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Which way to the fast track!

November 19, 2020 2:36 PM

pnnb (Photo by Jonathan Rautenberg on Unsplash)We recently commented on what is being described as a chumocracy in which political friends of the government seem to be favoured when contracts are being handed out to fight the pandemic See https://southsuffolklibdems.org.uk/en/article/2020/1383489/living-in-a-chumocracy

There is obviously a strong argument that corners need to be cut when trying to find global sources of PPE for example but these concerns have been amplified by a report from the independent National Audit Office, Britain's public spending watchdog

In a report covered in the Financial Times the NAO criticised the government for a series of failures when it awarded more than £17bn of contracts to private companies to tackle the coronavirus crisis, including a lack of transparency, errors and potential conflicts of interest. The National Audit Office said the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health and Social Care had failed to explain why some companies with government connections or poor due diligence records were chosen to provide crucial services during the pandemic, such as supplying personal protective equipment or consulting and policy advice. They found the Cabinet Office "failed to document any consideration of any potential conflict of interest" and "failed to document why it chose particular suppliers" when it awarded the contracts,

The watchdog also highlighted lucrative PPE contracts awarded outside of usual procurement methods, including a "high-priority lane" for companies referred by government officials, ministers' offices, MPs and peers. Such companies were 10 times more likely to have obtained contracts than suppliers who pitched through ordinary channels, the NAO found. A person close to the report said there were "no rules" for using the high-priority referrals system, which meant there was "a risk of it being open to abuse or inconsistency".

The dangers of such an approach were highlighted by PestFix, a pest control supplies company which had net assets of only £18,000 in Littlehampton, Sussex, which was "added to the high-priority lane in error without a referral", which resulted in them being awarded a contract to supply PPE worth £350m to the NHS. Although it appears the contract was fulfilled you have to doubt it would have been awarded without the fast track approach

It also censured the government for failing to publish contracts in a "timely manner" after it found that just a quarter had been published within its 90-day target. More than half of the 1,664 contracts agreed with private companies between March and July have still not been published.

Meg Hillier, chair of the House of Commons public accounts committee, said: "Even in an emergency, public procurements need to get the basics right. Clearly, too many didn't. The mistakes revealed by this report are likely to only be the tip of the iceberg." She added the "high-priority lane" was "bad enough . . . but the failure to track how half the companies had ended up on it made it impossible to ensure proper safeguards were in place".