There should be a public inquiry into Government contracts granted during Covid-19. Many contracts have been granted without full and open procurement processes. A public inquiry would be able to ascertain whether contracts had been procured fairly and represent value for money for tax payers.
1. Hold a public inquiry into Government contracts granted during Covid-19
20/06/2020 - Petitions
Found: should be a public inquiry into Government contracts granted during Covid-19. Many contracts have been
2. Report - Investigation into government procurement during the COVID-19 pandemic
18/11/2020 - National Audit Office
Found: Cabinet Of˜ce
Investigation into government
procurement during the
3. Summary - Investigation into government procurement during the COVID-19 pandemic
18/11/2020 - National Audit Office
Found: Cabinet Of˜ce
Investigation into government
procurement during the
- Phase One Delivery Plan
5. Written Evidence: Michael Bowsher QC (TB18)
26/06/2020 - Bill Documents
concerns the processes for procurement of
1. Government Contracts: Covid-19
21/06/2021 - Westminster Hall
1: e-petition 328408, relating to Government contracts during the covid-19 outbreak.It is an honour - Speech Link
2. Covid-19: NAO Report on Government Procurement
09/12/2020 - Westminster Hall
1: report on Investigation into government procurement during the covid-19 pandemic.It is a pleasure - Speech Link
2: Audit Office highlights as being wrong with procurement in this crisis? This is a missed opportunity - Speech Link
3: allow interventions that long in future. There are many people on the call list, and it is not fair to them - Speech Link
3. Covid-19: Contracts and Public Inquiry
07/07/2021 - Commons Chamber
1: That this House believes the Government has failed to give full details of the process behind the - Speech Link
2: country’s newspapers are full of headlines saying that Scotland is becoming the covid capital of Europe. Who - Speech Link
4. Ministerial Code
26/04/2021 - Commons Chamber
1: behaviour expected of all those who serve in government. It provides guidance to Ministers on how they - Speech Link
2: please, it is not my decision, but the decision of Public Health England that we should be wearing masks - Speech Link
3: taxpayer money and no actual or perceived conflicts of interest. The precious principles of public life enshrined - Speech Link
5. Business of the House
19/11/2020 - Commons Chamber
You may be interested in these active petitions
[Yvonne Fovargue in the Chair]
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I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 328408, relating to Government contracts during the covid-19 outbreak.
It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Ms Fovargue. Some £31.2 billion has been spent on contracts in response to the outbreak of covid-19. It might be more now, but that was the figure I found last week. Anyway, what is a couple of million quid between mates? I say “between mates”, as a huge amount of money has been channelled into lining the pockets of the pals of the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—the right hon. Member for North Shropshire (Mr Paterson)—the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the Prime Minister’s former adviser Dominic Cummings and others. I have been an MP for slightly more than four years now, and I am slightly disappointed that I have had nothing offered to me. I do not move in those circles, unfortunately—or, fortunately.
When researching for this debate, I uncovered some great investigative work. I am grateful to all the journalists, lawyers and campaigners who have shed some light on the deals that have been struck over the past 17 months or so. I encourage people who want to know more about what is going on to look at the Good Law Project website or Sophie Hill’s My Little Crony project.
Transparency International has produced a scathing report about the state of procurement during the pandemic response. I quote its findings when I say that the evidence shows that the UK’s procurement response to the pandemic was beset by
“opaque and uncompetitive contracting…a suspiciously high number of awards to those with political connections…the system designed to triage offers of PPE supplies appears partisan and riven with systemic bias.”
I thank the petition creators and its signatories, who have enabled this debate to be held in Parliament. Those campaigners have shed some light on the contracts that have been awarded by the Government, and I would like to give a short taste of what has been happening behind closed doors while our frontline workers have battled to keep us safe from the disease.
First, there is the £560,000 to Public First, a communications agency run by old mates of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office and Dominic Cummings. The High Court ruled that the contract was unlawful and tainted by “apparent bias”. Samir Jassal, former No. 10 adviser to David Cameron and twice a parliamentary candidate for the Conservatives, was handed a £102.6 million contract for personal protective equipment. To be fair, at least the company in this case, Pharmaceuticals Direct, seems to have a history in providing medical equipment, given its appropriate name. However, the contract was again awarded without tender. What is more, even after the Prime Minister insisted in the main Chamber that all covid contracts were on the record, no details of that one were revealed until after the Good Law Project wrote to the Government about it. They were nine months late in providing those details.
A contract for nearly half a billion pounds was given to Randox with no tendering process. In fact, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire, who was paid £100,000 a year by Randox, was party to a call to the Health Minister in the other place, Lord Bethell, when the contract was extended. That extension came after 750,000 tests had to be recalled because they were not sterile.
There was also a contract with a jeweller. One part of the reported £250 million-worth of contracts is most interesting—namely, the £70.5 million contract to buy sterile gowns, almost all of which could not be used because the contract did not request the double packaging used in sterile settings. The jeweller, Michael Saiger, based in Florida, used a middleman to arrange logistics, and he earned over $16 million from the deal. Again, the contract was published unlawfully late.
A £425 million contract was handed to Edenred to supply free school meals, again without a tendering process. This is a company that the National Audit Office said showed “limited evidence” of its capacity to deliver meals to children in need. In fact, the families who waited nearly a week to receive vouchers would probably say that there was absolutely no evidence that it could deliver meals.
Sticking with school meals, will the Minister confirm whether any due diligence was carried out before a contract was signed with Chartwells to provide those meals? A quick search might have raised some questions even before a food parcel of a few pieces of fruit, a tin of beans, two carrots, a malt loaf, a block of cheese and a loaf of bread were delivered. I know it is difficult for some people to imagine having to survive on such meagre rations, but when some are able to secure contracts and cushy jobs, I cannot imagine they will want for much at all.
The head of Test and Trace for the UK, Baroness Harding, a chum of David Cameron, has overseen much of the maligned scheme, which has so far cost £37 billion. That is enough for five Mars Rover missions, which is incredible. Where has the money gone? Well, we have been paying thousands of private sector consultants, most on well over £1,000 a day and some even over £6,000 a day. The Public Accounts Committee was pretty scathing in its assessment of the whole thing and found that the system does not seem to have made much of a difference to the spread of covid-19.
