REVEALED: Greg Hands referred close political contact for £25m VIP contract – Good Law Project

The new Conservative Party Chairman, Greg Hands, helped Luxe Lifestyle Ltd, a company closely associated with the then Chair of his local constituency party, Mark Higton, land a £25m ‘VIP’ PPE deal. This is despite the company having no experience in providing protective equipment.

The contract was awarded without any formal competition and £20m worth of PPE supplied via the deal remains unused.

Emails obtained by Good Law Project reveal Greg Hands was approached on his personal email account by Mark Higton – the then chairman of the Hammersmith Conservatives – on 7 April 2020. Three days later, Mr Hands passed the offer onto officials, and Luxe Lifestyle were subsequently awarded a £25m contract to supply gowns and masks during the same month. 

Furthermore, multiple DHSC internal documents repeatedly used the reference ‘Minister Hands / Luxe Lifestyles’ when referring to the name of the PPE supplier. Even more remarkably, Mark Higton was frequently described as the ‘Main Supplier Contact’.

When the DHSC initially published the names of the ‘VIP’ suppliers in November 2021 it listed ‘Minster Hands’ [sic] as the winner of the PPE deal. The Tory Chairman’s name was subsequently removed – but not before being captured by the Wayback Machine, which archives historical webpages.

Luxe Lifestyle was incorporated in 2018 by the American Karen Brost. Prior to the pandemic, the firm had zero employees and was £9000 in debt. We don’t know how much profit Luxe – or whoever was really behind the firm – made from the £25m deal. The firm is a year late in publishing its annual accounts and has now applied to Companies House to be struck off the register. 

However, following an FOI from Spotlight on Corruption, we do know that Luxe Lifestyle supplied almost 10m items of PPE valued at £20m, which remains unused by the NHS.

When we first approached Mark Higton, he claimed he had ‘never solicited Greg Hands in regards to PPE on behalf of others.’ The emails we have seen record Higton directly approaching Hands on behalf of a third party selling PPE and Ventilators.

Higton was also a director of Covid testing company, ‘Luxe Life Care Ltd’, before it dissolved in December 2022. Three months after incorporation, the box-fresh firm was awarded a place on the Government’s mammoth £15bn ‘diagnostic testing services’ framework.

A Government spokesperson said:

“Ministers had no involvement in any procurement decisions. During the pandemic, potential suppliers often passed on offers of PPE to MPs, civil servants and ministers. These offers for support were passed to procurement teams for assessment.”

We will continue to investigate and uncover more and more of the PPE scandal. We can only do this with your support. If you would like to make a donation, you can do so here.

Devon taxpayers face 4.99% council tax rise from April

Still heading towards the cliff edge with a bit of “creative accounting”?

Since 2020, councils across the country have been told by the government to put their SEND overspends into separate ring-fenced accounts while it develops a new funding model – an arrangement recently extended to 2026. It means Devon’s total running SEND overspend – effectively debt – is projected to be £127 million next month, rising to £153 million by March 2024.

Also  £26.4 million of savings in adult social care have been identified. In an age of austerity? – Owl

Ollie Heptinstall

Devon County Council taxpayers face a five per cent rise in their bills from April. The increase of 4.99 per cent will mean the yearly council tax bill for an average Band D property will rise by £77.67 to £1,634.13. This excludes planned increases to other parts of the tax that fund district councils, police and the fire service.

Devon’s ruling Conservative cabinet approved its budget plans at a meeting on Friday [10 February], which will see total spending increase from £629 million to £696 million next year – a rise of 10.5 per cent. It will now be presented to full council on Thursday [16 February] to be ratified.

The money will mostly go towards spending increases of 18.4 and 8.8 per cent on children’s and adult services respectively, while corporate services will get a 6.5 per cent increase. Elsewhere, public health, communities and prosperity gets 5.4 per cent extra, and climate change, environment and transport will be given 3.5 per cent more cash.

However, cabinet member for finance Phil Twiss (Conservative, Feniton) warned the council’s income, including central funding from government, is “not enough” for it to set a balanced budget without making savings and efficiencies elsewhere. As a result, savings, alternative funding and additional income of £47.5 million have been identified in the 177-page budget book, including £26.4 million of savings in adult social care.

“There has been more intense challenge and scrutiny of these savings proposals than ever before,” Cllr Twiss said, which would ensure they are “as robust as can be.” He added that since the target budget was set last month, the council has allocated an extra £2 million to tackle the increase in potholes caused by this winter’s icy spells and torrential rainfall. “Despite the massive challenges, this is an excellent budget,” Cllr Twiss claimed.

