'Where is the challenge? Where is the scrutiny?'
We spoke to Good Law Project founder Jolyon Maugham QC about Covid contracts, corruption and why things will get worse before they get better
Welcome to Keeping the Receipts— a newsletter from the Citizens, this week written by Joanne O’Connor. You can read about the mission behind this here. If you like what you see, consider forwarding it to a friend or two. And if you’ve been reading it for free and want to support our mission, please consider signing up to the paid version.
Earlier this week MPs voted through the Tories’ Health and Care Bill which will pave the way for the dismantling of the NHS as we know it. Apart from the fact that this bill does nothing to address the very real issues faced by the NHS, such as chronic under-staffing and record waiting lists, it will give the green light to privatisation on a scale not seen before.
If our investigations into the government’s handling of the pandemic response over the last year have shown anything, it’s that when private interests get mixed up with public health, all too often it creates the perfect conditions for profiteering, cronyism and corruption.
We’ve been keeping a close eye on the award of government contracts to private firms since the start of the pandemic and – in collaboration with the team at Byline Times – we’ve unearthed some eye-watering correlations between the amount of money that wealthy individuals or private companies donate to the Tory party and the benefits they receive in return, whether it be in the form of juicy PPE contracts or a seat in the House of Lords.
And still the revelations come. This week our joint investigation showed that nine companies that were included in the government’s ‘VIP lane’ for the supply of PPE (which allowed contracts to be awarded without the usual vetting or competitive tender procedures) saw a combined £100 million boost in profits.
The lack of transparency around the awarding of these crucial government contracts is a huge red flag so we were delighted to see the outgoing information commissioner Elizabeth Denham calling for private companies that win government contracts to be subject to FOI laws. Denham warned that existing transparency law is no longer fit for purpose and that private businesses were taking advantage of that by refusing to supply information to the media and public.
She also said ministers must do more to keep permanent records of official government business, even when using messaging services such as WhatsApp, which is a drum that we at the Citizens have been banging for a while now. The Information Commissioner’s Office is currently investigating the use of private communication by individuals within the Department of Health and Social Care, which handed out large contracts to supply PPE at the height of the pandemic.
Q&A with Jolyon Maugham QC, founder of Good Law Project
It was the award of a contract for PPE worth £108 million to a company called PestFix which specialised in pigeon netting, which first alerted Jolyon Maugham QC to the fact that there might be something seriously amiss with the government’s pandemic procurement processes. “I just thought to myself, this can’t be right,” says Maugham, founder of Good Law Project, a not-for-profit campaign organisation that uses the law to protect the interests of the public. His hunch turned out to be right. Maugham says that further investigations revealed that the same company had, via the VIP Lane, been awarded some £300m in contracts for PPE, much of which had turned out to be unusable.
Since starting out in 2017, Good Law Project has been involved in several high profile legal actions against the government, from forcing the government to reverse its unlawful suspension of parliament in 2019 to calling for the Met Police to investigate the current cash-for-honours scandal.
We spoke to Jolyon about how he chooses which battles to fight, why the law is a blunt instrument for holding government to account and why he expects things to get a lot worse before they get better.
Why did you start Good Law Project?
When I started Good Law Project, I was troubled by the failure of the opposition to hold government properly to account, to keep its feet to the fire. I've also been worried for quite a long time about whether our regulators, who are supposed to be looking after the public interest, are capable still of doing that. Many of them have become politicised. So they feel sometimes like servants of the government rather than masters of the public interest. I certainly felt that there was a place for a sort of independent watchdog of the law. And that was the place that I hoped that Good Law Project would sit.
Isn’t it the job of the opposition and media to hold the government to account rather than lawyers?
I spoke this morning to a very senior public figure..because they were making the point that actually the law isn't a very good tool for protecting standards. And I said to them, look, I don't really want to be doing this either. I had a very pleasant life, a much more prosperous life, a much easier life doing what I used to do. I do this only because the other forms of accountability, the other parts of civil society that keep government honest, aren't willing or aren't able to do their jobs.
In recent years the power of Parliament has flowed into the hands of the executive. Who is there to stem that power, who is there to safeguard other interests? And one of those safeguards might be the media, but we see the BBC becoming increasingly a lapdog and less a watchdog. You look at the judiciary, and you see that it's being attacked as enemies of the people. You look at regulators like the Electoral Commission and the Charity Commission, and you see that they are being weakened, and they're being politicised. You look at the police. And you can see what looks like a very unhealthy relationship between Cressida Dick and the Home Secretary Priti Patel. And so you wonder to yourself, where is the challenge? Where is the scrutiny that is part of any healthy organisation or democracy? And I find that quite a difficult question to answer.
Boris Johnson recently said that by calling out corruption in this country we do a disservice to people living in countries which are far more corrupt. Has he got a point?
For me, the frustrating thing about corruption in public life in the UK, is that we don't know, because nobody looks. To me, it's absolutely extraordinary that the Met [police] refused to take an interest in the fact that every Conservative treasurer in recent times who has given more than £3m to the Conservative Party has got a peerage. We plan to write to the Met asking them again to open that inquiry and threatening judicial review proceedings if they will not.
There's this sense that has taken hold in the Conservative Party, that they are not subject to the laws that you and I are subject to. I mean, we saw that first and most strikingly with Dominic Cummings, with his trip to Durham and then his trip from Durham to Barnard Castle. Fundamentally, the prime minister said, well, he was applying common sense. But that's not the law. And the concern that I have is that we've got, de facto now, a world in which the police are unwilling or unable to hold to account law breaking, including corruption, in the corridors of power in Westminster. And I find that really, really alarming.
What is the single most corrupt thing that you've uncovered since you started Good Law Project?
So a feature of a lot of these pandemic contracts has been the payment by business people, of large sums of money, tens of millions of pounds, not for product, but as commission, as brokerage fees, to those with political connections. No business person who believes themselves participating in a proper procurement process, who believes themselves participating in a system that is not politically corrupt, pays tens of millions of pounds away to somebody with political connections. And for me, the presence of that feature in a number of high profile procurement contracts is compelling, I would say irrefutable evidence of corruption in pandemic procurement.
What’s giving you cause for optimism right now?
The British people are pretty sensible. They like fairness. They don't like people enriching themselves at public expense. They're not the hateful, knuckle-dragging Neanderthals that some of our right-wing press try and appeal to. And I think this stuff is starting to bite the government.
I think the fairly horrific way that it's behaved towards minorities, coupled with the government's neglect of the promises that it made to neglected white working class communities around the country, I think that's starting to show in the polls. So I think it's going to be a bumpy ride until the next election. But I'm optimistic that Johnson will not be in government from 2024. And that if he is, he will have a very much reduced majority and very unruly backbenchers. So it's gonna get worse before it gets better. But I'm hopeful.