Government PPE Contracts

– in the House of Commons at 4:50 pm on 6th December 2022.

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Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means) 4:50 pm, 6th December 2022

Before we begin this debate, I would like to remind Members that the motion gives general reasons why the House might agree to the Humble Address. The normal rule that reflections must not be cast upon Members of either House of Parliament, except on a substantive motion, remains in force. I am sure right hon. and hon. Members will ensure that that rule is stuck to in their speeches. I call the Deputy Leader of the Opposition.

Photo of Angela Rayner Angela Rayner Deputy Leader of the Official Opposition, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster 4:53 pm, 6th December 2022

I beg to move,

That this House –

(a) notes that the Department for Health and Social Care purchased more than £12 billion of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in 2020-21;

(b) regrets that the Government has now written £8.7 billion off the value of this £12 billion, including £4 billion that was spent on PPE which did not meet NHS standards and was unusable;

(c) is extremely concerned that the Government’s high priority lane for procurement during the pandemic appears to have resulted in contracts being awarded without due diligence and wasted taxpayer money;

(d) considers there should be examination of the process by which contracts were awarded through the high priority lane;
and

(e) accordingly resolves that an Humble Address be presented to His Majesty, that he will be graciously pleased to give direction that all papers, advice and correspondence involving Ministers and Special Advisers, including submissions and electronic communications, relating to the Government contracts for garments for biological or chemical protection, awarded to PPE Medpro by the Department for Health and Social Care, references CF-0029900D0O000000rwimUAA1 and 547578, be provided to the Committee of Public Accounts.

The motion before the House is simple: this is a plea for answers, clarity and the truth. The choice that the House makes today is also simple. Our demand is clear: end the cover-up and begin the clean-up. We already know that the so-called VIP lane for personal protective equipment enabled the shameful waste of taxpayers’ money and inexcusable profiteering by unfit and unqualified providers. We know the Government have already written off £10 billion of public funds spent on personal protective equipment that was either unusable, overpriced or undelivered. Ministers have admitted that they are still paying £770,000 a day of taxpayers’ cash to store gloves, goggles and gowns. That is enough to pay for 75,000 spaces in after-school clubs, or 19,000 places in full-time nursery care. Every day, £106,000 of that money is sent to China to pay for storage costs alone.

We already know that £4 billion-worth of unusable PPE was burned to generate power after 70 million PPE items were sold off for just £400,000. What we do not yet know is what was said in correspondence between the key participants on the Government Benches and their unqualified cronies on the make and on the take. We do not even know exactly where our money ended up, but we do know that, if Ministers get their way, the system could be used again and the scandal repeated, enriching fraudsters at the expense of the taxpayer and creating a new mountain of waste.

Photo of Toby Perkins Toby Perkins Shadow Minister (Education)

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right that this is a scandalous waste of public money. Equally important is that our care sector and health sector were desperate for PPE during the pandemic. Specialised Canvas in my constituency changed all its manufacturing to be able to make PPE and got a large number of contracts from individual trusts, but it was completely unable to get any contracts out of the Department of Health and Social Care. So alongside the public money wastage, we also had nurses and carers unable to access PPE at the height of the pandemic when they desperately needed it.

Photo of Angela Rayner Angela Rayner Deputy Leader of the Official Opposition, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. He made two points, which I will come to in greater detail in my speech, but one was the lack of PPE for those on the frontline, as well as the total disrespect in the way that contracts were handed out through the VIP lane, at the expense of businesses up and down the UK that had experience and could have helped during the pandemic, but which were not party to WhatsApps or whatever else got them to Ministers and access to the VIP lane.

Take the mystery of a PPE company with links to a Tory politician. While it is for the authorities to decide whether any law is broken, and I will not comment on the ongoing investigations, we do know that PPE Medpro was referred to the VIP lane by a sitting member of the Cabinet after lobbying from another Tory politician five days before it was even legally registered as a company. The House may recall that that particular company was subsequently awarded two contracts worth £203 million to supply PPE, with £81 million to supply 210 million face masks awarded in May 2020 and a £122 million contract to supply 25 million surgical gowns awarded in June 2020. The face masks were bought by the Government from PPE Medpro for more than twice the price of identical items from other suppliers, and the surgical gowns were rejected for use in the NHS after a technical inspection. All of them were never even used. It points to a total failure of due diligence and the rotten stench of cronyism.

Photo of Helen Hayes Helen Hayes Shadow Minister (Education)

During the early months of the pandemic, I was contacted by PPE suppliers known to the NHS—they were long-term suppliers—who told me that their offers of help were being rejected. One wrote to me and said that before April 2020

“there was a degree of total incompetence about government handling of PPE purchases. However, by the way they scrutinised our own offers, thereafter, we believe they knew, at least specification-wise, exactly what they were doing and that senior managers were taking steps to use ‘preferred suppliers’, even though they were aware these suppliers had neither the track record nor the level of competence to produce compliant goods”.

What does my right hon. Friend think about that?

Photo of Angela Rayner Angela Rayner Deputy Leader of the Official Opposition, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

I think it absolutely stinks, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right, in that the public can see through it, as can those businesses, who are pretty angry. They knew that Britain faced a situation with a global pandemic that it had not faced before and they wanted to do the right thing by doing their bit. The frustration—my hon. Friend is right to quote her business—is that there is no question that the specifications should have been known. Therefore, why was all this PPE bought knowing full well it could not be used?

Photo of Andy McDonald Andy McDonald Labour, Middlesbrough

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the mood in her constituency, as in mine, apposite these dealings is one of faith being completely shaken in the good governance and process of this nation? At the very least, people are saying that moneys obtained and goods not properly utilised have to be returned and, if circumstances so dictate, there should be criminal prosecutions long before an inquiry can progress.

Photo of Angela Rayner Angela Rayner Deputy Leader of the Official Opposition, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

My hon. Friend is right to capture the mood of the public on this. At a time when the public are told that we have to show restraint, at a time when they can see the finances—not least because the Government’s former Prime Minister and former Chancellor crashed the economy—it absolutely galls them to think that Ministers were not doing the due diligence that was required with the funds we needed. Now we have a situation where we are spending billions of pounds on wasted PPE and we also have thousands of pounds every single day being wasted on storage for PPE.

Photo of Kieran Mullan Kieran Mullan Conservative, Crewe and Nantwich

Obviously in government you have to get on and make decisions, and we do not often get to see what the Labour party would do in our place. On this occasion, we did have an insight because the Labour party recommended a whole series of people who could supply vital supplies for us during the pandemic, including a football agent supplying ventilators. What assessment has the right hon. Lady made of the quality and credibility of the Labour party’s own suggestions for supplies during the pandemic?

Photo of Angela Rayner Angela Rayner Deputy Leader of the Official Opposition, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

I thank the hon. Member for his comments, but I ask him: how many Members from across the House who were not Conservative Members got access to the VIP lanes? I can give him the answer: none, zilch, zero. That is the problem. The due diligence was not done on those contracts and it was his Government’s problem, his Government’s responsibility and his Government’s failure.

Photo of Nia Griffith Nia Griffith Shadow Minister (International Trade)

My right hon. Friend is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that there is a huge contrast in the comments of the National Audit Office on the way the Welsh Government procured PPE, in that they did not waste public money and they did get value for money. They did not end up having to explain to the House how they gave contracts to various people. Does she not agree that that is the way a Labour Government in action really works?

Photo of Angela Rayner Angela Rayner Deputy Leader of the Official Opposition, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

I absolutely agree. This was a global pandemic, yet it is the UK Government who are constantly criticised about these contracts and the way in which they were doled out and given. All the motion today asks for is transparency. What have they got to hide?

Photo of Neale Hanvey Neale Hanvey Alba, Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath

I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way; she is making a powerful speech. Today has been a really important day, because we have met members of the Fire Brigades Union from across the country who have come down to stand up for a decent salary. That is all we are asking for. What this debate illustrates is that the Government can find billions of pounds to hand over in a crisis to well-connected supporters. If the allegations about the Member from the other place are true, enough money from that alleged dividend would have settled the firefighters’ settlement in Scotland in totality—one person against every firefighter. Will the right hon. Lady confirm that an incoming Labour Government will investigate this matter thoroughly and transparently, and hold anyone who has bent the rules—however they have done so—to justice?

Photo of Angela Rayner Angela Rayner Deputy Leader of the Official Opposition, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

I thank the hon. Member for his point, and he is absolutely right. The Fire Brigades Union members were in Parliament and outside it today. They are frustrated, like many others who have been told that there is not money to give them a pay rise and that, actually, they are going to get a real-terms pay cut. But at the same time, billions of pounds has been wasted. As I said in my opening remarks, £770,000 a day has gone on storing this equipment. It is not acceptable to most people and most members of the public.

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

My right hon. Friend has highlighted one particular legal situation, but I am sure she is aware that the Department of Health and Social Care remains in dispute on 176 contracts for PPE worth £2.7 billion. I wonder whether she has any thoughts about that.

Photo of Angela Rayner Angela Rayner Deputy Leader of the Official Opposition, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

The Chair of the Public Accounts Committee is absolutely right. It is absolutely eye-watering and astonishing that 176 contracts remain in this situation. The public can see that and they are frustrated, because it is not acceptable and not okay to govern in that way. The public rightly want answers, and they want them now.

The links between the company Medpro and the Tory peer in question were never publicly disclosed. In fact, they were denied repeatedly by the lawyers acting for those involved. We now know that the money ended up in offshore accounts directly linked to those individuals. By their own admission, this was for so-called tax efficiency. It seems that they even dodged paying their own taxes on the profits they made from ours. Only after a long legal battle was it revealed that there was active lobbying from ministerial colleagues for access to the VIP lane and substantial contracts were won by those companies. They said that the peer in question did not benefit from these contracts. That denial has been rather undermined by the latest revelations of The Guardian, rather than any disclosure of Ministers. It was only some time after The Guardian exposed those links that a Minister, Edward Argar, finally told me in answer to a parliamentary question:

“Departmental records reflect that a link between Baroness Mone and PPE Medpro was clear prior to contracts being awarded.”

But Ministers have, for months, refused to show us those records or tell us the nature of that link and whether it was declared or discovered in due diligence.

