The government failed to follow its own transparency guidelines over 200 times on contracts for personal protective equipment (PPE) worth nearly £6bn of public money in total, FactCheck can reveal.
Departments were reminded in March this year that they could make deals for vital supplies without going through the usual competition processes because of the coronavirus crisis – that’s always been the case in an emergency. But they were told that when that happens, “you should publish a contract award notice (regulation 50) within 30 days of awarding the contract.”
Our analysis, which covers the period between 1 January and 28 October this year, found 246 “direct award” contracts for PPE where the government failed to meet that deadline. Though ours was not an exhaustive search.
Among them, we found 115 deals that were published more than 90 days after being awarded without a competitive process. Together, they were worth £3.1bn.
And FactCheck found six deals that weren’t made public for over 200 days. All were struck with suppliers based in China or Hong Kong, who received just over £100m between them through the arrangements.
It seems the government was much slower to publish deals struck with Chinese suppliers, taking 180 days on average to report the 17 deals we found – compared to 98 days across all the late-reported contracts in our analysis.
The single largest direct award PPE contract we found that didn’t meet the 30-day guideline was with a Dutch supplier and worth £308m. It took ministers 88 days to publish the details.
Responding to our findings, Nick Davies, an expert in public procurement at the independent Institute for Government think tank, told FactCheck: “There were good reasons, particularly at the start of the crisis, to use more direct awards, but there is little justification for the failure to publish contract award notices on time.”
“These transparency rules exist to ensure that government is accountable for its decisions and to avoid real or perceived impropriety. It’s critical that government adheres to them if it wants to maintain public trust,” he added.
A government spokesperson told FactCheck: “As part of an unprecedented response to this global pandemic we have drawn on the expertise and resources of a number of public and private sector partners.
“This approach is completely in line with procurement regulations for situations of extreme urgency, where being able to procure at speed means protecting more frontline workers and ultimately saving lives.
“We have been clear from the outset that public authorities must achieve value for taxpayers and use good commercial judgement. Publication of contract information is being carried out as quickly as possible in line with Government transparency guidelines.”
Under the spotlight
Government procurement has faced particular scrutiny during the pandemic as departments scramble to get equipment, including PPE, from UK and international suppliers.
Analysis by the Mirror reports that £1bn of Covid-related contracts were awarded to firms who they allege have close links to senior government figures. They do not make any suggestion of wrongdoing. Responding to that story at the time, the Department of Health said: “We have processes for carrying out proper due diligence for all government contracts and we take these checks extremely seriously.”
Meanwhile, one legal organisation has taken the government to court over what they describe as a “transparency gap”. They pointed to the fact that government lawyers said the Department of Health had spent £17bn on Covid-related goods and services since the start of the financial year, but at the time, only £12.4bn in Covid-related contracts were in the public domain. Further contracts have since been published, but a gap remains.
Responding to that story, the Department of Health told the Guardian that it could not comment on legal proceedings, adding: “As part of an unprecedented response to this global pandemic we have drawn on the expertise and resources of a number of public and private sector partners. This is completely in line with procurement regulations for exceptional circumstances.
“We have been clear from the outset that public authorities must achieve value for taxpayers and use good commercial judgement. Publication of contract information is being carried out as quickly as possible in line with government transparency guidelines.”