Shock news: government hires lawyers, honours contracts

One of the more delightful moments, any time the government releases a new tranche of spending data, is watching people try to find nuggets of Terrifyingly Embarrassing Information in it. Normally, this is silly contracted “team-building exercises”, or purchases of potted plants, and so on, but this non-story is particularly creative:

The Cabinet Office has denied claims of conflict of interest after it emerged that the law firm where the deputy prime minster’s wife works has a long-standing contract with the government department.
(…)
The Cabinet Office insisted that Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, signs off the department’s contracts, not Clegg. Dur├íntez is not believed to be involved in the compliance monitoring work that DLA Piper carries out for the department.

DLA Piper, in fact, are contracted by four government departments (mostly for more money than this), which is somewhat to be expected, given they are also one of the largest law firms in the country. Still, there are critics:

Tom Watson, a former Cabinet Office minister, criticised the deal. He told the Daily Mail: “Apart from the potential conflict of interest between the husband and wife here, I think the contract should be reviewed, not least because they have not been doing a very good job, with the vanity staff appointments over the last six weeks.”

Okay, I guess, if you look hard, there is a germ of a story there. I mean, you can sort of see there’s a possible COI given she’s a partner and thus stands to (indirectly) benefit, and they’ve been hiring people oddly recently, and so on. So what’s the details of the contract?

A [Cabinet Office] spokesman said: “The contract was subject to full competitive tendering. It started in April 2008 and runs for four years with two annual options to extend. The two payments relate to monitoring of compliance by government departments with civil service recruitment procedures.”

Oh. 2008. All things considered, in 2008, had you asked someone at the Cabinet Office if they were concerned about awarding a contract which might conceivably pose a conflict of interest it it later happened that the leader of the Lib Dems were to be involved… well, I suspect it’d not have been taken very seriously.

So, to recap: Tom Watson, former Parliamentary Secretary at the Cabinet Office, thinks the government should renegotiate a contract which was allocated by his department during his time in office, because – in an unexpected chain of events – someone in the receiving company is now related to someone in the government, though neither are actually responsible for approving or performing the contract.

All of which, it need not be said by this point, was tendered, selected, and contracted for legitimately, as arms-length from Dur├íntez as can be imagined – unless we are going to argue that whilst in opposition, Clegg had somehow subverted a minister to rig a contract on behalf of his wife. And if we do, then we should focus on bigger problems, because the responsible minister in the Cabinet Office at the time, who this theory would have as his partner in conspiracy, was one Ed Miliband.

As an example of dubious business practices, I suspect this one falls down on almost every count imaginable. Perhaps I am naive, but looking at the papers this week, I thought we had bigger issues to focus on than this sort of spurious silliness. The Coalition is making no end of decisions people can actually challenge for real reasons – why waste time waving around something that is patently above-board when there’s so much else out there?

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