Consultants Deloitte is being paid to help ministers draft parliamentary answers to defend the Test and Trace programme.
The responsibility forms part of many under the £323million worth of work Deloitte was drafted to do for the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) and the National Testing Programme.
Four different contracts show that Test and Trace has been using Deloitte for “general management consultancy services” ranging from building testing capacity to stockpiling and logistics oversight.
Buried within the contracts are details of help provided with PR and communications, including a requirement to “draft and respond to parliamentary questions, Freedom of Information requests, media queries and other reactive requests” and to “support lines to take and Q&A’s in anticipation of queries”.
Traditionally Whitehall civil servants draft answers to parliamentary questions from MPs, as well as statutory Freedom of Information requests.
Similarly, “lines to take” – often a defensive reaction to criticism of a particular policy – are normally drafted within government by officials.
Critics claimed that Deloitte could be “marking its own homework” when MPs asked questions about Test and Trace.
The system has been plagued with criticism after it was revealed there was “no clear evidence” £22 billion Test and Trace scheme helped curb case rates.
Test and Trace tsar Dido Harding was also forced to defend the use of consultants after it emerged some were being paid up to £1,000 a day.
Two of the contracts dug up have a clause that specifies a role for Deloitte in “communications” on so-called Pillar 4 of the testing programme, which covers blood and swab testing for national surveillance on the prevalence and spread of the virus, as well as the accuracy of home testing.
Several MPs, from Labour’s Stella Creasy to the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas, have submitted questions on Deloitte’s role in the testing programme.
Gemma Abbott, legal director of the Good Law Project, told HuffPost UK: “We have a government so addicted to outsourcing that it has even outsourced being held to account.
“If a member of the public submits an FOI request, or an MP asks a parliamentary question about the government spending millions on contracts with Deloitte, it seems that it’s Deloitte at the other end marking its own homework – it is beyond parody.
“Does anyone know where the Department for Deloitte ends and the Department for Health begins?”
Shadow health minister Justin Madders said: “When we are told the government can only afford a 1% pay rise for NHS staff the news that the Department for Health are spending hundreds of millions of pounds on private sector consultants to do work the department should be doing anyway will confirm to many just how out of touch this government is.
“There is no doubt the department has struggled in the last year but there can be no justification for what amounts to a part privatisation of the civil service. It also raises massive questions about conflicts of interest and a clear blurring of the lines between impartial civil service advice which should be paid for by the taxpayer and political activities which shouldn’t be.
“The taxpayer is footing a £300m bill for services that appear to include advice on how to ‘spin’ the media on the work of Test and Trace. No amount of cash can spin that failure into a success.”
A Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson said: “Setting up the largest diagnostics network in UK history, from scratch, was an unprecedented challenge that necessitated a dynamic public-private partnership that could work together in the national fight against Covid-19.
“Over 115 million tests have been conducted in the UK in total since testing began, which is more than any other comparable European country.
“The government employs contractors in the same vein that private businesses do and responsibility for answering parliamentary questions, freedom of information requests and media enquiries rests firmly with a team of civil service communications professionals within the Department of Health and Social Care. Every single response is subject to the highest levels of scrutiny to ensure they are both factual and detailed.”