Covid-19: Government’s Publication of Contracts

– in the House of Commons at 12:37 pm on 9th March 2021.

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Photo of Rachel Reeves Rachel Reeves Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 12:37 pm, 9th March 2021

(Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, if he will make a statement on the recent court order regarding the Government’s publication of contracts during the covid-19 pandemic.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

Although I am not the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, I hope the hon. Lady will none the less allow me to respond to her urgent question.

The first duty of any Government in a crisis is protecting their citizens, so our work to provide personal protective equipment was a critical part of our response. It was a herculean effort that involved setting up a new logistics network from scratch and expanding our PPE supply chain from 226 NHS trusts in England to more than 58,000 different settings. Our team has been working night and day on this vital national effort, and I can update the House that we have now delivered more than 8.8 billion items of PPE to those who need it. That work was taking place at a time when global demand was greater than ever before and rapid action was required, so we had to work at an unprecedented pace to get supplies to our frontline and the public.

Two weeks ago, in response to an urgent question from the hon. Lady, I updated the House on the initial High Court ruling. I will not set out that judgment at length once again, save to say that the case looked not at the awarding of the contracts, but rather at the delays in publishing the details of them as we responded to one of the greatest threats to public health that this country has ever seen. The hon. Lady’s question refers to a short declaratory judgment handed down subsequent to the original judgment in this matter, which makes a formal order as to the Government’s compliance with the relevant regulatory rules.

As before, I reiterate that we of course take the judgment of the Court very seriously and respect it. We have always been clear that transparency is vital, and the Court itself has found that there was no deliberate policy to delay publication. The fight against covid-19 is ongoing. As would be expected, we are agreeing new contracts as part of that fight all the time, and we will keep publishing details of them as we move forward.

I care passionately about transparency, and so does everyone in my Department. We will of course continue to look at how we can improve our response while we tackle one of the greatest threats to our public health that this nation has ever seen.

Photo of Rachel Reeves Rachel Reeves Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

This question and the answers to it really matter because our frontline workers were not adequately protected with the high-quality PPE that they needed during the pandemic. They matter because it is essential that taxpayers’ money is spent effectively and fairly, not handed out to those who happen to have close links with the party of government.

The Government ran down the PPE stockpile ahead of the pandemic, and that came back to haunt us when we needed it most. Contracts were handed out—many to friends of and donors linked to the Conservative party —without any transparency. The Good Law Project took the Government to court, and on 19 February the High Court ruled that the Government had acted unlawfully, saying:

“The public were entitled to see who this money was going to, what it was being spent on and how the…contracts were awarded.”

Three days later, in this House, the Prime Minister said that

“the contracts are there on the record for everybody to see”—[Official Report, 22 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 638.]

But they are not. A judge confirmed through a court order last Friday that 100 contracts are still to be published. Will the Minister now take this opportunity to apologise for that statement and to put the record straight? Will the Government now finally agree to publish all 100 outstanding contracts by the end of this week?

For contracts that have failed, will the Minister tell us how much money has been and will be clawed back for taxpayers? Can he tell us which businesses were in the VIP fast lane for getting Government contracts and how they got there? Finally, can he honestly tell our brilliant NHS nurses, now facing a pay cut, that the Government have not wasted a single penny of their money on this curious incident of the missing contracts?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

It is a pleasure to be opposite the hon. Lady once again at the Dispatch Box—two weeks after we were last here. I will do my best to answer the questions she raised, not just for my own Department, but more broadly across Government.

The hon. Lady raised a number of points. She is absolutely right to say that transparency matters, because transparency of procurement and transparency in Government is one of the foundations of the trust that is so vital to our democracy. That is why we are working flat out to ensure that, as new contracts are awarded, the contract award notices and other relevant pieces of information are published in line with the requirements of regulations.

What is most important, though, is to recognise the situation that we faced last year, with rising infection rates, rising hospitalisation rates and the need to do everything we could—to “strain every sinew”, to quote one of the hon. Lady’s letters to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster at the time—to make sure we got those working flat out on the frontline what they needed to keep them safe. I pay tribute to the officials in my Department, who did exactly that: they focused on getting what was needed in bulk in an incredibly challenging global market, to make sure that PPE did not run out.

The hon. Lady quite rightly quoted the judgment, and I will quote paragraph 149 of the judgment—the original judgment, not the supplementary judgment. The judge, Mr Justice Chamberlain, stated that

“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 think that recognises the efforts that have been put in place to ensure that we meet our transparency requirements. One hundred per cent. of the Department’s CANs—contract aware notices—have been published.

The hon. Member asked a particular question in referring to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s comments on 22 February—I hope I am correct in surmising that. My right hon. Friend was responding to a question around the failure to publish the details of specific contracts that are subject to judicial reviews. I am advised that, at the time of his statement, the details for all the contracts under scrutiny were published.

