Ian Blackford demands public inquiry begin immediately into Covid contracts

A lack of details published over the issuing of emergency Covid contracts has “raised serious questions that the UK government can no longer dodge”, and a public inquiry needed to be launched immediately, according to the SNP’s Westminster leader.

SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford is to lead an Opposition Day debate on Covid contracts.

In an opposition day debate, Ian Blackford challenged Boris Johnson’s government over its handling of contracts connected to the pandemic which he described as “rampant cronyism”.

He said the Prime Minister needed to “immediately commence” the promised Covid-19 public inquiry to get to the root of how and why contracts were awarded.

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Concerns have been raised about private companies being given contracts, for everything from supplying PPE to researching public opinion about the government's Covid measures, with no procurement process.

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According to a report published by the National Audit Office (NAO), between March and July 2020, new contracts worth £17.3bn were awarded to suppliers and of those £10.5bn were awarded directly without any competition £6.7bn were awarded directly to pre-approved suppliers, and just £0.2bn were awarded using the normal competitive process.

A legal challenge to one £560,000 contract found that the awarding of it to a company run by friends of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings, without considering other firms, could be seen as suggesting a "real danger" of bias.

A second court case found the failure to publish details of contracts within the required 30 days meant the then health secretary, Matt Hancock, had acted unlawfully.

Questions have also been raised about the introduction of a “high priority” lane, introduced by the government to choose between the huge numbers of offers it was getting, with offers of PPE treated with greater urgency if they came from a supplier recommended by ministers, government officials or MPs and members of the House of Lords, from any party.

The NAO report found that up to the end of July 2020, about one in 10 suppliers who had been put in the high-priority lane were then awarded contracts, while the figure was less than one in 100 for other suppliers, outside the lane.

Mr Blackford said: "Through the course of this pandemic, Boris Johnson's Tory government has stumbled from one scandal to another – and with each scandal emerges a pattern of rampant cronyism at the heart of this government.

"Time and time again, serious questions have been raised over how the Tory government has handled taxpayers' money and emergency Covid contracts – with countless reports of friends, party donors and close contacts benefiting from multi-million-pound contracts. That's in addition to the scandal of public money funnelled for party political research.

"Yet each time, the UK government has failed to fully give the details of the process behind the issuing of emergency Covid-19 contracts. It can no longer continue to dodge accountability."

The government has insisted that proper due diligence was carried out for all government contacts and checks are taken “extremely seriously”.

Jo Churchill, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care dismissed Mr Blackford’s speech as “largely just smear” and said a public inquiry would start next spring, while Scottish Conservative MP Andrew Bowie said 160 Scottish Government contracts had been “awarded to suppliers with no competitive process”.

Mr Blackford said the procurement processes of the Scottish Government were “open and transparent.”

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