Some people might want to raise the issue of apparently cosy contracts, the lack of a tendering process and the inability to declare contracts, but who would they turn to? Perhaps they could approach the Government’s own anti-corruption champion, the hon. Member for Weston-super-Mare (John Penrose), although he might not be open to receiving complaints as he is married to Baroness Harding.
We all know that the Minister who has come to defend the Government against such claims is part of the Cabinet Office scene, and we know that her boss, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, is at the centre of many of these dodgy, questionable deals. I expect we will hear the same old lines trotted out: “We were in a crisis and we needed things delivered quickly. The Government will do whatever it takes. The Government have nothing to hide,” and so on. We all know that we were in the middle of a crisis. We were there, too, and no one would ever say that we did not need to respond quickly to plug the gaps left by the Government’s woeful underfunding of the NHS and social care sector, but the public have a right to question the validity of giving hundreds of millions of pounds of public money to shipping companies with no ships, PPE manufacturers who do not make anything, and a pub landlord who happens to know the Health and Social Care Secretary. People deserve to know whether they have got value for money. They need to know whether we can recoup some of the money we have spent on useless PPE.
These are serious matters that just cannot be brushed aside by the Minister. She needs to ask herself some very serious questions before parroting the lines given to her by her boss. Is she happy with the way in which the Government have spent the money of her constituents in Hornchurch and Upminster? Are they happy with it? Emergency demands urgency, but emergency is not an excuse for cronyism.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) on securing this important debate. I wish to make a declaration that family members, friends and constituents are employed by or have an interest in companies that carry out work for Government contracts.
On this occasion, I wish to speak about my constituent Samir Jassal, who is also a local councillor in Gravesham. The hon. Lady referred to the company, whose name I cannot remember—pharma something—but there is an absurd narrative that he got more than £100 million-worth of business because of links to the Conservative party. I know him quite well, and it is utterly preposterous to say that because he stood twice in unwinnable parliamentary seats, because he twice managed to get himself a photograph with David Cameron, because he twice managed to get himself a picture with Boris, because he once gave four thousand quid to the Gravesham Conservative Association, and because he is the councillor for Painters Ash, that somehow buys him calls from the Health Secretary, whose honour is also impugned in this. The idea that the Health Secretary rang him up because he had given four thousand quid and had a few photographs taken, with an, “Oi, mate—want to make a few hundred grand next week on PPE?” is utterly preposterous.
According to Trump, the CIA was scouring China at a time when this equipment was in globally short supply. There was global competition for this stuff. We all remember the hospitals and care homes in our constituencies screaming for this stuff. I remember getting a video from one of my friends, who is a nurse in the local hospital, showing a store cupboard and the sell-by dates of some of the PPE in there, which was a couple of years old—it did not actually matter, apparently. There was this awful tension. It was a ghastly situation. This was a national emergency and a time of huge global competition for the very same boxes of equipment sitting in Chinese warehouses or waiting to come off their production lines.
If we had just relied on the state sector or our existing suppliers, that equipment would have been shipped elsewhere in the world. Entrepreneurs such as Samir Jassal and the civil servants who worked with them are actually heroes, and the BBC, some hon. Members and the so-called Good Law Project should have the humility to accept that.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue, in this important debate, brought to us by my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) from the Petitions Committee.
Our constituents expect two things from Government procurement: first, for the Government to be careful with public funds; and secondly, for Ministers to undertake their duties honestly and with integrity. Sadly, those two requirements appear to be severely lacking in our current arrangements. The Government’s approach to contracting has been marred by waste, cronyism and a deep disrespect for our NHS heroes. They spent more than £22 billion—I believe my hon. Friend said it is £37 billion—on the Test and Trace system, which appears to make only a marginal difference, but only £3.50 a week extra on our nurses. They spent £7,000 a day on management consultants while withholding a much-needed pay increase for our NHS heroes. The values are all wrong.
The Government approach has lacked transparency from the start and, as the High Court ruled, they acted unlawfully on transparency and publishing contracts in a timely manner. The Prime Minister brushed off that suggestion, saying that the Government had published a few PPE contracts a fortnight late. Many contracts were not for personal protective equipment, but for management consultants and other services, and many remain unpublished. Some were published as late as 97 days after the recommended deadline.
The Prime Minister also said that the outstanding contracts were
“there on the record for everybody to see.”—[Official Report, 22 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 638.]
But it recently emerged in a court order that 100 contracts were still waiting to be published, one of which dated as far back as March 2020. The Government must take urgent action now to ramp up transparency rapidly and stop the huge waste to the public purse. They must publish the outstanding contracts and the companies in the VIP fast lane now. It is not good enough that people are able to write to a Minister in the House of Lords they happen to know in order to fast-track their company for a contract.
The emergency procurement powers should be wound down immediately, and money should be clawed back on contracts that have not delivered. If there is money to be clawed back, given that there appears to be largesse in Government, who are spraying money around on some of those contracts, instead of hiding the available money, why not make it available for staff who do not get sick pay and therefore cannot self-isolate, thereby spreading the virus? That would be a very good use of that money.
Recently, explosive emails were revealed about Public First, which had a strong connection with Mr Cummings and another member of staff from No. 10 Downing Street called Lee Cain. It appeared to be getting work to do focus groups. To the mind of my constituents, that is an utter waste of money at a crucial time when we should focus resources on our NHS. The High Court ruled that the Health Secretary acted unlawfully on transparency and publishing contracts on time. Those are damning revelations. I wonder whether the Minister will tell us what the medical regulator has said about the Health Secretary’s pub landlord, who won a lucrative contract after a WhatsApp message exchange but appeared to lack the relevant experience.
We need to do things differently. In the next minute I will conclude my remarks with what I think needs to be done. First, we need to re-examine whether the instinct to immediately contract out is, in fact, the best way to run public services. Surely we should have a properly funded health service to directly provide public services for our health service. Secondly, are our freedom of information requirements and practices sufficient to cope with the requirements on them? Are the private companies that are successfully awarded contracts subject to freedom of information requests? I do not believe that they are. We, as MPs, want to know the information. We want to know whether the money is being spend in a transparent way.
