A company paid hundreds of millions of pounds for Covid-19 testing contracts has demanded a parliamentary committee retract a report saying it is “impossible” to have confidence the deals were awarded properly.
Lawyers from Schillings, representing Randox Laboratories, have written several times to the Commons Public Accounts Committee (PAC) taking issue with its highly critical paper from July, which accused the Government of failing in its duties to be “transparent” about meetings with the firm.
When the pandemic hit, ministers were forced to act quickly to scale up testing capacity, working with the private sector to secure the necessary services and supplies.
As part of these efforts, between January 2020 and December 2021, the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and Public Health England (PHE) awarded 22 contracts to Randox, or its strategic partner, Qnostics, with a maximum value of £776.9 million.
However, the cross-party committee of MPs said it was “impossible to have confidence” that the contracts were “awarded properly” due to “woefully inadequate record-keeping” by the DHSC.
It did note, though, that a prior report by the National Audit Office (NAO) said the watchdog had seen no evidence that the deals were struck “improperly”.
Correspondence published by the PAC shows Schillings wrote to the committee when an embargoed version of the paper was circulated to the media two days in advance of its publication, saying it contained “inaccurate” and “misleading” allegations, and that Randox had been “ambushed” as it had not been given “reasonable” chance to comment.
It also pointed out that the circa-£777 million figure given by the PAC reflected the maximum possible value of the contracts, saying the true total paid to Randox was significantly less – at £469 million.
The firm called on the committee to immediately disseminate an email withdrawing the report and accompanying press release from publication.
But while the PAC agreed to issue an amended press release, it told Schillings it did not accept its claims that the material was defamatory or inaccurate, adding that Randox had a chance to offer its own side of the story through the committee’s call for evidence that preceded the report.
The lawyers demanded for a second time that the committee withdraw all the documents, including the amended press notice – but the PAC’s clerk said this was not possible, and that “freedom of speech in Parliament is a fundamental constitutional principle”.
Last month Schillings wrote again to the committee to explain why it felt the investigation was “procedurally unfair” and to “elaborate on the inaccuracies and misrepresentations contained within the documents”, adding that a call for evidence did not allow for response to criticism, and requesting that the PAC withdraw or amend the report accordingly, or otherwise append its letter.
But the committee once again refused to withdraw the paper, and informed the firm both parties’ correspondence on the matter would now be published online.
PAC chairwoman Dame Meg Hillier concluded the most recent of the committee’s published letters to the firm, dated October 20, by writing: “I consider this matter closed.”
A spokesman for Randox said: “Randox continues to reject the superficial and misleading conclusions drawn in the PAC report and the Dame Meg Hillier letter of October 20.
“Specifically, we take issue with the report’s partial conclusions regarding Randox’s performance, capabilities and profits, as well as the company’s supposed ‘non-engagement’ with the inquiry.
“We believe the process surrounding the conduct of the inquiry was flawed and in breach of natural justice.
“Such conduct left us with no choice but to seek fair representation of our position through legal engagement.
“Our lawyers continue to act to refute elements of the PAC report and of Dame Meg Hillier’s letter of October 20.”
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