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Case update 16 March 2021

Failure to publish

Last night’s Panorama gave us the extraordinary tale of a dog food supplier turned PPE broker bagging herself millions acting as a ‘bridge’ for a Hong Kong supplier. Details of the largest contract – worth £178m – came to light only after the BBC’s probing prompted the Government to publish. 

It sought to explain its failure as an “admin error.” But even if true – which we doubt – this doesn’t justify a further breach of the law on transparency. Despite the High Court ruling in our favour last month that Matt Hancock had broken the law in failing to publish pandemic contracts the failures continue. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson and his Minister mislead Parliament about the scale of the breaches. And refuse to come clean about the beneficiaries of its ‘VIP’ lane. 

In his judgment, Judge Chamberlain said “The Secretary of State spent vast quantities of public money on pandemic-related procurements during 2020. The public were entitled to see who this money was going to, what it was being spent on and how the relevant contracts were awarded.” We agree. And so we have today written to Matt Hancock launching new legal proceedings for his continuing failures to comply with the law. 

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Our grounds focus on two key issues:

  • First, the Secretary of State’s failure to comply with his obligations to publish Contracts Finder notices (CFNs) within the requisite 90 days. In relation to contracts entered into on or before 7 October 2020, he had failed to do so in well over 50% of cases.
  • Second, the Secretary of State’s decision to obscure the key provisions in contracts. Many contracts are being published in heavily redacted form – one example from December shows the quantity, unit price, size and colour of gowns being redacted; another contract entered into almost a year ago but published only this month is so heavily redacted that no information whatsoever is visible regarding what was even purchased. Publication in this form isn’t transparency; it is advertising the lack of it.

“One unfortunate consequence of non-compliance with the transparency obligations…is that people can start to harbour suspicions of improper conduct...” said Judge Chamberlain in last month’s judgment. 

We agree. If they have nothing to hide why won’t they publish?

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