Labour slams government for handing £81m PPE contracts to Tory donor firm

© UK Parliament / Jessica Taylor

Labour has accused Downing Street of “damaging public confidence” in the government after it was revealed that private contracts worth over £81m were awarded to a firm co-owned by a major Conservative Party donor.

Documents highlighted by Byline Times show that the government awarded two contracts, worth a total of £81.8m, to a company partly owned by David Meller, who has given tens of thousands of pounds to the Tories in the last decade.

Meller Designs Limited, co-owned by the former chair of the infamous President’s Club, was recently awarded the new contracts to produce hand sanitiser and face masks – in addition to a £65.8m contract given to the company back in May.

Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Rachel Reeves said: “It seems there’s not a week that goes by without millions of pounds of public contracts being awarded by the government to businesses with links to the Conservative Party.

“It would be absolutely wrong for any business to gain an advantage over another with the government because of their party political relationship, and the lack of competitive tender or transparency in these decisions is damaging public confidence.”

Meller has donated nearly £60,000 to Tory MPs and the central party since 2009, including a £3,250 payment to Michael Gove’s unsuccessful 2016 leadership campaign.

The new contracts mean that Meller Designs Limited has earned more than £148m thanks to the government during the coronavirus crisis – nearly ten times the firm’s overall turnover in 2019.

A loophole in EU law allows governments to tender contracts to the private sector without the normal competition or oversight if it needs to procure personal protective equipment (PPE) in the event of an emergency.

The government has made regular use of the loophole during the pandemic. According to The Times, multiple contracts for providing PPE, worth over £180m, have been awarded to companies owned or run by supporters of the Tories.

One company owned by a Conservative councillor was awarded contracts worth £120m to provide face shields. Another firm founded by a party donor was given a £1.3m contract to distribute PPE. 

David Meller has been at the centre of various controversies over the last few years, including infamously in early 2018 for his role as chairman of the now dormant President’s Club.

A Financial Times investigation revealed the group held a men-only fundraiser where female staff were repeatedly groped, sexually harassed and propositioned, as well as forced to sign non-disclosure agreements.

Labour’s Jess Phillips told the Commons at the time: “What actually happened was that women were bought as bait for men. Rich men, not a mile from where we stand, as if that is acceptable behaviour.”

As a result of the scandal, Meller was forced to resign from his position as a non-executive director on the Department for Education’s board – a role he was in part given for his work in managing a chain of academies.

But the multi-academy trusts (MATs) sponsored by Meller are now rated as the country’s worst-performing academy chains, according to the latest government statistics.

One of the schools he sponsored, the Hertswood Academy, was given the lowest possible grade in its 2017 Oftsed report due to serious problems with “personal development, behaviour and welfare”.

A Meller Designs spokesperson told The Times in August: “We are extremely proud of the role we played at the height of the crisis and managed to secure more than 150 million items of PPE.”

LabourList has contacted Meller Designs Limited for comment.

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