The man appointed by Boris Johnson to probe David Cameron’s lobbying has cleared the government of “favouritism” in the award of £17bn in Covid contracts.
City lawyer Nigel Boardman admitted that some government practices, such as a fast-track “VIP” priority system for firms known to MPs and ministers, gave rise to the “suspicion” of bias.
But he found no evidence of favouritism in the award of the contracts.
The review of Whitehall procurement during the pandemic, published the day after the local elections, recommends an overhaul of processes from contingency planning to stockpiling.
The review covered five key areas of the government’s response to the Covid crisis, taking in spending on PPE (personal protective equipment), ventilators, vaccines, test and trace and food parcels for the clinically vulnerable.
Most of the contracts were awarded without usual competitive tenders, a process that ministers defended on grounds of the urgent need to get new equipment.
Boardman, who is overseeing a separate review the Greensill Capital lobbying affair, has already been accused by Labour of being “a close friend of the Conservative government”.
In his latest report, Boardman concluded there was no evidence of favouritism but there were big holes in processes that increased risk.
“I have not seen evidence that any contract within the scope of the review was awarded on grounds of favouritism. In my view there are, however, factors which may have encouraged such a suspicion,” he said.
These “factors” included the so-called “VIP lane” for PPE, a fast track email address system available to MPs and others, as well as “certain counterparties being associated with the governing party”.
Other factors included delays in publishing contracts, the time taken to publish contracts awarded during the crisis and high prices paid.
Boardman made 28 separate recommendations for change.
“Given the amounts of money spent on these programmes, and the importance of the programmes to the national recovery, it is imperative that there is proper scrutiny of the procurement actions taken by the Government,” he said.
Shadow minister Rachel Reeves, who has already predicted that Boardman’s lobbying probe will end in a “whitewash”, was scathing about the new review.
She told HuffPost UK: “This barely scratches the surface of the conflicts of interest in government procurement, and the deep and troubling pattern of taxpayers’ money being sunk into crony contracts.
“We need a complete overhaul to tackle cronyism, and an urgent end to emergency procurement measures.”
Boris Johnson and health secretary Matt Hancock have come under intense pressure over the award of billions of pounds of public money, not least over the government’s “VIP lane” for PPE.
A court case brought by the campaign group the Good Law Project heard last month that civil servants were “drowning” in bids that lacked credibility. The group has also exposed a lack of transparency in the registering of many contracts.
In a previous review of the award of communications contracts by the Cabinet office, he called for better “management of actual or perceived conflicts of interest in a procurement context”.
The NAO watchdog issued a withering report last year, concluding that a lack adequate documentation “means we cannot give assurance that government has adequately mitigated the increased risks” from its emergency procurement.
The Commons Public Account Committee was even more scathing about Test and Trace, saying its “unimaginable” £25bn cost had failed to deliver its central promise of averting another lockdown.
In response to the Boardman report, the Cabinet Office said it was accepting all 28 recommendations in full and its permanent secretary would write to the PAC setting out how he would implement them.