On the council tax rise, leader John Hart (Conservative, Bickleigh & Wembury) said in a statement: “We fully recognise the strain that household budgets are under with soaring inflation and big rises in the cost of living. But we must look after the young, the old and the vulnerable and they account for some 79 per cent of this budget.

Opposition leader Julian Brazil (Lib Dems, Kingsbridge) said the main debate would be saved until next week’s meeting, but questioned the county council’s financial security due to a large ongoing overspend on supporting children with special educational needs and disabilities (SEND)

Since 2020, councils across the country have been told by the government to put their SEND overspends into separate ring-fenced accounts while it develops a new funding model – an arrangement recently extended to 2026. It means Devon’s total running SEND overspend – effectively debt – is projected to be £127 million next month, rising to £153 million by March 2024.

This would be in excess of the council’s projected combined working balance and earmarked reserves, leading Cllr Brazil to ask: “Technically, does that mean we’re insolvent?” He was told that wasn’t the case. Cllr Brazil also disagreed that it was a “balanced budget,” because the council is predicting to add £26 million to its SEND overspend next year. “That doesn’t make it balanced. It just means it’s just being hidden away.”

An officer said the total was being held “off balance sheet, so effectively a negative reserve which is part of government guidance and advice to do so.” The budget document explains that Devon has “submitted proposals” to the Department for Education for an intervention to support it in bringing SEND spending “back to within available resources.”

“At the time of writing no decision from the government has been notified to the authority, despite attempts to bring this matter to a conclusion,” it said. Labour leader Carol Whitton (St David’s and Haven Banks) said she “appreciates that this has not been an easy budget to put together,” adding: “I’m sure we will have a good deal to say about [Cllr Twiss’] assessment that this is a good budget for our population, and we will challenge that on Thursday.”

Meanwhile, Cllr Jacqui Hodgson (Green, Totnes & Dartington) said her party was “happy” to support the proposed increase in council tax “as I believe that we need to ensure continual funding for our public services.” She also welcomed the increases in adults and children’s services but questioned the “piecemeal funding” for some elements of the council’s services and believes more money should be switched from roads to active travel.

Members will discuss and vote on the budget at a meeting of the full council next Thursday.

Mid Devon disarray as cabinet members quit before being sacked

More “Nasty Party” antics.

How many Tories are going to be standing as “Independents” in May? – Owl

Lewis Clarke

Mid Devon District Council has no cabinet, after the Conservative group resigned their positions, despite being told they would have been sacked anyway.

Speaking at Mid Devon’s scrutiny committee on Monday, February 13, leader of Mid Devon District Council, Councillor Bob Deed (Cadbury, Independent Group), confirmed that Conservative members Cllr Clive Eginton (Taw Vale, Conservative), Cllr Richard Chesterton (Lower Culm, Conservative), Cllr Colin Slade (Lowman, Conservative) and Cllr Stuart Penny (Yeo, Conservative) were no longer members of the cabinet.

Councillor Chris Daw (Cranmore, Independent Group) has quit as a Conservative party member and remains in her cabinet post as an independent member.

The move follows a disagreement between the Conservative former members of cabinet and the leader in backing Mid Devon’s Three Rivers Developments Ltd, with the Conservatives backing a proposal to continue their support for the company at a meeting on January 31.

Speaking at scrutiny Councillor Bob Deed said: “I have fired four members of the Conservative cabinet. At the moment the cabinet is not quorate, therefore until I appoint further members to the cabinet, there cannot be a cabinet meeting.

“In terms of ambiguity, they were fired, although at a meeting last week, one member did say they had resigned. I leave that thought with you. In terms of transparency, I do not see why we cannot tell the public what is going on.”

Cllr Clive Eginton, leader of the Conservative group responded: “Thank you for allowing me to correct the comments that Cllr Deed has just made. He tried to sack the four members of cabinet, and was unsuccessful because he sent an email via a third party, ie, via Councillor Chris Daw, which was inadmissible. Therefore, the four Conservative cabinet members resigned. End of story.”

Cllr Colin Slade added: “Some of us are a bit bemused about why he did, what he did. We in good faith believed that in his absence, that we were pursuing his policy. Then we find he’s decided to sack four Conservative members, one of whom wasn’t even at the cabinet and did not vote, so why was he sacked. We were told it was because we voted on party lines which we didn’t, because another member of the cabinet, Councillor Dennis Knowles, a member of Cllr Deed’s own group, voted with the Conservatives.

