I beg to move,
That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, that she will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House the minutes from or any notes of the meeting of
(b) a Special Adviser of such a Minister or former Minister, or
(c) a Member or former Member of this House relating to the Government contracts for services provided by medical laboratories, awarded to Randox Laboratories Ltd. by the Department for Health and Social Care, reference tender_237869/856165 and CF-0053400D0O000000rwimUAA1, valued at £133,000,000 and £334,300,000-£346,500,000 respectively.
At the heart of this debate are two very simple questions. Do the Government have anything to hide? And will Members opposite now vote for a clean-up or a cover-up? I say “Members opposite,” but there are not many Members opposite to say it to.
“I am very happy to publish all the details of the Randox contracts”.
If that is the case, the Prime Minister should vote for our motion and publish all the documents and correspondence related to the Randox contracts and the dodgy lobbying that went on around them.
The motion before the House is very simple. We already know that the former Member for North Shropshire broke the rules on lobbying. We already know that Randox was awarded nearly £600 million of taxpayers’ money without a tender. We already know that Randox was awarded a second £347 million contract having failed to deliver on a previous £133 million contract. And we already know the decision was made after a conference call involving the then Member for North Shropshire and the then Health Minister, Lord Bethell.
What we do not know is what happened in those meetings, who else was present, what was discussed and what was decided.
My right hon. Friend makes an interesting point about who was at the meetings. It is not just a convention but an absolute necessity that, when a Minister meets a Member of Parliament or, indeed, an outside body, they are accompanied by civil servants who make a record of the meeting. Can we be certain as to whether the Minister was accompanied by civil servants who took those notes?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. He has been a Member for a long time, and he is aware these conventions and procedures are there to ensure that process is followed and recorded, but we do not know what was said in any of the correspondence before or after, including from private email accounts and phones. We do not know why or how these contracts were awarded. I hope the Minister for Care and Mental Health can give us some insight. We do not know what rules might have been broken and what role the lobbying of the former Member for North Shropshire played in the Government’s decision.
We all know about the failures of the Government’s dodgy crony contracts, which have wasted taxpayers’ money by the billion. Does my right hon. Friend agree that not only should the Government come clean but they should get the cash back to spend on projects like a new hospital for Stockton to help deal with our huge health inequalities?
My hon. Friend makes a crucial point, and it is why the public are so frustrated. We know there has been waste in some of these contracts, and that money is needed in many parts of our country and in many areas of our constituencies. We know that money could have been better spent, and we know the cost of not doing it properly.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that it speaks volumes that Conservative Members cannot be bothered to turn up to defend the Government’s position? Does she agree that the reason they have not turned up is because they know what they are doing is wrong? The country deserves so much better than what the Tories are delivering for them.
I do not think I have ever seen the Government Benches so empty when I have been at the Dispatch Box. It is quite novel. It is not just about respect for this House; it is about respect for the public who are watching and who want to know the answers. They want to know what elected Members on both sides of the House think.
The Government have refused to provide answers to the freedom of information requests on these points, and this is far from the only time that they have swerved scrutiny on their decisions. Take the mystery of Lord Bethell’s mobile, for example. The House may recall that the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson categorically denied that Ministers ever use private accounts for Government business, only for that denial to fall apart. The Government have now admitted in court that Lord Bethell corresponded about public contracts via WhatsApp or text message, and searches of his three private email accounts using covid contract keywords unearthed tens of thousands of messages and documents.
In December 2020, Lord Bethell was told his mobile phone would be searched for documents. Just weeks later, he said he had replaced his phone. First, he claimed his phone had been lost, then he said it was broken and then he said he had given it away to a family member. Finally, nearly a year on, he remembered that he had his phone all along, but that unfortunately he was in the habit of deleting his entire WhatsApp history and, sadly, the relevant messages may have been lost. He said the problem—I am not making this up—was exacerbated by having two phones, a personal phone and an official phone. I can at least agree with him on that; I am not kidding.
I thank my hon. Friend for mentioning the Good Law Project. Over the past couple of weeks we have been talking about the sleaze and corruption we have seen. The Prime Minister spoke at Prime Minister’s questions about how sleaze and corruption affect the UK. I say to him and to Conservative Members that it is not the UK that is sleazy and corrupt, as we have seen in how the UK has responded to the sleaze and corruption; it is this Government who are sleazy and corrupt.
The problem is that the Government are rotting from the head down. The Prime Minister has to get a grip on his own actions, bearing in mind he has appeared before the sleaze watchdog three times and he had a corrupt track record as London Mayor. We cannot stand on a global stage and say we are not a corrupt country until he is cleaner than clean.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This goes to the nub of the problem. The Prime Minister—even when asked to apologise by the Leader of the Opposition; even when his Ministers have already apologised; and even when Conservative Members will not attend this debate because they are embarrassed by their Government’s actions—refuses to accept his responsibility. That is why we are calling for transparency today.
I would like the Minister to think for a moment about the companies that were not awarded contracts. Arco, in my constituency, is known for being the UK’s leader in safety equipment. It had a warehouse full of personal protective equipment that it would have been willing to give to the NHS but, for some reason, it could not find its way through the maze of bureaucracy involved in awarding Government contracts. We hear about companies being awarded contracts that had no record of expertise or knowledge, yet companies such as Arco were denied. How can that be right?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. We have heard about this distinction from other companies and organisations that have experience in the field; they feel as though they were blocked and there was not a transparent process for them to go through. We have seen concerns about how procurement decisions were being made for companies such as Randox, with the lack of any paper trail showing that they were made properly. How is that fair? The question is very simple: what are Ministers hiding?
Is that not the nub of the point: the fact that Ministers are using WhatsApp messages to make contracts is a way of circumventing the procurement process, which is there to protect the probity of Government spending? That is why we should be challenging these things as firmly as we can.
My hon. Friend makes a good point on probity. If Ministers have nothing to hide and no rules were broken, surely they would be happy to publish the details of these meetings and the correspondence. But they have refused time and time again to do so. So today we have tabled this motion and we will put it to a vote, because the only logical conclusion is that there is something to hide—that the dodgy lobbying at the heart of this scandal has played a part in how vast sums of taxpayers’ cash have been spent.
My right hon. Friend is making a strong case indeed for reforming this rotten process. Does she agree that when this House granted the Government the powers under emergency legislation to handle the procurement of important medical supplies, it did not expect for one second this orgy of procurement outrages, this feeding frenzy of money for their friends and donors, and the ransacking of public money to help their own that we have seen?
My hon. Friend makes a crucial point. I say it again: in all my time in Parliament, I have never seen the Benches opposite so empty. I will be gracious to a number of Conservative Members who have expressed, both in public and in private, their concerns about this issue. I urge Members from across the House to look at this issue not in a party political sense, but by examining the damage it has done. The Prime Minister talks in PMQs about the UK and sleaze and corruption, but he has brought that to the UK and has undermined—[Interruption.] Even former Conservative Prime Ministers have raised concerns about the Prime Minister’s conduct. So I do not want to make it too party political, because I can see from the sparseness on the Benches opposite that many Conservative Members absolutely agree with us.
I am listening with great interest to the very good speech my right hon. Friend is making. I have been in the House a bit longer than her. I came here in 1979 and I have never seen anything like this. It is an honourable thing for every Member to champion firms in their constituency. I tried to help businesses in my constituency to get orders at this time but I could not get through; it was not a level playing field. May I also remind the deputy leader of my party that I have been here all this time and I have never seen this determined boycotting of an important debate on an Opposition day in all my years in the House?
I thank my hon. Friend for that, and I remind him that I was born in 1980, so I am definitely going to—[Laughter.] I also remind him that I am a grandma and my granddaughter is four next week. He has considerably more experience than this granny, so I will bow to his better judgment on that. It is a shame that so many are not here for this very important debate. It is important because it goes to the heart of what we are here for. People want to see that we are really taking these issues seriously. The public have an interest in making sure that the rules and the transparency that they expect from our Government are upheld.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that many of our constituents are extremely angry about this, not just because there is cronyism and corruption, but, worse still, because there has been a massive waste of taxpayers’ money? Many of the contracts that the Government let for PPE did not even result in the PPE being provided? What was provided was substandard and therefore it has been a massive waste of our money, which could have been better spent on services in our constituencies.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right on that, which leads me to my second simple question for the House today. Two weeks ago, the Government led Conservative Members through the Lobby for a stitch-up and a cover-up. Many of those Members have publicly and privately expressed their regret at voting in favour of that motion, and I have no doubt that their regret is sincere. They surely must now look with fresh eyes at those who led them through the Lobby. The Prime Minister brought shame on our democracy and on this House. That vote undermined trust in our democracy and the integrity of public office. So today I say to right hon. and hon. Members opposite: learn the lesson; do not vote for another cover-up.
The first step in restoring trust is publishing these documents today. Taxpayers’ money must be treated with respect, not handed out in backhand deals to companies that pay Conservative MPs to lobby on their behalf. Randox is just the tip of the iceberg in this scandal. Just yesterday, we finally found out the list of the favoured suppliers referred to—the so-called VIP lane for PPE procurement. This is the information that Ministers have failed to release of their own accord, despite a ruling from the Information Commissioner; we found out only because of a leak. No wonder they did not want to publish it. We already knew that those companies that got to the VIP lane were 10 times more likely to win a contract than anyone else. As Ministers have belatedly admitted, many of these did not go through the so-called “eight-stage process” of diligence. We now know how these companies got into the VIP lane in the first place. Not a single one of them had been referred by a politician of any political party other than the Conservative party. Of the 47 successful companies revealed yesterday, the original source of referral was a Conservative politician or adviser in 19 cases. The then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Cabinet member who oversaw the entire emergency procurement programme, fast-tracked a bid from one of his own personal friends and donors, who went on to win hundreds of millions of pounds of public money.
