UK acted unlawfully over disclosure of Covid contract awards, court rules
The UK government acted unlawfully in failing to publish timely information about billions of pounds worth of public contracts to tackle the coronavirus crisis, the High Court in London ruled on Friday.
Campaign group the Good Law Project and three opposition MPs brought a legal challenge over the government’s failure to meet strict time limits, which specify that any state contract award notices must be published within a 30 day period of the deals being finalised.
Parliament’s spending watchdog in November criticised the government for a series of shortcomings when it awarded more than £17bn of contracts to private companies to counter the Covid-19 pandemic, including deals to supply personal protective equipment to NHS staff. Among other things, the National Audit Office censured the government for failing to publish contracts in a “timely manner”.
The High Court ruled that the government had not complied with its obligations to be transparent and said the disclosure rules on contract awards were a “vital public function” that were “no less important during a pandemic”. It also said the government had spent “vast quantities of public money on pandemic-related procurements”.
“The public were entitled to see who this money was going to, what it was being spent on and how the relevant contracts were awarded,” said Mr Justice Martin Chamberlain.
“One unfortunate consequence of non-compliance with the transparency obligations (both for the public and for the government) is that people can start to harbour suspicions of improper conduct, which may turn out to be unfounded,” he added.
At a High Court hearing this month, Jason Coppel QC, barrister for the Good Law Project, claimed that the government had shown a “widespread, continued and continuing failure to comply” with its duties on disclosure of contract awards.
Coppel said the government had given a “distinctly unclear picture” why its non-compliance “was allowed to reach the levels it did”.
During the court hearing, the government accepted that due to the pandemic there had been technical breaches of its obligations to publish some contract award notices within the required time period.
Philip Moser QC, barrister for the government, said all relevant contracts had now been published, although a small number had yet to be released by executive agencies such as Public Health England.
The High Court ruling said it can be “reasonably inferred that a substantial number [of contracts] were published late”, which led to a breach of the government’s transparency obligations where there was no good reason to depart from it.
The Good Law Project tweeted that the ruling was “hugely significant” and said it was now writing to health secretary Matt Hancock urging him to publish outstanding contracts and to undertake a public inquiry into PPE.
The three MPs who brought the legal challenge with the Good Law Project were Labour’s Debbie Abrahams, Liberal Democrat Layla Moran, and Caroline Lucas of the Green party.
The Department of Health and Social Care said in a statement: “We have been working tirelessly to deliver what is needed to protect our health and social care staff throughout this pandemic.
“This has often meant having to award contracts at speed to secure the vital supplies required to protect NHS workers and the public. We fully recognise the importance of transparency in the award of public contracts and continue to publish information about contracts awarded as soon as possible.”