We’ve recently seen scandals develop around government procurement during the pandemic. As journalists, campaigners and lawyers begin to scratch beneath the surface of public spending during lockdown, examples of profoundly poor governance have been exposed. They reveal at best incompetence and at worst wilful malpractice at the heart of Boris Johnson’s administration.
Many will now be the subject of judicial review applications in the High Court, whereby the lawfulness of decisions taken by the executive are challenged. Ministers must “exercise the powers conferred on them in good faith, fairly… and without exceeding the limits of such powers and not unreasonably”. It would seem that ministers during the lockdown forgot these simple but profound words from Lord Bingham – the pre-eminent 20th century judge – and now they may face action in the courts.
The personal protective equipment scandal is perhaps the most shocking. The lack of a competitive procurement process has led to an inexcusable waste of public resources. The Times has chronicled the extraordinary story of the government contracting with a small wholesaler of confectionery, a pest-extermination company and a private equity firm – each receiving a combined total of almost £500m to procure PPE, much of which remains in warehouses and is unusable. There is no evidence of any of these companies ever producing PPE before. It is difficult to argue that such a decision was reasonable – and no surprise that Rachel Reeves, the Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and former economist at the Bank of England, has called for a public inquiry into this remarkable waste of taxpayer money.
The showering of cash for private-sector suppliers and consultants appears, coincidentally, to favour firms with personal links to Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings – the two men actually running the government on a day-to-day basis. Public First, a public affairs agency run by two directors with close connections to Cummings, has recently been handed contracts worth almost £1m, apparently without any consideration of alternative suppliers. Indeed, one project they were procured to undertake was titled the ‘Public First project’ – fundamentally undermining any pretence at a fair tendering process.
The Mirror has looked further afield and identified 13 companies with links to the Conservative Party that have won almost £500m in contracts for equipment during lockdown, seemingly without any competition from those without such links. One firm, Randox, received £133m for Covid-19 tests. It just so happens that the firm pays Tory MP Owen Paterson over £8,000 per month to act as an ‘adviser’.
Many of these debacles have only been exposed after the threat of legal action. The details of the PPE fiasco and the Public First project only fully emerged in pre-action correspondence challenging the fairness of government decisions by the Good Law Project – a not-for-profit membership organisation that uses the law to protect the interests of the public. Before Gavin Williamson’s belated U-turn on the exams algorithm, the Good Law Project was launching legal action on behalf of devastated children, which may have forced the Education Secretary’s hand. It is no wonder, then, that this government has announced a panel to recommend measures by which to stifle judicial review of its decisions. All opposition must be stifled.
These stories of wasteful spending and Tory cronyism are themselves shocking, but also reveal a much wider problem with this government. Johnson leads a faux-macho administration that thrives when ignoring convention or due process. He despises scrutiny, having refused to appear before the liaison select committee for over a year, unlike any of his predecessors, and has not done a serious mainstream political interview since the general election last year. Even then, he avoided Andrew Neil – and at one point during the campaign hid in a fridge to avoid questioning.
It should never be forgotten that this is the Prime Minister who was found to have suspended parliament unlawfully, with the implicit aim of ignoring parliament during the Brexit process. A lax attitude to procurement rules within departments is a natural consequence of having a leader with such little respect for rules himself.
A government’s behaviour is symptomatic of the Prime Minister’s and of those he empowers. The problem with ignoring process and rules, and blaming others whenever possible, is that it often leads to chaos. The government has overseen one of the most catastrophic education policies in recent years, finally U-turning on an algorithm that they were warned months in advance would lead to fundamental unfairness. They failed to launch a successful test and trace app (remember that?), despite pouring resources and political capital into the project.
They did not see the school meal voucher crisis developing, despite warnings from poverty groups and a Premier League footballer – the Prime Minister pleaded ignorance of the issue on the day of the U-turn despite the rest of the country knowing all about it. Gavin Williamson promised children would be back for a month before the summer holidays, and is now working overtime to try to arrange a return in September. In the past week alone, we have seen last-minute U-turns on face coverings in schools and the evictions ban.
A populist disrespect for institutions and authority may win votes in a heated election, but it does not lead to healthy government – a fact tragically compounded by achieving the highest Covid-19 death rate in Europe. Johnson has thrived politically as Prime Minister when appearing to defy the natural order as the insurgent against a mystical establishment. The public is beginning to see that this attitude does not breed good government, as satisfaction with the government’s performance is falling. The challenge for Labour – and the polls also suggest the challenge is significant – is to combine a radical agenda for change with persuading the public that they are competent to enact it.
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