And £3.5 billion of contracts have been handed out by this Government to their political donors and Ministers’ mates. Almost £3 billion more has been wasted on unusable PPE, which is costing British taxpayers £1 million a day just to store. So, yes, we need an investigation into that, too. We need an investigation into every pound and penny that has been handed out, and to learn the lessons so that public money is not wasted again. But the question before the House today is very simple: do we choose to clean up or to cover up?
My right hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. There is one point about the contracts as they stand and another about the situation going forward. Just last week, I had to get a flight back into the UK. I filled in the England passenger locator form and there was a drop-down menu for the day 2 lateral flow test with 15 companies listed. Of those 15, three were Randox. I chose another; it turned out to be Randox. Is this part of a wider scam?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. The general public are also asking these questions. That is why the question is: do we clean up or cover up? Are we going to have the transparency that the public deserve and that Members from all parties deserve?
I know that Members throughout this House care about our democracy. Although we disagree on many things, I hope we can agree on the importance of trust in our politics and the values of honesty and integrity in public office. A vote for our motion today is simply a vote for the truth, to tackle the dodgy lobbying that has brought shame on this House. The Prime Minister has created a corruption scandal that has engulfed his Government and his party. I have to say that voting for another cover-up today would send a very clear message to the electorate: that the Prime Minister cares more about covering up dodgy lobbying than putting things right—that he cares more about his self-interest than the public interest. After the last two weeks, that cannot be the message that Government Members want to send. I hope they are listening; let us end the cover-up and begin the clean-up.
I am grateful to the Opposition for using today’s debate to raise such an important matter. I welcome the opportunity to debate it and to introduce a few facts.
We have risen to meet the greatest public health challenge in a generation, by working together. Whether it is the NHS, Government, academia, industry, the Army or, indeed, the British people, we have all had our part to play. That has meant that, today, we have given over 110 million life-saving vaccine doses and are now rolling out the booster programme. We have launched game-changing treatments such as dexamethasone and Ronapreve and, of course, built the largest testing infra- structure in Europe, with the new-found ability to test millions of people in a single day.
That is a very good question and one that I myself have asked. It is important to look at what we actually did. The equipment we had was in universities, and some of it was in NHS labs, but they did not have the scale that we needed, so we all worked together in what they call the triple-helix partnership: universities, the NHS and industry worked together to build and scale up to the level we needed. If you remember, there was discussion at the time about moonshot testing; you all laughed, as you always do because you do not have to deliver, but we delivered it. We delivered the moonshot.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I would be grateful for your guidance. The Minister keeps referring to the House as “you” which, I am pretty sure you will be aware, is used to addressed you, Mr Speaker. It is not you who has been dealing with contracts; it is the Government, and not Opposition MPs.
Thanks for that. What I will say is that I take no responsibility for the letting of these contracts, and nor do I wish to. I thank the hon. Gentleman, but I was letting things flow because, in fairness to the Minister, she is defending an impossible position. In fairness, when someone gets a bad hand, at times it is best to let them go on.
May I clarify that, first, the Government did not actually deliver the moonshot, and secondly, that in the end the £100 billion for private companies was diverted to local councils and authorities, which were the ones that delivered the vaccination roll-out, with the help of the NHS, which is a socialist endeavour? I caution the Minister not to twist the truth.
Order. I am sure that no Member would twist the truth.
Does the Minister accept that none of us on the Opposition Benches would fault anything done by the wonderful team and the effort that went into finding and developing the vaccine? We believe all that was wonderful; the problem is what came out about the equipment contracts and the testing contracts. It can be done above board and brilliantly, and it was in the production of a vaccine, but it was not in the other endeavours. That is what we are trying to say. I know the Minister is going to keep going on about the vaccine—
Order. The hon. Gentleman is not being fair. As he reminded us all earlier, he came to this place in 1979, so he knows the rules, and no rule is more apparent than that interventions have to be brief and not speeches. If he wants to speak, I am happy to put him on my list. He should not use up all his words just yet.
I will use a few words to answer the hon. Gentleman’s question. We are in the position we are in today because of the countless powerful partnerships we have built. If we cast our minds back to less than two years ago, we faced a far more uncertain picture. SARS-CoV-2, which later became known as covid-19, had no known treatment and no vaccine, and we had little to no ability to test for it. It was spreading through the world at unprecedented speed, causing unprecedented death and widespread despair. I am sure that Members, when given a moment to pause and reflect, can recall just how they felt as they saw those harrowing pictures, first in Wuhan and later in the hospitals of Italy and Spain. With grim foreboding, we saw this very unfamiliar virus heading to our shores.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. She has been given a terribly tough gig, but she does not seem to be answering the point made a little earlier. Arco in Hull had existed for 135 years and had supplied the NHS with top-quality products since its very inception. It was blocked from the VIP lane—why?
As I said, I would like to get on to answering some of these questions, so if Members will bear with me and let me get my speech out, I will have time to answer further interventions.
The context in which we were operating was the fear that we would run out of vital testing equipment, that we would not have the capacity to test people for covid and that, as a result, this deadly virus would continue to pass from person to person, overwhelm our national health service and cause untold devastation. It is the duty of any responsible Government to do all they can to prevent such a grim outcome, to save lives, to protect our key workers and to partner with as many people as are available with the experience and expertise to get things done. So we engaged with many thousands of businesses, large and small, from all over the country and all around the world, to set out what we needed and find out what they could do.
Randox has been globally recognised in the in vitro diagnostics industry for nearly 40 years. It is a British business with roots in Northern Ireland and a history of developing diagnostics solutions for hospitals, clinical settings and research labs. Even as early as March 2020, Randox had lab-based polymerase chain reaction testing capacity for covid-19. Against the fears that we would not have enough testing capacity, we worked with companies with existing diagnostic capability—that is just plain common sense.
As I have said, I would like to press on. I know that Members are very keen to get my words —[Interruption.] My words are correct.
As I was saying, this was against the fears that we would not have enough testing capacity. Members must remember those days. We all knew it. We saw it on the news every single night. So we worked with the companies that had existing diagnostic capabilities, and that is just plain common sense.
I will not give way until I get some facts out, so can hon. Members please bear with me?
Moreover, working with Randox made sense with respect to our cross-UK efforts against covid-19, giving us the ability to use the existing facilities in Northern Ireland for the benefit of the whole United Kingdom. Initial contracts with Randox were procured under regulations that allow us to marshal goods and services with extreme urgency in exceptional circumstances, and these were extremely exceptional circumstances, Mr Speaker. There is no question but that Randox played its part. The initial challenge that it faced was the challenge facing Governments the world over: a shortage of machinery and transport. None the less, it quickly overcame them to play a critical role in our pandemic response.
An independent assessment in June 2020, which Dawn Butler might like to read, found that Randox was ahead of all other labs in terms of its process, its plans and its reporting, so a six-month extension was agreed in September 2020. By March this year, Randox was actually exceeding its contract target—
I will get the target out and then I shall let the right hon. Gentleman intervene.
The target that Randox exceeded, which was its contract target, was processing more than 120,000 tests in a single day.
I am grateful to the Minister for running through the dates. She may recall that the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care came to this House in, I believe, July of last year to announce that 750,000 Randox tests that were being used in care homes had to be withdrawn because they were faulty. Subsequent to that announcement, the Government awarded a £350 million contract to Randox. Why?
Why? It was because the Government were trying to get out as many tests as possible. As I said, Randox processed—[Interruption.] Just to put it into context, Randox has, to date, carried out more than 15 million tests for covid-19, and identified more than 700,000 positive cases. That is 700,000 people who might otherwise have gone on to spread the disease. As a result of this testing capacity, they received the right advice to isolate, thereby protecting their friends, their family and society at large.
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. I am prepared to take at face value everything that she says about Randox, but it does then raise in my mind the question of what exact benefit the company had from engaging the services of Owen Paterson. That being the case, will the Minister commit now at the Dispatch Box to publish the minutes of the telephone conference call of which he was part?
Obviously, I cannot answer that question. The right hon. Gentleman knows that the only people who can answer that question are those at Randox and the gentleman that he referred to—Owen Paterson.
Just to be quite clear about this, is the Minister saying that her Department does not hold minutes of that conference call? That, from my experience of having been in government, would be a quite remarkable departure from accepted procedure.
With respect, I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman has ever been in government during a global pandemic. What I was answering was his question about the value to a company of employing someone on a contract. I cannot answer that. On the minutes, I think that we have said that we will publish things here in the Library. [Interruption.] I will get on to that.
Order. May I just say that this is a very interesting question? I know that the Minister has been put on the spot in being asked to provide an answer, but meetings should be logged and minutes of official meetings should be held. If the Minister cannot provide an answer to this very serious question today, I hope that it will be looked into, because it will bring a lot of other things into question if what has been said is indeed the case. I do not want to make a political point, but I am very concerned about this matter for all of us in this House. I am sorry to interrupt you, Minister.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Can you make it absolutely clear—and I have been in government— that regardless of whether we are in a pandemic, there is an agenda for ministerial meetings and a civil servant present? A pandemic is not an excuse for not recording minutes of meetings.
In fact, to answer that point of order, I would have thought that it was even more important to hold meetings on the basis that we were in a pandemic, with minutes that we could refer back to. I am very, very concerned. I do not want to put anybody on the spot, but at some point this matter does need to be clarified.
I will pull out that part of my speech now, so that people can hear it. We will give Members what information is held and in scope. We will come back to Parliament and deposit it in the Libraries of the House. We will commit to do that. I would like to press on now.
I am genuinely very grateful to the Minister. I have a lot of respect for her and she should know that. She may not be able to answer this question, but I hope that she will actually say that she cannot answer it. She appeared to say to Mr Carmichael that he had not been a Minister during this time of national emergency. That is true, but can she be absolutely clear whether she knows if the conversation between Lord Bethell and a representative of Randox was minuted by civil servants, or does she know that it was not minuted, or will she simply not say? It would be helpful for the record today if we had that information. Does she know?
