Wednesday 24th February 2021

(9 months, 2 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department of Health and Social Care
Rachel Reeves Portrait Rachel Reeves (Leeds West) (Lab)
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(Urgent Question): To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office if he will make a statement on the recent judicial review ruling, which found the Government had acted unlawfully in respect of covid contracts.

Edward Argar Portrait The Minister for Health (Edward Argar)
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Protecting those who protect us has been one of the Government’s most important goals in our fight against covid-19. To do that, we have had to expand our personal protective equipment supply chain—it has gone from supplying 226 NHS trusts in England to supplying more than 58,000 different settings—and we have had to create a whole new logistics network from scratch. Thanks to the hard work and dedication of so many people, we have delivered more than 8.6 billion items of PPE to the frontline so far, with billions more ordered and being supplied.

Our team worked night and day to procure PPE within very short timescales and against the background of unparalleled global demand. That often meant working at incredible speed, especially in the early months of the pandemic, to secure the vital supplies required to protect NHS workers and the public, which we did.

Let me turn specifically to the High Court judgment. There has been a lot of confusion about what the ruling said and did not say, and I welcome the opportunity to clarify that to the House today. The High Court case did not look at the awarding of the contracts; rather, it looked at the timing of the publication of the details of contracts awarded. The court ruled that at this time of unprecedented pressure, contract award notices were not all published in the timescales required by the regulations. However, it also found that there was no deprioritisation policy in that respect in the Department. As we set out to the court, the delays were caused by the workload involved in responding to one of the greatest threats to public health that this country has ever seen.

We take our transparency requirements very seriously, and it is important that I put on the record that we of course take the judgment of the court very seriously and respect it. We are working with colleagues across Government to implement the recommendations set out in the report published earlier this month by the Public Accounts Committee, chaired by the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), but as we do that, we will keep acting quickly and decisively to respond to this deadly threat, and we continue to do all we can to help save lives.

Rachel Reeves Portrait Rachel Reeves
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A stain has emerged on this Government’s response to the crisis. There has been an unedifying goldrush of chums and chancers; £2 billion-worth of contracts have been handed to those with close links to the Conservative party, from the Health Secretary’s pub landlord, to the donors, manifesto writers and the old boys’ club—they have all had a return on their investment at our expense.

The Government have been taken to court, and they lost, which cost taxpayers even more money. The Home Secretary once said that she wanted people

“to literally feel the terror at the thought of committing offences.”

She does not have to look to the streets to find law-breakers; she only has to look across the Cabinet table. This Government are not terrified of breaking the law, because they think they are above the law.

Now that the Government have lost in court, I ask the Minister: what was the cost to taxpayers of fighting this case? Will the Government agree today to publish the names of all businesses in their VIP fast lane and say how they got on that list? Will all overdue contracts be published by the end of this week? When will the management consultants hired locate the billions of pounds of PPE that the Government seem to have misplaced? When will clawback be used to get back taxpayers’ money for contracts that have failed to deliver? Will the Minister take this opportunity to apologise to the doctors, nurses, care workers and other frontline workers who did not have the PPE that they needed, and who had to make makeshift PPE—because, contrary to what the Health Secretary said, there was a shortage of PPE and those working on the frontline were not protected?

While he is here, will the Minister, Serco’s former head of public affairs, reveal the mystery of why the Government created Serco Test and Trace, rather than a true NHS test and trace embedded in our communities? NHS workers, care workers and taxpayers deserve better. We deserve the end of crony contracts from this Government.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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Notwithstanding the circumstances and the approach adopted by the hon. Lady, it is a pleasure to appear opposite her at the Dispatch Box for the first time. She raised a number of specific points, but before I turn to them, I have to reiterate what the judgment did and did not do. The judgment focused on timely publication of contract notices; it did not make any judgment on, or consider in any way, the appropriateness of the contracting process or any of the individual processes.

The hon. Lady alleges impropriety and inappropriate behaviour—wrong. The National Audit Office report was absolutely clear that there was no evidence of any inappropriate behaviour, and indeed no court has found this. I highlight to her that the judgment was a declaratory judgment, and it stated that there had been a breach of the regulation 50 requirements. The judge subsequently highlighted, in paragraph 149:

“But the overall picture shows the Secretary of State moving close to complete compliance. The evidence as a whole suggests that the backlog arose largely in the first few months of the pandemic and that officials began to bear down on it during the autumn of 2020.”

I remind the House, and indeed the hon. Lady, of the situation we faced back in April. There were 3,301 people in mechanical ventilation beds, 21,307 people in hospital with covid, and at the beginning of April, according to our best understanding of positive cases at the time, the average number of positive cases and patients in hospital was doubling every seven days. In those circumstances, I make no apologies for the Government doing everything in our power to ensure that the NHS and frontline workers did not run out of PPE. As the National Audit Office has acknowledged, there was no national shortage of PPE at the time and throughout the pandemic.

The hon. Lady asked a number of questions. She talked about the current situation regarding publication, compliance and costs. As I have mentioned to her briefly before, there is an element of this case that is yet to be concluded, as some information is due to be provided to the judge on Friday. We will do exactly that, and the information will be made public when it goes to the court. We respect the court’s role in the process, but I expect the judge to have that published in a couple of days’ time.

