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A prominent Tory donor lobbied a government minister to speed up the award of a £65m government contract to his company supplying face masks, according to documents obtained by the Guardian.
David Meller personally contacted the minister by phone last year to seek help overcoming delays in negotiations between the government and a fashion company he co-owned which was offering to supply personal protective equipment (PPE).
Following the call between Meller and Lord Bethell, a hereditary peer turned health minister who oversees the award of contracts to combat the virus, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) recommended that the delays should be dealt with urgently, the documents show.
The documents raise questions about whether Meller, who has donated nearly £60,000 to the Conservative party since 2009, received preferential treatment or unusual access to ministers in the early days of the pandemic.
In total, Meller Designs, the firm he co-owned until January this year, has been given six contracts worth £160m by the DHSC to produce personal protective equipment during the pandemic. All were awarded without a competitive tender.
Meller has been a well-known figure in political circles. The Conservative government has appointed him to official posts in the past, and he has been a trustee of a rightwing thinktank, Policy Exchange.
His donations include £3,000 to support Michael Gove’s failed leadership bid in 2016. Meller, who has been involved in running schools, was appointed to be a non-executive board member of the education department in 2013 when Gove was education secretary. Meller resigned from the post in 2018 after the Financial Times exposed sexual harassment at a men-only charity auction, known as the Presidents Club, which he co-chaired.
Meller Designs normally manufactures fashion and beauty products. Since the Covid outbreak, it says it has dedicated itself to producing PPE, drawing on its “know-how of the textile and beauty businesses” and network of suppliers.
Details of Meller’s lobbying have been revealed in heavily censored documents released to the Guardian following a freedom of information request.
On 6 April last year, Meller contacted Bethell, a former lobbyist and ally of the health secretary, Matt Hancock.
Also on the call that day, according to official records, was Lord Feldman, a former Conservative party chairman who had been temporarily drafted in to work as Bethell’s unpaid adviser.
Meller was “looking to deal with a block in ordering [blanked-out] face masks”, an email recorded. “Appreciate if you can ensure that this is actioned ASAP,” the unidentified author of the email said to colleagues.
Six minutes later, an email from Bethell’s office was sent to Meller saying: “Thanks for your call. I’ve been in touch with Jo Churchill’s office and given them a summary of the facts and urgency of the situation (CCd). As the minister leading on PPE, Jo Churchill and her office should be best placed to help you with the current and any future PPE-related issues.”
Another email – whose author’s identity has also been withheld – noted on the same day the “urgent … issues David Meller is encountering for PPE supplies order”.
Hours later, a senior DHSC official said in an email that “the deal is progressing”, adding that an unnamed colleague was “confident it was being handled at the right speed and would be completed on time”.
The DHSC gave the £65m contract for face masks was to Meller Designs on 7 May.
A spokesman for Meller Designs said: “We are extremely proud of the role we played at the height of the Covid-19 crisis and managed to secure more than 100m items of PPE – including masks, sanitiser, coveralls and gloves direct from the manufacturers – at a time when they were most needed. This PPE was used in hospitals and by emergency services throughout the country.
“In responding to the national emergency, we were able to rely on our many years’ experience of sourcing, testing and quality control of a wide range of products.”
A DHSC spokesperson said: “Proper due diligence is carried out for all government contacts and we take these checks extremely seriously. This process involves all contracts complying with robust rules and processes that prevent conflicts of interest.”
The government has given a large number of contracts to commercial firms during the pandemic without competitive tenders, after the usual rules were suspended at the start of the outbreak.
Ministers have argued that this was necessary as the government needed urgently to buy equipment and other means of protecting people from the virus.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Tory donor lobbied minister to speed up his £65m PPE deal | Coronavirus