This was the subject of an investigation by the Standards Commissioners in the other place, yet it appears that Ministers sat on the information that they had. The question is very simple: what have Ministers got to hide? Did they know all along who was behind PPE Medpro, or was due diligence so poor that they did not realise the problem? If they had nothing to hide and no rules or laws were broken, Ministers will surely be happy to make the details of the meetings and correspondence available. While they are at it, will the Minister give us clarity about allegations made by the former Health Secretary in his new book about a separate bid for business connected to Baroness Mone?

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. The right hon. Lady is venturing rather too far into the territory that I urged her to avoid. I am afraid that those are the rules, so I have to pull her up if she is actively criticising a Member of the other place. I am sorry about that, but those are the rules.

Photo of Angela Rayner Angela Rayner Deputy Leader of the Official Opposition, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

I was not criticising Members from the other place. I am just quoting what a Member from this place, who was a Health Minister at the time, said. I am asking this Minister today if he can give us clarity on what was said, because that is now on the public record. That is all I am asking the Minister for. I have not said that about any person from the other place—that is what a former Minister said in his diaries, so it would be nice if this Minister can give us some light on this whole murky affair.

Let us turn to the numbers because, as they say, the numbers don’t lie. Ten: how many times more likely to get a contract a company was if it was in the VIP lane. One in five: the proportion of emergency contracts handed out by the Government that have been flagged for corruption. Three and a half billion: the value, in pounds, of contracts given to the Tory party’s mates—that we know of. Three billion: the value, in pounds, of contracts awarded that warrant further investigation. None, zilch, zero: the number of times this Government have come clean about this dodgy Medpro scandal. A cover-up, a whitewash, events swept under the carpet—and now they have been dragged kicking and screaming to the House today to give an honest account of their shameful dealings. The public are sick of being ripped off and taken for fools. They want to know the truth.

Photo of Lloyd Russell-Moyle Lloyd Russell-Moyle Labour/Co-operative, Brighton, Kemptown

Is it not now clear to the public that the Conservative party believes in one thing only: how much money it can grab from the public purse, give to its cronies and friends, and steal from the pockets of hard-working people in this country?

Photo of Angela Rayner Angela Rayner Deputy Leader of the Official Opposition, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

My hon. Friend captures the mood of the public. They want answers—they want to know what happened to their money and what happened with these contracts at the time they most needed the Government to act responsibly—so we have tabled today’s motion and will put it to a vote.

Let me be clear. We are not asking the Government to do anything that would undermine any chance of recovering our money or anything that would conflict with any police investigation, but for 10 months they have told us that they are in mediation. What progress has been made? When will they conclude that the mediation has failed and take action? Can they actually get our money back or are they just kicking the can down the road?

Our motion asks Ministers to hand the records over to the Public Accounts Committee—a body that this House relies on to hold them to account for public spending—because the only logical conclusion is that they do indeed have something to hide. The public deserve answers on whether the dodgy lobbying at the heart of this scandal played a part in how vast sums of taxpayers’ cash have been wasted and whether shameful profiteering has been enabled by this Government.

That leads me to my second simple question for the House today: will Conservative Members—the few who are in—now vote for a clean-up or for yet another cover-up? Just last week, the Government led Tory Members in the other place through the Not Content Lobby to block amendment 72 to their Procurement Bill, which would have banned VIP lanes in future procurement decisions. They voted it down. They voted to protect unlawful VIP access instead of protecting taxpayers’ money.

The Prime Minister, fresh from writing off the billions he carelessly lost to covid fraud, is peddling legislation full of loopholes that would give Tory Ministers free rein to do it all over again. The question for the House is whether to act to prevent a repeat. Today, I say to Conservative right hon. and hon. Members: “Learn your lesson. Don’t let this shameful episode be repeated.”

The loss and trauma of the pandemic were immense. Millions of families lost loved ones—some only got to say goodbye via an iPad as mothers, fathers, husbands, wives and friends slipped away—and then we learned that throughout that trauma, companies with WhatsApp links to Ministers were given special VIP access to contracts that have seen billions poured down the drain.

This Government have done untold damage to the public’s faith in politics. The first step in restoring trust is publishing these documents today. The public need answers about how this happened and they need them now, but they also deserve reassurances that it will never, ever be allowed to happen again. Taxpayers’ money must be treated with respect, not handed out in backroom deals to cronies or used as a passport to profiteering.

PPE Medpro is just the tip of the iceberg in this scandal. We now know that companies that got into the VIP lane were 10 times more likely to win a contract. We now know that many did not go through the so-called eight-stage process of due diligence, as Ministers have now admitted, and we now know that this left dozens of experienced British businesses out in the cold—businesses that had the expertise to procure PPE and ventilators precisely and fast; businesses that offered their help in our darkest hour; businesses whose only mistake was to play by the rules.

Not a single one of the companies referred to the VIP lane was referred by a politician of any political party other than the Conservative party. The then Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove—the Cabinet member who oversaw the entire emergency procurement programme —reportedly 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. Last week, he said he had simply referred the bid from PPE Medpro to officials; but we also know that he passed it on directly to his ministerial colleague Lord Agnew.

Photo of Dawn Butler Dawn Butler Labour, Brent Central

My right hon. Friend is making a thoughtful speech which puts every Conservative Member to shame. Is she as shocked as I was to learn that a company was put into the VIP lane by mistake, and still received a £1 million contract?

Photo of Angela Rayner Angela Rayner Deputy Leader of the Official Opposition, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

It is absolute negligence and neglect of due diligence in the whole process. We now know that the issue of the VIP access lane and what it did and did not do has been tested in the High Court, but we also know that there is serious concern among members of the public, and that is what the motion is about. It is about getting to the bottom of it, and I think the public deserve no less than that.

As I was saying, the Minister passed the bid directly on to Lord Agnew. Some time later, officials discussed the fact that the Ministers’ offices were still being furiously lobbied. The former Health Secretary has also described being lobbied in words that I cannot quote in the Chamber—you have made that clear, Madam Deputy Speaker—but without giving any dates or details, so we do not know exactly what conversations or contacts happened behind the scenes. However, we do know that £3.5 billion of contracts have been handed out by this Government to their political donors and Ministers’ mates, so yes, we need an investigation into that as well. In fact, 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.

We should not forget that Ministers had previously denied the existence of a VIP lane. Well, it existed all right. It allowed Conservative politicians to “open doors” for anyone with connections to Ministers. It was the WhatsApp highway express, and earlier this year the High Court declared it unlawful.

As my hon. Friend Dame Nia Griffith said earlier, it did not have to be this way. Governments across the world responded to the covid emergency without wasting billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money and relying on dodgy backroom deals. According to the watchdog, the Welsh Labour Government managed to prevent health and care bodies from running out of PPE. The watchdog said:

“In contrast to the position described by the…National Audit Office in England, we saw no evidence of a priority being given to potential suppliers depending on who referred them.”

The Welsh Government created an open and transparent PPE supply chain, which is in stark contrast with the approach that the Conservatives took in England.

Photo of Angela Eagle Angela Eagle Labour, Wallasey

My right hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. With the benefit of hindsight, does she agree that the House would not have allowed the Government to have the emergency procurement powers that it granted at the beginning of the pandemic if we had known that they would be used in this corrupt manner?

Photo of Angela Rayner Angela Rayner Deputy Leader of the Official Opposition, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I would go further. I know from the correspondence I have been receiving that the public feel that way, and that many Conservative voters are absolutely shocked by what they have seen this Conservative Government do. They do not believe that the Government speak to their values, yet this has happened and we have a Procurement Bill going forward where this could happen again. So for today at least, the question before the House is simple: clean-up or cover-up?

I know that Members across this House care about our democracy, and although we disagree on many things, I hope we agree on the importance of trust in politics, the values of integrity, professionalism and accountability in public office and the public’s wish for more transparency and accountability within these four walls. Put simply, a vote for this motion is a vote in favour of the truth. This Government have presided over scandal after scandal engulfing their party. They appear to have benefited from dodgy lobbying, left, right and centre. Voting today for yet another cover-up will send another clear message to the public that this Prime Minister cares more about protecting vested interests than putting things right, and that his own promise of “integrity, professionalism and accountability” is just more hot air. After what they have put the British people through, this surely cannot be the message that Conservative Members want to send.

Labour has a plan to turn this procurement racket on its head and tackle the obscene waste with an office for value for money, to ensure that public money is spent with the respect that it deserves. It is about time that Conservative Members got with that programme. So I say today—I hope Conservative Members are listening—let us end the cover-up and begin the clean-up, and let us start it now. I commend this motion to the House.

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

I know that hon. and right hon. Members heard what I said previously. I just want to add that while these matters are not sub judice, they are under investigation by law enforcement agencies and the Lords Commissioners for Standards, and nothing should be said to prejudge or prejudice any investigations. I am sure that that will be borne in mind.

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care) 5:22 pm, 6th December 2022

I am grateful for this opportunity to come to the House to talk about our vital national efforts on personal protective equipment. Colleagues must cast their minds back to where we were three years ago as we stood on the precipice of a global health emergency, the likes of which had not been seen for over a century. SARS-CoV-2 was not even called covid-19 at that point, and little was known about its impact and transmission. In a matter of a few short weeks, this novel coronavirus pushed global health systems and global PPE supply chains to near breaking point, yet here at home, from a standing start, we initiated work on one of the toughest logistical challenges ever undertaken in peacetime: the provision of PPE for frontline colleagues in health and social care.

Photo of Neale Hanvey Neale Hanvey Alba, Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath

At the beginning of the pandemic in one of my first Prime Minister’s questions, I asked the then Prime Minister if he would ensure that profiteering would have no place in this Government’s response to the covid pandemic. Now, when we fast-forward to all these years later, that seems to have been at the very heart of it. The British people were told that this Government were helping them. British industry was told that it was going to be supported. I have persisted in my questions about how the domestic diagnostic industry has been promised work by this Government, yet it is being charged for doing the right thing. Will the Minister apologise—

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I will come on to many of the points the hon. Gentleman has raised, but I will just say this about UK supply chains. At the beginning of the pandemic, only 1% of PPE used in the UK was produced here. At present, three quarters of the FFP-3 masks provided to the NHS and social care are now manufactured in the United Kingdom and contracts were signed with around 30 UK-based companies to manufacture around 3.9 billion items of PPE.