As a Parliament we need to demand that the Government make the UK a world leader in transparency again, which we used to be, by introducing a genuinely independent anti-corruption commissioner, which the hon. Member for Gower mentioned. An independent anti-corruption Minister should not be married to an individual who is in charge of an operational contract. That does not look right; it does not appear to be transparent, and that must be changed as soon as possible, regardless of who the individuals are. It is simply inappropriate for a spouse to purvey the corrupt or not corrupt practices of a Government.
Finally, we need to establish an integrity and ethics commission that will cover a number of different Government functions ranging from the Electoral Commission. I believe from reading the papers over the weekend that the Prime Minister wants to water down any provision to punish MPs who may be doing the wrong thing. That goes against what our constituents actually want. An integrity and ethics commission could lay out the Nolan principles, which appear to be being ignored, with individual MPs, Ministers or companies taking our contracts. We must have the highest standards in public service and public life. I thank you, Ms Fovargue, the Petitions Committee and every single petitioner who is watching this debate, for bringing this issue to our attention.
It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for leading this debate and, of course, everyone who took the time to sign the petition. The Government’s approach to procurement during the pandemic has been marred by rampant cronyism and huge wasting of taxpayers’ money. They have shown a consistent track record of handing out contracts to their mates and even breaking the law along the way. Although it was apparent that the Government had to procure large volumes of goods and services quickly to meet demand, that is no excuse for the serious levels of cronyism and corruption that are now becoming apparent.
The National Audit Office investigation into Government procurement showed that the Government awarded £18 billion of contracts, using emergency procurement regulations, to buy goods, services and works to support their response to the pandemic. Some £10.5 billion was awarded directly without any competition, and £6.7 billion was awarded directly to pre-approved suppliers, even though they were not necessarily pre-approved for the products that they were selling. Only £0.2 billion was awarded using a competitive process.
That approach to procurement naturally led to issues of quality. The 50 million face masks bought in April last year, for example, could not be used in the NHS because they did not meet its specifications. More than £2 billion-worth of those contracts were awarded to firms with links to the Tories, and Cabinet members personally intervened to help their associates win lucrative contracts.
Just under two weeks ago, the High Court ruled that the Minister for the Cabinet Office broke the law by acting with “apparent bias” when a £560,000 contract was awarded to Public First without the tender going out for competition. Public First was found by the High Court to be a company with close links to the Minister for the Cabinet Office and former No. 10 aide Dominic Cummings.
In February of this year, the Government’s legal department stated that the cost of defending that case reached £600,000. That was more than the original contract was worth in the first place. It is shocking that the Government used taxpayers’ money to cover up their own lawbreaking, while frontline workers were not adequately protected with the high-quality PPE that they needed, our NHS staff could not be afforded a decent pay rise, and the Government are managing to invest only 20p per child per day in their so-called catch-up plan.
I hope that the Minister will tell us the total amount of taxpayers’ money that has been spent by this Government to cover up the fact that they acted unlawfully in awarding that contract to Public First. Will she tell us what the Government are doing to recover the taxpayers’ money that was handed out to Public First?
The National Audit Office investigation into Government procurement also found specific examples of insufficient documentation being produced on key decisions or on how risks, such as perceived or actual conflicts of interest, were identified or managed. In addition, several contracts were awarded retrospectively or have not been published in a timely manner. The lack of adequate documentation meant that the National Audit Office was unable to give assurances that the Government had adequately mitigated the increased risks arising from emergency procurement or applied appropriate commercial practices in all cases.
There is no doubt that that has severely diminished public transparency and public confidence. We can see the public feelings from the number of people who have signed the petition. Does the Minister agree that the use of emergency procurement powers needs to be wound down, and that all contracts awarded using such powers must be published, with an assumption against redactions and in favour of uploading all contract documents? Let us be clear: none of this has happened in isolation. It is a case of the wealthy elite being given priority, to become wealthier from the pandemic. That is wrong on so many levels.
We know that an independent public inquiry will be held in spring 2022, with the exact scope of the review yet to be determined. Does the Minister agree that the Government’s approach to public procurement during the covid-19 pandemic must be explicitly examined as part of the public inquiry into the handling of the crisis? As the 127,000-strong petition states, there must be a public inquiry
“to ascertain whether contracts had been procured fairly and represent value for money for tax payers.”
The public have a right to know if their money was spent wisely and properly, and they have a right to wider scrutiny of the Government’s response to the pandemic.
I want to talk not just about contracts that have been awarded, but about contracts that have not—particularly contracts to UK manufacturers and the UK diagnostics sector. The Prime Minister repeatedly tells us he wants to build back better, to level up, to invest in global Britain and so on. However, with regard to lateral flow devices, the Government have signed an undisclosed contract, for an undisclosed sum of money, which I have been trying to get to the bottom of for some time, for Innova lateral flow test devices.
Back in November 2020, I was passed a copy of the test’s data sheet, of the type that comes with any medical device or product. It clearly states that these tests are unsuitable for asymptomatic subjects. In other words, we would be using them for a purpose for which they are neither designed nor licensed. I raised this with the deputy chief medical officer in a briefing on 17 November 2020, and I was assured that they had gone through validation. I was also promised a copy of the information that supported that validation, but it never arrived.
Later that month, in front of the Select Committee, I asked the Secretary of State about his media appearances in the weekend prior to that where he announced the use of lateral flow devices as being almost 100%—“99.6%”—accurate. I asked him about that because there were growing bodies of evidence and opinions in The British Medical Journal—not some rag that was subject to speculation—that these tests were unsuitable for the purposes for which they were about to be employed. I was seriously concerned because there was a possibility that not only would a false positive be incorrect, but a false negative would be incorrect. In-field data suggested that this could be as low as 50%. In other words, the test result was effectively the flip of a coin. It was no more or no less certain than that.
Over time, I have continued to explore this and have tried to hold the Secretary of State to account on this matter. I would reflect on one comment that was made in The BMJ at that time, which was that the Government’s approach to covid testing was an
“unevaluated, under designed and costly mess”.
The Secretary of State’s response to that was that his
“assessment of that description is that it is wrong.”
