Government Contracts: Covid-19 Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office

Government Contracts: Covid-19

Deidre Brock Excerpts
Monday 21st June 2021

(3 years, 1 month ago)

Westminster Hall
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Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock (Edinburgh North and Leith) (SNP)
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It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Fovargue. I thank the petitioners for signing this very important petition, which has led to this extremely important debate.

I will begin by mentioning a few of the Members who have spoken so far, particularly the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi). I commend her for a truly shocking start—shocking, in that she laid out for us a litany of what was, at very best, an overly relaxed approach from the UK Government to normal procurement processes. On behalf of the public, she asked where the money has gone, which is really key to the debate. She also asked whether the anti-corruption champion of the UK Government will take up this issue, but perhaps not. Perhaps it will be the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, but perhaps not. Perhaps it will be the Health Secretary or the Prime Minister. Trust in these politicians, I am afraid, is severely lacking. I loved the line that the hon. Member for Gower finished with: “Urgency is not an excuse for cronyism,” which is a statement I heartily endorse.

I note the contribution from the hon. Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway). I gently say to him that national emergency does not disqualify the Government from proper examination of what look to the public like questionable decisions over very large amounts of public money.

The hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) asked some excellent questions, in particular about the accountability of some of the private businesses that the Government have so hastily entered into contracts with. She mentioned the inappropriate connections between key players, as did the hon. Member for Gower, and called for an integrity and accountability executive, in particular in light of the UK Government’s apparent intention to have prosecution powers removed from the Electoral Commission.

Everyone recognises that governing in a pandemic is not the same as governing in calmer times. In such times, decisions need to be made that are well out of the ordinary. No one would argue that a normal procurement process would be appropriate or timely enough. Perhaps a case could be made that stocks of disposable items should have been higher or contracts should have been in place to secure additional stocks at short notice and at standard cost—those are likely to be issues that the inquiries after the pandemic will look at and make recommendations on—but we can still look at what happened, how the emergency aspects were handled and where the money went, because it is important. We should also be certain that the awarding of contracts was fair.

The terms of this petition are important, the action that the petitioners ask of us is equally important, and the responsibility of any elected politician to answer properly to the electorate is paramount. My own queries of the Government have been less than enlightening. Back in early September last year, I asked the Leader of the House for a debate in Government time on contracts awarded without tendering. I received no such commitment —perhaps you are not surprised to learn that, Ms McDonagh—but I did receive an assurance that did not reassure me: that it was through our “free press” and an “outspoken House of Commons” that we had

“such an honest and un-corrupt country”.—[Official Report, 3 September 2020; Vol. 679, c. 317.]

In March this year, I asked how much was paid out under the contracts in advance of delivery, how much had been clawed back for services or products not delivered and how much the Government were still to pursue in repayments. The Minister replying said that the Government were

“undertaking a stocktake and an audit.”—[Official Report, 9 March 2021; Vol. 690, c. 670.]

I will be pleased if the Minister updates us on the progress of that stocktake and audit.

Back in April, however, a written question of mine asked how many contracts were issued without tendering, what the total value of those contracts was, how many of those contracts required advance payments and how many times the supplier failed to fulfil the contract. I was told that 1,151 contracts, worth an estimated £19 billion, were published by 1 April, the majority of which were let using a direct award. I was told that a number—an unspecified number, but a number—of PPE contracts had advance payments, but that, since different teams within one Department handled different contracts, the information about performance and reclaiming money already laid out was not available and could be gathered only at disproportionate cost. It is interesting to see how costs become disproportionate sometimes, isn’t it? I also got a “disproportionate cost” answer when I asked for the diary of the executive chair of Test and Trace. Perhaps that diary uses a very complicated system.

We have all seen the documentary reportage, in which suppliers of PPE and other equipment spoke about being unable to get through to the Government to offer what they already had, while contracts were being handed out to all and sundry, including chocolate makers and companies that never existed before securing a contract. We heard of the VIP line for people recommended by Ministers. We read the stories of WhatsApp messages with pub landlords. We heard about equipment arriving that was not fit for use, and we heard plenty about shortages causing problems.

We do not need ministerial excuses. We do not need lame explanations or finger-pointing. We just need to know what went on and whether it was all above board, and we need an independent and unbiased review of it. That is why the Government should agree to this very specific inquiry, so that we can see what went on. Furthermore, the Government should be opening up the filing cabinets. Let us see the Cabinet minutes on covid and how decisions were made about securing adequate supplies of PPE, sanitiser, ventilators, drugs, beds for the pop-up hospitals and so on. Let us see the memos and the notes of phone calls made, the emails sent and the directions given to civil servants. Let us see all of that and compare it with what Ministers were told was needed and with what needed to be done to keep people safe and alive.

A disgruntled former employee has recently been dribbling out selected bits of conversations with the Prime Minister and other little snippets. I am sure that reporters have enjoyed covering that, but it is no way to do things. The bitter revenge of a man who proved inadequate does no one any good, so the Government should just do us all a favour: a commitment now to an inquiry into the covid contracts would be good. It should be a full inquiry by an outside source. The Government can make that a judge or an ex-judge, if they want—Lady Hale may well be available. Give her a wide remit and a support team of experts. Ask her to report as early as she can. Give her full access to all documentation and all the resources that she needs to do the job.

When this pandemic passes, it will be important that people can have confidence in their Government again. Scotland will be independent soon and it will not matter so much to us, but for the people of England it will matter a great deal. For once, this Government can do the right thing.

--- Later in debate ---
Julia Lopez Portrait Julia Lopez
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It is interesting to know that. The hon. Member for Gower mentioned the company Arco, and I appreciate her for raising that. It was raised by the MP for Arco’s constituency, the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy), in a Westminster Hall debate to which I referred earlier. If the hon. Member for Gower and I swapped seats, I wonder whether I would be suggesting that it was improper to put that forward. People were in very difficult circumstances; if she had been told that there was a company that could support the national effort, would she not have put it forward for review? We have to ask ourselves that question.

The focus on those early procurement challenges secured some tremendous successes under pressure. We have established one of the largest and most diversified vaccine portfolios in the world. We have ordered 32 billion items of PPE and provided more than 15,000 ventilators to the NHS. It is important that we do not obscure those achievements with some of the understandable concerns that have been raised about transparency. None of us wants to sit here answering questions about cronyism. The challenges I cited about the recording-keeping across Departments are real ones that we are trying very hard to address. I understand why people ask questions; I have asked many of them myself, and I have been reassured by the answers that I have received from officials.

Deidre Brock Portrait Deidre Brock
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The Minister at the time did not answer my questions about record-keeping between Departments and trying to establish costs that were being clawed back from contracts that had not worked out. Is the Minister suggesting that that is being worked on and that we will be able to ask those questions in future and get some understanding of where the Government have pursued costs that have been inappropriately awarded to companies that have not come up with the goods?

Julia Lopez Portrait Julia Lopez
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I believe there are cases where that is happening. I would have to go away and double-check, but I am happy to write to the hon. Lady.

We have always made it clear that there would be opportunities to look back and analyse, and to address some of the shortcomings that I have listed on all aspects of the pandemic. As hon. Members will know, the Prime Minister has confirmed that an inquiry will be established on a statutory basis, with full formal powers. That will begin work in spring 2021. As I said earlier, however, procurement during the pandemic has already been extensively reviewed, and Members will be familiar with the NAO report published in November, which I spoke about previously.