Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? We are faced with a self-serving government

Robert Wilcox

This week, a report into government procurement practices during the pandemic was released by the National Audit Office. According to the report, Covid-19 contracts worth over £9 billion were awarded without competitive tender. We also learnt that the government has been operating a “high-priority lane”, whereby politically well-connected suppliers were ten times more likely to be granted public contracts. Just one in a growing list of examples is the £253 million contract awarded to Ayanda Capital Ltd, an investment firm with connections to an adviser working under International Trade Secretary, Liz Truss. It beggars belief why a firm specialising in private equity and currency trading, and no experience in supplying medical equipment, would be awarded a contract to supply personal protective equipment (PPE). It may explain why 50 million of the masks it did supply were unfit for use by NHS staff.

However, it is not simply PPE contracts that have been handed out on the basis of favourable political connections; the government has similarly appointed individuals to key roles in the fight against Covid-19 without a proper recruitment process. Kate Bingham, a venture capitalist and the wife of a Conversative minister, was appointed to chair the UK’s vaccine taskforce. She has since been faced with allegations that she shared vaccine details to private equity investors, in addition to criticism for allocating nearly £700,000 for hiring public relations consultants (interestingly, these consultants came from a PR firm with links to Dominic Cummings’ father-in-law).

Then we come to Dido Harding, who was appointed to oversee NHS Test and Trace, the government’s flagship programme for tackling the spread of Covid-19. The wife of a Conservative MP, Harding was CEO of the telecommunications company, TalkTalk, when it was the subject of a cyberattack by two teenagers. Nearly 160,000 customers had their personal details stolen. TalkTalk was fined £400,000 by the Information Commissioner’s Office for failing to adopt appropriate security measures, thereby allowing customers’ data to be accessed “with ease”. Apparently, however, this was no cause for concern for the government. Indeed, despite the well-documented failings of NHS Test and Trace, Harding has since been appointed as head of the newly formed National Institute for Health Protection. The Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, without any apparent sense of irony, declared that “she’s simply the best person who could be doing this job now”.

This week also saw headlines surrounding the Cabinet Office inquiry into the behaviour of Home Secretary, Priti Patel. The inquiry concluded that Patel’s treatment of civil servants breached the ministerial code of conduct. When a minister breaches the code, the expectation is that the minister in question resigns. In fact, it is unprecedented for a minister to remain in their post following a breach of the code.

Not only has Patel failed to resign, but the Prime Minister is refusing to dismiss her, thereby rejecting the findings of Sir Alex Allan, the independent advisor on ministerial standards. Allan resigned in response. It has since emerged that government officials prevented Allan from accessing a key witness, former civil servant Sir Philip Rutnam (who himself resigned due to Patel’s campaign against him), and that the Prime Minister attempted to persuade Allan to tone down the conclusions of his report so that it would be more “palatable”. Those wishing to read the report in detail will be disappointed as the Prime Minister has also seen fit to block it from being published in full.

Readers will be forgiven for a sense of déjà vu here. Patel is no stranger to playing fast and loose with the ministerial code. During her time as International Development Secretary, she held a series of undisclosed meetings with Israeli politicians and businessmen. Following these meetings being reported in the press, she was forced to resign by the then Prime Minister, Theresa May.

The current Prime Minister also has form when it comes to sitting on politically inconvenient reports. The Parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee’s Russian Interference Report, which found that the government had failed to take any action whatsoever to safeguard our democracy from external interference, was delayed by an unprecedented nine months. During the time that the report went unpublished, the UK headed to the ballot box for a General Election, unaware of the damning findings the report contained.  

In addition, the Prime Minister has proven reluctant to dismiss his political backers in the past. When it was discovered that the Housing Secretary, Robert Jenrick, had overruled a decision by the government’s planning inspectorate to award a £1bn housing development contract to former press tycoon, Richard Desmond, the Prime Minister did nothing – despite Jenrick having discussed the development with Desmond at a fundraising dinner two months prior, and the planning inspectorate’s findings that the development did not deliver enough affordable housing for people living in London’s poorest borough. Perhaps the Prime Minister approved of the £12,000 donation that Desmond made to the Conservative Party two weeks following Jenrick’s decision? And, of course, who can forget the Dominic Cummings scandal? Cummings’ breach of the lockdown rules damaged the government’s public health messaging, endangering people’s lives. Yet, it was some text messages about the Prime Minister’s partner, Carrie Symonds, and allegations that Cummings’ allies had been referring to her as “Princess Nut Nut”, was what apparently mattered enough for Cummings to finally be dismissed.

All of us, whoever we voted for in the last election, should be concerned about the lack of integrity shown by this government. Ministers appear to have no regard for well-established conventions dealing with the exercise of political power. Granting contracts, which are paid for using taxpayers’ money one hastens to add, and granting jobs to people or companies because they are politically favourable undermines the foundations of a democracy. In the current circumstances, these decisions also put lives at risk. Ministers seem to think that the mere fact that they were elected to political office entitles them to do as they please. However, as even the earliest democracies quickly discovered, it is those in power that need to be most closely watched – precisely because they hold power.

Having studied Classics, Boris Johnson should know this lesson only too well. Yet he clearly has naught but contempt for attempts to hold him and his ministers accountable. He has repeatedly failed to attend Parliamentary Liaison Committee meetings, the only committee which is able to put questions to the Prime Minister (when he finally did appear, he appointed his own chairman). And, indeed, when challenged over the despatch box at Prime Minister’s Questions, he reacts with what can only be described as utter incredulity that members of Her Majesty’s Opposition have the audacity to criticise his policies.

Whom, then, will hold the government to account? Those in the best position to put pressure on ministers are members of their own political party. However, despite the actions of a few Conservative MPs in standing up against the government, the majority toe the party line and, without any hint of shame, defend yet another policy U-turn with the same vigour as which they opposed it. It seems that, for the foreseeable future, those occupying the UK’s highest political offices will not be disturbed from their belief that “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”.

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