Government Contracts: Covid-19 Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office

Government Contracts: Covid-19

Fleur Anderson Excerpts
Monday 21st June 2021

(2 years, 8 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson (Putney) (Lab)
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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.

Adam Holloway Portrait Adam Holloway
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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.

Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson
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I say in response to the hon. Member that there is too much here to be answered. It is not just the odd small company here and there; there has been a real pattern of corruption.

Adam Holloway Portrait Adam Holloway
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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.

Yvonne Fovargue Portrait Yvonne Fovargue (in the Chair)
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Order. I remind hon. Members to refer to other hon. Members not as “you”, but by constituency.

Fleur Anderson Portrait Fleur Anderson
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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.