Fast forward to June this year, and the Food and Drug Administration of the United States—again, not some fly-by-night outfit—said that the covid test kits used in Britain fall under
“Class 1: A situation in which there is a reasonable probability that the use of or exposure to a violative product will cause serious adverse health consequences or death.”
The example I used with my staff to try and explain to them why I was so interested in this was quite simple. Using these tests as a gatekeeper for someone who then has a false negative to be allowed into a care home to visit a relative, allows that person, who may be asymptomatic and whose viral shedding it would be difficult to know about, to be among the most vulnerable people.
Accompanying that decision was footage, shown on the BBC, of a relative hugging and kissing their elderly parent in the day room of a care home full of other vulnerable people. I know the Government have tried to be as optimistic as possible throughout this pandemic, and in some respects I congratulate them on that, because it is important to lift the mood of the population at a difficult time. However, it is simply unacceptable to say that something provides reassurance when that is simply not the case.
I could go on to give various other examples, but this was no surprise to the Secretary of State or the chief medical officer. These points were raised repeatedly in the Select Committee. I raised them directly with the chief medical officer. I asked about the concerns, and he admitted that he was an expert in the use of lateral flow devices, but—this relates back to the point that I have just made—he also said:
“If what they are used for is to reduce risk, lateral flow tests have a very substantial benefit. If, on the other hand, they are used to increase risk, so that people start doing in a very risky way things they otherwise would not have done”—
such as going to a care home to visit a relative—
“it becomes a lot more complicated.”
In other words, the tests become quite deadly.
I could give lots of examples, but I have hit as many of the targets as I really want to. However, there are serious issues here, because there are UK providers that have been touted—not by the markets, but by Lord Bethell himself—as being in line for contracts and that are now, again, waiting for those contracts to be honoured. The Minister has announced today that those contracts will now be given to another Chinese provider, Orient Gene. There is something wrong. If the Government truly want to level up the country and expand global Britain, how can it be that Chinese providers of tests that the FDA says are deadly are continuing to be offered contracts, while UK providers are going empty-handed? There are a series of serious questions that need to be answered, and they need to be answered by the Government soon.
Why have the public been led to believe that the tests are reliable, when there have been serious doubts about their usefulness since at least November 2020? Why are the tests repackaged in the NHS branding, and what are the legal implications? Is the NHS taking ownership as the manufacturer? Why has the UK continued for a further two months to use tests that are deemed dangerous by the FDA? Why has there been an extension to the exceptional usage agreement, when we know they are deadly? It is absolutely crazy. Why are UK manufacturers of perfectly useful tests being sidelined for worthless tests?
I would also like to know when the contracts for the tests were signed. Were they signed before the Government knew that they were not licensed for the purpose for which they were going to be used? Who was the Minister who authorised that? These are very serious questions, and I would underline a point that was made by an earlier speaker: an anti-corruption tsar needs to be appointed. Someone needs to come in and have a very hard look at the Government’s action on contracting throughout this pandemic—not just at what has been awarded, but at what has not been awarded.
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.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Fovargue.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for leading this debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. Above all, I am thankful to all the people who signed the petition and to those who created it, because it means that, whether it is welcome or not, we must have this debate in the House, albeit on a Monday evening and in a small room. It should be happening on the Floor of the House of Commons, but the Government do not seem too keen to have it there, so we are having it here instead. Nevertheless, I thank all those who took the time to sign the petition, because this debate is not going away.
As my hon. Friend said, over 125,000 people have signed this e-petition, which shows the strength of feeling across the country about this issue. And those people signed it last year; if the petition had stayed open, we would have had a lot more signatures. That is because this situation did not stop when people were signing the petition; it has carried on and is carrying or now. There are questions to be answered.
Quite rightly, the British public do not like a cover-up. However, even the first response to this petition by the Government had to be sent back by the Petitions Committee —I thank the Committee for that—as the Government tried to dodge the question and did not really answer it. They had to resend in their homework; eventually, it was a bit better, but it is still not good enough.
Labour has been calling for months for this independent public inquiry into the Government’s handling of the covid pandemic, and the Government’s contracts must form a part of such an inquiry. That is what the public are asking for in this petition, and that is what we need to see. My hon. Friend eloquently outlined all the many different contracts about which there are questions to answer: contracts for PPE, contracts for free school meals and contracts for other things. We need to have an inquiry into all of them.
My hon. Friend the Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) was right to say that the public want the Government to be careful with money, they want to know how that money is being spent and they want to see the details published. There are key questions about Government appointments and standards of ethics that we want answered. I am sure these questions would be key recommendations of any inquiry.
My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) rightly went through the shocking costs of some of the contracts. They are not shocking in terms of their costs; this money needed to be spent urgently, to save lives. However, there was potential waste behind those contracts. There are also concerns that public confidence has been eroded because of the way that the contracting was carried out.
It is important to have an inquiry, because there are clearly questions to be answered, and lessons need to be learned rapidly. To be honest, I am concerned about leaving all those questions to the public inquiry. The questions about the contracting that is happening now need to be answered now. So a rapid-fire inquiry, which would also be part of the public inquiry, would be the best response to the questions being asked.
This is so important. Today could have been the day that has been termed “freedom day”. Who knows? With a correct track and trace contract, properly administered so that we could have confidence in it, we might not have had to rely only on the vaccine roll-out, which is impressive. Good test and trace could even have enabled us to have completed the opening-up today. That is how important this issue is.
The Government’s reply to the petition referred to the Boardman review, but that is not an independent and unbiased review, and just adds to the lack of transparency. It looks more and more as if the Conservatives are set on glossing over the cronyism in their ranks so that they can carry on as if nothing has happened. The Government have promised a covid inquiry “at the appropriate time”, but the appropriate time to look into these contracts is now. The next pandemic could arrive tomorrow: it is an ever-present threat, and the next one could be bigger and more deadly than covid. The Government cannot kick this inquiry down the road, because a moment of crisis is when our contracting should be better than normal, with higher standards than normal and more reliable than normal, not with more questions and more concerning, “given out to my mates” contracting.