On the priority route, if I recall correctly, many Members on both sides of the House requested expeditious consideration of offers of help, and I am grateful to all who made those offers. Every one of those went through an eight-stage process, run by civil servants, entirely appropriately. They checked the appropriateness of the PPE and the organisation supplying it, and conducted due diligence. Indeed, as I recall, the hon. Lady herself, on 22 April, published a letter that she had sent to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—it was helpfully analysed at the time by the Guido Fawkes website—sharing some of her suggestions of companies or individuals that should be put through rapid assessment. I acknowledge that she said that there should be assessment and due diligence, but she asked that they be assessed rapidly. I believe that many Members of the House took the same approach. In that letter, she concluded:

“We need Government to strain every sinew and utilise untapped resources in UK manufacturing, to deliver essential equipment to frontline workers. This must be a national effort which leaves no stone unturned.”

She was right. I agreed with her sentiment then, and I still do, but she no longer appears to agree with herself.

Peter Bottomley Portrait Sir Peter Bottomley (Worthing West) (Con)
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I think we understand the point that the judgment was about the timescale, and not all the contracts meeting the regulation. It would be good for the House to hear how much of the supply of PPE now comes from this country, rather than from abroad. If I was Minister at the time, and officials told me that we could either get more ventilators and PPE, or ensure that we did not fail to meet any of the regulation timescales, I would have said, “As Minister, I will take responsibility for the failure on the timescales; you can take responsibility for getting the equipment that people need.”

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend. In answer to his first question, at the start of the pandemic, roughly 1% of the PPE used in these settings was produced in this country. Due to the incredible efforts of businesses and individuals across the country—and, I must say, of civil servants and officials in Government, who are often the unsung heroes of the pandemic—up to 70% is now being supplied by this country. He is absolutely right that transparency is important. It is hugely important, and we respect it and take it very seriously, but I make no apologies for what I and the Secretary of State consider to be the most important thing, which is doing whatever is necessary to save lives in the course of this pandemic.

Stewart Hosie Portrait Stewart Hosie (Dundee East) (SNP) [V]
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I am glad the Minister mentioned transparency, because of the £15 billion PPE contracts awarded up until last October, barely £3 billion were properly published, and we had £252 million given to a finance company, £108 million to a confectionery supplier and £345 million to a pest control company—a catalogue of cronyism, described variously as a “wholesale failure”, a “dismal failure” and a “historic failure”. It was a process that deprioritised compliance and has ended up with the taxpayer, in some cases, buying expensive and unusable PPE. Ultimately, the Cabinet Office is responsible for the co-ordination of the cross-Government response to covid-19. So let me ask the Minister when the Minister for the Cabinet Office and, indeed, the Prime Minister were first made aware that failure to properly publish details of PPE contracts might be unlawful?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. He will appreciate that some of the contracts which some colleagues have alluded to remain subject to separate litigation before the courts, including some by the Good Law Project, which I will refer to as the GLP as I suspect it may come up a number of times and it might save a few minutes in my answers. I hope he will understand that I will avoid straying into something that may still be before the courts, because I do not want to show any disrespect for the legal process. He talked about the number published and where we have got to now. That will be some of the information put before the judge on Friday as per his request, but for the latest figures that are in the public domain, which were covered in the judgment and indeed more broadly, I think 100% of the contract award notices have been published, and we are up to 99% under regulation 108 on the latest figures I have. As the judge said, the overall picture does show the Secretary of State

“moving close to complete compliance.”

In respect of the right hon. Gentleman’s broader point, I would expect that Ministers in my Department—which is why I am here—as well as Ministers in the Cabinet Office, will have followed the process very closely.

William Wragg Portrait Mr William Wragg (Hazel Grove) (Con)
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I welcome my hon. Friend to the Dispatch Box. I hope that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster was not too indisposed cooking up plans for the domestic covid passports that he had previously ruled out to attend the House today. Most fair-minded people will look at this situation in the round and perhaps give the Government the benefit of the doubt, because the judgment found against the allegation of a secret deprioritisation policy to deliberately breach procurement rules.

Further to the question from the Father of the House, my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), can my hon. Friend the Minister give greater detail of the extent of the increase in domestic production of PPE in this country so that we have security of supply?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I believe that officials did do the right thing in prioritising getting the PPE that we needed for our frontline, and he is also right to highlight an aspect of Justice Chamberlain’s judgment, which found there was no policy of deprioritising the publication of contract notices and data. On his final point, I said to the Father of the House that we have moved from 1% domestically produced PPE to 70% now. To put that in context, we have supplied 8.6 billion items, and we have more than 30 billion on order or being supplied at present. I suspect that as my hon. Friend is a former teacher, albeit a history teacher, his mental arithmetic is probably more rapid than mine in calculating that proportion as an absolute number, but I hope it illustrates to him just how much we have moved in the past year to utilise the fantastic resource we have in manufacturing in this country.

Sarah Owen Portrait Sarah Owen (Luton North) (Lab) [V]
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Covid contracts continue to be literally a matter of life and death, so the public are right to expect accountability and transparency. While nurses wore bin bags instead of proper PPE, contracts were handed out to Ministers’ mates. Will the Minister do the right thing and, at the very least, reveal the 29 businesses Serco outsourced operations to?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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We have been clear, and as I highlighted earlier, the NAO has been exceptionally clear, that there are no suggestions of Ministers behaving inappropriately in any way in the awarding of these contracts. The judge did not find that in this case; it was not a factor. On the hon. Lady’s broader point, we have been clear that we believe in and fully respect transparency requirements, and the Department is publishing—as I illustrated with those latest figures that I put out earlier—the contracts it has. I once again come back to the judge’s saying that the Secretary of State is

“moving close to complete compliance.”

