07:50, November 16 35 0 theguardian.com

2020-11-16 07:50:05
Covid-19 contracts smell of cronyism – so I'm taking the government to court

There is an England of my mind. And in it those who have made their fortunes offer their time and talents in service of the public good, modelling self-sacrifice and respect for good governance to ensure the nation thrives. But that England is no longer this England.

Take the story of Kate Bingham. She is wife to a Treasury minister and cousin by marriage to Boris Johnson’s sister. Despite having – by her own admission – no vaccines experience, she was appointed by the prime minister, as far as we know without competition, to head up the “vaccines taskforce”.

With this role came responsibility for investing billions of pounds of public money, a task she performed while remaining managing director of a private equity firm specialising in health investments. While in post she gave, again apparently without competition, a £670,000 contract to a tiny PR firm, whose last accounts show net assets of less than a third of that sum. Its directors include Collingwood Cameron, a longstanding business associate of Humphry Wakefield (better known as Dominic Cummings’ father-in-law).

The Good Law Project, which I run, has received what I consider bullish legal advice from a leading procurement specialist that the letting of the contract to the PR firm, Admiral Public Relations and Marketing, was unlawful. But, as it happens, we already have two cases before the high court on the unlawful award of contracts to other communications agencies connected to Dominic Cummings: Public First and Hanbury Strategy.

We know, of course, that the government, in tabling the internal market bill, made a calculated and conscious decision to break international law. And we know it admits to breaking the law in holding back the details of £4bn-worth of Covid contracts. So why challenge Admiral PR? If a government stops caring about whether its actions are lawful, what use is a lawyer or the law?

But still the offences to the England of my mind mount up.

From documents leaked to us, whose authenticity the government does not dispute, we already know of the existence of special “VIP” channels for the procurement of Covid-19 protective equipment. We can see no good explanation for why so many hugely valuable PPE contracts have gone to its friends.

And what of the £100bn to be spent on the government’s “moonshot” for mass testing – all this, apparently, without consulting the national screening committee, its own body of experts, or seeking the consent of parliament? And of its ongoing preference for direct appointments over open competition for key Covid roles? Bingham is the most feted example, but others include the appointment of Mike Coupe as director of Covid testing, and Baroness Dido Harding as head of test and trace, neither of whom had any previous related experience.

Whether or not we would call this an abuse of power, or cronyism, what matters is its effect on the public good. For ministers or special advisers to choose their friends or close associates for these key roles is to exclude those who are more able, or better value. And ultimately it is the public interest that suffers.

When we come to look at the evidence of how we have managed the pandemic – with both excess deaths and the hit to the economy in the UK among the highest in the developed world – what will we conclude about who was served by handing out so many jobs and contracts to friends?

In challenging all these decisions, the Good Law Project aims to protect civil servants who worry that their careers will be jeopardised if they voice their concerns about bad practice. And we do it in the hope of an England where the government decides that perpetuating these practices becomes too much of a political risk.

Jolyon Maugham QC is a barrister and director of the Good Law Project

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