The questions that I, many colleagues here and the public need answers to today are these. How did the urgent scramble to procure resources we needed to get us through the pandemic descend into corruption, waste, cronyism and secrecy? Why is this emergency contracting still going on? What has changed? Is anything better? It did not have to be this way; it should not have to be this way; and it cannot be this way when the next pandemic hits.
In the past 12 months, the Government have ordered £280 million of masks that did not meet the required standards. They have spent over £100 million on gowns without carrying out technical checks, and they could not be used. These were purchased by PestFix, a company that specialises in pest control products and that, by the Government’s own admission, was dormant in 2018 before being referred by the VIP channel. As the Good Law Project uncovered last month, officials at the Department of Health and Social Care were aware that PestFix’s agent may have been bribing officials in China. Most concerning of all, the Government have awarded almost £2 billion in covid contracts to friends and donors of the Conservative party.
The hon. Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) raised those points, and he said that there is nothing to see here, but I think he made a good argument for an inquiry.
I have no objection at all to an inquiry. I was just trying to point out how absolutely preposterous it is that one of the key pillars of this whole argument that there has somehow been corruption is that a bloke in Gravesend gives four grand to the Tory party, as well as the other things I listed, and suddenly has the Government giving multi-million-pound contracts.
But this is one of the main planks, and it just does not stack up. Do you really think Matt Hancock is going to give a £103 million contract to somebody because they were once a parliamentary candidate and they edged in in a picture with Boris? It is absurd, and it is one of your main planks.
The hon. Member has made my case for me. If there is nothing to see here, let us have an inquiry. Members of the public have signed this petition in their thousands because they do not have confidence in these contracts, and they want there to be an inquiry. If everything is above board and all was fine, we will find that out through the inquiry, but it is public concern that has brought us here today. There are questions to be answered, there is a pattern of cronyism that the public are seeing, and that is why an inquiry would be the right response.
It is not good enough for Ministers to say, “We needed these items urgently back in March”—no question there—“so stop complaining about how we did it.” Of course we needed them. Of course systems had to be used to get our NHS staff all the safety equipment they needed then and there, but all checks and balances did not need to go out of the window. Ministers should still check their family connections, and they should still register interests. The best companies should not be overlooked in favour of Tory party donors. These emergency systems should not still be in place so long after they were needed.
Last year, 126,000 people signed this petition, and yet we are still uncovering more issues like those they were concerned about. They are right to feel ignored, and a public inquiry would listen to their concerns. Only a few weeks ago, it emerged that the Home Secretary lobbied the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on behalf of a healthcare firm trying to get a Government contract. She wrote to him expressing disappointment that the Government had not bought face masks from a company that had links to someone she knew. That glaring and flagrant breach of the ministerial code needs to be investigated.
Then, of course, there are the hundreds of millions of pounds handed to Serco to run the national Test and Trace system. Some £37 billion was earmarked, and it is reported that £277 million has been signed by now. Why is there the discrepancy here? What were those contracts for? Where did they go to? Will we get money back for the contracts that were not delivered?
The Local Government Association found last year that local contact tracing systems have a 97.1% success rate at finding close contacts and advising them to self-isolate. That is considerably better than a centralised system, so although rushing to go to the private sector would in many cases have been the right thing to do, was it always the right thing to do? Incidentally, only last week, Serco upgraded its profit forecast by £15 million thanks to its Test and Trace work.
It is not just Opposition MPs making these points. Transparency International has identified 73 contracts worth more than £3.7 billion—equivalent to 20% of the covid-19 contracts signed between February and November 2020—that raised one or more flags for possible corruption. It concluded that there was a systematic bias towards those with connections to the party of Government in Westminster. It found that 72% of the covid-related contracts awarded in the sample period
“were reported after the 30 day legal deadline, £7.4 billion of which was reported over 100 days after the contract award.”
In comparison, it took the Ukrainian Government on average less than a day to publish information on 103,000 covid-19 contracts after they were awarded during the same period.
On that point, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster at least owes us a statement to Parliament setting out where the UK has not complied with its legal transparency obligations, how they are being rectified and how these issues will be prevented in the future. When the Minister comes to respond, she will no doubt tell us that the Government and markets faced unprecedented global demand for PPE, and that in a short space of time the Government procured billions of items of PPE. That just does not wash anymore, which is why the public wanted this debate. The months preceding the first lockdown are a sorry tale of complacency and missed opportunities, leading to the scramble for PPE. There should never have been a shortage in the first place.
We need an inquiry to answer questions about what happened and to make strong recommendations about what to put in place in the future. It should assess the performance of companies that went through the emergency contracting procedures, such as Ayanda, Randox and PestFix, which other Members mentioned. It should speak to the companies affected and to the CEO of the UK Fashion and Textile Association, which represents 2,500 companies and first engaged with the Government on 18 March 2020. He said that the domestic procurement operation had been slow to grind into gear and failed to tap into industry expertise. Companies waiting to deliver the much-needed PPE were overlooked.
An inquiry must look into why the Government sidelined companies such as Arco, which had extensive experience of providing health-grade PPE prior to the pandemic. It provided PPE during Ebola, swine flu, avian flu and foot and mouth, but it secured only £14 million-worth of contracts over the past year during the pandemic. It could have fulfilled far more, and it is at a loss as to why it did not get into the VIP lane.
It will no doubt be argued in a moment that the VIP lane was a perfectly reasonable, rational solution to the mass of offers to supply equipment at the start of the pandemic. However, the opposite was true. We have seen evidence presented in recent High Court hearings showing emails in which civil servants raised the alarm that they were drowning in VIP requests from political connections that did not have the correct certification or did not pass due diligence. For us as outsiders, it does not seem that the VIP lane worked. It should not be used in any future emergency contracting and should not be used in a future crisis, but an inquiry would tell us more and give us those recommendations.
As the Good Law Project puts it:
“This is the cost of cronyism—good administration suffers, efficient buying of PPE suffers.”
I, Members here, the British public and the petitioners want answers from the Minister on four key questions. Will there be a rapid-fire inquiry and will the covid contracts be part of the major covid inquiry? Secondly, what is her Department doing to claw back the cash from companies that provided the Government with millions of items of unsafe, unusable PPE at a time of unprecedented national crisis? What options do the Government have in the contracts—we cannot see them—in terms of clawback? It is important that we know.