That is exactly what we will continue to do.

Antony Higginbotham Portrait Antony Higginbotham (Burnley) (Con) [V]
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At the height of the pandemic last year, the priority for the whole country was getting PPE to where it was needed—on the frontline. I received offers of help from many businesses that I fed into the Department. Will the Minister confirm how many items of PPE have been delivered because of these contracts that came in over the course of last year?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend. As I said, contracts secured by the Department since the start of the pandemic have delivered 8.6 billion items, and around three times that number have been ordered to ensure that we continue to have a robust supply, to ensure that our frontline health and social care and other workers have the PPE they need to protect them, which is the most important thing in this situation.

Caroline Lucas Portrait Caroline Lucas (Brighton, Pavilion) (Green) [V]
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Both the Health Secretary and the Prime Minister have repeatedly claimed that all the information relating to PPE and other covid contracts is published online, so will the Minister tell us specifically where to find details about the VIP lane, including who the entrants were, what they were paid and who introduced them? On behalf of the Government, will he apologise to the numerous NHS and care staff who have been deeply upset by comments made by the Health Secretary yesterday—echoed by himself today—that there was not a shortage of PPE? Does he understand why that is so insulting to the doctors who were forced to wear bin bags in the absence of gowns and to the nurses who were wearing goggles from Screwfix?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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As I highlighted to the hon. Lady, we are at 100% compliance on contract award notices. The Prime Minister was referring to the obligation to publish, and that is what we have done. Although the judge ruled that the hon. Lady had no standing to bring this case, I appreciate her long-standing interest in this matter. In respect of her point about the supply of PPE, as the NAO report highlighted, we did not run out of PPE nationally. That is not to say that there were not significant challenges in some hospitals in some areas regarding the distribution of that PPE. That has been acknowledged throughout this pandemic. Our frontline health and social care workers did an amazing job in challenging circumstances, and civil servants across my Department and others worked flat out, day and night, doing an amazing job to get the PPE that was needed.

Finally, I know that transparency and the timely publication of the data are important to the hon. Lady. I highlight one of her own Green councillors in Brighton and Hove who, in a recent written answer on that council’s failure to publish its financial spending figures since, I think, last June, said that the council

“quite rightly, prioritised paying our suppliers and providers as quickly as possible”,

and that it was

“prioritising payment of suppliers and providers over production of this information.”

Lindsay Hoyle Portrait Mr Speaker
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Order. I think we need to try to keep to the questions, not score points. Let us go to Aaron Bell, who will not want to score a point.

Aaron Bell Portrait Aaron Bell (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Con) [V]
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As my hon. Friend just did, I note from the judgment that Mr Justice Chamberlain found that the three Members of Parliament who sought to join this case did not have standing. In paragraph 107, he stated:

“In a case where there is already a claimant with standing, the addition of politicians as claimants may leave the public with the impression that the proceedings are an attempt to advance a political cause”.

Does my hon. Friend agree that this recent practice of trying to extend politics through court cases is becoming quite damaging to our democracy as a whole, particularly when technical judgments are then deliberately misrepresented, as seems to have happened in this case?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. As a former Justice Minister, I have huge respect for the legal process and, indeed, for the judgment of the courts, but he is right to highlight once again the point that the judge made in his finding that the Members of this House who sought to bring this case had no standing in doing so and that it was the GLP that did. Although I appreciate that Members of this House feel strongly on this issue, and understandably so, I echo his point that I hope they do not seek to use the courts to make political points but rather to use them for what they are there for, which is to highlight legal issues.

Bell Ribeiro-Addy Portrait Bell Ribeiro-Addy (Streatham) (Lab) [V]
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The scandal surrounding covid contracts has not just been about the lack of transparency, but about the poor performance of these companies: £350 million to PestFix for PPE that did not meet the required standards; another £347 million to Randox, which had failed on its original £133 million contract by distributing test kits that were not sterile; and, of course, the millions to Serco and others that failed with the track and trace system. Does the Minister agree that all public sector contractors should be held to the highest standard, no matter who their friends are, and will he outline what plans the Government have to hold such contractors to account and recoup millions of pounds of public money, or will he uphold these standards depending on whether the contractors have links with the Conservative party?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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On the hon. Lady’s first point, a number of specific cases relating to specific contracts remain before the courts, so if I may I will address her broader point about pursuing the appropriateness of the contractors—whether they could deliver—where they failed to deliver to the appropriate standards, and what steps the Government will take. All contracts were assessed against the eight criteria for appropriateness, including due diligence, safety standards, and whether they meet the specifications and so on. If any contractor did not deliver against that, we will either refuse to pay or we will be seeking to recoup that money, and a number of investigations are already under way to fulfil that commitment.

The hon. Lady also touched on and made a very particular point about Serco—I should have answered this point when the shadow Minister mentioned it, so I hope she will forgive me for coming back to it now. Let me make one point, which I hope the hon. Member for Streatham (Bell Ribeiro-Addy) will be aware of, and I am sure she was not suggesting anything to the contrary. As was made very clear on the “Today” programme last year, I had no involvement with those contracts in any way, shape or form. Although I left the company seven years ago, although I was never a director of that company, and although I have no ongoing links with it, so there would have been no conflict, I none the less had no involvement at any point or at any level with those contracts and I continue to adopt that position. I hope that that is helpful to her in clarifying that point.

