£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.”

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    • Mark Watson

      You try going to Curry’s and asking for 380,000 laptops and see how far you get.

      The cheapest laptop Curry’s show online is £179, whilst the most expensive is £2,899. John Lewis laptops go up to £3,199. So yes, you can get cheap laptops but would they be suitable for school use? Would they be robust enough and last long enough to represent value for money. Would they have the software installed that the pupils would need, which presumably formed part of the contract and therefore part of the services provided by Computacenter? Setting up an operation to buy, set up and distribute hundreds of thousands of laptops across the country is probably quite complicated. Once that was done for the original contract, the next 150,000 were ordered at a cost of £27m, which works out at a unit cost of £180.

      This over-simplified approach is or course meaningless. A far more pertinent question is asked by Jed Bland above. Given that over two hundred thousand of these laptops have been in use since at least June I find it disappointing that Schools Week don’t seem to have done any work in looking into the quality of what was provided.

  1. Mick Rice

    Computacenter supplied Laptops for students in the mid 2000’s, under a labour government.
    The latest round of laptops came with extensive security features that enables tracking and device protection, this all needs costing in.
    The laptops are fit for purpose with Windows 10 professional and a solid state drive.

    • It'sAMe!

      “The laptops are fit for purpose with Windows 10 professional and a solid state drive.”

      Evidently you haven’t been tasked with setting any of this kit up, because quite frankly they’re poor.

    • Presumably, as it’s their erm business, they would already have their supply chain and onboarding processes in place as isn’t that the point of going to a provider who is meant to be a subject matter expert(?). Surely the unit price goes down the more you buy. Of course this doesn’t factor in the delivery and implementation, what goes in to the build, software and imaging, access Control etc etc, but it’s still a lot considering the hardware as has been explained is just a glorified SD card and there are many sources on the virus issues and all of the other problems. Even if the delivery was perfect it’s still contracts for mates. That’s the key take away for me.

  2. Mark Watson

    I’m confused. You refer to “Computacenter Ltd”, but there is no such entity. Did you mean Computacenter PLC, or Computacenter (UK) Ltd, or perhaps one of the many other companies which include the word Computacenter?

    You refer to Computacenter being “an approved supplier within the Crown Commercial Service Framework”. 30 seconds of Googling and I can see that Computacenter (UK) Ltd is a supplier on all 4 lots of Framework RM6068 (Technology Products & Associated Services) which means that the Department could call off the supply of laptops in full compliance with all procurement regulations given that this is a framework agreement that has been established on the basis of a compliant competitive procurement process. Did you check and confirm whether the purchase of laptops was made under a CCS framework such as RM6068 or not?

  3. Reuben A

    I run a company that provides IT support to schools. Schools have the option of choosing an iPad, Chromebook, or PC Laptop for eligible pupils. The Chromebooks come with a licence to add to the schools existing G Suite network but the onus actually adding them to the network is on the school and therefore IT provider but with no additional budget for this additional work. Performance wise, however, the Chromebooks are fit for purpose to be honest.

    The PC Laptops are “GTech” Laptops. In my 15 years within the sector, these are possibly the worst laptops I have seen. Ever. They basically run off a glorified SD card. The scheme does offer to have them pre configured for student use. If a school want to handle configuration to ensure their software is installed, they are the most incompatible devices I have ever seen. I dont think I could be paid to find a worse laptop. I would fail. Miserably.

    • As a recipient of DSA equipment, whilst at university, I found it was cheaper to source my own equipment and claim the money back rather than use the companies who were employed to supply it, who were also a lot more expensive than the high street/online. It took a bit more work sourcing what was required but I was able to get higher specification equipment for less money than the IT company were charging and better value for money. These IT companies get bulk licenses for software, will no doubt pay less for buying in bulk and there will unlikely be VAT yo pay. A waste of taxpayers money and poor value for money.

  4. Having received some of these so called devices and can only agree with comments above not fit for purpose glorified sd card on the motherboard a mouse pad that’s like moving you’re finger on paper.

    A website that when you click support crashes, a website that when you click search crashes, a website that when you click driver download it crashes.

    Nuff said, I wouldn’t give one of these to anybody.