Civil servants found themselves “drowning” in bids for Covid contracts that failed to meet due diligence standards after the government created a “VIP lane” for politically connected suppliers, a court has been told.
Evidence disclosed as a result of a legal action brought against the government by the Good Law Project suggests the controversial scheme resulted in a deluge of non-credible offers to supply personal protective equipment (PPE), some of them recommended by MPs and ministers.
The government has repeatedly refused to reveal which companies were awarded public money after having their bids assessed through the VIP lane, citing “commercial confidentiality”.
It denies that ministers had any role in dictating which companies received contracts, or that the scheme was used to direct public money to applicants favoured by the government.
The Good Law Project case, however, illustrates how in at least two instances the political connections of companies appear to have factored into their bids for government Covid contracts being referred into the VIP lane.
One company, PestFix, was referred into the VIP lane after its chairman contacted the Department of Health saying he had recently attended the 80th birthday party of its procurement director’s father-in-law.
A Deloitte consultant assisting with Covid PPE procurement forwarded the offer to civil servants, writing: “One for the VIP lane please.” The National Audit Office, Britain’s spending watchdog, has previously said that PestFix was added to the VIP lane in error.
In a second instance a civil servant commented that “the bar seemed to be lowered for this one” after attending a meeting to discuss a bid to supply PPE by Ayanda Capital, which had been promoted by an adviser to the trade secretary, Liz Truss.
The government has explained that the purpose of the VIP lane was to enable civil servants to more effectively triage a large number of unsolicited offers to supply PPE, enabling them to identify credible offers from genuine companies.
However, one email dated 14 April 2020, shown to the court as part of the Good Law Project’s legal action, suggests the VIP lane in fact had the opposite effect.
“We are currently drowning in VIP requests and ‘high priority’ contracts that despite all of our work and best efforts do not either hold the correct certification or do not pass due diligence,” an unnamed civil servant complained in the email.
The same email appears to suggest companies referred into the VIP lane would have their offers handled more quickly than companies that were not.
“This contact has already been allocated a team member – unfortunately if he jumps to the front of the queue, it then has a knock-on effect to the remaining offers of help,” one of the civil servants wrote.
A separate email sent on 25 April 2020 by Max Cairnduff, a Cabinet Office procurement director, to civil servants echoed the same concerns.
“We’re getting far more cases in VIP than Wendy [Burdon, a government procurement officer] and her team can sensibly be expected to manage … despite the fact that Wendy is doing a fantastic job,” he wrote. “There’s simply too much volume.”
He described various types of bids for public contracts finding their way to the VIP lane, including those referred by MPs after failure to elicit a response through other approaches to government, as well as “suppliers who are personally recommended by ministers directly”.
Speaking separately to the hearing, a Cabinet Office representative pointed out that, contrary to allegations of the VIP lane being used to direct money to friends of ministers, the documents in fact showed companies being rejected because they didn’t meet the standards required by the civil service.
The government was approached for comment.