of government, the National Audit Office (NAO) found last month that suppliers with links to Tory politicians were ten times more likely to be awarded contracts than those who applied to the Department of Health and Social Care.
By the end of July, more than 8,600 contracts worth close to £18 billion had been awarded – and £10.49 billion of those were awarded directly to the supplier without any competition or tendering process. In some instances, due diligence was not carried out until weeks after contracts were awarded.
The “high-priority lane” was open for companies referred by government officials, ministers, MPs and peers – sources “considered to be more credible”, the report said.
Roughly one-in-ten suppliers processed through the VIP channel – 47 out of 493 – obtained lucrative PPE contracts, compared to less than one-in-a-hundred suppliers that came through the ordinary lane.
This week Lord Bethell, a DHSC minister, was asked in the House of Lords by Lib Dem peer Lord Strasburger if the government planned to publish “a list of all companies who were contracted to supply PPE as a result of the high-priority lane”.
But, Lord Bethell, replied: “We do not intend to publish the list of suppliers who were awarded personal protective equipment contracts after having had their offers reviewed with more urgency, as there may be associated commercial implications.”
Speaking to the Guardian, Lord Strasburger said the government’s “excuse” for “dodging my question just doesn’t hold water”.
“There is no possible risk to commercial confidentiality in disclosing the names of the fast-tracked companies and who it was that put in a good word for them so they could jump the queue,” he said.
“It looks to me as if the government doesn’t want taxpayers to know which companies were given preferential treatment, often at the expense of more proven competitors.
“They also don’t want us to know which minister or MP was able to slip these companies into the fast lane and what their connection is with the company.
“This completely unnecessary secrecy makes everyone wonder what they are hiding,” he added. “There must be a full independent inquiry into how these massive contracts were given out, and whether there was any corruption or cronyism.”
Rachel Reeves, Labour’s shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, added: “It seems this government has learned nothing from the troubling findings of the National Audit Office report, which urged far more transparency on procurement.
“With at least £1.5bn spent on contracts to Tory friends and donors, but businesses left on their knees in our communities, scrutiny and clarity are essential for public trust.
“If this government has nothing to hide when it comes to the companies it has given ‘VIP’ contract access to, it should have no issues publishing who won the work through this pathway.”