Obviously, the hon. Gentleman knows that, personally, I was not there at the time. The meeting to which he refers was a courtesy call from the Minister to Randox to discuss RNA extraction kits. That was declared on the ministerial register of calls and meetings, but I have been unable to locate a formal note of that meeting. By the way, that meeting was after any contracts were let with Randox, which I will get onto.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. We have just heard the Minister say that there are no minutes of this so-called courtesy call. Can you tell us what we, as Members of the House, can do on learning this through this House, given the astonishing nature of the revelation that the Minister has just made that there have been meetings with no minutes? These are official meetings that involve Government Ministers, and she is unable to locate a copy of what happened at a meeting that clearly took place.
In all fairness, the Minister should be given time. There are Parliamentary Private Secretaries here, and I am sure that they will have heard and will try to get an answer to the question if we do not have that information. I would expect Government meetings with other people present always to be minuted. If they are not, it opens up another question. I do not want that question to be opened up, as I would prefer it to be answered. Therefore, I am sure that, at some point, we will get that answer. It is a fair point to be made, but in fairness to the Minister, I do not want to end up with a frenzy. Hopefully, some information will be fed back to her—I am looking to the Parliamentary Private Secretaries behind her to see whether it can be fed in at the moment.
Can I please just get some of these points out?
Of course, there are a phenomenal set of safeguards in place. The National Audit Office has reviewed the testing contract, and it has confirmed that all the proper contracting procedures were followed.
The Minister has just said that there would be a review of what information is available that is “within scope”. Will she just make it clear to the House what she understands to be within scope?
I do not have a definition of what is within scope, but we will provide that information.
The NAO report said that
“the ministers had properly declared their interests, and we found no evidence of their involvement in procurement decisions or contract management.”
The NAO has confirmed that all the proper contracting procedures were followed. As with all Government contracts, contracts with Randox are published online and can be found through Contracts Finder. I think that hon. Members will find that the date of the contract precedes any minutes or meetings that we have been talking about. In case any Opposition Members have forgotten, Ministers have no role in the evaluation of Government contracts, in the procurement process, in the value of contracts, in the scope of contracts or in the length of contracts. From start to finish, the procurement process is rightly carried out by commercial professionals, who are governed by a strict regulatory framework. I know this, because I was a procurement manager for much of my career before coming here.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The Minister has been given a really hard gig today and I am actually beginning to feel sorry for her, because she has been given a script that is filled with inaccuracies, and the NAO report is filled with inaccuracies. It is really worrying that the Minister is continuing with an inaccurate script.
First of all, that is a point of debate, and the hon. Lady would not expect me to be brought into the debate. Ministers must answer points in their way, and it is for the Opposition to open up the statements that have been made. That is why we have Opposition days, in which I expect people to pose questions. I am sure that when the Minister sums up, she will fill in some of the voids. I am not responsible for what the Minister says; I certainly do not want to be and it would be wrong even to consider that I should be.
May I just make a little bit of progress, as I have been generous with my time? I am happy to be here and I am trying to answer hon. Members’ question as best I can.
I was a procurement professional for many years, and in preparing for today I have spoken to all the procurement professionals involved. We have to remember that they are highly trained, highly commercial, highly professional and highly regulated, and that they have an independent process that Ministers do not get involved with. I have only been a Minister for just under two years, but I can confirm that that is the procurement process.
I do not need any help on the procurement process.
I can confirm that no exception was made for Randox. Of course, Ministers have a role in understanding what is happening with contracts. We have calls and meetings with our commercial partners to find out what challenges they are facing, to drive them to go as fast as they can and to hold them to the commitments that they have made. Such meetings are only natural, but they are nothing to do with the actual contracts; they are to do with delivery and holding our partners to account on their commitments, as is only natural. We have behaved exactly as hon. Members would expect from a responsible Government operating in a national crisis.
The Government do not intend to vote against this Humble Address. We will review what information we hold in scope and—in answer to the question from Seema Malhotra —we will define the scope. We will come back to Parliament and deposit the information in the Libraries, in line with the Government’s established stance on responses to Humble Addresses.
The VIP lane process was part of ensuring that we were aware of companies’ capabilities. At that point, they then went through a procurement process with highly trained, professional procurement people, whom I have spoken to and who would be quite insulted by the right hon. Lady’s thinking that they had not followed all the procedures.
This does not mean that we do not believe that there are lessons to learn; of course there are. No one can face such an unprecedented challenge and conclude that everything worked perfectly, and that is not what we are saying. We remain committed to procurement reform and are looking at coming forward with some. Last December, we published our transforming public procurement Green Paper, which provided commercial terms across Government. We have clarified the roles and responsibilities of everyone involved in decision making, and are determined to do all that we can to ensure that we have a simple and less bureaucratic system that is underpinned by the enduring principles of fair and open competition.
Does the Minister agree that this is a situation that happened across the United Kingdom? I am under the impression that the SNP Government in Scotland gave £500 million-worth of contracts without competition, so what happened in England and the UK was no different to what happened in other parts of the country; this is how everyone operates in a global pandemic.
The most important thing in a global pandemic is to secure supply of something that is not widely available across the world—to get security of supply—and that is what we did. We all know that there was a time when we were worried about running out of PPE, about not having enough testing capacity and about not having the large scale of supplies needed to meet the demand. Of course, any responsible Government would do that.
As I was saying, we are looking at procurement systems and are determined to do all that we can to ensure that we have a system that is simple and less bureaucratic, but which is still underpinned by the enduring principles of fair and open competition. We are also implementing the recommendations of the first and second Boardman reviews into improving procurement.
Let me just finish this point and then I will give way, because I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is listening carefully and wants to hear these words.
Hon. Members will be aware that we have established an independent public inquiry that will begin work in the spring, with full powers under the Inquiries Act 2005, including the ability to compel the production of all relevant materials. We expect that the inquiry will be a valuable opportunity for us all.
May I just correct a couple of things that the Minister has said? First, Exercise Cygnus and Exercise Alice both identified shortages of PPE should there be a global pandemic, although it was never a question of if; it was always a question of when. Secondly, on the procurement disaster, the Minister should not forget that the Government were found to have acted unlawfully in the publication of their contracts in the action that I took with the Good Law Project and other hon. Members.
That is very kind. I have a lot of time for the Minister, as do other Opposition Members. Like her, I was a procurement professional. I would not have been allowing this sort of behaviour—the actions of Lord Bethell, in particular—in the organisation for which I used to work, and I am sure that she would not have done so. This is a systemic problem in Government. A Department that I was dealing with, totally unrelated to the pandemic—I will not say who the Minister was—insisted on a meeting without any other representation and then insisted on texting me the information. The Minister should be aware that there is a problem at the heart of Government.
Yes, we are both fellow procurement professionals—from the same industry, indeed. Procurement professionals like us feel very strongly that they would not have behaved to anything but the highest standards. They are highly commercial, highly regulated and highly professional, and they are the people responsible for the contracts.
In closing, I thank colleagues for their contributions—
The Minister is being very generous with her time. She has listed with great vigour all the things the Government have done to try to be transparent and all the things they will do to try to be transparent, so will she confirm to the House which way the Government will be voting on our motion?
The hon. Gentleman may have missed it when I said that we were abstaining.
This is an important debate and I do take this issue very seriously. I am a professional of 30 years’ standing before coming here. My professional reputation is important to me, and I make sure that we uphold the highest standards of professionalism. Make no mistake: it is important to me to get this right. There are facts here, and I have set out the facts correctly. We do not want to play at political games and gimmicks: this is not the right time to do that. It may well play well with audiences on Members’ social media channels, but it is not the right approach.
The Minister has made it clear that the Government are not going to oppose this motion, so we might reasonably expect it to pass. She said on a number of occasions that she will revert to the House with regard to the question of scope. The motion is very detailed on the question of scope, and we anticipate that it will become an instruction to the Government. Can she give an indication of what material her Department, or any Government Department, might hold that would not be disclosed under the terms of this motion?
As I said very clearly, we will set out the scope and set out the documents.
In a spirit of openness and understanding, we need to see how we as a country can rise to meet the challenges of the future. We need to work with people who help to make the difference. This was a very important process. We have vaccinated and tested millions. We should be proud of that. We have built, from virtually nothing, the largest testing centre in Europe. We should be proud of that. Tens of thousands of people are alive today who otherwise may not have been. This Government have moved heaven and earth to get things done. While we continue to approach this serious subject with a willingness to learn, we must also do so with pride as to what has been delivered—pride that when we were needed, we stepped up for our nation when it needed it most.
This debate may not be a particular pleasure for the Minister, but it is a pleasure to follow her and her valiant attempt at defending the indefensible. Her efforts might have been more credible if her colleagues had done more than abandon her to her fate. Even when the emergency Bat-Signal had gone out from the Whips Office, it seems that this paltry crew is all that could be assembled to support her. It very much looks to us as though that is an admission of guilt by Conservative Members. I was looking forward to hearing their stout defence of their Government, and I can only assume therefore that that stout defence does not actually exist.
I thank and congratulate Angela Rayner on the way that she introduced this motion. I put on record our full support for it, because there has to be full transparency about exactly what went on between Owen Paterson when he was a member of this House, representatives of Randox, Lord Bethell, Government Ministers or former Government Ministers, and their special advisers and officials. That full transparency has to include all electronic communications, as well as notes and minutes of meetings between all or some of those parties in relation to the awarding of hundreds of millions of pounds-worth of contracts to Randox Laboratories.
I tried to intervene on the Minister but she did not give way, so I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. The issue about Lord Bethell is not just about his mobile phone. During the period between
I absolutely take on board what the hon. Gentleman says, and I am sure the Government have heard it as well. There are many, many questions to be answered, including by Lord Bethell himself.
It is essential that this is done, because a stench of corruption is engulfing this Government, who now stand accused of making certain well-placed individuals fabulously wealthy during this pandemic, not because of their particular skill or acumen in business but primarily because of their political connections to the Conservative party. We should give thanks to Owen Paterson, because it was his behaviour and the bizarre attempt by the Prime Minister, the Tory Chief Whip and the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster—albeit at the expense of the reputation of this House and all of us who sit in it—that has finally blown the lid off this scandal once and for all.
