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A fellow Tory advising the government during the coronavirus pandemic helped a company secure £50m worth of PPE contracts after being introduced to the company by a fellow Tory, documents obtained by The Guardian show.
Andrew Feldman, former chairman of the Conservative Party, referred the company, SG Recruitment, to the “VIP lane” that prioritized companies with political connections, after the introduction of Lord Chadlington, a Tory peer for 26 years.
Chadlington, whose name is Peter Selwyn Gummer, had a financial interest in SG Recruitment as he was a director and shareholder in its parent company, Sumner Group Holdings, which is registered in Jersey.
Documents obtained by The Guardian through the Freedom of Information Act shed new light on how SG Recruitment obtained the £50m government contracts. There is increasing parliamentary scrutiny over the government’s decision to use a VIP lane to prioritize offers of personal protective equipment (PPE) during the pandemic, benefiting companies that were recommended by their Conservative peers and other politicians and officials.
Lord Feldman was involved with the Department of Health and Social Care in an unpaid advisory role in the early stages of the pandemic, working on the effort to fill dangerously low national stocks of PPE.
His referral of the company to the VIP lane followed an initial phone call on April 20, 2020 from the company’s CEO and ultimate owner, David Sumner, a UAE-based healthcare entrepreneur. Sumner mentioned in the call that Chadlington had provided him with Feldman’s email address.
Sumner then followed up his phone call and sent Feldman an email the next morning at 5:10 a.m. that included an offer to supply PPE from “our network of manufacturers” based in China, and attached a list of prices. His letter noted that: “Lord Chadlington currently sits on the board of [the parent company] SGH Global”.
Two hours later, before 7:30 a.m., Feldman forwarded Sumner’s email to DHSC officials and the department’s “Covid PPE Priority Screenings mailbox.”
Feldman told officials in his email: “An interesting offer from David Sumner, who was introduced to me by Lord Chadlington.”
DHSC officials then processed the offer as a high-priority VIP case. Companies referred to the VIP lane, which was operated on recommendations from parliamentarians, peers and other politically connected individuals, had a 10 times higher success rate for contract awards than those without VIP treatment, according to a subsequent Bureau report. National Audit. .
Within five days of Feldman sending Sumner’s offer to officials, on 26 April 2020, SG Recruitment was awarded a £23.9m government contract to supply coveralls. The second contract, for £26.1m to supply hand sanitiser, was awarded on 28 May 2020. Both contracts were awarded without inviting other companies to submit competitive bids as the government had suspended normal rules recruitment due to the pandemic emergency.
Before the pandemic, SG Recruitment was a small UK-registered subsidiary company with five employees, primarily involved in recruiting nurses to the NHS from countries abroad, including the Philippines and India.
The company also sought to fill vacancies for nurses and domestic workers in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Malaysia. In its financial accounts for the year before the DHSC awarded it the PPE contracts, SG Recruitment delivered less than £500,000 and recorded a loss of £700,000.
Financial accounts for the year covering contract awards appear to show that SG Recruitment, renamed Sumner Group Health Ltd, turned the previous year’s loss into a £1.1m profit. Sumner declined to say how much the company benefited from the contracts.
Feldman has said his role at the DHSC was to help find urgently needed health care supplies and equipment at a time of national crisis. A Feldman spokesperson said of his phone call with Sumner: “Andrew’s recollection is that during this call, David Sumner introduced himself, informed Andrew Feldman that Peter Chadlington had given him his department’s email address, and said he was going to to email him regarding the supply of PPE. This was the first time Andrew had spoken to David Sumner and had never met him.”
Feldman himself added: “The full scope of Peter Chadlington’s presentation was that he provided David Sumner with my DHSC email address. My only action in relation to David Sumner’s email was to forward it to the officials whose details had been provided to him for that purpose. After that, I had no further involvement in this matter.”
In November 2021, after the information commissioner forced DHSC to release a list of companies that have been awarded PPE contracts through the VIP lane and which politically connected individuals have recommended them, SG Recruitment was confirmed as one of the 51 companies on the list. The government stated that the references were made by Chadlington and Feldman.
A longtime donor and supporter of the Conservative Party, credited with advising Conservative Prime Ministers, Chadlington founded two major public relations firms during his business career. He was appointed a Conservative Member of the Lords in October 1996.
In July last year, Chadlington was cleared of lobbying for PPE contracts by the House of Lords standards commissioner, who is investigating whether his peers have breached the upper house’s code of conduct. The watchdog said: “There is no evidence to suggest that the fact that Lord Chadlington provided Mr Sumner with the email address played any role in the decision to award the two contracts to SG Recruitment UK.”
Chadlington said he had not referred SG Recruitment to the government to be included in the VIP lane, nor had he lobbied for the company. He said his only involvement was in giving Feldman’s official email address to Sumner.
He added: “During a global pandemic when the UK faced a crisis in the supply of PPE to save the lives of its citizens, the Secretary of State publicly called for help. So I was the president of a holding company that, through a subsidiary, had a background in healthcare and I suggested that this company could be of help.
“After making the presentation, I left the negotiation to the executive team to move forward.”
The DHSC and Sumner declined to comment when asked if there was a dispute over whether SG Recruitment delivered the material as ordered, citing commercial confidentiality. Sumner said: “The goods supplied were fit for purpose and…all required certificates have now been provided.”
A DHSC source said of the VIP lane: “Offers of support via the high-priority list were subject to the same rigorous checks and robust assurance processes as all other procurement lanes and ministers did not and do not have any role in awarding contracts.