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19th Feb 2021

Matt Hancock acted unlawfully over details of Covid contracts, High Court judge rules

Health secretary Matt Hancock acted unlawfully by not publishing the details of PPE contracts within the expected 30 day period, a judge has ruled

Reuben Pinder

The case relates to the timing of the publishing of contract details

Matt Hancock acted unlawfully by not publishing the details of Covid contracts his department handed out in a timely way, a High Court judge has ruled.

Three opposition MPs and the Good Law project brought the legal challenge to the courts after the health secretary handed out PPE contracts worth hundreds of millions of pounds without competition.

Mr Justice Chamberlain found that Hancock did not comply with government transparency principles that require the details of such contracts to be published within 30 days.

A ruling released by the High Court found: “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 (CANs) within 30 days of the award of contracts.”

The ruling stated: “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.”

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson 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.

“As the 2020 National Audit Office report recognised, all of the NHS providers audited were always able to get what they needed in time thanks to the effort of government, NHS, armed forces, civil servants and industry who delivered over 8 billion items of PPE to the frontline at record speed.

“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.”

The Good Law Project, led by barrister Jolyon Maugham, said: “When government eschews transparency, it evades accountability.

“Government’s behaviour came under criticism in the judgment.

“If it had admitted to being in breach of the law when we first raised our concerns, it would have never been necessary to take this judicial review to its conclusion. Instead, they chose a path of obfuscation, racking up over £200,000 of legal costs as a result.

“We shouldn’t be forced to rely on litigation to keep those in power honest, but in this case it’s clear that our challenge pushed government to comply with its legal obligations.”