Colleagues will recall those early days, with planes being turned around on the tarmac, countries imposing export bans, huge inflation in global prices and the price of crucial items such as glass increasing sixfold. These were the conditions under which tough decisions were taken, and these were the decisions under which PPE was procured. These were the conditions under which we stepped up to protect our most vulnerable and to save lives.

Photo of Karl Turner Karl Turner Labour, Kingston upon Hull East

How can the Minister possibly square the fact that Arco, a leading clinical PPE supplier to the NHS since its inception —the company has existed in Hull for more than 100 years—did not get a sniff of a contract from the Department of Health and Social Care because it was nowhere near a VIP lane? He should be saying sorry from the Dispatch Box, not all this nonsense. Just ‘fess up and say sorry.

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

There were lots of words there, and lots of aggression. [Interruption.] Let us be frank, there was.

I will address many of those points. I fear the hon. Gentleman forgets the pressure under which civil servants were working at the time and the pace at which decisions had to be taken. [Interruption.] If he would like to write to me with those exact conditions—

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. The hon. Gentleman must allow the Minister to answer. It is not fair to shout back as soon as he starts answering.

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

Karl Turner will know that civil servants had to take decisions about speed, pace and quantity. They were looking at contracts that would get the most amount of PPE for the best value for money as quickly as possible.

Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Chair, Northern Ireland Affairs Committee

Was everything that was done, done perfectly? No, and no doubt all the lessons will be learned but, as the Minister says, we would all be well advised to remember, because it was a long time ago now, the absolute panic and fear. The whole world was trying to buy any of this stuff they could get hold of at any price. If we neglect to remember the doctors, nurses and care home operators in our constituencies who were knocking on our doors asking for emergency help, we cannot have a proper debate about this issue.

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Under those circumstances, in those conditions, we had to be quick and decisive to protect colleagues on the frontline so that they could continue providing life-saving care. With lives on the line, of course we had to change our approach to procurement and adjust our appetite for risk. I do not believe the British people would have forgiven us if we had stuck to the same old processes. We had to balance the risk of contracts not performing and supplies being sold at a premium against the real risk of harm to the health of frontline workers, the NHS and the public if we failed.

Photo of Kieran Mullan Kieran Mullan Conservative, Crewe and Nantwich

Does my hon. Friend agree that the Opposition want to have it both ways? They criticise us for our procurement decisions but, as I said earlier, they recommended a football agent to supply ventilators, and the Labour Welsh Government procured PPE from the same Serco company that they criticise us for procuring PPE from,

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I am keen not to get into a political slanging match on this point, but my hon. Friend is right that all Members on both sides of the House were receiving multiple emails from people who, as my hon. Friend Simon Hoare said, were panicking because they wanted to ensure that we procured PPE as quickly as possible.

Colleagues across Government and beyond worked day and night, taking tough decisions, to keep our country safe. Those efforts secured billions of items.

Photo of Dawn Butler Dawn Butler Labour, Brent Central

On civil servants, will the Minister give way?

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

No. I will come to civil servants in a moment.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Rosie Winterton Rosie Winterton Deputy Speaker (First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. The Minister has indicated that he will give way shortly. Let him make a bit of progress.

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I have given way equally to both sides so far in this debate. I have some reluctance to give way to Members who tell others to sit down while they are speaking or making interventions.

Photo of Dawn Butler Dawn Butler Labour, Brent Central

But are you giving way?

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I said I will, and I will.

The efforts of civil servants secured billions of items and, by June 2020, we had obtained 30,000 ventilators and delivered more than 17.5 billion items of PPE to protect frontline workers. What does this mean in practice? It means that we were able to keep our NHS open throughout the pandemic; emergency operations went ahead; and once some of the toughest restrictions were eased, relatives could visit their loved ones in and around care homes.

Photo of Dawn Butler Dawn Butler Labour, Brent Central

I want to take the Minister back to where he mentioned civil servants. According to the Government’s own records, civil servants were begging Ministers not to give contracts to some of these companies because they had red flags and they were overcharging the Government—we are talking about almost double the price they agreed to be paid. This was an extra cost of £50 million to taxpayers. Civil servants were begging the Government not to act in the corrupt manner that they did.

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I am pleased that the hon. Lady made that intervention, because it is the first I have heard of such an accusation being made. If she has evidence of such, I suggest that she presents it.

It might be helpful if I just talk through the process. Thousands of companies made offers; around 430 were prioritised through the high-priority lane; only 12% of those resulted in a contract; and due diligence was carried out on all companies by civil servants. Financial accountability sat with a senior civil servant, and Ministers—this is important—were not involved in the decision-making process. A team of more than 400 civil servants processed referrals and undertook due diligence tests.

On that basis, we will make no apology for procuring PPE at the pace and volume we did. Now that the global market for PPE has stabilised, it is easy for some people to point to the value of goods that are inevitably now sold at a much lower price than we paid, but that is a cheap shot, and one that entirely misses the point. We adjusted down the value of our PPE holding as market prices have changed—that is just standard accounting practice—and even then, we are still putting large quantities of it to use. Our successes should be judged on the conditions we faced at the height of the pandemic, not with the convenient benefit of hindsight.

Let me come to civil servants. If I may, I will give Angela Rayner the benefit of my fast-approaching four years’ experience as a Minister. We rely on hard-working civil servants; they are the backbone of our state and it is my privilege to work with them. She knows that Ministers were not involved in the decision-making process for PPE procurement, and the due diligence, as I have said, was undertaken by a team of more than 400 civil servants. Although I am a Health Minister now, I was not at the time; I was a Minister at the Department for Work and Pensions. I recall how hard civil servants worked, under the most trying conditions, during the pandemic.

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I promise I will come to the hon. Lady.

Those 400 civil servants working on PPE and a senior accounting officer took decisions at pace and under huge pressure, as lives depended on them. Did they get everything right? No, they did not. But they did try their best in a highly competitive global market, with significant challenges in sourcing, procuring and distributing PPE. [Interruption.] Yes, they absolutely did. I gently say to the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne that her implied criticism of their professionalism, integrity and independence at a time of crisis, with the convenience and luxury now of hindsight, is deeply regrettable.

Photo of Angela Rayner Angela Rayner Deputy Leader of the Official Opposition, Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Shadow Secretary of State for the Future of Work, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster

The Minister is being disingenuous to say that. I have never suggested for one moment that civil servants do not do an excellent job and work diligently. But why will he not publish the documents and emails about what Ministers, Tory peers and Tory MPs have been up to during the pandemic and these contracts?

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I will come to that. As I said, due diligence was carried out on all companies. Procurement decisions were taken by civil servants. Financial accountability sat with a senior civil servant. I thank and applaud our hard-working civil servants, and I humbly suggest that someone aspiring to be our Deputy Prime Minister should do the same and not seek to throw them under the metaphorical bus.

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

Very early on, the Public Accounts Committee and the National Audit Office were looking into the issue. We know that it was a rush at the beginning, but we were warning about the problems early on, and still they persisted. There was poor record keeping—frankly, it was a lack of record keeping in many cases. This House gave the Government permission to act fast, but not to act fast and loose, and the Minister just needs to acknowledge that.

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention, and I will come on to some of the action that we will take. She rightly mentions accountability. Details of the high-priority lane were published on 17 November 2021 and updated in February 2022. This is an important point, because the right hon. Lady, the deputy Leader of the Opposition, suggests that there is some kind of cover-up. If there is, Madam Deputy Speaker, listen to this, because this is some kind of cover up! As I have said, high-priority lane details were published on 17 November and updated in February this year. The National Audit Office has written three reports specifically about PPE. The Public Accounts Committee has held a number of evidence sessions. The Boardman review of procurement has taken place and we are implementing its findings in full. The independent public inquiry into the Government’s handling of the pandemic is ongoing. Of course there are lessons that we have to learn, and that we can and should learn, but there is clear accountability in this process.

As I have mentioned civil servants, I want to put on the record my thanks to the 400 civil servants who worked tirelessly to source deals from around the globe, buying PPE to the highest standards and quality and, yes, for the best value at the time. It was not only them; it was a true team effort—one that was made possible through some incredible collaborations, including everyone from industry to the NHS, and from social care providers to our armed forces. They all played their part and they played it well.

Turning now to unsuitable PPE or potential fraud, it is a simple truth that 97% of all PPE that we ordered was suitable and fit for use, with only a small proportion of the billions of items procured deemed unsuitable. Where that has been the case, we are actively seeking to recover costs from suppliers and we are working to maximise the value from our stockpiles, including using PPE in other settings outside of our NHS. Equally, in those rare instances where there have been allegations of fraud, my Department’s anti-fraud unit has worked quickly to investigate and move to recover costs.

With respect to some of the specific points raised in today’s motion, of the thousands of companies that made offers, around 430, as I have said, were processed through the high-priority lane, and only 12% of them resulted in a contract award. The right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne knows that all contracts went through the same due diligence process regardless of the source of the offer. She also knows that the NAO has written three reports about PPE, and the Public Accounts Committee has held a number of hearings. I know that she would like me to go into the detail of individual contracts, but she knows—she even alluded to it—that my Department is engaged in commercially sensitive mediation with the relevant companies with a view to resolving the issue without recourse to formal legal action.

Responding specifically to the terms of the motion, the Government are committed to releasing information when all investigations are concluded. Our response will necessarily take into account the wider public interest and the commercially sensitive nature of the material. It is only right that we work with the Public Accounts Committee on the terms on which information might be shared. I understand that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will soon begin a dialogue with the Chair of the PAC on how we enact those information-sharing arrangements.

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

I thank the Minister for giving way again. I reassure him and the House that the Public Accounts Committee is responsible, not reckless. We have previously received papers from this House and we have a well-established protocol for receiving and dealing with such papers. The Committee is trusted—we never leak. If we decide to publish, that is a choice that we would make, but it is a responsible decision that we would take.