Jonathan Gullis Portrait Jonathan Gullis (Stoke-on-Trent North) (Con) [V]
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The British people want us to keep on fighting this virus, protecting our NHS as we roll out the vaccine and saving lives. Does my hon. Friend agree that sniping from the side lines, as the Labour party is doing, is the opposite of what the people of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke want to see right now in these unprecedented times?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I recognise that all Members of this House and all members of the public in our constituencies want transparency, and quite rightly so, but what is most important to them in the midst of this pandemic and as we emerge from it, is to know that this Government and those who work for them have done everything they can to ensure that we procured the PPE that was necessary, when it was necessary, to protect the frontline and help save lives.

Layla Moran Portrait Layla Moran (Oxford West and Abingdon) (LD) [V]
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Whether I have standing or not, I am proud to have helped bring this case, alongside the hon. Members for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) and for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams). We did it because we could not get the information through the normal channels in this place. It is also worth noting that, rather than simply admit the breach and then promptly publish all contracts at the beginning of the process, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care chose to push the case to court and then, when he lost, said that he would break the law again. At the heart of the case was always transparency and fairness. Many established businesses felt frozen out because they happened to not be chums with a parliamentarian or a Minister, so my question is this: can the Minister not see how this looks, and can he also not see how delays in publishing these contracts in good time further undermine trust in Government, at a time when trust, as much as PPE, is necessary for saving lives?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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Although I made the legal point about lack of standing, I hope that the hon. Lady heard me highlight and acknowledge the fact that she and two other hon. Members clearly have an interest in this, and that she has long-standing interest in this issue and this case. She is right to highlight trust; I think what is central to the trust of the British public is the Government doing everything they can to deliver for our frontline workers the protection they needed to make sure they could keep protecting us safely.

The Secretary of State highlighted at the weekend—I think this is the latest figure—that the publication of notices was, on average, 17 days over the 30 days required. I do believe it is important that transparency is adhered to, but I also remind the hon. Lady that it is extremely important to highlight why this happens. That is why we filed the court papers and defended the case as we did, because it is hugely important for the Court to see why this occurred. The Government continue to do what I believe the public expect us to do: focus on protecting the frontline.

Craig Whittaker Portrait Craig Whittaker (Calder Valley) (Con) [V]
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Many excellent companies in the Calder Valley that would not normally bid for Government contracts have stood up for the national effort, and have been making PPE for the national cause even when this is not their core business. This has secured jobs, secured business, and ensured our NHS has had the PPE when it needed it. Can my hon. Friend confirm that all these, and other, Government contracts were awarded in a fair, open and transparent way, following due process, and that this Government have remained committed to publishing them as quickly as possible, even under the pressures of the pandemic?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and like him, I pay tribute to all those businesses and individuals who stepped up in this country’s moment of need, and were willing to put themselves forward and repurpose their factories to try to find ways to help that the national effort. All the contracts have been found so far to be awarded entirely appropriately; there has been no adverse judgment in respect of any of that. Indeed, regulation 32 highlights that in an emergency, contracts can be awarded without tender, and I certainly take the view that the situation we face with this pandemic constitutes a national emergency.

Hannah Bardell Portrait Hannah Bardell (Livingston) (SNP) [V]
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Can the Minister tell me whether it is coincidence, incompetence, or just rank stupidity that his Government and Health Secretary awarded a £30 million contract for testing vials to the Health Secretary’s former neighbour, a former pub landlord who had no experience in this field and is now being investigated by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency? Surely, the Minister agrees that these breaches mean the Health Secretary must resign.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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The hon. Lady will not be surprised to know that I completely and utterly disagree with her. I think my right hon. Friend has done, and continues to do, an extraordinary job under extraordinary pressure to help this country through this pandemic over the past year.

The hon. Lady raised a very specific issue. It has been made clear that neither the Health Secretary nor any other Minister had any involvement in the assessment, the due diligence, or any decisions in respect of that contract.

Robert Neill Portrait Sir Robert Neill (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con) [V]
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The judge very clearly found that there was a breach in relation to one matter: the 17-day average delay. He rejected the suggestion that there was a systematic failure. He rejected the suggestion that there is any impropriety in the system for awarding the contracts and did not impugn any of the contracts themselves or the process by which they were awarded. Most lawyers would know that this was a technical breach, as it has been described, albeit a breach. Is not the real moral of this that when those of us in politics seek to comment upon judgments, it is a good idea to actually read the judgment first and understand the law on which it is based, rather than grandstanding inaccurately, as has too often been the case here?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his comments. He is absolutely right to highlight what this judgment actually said. It found, in what had to be a binary judgment—either it was complied with or it was not—that the Government failed to comply with the 30-day publication timing for all contracts. He is right: the judge rejected the suggestion of any policy of deprioritisation. I read the 40 pages of Justice Chamberlain’s judgment, including the setting out of the different cases put by the two parties, the discussion of it and then, crucially, his findings on it. I would advise all Members who take an interest in this issue to do exactly the same thing, because legal judgments are rarely as clearcut or as simple as some commentators and others might wish to suggest.

Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab) [V]
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The Government’s infatuation with private sector delivery of pandemic public services has led them to ignore basic procurement best practice, replacing value for money with cronyism and due diligence with pub pals. Will the Government commit, as Labour has done, to a programme of insourcing and start by handing over the failing Serco test and trace to the public sector, which has made such a success of the vaccine delivery?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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On the hon. Lady’s main point about private and public and, I would add, voluntary sector organisations, every one of those has stepped up and made a hugely important contribution to our country’s response to this pandemic. I wish to pay tribute to public sector organisations. I spent 10 years as a councillor, and I entirely recognise the amazing work they do. I pay tribute to private sector organisations, which have also stepped up for our country, and to voluntary sector organisations. For me, it is not an either/or; it is both, and it is about what delivers the best outcome for the public. Anything less would be letting down our constituents and letting down our public services.

Angela Richardson Portrait Angela Richardson (Guildford) (Con) [V]
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At the height of the pandemic, the contracts we signed allowed us to stand side by side with the private sector, procuring enormous volumes of goods and expertise with extreme urgency. Does my hon. Friend agree that without these vital contracts, our covid response would have suffered as a result?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I agree entirely. Some of the narrative around this reminds me slightly of my days back at school and “Animal Farm”—“Four legs good, two legs bad.” The reality is that both private sector and public sector have played an incredible role in tackling this pandemic, for which we should be extremely grateful. We need both, and we need both to continue delivering in the public interest, which is what we have secured.

Debbie Abrahams Portrait Debbie Abrahams (Oldham East and Saddleworth) (Lab) [V]
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A couple of points seem to be coming up from this discussion. The first is that there were no shortages of PPE. That is patently not true. We have clear evidence that that was the case, not least from Exercise Cygnus back in 2016, but also from constituents working in the NHS who have reported this directly to me and to colleagues. The second is that the Government have published all the contracts, and the Minister has made reference to 100% of contract award notices being published. Unfortunately, we are not able to verify that. That is the key point made by the NAO, which said that there are still £4 billion-worth of contracts since November 2020 where we have no idea who they have gone to or how much for. Once again, will the Minister commit to publishing these VIP contracts, how much they were for, who they were awarded to and what for?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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The hon. Lady and I have known each other for a long time and she made her point forcefully but, as ever, fairly. She raised a number of points. In respect of PPE supplies, as I made clear to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas), the NAO report—I believe from last November—said that supplies did not run out nationally, but as I have clarified that is not to say that there were not local shortages and challenges in individual trusts, as I acknowledged to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion. That is why we procured as much as we could as quickly as we could.

The hon. Member for Oldham East and Saddleworth (Debbie Abrahams) raised Exercise Cygnus, which has come up a number of times. It is important to remember that Exercise Cygnus did not look at tackling a novel pandemic; it looked at influenza specifically. The PPE required for dealing with a disease of covid’s nature is very different from that required for flu. That exercise had, as one of its predicated actions, the swift arrival of antivirals to be delivered to tackle the flu; such antivirals did not exist until much later in the case of covid. It is important that we learned from Exercise Cygnus, but we should be careful about reading it directly across as representing a blueprint for how to tackle a pandemic of this sort.

On the hon. Lady’s final point about transparency, as I have made clear, the Government remain committed to transparency and to the publication of contracts, as required under the regulations.

Holly Mumby-Croft Portrait Holly Mumby-Croft (Scunthorpe) (Con) [V]
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At the height of the first wave of the pandemic, we looked to the Government to procure and distribute tens of thousands of critical items of PPE in Scunthorpe. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Government should of course remain committed to following all the detail of procurement rules, but that protecting our frontline health workers should always come first?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. It should not have to be an either/or, but we all remember the conditions in which our amazing civil servants were working at pace back at the start of this pandemic. They were working flat out and they included, as was acknowledged in the Court papers, civil servants who were not Department of Health and Social Care civil servants but were seconded from other Departments to work on different systems just to get that PPE ordered and delivered to protect the frontline, which was the priority. It should not be an either/or, but my hon. Friend is absolutely right that at the height of that first wave, it was absolutely right that the focus of those dedicated officials was on getting the PPE that we needed.

Jonathan Edwards Portrait Jonathan Edwards (Carmarthen East and Dinefwr) (Ind) [V]
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I am not an expert in public procurement, but even in an emergency I would expect that diligent contracts would include full payment-on-delivery clauses or clawback measures for failure to supply. The Minister mentioned in an earlier reply that the British Government are pursuing contractors who have failed to meet their obligations. How much public money has been regained to date? Will he ensure that the House is updated on the Government’s efforts to recoup misspent public money?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to highlight the fact that if contracts do not deliver, either to standard or not at all, public money should either not be paid or be recouped. We are currently going through a number of investigations to deliver exactly that, and I am happy to commit that at the appropriate juncture we will of course update the House.

John Howell Portrait John Howell (Henley) (Con) [V]
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Does the Minister accept that illegal acts are those that contravene the law and that unlawful acts are those that contravene the rules? A handball in soccer is unlawful, not illegal. Does he accept the point made by the Chairman of the Justice Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Sir Robert Neill), that this was a technical breach that has been overcome, and that the Department is going out of its way to make sure that that happens quickly?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I suspect I can do no better than to quote the judgment, which stated that in respect of regulation 50 the Government “acted unlawfully”, but my hon. Friend is right to highlight the fact that—again, as the judgment set out—the Secretary of State is almost at complete compliance, which is exactly what the Government are committed to.