It was almost exactly a year ago that the National Audit Office revealed that companies with the right political connections who wanted to supply the UK with personal protective equipment had been directed to a “high priority” channel, purely on the recommendation of a Government Minister, an MP, a Member of the House of Lords or a senior Government official.
Out of 78 contracts awarded to Scottish firms for PPE, 29 were new contracts for £100 million-worth of PPE going to companies that did not have any experience before. Those 29 companies in Scotland with no background in PPE got contracts worth £100 million in Scotland, so what is the difference between that and what happened in the UK? At least Randox had the experience in these things. I am a bit confused—sorry.
The difference, quite simply, is that we never fast-tracked our pals, we never operated a get- rich-quick scheme for our pals, and we did not stuff unelected second Chambers full of people who bankrolled our party.
I represent the constituency where Randox’s headquarters is, and they are a major employer. There are not that many firms or pharmaceutical companies in the United Kingdom that would have had the capacity to deliver the amounts of tests that needed to be done at that time.
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, but what has to be remembered is that nobody is above scrutiny, and if there is nothing to hide they should have nothing to fear. This is all about scrutiny and shining a light where I fear a lot of Conservative Members do not want a light to be shone.
No, I will move on.
Once in that “high priority” channel, these companies were 10 times more likely to be successful than companies that did not have links to politicians and senior Government officials, and who were therefore, by definition, “low priority”. In and of itself, the existence of this “high priority” channel is quite remarkable, but the fact that, according to the National Audit Office, the companies referred through this route were considered by the cross-Government PPE team to be somehow more credible and therefore to be treated with more urgency makes this particularly sinister. It turns out that there were no written rules as to how the “high priority” channel should operate, meaning that those companies who had given political support and had access to hundreds of millions of pounds of public funds were not subject to the usual rules of procurement. They could bypass the essential paperwork that would usually be a prerequisite for safeguarding against misuse of public funds and did not even have to go through the anti-corruption checks. It seems, as I said, that it was little more than a get-rich-quick scheme for the Conservatives and their pals.
Beyond being a get-rich-quick scheme, does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that there are longer-term implications about where the data from the testing being done by Randox goes? When I completed a Randox test the other day, I noticed that the system does not seem to fit with the NHS and there is seemingly no data sharing between the Randox tests and the NHS. Does he know more about that?
Unfortunately not; I thank the hon. Gentleman for highlighting it. I think it is something in the air in which we live, and it is a very important point.
What we are seeing now is crony capitalism at its worst. It stinks, and the closer we get to it, the more it reeks.
I have in the past called for a full and independent investigation into this scandal, and I repeat that call again this afternoon. I believe that the actions of the disgraced former Member for North Shropshire strengthen that case further. As Angela Rayner said, very serious questions need to be answered. If they are not answered, the reputation of this Government, who seem to be stumbling from one crisis and scandal to another, will be further damaged, but so too will the reputation of this place, the people in it and politics generally. I understand that the Government are desperate for this to go away, but it will not go away until these incredibly serious issues are addressed. I suspect that the Government know that, and they understand that despite this place being full of large carpets, there probably is not one large enough for them to sweep this under. It will not go away and it must be addressed.
We know that between November 2016 and July 2018, Owen Paterson lobbied officials on behalf of Randox, which paid him £100,000 a year to act as its adviser. We also know that in March 2020, Randox Laboratories was awarded a no-bid Government contract worth £133 million. Despite being fast-tracked and essentially handed this multi-million-pound contract, it appears that Randox was not equipped to perform the task it had been given a shedload of public money to do. As The Times reported last week, just days after being given the contract, the company informed officials that they would struggle to carry out enough covid-19 tests without Government help, resulting in the Government sending the Army in to help. In an internal memo seen by The Times, a Government official wrote that the company was
“nervous about having sufficient systems”,
and that the Army was
“on way to Glasgow to pick up” two machines urgently needed for testing.
That is a very good idea. Perhaps Alexander Stafford would like to make a speech. The memo seen by The Times also states that the company feared that it did not “have enough extraction systems” and “was hoping yourselves” —the Government—
“could help us access extraction systems from universities, hospitals anywhere…Any we can get our hands on.”
Crucially, The Times further reported that this memo was written by an official in the Department of Health and Social Care after a phone call on
I want to be very clear that the contract is published. The contract date is
Therefore the Minister should have no fears whatever about full disclosure, because that is what the motion asks the Government to do. It is not about selective disclosure; it has to be full disclosure and everything that was said and done among the parties that we have mentioned has to be put in front of this House and open for scrutiny.
The sending in of the Army to help Randox was not the only error or controversy that year. In August 2020, the UK’s medicines regulator had to ask Randox to recall three quarters of a million unused coronavirus testing kits after concerns were raised about safety. By any standards, Randox had not exactly covered itself in glory in the first few months of the contract, so it raises the question as to how six months later it managed to secure another Government contract, this time worth £347 million. That took its total contracts to half a billion pounds in six months. It really has been a bit of a Klondike gold rush for the Northern Ireland-based company that employed a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to lobby the Government on its behalf. As I said in response to Paul Girvan, who is no longer in his place, everything could be above board and everyone could be beyond reproach, but we deserve to know.
“I believe that secret corporate lobbying…goes to the heart of why people are so fed up with politics. It arouses people’s worst fears and suspicions about how our political system works, with money buying power, power fishing for money and a cosy club at the top making decisions in their own interest. It’s an issue that…has tainted our politics for too long, an issue that exposes the far-too-cosy relationship between politics, government, business and money.”
In the same speech, he said:
“If we win the election, we will take a lead on this issue by making sure that ex-ministers are not allowed to use their contacts and knowledge—gained while being paid by the public to serve the public—for their own private gain.”
“We can’t go on like this…it’s time we shone the light…on lobbying in our country and forced our politics to come clean about who is buying power and influence.”
As we would say in Glasgow, aye, right, so ye will. Today, David Cameron, that self-styled great reformer, thanks to the Greensill scandal is up to his neck in the same cronyism, corruption and sleaze that he promised to call out and eradicate when in opposition. If it was not so sad, it would be funny.
While many of us very much welcome that Mr Paterson is no longer a Member of this House, the mess he has left behind needs clearing up. Until it is cleared up, the widespread belief that politics in this country is corrupt and this Government are corrupt will not go away. That perception is not helped by the Prime Minister himself deciding to go to Glasgow and stand in front of a hall full of world leaders and feel the need to declare that the United Kingdom is not a corrupt country. Here is the Prime Minister’s chance to do something about it. He can make a start by allowing full transparency over exactly what went on between Owen Paterson when he was a Member of this House, Randox Laboratories, Lord Bethell, Government Ministers past and present and their special advisers. Should he refuse to do that, his performance in Glasgow last week will be seen as one of a Prime Minister who protests too much.
I was not planning to speak in this debate, but I have a few remarks I would like to make. As one of the co-chairs of the all-party parliamentary group on anti-corruption and responsible tax, I take these kinds of accusations very seriously, and as someone who has served on the Public Accounts Committee, I have done my fair share of time looking at how Government procurement works. There are some very serious questions that need very serious and comprehensive answers, but we have to be pretty generous in spirit to the situation that the Government found themselves in back in March 2020. We had a pandemic of a new virus. We did not have anything like the testing capacity or the PPE in stock that we needed, and we had to try to find solutions to those things quickly. I just do not think it would have been feasible in that situation for every normal process to have been carried out for the Government to have delivered what people had every right to expect them to be trying to deliver. We should look at it generously and not expect to see every i dotted and every t crossed, as we would normally expect.
That is not to say we should expect there to be no process at all, and the Government should have been cognisant that if they were going through a rapid emergency process, there were very great risks that things could go wrong and money could be wasted, with the possibility of overpayments, buying from people who could not deliver, and not ending up with the right amount of stuff. That heightened the risk and should have created more sensitivity around process to ensure that such accusations could not be made retrospectively.
We should have seen the Government try to be as transparent as possible about what happened, what was bought, what was paid and about who introduced who and how. That is where the Government have gone wrong at the end of this process. I can accept that mistakes were bound to be made at the start. I can probably accept that we probably wasted money, paid too much, paid the wrong people and things went wrong. In the middle of this panic, if I knew someone who I could trust and who I thought could deliver, I may well have pushed them forward more than I would ever normally do. I can accept all that may have happened, but now—we are 18 months on from that point—let us publish everything we feasibly can, and let us be as clear as we possibly can about what happened and why.
I suspect that there is not actually much to see here. I suspect we will find things that are embarrassing and things that went wrong, but I do not think we will find much evidence of corruption. However, if there is any, let us get it out there, see it, deal with the people who did it, get the price of it and then let us move on from this. I do not see why we are trying to hide things now and resisting publication, so I will support this motion if there is a vote later. May I urge the Government, on all the other things and all the other requests, just to publish it and get it out there? I am sure there is nothing to see, and I am not sure how it helps to resist all this now. Let us just do it. When we see a scandal involving a former Member of this House and the same company, it is just not prudent to think that we can not publish everything involved in that. I hope—I sincerely hope—that there is nothing there to see, but let us just be clear about it.
I think my final advice to the Government would be that the only way we will move on from these issues and clear the stench, which I am sure is unfounded, is transparency. Just publish everything, even if it is embarrassing, even if we would not normally do it and even if there were commercial restrictions we would not normally have. I think those are all trumped in this situation because we could not have the normal procedures, but we have to have a different process now. Let us be open, let us publish it and let us move on from all of this.
I am delighted to follow Nigel Mills, because I think he has tried to play this whole situation with a degree of integrity. The problem for us all is that it simply is not obvious whether that level of integrity has been followed all the way through.
Corruption does matter. The Prime Minister was very interesting at Question Time today when he used the defence of telling the House—and, through the House, the country—that we should not be talking about corruption because that lets our nation down vis-à-vis the rest of the world. The Prime Minister is absolutely wrong: when there is a whiff of corruption, it is vital that we talk about it and vital that we are seen to be working to uncover it. That is the problem we face.
