Minister under fire for replacing phone before it was searched in procurement proceedings

Transparency campaigners question why Lord Bethell’s documents cannot be retrieved
Photo: Ashwin Kumar/CC BY-SA 2.0

By Sam Trendall

06 Aug 2021

A government minister is under fire after it emerged that he replaced his phone shortly after being told it might be searched for documents as part of a legal challenge related to £85m of contracts awarded for the supply of lateral flow tests.

Campaign group the Good Law Project has undertaken legal proceedings against the government over what it claims is a breach of its legal duties to act transparently and without bias. The challenge relates to contracts awarded in support of the government’s coronavirus response.

According to the group, evidence given by the government during recent hearings revealed that a minister – Lord James Bethell, innovation minister at the Department of Health and Social Care – replaced his phone shortly after being informed by the department that it was liable to be searched for documents pertaining to the case.

It is understood that Bethell claimed he had used both his official government email and private devices and communication accounts in exchanges with Abingdon Health – which was last year awarded government contracts worth £85m to supply lateral flow device tests.

Having been informed by DHSC in December 2020 that his phone might be searched for documents relating to the legal challenge, Bethell then reported that this phone had broken, and it was replaced in early 2021, before any such search took place, according to the Good Law Project.

The group has since been told that it is now unclear whether messages from the minister’s old phone can be retrieved and examined.

“Our lawyers have written to the government to demand answers,” the Good Law Project said. “When did Bethell learn his phone would be searched? When did he report it as broken? What attempts were made to save crucial information from his old phone? If none, why not? This government seems allergic to scrutiny: redacting some documents, hiding others from public scrutiny via ‘confidentiality rings’, permitting ministers to award billions in public money via private, as well as official, channels, and failing to protect evidence from destruction.

“We are taking action to close this accountability gap.”

Bethell – who is already subject to an investigation by the Information Commissioner’s Office, which is probing several ministers’ use of private email for government business – has faced criticism from numerous transparency campaigners and political opponents. 

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner told the Guardian: “If ministers and their advisers really have nothing to hide then they will have no problem handing over the emails and messages showing what government business was being conducted in secret, so the public know how their money was spent and these messages are secured for the long-promised public inquiry.”

DHSC indicated that it was inappropriate to comment on ongoing legal proceedings.

Sam Trendall is editor of CSW's sister title PublicTechnology, where this story first appeared.

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