Photo of Nigel Mills Nigel Mills Conservative, Amber Valley

As the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on anti-corruption and responsible tax, I think that the Government’s following robust procurement measures is absolutely critical, but clearly a year ago we were not in normal circumstances; most reasonable people would accept that desperate times called for desperate measures. Will the Minister confirm that the Government are now following all normal, standard procurement processes? Will he confirm what percentage of the contracts from a year ago have been fully published and when the remainder will be published?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

My hon. Friend highlights the situation we faced at the time. He also, quite rightly, highlights the importance of transparency and complying with all transparency processes. The Government invoked regulation 32, which recognised the exceptional circumstances that allowed for procurement without the usual tendering process. I believe that the usual tendering process could take, at a minimum, 25 days. My hon. Friend recalls the situation at the time. The Government did what we felt was right to ensure that we got the PPE that our frontline needed. The court case also found that there was no policy to deprioritise compliance with transparency regulations. I give him the assurance he seeks: the Government are doing everything possible to ensure that we fully comply with those regulations going forward.

Photo of Stewart Hosie Stewart Hosie Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Constitution)

Some 94% of contracts awarded before 7 October were, unlawfully, not published in time and, as of late last week, 100 are still not published. Some 58% were awarded without a competitive tendering process. There are conflicts of interest, inadequate documentation, a high-priority crony lane and then the Prime Minister announcing that all of the contracts were,

“on the record for everybody to see”—[Official Report, 22 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 631.]

When he said that, it was simply not correct. Is the Minister not concerned that this failure in transparency, the potential conflicts of interest and a Prime Minister who does not even appear to know what is going on, simply feeds a perception of a Government doing profitable deals with friends and cronies, rather than delivering meaningful transparency that will drive value for money for the taxpayer?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

The right hon. Gentleman highlights quite accurately the 94%, which was cited in the subsequent judgment and the order that flowed from it, of the contracts that were late in publication. We accept that that is a statement of fact. The Department has published 100% of the CANs that it is obliged to publish that are related to this matter. He talked about a percentage that were procured without following a normal competitive tendering process—I think he referred to 58% as the percentage that were procured. That is entirely appropriate under regulation 32, recognising the situation we faced at the time and the priority of this Government to make sure that, at pace, we got the PPE that our frontline needed to keep it safe.

On his final two points, I do not see in the judgments in this case or in any of the other scrutiny of this issue by Committees of this House or other organisations anything that asserts or finds that inappropriate conflicts of interest influenced how these contracts were awarded. I am proud to serve in a Government led by a Prime Minister who leads from the front and has done whatever is necessary to make sure this country gets through this pandemic.

Photo of Ben Spencer Ben Spencer Conservative, Runnymede and Weybridge

This time last year, there was a desperate need to secure PPE urgently when, almost overnight, it became one of the most hotly sought-after commodities globally. I congratulate the Department on its Herculean efforts to keep my residents safe and get them the PPE they needed when the shortage hit. Of course, delays to publication are not ideal, and I am glad that the Department is urgently trying to resolve that. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as part of the review into the pandemic, we need to look at how procurement procedures can be improved when responding to a national crisis or, indeed, future pandemics?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work on this issue; he is a strong and vocal champion for the NHS and those who work in it. The context he sets is absolutely right. I will quote from the summary of the NAO report without making a value judgment on it. It highlighted in paragraph 2:

“Demand for PPE rocketed in England from March…There was also a surge in demand in other countries. At the same time, the global supply of PPE declined as a result of a fall in exports from China (the country that manufactures the most PPE) in February.”

That is a statement of fact, and it highlights the context in which we were operating.

My hon. Friend is right: all Governments should rightly look at what they have done and what lessons they can learn, to ensure that they are well prepared for future events.

Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion

On 22 February, the Prime Minister answered my question about unpublished covid contracts by claiming:

“As for the contracts…all the details are on the record”—[Official Report, 22 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 634.]

Two days later, when the Minister was dragged to the Chamber, he did not tell us about the 100 contracts that were still not on the record. We had to wait for the High Court to reveal that last Friday. Are we expected to believe that the Prime Minister had not sought any briefing after the High Court found that his Secretary of State had acted unlawfully? If he sought no facts, why did he give such a categorical yet wildly inaccurate reply, and why was that inaccurate reply not corrected two days later by the Minister?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

At the point in time to which the hon. Lady is referring—22 February, when she asked the Prime Minister her question—I understand that we had published 100% of our contract award notices for contracts of the Department that were subject to the Court case, and I believe the Prime Minister spoke accurately.

