Events this week have thrown into doubt the ‘official’ explanation as to why Matt Hancock’s friend was handed a controversial £40 million government contract to provide PPE during the covid pandemic.
New evidence shows that the contract was awarded to another company, Alpha, but apparently stipulated that the work should be sub-contracted to Alex Bourne, alleged to be Hancock’s friend. This seems at odds with Alpha’s own explanation.
Amid loud accusations of sleaze, Hancock and Alex Bourne, who denies being a friend of Hancock, have both insisted that the contract was won legitimately – even though Bourne’s company, Hinpack, had no experience of producing medical supplies. Its main business was producing paper cups and pizza boxes.
According to the Guardian, who had seen a private Whatsapp exchange in which Hancock warned Bourne about media interest in their links, Alex Bourne joked to Hancock that he had “never heard of him”. He went on to reassure Hancock that his lawyers were “all over” a reporter investigating their connection “like a tramp on chips”.
Hancock sleaze allegations
The Information Commissioner’s Office is investigating claims that Matt Hancock used “private communications channels” during some of his contract negotiations and has asked for evidence to be handed over. The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) is also investigating the Hinpack contract, saying it “takes all reports of non-compliance very seriously”.
It is not known what on what evidence the MHRA was acting, though before the contract was awarded there had been allegations of health and safety breaches at Hinpack’s site at Thriplow, near Royston.
Hinpack was one of 40 companies who it is claimed were given preferential treatment in obtaining the lucrative contracts, but whose details the government refused to divulge. Most or all of them had apparently been recommended by Tory MPs. The companies were not required to submit to the usual tendering process.
Initially the government had denied such an arrangement existed. But the Good Law Project challenged the refusal to provide details through the courts, who told the government they must reveal the evidence.
When the contract said to involve Bourne and his company was reluctantly published, it showed it had in fact been granted to Alpha Laboratories, though it stipulated that all work should be sub-contracted to another company, whose name had been redacted.
In a speech in the Commons, Hancock declared it showed “there was no such contract between my constituent and the department or NHS”.
However, the original document was leaked to the Good Law Project, and revealed that the sub-contractor whose name had been redacted was Bourne’s company, Hinpack. Hancock’s statement was therefore strictly correct, since the contract was to Alpha and it was Alpha who had the contract with Hinpack.
It is difficult not to conclude, however, that this was a deliberate attempt to mislead the Commons and the public as to the circumstances of the contract. The Speaker has declared that any misleading statements by government ministers must be withdrawn through a further statement to the House. But it is not yet known whether Hancock will be forced to come the Commons to apologize.
In a subsequent LBC radio interview on Thursday, Bourne accepted that Hinpack had been handed the contract, but claimed he made “not one penny” out of the £40 million.
According to the Daily Mail, land registry documents show that Bourne bought Hundon Hall last December for £1.3 million. The 17th century, six bedroom manor house is a short distance from Haverhill, Suffolk.
‘I did not buy Hundon Hall because of Covid,’ Bourne told the Mail. ‘I have yet to make any personal cash from this contract.’ He said the purchase had been made possible as a result of the sale of the family’s home in Battersea last November for £1.225 million.
Alpha to sub-contract
Crucially, the Alpha contract made explicit that all manufacturing had to be sub-contracted to Hinpack by name. The company was given no choice, and at the moment it is not clear why the contract should have been awarded to one company on the understanding that work should be carried out by another.
But when quizzed on the curious arrangement, Alpha declared: “Although we were aware Alex Bourne had met Mr Hancock, this was irrelevant to our discussions as we were sourcing from Hinpack a price-competitive product for the NHS supply chain which fitted within our product range.”
Statement doesn’t add up
The Alpha statement seems at odds with the facts as we now know them.
In declaring that “we were sourcing a price competitive product”, presumably from among others, Alpha gives the clear impression that, as would be normal business procedure, they had chosen the sub contractor and had negotiated a price. Whereas it is now known that they only won the contract by agreeing with the DHSC that Hinpack would ultimately get the work. In those circumstances, Alpha’s statement only complicates the true nature of whatever negotiations took place between the government and Hancock’s department, and those who were to win such lucrative contracts.