The jeweller, the middleman and the UK Government

You may remember the tale of the jeweller from Florida and the Spanish intermediary who profited to the tune of tens of millions of pounds from vast PPE contracts, paid for with taxpayers’ money. Well, there have been developments.  

Government continues to fail to publish details of contracts within the legally required timeframe, but we have learned of another contract it entered into with the jeweller Saiger, worth £36 million, for face masks. 

The contract was for FFP2 masks  – which protect the wearer, unlike the ones we all wear to the supermarket. But to protect the wearer they need to be adjustable – which means headstraps – and all of these masks have ‘earloops’. Earloop masks, Government has admitted in other cases, can’t be used in the NHS because they don’t give a proper fixing. We expect these £36 million of masks will also be unusable.

Not only did Government buy PPE that can’t be used. It also appears to have paid well over the odds. For one type of mask, Government paid $2.93 per unit. The prevailing price paid by Government at the time it entered into the contract was about 60p per unit: more PPE, paid for at a premium, that can’t be used by the NHS.

But that’s not all. 

Saiger was awarded a contract worth £70.52 million to buy 10.2 million sterile surgical gowns. We are challenging this particular contract in court. Almost all of the gowns supplied under that £70m+ contract are unable to be used as such because they are wrapped in such a way that their sterile quality can’t be maintained.

At this stage, you might be wondering: shouldn’t a responsible Government just put up its hands and say “we got this wrong”? 

Instead, it is spending, quite literally, millions in public funds trying to defend the indefensible. And what we want to know is, who is this spending for – is it in your interests? Or is it to avoid political embarrassment? If you would like to support our attempts to deliver transparency, you can donate to the legal challenge here.

Thank you, 

Jolyon Maugham QC

Director of Good Law Project

Care homes failed by lack of PPE during UK Covid first wave, say MPs

Care homes were left exposed and vulnerable by a lack of personal protective equipment early in the pandemic, while the government’s handling of the procurement left ministers open to accusations of conflicts of interest, MPs have found.

Kevin Rawlinson 

A damning report published on Wednesday by the Commons public accounts committee (PAC) concludes that the Department of Health and Social Care’s decision to prioritise hospitals for PPE meant care home workers and residents were not properly protected.

“Frontline workers were left without adequate supplies, risking their own and their families’ lives to provide treatment and care,” said the committee’s chair, Meg Hillier. “We’re at a dangerous new phase of the pandemic, in our third national lockdown with no defined end in sight. The government needs to acknowledge the errors and be better prepared.”

Ministers have been accused of running a “chumocracy” after it emerged that contracts worth £1.5bn have been awarded to firms with links to the Conservative party during the pandemic.

Many contracts were awarded without proper tender processes and departments were criticised for not publishing many of the details in the usual manner.

The committee said the episode had left the government “open to accusations of poor value for money, conflicts of interest and preferential treatment of some suppliers”, while a lack of transparency “undermines public trust in government procurement and the use of taxpayers’ money”.

The committee found also that, while the government had a plan and a stockpile of PPE in place, that proved insufficient to deal with the pandemic.

The committee said care homes only received a fraction of the PPE needed compared with the health service – and were only taken seriously after their high mortality rates became apparent.

Overall, the committee said frontline staff in both health and social care experienced shortages of PPE, with some forced to reuse single-use items as stocks ran “perilously low”.

The findings recall complaints made by the Labour MP Nadia Whittome, who spoke out about PPE shortages after working in a temporary role as a carer during the pandemic.

Surveys by staff organisations found at least 30% of care workers, doctors and nurses reported having insufficient PPE – even in high-risk settings.

“Many workers at the frontline in health and social care were put in the appalling situation of having to care for people with Covid-19 or suspected Covid-19 without sufficient PPE to protect themselves from infection,” it said.

The committee’s findings follow on from two highly critical reports published last November by the National Audit Office (NAO).

Concern over shortages of PPE was a marked feature of the early phase of the pandemic as countries around the world scrambled for scarce supplies as the disease erupted across the globe.