Photo of Marco Longhi Marco Longhi Conservative, Dudley North

Notwithstanding the answer that the Minister gave to my hon. Friend Dr Spencer, does he agree with my constituents and I that, during a national emergency, the British people want a Government who focus resources on saving lives over prioritising red tape?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the point he makes on behalf of his constituents. The overwhelming priority was to ensure that we got the PPE in the quantities we needed to our frontline, and we procured that in an incredibly challenging environment. I pay tribute to all the officials who worked flat out to do that. The Court judgment found that there was no policy of deprioritisation of meeting transparency requirements, but it also found as a matter of fact, which is clear in the judgment, that that bar was not met. That is something we have worked very hard on subsequently and continue to do so, to ensure that transparency requirements are met.

Photo of Meg Hillier Meg Hillier Chair, Public Accounts Committee, Chair, Public Accounts Committee

It feels a bit like groundhog day. Once again, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who has overall responsibility for procurement, is missing in action, and the Health Minister has come to the House to talk about how breathlessly urgent it all was at the beginning of the pandemic—I do not disagree with that, but it is not an excuse for not publishing these contracts in time. With contracts worth more than £10 billion awarded without tendering action between the beginning of the pandemic and July, seeing that paperwork urgently is more important, not less. If the paperwork is still not being published in time—and this goes back to the problems we discussed two weeks ago—can the Minister not just apologise and give a firm commitment that from now on, every contract will be published in time? It is either insouciance or incompetence that they were not published in the first place.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I have known the hon. Lady since I came to this House, so I will not take it personally if she suggests that, as I am not the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the import of my answers is in some way diminished. I will endeavour to answer her specific questions. As I made clear, we have published 100% of the CANs that give the information on the contracts awarded—in the context of this case, the contracts awarded by the Department of Health and Social Care.

However, the hon. Lady asked a very fair question at the end about the future, and I can give her the reassurance that this Department is doing everything possible to ensure that it meets those transparency requirements. Officials are aware of them and officials are reminded of them. I recognise the vital importance of transparency, not least for building trust, which she mentioned last time in her question, but in allowing her, the NAO and other Members of this House to do their job, quite rightly, in scrutinising and challenging those contracts and Government decisions, where appropriate.

Photo of John Redwood John Redwood Conservative, Wokingham

I am quite sure that Ministers want these contracts published, and I look forward to the remaining publications. Will the Minister confirm that in the emergency phase, when it was just desperate to get hold of PPE, all those contracts were negotiated and vetted by independent professional civil servants, and it was not a case of friends of Ministers?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend, and I am happy to say he is absolutely right. He has a lot of experience in government and in this space. All those contracts and all assessments of contracts, whichever route they came via, went through the eight-stage process of assessment by independent civil servants who know commerce and know procurement. I would not for a moment cast aspersions on their judgment, and Ministers did not determine which contracts were or were not awarded in that context.

Photo of Munira Wilson Munira Wilson Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Health and Social Care)

Given the number of fast-track VIP covid contracts that have resulted in unusable protective equipment, will the Minister commit to recovering public money from the companies that did not meet their contractual obligations? Does he agree that those hundreds of millions of pounds might have been better spent on a decent pay rise for the NHS workforce?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

The hon. Lady makes an important point about contracts that either failed to deliver or where PPE, for example, did not meet the required standards. I can reassure her that we are undertaking a stocktake—an audit—of exactly that, and we are already pursuing a number of cases where, if PPE was either not to the required standard or was not delivered, we will recoup the money from that.

Photo of Gagan Mohindra Gagan Mohindra Conservative, South West Hertfordshire

The Court’s judgment focused solely on the publication of contract notices. It did not make any judgment on the contracting process or on any of the individual processes in any way. Does my hon. Friend agree that the Opposition are wrong to play politics and to misrepresent the Court’s opinion in this way?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

My hon. Friend highlights something important, which is what the Court actually did and did not consider. It considered, quite rightly, whether the Government met the simple binary of publishing the notices within the required timeframe, and found that they did not. It did, however, find against the claimants and in favour of the Government that there was no policy of deprioritising transparency and publication requirements. As he says, the Court did not make any judgment on the appropriateness of the awards or the process followed for those awards.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I know the Minister to be a person of integrity and openness; indeed, this is an opportunity for the Government to show that.. Would the Minister once again outline the intention for timely competition in line with the comprehensive judicial review judgment? Does the Minister have any update on any moneys that the Government have been able to recoup from contracts for things that were unusable or incorrect?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I can give the hon. Gentleman the reassurance I have given to other hon. Members. We recognise entirely the importance of transparency. We will comply fully with the Court judgment—the Court order—and, going forward, we will comply with the requirements on transparency. To his specific point, I have alluded to the stocktake—the audit—that we are doing to make sure that if anything was not delivered or was faulty, we can recoup the money for it. I would say more broadly that the Department has cancelled or curtailed contracts up to the value of around £400 million so far—I believe that was in the evidence given by the second permanent secretary at the Department to the Public Accounts Committee chaired by Meg Hillier—and I hasten to add that cancellation of those contracts has occurred for a multitude of reasons not necessarily representative of faulty or inadequate PPE. I hope that gives Jim Shannon an indication of the work the Government are doing to ensure value for money.

