£96m laptop contracts went to Tory donor’s firm

A firm handed almost £100 million worth of contracts to supply laptops to disadvantaged children without an open tender was founded by a Tory donor. 

Computacenter Ltd was chosen by the Department for Education to deliver 230,000 laptops to vulnerable pupils after the Covid school lockdowns.

Private Eye revealed this week that the firm’s founder, Sir Philip Hulme, who remains a non-executive director and shareholder, has previously donated thousands to the Conservative Party.

During the run-up to the general election in November last year, Hulme’s wife, Janet Hulme, gave the party £100,000.

The government has been warned against using coronavirus as a “blank cheque” to avoid accountability after handing out £1 billion of state contracts without tender, with firms connected to the Conservatives scooping up millions.

The DfE also failed on its promise to deliver all the laptops to pupils by the end of June, falling nearly 30,000 short. The scheme was first announced in April.

Dr Mary Bousted, the National Education Union’s joint general secretary, said contracts should be based on “capability and capacity, rather than cronyism”.

“All these contracts must be awarded openly,” she added. “It’s public money and must be awarded to organisations that can deliver in the timescales required and to the scale that’s required.”

The DfE has handed Computacenter £96 million worth of contracts this year.

In April, it was awarded £60 million to provide 230,000 laptops to disadvantaged pupils with no access to equipment during the pandemic schools shutdown. 

It received a further £6.3 million in June to supply 4G wireless routers to these children.

The scheme came under fire after it was revealed 540,000 were actually eligible for the equipment – more than double the allocated amount. 

In August the DfE announced it would be providing an additional 150,000 free laptops to pupils who cannot attend school due to coronavirus, with Computacenter receiving a £27m contract to deliver this.

The firm declined to provide a comment when contacted by Schools Week. But it told Private Eye it is “very proud to have played a small role in this vital programme to support the educational needs of some the most disadvantaged young people” during the pandemic. 

Computacenter is a leading reseller of personal computers. It has a long history of delivering supply contracts across numerous government departments and is listed as an approved supplier within the Crown Commercial Service Framework. 

The DfE did not respond to a request for comment. But it’s likely the firm’s place on the crown framework was influential in it winning the contract, as it had already been through a competitive tendering process.

Edenred, the firm handed a contract worth up to £234 million to provide free school meal vouchers for the government, was also a crown supplier.

The government does not have to follow the usual tender rules because of the urgent need for services to respond to the coronavirus pandemic.

But this has led to criticism as companies linked to the Conservative Party have won contracts totalling millions.

One of those firms under scrutiny is Public First, a lobbying company founded by James Frayne and Rachel Wolf, who are both allies of Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings.

The firm has been given contracts of more than £1 million, that have not been tendered for, since the start of the pandemic. That includes £46,000 to provider “urgent communications support” to the embattled Ofqual following this year’s exams fiasco.Hulme set up Computacenter in 1981 and worked there full-time before stepping down as executive chairman in 2001.

He was knighted for his services to charity and technology in 2016.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “This contract was awarded based on the need for children and young people to receive the support they required as soon as possible. To suggest anything else is fundamentally untrue.”