I have no confidence, this House has no confidence, and nor even do Government Members. Government Back Benchers are not here in any numbers. [Interruption.] Many Conservative Back Benchers were not in for the opening speeches—the Opposition Benches were full—because many of them are concerned about this whiff of corruption. [Interruption.] Alexander Stafford may want to ask me to give way, rather than chuntering away from a sedentary position. I am sure what he was saying was very interesting, but it was inaudible and therefore irrelevant.
Order. Now that the hon. Gentleman has properly intervened and addressed the House not from a sedentary position, I can officially hear him, and I will just make it clear that he should not say “you”. The substance of what he says is not a matter for me, but he should not say “you”.
We have had quite a lot of that today, including during Prime Minister’s questions. Just do not do it. Let us try to keep to the rules.
Quite right, Madam Deputy Speaker. In fact, had you not said that, I would have defended you, in that it is certainly not your debate, except in so far as it belongs to the House and, importantly, to the country, because that is what matters in this issue. It matters that the public have an opportunity to know what went on during this whole saga.
I want to talk briefly about the VIP fast-track situation. In November 2020, I approached Health Ministers about a constituent’s company, Jones & Brooks, which is a printing company that has printed extensively for the national health service. This was at the same time as the VIP fast-track structure was coming in. So good was the VIP fast-track structure for me as an Opposition Member of Parliament that it took me until, I think, July this year to get a proper response, and that was only when I insisted on meeting the Minister for Health, Edward Argar. To give him credit, once this was brought firmly to his attention—I had done it many times—I got an answer. It was the answer I did not want: my constituent’s company did not get any joy from that exchange. However, what a world of difference there is between companies that can talk to Ministers, be put on a VIP fast track and have the opportunity to be awarded contracts—with or without proper surveillance by those in charge—and those, as in the case of my company, that are given no such consideration.
The Minister for Care and Mental Health has to take that on board because procurement does matter. The opportunity for people to engage in the procurement process matters, because one of the many ways of tilting the weighing scales of life is simply not to allow people even to be in the bidding process. That does matter, and it is the difference between those on the VIP structure and those such as Jones & Brooks and my constituent Ronnie Blair, who were not even allowed to get to the starting blocks. It does matter, because that is actually low-level corruption.
Ronnie Blair, the managing director of Jones & Brooks, offered me no money, and I would not have taken any money anyway. Maybe that is where it goes wrong: if there is no money changing hands, maybe it does not oil the wheels of procurement. That is an outrageous thing for me to say, and it would be much worse were it true. However, it is true, because we know that Owen Paterson was paid, we know that Owen Paterson broke the lobbying rules and we know that Owen Paterson got access to Ministers, but we do not know what difference getting that access to Ministers made. That is the missing link in this whole sad jigsaw. There are so many things we do not know.
Yes, I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has now moved a long way on this issue. I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister, who two weeks ago was trying to cover up this scandal and this saga of corruption, is now in favour of openness. That is good. The Minister told us earlier that the Government would not vote against the Opposition motion today, and again that is genuine process. However, you—not you, Madam Deputy Speaker, but the Government—are in the slow learner’s lane on this. The public want to see real alacrity, real commitment and belief that things are going to be sorted out, because we have to get to the bottom of this.
The issue of the noble Lord Bethell is now central. We know that Randox was awarded huge sums of public money—half a billion pounds of public money, which is an enormous amount of money. That may or may not be legitimate vis-à-vis the crisis we faced, but we do know that it failed, with 750,000 tests, to deliver a product that actually worked. That is enormously important, and it is enormously important to know why, after that experience, we saw another contract being awarded to the same company, which could not do the work.
That matters, and the public need reassurance that that was not as a result of the weighing scales of life being altered unfairly in Randox’s favour. In the end, we are not talking about something trivial; we are talking about public safety and, in the case of covid, public life and death. The wrong tests could give results that led to people dying, so again this is not a trivial matter that we can simply sweep under the carpet, as other hon. Members have said.
The position of noble Lord Bethell is fundamental on this. The Minister told me that she did not know whether his phone calls were minuted by departmental officials. If they were not, that is outrageous. Being in a crisis is no excuse. There was no crisis in the Minister’s office and there was no crisis meaning that a civil servant could not be on the phone call, and that is simply the way things ought to have been done. We need to know whether those calls were minuted. If any call was not minuted, there is a real problem, because we do not know what other calls the noble Lord Bethell engaged in. That matters because there may be some things we shall never know from a noble Lord who is so, shall we say, casual in his acquaintanceship with his telephone. [Laughter.] It really does matter, because while I am grateful to my hon. Friends for laughing, it would be funny if it were not so serious.
The questions that the noble Lord Bethell has to answer are those that the Government have to answer. It is good that the Minister is committed to ensuring that the scope is properly identified, and I welcome what she said. The motion before the House defines that scope, but the commitment that the Government will honour it is fundamental, and if it is not discharged, that would be outrageous. If it is not honoured that will probably not be the Minister’s decision, but I hope she will take back the message that her reputation is sullied if others refuse to allow this investigation process to be completed.
We have to know what took place. The only way we can give the public confidence in our public life, in politicians, and in public procurement, is if they have a guarantee that when things go right they really have gone right, and that when they go wrong, we will dig and dig until we see what went wrong. We must ensure that those responsible are no longer in that position, and that as far as we can prevent them, such things will never happen again. This situation matters. It is about public money—enormous amounts of public money—but in the end, it is about public wellbeing, life and death.
I suffered from covid. I was in hospital from covid. I saw doctors, nurses and hospital staff of all kinds coming forward when I had covid, and taking the risk that, without proper PPE at the time, I would give it to them. That was early in the whole process, and we may come to the conclusion that such risk was unavoidable. I am very grateful to those who treated me and saved my life, but I am concerned that nobody else should have lost their life because of a dodgy procurement contract. That is why this matters. We have to know.
To echo the words of my hon. Friend Tony Lloyd, this matters. Blackburn was hit harder than most areas, so I took a keen interest in what the Government were doing to help ease the situation. In June 2020, I raised with the then Secretary of State for Health and Social Care my concerns over Randox tests. Care homes were trying to apply the test, but the swabs were snapping and there was a danger that they could go down an old person’s throat. We found that residents were developing blisters in their mouths.
Similarly to Nigel Mills, at that time the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care said to me, “Nothing to see here. It’s fine. There’s no problem with these tests, and we are satisfied with the health and safety standards.” Two weeks later we tried to get tests to replace the banned tests, but we were told that care homes could not have them because none would be available until September. That was disgraceful, and it had a huge impact on elderly and vulnerable people, as well as a huge financial and emotional impact on providers of care within our communities. In July, the Secretary of State admitted that those 750,000 tests had to be withdrawn.
We are talking about contracts and their allocation, and unlike other Members who have spoken, I am not an expert in procurement. However, this statement claims that there were serious shortcomings with the contracts. Documents show that ahead of the
“help them source equipment if they are short or struggling to get it”.
Civil servants confirmed that Randox needed additional equipment for
“loans of the various things we need.”
That was escalated to No. 10, which was told it had to send letters to universities to assist with shortfalls in the equipment. The UK Government had to pay airlines to fly used test kits from England to Northern Ireland, so that Randox could analyse them in the laboratory.
Did that not set alarm bells ringing that there was something wrong with the tests? Why did we award the contract for £133 million? Why did the then Secretary of State for Health say, “Nothing to see here, move on”, only to admit that there was a fault two weeks later? That is bad. I recognise the urgency of getting test kits, and we could excuse some mistakes in the first three months, but to then award another contract six months later when there were still problems, is outright disgraceful. It was putting lives and businesses in Blackburn at risk.
The Minister spoke about the National Audit Office. According to its investigation of Government procurement during the covid-19 pandemic, there were failings to document how risks were considered and were to be managed. There was no competition and a failure to justify why particular suppliers were chosen, or how potential conflicts of interest were identified and managed. What does that say about the objectivity of those Ministers? What does it say about Ministers taking decisions fairly, on merit and openly? These decisions should be taken in an open and transparent manner, with accountability, and Ministers should submit themselves to the scrutiny of the House, not just to ensure that they are held accountable, but so that the people we in this House serve get the service they deserve.
Over the past 20 months, we have learned that these things cost lives. The Government need to move forward from this shameful episode and strengthen not just the standards that we have in this House and must abide by, but the standards of public service. Our constituents deserve better. Blackburn has been devastated by the pandemic, and failings over test and trace have cost financially, emotionally and lives. The Government must be held to account. They must accept their mistakes and publish the detail to learn from those mistakes. They must act to ensure that such mistakes are never allowed to happen again.
I feel exceptionally sorry for the Minister, who has been asked to come here and defend the indefensible. I have been battling with the Department for Health and Social Care since the start of the pandemic and I have never had adequate responses to letters. It has always been, “This is an emergency. We’ll get back to you.” I asked the Secretary of State about the £133 million and how much would be recouped from that failed contract, but I am yet to receive a response. I do not know whether the Minister is aware of this, but Blackburn has a serious shortage of GPs and some of that £133 million —[Interruption.] If she would just pay attention, it would be good. If the Minister would commit to investigating completely—she can use Blackburn as an example of the failings—and to ensuring that she does everything possible to level up some of the unequalness that she has created across east Lancashire, I would be more than happy, but it is important that lessons are learned and actions taken.
I am grateful to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to take part in what I think has been one of the most remarkable debates I have seen since I became a Member of Parliament in 2001. Nigel Mills, who has just removed himself from the Chamber, said that he suspects there is not much to see here. I suspect he is probably right about that. But when we hear the concession from the Minister at the Dispatch Box that no record was taken of the telephone conference call involving Lord Bethell and Owen Paterson, and when we hear the somewhat improbable history outlined by Angela Rayner about the relationship between Lord Bethell and his various mobile phones, suspicious minds such as mine—and probably even worse—will ask why it would be that there is nothing much here to see.