Thirdly, will the Government finally, as the Opposition have been demanding for months, deliver full transparency on the VIP lane, including publishing the names of the companies awarded the contracts via the channel and who made referrals to it? Were there any conflicts of interest to be identified and addressed? It is important to know, otherwise the information will just keep dripping out bit by bit and we will find out partially what is going on. If there is nothing to see here, open up the light and let us know.
Finally, will the Minister commit her Department to auditing in detail all the contracts that have raised red flags and to publishing the outcomes of the audit? Given that her Department is formally responsible for improving transparency and ensuring better procurement across Government, we expect the Cabinet Office to take responsibility for what happened, to learn the lessons so that this never happens again, and to ensure that, if there is a future crisis, we have the best contracting facilities for the best companies to deliver what we need immediately. That is what the British public want to know.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue. I thank all hon. Members who have taken part in this evening’s e-petition debate for their valuable contributions. I also thank the petitioners for initiating it. The public are absolutely right to demand that we spend money with care when we procure vital goods, services and works; I agree with the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) and others on that. I have always set out to be open about the challenges that the Government had to navigate at the height of the pandemic in procuring goods and services in the most urgent of situations. We were required to move at great speed and in an incredibly complex operating environment.
I was on maternity leave in the first half of 2020 as covid took hold, so I began my ministerial role only this time last year. My time in office in relation to procurement, therefore, has been spent not only going back to understand what happened during the early stages of the pandemic, particularly in relation to PPE, but on how we can improve our future response to urgent challenges. I want to assure hon. Members that a huge amount of work is either under way or already completed, which should reassure members of the public who would like an inquiry. I agree with the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson) that we do not want to wait to learn lessons.
The work includes an external, independent and unbiased review by the National Audit Office, two internal Cabinet Office reviews that have now been published, the commitment to a public inquiry into covid that starts next spring, and—of particular interest—a new procurement Bill that my ministerial colleague Lord Agnew and I are drafting, which will provide commercial teams with many more extensive options in a crisis between direct award, which raises understandable transparency concerns, and full-fat procurement, which takes far too long to turn around. The fastest turnaround under the dynamic purchasing system is six to eight weeks to contract award, and on an accelerated basis the very quickest possible process would be two weeks. But that would assume that all bid documentation was in place at the start, so it can be seen that in urgent situations this presents a real challenge.
On that first aspect of my work, I stood in Westminster Hall last year and shared a candid account of my findings for the House, particularly in relation to the procurement of PPE, a subject raised this evening by the hon. Members for Gower, for Hornsey and Wood Green (Catherine West) and for Jarrow (Kate Osborne). Those matters have been scrutinised by this House in many other forums. I will go over some of that context again because it is incredibly important to understand the actual challenges that were faced. I am afraid I cannot address all of the other items raised, particularly in relation to some of the education contracts, because I have not personally investigated those, but, as I described at that time, from conversations with officials, the Government had to work at pace in a very competitive international market to secure unprecedented volumes of essential supplies in order to protect frontline workers. That required a colossal upscaling effort.
Some 450 people from across Government were moved into the Department of Health and Social Care to become a stand-up virtual team to assist with securing PPE. That team is normally only 21 people strong. In many ways, this was a really impressive feat, with a hell of a lot of people who did not know each other working remotely on a range of different IT systems. We all assume that the Government are one entity, but Departments work in very different ways, often with different IT systems. It can be difficult to move people around the system and to make those systems compatible with each other. They were dealing with a product they were not familiar with in a very highly pressured market. That led to lags in contract publication, as paperwork has been very tricky to join up across systems. That issue was raised by the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock).
Facing exceptional levels of global demand, the usual vendors in China who service the NHS’s central procurement function very quickly ran out of supply, and the world descended on a few factories in that country to bid for available items. In that market context, the Government needed to procure with extreme urgency, often through direct award of contracts, or risk missing out on vital supplies. I pay tribute to officials for what they achieved, because it was quite remarkable in the circumstances. The Government never ripped up procurement rules. Regulation 32(2)(c) of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015, which predates the pandemic, explicitly allows for emergency procedures, including direct award. In a situation of genuine crisis and extreme urgency where offers had to be accepted or rejected in a matter of hours or days, it simply was not viable to run the usual procurement timescales, even by taking advantage of accelerated processes.
There was concern about the level of PPE that might be required to deal with covid. The Prime Minister put out a call to action, as many Members will recall. With huge commitment and energy, the British public and business responded. But that also meant that, in very short order, commercial teams were dealing with more than 15,000 offers of help. Frankly, leads were coming in much faster than they could be processed. When they were rejected, or if they were delayed, people started chasing through their MPs. To manage that influx of offers, a separate mailbox was set up to handle this area of work, and to sift credible offers.
The most important thing to note is that all PPE offers, no matter from where they came, went through the same eight-stage checks. The PPE team compared prices to those obtained in the previous two weeks, to benchmark the competitiveness of those offers. Separate approval and additional justification were required for any offers that were not within 25% of an average considered for possible approval. It is also important to note that of the 493 offers that came through that priority mailbox, I understand that only 47 were taken forward—in other words, 90% were rejected. My hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) highlighted the absurdity of some of the claims of impropriety being made.
On Samir Jassal, the supposedly important pillar of corruption, I remember running into him and him telling me that he had offered some PPE, when we were screaming for it. I think he had spent over a month being triaged to see whether it was suitable stuff. This is really preposterous.
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.
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?
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.
I would like to ask for the Minister’s view on whether there is a perceived or actual impropriety in the way some of the contracts have been handled. I will read you the information that has just come out from the Good Law Project:
“Uniserve Limited is a logistics firm controlled by Iain Liddell. Prior to the pandemic, the firm had no experience in supplying PPE, yet the firm landed a staggering £300m+ in PPE contracts from the DHSC and an eye-watering £572m deal to provide freight services for the supply of PPE. The company shares the same address as Cabinet Minister Julia Lopez MP and is based in her constituency.”
