The Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) has told the health department it must disclose the names of the companies fast-tracked to supply personal protective equipment (PPE) during the pandemic.
The government has been accused of cronyism after it emerged that firms linked to the Conservative Party were given access to a High Priority Lane – dubbed the “VIP lane” by campaigners.
The ICO said the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) had “failed to comply” with Freedom of Information rules by refusing to release the names of the 47 firms given priority.
The department has been given 35 days to hand over the information to the Good Law Project – which has accused ministers of “sleazy pandemic procurement” – following the group’s request for details.
The campaign group has brought legal proceedings against the government’s fast-track system for PPE contracts – arguing it was unlawful for companies with political connections to be prioritised for deals while other firms had to wait in line.
The government has argued that a VIP lane was a “perfectly reasonable and rational” solution to the large number of offers to supply equipment at the beginning of the pandemic.
Deals totalling £12.5bn for masks, gloves and gowns and other personal equipment have come under intense scrutiny after the National Audit Office revealed that companies placed on a “VIP list” through contacts with politicians and senior officials were 10 times more likely to win contracts in the early months of the pandemic.
The spending watchdog said last year that ministers had not demonstrated they spent billions of pounds on PPE in a way that was “fair and transparent”.
On Thursday, the Information Commissioner wrote: “The DHSC has not disclosed the requested information, nor advised the Commissioner that it considers it is otherwise exempt by virtue of another exemption. The DHSC has therefore failed to comply with its obligations under FOIA.”
The letter sent to the DHSC also warned that “failure to comply may result in the Commissioner making written certification of this fact to the High Court … and may be dealt with as a contempt of court”.
Jo Maugham, director of Good Law Project, said: “Cronyism carries a double cost. It empties the public purse into the pockets of friends of the government. And it leads to bad outcomes for public health.
He added: “Good Law Project, which first revealed the existence of the VIP lanes for PPE and Test and Trace, will continue the difficult but important work of exposing the truth around the government’s sleazy pandemic procurement.”
It comes as the government revealed that Michael Gove and fellow Cabinet Office minister Lord Agnew referred six firms down a “fast track” route in their efforts to land Test and Trace contracts.
In a response to the Good Law Project, the Cabinet Office confirmed “a total of 6 offers of help” were received to a VIP email “from the Private Office of Michael Gove and the Private Office of Lord Agnew”.
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