I just want to make clear what I said. We have been unable to locate a formal note of the meeting—that is what I have been told so far. That does not mean there isn’t one. We have been unable to locate one, but of course everything we have will be put in the Library.
That is, indeed, an important distinction. I wonder whether the search for these minutes has extended as far as the shredding room. I say to the Minister and the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Maggie Throup, who will wind up the debate, that it would be helpful if the House could be told how many other documents might be within the purview of the specification outlined in the motion. That is, how many are similarly difficult to locate?
I caution those on the Treasury Bench that saying that documents and text messages and WhatsApp messages on Ministers’ phones cannot be found only lasts so long as a defence. A full inquiry is coming and the longer that somewhat less than substantial defences are thrown up, and the more dust is kicked up, the worse it will be for Government Ministers at the end of the day. If the information is there, with the knowledge and control of any Government Department, it should be disclosed under the terms of the motion, which the House is going to agree to.
The Minister said a number of times, including when I challenged her, that the Government would define the scope. With respect to her, the Government will not define the scope; it is the House that will define the scope, which has been very clearly laid out in the motion. I do not see what justification or excuse there could be, given the fairly careful construction of the motion, for not disclosing information. More important than that, even if there is a tiny loophole it is a question of doing the right thing and being seen to honour not just the letter but the spirit of the motion, which the House will pass later. That is why, to quote David Cameron again, sunlight is the best disinfectant. We need to have the fullest possible disclosure.
This is a convenient time for me to intervene because that is the point I want to put to the right hon. Gentleman. As he knows, ministerial meetings are always minuted, but if documents are missing, what will the public believe if they find out that meetings have not been minuted? Even if it turns out in reality—in God’s time—that nothing bad happened, the public will, rightly, still believe that somebody is trying to pull the wool over their eyes. Put simply, that is part of the distrust in politicians and in Government. We have to clear it up and ensure that we re-establish our reputation.
One can only imagine what the public might believe in these circumstances. I fear that it may not be generous. Actually, you know what? It does not just reflect badly on the Government; it reflects badly on all of us in public life. That is why the way in which the Government have approached this whole matter since that dreadful vote two weeks ago has done so much damage to the standing of public life.
I know a bit about this issue because I spent the early years of my legal practice as a member of the civil service. I did my traineeship as a procurator fiscal depute at the Crown Office back in the dark days of the 1990s. We kept everything—we minuted everything—and when we had finished a meeting, we filed the minutes. Those pieces of paper sat in filing cabinets and archives for 30 years or however long it took, at which point they were taken out and put into the public domain. What that process of preparing files for publication taught me was that not everybody in the public service was always very careful in the way in which they filed pieces of paper. Anybody who has ever been in legal practice will know that occasionally papers for one client get mixed with papers for another.
As I say, that was back in the dark ages. I suspect that the notes prepared these days are not handwritten in fountain pens on little pieces of paper. There will be electronic records of them, and those electronic records are virtually impossible to destroy. That is why the question of documents being difficult to find stretches my credulity.
We all have respect for the Minister. When she started her speech, the only Government Members present were two Ministers, two Parliamentary Private Secretaries, a Whip and the hon. Member for Amber Valley. As I have said, I have never seen the House so poorly populated for a debate like this. Indeed, I have to say that I have never seen the civil service Box as thinly populated as it is today. That in itself is quite telling, because it comes back to the way in which the Government approach the issue. The most powerful people in any Parliament are Government Back Benchers, because they have the opportunity to defeat the Government. Anybody who has ever served in a Whips Office knows that. It is welcome that the Government will not contest the motion, but I am still worried about the lack of enthusiasm among Government Members for extracting maximum possible disclosure.
In her speech, the Minister outlined, quite properly and legitimately, the various significant achievements, including the vaccine roll-out. She reminded us of the situation in which we found ourselves in March 2020, when we did not really know what the future held. As the hon. Member for Amber Valley said, we would not have expected every i to be dotted and ever t to be crossed. However, at that point we all gave a significant amount of power to the Government. This House passed the Coronavirus Act 2020, which gives massive amounts of latitude to the Government, because we all felt it necessary to give them the powers to do what was needed in a situation where nobody knew what the future held. What I fear has not been properly understood is that, with those powers, we gave the Government a responsibility, but they and many of those around Government seem to have seen it not so much as a responsibility as an opportunity for enrichment. I say to the Minister and to all her colleagues that that attitude is at the heart of the problem and is, essentially, an abuse of the powers that we gave them when we passed that emergency legislation in March 2020. That is why the motion is so important.
Like every other Member in this House, I frequently sit down with businesses in my constituency and will help them, if possible, to get rid of penalties. That includes people charged for a late VAT return and farmers penalised in a draconian manner for making a minor and unintentional error in their claim for an agricultural support payment. Sometimes we are able to help them; sometimes we have to just shrug our shoulders after we have tried and say, “I’m really sorry, I tried but these are the rules.” Those constituents will only ever listen to me deliver that message again if they can be satisfied that the rules that so adversely affect them also apply to everybody else. The real damage that the Government seek to do in the way they have handled these matters is that they will never again be able to tell other people that they should not be held to the same standard.
I do not intend to detain the House for long. Many of the main issues of focus have been discussed. Looking at the state that this Government have got themselves into, we could be forgiven for thinking that we are somewhere towards a descent into a kakistocracy, because this is a Government of the least able—the very worst that a society has to offer. If those in power abusing that power for private and personal gain does not represent the worst of society, I do not know what does.
Let us remind ourselves of the content of the misconduct, because we have seen parts of it before: lobbying for the awarding of contracts through an exclusive VIP channel without competition or transparency, a channel where one in 10 offers were successful compared with just 0.7% through the normal channels. It is the same process that locked tens of thousands of experienced suppliers out of the procurement process for lifesaving equipment, in favour of the likes of jewellery companies, vermin control companies and the then Health Secretary’s pub landlord.
I have lost count of how many times we have been here before. What we are discussing today is one part of a bigger trend, a culture that does not see any value in transparency and openness. In a debate where many had hoped for greater transparency, I think we have actually seen a bit more muddying of the waters from those on the Government Benches. It is worth saying—forgive me, Madam Deputy Speaker, for the plug, even though the time for it has passed—but if the Government had actually supported my Ministerial Interests (Emergency Powers) Bill last year, we could have been in a much more open place today. Instead, the Government have been dragged kicking and screaming to reveal what companies have benefited from this kind of corruption—that is what it is, at the bottom—from the £20.3 million going to Tim Horlick of Ayanda Capital to the £45.7 million going to Banks Bourne of Tanner Pharma. Fat cats benefit from corruption and it is transparency that stamps it out.
If the hon. Gentleman is using that definition of corruption, does it apply to the £500 million-worth of contracts given out by the SNP Government in Scotland to companies without any competition? I am confused. On the one hand, the SNP Government in Scotland are giving out half a billion pounds-worth of contracts without any competition, but on the other hand the UK Government are doing something similar and that is corrupt. Either they are both corrupt or neither are corrupt—I am a bit confused.
I am eternally grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that contribution. He tried to make exactly the same point before and I think that this was pointed out to him. The key difference—the Minister herself said this—is that in a global pandemic steps need to be taken and everybody recognised that steps needed to be taken that are not necessarily in line with the normal process, but the UK Government employed a VIP lane open to Government Ministers and members of the Government party that was not open to anybody else. Contracts were handed out through personal contacts, WhatsApp exchanges and paid lobbyists for companies. That is the key fundamental difference here and I am so grateful that the hon. Gentleman gave me a chance to again highlight that point. [Interruption.] If he wants to try again, I am more than happy. [Interruption.] Okay.
It is very easy to get wrapped up in the day-to-day melodrama of this saga, but it is important to take a step back and look at the bigger picture. The real scandal is not that a couple of bad eggs broke the rules; it is that the system either consistently enables rule-breaking or completely lacks rules against this kind of behaviour. For instance, take the fact that the Government were completely within their constitutional rights to retro- spectively change the rules to let Owen Paterson off the hook. In what other system would that be acceptable? The system of government here works to enable corruption, not to constrain it, precisely because it gives the Government a blank check to make up the rules as they go along. The absence of a written constitution to constrain Governments means that this can keep happening over and over again, as it did in the ‘90s and ‘00s. If they do not like the rules that are currently there, they can just rip them up and put in new ones.
So the problem here is not bad eggs, it is the system. It is the fact that no UK Government can ever be accountable to anything but themselves. Parliamentary supremacy means that any Government can override past decisions. They can rewrite the rules to their own liking. It is no wonder that Brexiteers obsessed over it in 2016, because it is what has given them the green light to conduct themselves in the ways we are discussing today. The only thing that can ever constrain a Government is political pressure, which thankfully in this situation has worked, but that is an awfie shoogly peg to base your system of government on.
For that reason, this is not the first time that corruption has reared its ugly head in this place. Sadly, I doubt it will be the last time either. The very way that this Parliament is set up lends itself to allowing this to happen. If we do not change it, nothing will change it. I am under no illusion that this scandal will lead to some dramatic new system of government rising from the ashes like a phoenix—I cannot see it—but that is on the table in Scotland. Independence means we could have a written constitution that can guarantee in law that Governments are held accountable and transparency is guaranteed.
Openness and transparency benefits all of us in this place. It is in all of our interests to make sure that that is at the top of the agenda. Our constituents demand that and it should be our duty to make sure that they get that. Public servants should be here to represent their communities, not to line their pockets. Sadly, the lining of pockets has far too often recently been what has been on the table.
I think we all agree that the Minister today has been given a hard gig, coming to the Chamber today. I hope she will not allow the Government’s approach to ruin her good reputation.
I want to pick up on some of the points the Minister mentioned in her contribution to the House today. She spoke about the National Audit Office. Let me be clear about what it actually said. It said that not all the paperwork it needed was present to enable it to follow the trail of contracts that had been issued. That means that the NAO did not have the information it needed to give a full and correct report.