Photo of Suzanne Webb Suzanne Webb Conservative, Stourbridge

Is it not important to remember that over the course of this pandemic we have created the largest diagnostic network in British history, delivering around 90 million tests and contacting over 9 million people who would otherwise have spread the virus? Does my hon. Friend agree that our ability to set up this network is a testament to the hard work and dedication of our frontline health and care workers?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight this amazing achievement. It reflects on the phenomenal effort of our frontline health and care workers, but also more broadly on the partnership we have seen at work in this country over the past year between the public sector, the private sector, the voluntary and charitable sector and ordinary members of the public all working together in a joint effort to beat this disease. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that.

Photo of Debbie Abrahams Debbie Abrahams Labour, Oldham East and Saddleworth

As much as I have a high personal regard for the Minister, he is incorrect in his remarks. The High Court ruling last Friday made it absolutely clear that at the time of the Prime Minister’s response to hon. and right hon. Members in this House last month 100 contracts had not been published; they were outstanding. Whether intentional or not, the Prime Minister—[Inaudible]—was factually untrue; he needs to come to this place with a full apology, as warranted by the ministerial code.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I lost a few words of the hon. Lady’s question, but I think I know what she was asking about in respect of the Prime Minister’s remarks on 22 February. May I start by saying that her kind words at the start of her contribution are reciprocated? I have known her since I came to this House and I have the highest regard for her as well; so I am grateful for her kind words.

In terms of the specifics the hon. Lady asked about in respect of the Court judgment and the Prime Minister, as I understand it on the date the Prime Minister spoke 100% of the contract awards notices—the details of the contracts are contained within them—were published, and that, I believe, is what my right hon. Friend was referring to.

Photo of Liz Twist Liz Twist Opposition Whip (Commons)

Our NHS staff have made huge sacrifices during this pandemic and done all they can to support patients and their families, and now they are delivering a successful roll-out of the vaccine. Does the Minister think it is fair for millions, in some cases billions, of pounds to be spent on contracts that do not deliver but to deny those same NHS staff the decent pay rise they need and deserve?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s question. She is right to highlight the amazing work being done in the roll-out of the vaccine by our frontline health and social care workers, and indeed many others, and I join her in paying tribute to them. What is important is that we worked flat out, as did senior officials, to make sure that the NHS and the frontline got what they needed last year: PPE to help keep them safe. I have to say to the hon. Lady that I hear the point she makes, but I make no apology for the efforts made by the Government to get the PPE in the quantities needed to keep our front- line safe.

Photo of Selaine Saxby Selaine Saxby Conservative, North Devon

The British people want us to focus on fighting this virus so we can protect our NHS as we roll out the vaccine and save lives. Does my hon. Friend agree that the political sniping the Opposition are engaging in is the exact opposite of what people expect and want to see politicians doing?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who alludes to the fact that our constituents and the wider public want to see all of us in this House and in Government doing everything we can to ensure, as in the context of last year’s procurement of PPE at the height of the pandemic, that the frontline gets what it needs to keep it safe. Transparency is of course hugely important, but this is not an either/or, and the focus had to be on getting that PPE to frontline. My hon. Friend’s point is absolutely right.

Photo of Martin Docherty Martin Docherty Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Industries of the Future and Blockchain Technologies), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Defence Team Member), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (PPS to the Westminster Leader)

I believe in restorative justice, which requires the offender—that is the Government—to accept responsibility for the harm it has caused to the principles of contractual openness and transparency. Can the Minister therefore advise the House whether the Government—the offender in this case—accept responsibility for the judgment handed down by a court of law?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I have been clear, both today and, indeed, when I came to the House two weeks ago, that the Government fully accept and respect the judgment of the court.

Photo of Robert Halfon Robert Halfon Chair, Education Committee, Chair, Education Committee

I recognise that the Government have had to take urgent decisions when it comes to some of these contracts, especially when securing PPE at the height of the pandemic, but will the Minister ensure that any new UK health contracts are not agreed or signed unless the business concerned employs a significant amount of apprentices—preferably higher than the public sector target of 2.3%—as part of its workforce?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend for that question. I started out in Government as his Parliamentary Private Secretary when he was the apprenticeships Minister, and that is something that he has taken a huge and passionate interest in throughout his time in the House. I am sure that colleagues in the Cabinet Office responsible for Government procurement across the piece will be very happy to have a conversation with him about the point that he has just made as to how greater use of apprenticeships can be baked into procurement decisions.

