The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Julia Lopez)
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Eagle. I thank the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Dan Carden) for tabling an incredibly important debate, and all those making contributions today. I am also grateful to the NAO for the report. The care with which we spend taxpayers’ money matters very deeply to public confidence in Government.
I do not wish this morning to present a carefully constructed political argument that seeks to dismiss the concerns that have been raised. I want instead to be candid about the challenges the Government had to navigate at the height of the pandemic, provide some context to the NAO’s report, and set out what went well and what undoubtedly could have been done better in the period it focuses on, between January and July.
I was on maternity leave at the height of the pandemic and only began my ministerial role in the Cabinet Office in June. As I took on that role, I confess I shared some of the concerns that have been raised with me in the House about the cost and the circumstances of particular procurements. I wanted to assure myself of what had happened and to get a sense of the full story. Today, I hope to share some of that and to be as transparent as possible, but as I do so, I ask hon. Members to keep three broad points in mind.
First, it is very important to recognise the sheer volume of procurement activity in response to this national health emergency. By 31 July, more than 8,600 contracts worth £18 billion had successfully been awarded, some 90% by the Department of Health and Social Care in value terms. That compares with 174 contracts worth £1.1 billion awarded by that Department last year. In other words, there was a colossal upscaling of effort to take this country through this crisis. Of those contracts, the NAO’s report examined just 20. It obviously focused on the contracts that attracted most public interest.
Secondly, due to time pressures, I am afraid I will be unable to address all the comments. I will focus my contribution on the areas looked into by the NAO report. Finally, although it has become a political cliché to say that we have to learn the lessons from particular events, in this case it is especially important that we learn the right lessons. It might make for a snappy headline or an eye-catching political campaign to suggest that the story of procurement during the crisis has been one of Tory corruption, but it behoves us all to understand what really happened, so we do not overlook what needs to change.
At the height of the crisis in April, as the NAO described in its report, health services across the world faced an unprecedented situation where demand for PPE and other medical products far exceeded supply. Faced with these exceptional levels of global demand, the usual vendors in China who service the central procurement function of the NHS 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 we risked missing out on vital supplies. It is here that I would like to address the first of several criticisms being repeated here today: that the Government ripped up procurement rules. That is simply not true.
Regulation 32(2)(c) of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015, which predate the pandemic, explicitly allows for emergency procedures, including direct award. No rules were suspended, relaxed or changed. This was just a case of using existing legally compliant regulations for the purpose for which they were intended. Similar approaches were taken by countries such as Japan, New Zealand and Finland.
In a situation of genuine crisis and extreme emergency, when we had to accept or reject offers in a matter of hours or days, it was simply not viable to run the usual procurement timescales, even if we took advantage of accelerated processes, which still require a minimum of 25 days. Hon. Members will recall that everybody in this House was saying, “Get hold of the kit,” including the Leader of the Opposition.
Nor is it the case that the Government cast aside value-for-money considerations. All offers went through the same eight stage assessment process, and where full competitions for PPE were not possible because of time pressures, we examined prices against a rolling benchmark of prices to protect the taxpayer from mispricing. That is not to say that prices were not higher across the board. It was a massively overheated spot market. Product was often going for more than five times the normal price, and that was made worse by the appearance of opportunistic middlemen, who appeared and started to put down deposits on product, then reselling it for very high handling fees.
Of course, the Government would not normally pay those kinds of fees, but procurement teams were left with some very difficult choices. Either we bought the product, as was rightly and vociferously demanded, or we did not get hold of it for the NHS.
This situation was further complicated by what was going on internally, and that is what I mean when I say we have to make sure we learn the right lessons, particularly about the challenges within our own systems. Some 450 people from across government were moved into the DHSC to become a stand-up virtual team to urgently assist with securing PPE. That team is normally only 21 people-strong. In many ways, getting that number of people together was a great feat, but it also meant that there were a lot of people who did not know each other, all working remotely suddenly from home, on a range of different IT systems, with suppliers they did not know, on product with which they were not familiar, in the most highly pressured market of their careers. That was not an easy operating context.
As concern grew about the level of PPE that might be required to deal with the challenge of covid, the Prime Minister put out a call to action, which I am sure hon. Members will all recall. With great commitment and energy, the British public and the business community responded, but that meant that, in very short order, commercial teams were dealing with more than 15,000 offers of help. Frankly, leads were coming in faster than they could be processed, and when they were rejected or if they were delayed, people started chasing through their MPs. I am sure that many of us in this room experienced that.
In order to manage the influx of offers, a separate mailbox was set up to handle this area of work. That is the oft-cited high-priority lane, which the Opposition have sought to portray as much more sinister than it actually was. Far from being a secret referrals lane, that mailbox was in part a triage for directing more credible leads, and in part an engagement communication tool for managing some of the correspondence that was coming from parliamentarians of all colours, including Opposition MPs and peers. As the NAO said, it was right that we sifted the credible PPE offers from the others. The most important thing to note, as the NAO does in its report, is that all PPE offers, no matter where they came from, went through the same eight-stage check, so there was no special treatment for friends of Ministers.
There has been excitable public commentary, which has been repeated here today, and claims that people were 10 times more likely to get through if they had Tory friends. If anything, the fact that that mailbox had a higher conversation rate demonstrates that the initial triage process was working, as those leads were often more credible and proved fruitful once they had gone through the due diligence process. Even so, it is important to note that, of the 493 offers that came through the priority mailbox, only 47 were taken forward. In other words, 90% were rejected. Indeed, more than 20,000 individual product offers were rejected between the end of March and mid-June because of the robust due diligence processes that had been put in place by our commercial teams.
A number of Members have referred to companies that missed out, and a number of vocal companies have gone on television to say that they do not understand why they missed out. The Government do not have a right to reply in those circumstance, because if we were to set out publicly why that company did not secure a contract, we would be betraying commercial confidences.
The existence of the separate mailbox has added fuel to the fire for those accusing the Government of chumocracy, but if they have read the NAO’s report they should have noticed the conclusion, which has been mentioned by other hon. Members and states that
“ministers had properly declared their interests, and we found no evidence of their involvement in procurement decisions or contract management.”
Our own internal audit on PPE has not found any conflicts either, and we have been searching for them.