NHS Digital, the provider of data and IT systems for England’s health service, has been accused of a potential conflict of interest after it paid 15 per cent of its budget in one year to Accenture, the consultancy where two of its board members previously worked.

NHS Digital awarded contracts worth £33m to Accenture in 2018-19 out of its total operating expenditure of £218m, according to its annual report. Around £18m of this is for the provision of NHS email services.

Noel Gordon, chair of NHS Digital until August 2020, and Daniel Benton, another non-executive director, are former senior employees of Accenture and also had shares in the consultancy firm, according to NHS Digital’s 2018-2019 accounts.

The family of Deborah Oakley, another non-executive at NHS Digital, is also listed as owning shares in Accenture, according to NHS Digital’s Declarations and Conflicts of Interest Register published on June 30, 2020 although she never worked at the consultancy. Oakley said the shares were held by her husband.

David Rowland, of the Centre for Health and Public Interest think-tank, said given the large amount of public funds that are paid by NHS Digital to Accenture, it is “concerning that there are a number of close links between the two organisations which give rise to potential conflicts of interest and opportunities for undue influence”.

The think-tank’s comments come as consulting firms face criticism for charging high fees for work during the pandemic, including on the government’s £37bn test and trace programme.

Accenture received 18 contracts related to the UK’s pandemic response worth £18.6m, according to contracts research firm Tussell. Accenture has won a total of 94 contracts worth £480m from public authorities in the UK since the start of 2016, Tussell’s data shows.

According to analysis by the CHPI, Accenture received an even greater share of NHS Digital’s budget last year. The think-tank estimated that £50.9m, nearly one-fifth of NHS Digital’s total operating expenditure of £224m excluding staff costs, in 2019-2020 was paid to the consultancy.

All three directors still had shares in Accenture as of June 30, 2020, according to the conflict of interest register, though NHS Digital does not disclose the value of the holdings.

Gordon was formerly global managing director of Accenture’s banking industry practice while Benton was Accenture’s global head of technology strategy and digital.

Benton said: “As a non-executive director I have played no part in any stage of the selection process and as such any allegations of a conflict of interest are completely unfounded.”

Oakley said: “As a non-executive director I have played no part in any stage of the selection process and as such any allegations of a conflict of interest are completely unfounded.”

Accenture has also been involved in other work for NHS Digital, including a “capability review” in 2017 which reported a major skills gap at NHS Digital and reliance on “out of date” technology. It also works on Secure Boundary, an NHS Digital cyber security programme, after winning a £40m contract for five years’ work in July 2019.

Accenture said: “Our contracts with NHS Digital were awarded following a competitive public tender process and we are proud of our work supporting major NHS projects including the delivery of Microsoft Teams during Covid and significant improvements to NHS Mail, Office 365 and cyber security services for all NHS users.”

NHS Digital said none of the individuals were directly involved in the procurement process or the decisions around awarding contracts to Accenture. “We are required to comply with public sector procurement rules and are committed to ensuring fair and open competition when awarding contracts. All individuals mentioned were transparent in declaring their interests with Accenture and this is published in our annual report.”

Noel Gordon did not respond to a request for comment.