Around 20 per cent of the value of Covid-19 contracts awarded – a total of £3.7bn – raises “red flags for possible corruption”, anti-sleaze investigators are warning.
The detailed study of nearly 1,000 deals struck when the pandemic struck concludes they were “systemically biased” in favour of firms with political connections.
Ministers are accused of undermining public confidence “at a time when the trust of its citizens is most needed” – and of still failing to answer questions about what went on months later.
“There are now very serious questions for the government to answer with more than a fifth of the money spent on purchases in response to the pandemic raising red flags,” said Daniel Bruce, chief executive of the group Transparency International UK said.
“The frequency with which Covid-related contracts were awarded to those with political connections is deeply concerning and is at such a level that it cannot be explained away as coincidence.”
The report highlights the ‘VIP lane’, which saw hundreds of firms fast-tracked for lucrative deals after tips from ministers and MPs as £18bn was handed out under emergency rules.
“Months after the VIP lane came to light, the government has still failed to answer basic questions about its functioning and existence,” Mr Bruce added.
Labour leapt on the report, after Keir Starmer accused Boris Johnson of “sleaze sleaze sleaze” in a Commons attack, after his offer to “fix” a tax issue for James Dyson was revealed.
“The scale of corruption risk to vast amounts of taxpayer money revealed in this report is shocking,” said Rachel Reeves, the party’s Cabinet Office minister.
“Standards on public contracts have slipped so far under this Conservative government that this would be embarrassing if it wasn’t so serious.”
In its review of the deals, Transparency International concludes:
* 24 personal protective equipment (PPE) contracts, worth £1.6bn, were awarded to people with “known political connections” to the Tories.
* 3 contracts for Covid-testing services, worth £536m, went to “politically connected companies”.
* 98.9 per cent of contracts by value, worth £17.8bn, were awarded without competition, between February and November last year.
* 14 companies that only started up in 2020 – and therefore had no track record – won contracts worth £620m, of which 10 were less than 60 days old.
* Details of 93 per cent contracts awarded to politically connected companies were published late – compared with 70 per cent of the others.
Ministers have dismissed the “cronyism” criticism, arguing the unprecedented crisis trumped normal rules for scrutinising how huge sums of public money were being spent.
But the secrecy was put under the spotlight by last month’s landmark court ruling, which found that only 608 of 708 Covid contracts awarded by last October had been released.
The Independent revealed that a multi-million pound PPE contract handed to a firm run by a major Tory donor – Clipper Logistics – was still being kept under wraps after a year.
The Cabinet Office has been asked to respond to the criticism made by Transparency International.