Tuesday, 23 February 2021

COVID contracts and Conservative cronyism

Letter submitted to The Guardian newspaper: Your reporting of the unlawful way in which the Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) has placed medical support contracts during the pandemic (“‘Friend’ of Hancock in inquiry over Covid work,” 22 Feb; “Hancock acted unlawfully by not publishing Covid contracts within 30 days, high court rules,” 20 Feb.) is really revealing only the tip of a much bigger iceberg of contract cronyism, and the lack of political accountability over them being awarded. Last October it was revealed that DHSC had awarded the global firm Boston Consulting Group (BCG) a £10m contract on test and trace (“Consultants' fees 'up to £6,250 a day' for work on Covid test system,” 15 Oct.2020; https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/oct/14/consultants-fees-up-to-6250-a-day-for-work-on-covid-test-system) Green MP Caroline Lucas immediately (on 16 October) submitted a parliamentary question to Matt Hancock on this, asking inter alia, for the contract to be published, and three months later finally received a written answer from DHSC. (Parliamentary rules state ministers must answer within five working days). Exasperated, on 11th November, nearly three weeks after asking her original question, Ms Lucas had asked Matt Hancock when he planned to answer the original question. Junior health minister, Edward Argar, replied on 30 November: “We take parliamentary scrutiny incredibly seriously and it is fundamentally important that hon. Members are provided with .. timely information.” He closed by adding her question would “ be answered as soon as possible.(https://questions-statements.parliament.uk/written-questions/detail/2020-11-11/114133). At Prime Minister's questions on Wednesday 25 November (Hansard at Column 818), Boris Johnson pledged “ the publication of all the details of all the contracts.” (https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2020-11-25/debates/FA145A50-F2C7-45C7-8CEF-51F0B5AF23D3/Engagements). A week later, Mr Argar appeared before the House of Commons Procedure Committee to explain why his department had been so late in answering correspondence from MPs and PQs (https://committees.parliament.uk/committee/126/procedure-committee/news/136919/committee-questions-minister-on-department-of-health-performance-in-answering-parliamentary-questions/), telling the committee there were some 1500 written PQs that were still late being answered by Health ministers. The average delay peaked at 14.8 days in October, it rose to 20 days in November, and by early December had dropped again 13.3 days (https://committees.parliament.uk/oralevidence/1405/html/) But Ms Lucas had to wait another 42 further days, until 18 January, on top of the delay to that date to receive her own reply from a different health minister junior heath minister, Helen Whately, who said: “[BCG] are an approved supplier on the Crown Commercial Service (CCS) framework contract...Value for money and capability were part of the assessment criteria. The contract award date was 24 April 2020..:” adding “The pay rates of individual consultants engaged from each supplier is commercially sensitive information. ..All the Departmental COVID-19 contracts are published on the GOV.UK Contract Finder Service”(https://questions-statements.parliament.uk/written-questions/detail/2020-10-16/104712) I visited the Government’s Contract Finder site, to find out the details of this particular contract but it is not included at all in the 32 BCG contracts listed since April last year. (https://bidstats.uk/tenders/?q=boston+consulting+group&scope=supplier UK). After such an inordinate delay, I find that astonishing!

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