“How can Cllr Deed justify sacking members of the cabinet on the grounds they voted when they didn’t and keeping in a member of the cabinet who voted against his wishes.”

The chair of the committee Councillor Simon Clist (Upper Culm, Liberal Democrats) said he would allow no more discussion on the cabinet due to not being part of the agenda of the meeting.

This is the second time Cllr Deed has sacked large numbers of his cabinet as four Lib Dems were sacked from their positions in August 2020. It followed a full council meeting where the Liberal Democrats put forward a rival amendment to one that Cllr Deed had outlined over the Greater Exeter Strategic Plan, a strategy involving Exeter, East Devon, Mid Devon and Teignbridge.

Mid Devon District Council was due to hold a special cabinet meeting at 10am on Tuesday morning to discuss 3 Rivers Developments Limited and its Business Plan. That meeting now does not look likely to go ahead.

Jess Bailey asks why DCC review of the Humphreys case omits a third 2016 LADO meeting…

…..and more!

Prior to the DCC Cabinet meeting 10 February 2023, councillors are allowed to ask written questions. They receive answers but may ask supplementary questions at the meeting itself.

Jess Bailey asked three questions relating to the Independent review of DCC’s response to the Humphrey allegations. (Full text given below).

At the Cabinet meeting she asked supplementary questions on two of them, addressed to Councillor Leadbetter.

Regarding her second question she expressed dissatisfaction with the evasive, carefully crafted, nature of the answer and asked: if officers raised no specific concerns, were any general ones raised?

The reply she got from Councillor Leadbetter was:  “I think you should leave this subject alone. You keep asking questions.”.

She also attempted further clarification regarding the omission of a third 2016 meeting from the review and was told to refer to the written answer which does not deny such a meeting occurred.

(Is this the 2016 “follow up” meeting that “never happened” but now appears to have taken place in November, too sensitive to record?)

Openness and transparency for all to see Tory style. Anyone detect a hint of intimidation?

You really have to listen to DCC leader John Hart and Cllr Leadbetter (link at bottom of post) to hear the tetchy way they try to close Jess down. It lasts less than a minute right at the start of the meeting. Shocking! – Owl

DCC Cabinet meeting 10 February 2023

Questions (written) from members of the council, agenda item 6 

1. QUESTION FROM COUNCILLOR BAILEY Re: Independent review of DCC’s LADO safeguarding actions relating to John Humphreys and publication of Report. Please could you explain why did DCC hold up the publication of the report? It was completed in September 2022 but only published some 4 months later following my question to cabinet on 11th January 2023.

REPLY BY COUNCILLOR LEADBETTER The delay between the initial report being submitted in draft form to the Council and the final version being published was due to officers rightly clarifying certain points contained within the report and agreeing the final content with the report’s author. I should also add that, in that time frame, very senior and significant appointment changes occurred, namely the departure of the Director of Children and Young People’s Futures and the arrival of the permanent Director for Legal and Democratic Services. I felt it was important that both the new Director for Legal services and the Interim Director of Children and Young People’s Futures had the opportunity to consider the contents of the report before publication, as the responsible officers. 

2. QUESTION FROM COUNCILLOR BAILEY Re: Independent review of DCC’s LADO safeguarding actions relating to John Humphreys and views of Senior Officers. Have any senior officers expressed any concern or reservations about any aspects of the report since it was completed in September 2022? 

REPLY BY COUNCILLOR LEADBETTER There were no specific concerns raised directly relating to the report. 

3. QUESTION FROM COUNCILLOR BAILEY Re: Independent review of DCC’s LADO safeguarding actions relating to John Humphreys and multi agency safeguarding meetings In my written question 1.c at the DCC Cabinet Meeting on 13th July 2022, I referred to three multi agency safeguarding meetings which took place in March April and November 2016. Please clarify why details of the November 2016 meeting was omitted from the report. Please provide full details of matters discussed at the November 2016 meeting and outcomes from it. Page 1 Agenda Item 6 

REPLY BY COUNCILLOR LEADBETTER I note your comment about the November 2016 meeting. It would not be appropriate to share the confidential detail of any the multi-agency meetings held. As I have said previously, I am happy to meet Cllr Bailey separately to discuss any aspects of the report that can be shared. The investigator was supplied with all the evidence in relation to all of the meetings.

[For supplementary questions and (non) answers see the video feed of the meeting at 1min 20 sec. At the time of going to press this was still available on the Media Webcast. It should also appear on the DCC Youtube page.]