The Cabinet Office has vowed to investigate HuffPost UK revelations that private consultants Deloitte are being paid to draft ministers’ parliamentary answers about Test and Trace.
Minister for implementation Julia Lopez told the Commons she would look into the issue after Labour jibed that £323m contracts with the company showed “this is a government which appears to have even outsourced itself”.
HuffPost UK revealed on Wednesday that the small print of contracts between Deloitte and the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) included a requirement to “draft and respond to parliamentary questions, Freedom of Information requests, media queries and other reactive requests”.
Civil service union chiefs and transparency campaigners warned that the clause risked undermining Whitehall impartiality and possible conflicts of interest, with outsourcing firms potentially “marking their own homework” in formal replies to MPs’ questions.
Shadow cabinet office minister Fleur Anderson raised the issue in the Commons on Thursday, declaring that since the start of the pandemic ministers had relied on a “centralised, privatised” approach to contact tracing that gave millions of taxpayers’ cash to a handful of large companies.
“Last night, we learned that as well as paying Deloitte £323m for their role in the Test and Trace system, they are even paid to draft government ministers’ parliamentary answers, defending the indefensible,” Anderson said.
“This is a government which appears to have even outsourced itself! What will the minister do to end this practice – or do I need to write to Deloitte to find out?”
In reply, Lopez said: “I thank her for highlighting that interesting piece of information to me.
“I’m very happy to look into this idea that consultants are drafting responses for ministers, it’s not something I’m aware of.”
“I appreciate the concerns that have been raised about the use of consultants and in relation to some of the work that’s been done during the pandemic we had to surge our capacity very quickly. But I appreciate the concerns have been raised about the cost of contracting.”
Green party MP Caroline Lucas ridiculed the practice by tweeting a new parliamentary question referencing Deloitte.
DHSC officials revealed earlier this year that 900 of Deloitte’s consultants were currently being used at a pay rate of £1,000 a day, equivalent to nearly £1m every day.
Government documents show that Deloitte has been awarded four different contracts worth £323m to support Test and Trace, the controversial service run by Tory peer Dido Harding. The most recent is for £122m, and runs from February this year until September.
Two of the contracts have a clause that specifies a role for the firm in “communications” on so-called Pillar 4 of the testing programme, which covers blood and swab testing for national surveillance on the prevalence and spread of the virus, as well as the accuracy of home testing.
Boris Johnson defended the £37bn allocated to Test and Trace claiming it was “a very valuable thing” that enabled ministers to understand the pandemic in a “very granular way”.
But the service has been dogged with criticism, with the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee highlighting its use of outsourced private firms, consultants being paid £1,000 a day and poor performance on contact tracing and testing turnaround times.
Earlier this year, Harding defended the use of consultants needed to build the testing programme from scratch last May, claiming that their use would be phased out and their skills transferred to civil servants in coming months.
Gemma Abbott, legal director of the Good Law Project, told HuffPost UK: “We have a government so addicted to outsourcing that it has even outsourced being held to account.
“If a member of the public submits an FOI request, or an MP asks a parliamentary question about the government spending millions on contracts with Deloitte, it seems that it’s Deloitte at the other end marking its own homework – it is beyond parody.
“Does anyone know where the Department for Deloitte ends and the Department for Health begins?”
In a late night response on Wednesday, a spokesperson for the DHSC did not deny the contracts specified support for drafting parliamentary questions but suggested the ultimate responsibility lay with the civil service and ministers.
“The government employs contractors in the same vein that private businesses do and responsibility for answering parliamentary questions, freedom of information requests and media enquiries rests firmly with a team of civil service communications professionals within the Department of Health and Social Care,” they said.
“Every single response is subject to the highest levels of scrutiny to ensure they are both factual and detailed.”
In her evidence to the Public Accounts Committee earlier this year Harding defended the use of consultants. “I think it is appropriate to build a service in extreme emergency circumstances using short-term contingent labour and consultants for some of those roles,” she said.
“I think they’ve done very important work alongside the public servants, the military, the healthcare professionals and members of the private sector who have come and joined us as well. We couldn’t have built the service without all of that combined expertise.”
Later in the House of Lords, two peers – Green party peer Baroness Bennett and shadow minister Baroness Thornton – raised the Deloitte issue.
“The news today does not bode well when we hear from HuffPost that private firm Deloitte has been receiving taxpayer cash to help ministers draft parliamentary answers and media lines to take to defend Test and Trace,” Thornton said.
“Which raises two questions. It is, I always thought, at the heart of an official’s job to help ministers to be accountable to parliament in a truthful manner. And is it not like marking your own homework if Deloitte’s are receiving taxpayers’ money to answer those questions?”