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I thank the hon. Lady for that response, and I know the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will soon begin that dialogue with her.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons), Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons)

Order. The hon. Lady should not be on her feet when the Minister is answering an intervention from another Member. She is simply getting in the way of the dialogue, and that is not the polite way to do it. If her intervention is to be taken, it will be taken in due course. Standing up for a long time while there is another dialogue going on is really not very polite.

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I have given way to the hon. Lady once already, as I promised I would, and I have been generous with my time, so I will not give way again.

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I also gave way to the hon. Gentleman, so let us leave it.

We should be proud of the remarkable progress we have made on PPE. We are now confident that we have enough stock to cover all future demands arising from covid-19. The right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne mentioned some figures in relation to storage costs, and I am pleased to say that those are now significantly reduced—I will write to her about the cost of storing that PPE here in the UK.

Moreover, we have strengthened our country’s PPE supply chain for the long term, including manufacturing more PPE here in the UK. Before the pandemic, as I said at the beginning of my speech, just 1% of our PPE was produced here. Now the Government have awarded contracts to around 30 manufacturers for the supply of almost 4 billion items of PPE.

We have learned many lessons from this pandemic, and when it comes to PPE we are on a stronger footing today than ever before, but the successes of our enormous national effort at a time of unprecedented national crisis deserve to be recognised. People from all walks of life came together to protect people in the NHS and social care, and in doing so they saved lives. Even as we continue to learn and to build a system fit for the future, this Government will remain enormously proud of everything that was achieved.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 5:41 pm, 6th December 2022

It is a pleasure to follow the Minister’s robust performance. He said at the end that the Government have learned many lessons. Lesson No. 1 appears to be, “Apologise for nothing.” He knows that no one I heard was criticising the civil servants. Everyone on the Opposition side of the House knows that the civil servants were working in impossible conditions—conditions created by this Government.

I can understand why the Minister has been told to come out swinging and apologise for nothing. Let us be honest: from the moment we first learnt of the existence of the VIP lane for the politically connected, it was inevitable that it would come to this, with Members of this House discussing the eye-watering sums of public money that was earmarked for procuring vital PPE during the pandemic but instead found its way into the hands of fly-by-night chancers who had little or no knowledge or experience of PPE procurement, but who—and this is probably the most charitable thing I can say about them—became fabulously wealthy while making an absolute pig’s ear of it while trying to learn on the job.

Long before the PPE Medpro scandal broke, many of us were already trying to work out how the brains behind this “get rich quick” scheme ever believed that a plan in which the Government would fast-track their cronies, their politically connected pals and now, it would appear, their parliamentary colleagues was ever going to end well. I suspect, as I said during the urgent question on 24 November, that the shocking allegations that have been levelled against PPE Medpro in both The Guardian and The Times—allegations that lead directly to a Member of the other House—may well be the tip of a very large iceberg.

I suspect the reason the Government have been so reluctant to release the papers containing the advice, the correspondence and all the communication between Ministers and special advisers relating to the awarding of that contract is that they do not want to create a precedent that would require them to open the Pandora’s box that is the VIP lane for PPE procurement. However, the Minister would do well to remember that there is another precedent here. The similarities between today’s motion and the motion of 17 November last year, when the Government were instructed to release the papers in relation to the Randox/Owen Paterson scandal, are striking. They will also recall how that scandal rumbled on for two and a half months into February, before the papers were finally made available. Similarly to last year’s debate, the same very simple questions go to the heart of today’s: do this Government have something to hide? Is there something this Government do not want us to see?

The Minister must be aware that the more the Government dodge scrutiny, so public suspicion will grow about this PPE procurement programme being little more than a get-rich-quick scheme for their politically connected pals. Given what we already know, who can blame the public for thinking that? Byline Times recently said that the covid contract winners with direct links to the Conservative party—donors and associates—have seen their collective financial position improve by in excess of £300 million. Was anyone really that surprised when Private Eye described how

“The DHSC’s London-controlled PPE ‘cell’ was dishing out contracts like confetti to opportunistic businessmen”?

Photo of Kieran Mullan Kieran Mullan Conservative, Crewe and Nantwich

What would the Scottish public think about the Scottish Government awarding PPE contracts, without competition, to more than 20 brand-new suppliers that were unknown to the Government?

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I hate to say it, but my goodness you are predictable, Sir. That was probably the most predictable question I could ever have imagined. I will come to that later in my speech. Compared with what went on in this place, the audit of the Scottish Government’s treatment of the procurement process is squeaky clean. I so look forward to having that conversation in about six minutes.

Many of those opportunists hit the jackpot in the Government’s VIP lane for PPE procurement. Prominent among them was PPE Medpro, whose bid to supply the UK Government with face masks and surgical gowns was in the high-priority lane after, we are told, some particularly enthusiastic lobbying was carried out on its behalf by someone down the corridor. Indeed, the peer in question was so enthusiastic about the abilities of PPE Medpro to deliver that she made her passionate pitch to Ministers before the company was even incorporated. Through remarkable powers of persuasion, she persuaded Ministers to propel that embryonic company—one with no experience in delivering medical or protective equipment, and one with which, she told them, she had no personal involvement and from which she did not stand to gain financially—straight into the VIP lane.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons), Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons)

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that he is in danger of straying. I have let it go so far, but I remind him, as I remind the House, of what the Deputy Speaker said at the beginning of the debate. The normal rule—that reflections must not be cast upon Members of either House of Parliament, except on a substantive motion, which this is not—remains in force. I know that the hon. Gentleman will be careful in what he says.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I will attempt to stay on the right side of that line, and I am sure that you will instruct me should I stray again.

On 25 June 2020, just 44 days after PPE Medpro had been legally incorporated, the firm was handed its first UK Government contract, worth almost £81 million, for the supply of face masks. Very shortly thereafter, it was awarded a second contract, worth in excess of £120 million, to provide 25 million surgical gowns. Earlier this year, The Guardian reported that it had seen the contract that was signed between PPE Medpro and the gown manufacturer in China. The price that PPE Medpro paid for the gowns was just £46 million, and even adding a bit for shipping, logistics and storage leaves, by any reasonable calculation, a whopping profit of around £70 million of public money from a contract worth £120 million.

To add insult to injury, when the cargo of gowns finally arrived, a quick technical inspection from the national health service deemed them not fit for purpose and they were never used. I understand that the situation is so serious that the company is currently under investigation by the National Crime Agency, but inexplicably, up until a couple of hours ago, the peer involved was still operating under the Conservative party Whip. As Angela Rayner said, this stinks. We know it stinks and the public—

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons), Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons)

Order. I am quite sure that the hon. Gentleman intends to talk just about the process and the goods and so on, and that he will not be mentioning any peer in particular. He said “the peer involved”, so he referenced not just peers in general, but a particular peer. I am sure that he does not want to make reference to any particular peer, but will just talk about the process.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I shall from now on, Madam Deputy Speaker; thank you.

This whole process stinks, and we all know it does. That is why we have to see what this Government know. They deliberately created the conditions in which such behaviour could flourish, and they have to release what they know.

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

May I take my hon. Friend back to his comments earlier about due diligence? We all heard the Minister a few minutes ago claiming that due diligence was carried out in every single case. Is it possible for even the top civil servants in the United Kingdom to do any sort of due diligence on a company that did not exist two or three weeks before?

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

That is an excellent question, and perhaps it is a question that, had my hon. Friend managed to intervene on him, the Minister would have been far better placed than I to answer. I find it remarkable that due diligence can be carried out on a company that did not exist.

The Government know that the release of the PPE Medpro papers will not make this magically disappear, and they are right to fear that, in releasing those files, they are likely to blow the lid off this Pandora’s box and reveal that their VIP lane for politically connected pals was simply a green light for unfettered crony capitalism, rampant profiteering and widespread abuse of public funds.

In his answer to the question on 24 November, the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, Neil O’Brien, told this House:

“There was a global scramble for PPE…It was an extraordinary situation in which we had to act in a different way.”—[Official Report, 24 November 2022; Vol. 723, c. 441.]

It is a defence that the Minister today, Will Quince, also tried to hide behind a moment ago. It may be true that things had to be done slightly differently, but what is undeniable is that the UK Government made an active choice to act in the way that they did. It was a political choice to make this an all-in, free market jamboree. They did not need to do so. [Interruption.]

In response to the chuntering from Dr Mullan, the Scottish Government acted in an entirely different way. Many items of PPE for Scotland had to be sourced from overseas, but the big difference and—[Interruption.] If the hon. Member will stop talking and listen, I will explain. The big difference was that our Government sent staff from Scottish Enterprise over to China to source the items we needed and to ensure they were made to an acceptable standard and delivered at a cost we could afford. At the same time, the Scottish Government were increasingly working with Scottish manufacturers, so that by April 2021, 88% of our PPE was being produced in Scotland.

That Government involvement had a huge impact on the price. Unit costs show that disposable facemasks cost the NHS in Scotland 31p each, while the Department of Health and Social Care in England paid 40p. That is an increase of 29%.

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

I can personally vouch for what my hon. Friend has said about the development of the manufacturing industry in Scotland, because there is an outstanding manufacturer in my constituency that did exactly that—its staff came in and worked unpaid over the weekend to reset its production lines to make what was needed, instead of the high-quality stuff it had been producing before. Does he think it is sad that I cannot name that company and sing its praises today, because I do not know whether it would thank me for connecting it, even tangentially, to the subject of this debate? Is it not sad that even outstanding Scottish firms are in danger of being tarred by the same brush that has been applied elsewhere?

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. All the good that we could and should be talking about is being lost by this tarnished reputation. He could just as easily have pointed to the Scotch Whisky Association, which pivoted very quickly to turn its alcohol into millions of gallons of hand gel.

I go back to the point that the Scottish Government’s involvement was absolutely crucial in controlling the prices. As I said, disposable face masks were 29% cheaper because they were bought by the Scottish Government directly. The Scottish Government bought FFP3 face masks for £2.08 a unit. The Department of Health and Social Care bought them for £2.51—a fifth higher. Disposable gloves cost the Scottish NHS 9p each. In England, it was 33% higher at 12p. Even non-sterile gloves were bought 10% cheaper by the Scottish Government. One would have thought that a country with one twelfth the population of England would have a real job in pushing unit costs down below those of a country 12 times its size. It goes back to the fact that the approach the Scottish Government took meant they were in control of every part of the process, and they secured the deals they required.

