Revealed: Who Profited From The Government’s Coronavirus Spending Boom

Country/area: United Kingdom

Organisation: HuffPost UK

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 19 Aug 2020

Credit: Emma Youle

Project description:

Emma Youle’s work for HuffPost UK this year has focused on anti-corruption and investigative reporting, particularly holding the government to account over Covid-19 spending. In this investigation, Emma revealed significant new information about deals done by the UK government to buy personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing equipment. She exposed details of huge contracts being handed to dormant companies – and one £186m PPE deal awarded to a firm whose multi-millionaire owner is listed as a speaker for an influential pro-Brexit lobby group associated with cabinet ministers in the UK.

Impact reached:

Emma’s rigorous reporting exposed allegations of cronyism and a lack of government transparency, and prompted demands for a public inquiry into the UK government’s spending under emergency Covid-19 procurement powers. This investigation revealed previously hidden information about one of the most significant areas of public spending for decades, placing scrutiny on the government. The story led Apple News’ coveted top story spot and had among the highest readership figures seen by HuffPost UK for an investigation of this type: almost 750,000 page views.

Emma preceded this investigation with exclusive reports about the secrecy she encountered around government spending on the UK’s temporary Nightingale hospitals. Influential watchdog the Public Accounts Committee has since criticised the government over this lack of transparency, vindicating Emma’s work. 

A High Court legal case is currently underway in the UK challenging the government over its alleged repeated failure to publish details of these coronavirus-related contracts, collectively worth tens of billions of pounds. The case claims this failure was unlawful and in breach of the government’s own transparency rules.

Techniques/technologies used:

Emma initially submitted Freedom of Information requests to the UK government to try to obtain data about Covid-19 spending. Even though these contracts should be published within statutory deadlines, which had passed, the government refused these FOI requests. So, instead, Emma sought out and worked with an independent data provider to produce a dataset of deals done by the government under emergency Covid-19 procurement powers. These powers have proved very controversial in the UK, not least because of the lack of transparency surrounding this spending. 

The data provider, Tussell, aggregated data on government contracts from disparate sources through a mixture of web scraping and APIs. Its sources included Contracts Finder, OJEU, FTS, Public Contracts Scotland, Sell2Wales and over 70 local portals. Tussell then algorithmically matches data to company information and aggregates it into a clean, searchable dataset.

Emma worked with this dataset in MS Excel, using sort functions and pivot tables to identify trends such as which companies had received the highest spends. Emma then cross-referenced this data with other public sources to identify significant lines of reporting. 

What was the hardest part of this project?

Emma doggedly pursued details of these contracts but the data was difficult to obtain and took months of work. When the government refused FOIs, she approached an independent data provider who worked with HuffPost UK to reveal the billions in public money spent on PPE and testing. She then forensically cross-referenced the data with Companies House records, hospital trusts’ spending records, and other public information to identify deals that raised red flags.

The investigation focused on a very technical area of government procurement. Emma had identified there was a problem with public records and transparency about this spending during her earlier reporting about contracting for the Nightingale hospitals in the UK. 

For this earlier story, she persistently asked NHS England and the Department of Health and Social Care over many weeks to name the private contractors that built the Nightingales. As they stalled, Emma scoured public contracts databases but could find no record of the spending. She then challenged the failure to publish these contracts within statutory deadlines, highlighting that the government was potentially in breach of the law. 

Emma spoke with legal and procurement experts to better understand what information should be in the public domain and where the government was potentially in breach of the law. Once she had done this, she set about trying to establish how many contracts had been issued under these powers, which was the starting point for this broader investigation.

What can others learn from this project?

This investigation shines a spotlight on the scale of government spending during the coronavirus pandemic. It puts data into the public domain that other journalists can benefit from, with a searchable table of the Top 50 deals included in the article. But over and above this, the journalism highlights an area of government spending that continues to be a rich seam of reporting within the UK. Anger over alleged “cronyism” is still very much at the forefront of public concern around the UK government’s pandemic response.

The journalism also shows tenacity and persistence in seeking out data from alternative sources if it is not being made available by governments. And finally, Emma places this spending data in context, clearly highlighting why some deals are controversial, identifying trends within the data but also comparing these huge deals to other areas of public spending so that the multi-million pound figures hold context for the reader.

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