The committee said the situation was particularly acute in the social care sector, which did not receive “anywhere near enough” to meet its needs.

The committee criticisms over the lack of transparency around the procurement process echoed similar made by the NAO. In particular, the MPs pointed to concerns over the so-called “high priority lane”, where orders were placed with companies on the basis of recommendations from MPs or other prominent figures rather than those with expertise in the field.

“Leads that were considered more credible were those from government officials, ministers’ offices, MPs and members of the House of Lords, but it is not clear why this assumption was made,” it said.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “We have been working tirelessly to procure, produce and deliver PPE to over 58,000 settings, protecting our health and social care staff on the frontline of this pandemic.

“As the public accounts committee recognises, the government faced significant challenges in having to rapidly procure PPE at pace in a competitive international market. Thanks to the combined effort of government, NHS, armed forces, civil servants and industry we have delivered over 8.1bn items of PPE at record speed.”

More cronyism

Politico Newsletter today:

Cabinet Secretary Simon Case wakes up to a tricky problem in his in-tray this morning, after Education Secretary Gavin Williamson appointed a close friend, former MP turned Tory peer James Wharton, as the new chair of the Office for Students. The plum role brings a taxpayer-funded salary of £60,000 for just two days’ work a week. Peter Riddell, the commissioner for public appointments, is accusing the government of “packing” the selection panel with Tories to rig the outcome. And now Labour has swooped …

NHS ‘does not deserve adulation’ over pandemic role claims think tank

“’clap for the NHS’ during the first lockdown, was part of a ‘false Covid-19 narrative’” 

The influential right wing think tank, the Institute for Economic Affairs (IEA), has published a paper critical of the NHS. The paper was written by the IEA’s Dr Kristian Niemietz a consistent critic of the NHS, who believes it should be replaced

Extract from extensive report on IEA findings: David Wilcock 

“The NHS‘s performance during the coronavirus pandemic has been ‘nothing special’ and many countries without similar public healthcare have performed better, a think tank claimed today.

The Institute for Economic Affairs said ‘there is no rational basis for the adulation the NHS is currently receiving’ as it attacked ‘confirmation bias’ on both sides of the political spectrum.

In a new report it accused politicians across the board of trying to fit the pandemic into their pre-existing world-view.

This included leftwingers who used the deadly pandemic to criticise low public spending but also those on the right who have demanded that the UK become much more self-sufficient.”…

….“Dr Niemietz also attacked the ‘clap for the NHS’ during the first lockdown, saying it was part of a ‘false Covid-19 narrative’ of ‘how lucky we are to have the National Health Service, and how grateful we have to be for that’ “

However, Electoral Commission records show that the chair of the IEA board, Neil Record, has donated £32,000 to Hancock. See:

Thinktank critical of NHS Covid response has links to Hancock

Haroon Siddique 

Labour has demanded that Matt Hancock return donations from the chair of an influential conservative thinktank after it published a report saying there was “no reason to be grateful” for the NHS during the coronavirus pandemic.

The report published by the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) claims to debunk “myths” including that “the NHS is the star performer of the pandemic” and that it “has done the most amazing job under the most difficult of circumstances”.

Written by Dr Kristian Niemietz, the IEA’s head of political economy, it says: “There is no rational basis for the adulation the NHS is currently receiving, and no reason to be ‘grateful’ for the fact that we have it. It should go without saying that if the UK did not have the NHS it would not have no healthcare system. It would have a different healthcare system.”

After suggesting possible alternative systems used overseas, such as insurance-based models, it adds: “There is no guarantee that this would have served the UK better during the pandemic, but there is certainly no reason to believe that it would have done any worse. There is nothing special about the NHS, neither during this pandemic, nor at any other time.”

Electoral Commission records show that the chair of the IEA board, Neil Record, has donated £32,000 to Hancock. In a letter to the health secretary, the Labour deputy leader, Angela Rayner, urged Hancock to pay back the donations and condemn the “disgraceful attack” on the NHS.

