Boris Johnson ‘misled parliament’ over Covid contracts, court order shows

Campaigners say prime minister contradicted by High Court documents

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
,Ashley Cowburn
Saturday 06 March 2021 10:29
comments

Boris Johnson misled parliament over the publication of coronavirus contracts, a court order appears to show.

The prime minister had claimed that the contracts, which are subject to a legal challenge and cronyism allegations, were “there on the record for everybody to see”.

But a final order handed down by the High Court on Friday said the government had in fact only published “608 out of 708 relevant contracts”.

The revelation comes after a High Court judge found Matt Hancock had acted unlawfully by handing out contracts without publishing details in a timely way after a case was brought against the government by the Good Law Project.

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The order, by judge Mr Justice Chamberlain, said: “The defendant has published 608 out of 708 relevant contracts for supplies and services relating to Covid-19 awarded on or before 7 October 2020.

“In some or all of these cases, the defendant acted unlawfully by failing to publish the contracts within the period set out in the Crown Commercial Service’s Publication of Central Government Tenders and Contracts: Central Government Transparency Guidance Note (November 2017).”

But Mr Johnson had told parliament on 22 February: “All I will say is that the contracts are there on the record for everybody to see.”

Campaigners say the latest document from the court confirms that the prime minister misled MPs even after it was ruled that the government had broken the law.

The Good Law Project, which brought the legal challenge, said in a statement: “Remarkably, the Judge’s Order is based on government’s own figures – so at the same time as Johnson was falsely reassuring MPs, government lawyers were preparing a statement contradicting him – revealing 100 contracts and dozens of Contract Award Notices were missing from the public record.”

The campaigners added: “Government has not only misled parliament and placed inaccurate information before the court, it has misled the country.

“Unless contract details are published they cannot be properly scrutinised – there’s no way of knowing where taxpayers’ money is going and why. Billions have been spent with those linked to the Conservative Party and vast sums wasted on PPE that isn’t fit for purpose.

“We have a government, and a prime minister, contemptuous of transparency and apparently allergic to accountability. The very least that the public deserves now is the truth.”

Last year, a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) examined how firms were awarded contracts — including many without competition — worth £18bn to secure essentials such as PPE equipment in the initial months of the pandemic.

It criticised an “inadequate” documentation of cases and noted that a cross-government PPE team established a “high priority lane” to deal with leads from officials in government, ministers’ offices, MPs, peers, senior NHS staff and other health professionals.

The NAO also noted: “A number of contracts were awarded retrospectively, or have not been published in a timely manner.

“This has diminished public transparency, and the lack of adequate documentation means we cannot give assurance that government has adequately mitigated the increased risks arising from emergency procurement or applied appropriate commercial practices in all cases.

“While we recognise that these were exceptional circumstances, there are standards that the public sector will always need to apply if it is to maintain public trust.”

A government spokesperson told The Independent: “We have been working tirelessly to deliver what is needed to protect our health and social care staff throughout this pandemic, within very short timescales and against a backdrop of unparalleled global demand.

“This has often meant having to award contracts at speed to secure the vital supplies required to protect NHS workers and the public. We are committed to publishing all contracts and to date we have published 99 per cent of these in the official journal of the EU and we are working to publish outstanding contracts as soon as possible”.

“As the 2020 NAO report recognised, all of the NHS providers audited were always able to get what they needed in time, thanks to the effort of government, the NHS, armed forces, civil servants and industry, who delivered over 8.8 billion items of PPE to the frontline at record speed.”

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