Let me give the House an example of some of the companies given contracts. They say “awarded”, but really, if there is no other competition, they are just given it. Topham Guerin is one such company. The company worked for the Tory party during the 2019 general election. An independent body found that 88% of its adverts between
The NAO also said in its report that a company was put into the VIP lane by mistake. A company was put into this magical VIP lane by mistake. One would have thought that that mistake would have been found, but no. That company—a company that was put into the VIP lane by mistake—went on to get a £350 million contract. That is why we need transparency. At the end of the day, people outside this place are asking questions about what is going on inside it. They do not understand it, I do not understand it, and there are people in the Government who are trying to hide what is happening.
There are civil servants who have been at their wits’ end. They have whistleblown. The NAO report cites civil servants who raised concerns all the way through the procurement process, asking why we were paying over the odds for PPE. Even at the higher rate, we were paying over the odds for it.
Questions were raised about Samir Jassal, who is a friend of the Home Secretary. He was acting as a middleman, writing emails to the then Health Secretary saying, “Hey Matt, you’ve been most helpful previously”—very, very familiar. He went on to get some money for a company, which went from being valued at £200 to £10 million.
There are serious questions to be answered. As my right hon. Friend Angela Rayner said earlier, we either have to clean up or cover up. I hope that this is the beginning of a process to clean up.
I agree with those people who say that we have to learn the lessons. In the beginning of the pandemic—in January last year—a lot was being thrown at us, but by September 2020, we knew better. On
Randox employed the former MP, Owen Paterson, on over £500 an hour. When I asked Baroness Harding what he did, she said:
“I am afraid you would have to ask Owen Paterson rather than me.”
He was not going to tell me, and she was not going to tell me, but I sure know that the Government should be able to tell me, because at the end of the day, as we said earlier—he was a former Minister in Government—every single meeting should have been logged. There should be minutes of those meetings and they should be made public.
We are way down the road now. This Government were obsessed with centralisation, as opposed to decentralisation. We knew very early on that a local approach was better and was producing results in the 24 hours that we needed them in to help us to stem the pandemic, yet the Government were still obsessed with a centralised approach because they could hide behind the cloak of the pandemic. They could make sure that their mates got money and that the companies were given contracts that they were not suitable for. A company in my constituency, Medical Diagnosis Ltd, was not even given a look-in to provide any of the services. Local GPs and local pharmacies all wanted to be involved but they could not be because the Government were obsessed with a centralised system where they could hide behind the cloak of the pandemic. The time for hiding has come to an end.
This is a vital moment for everyone who cares about democracy, transparency, stemming the waste and abuse of public money and improving the way that our country responds to future crises. I find it extraordinary that, on a matter of such national significance, there was not a single Conservative Member on the list to speak during this debate. As my hon. Friend Mr Sheerman damningly stated, this was the worst such situation that he had seen since he came into Parliament in 1979, when I was at the very tender age of just one year old.
Let us recall the reasons why we are here today. Randox paid Owen Paterson over £8,000 a month to lobby on its behalf. Mr Paterson then sat in on a call between Randox and Lord Bethell, the Health Minister responsible for handing out Government contracts, and Randox landed Government contracts worth more than half a billion pounds without any kind of proper tender process. There was no competition, just deals done behind closed doors, with discussions between a Government Minister, a Conservative MP and the company paying him handsomely to hawk its wares around the corridors of power. That tells us everything we need to know about how this Conservative Government go about their business.
But the situation with Randox is even more disturbing because of what happened next, as my right hon. Friend Angela Rayner set out very ably. After pocketing £133 million of public money to carry out covid testing, Randox failed to deliver, so in the middle of an unprecedented national crisis, we witnessed an unedifying spectacle: the Health Secretary sending the begging bowl around our universities asking to borrow equipment, just so Randox could deliver what it promised.
I echo what so many Opposition Members have said: the Minister has a very positive reputation on this side of the House, but my word, she has been given a hospital pass today. I regret that the hole in which she was placed has become larger, rather than smaller, during this debate.
There was a point about Randox that I neglected to mention. Is it not true that it failed to meet every single target that it was set, and yet, it was still awarded another contract six months later? That is unbelievable.
Many thanks to my hon. Friend; she is absolutely right that we have seen failure upon failure upon failure to meet the targets that were set, as she knows very well from her experience in this place and her focus on health matters. I find it extraordinary that the process of the Health Secretary having to call on others so that Randox could deliver what it had promised was described as an example of the “triple helix”. I remember those days very well. I remember academics begging the Government to come to them because they said that they could deliver the testing that our country needed. Were they listened to? We all know what happened: they were not listened to—they were ignored when our country needed that testing. This was an example not of collaboration, but of outsourcing that failed spectacularly on the Conservatives’ watch.
My hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. One of the real questions relates to the fact that the Minister told us that those involved in procurement were not constrained whatever by Government and Ministers’ actions. I know not whether that is absolutely accurate or not—we have to find out—but, in any case, did not the procurement process fail at precisely the point at which there was no examination of Randox’s capacity to deliver what it said it would? That is not clever procurement.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point to the concrete impact of these failures and that procurement system. I will come to those matters, which he detailed very ably in the important speech he made a few minutes ago.
Again, the Minister maintained that all details of contracts are published. As my hon. Friend Debbie Abrahams set out, the Conservative Government were taken to court and found to have acted unlawfully because of their determination not to provide transparency over contracts. There is, again, a rewriting of history. What else did we see at that time? We saw the Conservative Government paying airlines to fly kits out to Randox’s laboratory in Northern Ireland for them to be analysed. We saw the Health Secretary warning people not to use Randox testing kits because they were “not up to standard”. In the end, Randox had to recall 750,000 tests because they were not good enough, as my right hon. Friend Jonathan Ashworth rightly explained. It threw away more than 12,000 swabs in a single day because they had to be voided.
The Minister said that we should “pause and reflect” on what happened. Many of us have been pausing and reflecting, and we have been remembering what happened. Let us cast our minds back to the beginning of the pandemic. We remember when our country faced that nationwide testing shortage as the devastation of covid ripped through our communities. We remember when people were scared, when they were sick, when they were dying. We remember when, in Plymouth, people were told that their nearest testing centre was in Inverness. We remember when, in Bolton, at the epicentre of the pandemic, people could not access any testing at all. We remember, as my hon. Friend Kate Hollern set out devastatingly, when care homes could not access the testing that they needed for elderly and vulnerable people. We remember the impact that that had.
The stakes could not have been higher. Lives depended on the Government securing the best possible testing contract. Almost 40,000 people died in care homes in the year after Owen Paterson’s phone call with Lord Bethell and Randox—care homes that took in people from hospital who had not been tested at all, and care homes whose own staff and residents could not access the tests that they needed until nearly two months after the national lockdown began, by which point it was too late. As my hon. Friend Tony Lloyd said, we have to know whether this contracting played a role in those awful, awful outcomes.
How did the Government respond to their abject failures to deliver? Did they learn the lessons when new contracts came up, such as a contract for testing twice as lucrative as the previous one? Of course not. They doubled down—and Randox doubled up with a brand-new deal. Again, there was no competition; again, it was behind closed doors. Another £350 million of public money was dropped in the lap of a firm that just so happened to have a Conservative MP and former Secretary of State on its payroll.
The Minister has attempted to dispute that course of events. I say to her: prove it. Publish every dot and comma related to those deals: every email, every message, every letter between Ministers, special advisers and MPs. Explain why Lord Bethell’s WhatsApp messages have been lost as part of the sorry saga that my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne detailed, which is the 21st-century equivalent of “the dog ate my homework.” Come on! It is ridiculous.
Will the Minister please explain what on earth is going on with the minutes of the phone call with Lord Bethell and Paterson? We seem to have had mixed messages during the debate. At one point, it seemed that it was being suggested that there were no minutes—they never existed. That, in and of itself, raises extremely important questions. Were there no minutes of a meeting relating to two contracts worth £500 million of taxpayers’ money? It was then suggested, “Oh, it’s not that we necessarily know that there were no minutes, or that they were destroyed. No, we are unable to locate those minutes.” Well, when will they be located? They need to be located.
If the Department of Health and Social Care has been unable to locate the minutes, why has it been stating that it is not able to respond in a timely manner to freedom of information requests about the matter, without stating that that was because it believes that the minutes might not exist, that it has been unable to locate them, or whatever? Instead, it has just said that it is trying to respond to those FOIs. My goodness, what a mess.
Will the Minister explain how many other meetings might not have been minuted? How many other meetings might have minutes, but nobody knows where? When will we see them? Will she explain why the Government are so resistant to letting sunlight be the disinfectant that it needs to be in this process? As Nigel Mills said: just publish them.
We are talking today about one specific contract, but we all know that the problem does not begin and end with Randox. This is a Government who rolled out the red carpet for many more companies with close links to senior Conservatives. Just yesterday we learned that, of the 47 firms that won contracts via the so-called VIP lane that so many Opposition Members have referred to, four were helped by a former Conservative chair, four by the former Health Secretary and one by Dominic Cummings. I regret the fact that the Minister has stated that
“Ministers have no role…in the procurement process”.
That was not the case with the VIP lane, was it? We know that now, in black and white. The Minister has the opportunity to intervene if Ministers played no role in that VIP lane. She cannot intervene, because she knows that Ministers, including her Health Secretary, were recommending those companies.
I thank the hon. Lady for the opportunity to intervene. I think the difference is that the VIP lane is about the identification of potential sources of supply. The procurement process starts after that; that is when procurement professionals, who are highly regulated, take over.
The Minister is obviously doing her very best, but yet again, I am afraid that this is not an edifying spectacle. In the overwhelming majority of cases, the recommendation led to companies receiving enormously expensive contracts. It is risible to suggest anything less. It is also risible to suggest that in those cases the Government followed their own emergency procurement guidance:
“Contracting authorities should maintain documentation on how they have considered and managed potential conflicts of interest in the procurement process…Particular attention should be taken to ensure…decisions are being made on the basis of relevant considerations and”— wait for it—
“not personal recommendations.”