She wrote: “As health secretary it is your job to protect and defend our country’s greatest institution – our National Health Service – and stand up for our NHS staff who have sacrificed so much throughout the pandemic to save lives and keep us safe. It is therefore deeply concerning that our country’s health secretary is so closely linked to … an organisation which criticises our NHS and is committed to its dismantling, abolition and replacement with a privatised healthcare system.”

The public has shown its appreciation for NHS staff in the pandemic, from the weekly “clap for carers” between March and May last year to making personal protective equipment for frontline workers and delivering meals to hospital staff.

Referencing the “clap for carers”, the IEA report says: “It was soon followed by self-made posters and adverts saying ‘Thank you NHS’ or some variation thereof, usually showing hearts and rainbows drawn around the NHS logo, popping up everywhere. Crises often trigger a collective ‘Rally-Round-the-Flag Effect’, and ‘Rally-Round-the-NHS’ is the modern British version of that.”

The IEA is one of the most politically influential thinktanks in the UK, previously boasting that 14 members of Boris Johnson’s cabinet had been associated with its group’s initiatives.

The report, released on Tuesday, says the NHS was only the star performer “in the way in which for proud parents watching a school performance, their own child will always stand out as the ‘star performer’, even if nobody else sees it that way”.

Niemietz writes: “The claim of this paper is that an effective pandemic response is compatible with a variety of public spending levels, a variety of trade regimes, and a variety of healthcare systems.”

Rayner urged Hancock to take action “to assure NHS staff and the British people that you don’t share the view … that we should not be grateful for the NHS or thank the NHS and its staff for their work during the pandemic”.

The IEA and Department of Health and Social Care have been approached for comment.

Jackie Weaver – Does the follow up remind you of the “Old Guard” at EDDC?

Jackie Weaver’s account of the follow up actions of the Handforth parish councillors, planning and environment meeting, sounded all too familiar to Owl.

Jackie Weaver: ‘Me, the Zoom bully? The men thought so’

 Extract from Alice Thomson’s interview

“……What many of us want to know is whether the men have grovelled for their rude behaviour. “What do you think?” she says, laughing. “Actually, they have made a formal complaint.” Really? Do they not realise that most of the country took her side? “They thought my behaviour was appalling. They thought I had bullied them, I treated them with disrespect, I had exceeded my powers, which makes me smile as I have their names etched on my heart and I won’t forget.”

The monitoring officer of Cheshire East council is investigating the complaint. “Hopefully, they will resolve it soon. I am not suspended, at least; they do have 23 years of experience of me, so I am not too worried.”

Weaver hopes that a formal complaint regarding the meeting will be resolved soon…”

Cllr Claire Wright calls on government to fund rebuild of Tipton St John Primary School

A county councillor is calling for the Government to reconsider its decision to snub a funding bid to rebuild flood-hit Tipton St John Primary School. 

About Author Daniel Clark 

Otter Valley ward representative Claire Wright has written to education minister Baroness Berridge and launched a petition urging Whitehall to provide funding for a new school in the village.

The Environment Agency (EA) declared in 2015 that there is a ‘risk to life’ of the children attending the hub and that it must be rebuilt outside of the flood zone.

However, a  £3.5million bid to the Priority Schools Building Programme was rejected in the same year.

Councillor Wright says ‘it’s now time for government ministers to put things right’.

Controversial plans for 150 homes and a new primary school in Ottery St Mary were rejected earlier this month.

The scheme would have seen Tipton St John Primary School relocated from its village setting to a site on the town’s outskirts.

Cllr Wright has told Whitehall: “There is no other plan. This cherished local school is now at risk of closure due to the flood risk.”

Tipton St John Primary School. Image: Google Maps

Tipton St John Primary School. Image: Google Maps

Flooding next to Tipton St John Primary School. Image: Devon County Council

Flooding next to Tipton St John Primary School. Image: Devon County Council

She says in her letter to the Government: “I am writing to you asking that you consider the above much-loved school for your current rebuilding programme.