Does that not give you a sense that there might be something in this? The whole issue around conflict of interest is not whether it is real, but whether a member of the public might assume that there is a concern.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s raising that contract, because it has been a challenge to me as a Minister. As I said earlier, I began this role only in June 2020. I had not been allocated a private office, and I had not been given a portfolio. Then I found myself in a procurement role, and questions are being asked about the company from which I rent a constituency office. As I say, I was not actually in post at the time that that was being decided. The challenge is that questions have been raised that I cannot fully address, because I do not have all the information. I was not party to the contract, so it is a considerable challenge. It is something that my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham also raised.
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s concern about perception, but it should actually be about fact. I am happy to address any concerns that he has. I find it extremely challenging to have people raising questions about my integrity in this space, when I do not feel that I have done anything improper. I am happy to get back to him on any questions that he might have, which I have also tried to address in other forums.
We have made it clear that there are opportunities to come back, analyse the situation and conduct reviews. Government procurement during the pandemic has already been extensively looked into by the National Audit Office. The report recognises that the Government needed to act with extreme urgency. The NAO found no irregularities and potential conflicts of interest involving Ministers in the awarding of contracts. The report underlined the importance of transparency in the Government’s procurement activity.
The Government take such matters extremely seriously, and we remain committed to continually improve our processes. To that end, as I mentioned earlier, we have had two independent expert reviews carried out by Nigel Boardman. They were initially internal reviews, but we have published them fully. In the first, he focused on a small number of contracts in the Government Communication Service and made 28 recommendations, 24 of which have already been implemented. The remaining four will be met by the end of the calendar year.
I have been tracking progress on this issue, including the publication of contracts, very closely. Better training of contract managers and commercial and communications staff has begun and there is now a requirement, at the point when a contract recommendation is made, that senior civil servants, special advisers and Ministers declare any interest that is either real or apparent. In his second, wider review, Mr Boardman has identified 28 further recommendations for improvements to procurement processes across Government. Progress is under way to begin the implementation of those, and a full update of progress will be provided to the Public Accounts Committee by July 2021. We are very grateful to Mr Boardman for his ongoing work. That review sits alongside a wider programme of work to reform public procurement, which I am leading.
In December, the Cabinet Office published our Green Paper on this issue, which sets out radical reform to our procurement regulations that will drive much better value for money for the taxpayer. The proposals, which have long been in development, address several areas highlighted in the NAO report, especially mandatory transparency requirements that would ensure that processes and decisions can be monitored by anybody who wishes to do so. The proposals aim to simplify complicated processes, reduce bureaucracy and create a fair, open and competitive system. They will strengthen transparency through the commercial life cycle, from planning and procurement to contract award, performance and completion. We also intend to clarify the rules on procuring in times of extreme urgency or crisis, learning from the difficult experience of this pandemic. The Green Paper consultations resulted in more than 600 responses, which are now being analysed in detail.
It is already Government policy to adopt and encourage greater transparency in commercial activity. Central Government buyers must publish all qualifying tender documents and contracts with a contract value of more than £10,000 on Contracts Finder, but we recognise and regret, as I have expressed already, that there have been delays to publishing some contracts, as raised by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green. Teams continue to work on publishing all contracts as soon as possible.
Since the High Court’s judgment in relation to the DHSC’s failure to publish some contracts, it has made significant progress. It has now published all known contract award notices and the contract documents for all historical covid-related contracts. As the permanent secretary for the Cabinet Office confirmed to the Public Accounts Committee earlier this month, all Cabinet Office contracts that related to the regulation 32 procedure on direct awards have been published.
The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey) raised very important points about the onshoring of critical manufacturing capability. Project Defend in the Department for International Trade has done a lot of work in that area. Some of the testing specifics I will need to take away and raise with my ministerial colleagues.
I would like to address some of the points raised by the hon. Member for Jarrow, who discussed the recent High Court judgment in relation to the public contract awarded by the Cabinet Office to Public First. I looked back in my role, to better understand the context in which that was contracted, because I received some early questions, when I was first in my ministerial role, that I personally wanted to investigate as well, and I think it might be helpful if I set out a little more of the context.
Back in March, there was no vaccine, no test and trace, and very little knowledge of how best to manage this novel disease. Strong messaging of the kind that could alter behaviours was, at the outset of the pandemic, one of the few tools that we had in our arsenal in the battle against transmission. It followed that the Government Communication Service needed rapidly to assess which messages would have the greatest impact. We needed to turn campaigns around in lightning-quick time, and teams had to be surged to deal with the unprecedented demand for effective comms material. In dealing with such an unforeseen set of circumstances, few officials knew which messages would be sufficiently hard hitting to influence and, most importantly, to change public behaviour.
It was in that context that rapid decisions were made on comms contracts, including the one that was challenged in court. That was for Public First, a research and policy company. It was taken on, alongside BritainThinks, as one of two companies in the market deemed to have the scale, expertise and experience to provide focus-group testing in March. They were both rapidly diverted from existing work to take a snapshot of public reaction. That allowed us in government to test things such as the contain strategy, the early “Stop The Spread” campaign and the “Stay Home” message, which was deemed by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green in earlier comments to be a waste of money.
A legal challenge was brought against that contract, on three grounds: urgent procurement without competition; the proportionality of its award for six months; and inclusion of non-urgent work. We did not use money, as was suggested by other hon. Members, to cover up, but actually to find out what had happened, so that we could respond to that legal challenge. The judgment found in favour of the Government on two grounds: first, we were entitled to rely on the emergency procurement regulations because of extreme urgency; and, secondly, the terms of the contract, including length, were proportionate in the circumstances. The court ruled that the Government were entitled to award the contract on grounds of extreme urgency, in response to an unprecedented global pandemic. It recognised the very complex circumstances that we were operating in. It also recognised that a failure to provide effective comms would have put public health at risk.
On the one remaining ground of “apparent bias”, the judgment makes it clear that the decision to award the contract was not due to any personal or professional connections, although consideration should have been given to other research agencies, and the process followed should have been more adequately demonstrated when it came to the objective criteria used to select the supplier. The judgment none the less makes it clear that there was no suggestion of actual bias.