Photo of Hywel Williams Hywel Williams Chair, Speaker's Advisory Committee on Works of Art, Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Work and Pensions), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Defence), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Cabinet Office), Shadow PC Spokesperson (International Trade), Shadow PC Spokesperson (Foreign Affairs), Shadow PC Chief Whip

Initially, the Welsh Government anticipated a UK-wide approach to buying PPE; they then took responsibility for their own procurement, but they have still worked with this Government when the opportunity has arisen. Therefore, did the Secretary of State seek the agreement of the Welsh Labour Government before awarding any relevant contracts without competitive tendering or transparency, and did the Welsh Government themselves raise any concerns about the lack of competition on their own initiative?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

My understanding is that the procurement process for PPE, as the hon. Gentleman rightly highlights, was a UK procurement process. As he will have seen, we invoked regulation 32, recognising the speed needed to meet the demand for PPE in the frontline, and throughout this process we worked at pace to ensure that the focus was on the procurement of the PPE required. Throughout this process—throughout this pandemic—we have worked closely with the Welsh Government.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Conservative, Gainsborough

In the middle of an emergency, value for money goes out of the window, and I am sure that terrible mistakes were made in the tendering process, but on the central charge that contracts were awarded to cronies, I am mystified why that should have taken place if civil servants and not Ministers took the decision. Does my hon. Friend accept that the best way to resolve these issues is to take them out of party politics and let the National Audit Office get on with its job? No doubt in time, the Public Accounts Committee will issue coruscating reports that are very wise with the benefit of hindsight.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight that the decisions, as I touched on and as the PAC was told, were made following an eight-stage process run by civil servants and not Ministers. He is also right that there has been no evidence found, either by Committees of this House or the NAO, or indeed in any court cases, of any inappropriate involvement in terms of conflict of interest by Ministers. On his final point, he is absolutely right, and I know that going forward, as we always do, the Government will look to co-operate fully with the NAO in seeking to supply all and any information that it seeks, so that it can form its judgments and inform the PAC and the House of them.

Photo of Rachel Hopkins Rachel Hopkins Labour, Luton South

Back in December, in the public interest, not just playing politics or sniping, I and other MPs highlighted cronyism and waste in the Government’s pandemic procurement. Three months on from that Westminster Hall debate, does the Minister agree that responding then, by increasing transparency reporting on those companies that won £1.7 billion-worth of contracts via the Government’s VIP fast lane and were 10 times more likely to receive a contract, would have been better than waiting to be taken to court?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

In respect of the appropriateness of contract awards and whether there are any conflicts of interest, I refer the hon. Lady to the answer that I just gave to my right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh. The hon. Lady talked about last December and the debate, I think, in Westminster Hall—although I could be wrong on that—where this was discussed, and I point her to the lines used by the judge in his judgment:

“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.”

At the time that she was speaking of—in December—the judge acknowledged that the Department and the Government were working at pace to meet their transparency requirements, so that was already being done.

Photo of Craig Whittaker Craig Whittaker Assistant Whip

In the teeth of the global pandemic and facing unprecedented global demand for vital supplies, does my hon. Friend agree that the Government’s ability to secure over 32 billion items of PPE— including many items supplied from businesses in the Calder Valley and Leeds West, all stepping up to the plate—is a testament to the hard work and ingenuity of British businesses and should be celebrated?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

My hon. Friend is absolutely spot on. He is right to highlight the amazing effort by British business and by businesses that stepped up in this country’s hour of need to repurpose their production lines and to source PPE. Indeed, I would include in that the work of my officials and officials in the Cabinet Office to make sure that it was bought and procured and that it got to the frontline. To cite one statistic that alludes to exactly what he is saying, we have moved from 1% of this country’s needed PPE being produced in this country to 70%, and that is testament to the amazing ingenuity and hard work of British business.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Labour, Hammersmith

Yesterday, the Minister’s Department answered a named day question that I tabled on 1 December 2020 about some of its multimillion- pound contracts with management consultants. The Government either have something to hide or they are staggeringly incompetent, so will the Minister see that I get answers to the further questions on consultants tabled on 19 January? And will the Government now support my Freedom of Information (Extension) Bill, which they blocked back in 2017 and which would make private companies winning public contracts subject to the Freedom of Information Act?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

The hon. Gentleman made two points. On the latter, the Government will always look very carefully at anything he suggests to them. On the former, very serious point, if he is able to let me know, after this session in the House, the written parliamentary question numbers, I will endeavour to have them looked at and a response expedited for him.