“The Environment Agency has been deeply concerned about the welfare of children attending the school since 2015 where it stated in a report that there is a ‘risk to life’ of the children attending the school because of the flood risk.

“It maintains this position and the school is in flood zone three.

“I have attended at least two clean-up community efforts since alongside teachers, parents, children and the fire and rescue service, and, around ten years ago, children had to spend six months having lessons in the local village hall and church due to a serious flooding event, which rendered the buildings out of action.

“For a decade, strenuous efforts have been made by the diocese, Devon County Council and the governors to find a solution.

“In 2015, just after receipt of the Environment Agency’s report stating that Tipton St John Primary School held a risk to the life of its children, the diocese, supported by Devon County Council, applied to the Government’s Priority Schools Building programme for funding for a rebuild in the village, outside the flood zone.

“There were meetings with ministers and many encouraging communications were exchanged and a suitable piece of land in the village was identified and there were positive discussions with a local land owner.

“Unfortunately, after many months of encouraging discussions, our bid was rejected by ministers.

“This was extraordinarily disappointing and left the diocese and Devon County Council desperately casting around for alternatives.

“Eventually, this led to the very unpopular planning application that has now been rejected.”

Cllr Wright adds: “New schools should be funded by central government, not by the planning system.

“Especially when the Government body responsible for prevention of flooding has described the lives of children as being at risk and it is only a matter of time before the school is flooded again.

“The local community feels incredibly let down by government ministers over the Priority Schools Building Programme.

“As a voluntary-aided school it is vital that it receives financial support from central government.

“I really hope that this time the Government will now do the right thing and provide Tipton St John Primary School with the necessary funding for a rebuild outside the flood zone.”

Fleet Street editors unite to demand ‘urgent’ action on Freedom of Information

Gove under pressure as Guardian, Times, Telegraph, FT, Mirror and others sign openDemocracy letter calling for investigation of controversial FOI ‘Clearing House’

Mary Fitzgerald 

More than a dozen current and former national newspaper editors have signed an openDemocracy public letter calling for MPs to urgently investigate the British government’s handling of Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

The rare show of unity from traditional rivals across the British press comes in response to an openDemocracy investigation which revealed details of a secretive unit inside Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office, described as “Orwellian” by the head of the National Union of Journalists.

A shadow cabinet minister has accused the unit, known as the ‘Clearing House’, of “blacklisting” journalists. It is also said to have blocked the release of sensitive FOI requests.

Joining openDemocracy’s call for transparency, the editor of The Times, John Witherow, called the situation a “disgrace” and Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief of The Guardian, criticised government “time-wasting on legitimate FOI requests”, saying it stands “at odds with its global commitments to press freedom”.

They join the editors and editors-in-chiefs of openDemocracy, The Sunday Times, The Daily Telegraph, Financial Times and Daily Mirror, as well as Paul Dacre, chief executive of Associated Newspapers, Alan Rusbridger, former editor-in-chief of The Guardian, and Lionel Barber, former editor of the Financial Times, in signing openDemocracy’s letter demanding swift action to protect FOI.

The letter calls for an investigation into the controversial Clearing House unit. It also demands new measures to speed up FOI requests and greater support for the Information Commissioner’s Office, which oversees FOI.

openDemocracy is working with the law firm Leigh Day on a legal bid to force the Cabinet Office to reveal full details of how the Clearing House operates, and nearly 40,000 people have also signed a petition to Michael Gove calling for urgent action.

Expressing his support for openDemocracy’s initiative, Times editor John Witherow said: “Transparency is not a privilege or a gift bequeathed to a grateful citizenry by a benign government. It is a fundamental right of a free people to be able to see and scrutinise the decisions made on their behalf.

“That message has failed to get through to the government of Boris Johnson, which seems hell-bent on making it harder. This is not only a disgrace, but a mistake.”

