Labour is urging all government ministers with links to companies that won Covid-19 contracts to publish emails and text messages with their business contacts, in order to prove that nothing improper has taken place.
In a letter to her counterpart, Michael Gove, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, Rachel Reeves, said that there was “a growing impression that there is one set of rules for ministers and their close friends, and another for the rest of the British public”.
The demand comes after criticism of the government for setting up a so-called “VIP lane” that allowed companies with ministerial links or recommendations to jump the queue for pandemic-related contracts.
Last week, Boris Johnson pledged to publish communications with James Dyson, the billionaire Brexit-supporting inventor and entrepreneur who asked the prime minister to “fix” a tax issue for his employees working on ventilators.
Research by non-governmental organisation Transparency International says that 20 per cent of the UK’s personal protective equipment (PPE) procurement raised red flags over corruption. Campaigners have also brought a lawsuit on the issue.
In light of this, Labour says all ministers with links to companies that won contracts should publish their messages, in a bid to live up to Mr Gove’s claim that “transparency drives everything this government does”.
Ms Reeves said: “Under the increasing spread of Tory sleaze, knowing how exposed some of our frontline staff were during the height of the pandemic without proper PPE, but also that Tory friends and donors were being awarded £2bn worth of contracts, creates increasingly serious questions for government.
“The government have long rejected Labour’s call for basic transparency by publishing the VIP fast lane, but this cannot go on given new revelations of corruption risk, and of companies without proper certification being allowed to jump the queue.
“As we are still missing an independent adviser on ministerial standards, and a register of ministers’ interests, the government must require ministers to publish openly and with full transparency, communications between them and those businesses who have won contracts since the pandemic begun and emergency procurement was introduced.
“Otherwise it’s increasingly clear that it is one set of rules for ministers and their close friends, and another for everyone else.”
The government says the VIP lane was necessary to speed up procurement of essential items needed during the pandemic.
But critics say many of the companies that won contracts did so without basic checks, and sometimes had no experience delivering the services they were contracted for.
Additionally, a growing number of companies with links to the government or Conservative Party have been reported.
The prime minister’s spokesperson has said that procurement “had to be done at speed, because in the early stages of the pandemic we didn’t have enough PPE inside the country”.
She added that “the government believes that at the beginning of the pandemic we had to act very quickly and we were very successful at that”.
The increasing scrutiny comes amid questions over whether lobbyists for big businesses are given too much access to ministers, and how Boris Johnson paid for the lavish refurbishment of his private Downing Street flat.