Photo of Bob Stewart Bob Stewart Conservative, Beckenham

Crisis situations such as the present pandemic often require action, not paper, and the ends can justify the means. Does the Minister agree that sending PPE out to users was the Government’s top priority and getting right the supporting paperwork, which can be filed later, should not jeopardise that speed of delivery?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I am grateful to my right hon. and gallant Friend for his question. He is absolutely right to highlight that our No. 1 priority, as I think the people of this country and Members of this House would expect, was, in the face of an unprecedented demand for PPE, that this Government did everything that they could to massively ramp up the supplies of PPE that were available and to get them to the frontline. Of course, transparency is hugely important and the court did find that there was no policy to deprioritise compliance with transparency regulations and requirements. However, he is absolutely right to highlight that the absolute priority must be to get the kit to save lives.

Photo of Zarah Sultana Zarah Sultana Labour, Coventry South

It has been revealed that almost £2 billion has been handed to Conservative party friends and donors in dodgy covid contracts. That includes the likes of Steve Parkin, who has donated over £500,000 to the Conservatives. He is the chairman of Clipper Logistics, which was awarded a £1.3 million PPE contract. Another Tory donor, David Meller, has given £65,000 to the Tories over the past decade. His company, Meller Designs, was awarded PPE contracts worth over £150 million. Those people did not get rich giving their money away for nothing, so does the Minister believe that it is appropriate for the Conservative Government to hand out fortunes—public money—to Conservative party donors?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I refer the hon. Lady, once again, to the answer I gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough. I also highlight that, to the best of my recollection, no court and no Committee of this House has found any evidence of inappropriate conflicts of interest or inappropriate involvement by Ministers in the award of contracts. What I would say to her in conclusion is that what matters here is whether companies supply what is needed to standard. I pay tribute to all companies who came on board, stepped up and did what was necessary to help us get the kit we needed to protect those on the frontline.

Photo of Scott Benton Scott Benton Conservative, Blackpool South

The vast majority of people in Blackpool can understand the exceptional circumstances which led to this paperwork being submitted slightly late. How many people does my hon. Friend estimate came to direct harm because of a late submission of that paperwork, as opposed to those people who would have come to direct harm had PPE and medical supplies been delivered late?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

My hon. Friend makes an important point in his usual very forthright and clear way. The priority for this Government and for those working for them was to get the PPE needed in the quantities needed to be able to get it to the frontline to save lives. Transparency is important, of course it is. I recognise that and that is why we have worked since that time to get everything up to date in terms of transparency. But I make no apologies for the amazing effort that the Government and, most importantly, those working for them—the civil servants who did this work—put in to get the PPE in the quantities we needed.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Chief Secretary)

Despite the Minister’s protestations and despite the huge amount of money that was spent, the fact is that for those working in the social care part of health and social care, the equipment did not get anywhere near the frontline anywhere like on time. I think the Minister is maybe glossing over the fact that, although supplies to the health service seemed to have been okay, supplies to the social care sector were desperately inadequate. A Public Accounts Committee report, endorsed by its members, a majority of whom are Government supporters, found that the Department had wasted hundreds of millions of pounds on equipment that was of poor quality and could not be used. We were also told by the Cabinet Office that it did not know how many contracts had essentially been approved after the work had started and how many contractors were only checked out for suitability after they had been given their contracts. Does the Minister not understand that all of that taken together creates a bad smell? Does he agree that the best way to get rid of that bad smell is to have everything published, including assessments of conflicts of interest and information that in normal circumstances might be termed or deemed to be commercially confidential? Does he not understand that confidence in public procurement by the British Government

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I will endeavour to give a short answer to a long question. Two key points there. The hon. Gentleman mentions social care and he is right to do that. The focus of some of the questioning has been around the frontline in the NHS, but he is absolutely right to talk about social care. That is why we went from a supply chain where we were supplying PPE to 226 NHS trusts in England to 58,000 organisations. Historically, social care settings had procured their own PPE on the open market. We recognised the pressures on that market—price pressures and demand pressures—which was why we expanded the supply chain to ensure that 58,000 settings ended up being able to access it.

On the hon. Gentleman’s final point, very briefly, he talks about money spent on contracts where they were either not fulfilled or did not meet the relevant quality criteria. I have already set out to the House the steps the Government are taking to review and audit those, and we will recoup money where appropriate to do so.

