When an unknown pest control firm from Littlehampton in West Sussex stepped in to deliver face masks, goggles and gloves to the NHS in the first wave of the pandemic, it could have gone down simply as a quirk of the indomitable British spirit.
Family-run PestFix came to the rescue, doing their bit for the nation by taking on a £108 million contract despite no experience of making PPE. But to Jolyon Maugham QC and his doggedly-determined team at the Good Law Project, the unlikely deal was a sign that something may be rotten in the way the Government was operating. A year-long legal crusade uncovered a “VIP Lane” for friends of the political elite seeking government contracts.
“It has been absolutely extraordinary. I think there is an enormous amount that is still not visible to us, into how people won the absolutely vast contracts to supply PPE.”
Maugham, talking to the Evening Standard from his south London home which he shares with wife Claire, says a “kind of spider sense” helped the start of their hunt for information, poring over published contracts for clues and connections.
They thought it was “madness” that PestFix had been handed the huge PPE contract: “This tiny little company with £18,000 of assets had got a CrowdFunder up saying rather sweetly that we don’t know much about PPE procurement, and we are raising money to deliver PPE to those who need it. And they had won this vast £108 million contract and it just made no sense at all.”
Good Law Project legal director Gemma Abbott spotted that another big deal winner, hedge fund Ayanda Capital, had close ties to the Conservative Party, and their attention also turned to a Northern Irish confectionery wholesaler, Clandeboye, which had landed another multi-million-pound PPE contract.
The National Audit Office found no evidence that ministers were involved in procurement decisions or contract management. The NAO said that many leads for the priority lane came from opposition MPs and peers. The NAO said all offers to supply PPE went through the same assurance process, including quality checks and price controls. The Cabinet Office said last November that only 0.5 per cent of products bought had not met clinical standards. The Good Law Project had a team of just four as they began investigating, but they expanded to 12 staff during 2020 as the legal claims mounted up.
Donors to their cause increased from fewer than 2,000 to approaching 13,000 and annual income from donations surged to almost £2.5 million, thanks in part to its August revelation that £150 million of face masks sourced for the NHS were unusable.
In October they revealed the existence of the VIP Lane.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson had to field questions in Parliament on PPE provision, and further legal claims have followed including against the Government’s “levelling-up” fund — suggesting money could be being funnelled into Tory areas of the UK.
As Downing Street has been slowly engulfed by questions about Greensill lobbying and a £58,000 redecorating bill, Good Law Project’s small staff has diligently continued to pursue the Government through the courts, forcing disclosure of internal discussions from within the heart of government.
Last week, it emerged in legal proceedings that a civil servant had complained that they were “drowning in VIP requests and ‘high priority’ contracts”. The Government has said the “VIP Lane” was intended to help officials triage the vast number of offers to supply PPE, to help identify the viable prospects from genuine companies.
“I’m only half-joking when I say if you are a friend of Matt Hancock’s and you haven’t got a huge contract worth tens of millions of quid, you have got to be looking at yourself in the mirror and wondering what you got wrong, whether you were rude to him at a dinner party or something,” laughs Maugham.
Ministers are now under intense pressure, thanks to the Good Law Project’s efforts, to reveal all 47 companies who benefited from the VIP Lane, as well as who helped them.
Ayanda Capital has previously said they were not aware of a high priority lane, and Pestfix has previously told the BBC it is proud of its role sourcing PPE to meet shortages in the NHS during the pandemic.
Maugham, a one-time adviser to Labour leader Ed Miliband on tax policy, set up the not-for-profit Good Law Project in 2017 after a successful career as a tax law barrister. Speaking passionately during our hour-long interview, he makes only fleeting reference to the “toxic” legal battles over Brexit, when as a Left-leaning lawyer challenging a Conservative government he faced a series of very personal attacks. Despite this experience in the public glare, the QC with over 280,000 Twitter followers remains enthusiastic about using the law to “keep government on the straight and narrow”.
“If we are not being a thorn in the Government’s side, we are probably not being very effective,” he says. “We hear from government lawyers that we are moving the dial in government —ministers are being told this might be challenged by the Good Law Project, and it is causing them to behave in different ways.”
Maugham’s team secured a key victory in February, when the High Court found the Government had unlawfully delayed the publication of pandemic contracts. Next month, they will do battle again over the PestFix, Ayanda, and Clandeboye deals.
He says their work, wading through “very boring” procurement issues, is driven by a “belief in good process, in checks and balances, in people doing the right things for the right reason”.
“The way to secure that people do those things is to cause them to fear the consequences if they don’t,” he says.“I believe they serve the public interest and prioritise the proper interest of frontline healthcare workers in getting good quality PPE, the interest of those of us who pay taxes in getting good value for money, and they attach cost to government to using the cover of a pandemic as a cloak for what feels to me very much like sleaze.
“It’s the only way in which we secure that the Government isn’t using the power of public office to line the pockets of its friends,” he adds. “We can only secure that this happens if we have transparency.”
Maugham, a one-time advisor to Labour leader Ed Miliband on tax policy, concedes his work would be “valued by the Establishment more” if Labour was 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 the sleaze of this government. I understand very well that looks to people like action that is party political. But if you are interested in governance, you can only go after the people who are doing the governing. The Labour party isn’t procuring anything using public money because it is not the government. If the Labour party was doing this in government, we would be going after the Labour party for doing it.”
Does a future in Westminster beckon for Maugham? “I don’t think I’m a party political creature, really, I’m too badly behaved”, he says, blaming the “independent streak and straight-talking” of his upbringing in New Zealand.
For now, his focus is on a “politics of good governance” and the “dogged” pursuit of the Conservative government: “I think society is healthier when you have people sitting on the outside who are willing clearly to speak truth to power, and to bend their backs vigorously against authority in service of the public good.”
The Good Law Project key dates
Good Law Project hires its founding staff team of four
First skirmish over PPE — Good Law Project launches legal action to demand a full public inquiry
Proceedings initiated over £108m PPE contract awarded to PestFix
It is revealed about £150m has been spent on PPE the NHS cannot use
The existence of the “VIP Lane” is revealed for the first time, through leaked documents to the GLP
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has to face questions in Parliament on PPE spending
The High Court rules the Government acted “unlawfully” by not publishing Covid-19 contracts quickly enough
It emerged the Government is willing to spend £2m fighting the GLP’s claims
Back at court, emails emerge showing civil service complaints that they were “drowning” in VIP contract requests
The latest court clash between the GLP and the Government, in a bid to obtain more disclosed documents in the PestFix case