Liz Twist Portrait Liz Twist (Blaydon) (Lab) [V]
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The Government claim that this is just a case of a few PPE contracts being published a couple of weeks late, but in fact we know that hundreds of millions of pounds-worth of contracts also went to management consultants. Will the Minister confirm whether all the contracts for which the publishing deadline was missed, from the start of the pandemic until now, were in fact for PPE, or did they also include contracts that have gone to private consultants? Will he explain why those contracts were not published on time?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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My understanding is that this data relates to all contracts by the Department. If I am inaccurate in that, I will of course correct the record for the House, but my understanding is that this data refers to all contracts by the Department itself.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con) [V]
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Can my hon. Friend confirm that all Government contracts are awarded in a fair, open and transparent way following correct due process, and that this Government remain committed to publishing them as quickly as possible, even under the pressure of this pandemic? Does he agree that the public are much keener that we address the real issues of the pandemic than engage in political point scoring?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, about both the Government’s commitment to transparency and to publishing contracts within the regulations, and in reminding everyone about where we were a little under a year ago, and the absolute focus by so many amazing and dedicated civil servants on getting the PPE we needed and getting it in quantity.

Owen Thompson Portrait Owen Thompson (Midlothian) (SNP) [V]
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The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime says in its “Recover with Integrity” campaign that emergency responses

“must be anchored in law and be implemented by strong public institutions, with the involvement and under the oversight of members of parliament, anti-corruption bodies, civil society and the private sector.”

It is clear that hon. Members have numerous questions on these contracts, so will the Minister now advocate such action as backing my Ministerial Interests (Emergency Powers) Bill to make sure that Parliament can scrutinise the Government’s actions and that Members of this House and the public can be confident that there is no suggestion of any corruption taking root?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I would rebut any suggestion that there is any corruption taking root, to use the hon. Gentleman’s words. Members of this House have the ability to ask questions and the NAO has the ability to ask questions. The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) will, I suspect, ask me a question in a moment, but she also has the ability to ask questions in the Public Accounts Committee, which she chairs, which, I believe, took evidence for three and a half hours in December from various senior officials in the Department. I am aware of the hon. Gentleman’s Bill, which I am sure the Government will look at in the usual way.

Scott Benton Portrait Scott Benton (Blackpool South) (Con) [V]
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At the start of this pandemic the British people rightly expected the Government to leave no stone unturned in securing the vital supplies of PPE that were needed to fight the pandemic. Does the Minister agree that the findings from the National Audit Office make it clear that while we were in the grip of the global shortage of PPE, no health trust ran out of supplies at any point, and that that was thanks to the contracts that the Government managed to secure?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We did take every step we could to ensure that trusts had the PPE they needed. The NAO report said:

“The NHS provider organisations we spoke to told us that, while they were concerned about the low stocks of PPE, they were always able to get what they needed in time.”

Meg Hillier Portrait Meg Hillier (Hackney South and Shoreditch) (Lab/Co-op)
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I will touch on that point first. Paragraph 18 of the summary says exactly what the Minister said, but it then goes on to say, however, that frontline workers reported shortages of PPE. It does not behove him well to come to this House clearly having had Back Benchers briefed about a partial element of the National Audit Office’s report that is inaccurate when taken in the round. He needs to deal with that point.

My bigger point is on the transparency of the contracts. The Minister has talked breathlessly about the urgency at the early stage of the pandemic. Let us be clear: by the end of the summer and the autumn, many of the contracts had still not been published. The civil service is usually good at record-keeping and transparency, but on this occasion there was a failure. He should have the guts to come to the House, apologise, and promise it will not happen again. More transparency, not less, is vital when billions of pounds are being spent, in haste in a pandemic.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I am grateful to the hon. Lady, who knows this issue exceptionally well and has investigated it over a number of months. Of course, as always, I listen to what she says carefully and with considerable respect. On her first point, she is right to say that the NAO reported that some frontline workers had told it that they had experienced shortages. We are reflecting what we were told by our trusts and by those running the delivery of PPE in those trusts, and what the NAO was told by them. She alluded to the key point—as I believe I said in response to the hon. Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas)—that we did not run out of PPE nationally, but there were challenges, which I acknowledged and do acknowledge, at some individual trusts and in some localities. That is why we worked at pace to make sure that they got what they needed and did not run out of PPE. That is exactly why officials in the Department were working so hard and pulling out all the stops to make sure we ordered more PPE and got more of it delivered.

The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch made a broader point about transparency, and of course it is a vital point. I believe it was the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) who highlighted trust. Trust is always the currency of politics; it is always the one thing that everyone requires, in government and in this House. It is important that that is fostered by as much transparency as possible. The judgment found that in a number of cases the Government did not meet the 30-day deadline. The hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch asks for an assurance now, and I can give her the assurance that the Government are doing everything they can to ensure that regulation 50 is complied with, and complied with fully.

Selaine Saxby Portrait Selaine Saxby (North Devon) (Con) [V]
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The British people want us to focus on fighting this virus, so that we can protect our NHS as we roll-out the vaccine and save lives. Does my hon. Friend agree that the political sniping some of the Opposition are engaging in is the exact opposite of what people expect and want to see politicians doing?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I think what my constituents and the British public want to see us all doing is working together to make sure we get through this pandemic and get those on our frontline what they need to keep them safe.