Photo of Michael Fabricant Michael Fabricant Conservative, Lichfield

Mr Speaker, do you recall photographs, back in the dark days of March, April and May last year, of nurses wearing bin liners, photographs taken in Spain, Italy and the United States? In fact, if I had not been banned from having a backdrop of Lichfield cathedral on Zoom, I could actually pop up those photographs from The New York Times. Does my hon. Friend the Minister not agree with me that the priority must be for the delivery of the PPE, and that these rather unpleasant Labour slurs actually do no good at all?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

It is a pleasure to see my hon. Friend, and I hope it will not be too long before we see him in person in the House again. He is absolutely right to highlight the overall priority as being to get the PPE to the frontline. He highlights clearly the situation we were seeing on our televisions every day—for example, the real challenges at hospitals in Bergamo and elsewhere. That was the context at that time in Europe, and we moved heaven and earth to try to get the PPE needed in time. We did not run out of PPE in this country, but it would be fair to say that there were shortages in particular situations. These were met by the Government through the national shortage response. It was in that context that we had to do everything we possibly could, and I pay tribute to the officials who did it to procure PPE in bulk in an incredibly overheated and challenging global market.

Photo of Jeff Smith Jeff Smith Opposition Whip (Commons)

The Minister rightly said that transparency mattered, so when will the Government publish the full details and criteria of how businesses got into the fast lane?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

As I alluded to on the previous occasion I came to this House to answer questions on this matter, we set out that some contracts were put forward by Members of this House and by Members of the other place and were assessed through the fast-track priority lane, but there was no difference in the approach taken—the eight stages that all those contracts had to pass through to be awarded. They were all assessed independently by civil servants, so they all went through the same process, and those contracts that were awarded and that met the rules for the contract award notices publication will be published, and have been published, under the CAN regulations and on the website.

Photo of Alexander Stafford Alexander Stafford Conservative, Rother Valley

At the start of the pandemic, just 1% of PPE in the UK was made here in this country. Now, 70% of it is made in the UK, which is a huge achievement. Does my hon. Friend agree that our rapid response to procuring and delivering PPE to frontline workers has been essential in keeping them and others safe? Will he work even harder to increase the percentage so that even more PPE is made in the UK, perhaps by focusing on areas with a textile heritage such as Thurcroft and Dinnington here in Rother Valley?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. For our businesses to go from a capacity to produce this country’s PPE of 1% to 70% is an incredible achievement, but we must not rest on our laurels. We must continue to work with British business to allow it to continue to innovate and develop its ability to meet UK need. I pay tribute to the businesses in his constituency of Rother Valley for the work they did in helping out this country when it needed it most.

Photo of Matt Western Matt Western Opposition Whip (Commons)

The simple truth is that businesses up and down the country feel as though they were misled by the Government. They were encouraged to get behind the PPE challenge, and they made capital investments to expand their capacity to manufacture, yet we know that Government middlemen mates were 10 times more likely than they were to win contracts. So can the Minister set out when he will publish the details of all the contracts, including when the principal businesses were established and what the duration of the contracts are?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

The Government will meet their legal obligations to publish contracts under regulation 50 and the requirements that that places on us for the information that needs to be published. Those that meet the criteria for a CAN—a contract award notice—under that, and that have been awarded by the Department of Health and Social Care directly, have been published. All contracts will be published—all details under CANs will be published—where that is required by the regulation, and the information specified as to what is published in a CAN notice is of a standard format. We will continue to meet that obligation.

Photo of Mike Wood Mike Wood Conservative, Dudley South

Does my hon. Friend accept the finding of the independent National Audit Office that no health trust in the UK went without the PPE it needed, in contrast with many other countries? My constituents rightly expect transparency in procurement, but most would never want pursuing paperwork to be prioritised over providing proper protective equipment.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The people of this country would expect the Government’s No. 1 priority in March, April and May of last year to have been, as it was, to move heaven and earth to get the PPE that was needed in a very challenging environment to the frontline. I think that what he was alluding to in the NAO report was paragraph 18 of the summary, which 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.”

That is not necessarily an NAO conclusion, but it is a reflection of what it was told and cited in this report, so he is right to highlight it.

Photo of Marion Fellows Marion Fellows SNP Whip, Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Disabilities)

The Ministerial Interests (Emergency Powers) Bill, introduced by my hon. Friend Owen Thompson, which would require Ministers to answer questions in Parliament about any personal, political or financial connections they have to companies given government contracts, will now go forward to a Second Reading. I hope the Government will support it, as this Bill should help with the Government’s present court and publication difficulties. Does the Minister agree that it is crucial that we get greater scrutiny and have stringent regulations in order to increase transparency on the issuing of Government contracts and to ensure that the right people or companies are getting those contracts during these difficult times?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I am grateful to the hon. Lady. I have highlighted just how important I consider transparency to be. This is the second time in two weeks, rightly, that I have been answering at the Dispatch Box, so I would argue that there is scrutiny there. On her final point about that private Member’s Bill, I know that the Government will look at that Bill as they would look at any private Member’s Bill, in the usual way.