There was nothing inevitable about this. I know how things ran in Labour-run Wales, and they did not run like this.
We have seen that companies with links to the Conservative party were 10 times more likely to secure a contract than others. Public money was doled out based not on a company’s abilities but on its contacts book. When it comes to spending taxpayers’ money on testing and PPE equipment that can save lives, one would hope that the Government would take things more seriously, but as my hon. Friend Dame Angela Eagle said, the switch into an emergency process provides no justification for the ransacking of public money we have seen. As the hon. Member for Amber Valley said, an emergency situation was not a reason for having no process at all. In practice, there should have been more sensitivity around the process, not less.
Because of the Government’s approach, British businesses that did not have Tory MPs on speed dial missed out.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Earlier in the debate, he detailed that sorry tale in devastating manner, as did my hon. Friend Emma Hardy. Arco had existed for 135 years, providing essential material. It was completely ignored, yet Ayanda Capital, for example—an investment firm with no PPE experience —ended up being used by the Government to purchase 50 million masks that were not even usable.
There were other companies that missed out. Multibrands International, based in Bradford, had been providing PPE to the Chinese Government since the end of 2019. It spent months trying to offer those services to the UK Government, but got absolutely nowhere. What did the Government do instead? They bought 400,000 protective gowns from Turkey that were unusable.
That is the way it always seems to be with the Conservative party: one rule for the Conservatives and their friends, another rule for everyone else—and it is the British people who pay the price. This Conservative Government are doing their best to suggest that every politician was engaged in graft. They are trying to drag everyone else down to their level and feed a growing disillusionment with our politics that damages us all. But Labour Members know that that is not true; I suspect that a fair few Conservative Members know it, too.
The people of Britain know when they are being taken for fools. When a party found guilty of breaking the rules tries to remake them to protect one of its own, there is a word for that: corruption. That is what this Prime Minister has brought into the heart of our politics, and the British people will not tolerate it. That is why the Prime Minister panicked last week and U-turned: because he knew that he had been rumbled.
We all have to play by the same rules, whatever the Prime Minister thinks. Labour has been clear that if we were in power, things would change. We would ban dodgy second jobs like those of the former Member for North Shropshire—and I mean a proper ban, not the watered-down cop-out that the Prime Minister is trying to lay down this afternoon. We would close the revolving door and ban Ministers from lobbying for at least five years after they leave office. We would stop Conservative plans to allow foreign money to flow into our politics, and ban the use of shell companies to hide the source of donations. We would create a new office for value for money and reform procurement rules to put an end to the industrial-scale wasting of public money, and we would create a new, genuinely independent integrity and ethics commission to restore the standards in public life that have been trashed by this Government.
This scandal has presented a clear choice about the kind of politics we want for our country. Do we want Boris Johnson’s politics of the gutter, or Keir Starmer’s politics of decency and integrity? Conservative Members have a choice today as well. They can abstain, under orders from the Prime Minister, their Chief Whip and the Leader of the House; or they can decide to make a stand. They can decide that they want to have a vote on this because they want to take a better path. Let us be very clear about the message that abstention is going to send. We have heard weasel words during this debate, and it seems clear that the scope of what the Government are proposing today, in terms of what they are willing to release, is far less than what Labour’s motion requires.
I see the Minister shaking her head. I sincerely hope that she has got that correct, because, having listened to what she said and compared it with what is written in the Labour motion, I think that there is far less that this Government are prepared to reveal.
I said that we would advise on the scope, and, as Mr Carmichael pointed out, it could be discussed. I have not yet commented on the scope because I do not yet have the details.
I hoped that the Minister might say at this stage, “Yes, absolutely—we will follow what Labour has called for. We will make sure that those documents are published; we will make sure that the minutes of meetings are set out.” Instead, she seems to have muddied the waters. I do not mean to be unfair to her, but that is what her response has done for me.
I do not want to appear to muddy the waters by not saying what the scope is. What we have said is that we will publish the documents and place them in the House Library. I am sure that the scope will be as broad as would be expected, to satisfy the hon. Lady.
Of course, the way to guarantee that the scope will have the breadth that is required would be to have the binding vote in the House of Commons for which Labour is calling right now.
As the Minister knows, we have been here before, with promises being made about what the Government will be transparent about and what, in practice, they are willing to deliver, which far too often is far, far less. We have the chance now to move beyond that cover-up, and instead have the clean-up to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashton-under-Lyne referred. We have the chance to make amends. The Government have the chance. They can also immediately accept all outstanding freedom of information requests in relation to all PPE and testing contracts, and they can publish all documents and correspondence relating to the £3.5 billion-worth of contracts that have gone to Tory donors and Tory-linked companies.
Let us make that choice now: let us clear this up once and for all.
I am pleased to be able to close this debate on behalf of the Government. As my hon. Friend the Minister for Care and Mental Health said earlier, the Government are not intending to vote against the Humble Address. We will review what information we hold in scope, come back to Parliament and deposit it in the Library of the House, which is in line with the Government’s established stance on responding to Humble Addresses.
I am, however, grateful for the opportunity that we have had to address the important issues raised today: questions of how, as a country, we can rise and meet the challenges that we face, how we can ensure we have a system that is not only fast but fair, and how we can learn lessons from this most challenging period in our history. One of the most important lessons I take from it is that when we work together, we can do incredible things. We can build a testing capacity almost from scratch, we can reach millions of people in a single day, and we can save lives on a massive scale. Imagine what would have happened had we not worked with so many incredible partners to deliver these efforts—because no one can do it on their own, especially in such unprecedented circumstances, so it is the duty of a responsible Government to work with anyone who can deliver. The NHS has been phenomenal, our hospitals have been phenomenal and local government has have been phenomenal, but so have those in the private sector. We could not have come this far without them.
When we look at the situation today, it is easy to forget just how far we have come.
Back in March 2020, we could process just a few thousands of tests in a day; now we can process millions. That we have achieved this is no accident. In respect of developments from testing kits to processing, logistics to lateral flow devices, those partnerships between the NHS, industry, academia, local government and so many others have made the difference—and contracts with companies such as Randox have been some of the essential building blocks without which we would never have built what is now one of the largest testing networks in the world.
Randox laboratories have carried out over 15 million tests for covid-19. More than 730,000 positive cases have been identified under Randox contracts, which meant that those people could self-isolate, protect others, and help to bring the pandemic under control. An independent assessment gave a positive assessment of Randox’s performance. It exceeded their contract targets, hitting 120,000 tests in a single day in March 2021.
In a statement on
The Minister is making a case for the partnership among our universities, our health service and the private sector. She has spent some time praising Randox, whose coffers were stuffed with money. Does she think it would be a good idea to stuff our university research facilities and our NHS testing labs with the same amount of money?
I visited Nottingham University recently to see the amazing work being done there. Obviously, continued support for our universities is imperative. I know that they do amazing work, as do our hospital laboratories.
We should celebrate these achievements, not criticise them. I want to reassure the House that there have always been strong safeguards behind these contracts, and that they are awarded in accordance with the Public Contracts Regulations 2015. We monitor all contracts and suppliers closely, as would be expected. We judge them against key performance indicators, and we publish contract award notices for all the contracts awarded to provide test and trace services, consistent with the regulatory requirements.
It seems as though the Minister may have missed the whole debate and just come in at the end, because she has failed to take up some of the conversations that we have had during the debate. Can she confirm that the public did not pay for the test kits that Randox threw away?
Obviously those details were in the contracts, but I am sure that they conformed with the key performance indicators.
All the contract award notices can be seen on Contracts Finder. We have nothing to hide, Madam Deputy Speaker —nothing at all. The House, and the public, can see what taxpayers’ money has been spent on. We have applied exactly the same criteria, standards and processes in the case of Randox as we have in all other cases. Randox has never been an exception, and we utterly reject the idea that it has received any kind of special treatment. Our partnership with Randox is simply a reflection of the situation in which we found ourselves in March 2020, facing a global pandemic of unknown and unprecedented proportions and acting as a responsible Government should. We worked against genuine fears that we would run out of vital testing equipment, that we would not have the capacity to test people and that the deadly virus might continue to spread from person to person, silent and undetected.
We engaged with Randox and many others. Not only was Randox a UK-based business, but its early laboratory-based PCR testing capacity for covid-19 was capacity that we have been able to use for the whole of the UK. We have fought this pandemic as one United Kingdom. Working with Randox was the right thing to do, it was the responsible thing to do and, quite simply, it was a decision that has saved many thousands of lives.
I will address one issue brought up by a couple of Opposition Members, and reassure them that Arco was awarded contracts for PPE. I thank Arco for its contribution in providing life-saving PPE that we needed at that time.
I reiterate that Arco was awarded contracts for PPE.
Of course, that does not mean there are no lessons to be learned, and I can reassure Kate Hollern that the public inquiry will be an important learning moment for us all. We are already making changes: we published our procurement Green Paper last December, we updated our commercial guidance on the management of actual and perceived conflicts of interest in May, and we are implementing the recommendations from the first and second Boardman reviews into improving procurement.
The real lessons, however, are just what we can achieve when we all get behind a shared mission, to protect the British people and to protect the NHS. That is a mission-driven way of working that has seen us work beyond the traditional boundaries and achieve remarkable results. We have tested millions of people for covid-19 and kept millions more safe. I am very proud of that, and so too, I believe, are the British people.
Question put and agreed to.
That an Humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, that she will be graciously pleased to give directions that there be laid before this House the minutes from or any notes of the meeting of
(b) a Special Adviser of such a Minister or former Minister, or
(c) a Member or former Member of this House relating to the Government contracts for services provided by medical laboratories, awarded to Randox Laboratories Ltd. by the Department for Health and Social Care, reference tender_237869/856165 and CF-0053400D0O000000rwimUAA1, valued at £133,000,000 and £334,300,000-£346,500,000 respectively.