Photo of Kieran Mullan Kieran Mullan Conservative, Crewe and Nantwich

The hon. Member is talking about the Scottish Government’s track record on procurement and value for money. Does he think that that applies across the piece? How well are they doing when it comes to ferry procurement in Scotland?

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

It is remarkable—we can always spot when a Tory is sinking beneath the waves when they start shouting “ferries” at us. Let us remember that this is a Government who awarded a ferry contract to a company with no boats.

Photo of David Linden David Linden Scottish National Party, Glasgow East

Is my hon. Friend aware, as Dr Mullan perhaps is not, that the Seaborne Freight ferries contract cost £13 million? Is it not the case that people in glass houses ought not to throw stones from Crewe?

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

One would have hoped that people in glass houses, having thrown the first stone, would have realised that it was not the best idea.

Let me put on record that the NHS in Scotland used emergency procurement provisions to award PPE contracts without competition during the first wave of covid-19 but, crucially, the auditors are completely satisfied with the procurement arrangements in place and said that there was

“No evidence of preferential treatment or bias” in the awarding of contracts in Scotland. I believe that that is the significant reason why our overall costs of pandemic procurement were less than a third of the UK’s, and it perhaps explains why the Government are now paying £770,000 every single day to store PPE in China. The Minister will be aware that I have tabled a series of questions today to ask how much of that PPE is still usable, how much of it meets the standards required for the UK, what quality control methods were used in securing it and the proportion of PPE that did not meet the standard required.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I will give way if the Minister can tell us the exact proportion of PPE produced that did not meet the standard in the UK.

Photo of Will Quince Will Quince Minister of State (Department of Health and Social Care)

I will quickly update the House. As of October, we hold 13.1 billion items of PPE and we have disposed of 145,000 pallets of excess stock so far. The majority is stored in UK sites; about 120 million items are still stored in China. The total cost of storage is now below £400,000 a day, so significantly less than the hon. Gentleman says, and the total cost for storage in China is £35,000 a day.

Photo of Brendan O'Hara Brendan O'Hara Shadow SNP Spokesperson (International Human Rights and Conflict Resolution), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

I genuinely thank the Minister for that information and I look forward to reading it in Hansard so I can digest it. If I heard correctly, we are now on half a million pounds a day for storing PPE.

In conclusion, having to do things differently does not give anyone, whether they are a private individual, an elected politician or an unelected politician, a licence to rip up the rulebook and behave as if we live in an unregulated wild west of public procurement. That is why it is vital that these papers are released. The public have a right to know why, while doctors, nurses and other medical staff battled unvaccinated through the worst of the pandemic, and as the public stood and cheered them in grateful thanks, some people with connections to this Government saw only the opportunity to make themselves a quick buck. I predict that this PPE Medpro scandal is the tip of a very large iceberg—an iceberg that will eventually sink this ship of fools.

Photo of Nick Smith Nick Smith Labour, Blaenau Gwent 6:01 pm, 6th December 2022

I rise to support the motion on PPE, which has become a terrible tail of waste for our country. First, having purchased so much PPE, the taxpayer is now paying to store and, as I have discovered, burn a great deal of it. Secondly, a band of profiteers, some of whom took advantage of their political links, exploited our country’s desperation. Many of those opportunists used chicanery and secrecy to make eye-watering profits. Now, the UK Department of Health and Social Care is withholding information on the cost of staffing its contractual battles with some of those PPE suppliers.

I will address the continuing cost of PPE storage. A Government response to questions I asked last month said that the Department currently holds 13.2 billion items of PPE and the cost of storing that is a staggering £770,000 a day. I was going to go on to some other data, but we just heard an update on that that still works out at, I think, about £128 million a year if we round it up over the year ahead, which is half the cost of a brand-spanking new hospital. That is a disgrace.

We have heard about the modern-day pirates whose business accounts have been almost impossible to trace and track. Thanks to The Sunday Times, we know about a network of companies with connections to Conservative lobbyists, one of which is Sante Global, formerly Unispace Health. Private Eye deserves a medal for digging deeper: its “Profits of Doom” special highlighted how Unispace Global won PPE contracts worth nearly £700 million—Richard Brooks is a fantastic journalist. Reports suggest that it has accounted for its profits through different companies from those known to the Department, so it is impossible to see how much money it has made.

That information is shrouded in secrecy due to our feeble accountancy laws, but the taxpayer deserves to know who is profiting from contracts awarded by the Government with public money for the public benefit. It is high time that this PPE treasure hunt came to an end. We need full, open accounting for covid-19 contracts. These companies should be made to publish full details of their income, profits, commissions, dividends and big boss bonuses. The Chancellor should then consider a windfall tax on their super-profits.

The Government could also learn a lesson in transparency. In my experience, in recent months they have been trying to dodge questions on the continuing cost of PPE. Last month, I asked the Secretary of State for Health how much unused PPE had been donated, sold, recycled and incinerated since the start of the pandemic—no answer yet. I also asked when he planned to publish the forecast of the cost of resolving the ongoing contractual disputes we have heard a lot about today—again, no answer yet.

There are disputed contracts worth £2.6 billion with 176 companies. That amount could buy us seven new hospitals. It is important that the Government pursue this money, so all power to their elbow. However, I think transparency on their processes could help this cause, because the more we all understand, the better we can hold the bad actors to account. We should support the motion as long as the long tail of covid costs continues. The covid contracts need to be cleared up, and the Department of Health must come clean.

Photo of Dawn Butler Dawn Butler Labour, Brent Central 6:05 pm, 6th December 2022

I have a few points for the Minister of State, Department of Health and Social Care, Will Quince, who is no longer in his place. The National Audit Office did not have all the paperwork it needed to give a full and correct report. Therefore, when the Minister kept quoting the National Audit Office saying that due diligence was done on all companies, that is not correct. Also, the NHS published weekly consumption data during the pandemic, so the question is: how on earth did we come to buy five times more PPE than we actually needed? It makes no sense. There is a lot of evidence and paperwork on the Good Law Project website, just for the Minister’s reference.

The coronavirus pandemic has been a nightmare for everyone. It was a time of national pain and loss, and for some it was unspeakable. People lost loved ones, as I did, and it was also financially damaging for the country. It is absolutely shocking and unforgivable that some people saw this crisis as an opportunity to seriously line their own pockets, making money out of the misery we all went through. Let us be clear: this money is not free money. This money comes from working people through taxation, and the Government have been pickpocketing the working class to fund the lifestyle of the rich.

We still do not know the true extent of the misuse of public money, and that is why this motion is important. Even though I and many others have been asking questions for three years, what comes back from the Government is really quite sparse. We are having to piece together the information, and that is not good enough from a Government. They need to be transparent and honest, and the public deserve to know who was given public funds, how many had links to the Conservatives and what they were paid for. I often ask, “What were they paid for? What kind of PPE? How many, and how many did we receive?” The Minister never comes back with that information, so if the Minister has the facts and figures, broken down for each company, I would appreciate if he put that in the Library. According to the Minister last week, some companies were paid for PPE even though we had enough PPE in stock. I said, “Was that deliberate?” and he said yes. I think that is really quite strange—if we have enough PPE, why are you giving people more PPE?

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

The hon. Member claims that we bought five times too much PPE. This is not the case. We did have 20% excess capacity against a worst-case scenario that, thankfully, did not materialise. But just to be clear to her, it is not the case, as she keeps saying, that we bought five times too much PPE. That is simply not the case.

Photo of Dawn Butler Dawn Butler Labour, Brent Central

I thank the Minister for that intervention. So can he just clarify: if the NHS was given weekly stats on how much PPE was needed, how come there is so much PPE in storage, which is costing £750,000 a day to store? Does the Minister want to come back? Oh, the Minister of State has walked in at the right time.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

The Minister of State did actually give the House some updated figures on that point. It is not the £750,000 figure the hon. Member just quoted. On this point, it is not the case that we bought five times too much PPE. She keeps saying that. It is not the case.

Photo of Dawn Butler Dawn Butler Labour, Brent Central

I suppose the facts will reveal themselves when the Minister shows us all the paperwork, leaves it in the Library and then we can go through the facts, the stats and the figures together. I look forward to that. We heard earlier today—[Interruption.] The Ministers are going through some figures now. I really think that, to resolve all of this, and to not even have this debate and conversation, they should put all the paperwork in the Library, we can all go through it together and that is what is needed.

Photo of Sarah Owen Sarah Owen Opposition Whip (Commons), Shadow Minister (Levelling Up, Housing, Communities and Local Government)

My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech and she has spoken with incredible experience and heart on this subject throughout the last few years. Does she agree it is particularly galling that we are seeing the former Health Secretary write a book, the “Pandemic Diaries”, yet we are not able to scrutinise the facts and evidence of the decisions that were taken not just about the public’s money but about public safety?

Photo of Dawn Butler Dawn Butler Labour, Brent Central

My hon. Friend makes an extremely valid point. I spoke in Committee this morning. I am not going to read the book but I think we have to scrutinise it and cross-check the information that the Minister gave in Committee against what is in the book. The new Ministers who have come into post should be a little more humble, because what has happened is shocking. The cronyism and the corruption that has happened in the Government in plain sight is truly shocking. The Government are now spending £10 million burning PPE. It is like they are burning the evidence—we wonder why. [Interruption.] Sorry, the Minister said that I have just criticised the Minister for storing PPE. He is right. I would not want the Minister to spend nearly £1 million every day storing PPE. I also do not want him to burn PPE. He should be using the PPE—give it to people who are travelling on the tube. We are having a flu epidemic and it will help to resolve that, so don’t heckle me when this is your responsibility—[Interruption.] I mean the Minister. Sorry, Madam Deputy Speaker. The Government are incompetent as well as corrupt and it is not just cronyism. The situation is so ridiculous—[Interruption.] Am I not allowed to call it what it is, Madam Deputy Speaker? It smells like corruption to me.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons), Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons)

Order. It is perfectly in order for the hon. Lady to say “incompetent”, but I would be grateful if she would find another form of words, rather than saying “corrupt”.

