Last week, as Britain achieved the world’s highest Covid infection rate, it was reported that the government is paying its test and trace consultants an average of £1,000 per day. A sizeable proportion of those consultants are bought in from one company: Deloitte.
Lord Bethell, the unelected government minister in charge of test and trace, has overseen the award of multiple key Covid-19 contracts to Deloitte. In fact, before becoming a minister, Bethell ran a lobbying company which represented Deloitte as they won over £700 million worth of government contracts on a poorly-performing and much-criticised scheme.
His move from lobbying for Deloitte to a minister in charge of commissioning Deloitte underlines the worry many feel about this government: that it is far too close to the companies it rewards with contracts.
The Deloitte Administration
It’s well-documented that this government has turned to private corporations, rather than health or local authorities, to run the anti-virus strategy. Deloitte—better known for its accountancy and management consultancy than for public health—has been central to these plans.
The government still has not published details of many of the contracts it has handed out during this period, so we do not know the full value of the profits Deloitte has made from the national Covid-19 strategy – but we do know that it’s deeply embedded. According to a Freedom of Information request, Deloitte has 1,127 consultants working on test and trace. That’s the size of a small government department, inside an actual government department, and made up entirely of outsourced consultants.
Deloitte was central to the creation of test and trace. It managed the creation of the drive-through Covid-19 test sites and the Lighthouse Laboratories testing facilities; it also supported the government’s drive to purchase huge quantities of PPE at the start of the pandemic. The company itself says it is ‘incredibly proud’ of its role, because what it calls the ‘success’ of the test and trace programme has been down to ‘the powerful partnership between businesses and government.’
James Bethell was made a Lord in July 2018, and a health minister in March 2020. Official records show that Bethell reached out to Deloitte at the start of the crisis. In March 2020, he held 15 ‘ministerial meetings’ with corporations, the majority being drug firms like AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline, to discuss testing. Of these 15, two were with Deloitte to work out Covid-19 strategy.
Back in 2009, Bethell founded Westbourne Communications, his own lobbying company. His experience as a Tory parliamentary candidate and an employee of the Policy Exchange think tank meant he could promise to bring his ‘considerable network in Westminster’ to any potential clients: of these, Deloitte was one of the first.
According to Westbourne’s earliest entry on the (voluntary) register of lobbying firms, two of Westbourne’s nine clients since 2011 have been Deloitte companies. One was Deloitte itself; the other was a company called Ingeus, which Deloitte has 50 percent owned since 2011. It bought Ingeus specifically to bid for contracts on new government Work Programme schemes for the unemployed launched by Chris Grayling. Ingeus-Deloitte became the biggest Work Programme firm, with seven contracts worth around £700 million.
After the government reduced their Work Programme fees in 2014, Deloitte departed from Ingeus, selling their 50 percent share. Westbourne Communications represented Ingeus until 2018, when Bethell sold the firm and entered the House of Lords.
The Work Programme
It’s clear that the company had access to government ministers. Government records show that in 2013, then-employment minister Mark Hoban met with Westbourne Communications to discuss the Work Programme. It’s likely that Bethell was himself meeting Hoban to discuss the programme on behalf of his client, Ingeus-Deloitte, but the DWP say that all records of the meeting have been ‘destroyed in line with the DWP Information Management Policy’.
The Work Programme was supposed to be what Deloitte called a ‘new approach to back-to-work support with innovation and sustainability at its heart’. Work coaching services would be provided on a ‘ground-breaking ‘payment-by-results’ model’.
However, the programme was met with heavy criticism, and added to Grayling’s reputation for launching poorly performing schemes. The National Audit Office (NAO), which watches spending on behalf of the government, said that the programme had a ‘poor start’ and ‘struggled to improve outcomes’ for the most disadvantaged unemployed people, while MPs said that contractors like Ingeus-Deloitte concentrated on the easiest cases to make more money with less effort.
In his current role, Bethell is already at the centre of two other controversies. Late last year, openDemocracy revealed that the former Tory chairman and current corporate lobbyist Lord Feldman was made an ‘unofficial’ advisor to Bethell; it was also reported in the Sunday Times that Portland Communications chair George Pascoe-Watson had worked with Bethell on test and trace.
Bethell’s shift from fighting for Deloitte as a lobbyist to commissioning them as a minister is a crystal-clear example of the very porous walls between corporate lobbying and this current government. As a lobbyist, he helped Deloitte as they ran a heavily-criticised, privatised response to unemployment; now, as a minister, he has enlisted Deloitte to run a heavily-criticised, privatised response to a global pandemic.
Recently, Gordon Brown has warned that unless Britain’s governance systems are subject to quick and radical reform we’re at risk of becoming a ‘failed state’. With profiteers accessing the heart of our government to pocket millions in exchange for ineffective public services, trust in government at its lowest in decades, and 100,000 people dead, it’s hard not to feel like we’re already there.