The head of parliament’s public spending watchdog has said that the urgency of the coronavirus response “did not give government licence to act fast and loose” on procurement processes.
Dame Meg Hillier, who is the chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, said MPs are “clear about [their] role challenging spending and why transparency and value-for-money have never been more important”.
By the end of July 2020, government had awarded external suppliers more than 8,600 contracts related to the coronavirus response. The deals were worth a cumulative £18bn, according to a National Audit Office report published late last year.
The Department of Health and Social Care and national NHS and public-health bodies were collectively responsible for 90% of the spending: £16.2bn.
More than three-quarters of this money was spent on acquiring personal protective equipment, for which 6,900 separate deals were signed.
Hillier drew a stark contrast between pandeimic-time procurement and the whole 2019-20 financial year, when the DHSC awarded just 174 contracts that were worth £1.1bn in total.
During the early months of the pandemic, the majority of supplier spending – £10.5bn – was via contracts that were awarded without any competitive tender process.
This was made possible by a relaxation of procurement rules, as outlined in guidance published by the Cabinet Office in March 2020, which advised departments that they could invoke “extreme urgency” clauses allowing them to ditch the usual competition procedures.
According to Hillier – who was writing exclusively for Civil Service World's sister publication The House Live – alongside the DHSC, other big spenders included the Department for Education. It spent £556m, much of which will have been spent supporting the implementation of remote learning and, in particular, the rollout of laptops to disadvantaged children. More than a million machines have been supplied so far via the DfE’s Get help with technology scheme, which has also delivered tablets and 4G wireless routers.
Hillier said the Cabinet Office was the third-largest-spending department during early 2020, with £279m of contracts awarded.
“Despite these huge sums, the government did not publish contracts in time and kept poor records of why some companies won multimillion-pound contracts,” she said. “Of the 1,644 contracts awarded across government up to the end of July 2020 with a value more than £25,000, 75% were not published within the 90-day target.”
Hillier claimed that this “lack of transparency fuelled concern about the fairness of awards”.
“While millions of people were shielding or tightening their belts, the public was rightly concerned to see middlemen earning enough off the back of taxpayer-funded contracts to buy country estates,” she said.
PAC has held 20 evidence-gathering sessions related to the pandemic response, and recently released a report outlining its findings.
“One of the key messages that we mustn’t lose sight of is that government is spending hard-earned taxpayers’ money,” Hillier said.
Sam Trendall is editor of Civil Service World's sister title PublicTechnology where a version of this story first appeared