The High Court has ruled that
Death Health Secretary Matt Hancock “acted unlawfully” by failing to provide details of contracts with private companies to the public within the required deadline.
This meant the public had been left unable to “scrutinise contract award notices and contract provisions, ask questions about them and raise any issues with oversight bodies such as the NAO or via MPs in Parliament”.
In other words, Hancock broke the law in order to avoid being held to account for the contracts he had signed.
We should remember that we now know many of these contracts, signed under emergency regulations that allow the government to dodge normal competitive tendering procedures, went to firms run by cronies of the Tory government who could not honour them – while experts were overlooked.
So billions of pounds have gone to waste – including the £200,000 cost of the judicial review in the High Court that ruled against Hancock.
The Secretary of State had tried to claim that the proceedings, brought by the Good Law Project alongside MPs Debbie Abrahams, Caroline Lucas and Layla Moran, were not an “economic operator” and therefore did not have the necessary “standing”.
But Mr Justice Chamberlain stated that it was unrealistic to claim that economic operators would have challenged Government’s breach of the law in these circumstances.
In his ruling, the judge stated,
The Secretary of State acted unlawfully by failing to comply with the Transparency Policy.
There is now no dispute that, in a substantial number of cases, the Secretary of State breached his legal obligation to publish Contract Award Notices within 30 days of the award of contracts.
“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.”
But the loss of the case – and the forfeiture of £200k associated with it – doesn’t mean that Hancock has cleaned up his act.
A press release from the Good Law Project states: “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?
“This judgment, which can be found here, is a victory for all of us concerned with proper governance and proof of the power of litigation to hold Government to account.
“But there is still a long way to go before the Government’s house is in order.
“We have now written to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care detailing what needs to be done to improve procurement processes and ensure value for British taxpayers.”
These measures include:
- Publishing the names of all companies that won contracts through the so-called “VIP lane” that prioritised firms run by friends of Tory ministers over the experts – together with the names of those who introduced them and, where successful, the amounts they were paid.
- A commitment to recover public money from all firms that failed to meet their contractual obligations – with this condition to be determined by an independent process and not by anybody in the Tory government.
- A commitment to commission a judge-led public inquiry into the procurement of personal protective equipment during the Covid-19 pandemic.
- And a commitment to follow the lead of other jurisdictions by publishing PPE contracts, with pricing details visible, to enable proper scrutiny.
This last measure could be extremely embarrassing considering revelations that the government has lost £15 billion worth of PPE.
If the government refuses to agree to these terms, it seems the Good Law Project has further legal challenges lined up which – if opposed by Hancock – mean the Secretary of State is likely only to end up wasting even more public money.
Have YOU donated to my crowdfunding appeal, raising funds to fight false libel claims by TV celebrities who should know better? These court cases cost a lot of money so every penny will help ensure that wealth doesn’t beat justice.
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