Health secretary Matt Hancock acted unlawfully by failing to publish details of multibillion-pound coronavirus contracts awarded by the government, a High Court judge has ruled.
Mr Justice Chamberlain said Hancock had “breached his legal obligation” by failing to publish details of the contracts within 30 days, adding the public has a right to know where the “vast quantities” of their money has gone.
Hancock’s department spent around £15 billion on PPE up to the beginning of October, research by procurement consultants Tussel has found, but only £2.68 billion worth of contracts were published in 30 days by the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC).
Justice Chamberlain was unequivocal in his ruling stating “there is now no dispute that, in a substantial number of cases, the secretary of state breached his legal obligation”.
“The public were entitled see who this money was going to, what it was being spent on and how the relevant contracts were awarded,” the judge said, adding that by fighting the case, Hancock has spent a further £207,000 of taxpayer’s money.
Sweet wholesaler’s £108m PPE contract
The law requires all government contracts worth more than £10,000 to be published within 30 days of being awarded.
The Good Law Project brought the judicial review – along with the MPs Sarah Lucas (Green), Layla Moran (Lib Dem) and Debbie Abrahams (Labour) – over contracts awarded in April last year to three companies worth £673 million – Ayanda Capital £252m, , Pestfix £313m and Clandeboye Agencies, a Northern Ireland sweet wholesaler awarded a £108m contract to supply PPE.
Head of the Good Law Project, barrister Jolyon Maugham said after today’s (Friday) ruling: “When government eschews transparency, it evades accountability.
“Government’s behaviour came under criticism in the judgment. If it had admitted to being in breach of the law when we first raised our concerns, it would have never been necessary to take this judicial review to its conclusion. Instead, they chose a path of obfuscation, racking up over £200,000 of legal costs as a result.
“We shouldn’t be forced to rely on litigation to keep those in power honest, but in this case, it’s clear that our challenge pushed government to comply with its legal obligations.
“Judge Chamberlain stated that the admission of breach by government was ‘secured as a result of this litigation and at a late stage of it’ and ‘I have no doubt that this claim has speeded up compliance’.
“It begs the question, if we hadn’t brought this legal challenge, what other contract details would have remained hidden from view?”
‘Troubling and unsurprising’ – Labour
The DHSC said the government was “working tirelessly” to deliver what was needed to protect health and social care throughout the pandemic, adding: “This has often meant having to award contracts at speed to secure the vital supplies required to protect NHS workers and the public.”
Labour said the awarding of government contracts is “plagued by a lack of transparency, conspiracy and waste” with shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves calling the judgement “troubling and unsurprising, and a perfect example of how this government believes it is one rule for them another for the rest of us“.
Reeves added: “This government’s contracting has been plagued by a lack of transparency, cronyism and waste and they must take urgent steps to address this now – by winding down emergency procurement, urgently releasing details of the VIP fast lane, and publishing all outstanding contracts by the end of the month.”
Interestingly, while the story has been covered by almost all of the UK’s major media publishers and broadcasters, Hancock being found to have acted unlawfully is a story still being ignored by the Telegraph – as confirmed by another search on their website at 10.30pm on Friday.