Peter Kyle Portrait Peter Kyle (Hove) (Lab)
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There are 60,000 pub landlords in this country and many of them have lots to give in a time of crisis, but is it not a coincidence that the one who gets a massive contract happens to be the one who has the mobile phone number of the Health Secretary? There are hundreds of racehorse owners in this country. Is it not funny that it just so happens that the one who gets a top job, without the need for an interview, happens to be a mate of the Health Secretary? And on and on it goes. If this behaviour was going on in a country in the developing world, there would be howls of “Corruption!” from those on the Tory Benches and calls for the aid budget to be cut. Is it not true that, when it comes to jobs for friends, dodgy contracts and all the rest that has been going on which has been normalised by this Government, they and the Tory party have a blind spot?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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Again, I have huge respect for the hon. Gentleman, who is normally measured and tempered, but I fear on this occasion that he has not done himself justice in the points he makes. As I have made clear, and as has been made clear, all contracts that were awarded were assessed by an eight-stage process run by the civil service—checking due diligence, appropriateness, ability to deliver and price—and not by Ministers. On the specific contract he mentioned, it has been made clear that the Secretary of State had no involvement in the award of that contract or its assessment.

John McDonnell Portrait John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington) (Lab) [V]
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I think the whole tenor of the discussion today demonstrates a need for greater transparency, as the Minister has said. One way of doing that is by extending freedom of information to include all companies engaged in publicly funded contracts. I am concerned about the data contract with the US data company Palantir, which is notorious for its links with Trump and the white supremacist far right. Will the Minister confirm whether that contract has been the subject of a data protection impact assessment, including a public consultation, and whether Palantir will be able to sell on NHS data at a later stage, even, for example, to the Conservative party for electoral purposes?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I will not stray near the wilder accusations made by the right hon. Gentleman. What I will say to him is that the data of NHS service users is always protected by this Government.

Bob Blackman Portrait Bob Blackman (Harrow East) (Con) [V]
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I am a great believer in competitive tendering to gain the right value for money for the public sector. At the height of the first wave of the pandemic, my local hospital, Northwick Park, came perilously close to being overwhelmed by the number of patients and by having only one day’s supply of PPE within the hospital. Thanks to Government actions and the Department of Health and Social Care, that was remedied. What does my hon. Friend think would have happened if the Government had decided to competitively tender all those items and wait potentially three months before the supplies were available?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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My hon. Friend highlights the work of his fantastic hospital at Northwick Park and the fact, which I alluded to in response to the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, that while we did not run out of PPE nationally, there were some real challenges at a number of sites. They did an amazing job to ensure that they had the PPE they needed. I believe the minimum time it can take to run a tender is around a month, and I certainly would not have wished to see us not utilising regulation 32 and waiting a month to order and secure the PPE that his hospital and those working in it needed.

Ruth Jones Portrait Ruth Jones (Newport West) (Lab) [V]
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The people of Newport West have looked at the media reports, the court judgments and the answers given in this House on this matter with horror. There appears to be no respect for honest, law-abiding citizens who play by the rules, and that is unacceptable, so when will Ministers finally show their respect for the will of the people and the ruling of the court and stop this reckless behaviour?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I have made it clear that I and Ministers always respect the courts and the judgments delivered in them. I also have great respect for, and recognise the importance of, transparency. I would say to the hon. Lady, however, that I also respect the need to rapidly deliver the PPE that was needed last year at the height of the pandemic, which is what our constituents would expect us to do. As we cast our minds back, I think that is what they would have wanted us to focus on at that time. On her final point, yes I am quite happy to restate the Government’s commitment to the importance of transparency.

Hywel Williams Portrait Hywel Williams (Arfon) (PC) [V]
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Using the VIP lane, a PPE contract for £313 million was awarded to PestFix, a company that had never before supplied medical PPE. To put this fantastical sum into perspective, a free school meal every day for a year for every child in Wales in a family getting universal credit would cost £101 million —less than a third of the sum gifted to PestFix. Given the Minister’s unapologetic replies so far, does he even begin to understand why the perception of his Government’s default cronyism has angered so many people?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I will not comment on specific cases because, as I mentioned at the beginning, some are still subject to actions before the courts and I do not want to cut across those legal processes. The broader point I would make is that I think people will understand that this Government and the unsung heroes of the pandemic—the civil servants and officials who have worked throughout it—pulled out all the stops to do what was necessary and essential to procure the PPE. If we look back 10 months or so, it was the most pressing issue in this country to ensure that our frontline workers got the protection they needed.

David Simmonds Portrait David Simmonds (Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner) (Con) [V]
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When I reflect on my inbox from nearly a year ago, I remember that my constituents were expressing huge anxiety about access to personal protective equipment in nursing homes and medical establishments, so will my hon. Friend accept the thanks of my constituents for having acted so swiftly to ensure that the necessary essential equipment got where it needed to be? Does he share my frustration that that success is being overshadowed by the frankly dubious attempts to muck-rake in respect of the process that was undertaken?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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The equipment was procured, it was secured and it was delivered. It did what we would all have wished it to do: it went to the frontline to protect people and to ensure that hospitals and trusts did not run out of PPE at that crucial point in the first wave. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight what I believe the British public would have wished to see us doing, which was focusing on getting the PPE to those who needed it as fast as we could in that crisis.

