ORUnder the cover of an emergency, the government awarded £ 18bn in coronavirus-related contracts during the first six months of the pandemic, most without competitive bidding processes. Meanwhile contracts totaling £ 1.5 billion they have gone to companies with connections to the Conservative Party. Call it “chumocracy” or simple incompetence: there has clearly been a regrettable lack of transparency when it comes to how taxpayers’ money is spent.
The more information we have about these contracts, the more complicated it will become to put them all together. As Junior Health Minister Lord Bethell recently told the House of Lords, the government relied on “informal arrangements”To meet the urgent needs of PPE. One such informal arrangement was a phone call in April between Lord Bethell and Meller Designs, a company owned by a prominent Conservative party donor who has donated more than £ 63,000 to the party. The company, which typically sells fashion and home accessories to retailers such as Marks & Spencer, subsequently received PPE contracts worth £ 163 million.
This is by no means the only Covid contract with a hint of cronyism. But it can be difficult to understand the importance of these contracts unless you step back to see the big picture. As a political scientist with a background in mathematics, my first instinct was to start building a data set. After all, even the most complex networks can be summed up in a list of nodes and the connections between them. A few lines of code are all it takes to bring that dataset to life, like a high-tech version of the test board in Line of Duty. The result is an interactive graphic that, ironically, I called My Little Crony.
With this visualization, we can explore a whole network of connections at once. Take, for example, Lord Feldman, a wealthy donor and former Chairman of the Conservative Party who was elevated to the House of Lords by his old friend from Oxford, David Cameron. Feldman began serving as unpaid advisor to the Health Department in March, and in that capacity he attended meetings with a company called Oxford Nanopore, which has been awarded government contracts for Covid testing. Shortly after Feldman left his government post, his public relations firm, Tulchan Communications, had engaged Oxford Nanopore as a paying client.
If we zigzag in another direction we find George Pascoe-Watson, another adviser to the Department of Health who worked with Lord Bethell. Pascoe-Watson is the director of the lobbying firm Portland Communications, whose clients include Boston Consulting Group, which has won several major government contracts during the pandemic.
But are these links evidence of corrupt behavior or do they have a more benign explanation? After all, Timing is what happens when friends and associates benefit from being close to each other. It blooms when there is a lack of transparency. The boss intention of ministers may not have been to hand out contracts to companies linked to their party, or to appoint their friends to senior advisory positions. In fact, the Covid-19 emergency regulations allow the government to get rid of the usual competitive bidding practices. Is it possible that the companies connected to the Conservatives got contracts not because of cronyism, but simply because government officials had better access to information about these companies?
A recent report from National Audit Office suggests not. The report confirmed the existence of a “high priority lane” for suppliers referred by senior politicians and officials, and found that companies with a political reference were 10 times more likely to end up winning a government contract than those that did not. They had. The government’s rationale for this two-tier system was that the companies referred by the politicians had been “shortlisted” and were therefore more credible. While the government understandably wants to optimize procurement during an emergency, this system violates the most basic anti-corruption principles. Politically connected companies are supposed to receive more scrutiny, no less.
The government’s reasoning about “credible” supplies is especially difficult to accept, given that many large PPE contracts were awarded to companies that apparently had no obvious experience in that sector. Contracts were awarded to companies that included a pest control business and a confectionery wholesaler. It would be tempting to support this brave gang of misfits if it weren’t for the fact that many companies with real experience in PPE offered help to the government during the initial stage of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, the government continues to fail even the most basic test of transparency: publishing the details of awarded contracts in a timely manner. In its investigation, the National Audit Office found that only one in four contracts awarded through July were published within 90 days.
And in the fight to purchase ventilators and masks, ministers seem to have forgotten another rare commodity: trust. Unlike PPE, trust cannot be outsourced. It must be actively maintained through transparency and accountability. Data from YouGov shows that the government’s approval rating on the Covid issue has dropped by more than half, dropping from 72% in March to just 32% in October.
It’s remarkable that the government has managed to squander so much goodwill so quickly, all while paying huge sums to public relations firms to work on its messaging strategy. Successfully containing the virus and eventually launching a vaccine will depend on people trusting politicians to act in their best interests. However, you will be forgiven for thinking that the government has treated this crisis as an opportunity to award valuable contracts to your friends.
A simple first step would be to publish the contracts in a timely manner and properly document the procurement process. As more information about these contracts enters the public domain, calls for a full public investigation will only get stronger. The government could hope that a successful vaccine will divert attention from this scandal. But with Chancellor Rishi Sunak already floating the possibility of tax increases and a public sector wage freeze to reduce the deficit, people will soon have an urgent interest in finding out exactly who has benefited from this pandemic.
• Sophie Hill is a doctoral student in government at Harvard University.
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.