We have done a lot of work to address some of the procedural issues that were raised by this case and which I have mentioned, because I had my own concerns about it. Our implementation of the Boardman recommendations, which I have already discussed, has addressed several areas raised in the judgment. I agree with the hon. Member for Jarrow about winding down the use of regulation 32 in comms, and I have done a lot of work in this area.
Ms Fovargue, I apologise for the length at which I have responded to some of the issues raised. These are important issues and ones that I personally want to ensure that the Government are addressing proactively. I am very keen that we also provide greater context for some of the criticisms and challenges brought. It is absolutely fair that the public would have questions on this, and I want to try to address some of those. I am very grateful for the valuable points raised by hon. Members in the course of this debate, but I want to assure people that the Government are taking decisive action to improve transparency around procurement, alongside a full inquiry into the covid pandemic next year.
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
I will take it from the top. I thank all my colleagues for their contributions and the Minister for her response. The sheer number of examples of deals that have been raised go some way to explaining the depth of the issues that worry many of my constituents and, obviously, the constituents of many colleagues.
The hon. Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway) made a doughty defence of his constituent, who I am sure is very grateful for it. Unfortunately, if someone benefits from public contracts that are granted without a robust tendering process, and they have a photo gallery containing pictures of the Prime Minister and former Prime Minister, they have to expect people to examine their contract.
The hon. Gentleman makes his point, and we might think to ourselves, yes, perhaps. However, it happens once, twice, then three times—it is not just the odd case. He talks about £4,000 not being a large sum of money compared with what he made. The Government have to be transparent and say, “Okay. We’ll take it on the chin. Let’s have an inquiry and look at it properly.” That is what the people who signed the petition want.
As predicted, we heard from the Minister a lot of excuses that we were expecting about the emergency. We know that it did not have to be that way, and I want to shine a light on it. According to the Wales Governance Centre at Cardiff University, the costs of PPE and Test and Trace in Wales were around half of that spent in England. We know why that is: the Welsh Labour Government did not divvy up contracts with their mates; they gave them to local authorities and those with public health expertise who were responsible for the test-and-trace system. What happened in Wales was transparent, and I am proud that a Welsh Labour Government delivered that. They did not have call handlers sitting around with nothing to do despite the contracts for them costing hundreds of millions of pounds.
A failing track-and-trace system, unusable PPE, and the millions spent on communications will undoubtedly come out in an inquiry. The SNP spokesperson, the Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) uttered one of my favourite phrases that the Government use when they do not want us to find out the true scale of an issue: “the disproportionate cost”. What is disproportionate is spending huge amounts of money on equipment that cannot be used. What is also disproportionate are the deaths of 130,000 people who have left behind loved ones and who will never see the answers that they truly deserve.
My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Kate Osborne) raised an important question that the Minister should have addressed: how much money have the Government spent on defending themselves in court on the unlawful decisions that have been made? How much, Minister? It is important that we know. Transparency is important, and we have not seen it with this Government. Nurses are offered very little in pay rises, but entrepreneurs who have made a lot of money are seen as heroes. That is not right—it does not sit well with us—and many other people believe that, too.
I believe that if we had planned for this better, we might not have had to been in this situation.
I will finish with the fact that 128,000 people have lost their lives. This has been mishandled and there must be an inquiry. I send my love to all those who have lost someone during covid-19. It has been a terrible and horrific time. We need that transparency—it has got to be done—and we will continue to fight for the truth for everyone.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 328408, relating to Government contracts during the covid-19 outbreak.
Tuesday 5th January 2021
The National Audit Office, the public spending watchdog reported on Government procurement during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Government has published a statement on GOV.UK.
The National Audit Office has published its report relating to government procurement during the COVID-19 pandemic covering the period up to 31 July 2020. This includes, among other things, an examination of procurement activity during the pandemic and the Government’s management of procurement risks. The report will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny by the Public Accounts Committee in the usual way. The Government published a statement available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/statement-on-government-procurement-following-this-weeks-nao-report.
More generally, the Government has always been clear that there will be opportunities to look back, analyse and reflect on all aspects of COVID-19. This will include an independent inquiry at the appropriate time. For now the Government is focused entirely on responding to the pandemic and saving lives, particularly as the country is experiencing a second wave of the virus. That being the case, it would be premature at this stage to attempt to define the inquiry's eventual terms of reference.
Governments around the world faced unprecedented demand for essential goods, services and works due to the COVID-19 pandemic. All public authorities in the UK, including the UK Government and devolved administrations, had to move quickly.
Working with the private sector has been a vital part of the Government’s response to tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, with private sector workers standing alongside those from the public sector on the front line. Indeed, the private sector has assisted us to deliver over 15,000 ventilators in under four months to support the NHS; procure almost 32 billion items of PPE for frontline workers; and we now have the capacity to process over 530,000 tests a day.
Being able to procure at speed has been critical in the Government’s response to COVID-19 and at the outset of the coronavirus outbreak, we made it clear to all public authorities that they may need to procure new services with extreme urgency. This is not a change to the public procurement regulations; there are already well-established procedures in the Public Contracts Regulations for handling extremely urgent procurements and they have been used by a variety of public authorities including the UK Government, and devolved administrations. Other countries, including Japan, Finland and New Zealand, followed similar urgent procurement processes.
We also made it clear that authorities must continue to achieve value for money for taxpayers, use good commercial judgement and publish the details of any awards made, in line with Government transparency guidelines.
The Government is committed to adopting and encouraging greater transparency in its commercial activity. There are existing rigorous central controls in place to challenge spend robustly and to ensure that the actions of Government contracting authorities are open, fair and transparent.
The department has also conducted some internal audit work to examine procurements during COVID. We do not as a matter of course publish internal audit reports. An independent expert review, the Boardman Review, has been undertaken in relation to certain communications services contracts and the report and recommendations have been published on gov.uk. Government also published the Green Paper on Public Procurement Rules Reform 15 December, a Green Paper consultation on radical reform of the UK’s public procurement regulations. The Green Paper proposals will make public procurement even more transparent by making more open data available on public contracts.
This is a revised response. The Petitions Committee requested a response which more directly addressed the request of the petition. You can find the original response towards the bottom of the petition page (https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/328408)