Photo of Dawn Butler Dawn Butler Labour, Brent Central

This is so ridiculous, Madam Deputy Speaker. When the Netflix series comes out, nobody is going to believe it is a true story. I know we are not supposed to speak about the Conservative peer too much, but we learn today that they are taking leave of absence from the Lords. I am not saying this in jest, but I hope she is not on her yacht trying to do a runner because a lot of money has gone missing. In a previous Minister’s own words, he was being “bullied” into giving this contract—[Interruption.] No, I don’t feel sorry for him, but he was being bullied. Two Ministers were being bullied, so it is important that we investigate the VIP lane.

As I said earlier, the National Audit Office said that companies were put there by mistake and were still given millions of pounds. Surely that shows us that due diligence was not done; the company was there by mistake. How did it get all that money? When the Minister gets to his feet, could he tell the House how many of these companies existed before the pandemic? If he cannot, of course, we look forward to that information being available in the Library or when this motion passes today, which I hope it does.

For the avoidance of any doubt, we all know that the VIP lane was a bit dodgy—that is just a fact and on record—but this has all come to light not because Parliament managed to force the Government to reveal everything that happened, but because a bank reported unusual activity and dropped a certain person and her husband in fear of reputational damage. That is what has brought this particular scandal to light and the National Crime Agency has now investigated.

As others have said, this is just the tip of a very large iceberg. The Serious Fraud office is also investigating contracts won by another company, Pharmaceuticals Direct Ltd, which paid a whopping £20 million fee to a middleman, Surbjit Shergill, who worked for Samir Jassal. Together, they had a hotline to the then Prime Minister’s special adviser, Munira Mirza. We also know—we have seen the emails—that they were helped by the right hon. Members for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock) and for Witham (Priti Patel).

If a company has to go through due diligence and believes that it is participating in a proper process, why would it agree to pay a politically connected middleman £20 million? That does not make any sense. If everybody is treated the same, there would be no need to pay somebody £20 million to move up the list. As you said, Madam Deputy Speaker, I cannot say the word “corruption” —I am trying to think of other words; hopefully more will come to me and I will use them—but it feels very much like cash for covid contracts. What happened to that money is a mystery. The Serious Fraud Office continues to investigate the case 18 months after it was referred.

I could speak about so many more cases. For those who are interested, there is a thread on my Twitter account about some of the other companies where there are huge questions to be answered. The Government need to open up their books and ensure that there is proper scrutiny. Yes, of course we accept that mistakes were made and that some of them were unavoidable, but the Department of Health and Social Care did not do the fraud checks that it was supposed to do; we had to push it, and that did not come out until a whole year later. There has been negligence, but there has also been something a little more sinister happening in Government.

Those people who stole money from the public purse during a national crisis should be ashamed. They should not say, “I was doing it for the country” as they are not when they are pocketing millions of pounds. It is not patriotic; it is a word that you are not happy with me using, Madam Deputy Speaker. Those people took the money unlawfully, really—they were helped by Government Ministers—and they will have had plenty of interest payments from their ill-gotten gains. Now is the time, during the cost of living crisis, to give that money back. That includes the donations given to the Tory party by those people who had a bung from the covid crisis—they need to come back into the public purse.

Photo of Naseem Shah Naseem Shah Shadow Minister (Home Office) 6:17 pm, 6th December 2022

As an Opposition, we expect to scrutinise the Government, hold them to account and challenge them on policy and legislation, but never did I imagine that there would be scandals, favours and dodgy deals through a VIP lane. The contract that we are focusing on is the £200 million deal to provide PPE to the Government at the height of the first covid-19 lockdown, awarded to a company allegedly linked to and lobbied for by a Tory peer, who also happened to benefit to the tune of about £29 million transferred to an offshore account linked to her and her adult children.

The seriousness of the case is such that, earlier this year, the police raided two London properties linked to the Tory peer as well as four properties on the Isle of Man in support of an ongoing National Crime Agency fraud investigation. We are literally speaking about a criminal fraud investigation whose trail leads directly back to the centre of Government.

The Government line has consistently been that they were doing their best to ensure that the best quality PPE could be secured and used during the covid-19 pandemic. The truth is that they were ripping off the British taxpayer to help their friends’ pockets. In May 2020, Baroness Mone referred PPE Medpro to the Cabinet Office for potential multimillion-pound PPE contracts five days before it was even registered as a company. What track record can a company have to deliver millions of pounds of PPE for the Government when it does not even exist?

In significant contrast, like many businesses across the country, is Multibrands International Ltd, a Bradford-based business in my constituency that provided PPE and was incorporated in 1998. It has had an operation in China since 2006 and a support office in India since 2010. This legitimate and established company was denied the opportunity to provide the Government with PPE. At the time, Multibrands International wrote to me and asked the question:

“What does our Government do for businesses like us? Is it because we are Northern? Or because we choose to operate legitimately? Or is it because we don’t have secret dealings with MPs? We were never given a chance.”

Shamefully, that is the truth: it was never given a chance. Unlike the then Health Secretary’s local mate from the pub, it did not have his WhatsApp number, any other Tory Minister’s private numbers or direct access email to a Tory Minister. Instead, rip-off contracts were given to Tory friends to profit from the British taxpayer.

In my neck of the woods, the idea of mates’ rates is when you generally get a better deal. Usually, it goes something like this. “Well, I’d normally charge you a fiver but because it’s you and you’re a mate, I’ll knock off a few pennies.” In this case, according to documents leaked to The Times, during the pandemic PPE Medpro supplied masks at a cost of 38.5 pence each to the Government. The same masks from the same company at the same time were provided to other suppliers for as little as 14.5 pence. No one rips off their friends, but it was okay for the Tories and their cronies to rip off the British taxpayer. Some £8.7 billion was written off, including £4 billion spent on PPE that did not meet NHS standards.

The National Audit Office revealed that the Department for Health and Social Care paid £436 million in penalties because it had to store PPE. That is more than a year’s budget for my whole local council in Bradford for 2021-22. With the £8.7 billion that was written off, we could have had three hospitals in Bradford—I see the Minister of State, Department of Health and Social Care, Will Quince is in his place—including the first carbon-neutral hospital and a state of the art hospital in Bradford city centre, replacing two in my constituency.

The British people will not forgive the Government for ripping them off while they suffer through a winter where they choose between eating and heating. Publish your documents and come clean. As the deputy leader of the Labour party, my right hon. Friend Angela Rayner said when she opened the debate, stop the cover-up and start the clean-up.

Photo of Nadia Whittome Nadia Whittome Labour, Nottingham East 6:21 pm, 6th December 2022

The Government’s actions on PPE were a catalogue of failures from start to finish, with devastating consequences. Before coronavirus, the existing PPE stockpile did not include everything it should have. Then the Government were slow off the mark. They took too long to understand that we would need more PPE and failed to get on with ordering it. That meant that in the first wave of the pandemic, those on the front line were left dangerously exposed. I know that because when I returned to care work to help relieve the strain on my former colleagues, I saw at first-hand masks being rationed and visors donated by the public.

When I spoke out about those PPE shortages, Conservative Members insinuated that I was lying. Among them—I have informed them that I will be referencing them—were the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs, James Cleverly, Ms Dorries, who was a Health Minister at the time, and Ben Bradley. Despite report after report proving that there were PPE shortages and that I was telling the truth, not one has ever apologised for those comments. It is not me I want them to apologise to, but the millions in the care sector, both staff and the people they were caring for, who were forgotten and neglected by their Government.

The Government put care workers’ lives at risk, as well as the lives of those receiving care. The workers, overwhelmingly women and disproportionately migrants, earnt poverty wages. Of course, that was not everyone’s experience of the pandemic. While my former colleagues worked day and night for a pittance, with some paying with their lives, the rich saw the chance to cash in. One businessman’s company made a £70 million profit on a contract for PPE that was reportedly not suitable for the NHS, and therefore went unused. He paid himself £13 million and celebrated his birthday last week by eating a cake shaped like a briefcase of cash on a private yacht. Meller Designs was awarded PPE contracts worth more than £170 million. In 2020, it made profits of over £13 million, a 9,000% increase on the previous year. One of the co-owners had donated nearly £60,000 to Conservative politicians and the central party since 2009. Unsurprisingly, the company was referred to the fast-track VIP lane by a Conservative Minister.

Once the Government started ordering PPE, all too often it was not about who could supply the best, the fastest and at a reasonable price, but about who had connections to the Conservative party. Those referred to the VIP lane were 10 times more likely to be awarded contracts. So the Government acted unlawfully, wasted billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money in the process and failed to protect those on the frontline.

We talk about how corruption robs citizens and ruins public services in countries across the world, but when it is happening right here in front of our eyes, we dress it up in euphemisms. I urge the Government to come clean and release all the papers relating to the awarding of contracts to Medpro, and also relating to all contracts awarded through the VIP lane.

Photo of Christine Jardine Christine Jardine Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Scotland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Women and Equalities), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 6:25 pm, 6th December 2022

I rise to support this motion, but the sentiment that I feel most strongly is, “What a mess—what an unnecessary, unmitigated mess.” We have heard a lot from Conservative Members about how difficult it was at the time. We all know that, as we all experienced it. We have heard a lot about having to be quick and decisive and the pressure that people were working under, with lives at stake. I wonder whether the Minister appreciates that that is exactly why people are so angry about this. We all went through it and experienced it.

The thing that we remarked on most at the time was the spirit in the country and how everybody got behind the Government, even those of us whose job it is to scrutinise them. We got behind the Government, and people had faith in, believed in and supported them, but three years down the line, we wake up every morning to yet another news story, another scandal and more suggestions about what might have gone wrong. People feel let down and betrayed.

The numbers are frightening. At one point, it was £2 billion of taxpayers’ money that was wasted on PPE contracts, but we are now told that almost £10 billion was wasted on PPE in total. We hear about PPE being stored and burned. That is not really the issue for the people in my constituency and elsewhere in the country who are struggling this winter to make ends meet, who have massive energy bills, who wonder whether they will be able to feed their children, who are worried about what their mortgages will cost. What is bothering them is that when they were putting their faith in the Government, when they believed the Government that we were in all in this together, maybe we were not. The suggestion now is that some people were profiting from other people’s pain. That is why, in supporting this motion, I make a plea to the Government to listen to what we are saying. We are not saying that civil servants were wrong. We are saying that people need to know what actually went on. They need transparency.