Wendy Chamberlain Portrait Wendy Chamberlain (North East Fife) (LD)
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The Committee for Standards in Public Life is currently undertaking an inquiry focused on the upholding of the Nolan principles of public life, which include integrity, accountability and openness. Given that it has been reported that civil servants delayed publications at the behest of No. 10 special advisers, and given that we have ended up in a situation where this matter has been taken to court, does the Minister believe that the Government have met those standards?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question, but in answer I revert back to what the judge, Mr Justice Chamberlain, said in his findings in this case: he found no evidence of a policy of deprioritisation of meeting transparency requirements on publication.

Marco Longhi Portrait Marco Longhi (Dudley North) (Con) [V]
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My Dudley North constituents, like me, can see right through this urgent question for its petty political intent. For the avoidance of doubt, will my hon. Friend confirm how many people came to harm because this paperwork was two weeks late, compared with the harm that would have arisen from PPE and medical equipment being received two weeks late?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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Transparency is important. The Chair of the Public Accounts Committee and others have rightly made that point, but saving lives is important and, I would argue, in the height of the pandemic, more important. It was right that civil servants and others focused entirely on that purpose of getting the PPE to reduce the risk of loss of life, and as the judge acknowledged, they have worked very hard subsequently to catch up with the transparency requirements to ensure that the information is published and is available for interrogation.

Matt Western Portrait Matt Western (Warwick and Leamington) (Lab)
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As they say, if it smells of fish, it is fish, but in this case it is like Billingsgate market. When it comes to Government contracts, someone is 10 times more likely to get one if they have a Government contact. The protocols are clear, as the Supreme Court confirmed, and the Health Secretary acted unlawfully in not revealing the details of contracts with his pub landlord, a hedge fund in Mauritius or the jeweller in Florida, yet there was insufficient PPE available in our social care system. As the NAO said, it was 10% of what was required. For our frontline health workers, there was just not enough FFP3. The Minister says that trust is vital, but is it not the truth that Ministers’ mates and their suppliers in China have been favoured in supplying PPE over UK companies such as Tecman and Contechs in my constituency?

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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Order. That was a very long speech. I do not want the hon. Gentleman to create a precedent.

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his initial analogy. He made a couple of points there. I believe—this is from memory, so forgive me if I am slightly out, and I will correct the record if I am—that around 90% of those bids that came through the high-priority lane were rejected. They were carefully assessed by civil servants against the eight stages of the procurement process set up to ensure that due diligence was followed.

The hon. Gentleman raised a very specific point, which I want to address, because he talked in his question not just about NHS trusts, but quite rightly about those working on the frontline in social care settings and the PPE they needed. He quotes accurately, if my recollection is correct, from the NAO report. One of the factors here was that traditionally, social care settings are private businesses in most cases and procured their PPE directly in private contracts with their suppliers. That is one of the reasons why, as I mentioned in my opening remarks, during the early phase of the pandemic we moved from supplying 226 trusts with PPE to making that service available to 58,000 or so settings to get PPE to social care. That was a reflection of the Government’s commitment and work to make sure that we could use centralised procurement and centralised supply to help support the social care sector get what it needed.

Jacob Young Portrait Jacob Young (Redcar) (Con)
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I commend the Government for their efforts to do whatever it took to protect the frontline during the height of the pandemic. Will the Minister join me in extending our thanks to the amazing NHS workforce and the armed forces personnel working at James Cook University Hospital and Redcar Primary Care Hospital, as well as our teams in primary care, without whom we would not have vaccinated 18 million people?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I am very happy to join my hon. Friend in doing that. I suspect that, in what has been a contentious urgent question, that is a point on which there will be consensus between me and the shadow Minister. We pay tribute to those working on the frontline of our NHS and social care, and those helping with the vaccination programme.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon (Strangford) (DUP)
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Does the Minister share my view that, although transparency is important, saving lives is even more important, and that the public servants who have done much to secure the vital supplies of protective equipment that we need deserve our praise, not criticism? Will he clarify that the information required by the judicial review judgment will be revealed in a timely manner?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is absolutely right to pay tribute to the officials and those who were working flat out at the height of the pandemic, often through the night and at weekends. Even when working from home, they did not see much of their families because they were working incredibly hard to procure the PPE we needed to keep people safe. I pay tribute to them. On the hon. Gentleman’s final point, my understanding is that the additional information required by the judgment must be supplied to the court by Friday, and I expect that the judge will make that public.

Mike Wood Portrait Mike Wood (Dudley South) (Con) [V]
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Speed is vital during a public health emergency, but transparency remains important. What assurances can my hon. Friend give us that, although paperwork can never come before delivering essential medical equipment and services to the frontline, the Government are committed to publishing contracts in a timely manner to ensure that my constituents in Dudley South can have confidence that the processes are fair, open and transparent?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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I thank my hon. Friend. He is absolutely right. Getting PPE to the frontline, procuring what we needed and getting it delivered was the absolute priority. As I have expressed throughout my remarks, I recognise that transparency is hugely important, and we will supply the court with the further information it needs. As the judge said, we are now virtually in complete compliance, and we will continue to work hard to ensure we comply with the requirements under regulation 50 and the other requirements of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015.

Eleanor Laing Portrait Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Eleanor Laing)
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I will now briefly suspend for a few minutes in order that arrangements can be made for the next item of business.

Sitting suspended.