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Why were the government's actions unlawful over coronavirus contracts?

Why were the government's actions unlawful over coronavirus contracts?

Matt Hancock acted unlawfully over coronavirus contract disclosures according to a high court judge – the Department of Health and Social Care failed to disclose information within the 30 days they are required to do so.

The Good Law Project, a campaign group that seeks to expose legal failings in the government brought the case, with support from Labour's Debbie Abrahams, the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas and Liberal Democrat Layla Moran. They sought to highlight the government’s failures to comply with the law, as well as their own transparency policies, which require large contracts to be disclosed.

The law requires that any government contracts over £120,000 must have a ‘contract award notice’, published within 30 days, whilst the government’s internal policy requires disclosures for any contracts of over £10,000, according to the Good Law Project.

The government had been criticised throughout 2020 for the awarding of contracts with alleged ties to Conservative Party donors, or individuals with ties to the government, with many alleging deliberate corruption in the awarding of contracts. Although there lacks definitive evidence that this was the case (at this time), the ruling will only contribute to the feeling around the government’s awarding of contracts.

They had also been criticised for the contractors often having no experience in providing the type of services they were being contracted for, such as a Miami–based Jewellers being contracted to provide PPE procurement consulting services.  There were also a number of unfulfilled orders with faulty PPE and other equipment often being procured that was unusable.

Disclosure is usually required so that Parliament and the public are able to scrutinise the contracts awarded by the government, with there being a particular focus on those contracts handed out during the pandemic. The Department for Health and Social Care has said that the reasons for the lack of disclosure were the time pressures of the pandemic and the increased speed with which the contracts had to be issued, in order to support the country in the procurement of PPE and other vital equipment and services.

The judge accepted this reasoning to a point, noting that it was 'understandable that attention was focused on procuring what was thought necessary to save lives’. However, Justice Chamberlain said that this was an ‘excuse, not a justification’.

A government spokesperson said that the disclosures would be made ‘as soon as possible’ and that the government were fully committed to disclosing the information within the contracts awarded.

The health secretary had allegedly spent more than £207,000 in taxpayer funds fighting the case.

Health Secretary Matt Hancock and the Department for Health and Social Care did not break criminal law in this case; it was a civil case, meaning that the failure to disclose will not bring any criminal penalties, and will likely instead result in pressure on the government to disclose the contracts.