Guardian editor-in-chief Katharine Viner also called for more powers for the Information Commissioner to investigate breaches of the law on FOI: “Given the huge amounts of public money now spent with private contractors, a clear commitment to greater transparency and a well-funded Information Commissioner are manifestly in the public interest,” she said.

‘Against the spirit and the letter of the law’

Today’s joint letter – addressed to the chairs of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee and the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Committee – comes amid rising concerns about how Freedom of Information requests are dealt with, particularly within Whitehall.

Conservative MP David Davis, a signatory of today’s letter, has described the Clearing House as “certainly against the spirit of the (FOI) Act – and probably the letter, too”.

A recent report released by openDemocracy showed that FOI response rates are at their lowest level since the introduction of the Freedom of Information Act 20 years ago.

When previously questioned by MPs about the Clearing House, Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said that the government treats all Freedom of Information requests in “exactly the same way”, adding: “They’re applicant blind, so whether or not it’s a freelance journalist, someone working for an established title, or a concerned citizen.”

However, after openDemocracy reporter Jenna Corderoy sent a Freedom of Information request to the Attorney General’s Office, she discovered that staff at the office had written in internal emails: “Just flagging that Jenna Corderoy is a journalist,” and: “Once the response is confirmed, I’ll just need [redacted] to sign off on this before it goes out, since Jenna Corderoy is a reporter for openDemocracy.”

Other disclosures suggest that many requests, including those from The Guardian, The Times, the BBC, Privacy International, Big Brother Watch and others have been treated in similar ways, undermining the “applicant-blind” principle of the FOI Act.

In December, openDemocracy reported that the Clearing House had blocked the release of documents about the infected blood scandal, involving thousands of people who received contaminated transfusions. And in January, we revealed that the housing ministry had told local councils it was “appropriate” to block the release of information about buildings that still have Grenfell-style cladding.

Labour shadow Cabinet Office minister Rachel Reeves this week called for the FOI Act to be extended to cover public service contracts outsourced to private firms, amid numerous reports of prominent Conservative party donors being handed lucrative government work.

‘Deteriorating’ press freedom in the UK

Experts warn of a worsening climate for media freedom in the UK. Reporters without Borders (RSF) has criticised Boris Johnson’s government for its “vindictive” response to media criticism over its handling of the pandemic, warning that press freedom in the UK is being eroded.

Today’s openDemocracy letter on FOI (published in full below) has won the backing of cross-party MPs and peers, leading cultural figures such as the author Philip Pullman, human rights lawyers, journalists, press freedom advocates and global non-governmental organisations including Index on Censorship, RSF, Greenpeace, Article 19, PEN and Transparency International.

Michelle Stanistreet, general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, warned: “In 2016 the government tried to clamp down on Freedom of Information and they failed: there was a public outcry at the time and the plans were dropped. Now it’s clear they just changed their tactics. The intended outcome is the same.

“To obstruct and restrict FOI shows the government’s disdain for open and transparent government and basic democratic scrutiny. Journalists from across the media industry are united on this issue, we all want to see FOI fully restored. To restrict FOI is to undermine public interest journalism.”

A spokesperson for the Cabinet Office said: “A Clearing House function has operated in different forms for the 15 years since the FOI Act came into effect, and a small Cabinet Office team now helps ensure a consistent approach to requests for information.

“This is especially important for complex FOI requests where we must balance the need to make information available with our legal duty to protect sensitive information and national security.”

He added: “This government remains fully committed to its transparency agenda, routinely disclosing information beyond its obligations under the FOI Act, and releasing more proactive publications than ever before.”

Sign the petition: save our Freedom of Information

The UK government is running a secretive unit inside Michael Gove’s Cabinet Office that’s accused of ‘blacklisting’ journalists and hiding ‘sensitive’ information from the public. Experts say they’re breaking the law – and it’s an assault on our right to know what our government is doing.

We’re not going to let it stand. We’re launching a legal battle – but we also need a huge public outcry, showing that thousands back our call for transparency. Will you add your name?