When the latest Prime Minister first took office he promised us a Government who would be ethical and would have doing the right thing at their heart. We need him to be as good as his word now. We need him to make it clear that he will leave no stone unturned and that his Government will leave no possibility of anything sleazy, of any cronyism or of anyone having profited at a cost to and at the expense of the British public at a time of extreme—and it was extreme—national crisis.

That is why this debate is important, and we need that from the Government now. We need something of the spirit that we had back then when things looked so dark and we were all worried for ourselves, our families, our health and our futures. We need the Government to stick by what the Prime Minister said and to give us transparency. Let us see the papers; put everything out in the open. And please ban VIP lanes, because the very notion that there was such a thing as a VIP lane when the country was in the midst of a pandemic and people were dying is offensive.

Photo of Kate Hollern Kate Hollern Labour, Blackburn 6:29 pm, 6th December 2022

Members across the House repeatedly warned about the contracts that were being awarded to companies during the toughest days of the pandemic, and especially to companies in the high-priority lane. It was not just about PPE; I raised concerns about testing kits that put residents of care homes in Blackburn at risk.

Our debate today is about the failure of proper due diligence. It was not a harmless failure; it hampered our response to covid and enriched VIP politicians while putting the public at risk. Constituents and companies were eager to help. The support that they offered was tremendous, and it could have saved lives if it had been accepted much, much sooner.

I would like to read from an email from a constituent, the managing director of a medical equipment company in Blackburn. The company, which has been going for 30 years and provides equipment across the world, contacted the Government in March 2020 to offer its services. Six weeks later, it had had no response. Those were six weeks lost. When a response did come, it was pretty miserable: it pointed to a link on the Government’s website. The company never got a proper response. The managing director wrote:

“None of what I am seeing makes any sense, when all this calms down as one day it will the lawyers will have a field day…people are using non medically approved or tested equipment…whilst there are recognised businesses that can supply the necessary approved and tested PPE that are being ignored by government.”

The company was producing PPE for councils and other public bodies that had been let down by the Government.

The scandal has been exposed and it is important that cronyism is never allowed to happen again. Billions of pounds of public money were wasted and lives were lost. It is disappointing that so few Conservative Members are here to hear about their failures, because you can only learn by your mistakes. They are turning a deaf ear to the scandal. Accountability, openness, honesty and integrity are all on the table this evening. It would be shameful if Conservative Members failed to vote.

This is a call for transparency. We must not fail the public in these situations ever again. We must demonstrate that we have learned from the mistakes. We must demonstrate transparency. If, as the Minister claims, there is nothing to see here and everything has been done properly, I suggest he votes for the motion and promises to put the papers in the Library as soon as possible.

Photo of Peter Grant Peter Grant Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Europe), Shadow SNP Deputy Spokesperson (Treasury - Chief Secretary) 6:32 pm, 6th December 2022

I certainly support the motion, and I commend the Opposition for devoting part of their Opposition day to it. It is perhaps unfortunate that they did not realise that another very interesting piece of contract lobbying had been carried out. Apparently the contract was not awarded, and the person who did the lobbying was later described by a senior civil servant as “incandescent with rage” that her chosen supplier had not been successful. I do not know whether that incident relates to the same company that we are talking about today, but it is clear that there has been more than one instance of lobbying for very lucrative contracts for well-connected companies.

The Minister referred several times to the fact that the National Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have looked at the issue. Well, that’s okay—everything must be fine! I wonder why he did not choose to enlighten hon. Members who have not read the reports about some of the things they say. The NAO report of 26 November 2020 states that

“some procurements were carried out before all key controls were put in place” and that the Government

“awarded contracts to 71 suppliers, with a total value of £1.5 billion, before the financial and company due diligence process was standardised.”

As for the claim that 97% to 98% of all items were usable, another NAO report records the Department’s estimate that 3.6 billion items—11% of the total, at a cost of £2.9 billion—were

“not currently suitable for front-line services”.

In other words, when we talk about 97% of items being usable, we mean that we might have paid for high-grade, clinical, sterile equipment that someone cutting up wood could use as a face mask to keep the dust out of their lungs. That is not frontline clinical use.

In July this year, the Public Accounts Committee said:

“The Department still”

—two years after the contracts were signed—

“lacks a stock management system that enables it to fully understand what PPE it has and where it is.”

So the Department does not know what it has or where it is. The Committee also said that there were

“insufficient due diligence checks at the outset of the pandemic to prevent potential profiteering and to identify conflicts of interest.”

The exact concerns that Members were raising from day one have been confirmed by the PAC, which concluded:

“We are…unsurprised to see the reports of excessive profits and conflicts of interest on PPE contracts.”

We can only speculate on why the Minister did not find time to refer to any of the content of those reports when he addressed us earlier.

The Minister boasted that 97% to 98% of items were usable, but we should note that he referred to “items” without referring to their value. If you order clinical gloves and get gloves that are not suitable for clinical use, you can still use them to keep the oil off your hands if you are servicing your car, but each of those costs pennies. As we have heard, millions of pounds-worth of “sterile” gowns could not be used because they were not in fact sterile. Why did the Minister choose to give us part of the truth, but not the whole truth?

Failings by the Government have meant that there is, at best, a huge question mark over this whole process, and a question mark over legitimate firms and hard-working professional civil servants, but in some cases—a minority, but some of them significant—those question marks are not in fact question marks, but exclamation marks. It is clear that things have happened that should not have been allowed to happen, and that require further investigation. The Government may have their reasons for wanting to keep this information from—not necessarily only from the public, but from the Public Accounts Committee. That information must be released, and the decision on what is made public and what is kept secret must be left to the judgment of that impartial Committee.

Photo of Nia Griffith Nia Griffith Shadow Minister (International Trade) 6:36 pm, 6th December 2022

My hon. Friends have set out very clearly the shocking scandal of the PPE contracts. They have also mentioned people who were working hard on the frontline, putting themselves in danger to help others; and, of course, all those who lost loved ones. I will concentrate on the damage that the VIP lanes have done to loyal, reputable companies—the backbone of British business—who offered to be generous and go the extra mile to help, rather than looking for chances to rip the taxpayer off.

BCB International, a company that operates in my constituency and in Cardiff, is a long-established manufacturer and supplier of life-saving equipment, including medical equipment. Its primary customers in the UK are the Ministry of Defence, the Ministry of Justice and many police forces, and it exports approximately 40% of its turnover. It makes, for instance, very good fuel for camping gas stoves called FireDragon. It was registered, it was known to the MOD and the MOJ, it had a good reputation, and it was ready to go. In March 2020, it was engaged in the production of its high-quality hand sanitiser, Dr Browne’s, in Llanelli. It employed up to 100 staff, and worked 24/7. The 80% alcohol sanitiser passed all the appropriate tests, and was well liked and used by the NHS in Wales, as well as by a number of police forces and other public bodies.

Owing to the PPE shortages, the UK Government made a commitment early in the pandemic to “back British business”, and their “UK Make” programme, headed by Lord Deighton, was tasked to unleash the potential of UK industry to scale up domestic PPE manufacturing. In May 2020, Lord Deighton said:

“As countries around the world face unprecedented demand for PPE, British industry is stepping forward to make sure vital pieces of equipment reach our workers on the frontline.

My role is to increase our homegrown PPE supplies, both now and in the future, by investing in the potential of UK manufacturing.”

However, I understand that the “UK Make” policy was withdrawn in September 2020.

In May 2020, following the Government initiatives, BCB invested £700,000 in new hand sanitiser production equipment. It also bought in high-quality FFP3 face masks from Europe, set up gown production, and made oxygen bottle bags. It supplied all those, successfully and on time, to the Welsh NHS, to Welsh and English police forces and to the MOD.

From March 2020, the company regularly tried to sell its British PPE products to the Department of Health and Social Care, and it has provided a brief overview of just some of the names that it was in contact with. I do not have time to read them out now, but the company tells me that although it made these contacts and sent many other emails, it was never contacted back. That is an utter disgrace, and today we have seen why that was the case. There was no need for it to be the case. Good, loyal companies that did everything they possibly could and turned their workforces to working for the country were completely ignored.

As has been mentioned, it was not like that in Wales, and companies have spoken very highly of the Welsh procurement procedure. It is no wonder that the Auditor General for Wales has said:

“In contrast the position described by the NAO in England, we saw no evidence of a priority being given to potential suppliers depending on who referred them.”

Those are extremely strong words, from an auditor referring to what was happening in England. The Welsh Government put in place good arrangements overall. That is such a contrast, and this is what is so damaging to all the good businesses in this country who want to play by the rules.

Photo of Fleur Anderson Fleur Anderson Shadow Paymaster General 6:41 pm, 6th December 2022

I am delighted to be able to close today’s debate on behalf of His Majesty’s Opposition, and I share the indignation of my right hon. Friend Angela Rayner, the shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, that we are once again having to come here to table a Humble Address to force the Government to come clean with the British public. It is all about transparency, and there are questions that need to be answered. Conservative Members can either support today’s binding vote to force Ministers to come clean, or they can be complicit in the continuing cover-up. The choice is theirs, and their constituents are watching.

The VIP lane is a national scandal that will cast a long shadow for years to come. It takes us back to the dark days of 2020 when covid was spreading, when people were dying and when there was not enough PPE for frontline workers. Schools donated goggles. Volunteers sewed gowns in their homes. Nurses and care home workers had to resort to wearing bin bags. My hon. Friends the Members for Blaenau Gwent (Nick Smith), for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), for Bradford West (Naz Shah), for Nottingham East (Nadia Whittome) and for Llanelli (Dame Nia Griffith) have articulated well the anger that is felt by our constituents across the country, who want to have their questions answered.

The shift to procurement was necessary; no one is denying that. We had to have fast procurement, but that did not need to lead to all procurement procedures being jettisoned along the way, resulting in the failure to provide usable PPE, the granting of huge contracts to shell companies, the industrial-scale waste of taxpayers’ money and then an industrial-scale cover-up. A total of £12.6 billion was spent on PPE, but £8 billion of that was written off. We know that £4 billion-worth of PPE was not up to standard and was unusable, that £3.6 billion-worth of contracts raised one or more red flags for possible corruption, according to Transparency International, and that 176 contracts worth £2.6 billion are now in legal dispute.

