“Track and Trace”: Transparency International Report

Cabinet Office – in the House of Commons on 25th November 2021.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Nick Smith Nick Smith Labour, Blaenau Gwent

If he will make an assessment of the implications for his policies of the findings of Transparency International’s report, “Track and Trace”, published April 2021.

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

The Government recognise the importance of maintaining public confidence in how we manage taxpayers’ money. We are taking steps to improve the processes already in place and to ensure that public spending is fair and transparent. Proposals in our December 2020 Green Paper aim to improve transparency in procurement across the public sector and include specific measures to strengthen transparency through the commercial lifecycle from planning to procurement, contract award, performance and completion. We will publish our response to the consultation shortly.

Photo of Nick Smith Nick Smith Labour, Blaenau Gwent

Test and Trace has been muddled and expensive. Along with personal protective equipment provision, it has been a profiteers’ paradise for some. After inflation, NHS workers got no pay rise, yet Deloitte’s partners got 14%. We need answers: who did what and for how much? Does the Minister agree that the terms of reference for the covid public inquiry should include an analysis of the super-profits and juicy contracts for middlemen that have undoubtedly been made, so that the public can consider what opportunists have enjoyed at all our expense?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the National Audit Office noted that it

“found that the ministers had properly declared their interests, and…found no evidence of their involvement in procurement decisions or contract management.”

No PPE contracts were awarded by reason of who referred them. Clearly, in a national emergency, it is right that we as a nation can procure at speed. That ability has been critical in providing the emergency response that was needed. Those mechanisms predate the pandemic; they were not created for the pandemic. The public are right to demand that we spend our money with car—and, unlike Labour Governments, we do that. Proposals in the Green Paper on reforming public procurement aim to improve transparency, and we will continue to do that.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Minister (Cabinet Office)

Transparency International’s report identified 73 covid contracts that raised red flags for corruption. Last week, after 18 months of deflection and secrecy, the list of the companies awarded contracts through the VIP lane was finally revealed. We can see now why it was kept secret.

It is curious that, of the recommendations from politicians to that list, only the recommendations of Conservatives—no other political party—were successful. Of the 47 companies awarded contracts worth £4.7 billion, 18—more than a third—were referred by Tory MPs, Ministers or peers. Can the Minister confirm that anti-fraud and conflict of interest checks really did take place for all the contracts in the VIP lane? If there were another emergency tomorrow, would the system still be jobs for mates, or is a new and better one ready?

Photo of Michael Ellis Michael Ellis Paymaster General

Of course, the hon. Lady is conveniently forgetting that Labour Members of Parliament also recommended individuals and companies as far as PPE is concerned, and there is nothing wrong with that. There was a national emergency at the time, and everyone was asked to assist, and if they knew someone who might have been able to assist in supplying personal protective equipment, they were invited to say so. Not only is there nothing wrong with that, but it was a public service to do so. The National Audit Office has already looked at this, and it has said there was no evidence of involvement in procurement decisions or contract management.

I realise there is a political wish on the part of the Labour party to try to make something of this, but actually this is a matter of public service. It is right that proper due diligence is carried out on contracts, and that is why the information is available to the public and to the Opposition to have a look at Government contracts. That has always happened, and it will continue to happen. The Government take these checks extremely seriously, and we are being extremely transparent, but it is also absolutely essential that, in an emergency, we can procure at speed.