When an unknown pest control company from Littlehampton, West Sussex, stepped in to supply face masks, goggles and gloves to the NHS during the first wave of the pandemic, it could have been just a quirk of the indomitable British spirit.
PestFix, a family-owned business, came to the rescue, doing its part for the nation by agreeing to a £ 108million contract despite no previous PPE manufacturing experience. But for Jolyon Maugham QC and his stubbornly determined team at the Good Law Project, the unlikely deal was a sign that something could be wrong with the way the government operated. A year-long legal crusade has uncovered a “VIP route” for friends of the political elite seeking government contracts.
“It was absolutely amazing. I think there is a huge amount that is still not visible to us, in the way people have won the absolutely huge contracts to supply PPE.
Maugham, speaking to the Evening Standard from his South London home he shares with his wife Claire, says a ‘kind of spider sense’ helped at the start of their information search, leaning over on published contracts to find clues and connections.
They thought it was’ madness’ that PestFix had been given the huge PPE contract: ‘This tiny little company with £ 18,000 in assets had CrowdFunder say rather nicely that we don’t know big. – thing about buying PPE, and we are increasing the money to provide PPE to those who need it. And they had won this massive £ 108million contract and it just didn’t make sense.
The Good Law Project’s legal director, Gemma Abbott, noted that another big winner, hedge fund Ayanda Capital, had close ties to the Conservative Party, and their attention also turned to a northern confectionery wholesaler. Irishman, Clandeboye, who had landed another multi-million pound. PPE contract.
The National Audit Office found no evidence of ministers’ involvement in procurement decisions or contract management. The NAO said many leads for the priority lane came from opposition MPs and peers. The NAO said all offers to supply PPE go through the same assurance process, including quality checks and price checks. The Cabinet Office said last November that only 0.5% of products purchased did not meet clinical standards. The Good Law Project had only a team of four when they started investigating, but they have grown to 12 employees in 2020 as legal claims mount.
Donors to their cause have grown from under 2,000 to almost 13,000, and annual income from donations has climbed to nearly £ 2.5million, in part thanks to his August revelation that £ 150million in masks purchased for the NHS were unusable.
In October, they revealed the existence of the VIP Lane.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson had to answer questions in Parliament over the provision of PPE, and other legal complaints followed, including against the government’s ‘leveling’ fund – suggesting money could be channeled to conservative parts of the UK.
As Downing Street was slowly engulfed in questions about Greensill’s lobbying and a £ 58,000 redecorating bill, the small staff of the Good Law Project diligently continued to take the government to court, forcing disclosure of the internal discussions within government.
Last week, it emerged in court proceedings that an official complained of “drowning in VIP claims and ‘high priority’ contracts.” The government said the “VIP Lane” was intended to help officials sort through the large number of PPE supply offers, to help identify viable prospects for real businesses.
“I’m only half kidding when I say if you’re a friend of Matt Hancock and you don’t have a huge contract worth tens of millions of pounds, you have to look in the mirror and you ask what you went wrong, whether you were rude to him at a dinner party or something, ”Maugham laughs.
Ministers are now under intense pressure, thanks to the efforts of the Good Law Project, to reveal the 47 companies that have benefited from the VIP Lane, as well as who have helped them.
Ayanda Capital previously said it was unaware of a high priority route, and Pestfix previously told the UKTN it was proud of its role in sourcing PPE to address shortages in the NHS during the pandemic.
Maugham, a former adviser to Labor leader Ed Miliband on tax policy, started the nonprofit Good Law Project in 2017 after a successful career as a tax lawyer. Speaking passionately in our hour-long interview, he only briefly alludes to the ‘toxic’ legal battles over Brexit, when as a left-wing lawyer defying a Tory government he was faced with a series of very personal attacks. Despite this experience in dazzling the public, the QC, which has more than 280,000 followers on Twitter, remains enthusiastic about the idea of using the law to “keep the government on the right track”.
“If we’re not a thorn in the side of government, we’re probably not going to be very effective,” he says. “Government lawyers tell us that we are changing the dial in government – ministers are told it could be challenged by the Good Law Project, and it causes them to behave indifferently.”
Maugham’s team won a decisive victory in February, when the High Court ruled that the government had illegally delayed the publication of contracts relating to the pandemic. Next month, they will fight again over the PestFix, Ayanda and Clandeboye chords.
He says their work, which runs through “very boring” supply issues, is motivated by “a belief in a good process, in checks and balances, in people doing the right things for the right reason.”
“The way to ensure that people do these things is to make them fear the consequences if they don’t,” he says. “I believe they serve the public interest and prioritize the interests of frontline healthcare workers to obtain good quality PPE. , the interest of those of us who pay taxes in getting value for money, and they attach a cost to the government in using pandemic blanket as a coat for what looks a lot like to me. sordid.
“This is the only way to ensure that the government does not use the power of the public service to line the pockets of its friends,” he adds. “We cannot guarantee that this will happen if we have transparency.”
Maugham, former adviser to Labor leader Ed Miliband on tax policy, admits his work would be “more appreciated by the establishment” if Labor were in power, but insists he has good relations with politicians from all sides, including government ministers.
“Of course, we are doggedly pursuing what we see as this government’s misery. I understand very well that people like action which is part of party politics. But if you are interested in governance, you can only tackle the people who are in charge. The Labor Party does not buy anything with public money because it is not the government. If the Labor Party did this to the government, we would take after the Labor Party for doing it.
A future in Westminster invites Maugham? “I don’t think I’m a party political creature, really, I’ve behaved too badly,” he says, blaming the “independent and outspoken streak” of his upbringing in New Zealand.
For now, he is focusing on a “policy of good governance” and the “stubborn” pursuit of the Conservative government: “I think society is healthier when people sitting outside are ready to clearly state the issue. truth to power, and to bend vigorously to authority in the service of the public good.
Key dates of the Good Law Project
Good Law Project hires its founding team of four
First PPE skirmish – Good Law Project launches legal action to demand full public inquiry
Proceedings for a £ 108 million PPE contract awarded to PestFix
Around £ 150million is revealed to have been spent on PPE which the NHS cannot use
The existence of the “VIP Lane” is revealed for the first time, through document leaks at the GLP
Prime Minister Boris Johnson faces questions in parliament over PPE spending
High Court says Government acted ‘illegally’ by not publishing Covid-19 contracts quickly enough
It emerged the government was prepared to spend £ 2million to fight GLP claims
Back in court, emails emerge showing civil service complaints that they were ‘drowning’ in VIP contract demands.
The latest legal clash between the GLP and the government, in an attempt to get more documents leaked in the PestFix case