Labour has accused the government of “contract cronyism” after it emerged that a former chair of the Conservative Party urged the Cabinet Office to buy PPE equipment from a private client at a time when he was advising a health minister.
Emails obtained by the Good Law Project campaign group and published in the Financial Times showed that Andrew Feldman discussed the possibility of contracts being awarded to Bunzl with a government official in March last year, shortly before the company received a £22.6m deal to supply goggles, masks and gowns to the Department for Health and Social Care.
Lord Feldman, who co-chaired the Tory party under David Cameron’s leadership, was working in an unpaid role advising minister Lord Bethell at the time, and Bunzl was a client of his lobbying and PR firm Tulchan.
The incident will fuel the row over “double-hatting”, sparked by the revelation that the government’s former chief procurement chief Bill Crothers was working for controversial company Greensill Capital at the same time as working as a senior civil service.
Feldman defended his actions, telling the FT: “When I agreed to help at the start of the first lockdown, it was clearly a time of significant national crisis,. My sole motivation was to try to support the government and the NHS in protecting medical staff and saving the lives of patients.”
But Labour chair Anneliese Dodds said: “Once again it’s clear there’s one rule for businesses with links to the Tories, and another for ordinary businesses that can’t get a hearing from government.
“How many more of these instances of contract cronyism are lurking out there? The British public has a right to know.”
She added: “Conservative chairs past and present are mired in scandal, which just goes to show that sleaze is at the heart of this government.”
Emails obtained by the Good Law Project show Lord Feldman contacting Bunzl CEO Frank van Zanten on 22 March last year, to say he was hoping to “remedy” a historical issue which meant the company had been removed from the government’s approved suppliers list.
Later the same day, he send a message to van Zanten, copying in Cabinet Office official Andrew Wood, to say that he had spoken to Wood about the opportunity for Bunzl to supply the government with equipment.
A week later, on 30 March, he emailed Mr Wood warning that Bunzl was under pressure to sell its PPE products overseas and telling him: “We need to move quickly.” The £22.6m contract was confirmed on 3 April.
Lawyer Jo Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, said the emails raised concerns.
“An ex-Conservative party chair, who now runs a huge PR agency, walked into a role at the heart of this vast procurement process without any formal process,” he said. “He then spent his days chivvying officials to speed up a contract for a firm his agency represents.”
An official at the DHSC said Lord Feldman had no involvement in the contract award process to Bunzl, which was decided by the department’s accounting officer. The department said it did “proper due diligence” on all contracts.
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