NHS Digital has denied a conflict of interest with consultancy firm Accenture following reports it spent 15% of its budget in one year with the company where two board members previously worked.

Noel Gordon and Daniel Benton, who both previously worked for Accenture, were members of NHS Digital’s board when the organisation spent £33 million with the firm.

Gordon was chair of NHS Digital until August 2020 while Benton remains a non-executive director.

NHS Digital awarded contracts worth £33m to Accenture in 2018/19, out of its total operating expenditure of £218m – totalling 15% of its budget.

Some £18m of this was spent on the NHSMail contract, according to the 2018/19 annual report and accounts.

Both Gordon and Benton held shares with Accenture at the time the contracts were awarded, the report states.

A further £50m was spent with the company in 2019/20, including £2.6m of capital commitments, according to that year’s annual report. The spending amounts to around 20% of NHS Digital’s total operating expenditure of nearly £224m in the same year.

NHS Digital said both Gordon and Benton declared their interest and had no direct role in awarding the contracts.

“All employees of NHS Digital regardless of contract type are required to comply with the Register of Interest policy. Where a conflict exists, we have processes in place to ensure employees are not involved in decision making processes,” a spokesperson said.

“None of the individuals mentioned had any direct involvement in the procurement process or in decisions around awarding contracts to Accenture.

“Our board members come from a range of backgrounds, including both clinical and within the technology and IT sector, and bring a wealth of relevant experience and expertise to the role.

“All individuals mentioned were transparent in declaring their interests with Accenture and this is published in our annual report.”

Gordon was formerly global managing director of banking industry practice at Accenture from 1996 until 2012. Benton was global head of technology and digital strategy practices at the firm.

In a statement provided by NHS Digital, Daniel 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.”

The potential conflicts, first reported by the Financial Times, raised alarm bells with the Centre for Health and Public Interest. David Rowland from the think-tank told the FT it was “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”.

Accenture has won a total of 94 contracts worth £480m from public authorities in the UK since the start of 2016, according to contracts research firm Tussell. One of their biggest contract awards, according to Tussell’s research, was a £48m contract with NHS Digital to deliver a security hub awarded in 2019.

NHS Digital said contracts for the NHSMail programme and cyber security service Secure Boundary, which Accenture provides, were awarded in open competition.

The NHSMail service was procured competitively through the Crown Commercial Service framework ‘Managed Email Services’ and awarded to Accenture in June 2015.

Secure Boundary which provides specialist cyber services to NHS organisations, was procured competitively via Crown Commercial Services ‘Technology Services 2 Framework’ and awarded in July 2019, according to information provided by NHS Digital.

“We are required to comply with public sector procurement rules and are committed to ensuring fair and open competition when awarding contracts.

NHS Digital works with a whole range of partners and suppliers from small SMEs to large multi-national organisations to design and deliver a range of systems which can provide the best possible service to the NHS and to deliver for healthcare workers and patients.

“Accenture is a leading technology supplier and has been successful in demonstrating value for money in NHS Digital tendering exercises along with many others.”

A spokesperson for 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.”