Photo of Kim Johnson Kim Johnson Labour, Liverpool, Riverside

Nurses have seen us through this crisis and they have been putting their lives on the line every day, yet the Prime Minister has offered them only a derogatory 1% pay rise but handed out billions to private companies that did not provide what was needed and to standard—I remind Members of the 400,000 substandard gowns from Turkey. Does the Minister agree that it is a kick in the teeth that this Govt have chosen to waste £37 billion by giving it to Serco for a failed track and trace system while denying our incredible nurses the pay rise they deserve?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

What this Government have done, and did in the context of the issues under discussion in this specific question, is recognise the huge need for PPE during the pandemic last year and take every step they could to meet that need. They secured a large number of contracts, which delivered 8.8 billion pieces of PPE to date. I think that is called delivering.

Photo of Peter Gibson Peter Gibson Conservative, Darlington

More than 70% of PPE is now made in the UK, whereas it was less than 1% before the pandemic. When that is coupled with the expansion of more than 22,000 ventilators, we see that this Government have done an incredible job. Does my hon. Friend agree that the petty point-scoring of the Labour party is not what we need at this time of national emergency?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have set out in my answers that what I think is most important for this country is that we work together— the public, private and voluntary sectors, and the Great British public—as we did, in this context. We have pulled together and done everything we can, including, as he alludes to, building that capacity for UK businesses to meet more of our need for PPE. That is a great success for those businesses and I pay tribute to them.

Photo of Chris Bryant Chris Bryant Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee on Standards, Chair, Committee of Privileges, Chair, Committee of Privileges

The Minister is adorable, but I am not falling for that old trick. The truth of the matter is that the Government did not even get PPE out fast enough to people who really needed it, especially in our care homes, which is why so many people died and we have the highest excess death rate of any country in the world. So I am not taking any of this nonsense about how, “We had to focus on that, which meant we could not deal with transparency.” The truth is that they set up a VIP track for some people to be able to get massive contracts, and some people enriched themselves phenomenally during this pandemic, many of whom, surprise, surprise, happen to be Conservative party donors. I have to say that it looks like corruption, and the only way the Government can wipe that slate clean is if they come clean with all the contracts. Otherwise, it just looks like a cover-up.

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I will take the hon. Gentleman’s first comment as a compliment, I think, from a colleague I know well. Having said that, I do not recognise his characterisation of what happened. He is right that challenges were faced not just in frontline NHS situations, but in social care. He is absolutely right to highlight that, and I alluded to it earlier, and that is why we increased the number of organisations that we were able to supply centrally from 226 to 58,000. That is why we massively ramped up the purchases of PPE and the stocks of PPE that were available to get to the frontline to ensure that staff could access what they needed to keep them safe. He mentions the assessments of the contracts and how they were awarded. I merely take him back, very gently, to the point that I made to my right hon. Friend Sir Edward Leigh, which is that these contracts, as set out to the Public Accounts Committee, went through an eight-stage assessment process undertaken by civil servants. I know the hon. Gentleman well, that he would not be impugning the integrity of those civil servants and that he has great respect for them. But I say very gently that there has been no evidence cited and no findings in court of any Minister in terms of conflicts of interest or having behaved inappropriately.

Photo of Jacob Young Jacob Young Conservative, Redcar

Throughout the pandemic, the Government, the NHS and the armed forces have focused on saving as many lives as possible, while the Labour party has focused on this sort of hindsight and political games. Saving lives meant securing as much PPE as possible as fast as possible, so can my hon. Friend confirm that all those PPE contract notices that faced a short delay in publication are now in the public domain?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I can confirm that the contract award notices for the contracts here, the PPE contracts, awarded directly by the Department are now in the public domain.

Photo of Deidre Brock Deidre Brock Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs)

Will the Minister tell us: how much was paid out under the contracts in advance of delivery; how much has actually been clawed back for services or products not delivered; and how much are the Government still to pursue in repayments?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

As part of the answer to her question, I refer the hon. Lady to the answer that I gave to Jim Shannon. In response to the rest of her question, the honest answer is that we are undertaking a stocktake and an audit. It is that which is required to assess whether any stockpiles are not fit for purpose or do not meet requirements, or to check what was and was not delivered and make sure that every order was fully fulfilled. We have been very clear that, as part of that audit, that stocktake, we will pursue with any who did not meet the requirements or did not supply the goods the recouping of that money for the public purse.

Photo of Bob Blackman Bob Blackman Conservative, Harrow East

Last year, the shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster wrote:

“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.”

Can my hon. Friend say that the Government have done what she wanted and have delivered for the people of this country?

Photo of Edward Argar Edward Argar Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I would argue that that is exactly what the Government have done. Rachel Reeves and I do not always agree, but I agreed with her then and I agree with what she wrote then now.