Northern Ireland news

Co Antrim sweet firm awarded a multi-million pound PPE contract 'part of `VIP lane' for firms with political connections seeking contracts'

Clandeboye Agencies, registered on Companies House a dealing in `wholesale of sugar, chocolate and sugar confectionery" was awarded £108m in PPE contracts

A CO Antrim sweet manufacturer awarded a multi-million pound PPE contract has been identified in court as being part of a 'VIP lane' for firms with political connections seeking contracts.

Clandeboye Agencies, registered at Companies House as dealing in "wholesale of sugar, chocolate and sugar confectionery", was awarded £108m in PPE contracts.

A High Court judge has ordered Health Secretary Matt Hancock to hand over WhatsApp messages about the British government's PPE deals in relation to the controversial 'VIP lane'.

The government is defending a legal challenge from the Good Law Project how £650 million of contracts for NHS protective masks and gowns were handed to three companies.

On Thursday internal government documents produced in court revealed that along with clothing manufacturer Meller Designs, Luxe Lifestyle and P14 Medical the confectionery firm was in the VIP lane, receiving contracts worth more than £350m.

The government had claimed Clandeboye Agencies was not in the VIP lane.

Also facing scrutiny are Ayanda, which won a £252m contract negotiated by an adviser to government minister Liz Truss, and Pestfix which was awarded around £350m in contracts despite being described in government documents as a company "which specialises in pest control products, that was dormant in 2018".

Mrs Justice O'Farrell ordered a fresh trawl of internal communications over the contracts and for messages about the establishment of the VIP lane.

The court heard a WhatsApp group of 200 CEOs and a similar channel to senior procurement executives were used to spread information on upcoming PPE contracts.

Firms in the so-called VIP lane could expect a reply "within the hour", while companies without such connections received a delayed response or no reply at all.

The court was told civil servants warned they were "drowning" in VIP requests, with the priority lane "obstructing" viable offers of PPE.

The Department of Health has failed to reveal the names of the 47 firms in the VIP lane or which politicians promoted them.

Mrs Justice O'Farrell ruled the phones of seven key officials should be searched for messages relevant to the case, while also ordering a trawl for documents showing ministerial knowledge of "the establishment and criteria for selecting potential suppliers for the high-priority lane".

The government, which was ordered to pay the Good Law Project's costs for the application, denies that contracts were awarded unlawfully.

The full hearing will be on May 17.

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