Government Failure To Publish Details Of Coronavirus Contracts Is Ruled "Unlawful" By High Court
The High Court dismissed the government's defence that the pandemic had made it difficult to follow transparency rules [PA Images]
The Department of Health acted "unlawfully" by failing to publish details of Covid contracts worth billions of pounds, a judge has ruled.
A high court challenge was brought by the Good Law Project, which had accused the government of a "wholesale failure" to follow its own transparency rules by failing to publish details of the contracts.
Under law, ministers are expected to publish 'contract award notices' within 30 days for any contracts for public goods or services worth more than £120,000.
Campaigners – including the Good Law Project – have repeatedly hit out at the government for failing to follow the rules relating to billions of pounds worth of contracts to purchase medical equipment and PPE, including gloves, masks and gowns.
The department had sought to challenge parts of the case by claiming that the emergency situation posed by the pandemic had meant they were unable to follow transparency rules.
But at the High Court on Friday, Mr Justice Chamberlain said there was now "no dispute" that Health Secretary Matt Hancock had "breached his legal obligation to publish contract award notices within 30 days".
"There is now no dispute that, in a substantial number of cases, the secretary of state breached his legal obligation to publish contract award notices within 30 days of the award of contracts," he said.
"There is also no dispute that the secretary of state failed to publish redacted contracts in accordance with the transparency policy."
He added: "The secretary of state spent vast quantities of public money on pandemic-related procurements during 2020.
"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."
The judge said the failure had denied the chance for scrutiny of the contracts, including by "oversight bodies such as the NAO or via MPs in Parliament".
And while he acknowledged the "unprecedented" nature of the pandemic and said it was "understandable that attention was focused on procuring what was thought necessary to save lives", he ruled the department's "historic failure" to follow the transparency rules were "an excuse, not a justification".
But Mr Justice Chamberlain did not accept claims made by the Good Law Project that the department had followed a "policy of de-prioritising compliance".
In a statement, the Good Law Project said the ruling was a "victory for all of us concerned with proper governance and proof of the power of litigation to hold government to account".
It added: "But there is still a long way to go before the Government's house is in order.
"We have now written to [Matt Hancock] detailing what needs to be done to improve procurement processes and ensure value for British taxpayers."
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: "We have been working tirelessly to deliver what is needed to protect our health and social care staff throughout this pandemic, within very short timescales and against a background of unparalleled global demand.
"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."