Covid contracts: PAC chair calls out use of procurement short-cuts
Meg Hillier claims that massive deals were awarded without competition as emergency measures were used for longer than required
The chair of parliament’s Public Accounts Committee has criticised an ongoing lack of transparency surrounding vast sums of taxpayers’ money spent on Covid-related contracts that were awarded without the usual checks and balances.
As part of its move to an emergency-response footing, in the early days of the coronavirus crisis government loosened procurement rules to enable public bodies to buy key goods and services as a matter of urgency. This encompassed testing services and crucial medical supplies such as personal protective equipment (PPE), as well as range of other services – including the delivery major technology and data-centric projects, such as the Test and Trace programme.
In a piece written exclusively for PublicTechnology sister publication The House Live, PAC chair Meg Hillier said that the public-spending watchdog has long “has been sounding the alarm about poor record-keeping, huge profits made by some companies, and contracts awarded without competition”.
She added that, while the award of contacts without any competitive process was allowed as part of the emergency relaxation of buying procedures, the practice had “extended beyond the early days of the pandemic”.
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“Even when companies failed to deliver on their obligations, contracts were extended to the tune of millions of pounds, often without testing the market,” she said.
Government’s deals with testing firm Randox – through which almost £800m were spent – are cited by Hillier as an example of a failure to keep even “basic records” on negotiations and whether or not standard best practices, such as price benchmarking, were followed.
“Every penny of taxpayers’ money spent must be accounted for and decision-makers held accountable,” she wrote. “For this, transparency and good record-keeping is vital. It is simply not good enough to throw overboard basic procedures and due diligence during a crisis.”
As the commencement of the public inquiry on the pandemic draws close, the committee chair noted that “spending hasn’t stopped, [as] the government has hired top public relations and legal firms in preparation” for the independent examination.
“All this casts a murky shadow,” she said. “In the words of a previous prime minister (David Cameron), sunlight is the best disinfectant. Without a clear record of what happened, as billions was spent, sunlight will struggle to reach some corners of the Covid response.”
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