The consequences continue, as we have heard from Members today. Up to three weeks ago, £770,000 was being spent every day to store the faulty PPE here and in China. I had to check that several times; it could not be right. Were we really spending £770,000 every day? That was over £5 million a week, or £280 million a year. That is enough to pay for free school meals for all the primary schoolchildren in Manchester, Birmingham, Leeds, Liverpool and Nottingham put together, or to pay 8,000 nurses a year. I have heard the clarification from the Minister that the amount has been reduced, and that is welcome, but we are still spending £400,000 a day and 120 million PPE items are being stored in China. What is going on? I speak today for the millions who are sat in freezing homes relying on food banks during this cost of living crisis and hearing that Britain is being ripped off by the Tories.

The British Medical Association’s chair of council said:

“The deadly mismanagement around the supply of PPE is one of the greatest failings of this Government’s handling of the pandemic”.

There must be a reckoning.

The Government had been in power for a decade when covid began, but they did not have good enough emergency plans in place, which is why they did not have enough stockpiles of PPE and had to panic buy. They bypassed existing, scaled-up, British-based providers of PPE, and they chose shell companies that had no experience. They gave huge contracts and jettisoned good contracting procedures. Other countries managed to do it at the time, and we should have been able to do it, too.

It is fair enough to move to emergency contracting, to streamline and speed up contracting, but no checks on companies? No checks to see if the masks met NHS standards? Did no Minister intervene and say, “This is not right. Emergency procurement procedures do not mean no procurement procedures”? Did no Minister say, “Assure me that these companies can deliver. This is taxpayers’ money”? Did no Minister say, “Assure me that the VIP lane is not being used by mates, donors and pub landlords to get contracts ahead of actual PPE contractors”? Did no Minister say, “Assure me that the contracts ensure the taxpayer will not pay for faulty PPE”? It seems not.

What happened was wrong, and it is disappointing that Ministers keep defending it. If Ministers do not own this and admit it was wrong, they will not make the necessary changes, and it could well happen again. Everyone in the country knows it to be true that the first instinct of the Conservative party, if there were another pandemic or emergency tomorrow, would not be to go to correct procurement procedures and to make sure that our taxpayers’ money is not spent wrongly.

I will tell the House about two types of company. The first is Arco, and Members have talked about others. Arco is a Hull-based market leader in PPE production. It has 135 years’ experience, works with 110,000 customers and holds key framework agreements, including with NHS Supply Chain. It is very experienced in providing expert advice and appropriate and compliant PPE during epidemics, including foot and mouth, mad cow disease, swine flu and Ebola.

Arco has its own accredited product assurance lab, a 400,000 square foot national distribution centre and a sourcing team based in China. All of that was in place at the beginning of covid. It had PPE of the required standard manufactured and ready to go. It contacted the Government, and what was the reply? It was ignored. Its offers went unanswered.

PPE Medpro was not even a company until May 2020, yet it was awarded a £120 million contract to provide 25 million gowns and a £81 million contract to provide face masks. PestFix was a pest control company with net assets of £18,000 in 2019. Its director, Joe England, met the chief commercial officer of the Department of Health and Social Care, Steve Oldfield, at the 80th birthday party of Mr Oldfield’s father-in-law. PestFix was referred to the high-priority lane and went on to win nearly £350 million of contracts but was fined £70 million for delivering faulty masks and gowns.

There was the mobile phone case designer that recorded a £1 million loss in 2019 but was referred to the high-priority lane by a former Conservative party chairman and received a £13 million contract to provide PPE. Meller Designs was a fashion accessory company, but it was referred by Michael GoveDavid Meller was a donor to his leadership campaign in 2016—and it received £170 million of contracts.

Ayanda Capital was a family investment firm specialising in currency trading, offshore property and private equity—an obvious go-to for supplying PPE. It was referred by Andrew Mills, an unpaid adviser to the Board of Trade, which is chaired by Elizabeth Truss—I advised her that I would be mentioning her. The problem is that Ayanda Capital provided £40 million-worth of unusable face masks, yet it still posted a £25 million gross profit in 2020. The list goes on.

What do we need instead? We need a national resilience strategy. We need a procurement Bill that is not full of loopholes. We need a whole-system approach, not this mad panic and “pick your mates to make money” approach. That is why this matters, and it is why we are asking to see the documents. I hope the whole House will support this motion and ensure that the Government get the most basic responsibility of Government right, which is to keep us safe.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care 6:49 pm, 6th December 2022

To make sure that I get to them, I want to respond to some of the important points made by Back-Bench Members at the start of my remarks. Karl Turner, who is sadly no longer in his place, mentioned Arco not getting a contract. My understanding is that it did get a contract, so we should resolve what is correct.

Brendan O’Hara mentioned the two different contracts for PPE Medpro, and it is important to be clear that one of those contracts was delivered—the PPE was delivered and that was fine—and one did not, and that is the one we are taking enforcement action on. With all these contracts, we are just as keen as everybody else to make sure that we get good value for money for taxpayers and we enforce whenever things have not been delivered.

Nick Smith called for the publication of details of companies that were in the high-priority group and then got contracts, which is something that happened in November 2021. I slightly disagree with one point that Naz Shah made: the argument that we should not have had any contracts with firms that had not previously been PPE suppliers. Of course lots of new firms were coming into the market, and part of our drive to get more UK supply relied on that very point.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I am just going to complete my tour of people’s contributions.

Dawn Butler said that we should donate and reuse PPE, and I am pleased to tell her that that is precisely what we are doing. Christine Jardine said that we are in the middle of a major cost of living issue, and she is absolutely correct. That is why we are spending £55 billion on energy support, why we have the £900 payment for 8 million poorer households and why we are raising the national living wage to a record level—that is worth about £1,600 for a full-time worker.

The hon. Members for Blackburn (Kate Hollern) and for Llanelli (Dame Nia Griffith)—

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I will give way, but I am trying to respond to everyone’s points first. If Members can hold on, we will get there.

As I was saying, those two Members both made the point that we wanted to get more UK producers making PPE. The Minister of State, Department of Health and Social Care, my hon. Friend Will Quince, has already made the point that we have gone from 1% of FFP3 masks being made in the UK to 75%. I should also mention our work with Moderna to get more development and production of vaccines happening in the UK as part of that exciting deal.

Peter Grant said that one potential supplier had been incandescent with rage because they did not get a contract. That is the system working. People were being turned down for contracts; 90% of those who went through the—[Laughter.] Madam Deputy Speaker, I am desperately trying to respond to all the points. [Interruption.]

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons), Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons)

Order. Give the Minister a chance to respond to all the questions. I have tried to give enough time for that, so let him get on with it.

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I am keen to reply to them. The hon. Gentleman said that only 3%—

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I am literally responding to the hon. Gentleman. He talked about only 3% not being reusable and implied that some of the other things were only fit for servicing a car. To be clear, some of these things have a different clinical use. For example, the NHS tends to use and wants to use aprons on a roll when there is the choice, where we have a normal PPE market. What we do therefore is use the flat-pack ones that we had and donate them to care homes. Self-assembly visors are not preferred in the NHS because they take a bit of time to assemble, so we give them to dentists and the like.

We have heard two different uses of the words “writing off” in this debate, and it is important to be clear about the difference between these two things. Some people talk about “writing off” for things that are not usable, and only 3% of what was purchased is in that category. Then there is a different accounting use of “writing off”, which is something we have to do; we bought a load of PPE because we needed it in the middle of the pandemic and it was more expensive at that time—it was worth more then than it is now. That is the accounting meaning of “writing off”. Let us be clear about those two different uses.

Several hon. Members:

rose—

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

There are so many questions that I do not know who to give way to, but I think I should start with the hon. Member for Blaenau Gwent.

Photo of Nick Smith Nick Smith Labour, Blaenau Gwent

I thank the Minister for giving way. He attributed comments to me that I did not make, and I just want to put that on the record. I do have a question for him: does he accept that excessive profits have been made on the back of some of these PPE contracts?

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I am about to explain the due process that we went through and the incredibly forensic work that our civil servants did. Just to be clear—again, for the benefit of the House—Ministers did not make decisions on contracts. Officials, as usual, made the decisions on contracts. I will talk more about the process that we went through in the very short time that we have remaining.

During the dark days of the pandemic, we had a collective approach that saw hundreds of millions of life-saving vaccine doses delivered, the largest testing infrastructure in Europe established from a standing start and the distribution of tens of millions of items of PPE. It was a uniquely complex challenge even in normal times, but a particular challenge when the entire world was trying to get these goods. [Interruption.] Opposition Members might want to have the courtesy to listen to the answers of the questions that they have asked—a strange approach.

We delivered 20 billion items to the frontline and to our broader workforce—we are still in fact delivering 5 million items a months. That was enough to deliver a response to a worst-case scenario, which, fortunately, did not emerge. That is why we have that 20% excess stock that I mentioned earlier. It is simply not the case, as one hon. Member mentioned, that we had five times too much PPE. However, let us remember the context. It was the former Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, who said that it was a “matter of safety” and of patients’ safety. We agreed, which is why we acted. It was the shadow Health Secretary who said:

Our NHS and social care staff deserve the very best protective clothing…and they urgently need…it.”

We agreed. It was the current shadow Chancellor who called for a

“national effort which leaves no stone unturned”.

That is exactly what we did. [Interruption.]

Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

What did the hon. Member for Brent Central say there? [Interruption.] No, she does not want to repeat it.

Let me be clear, Madam Deputy Speaker: at every point in the procurement process, the process is rightly run by our brilliant commercial professionals. Ministers are not involved in the procurement process; Ministers are not involved in the value of contracts. Ministers are not involved in the scope of contracts, and Ministers are not involved in the length of contracts. That is something echoed by the National Audit Office, whose report concluded that the Ministers had properly declared their interests and that there was

“no evidence of their involvement in procurement decisions or contract management”.

The role of Ministers was exactly what we would expect. Approaches from suppliers were passed on to civil servants for an independent assessment. Let us again look at the scale of the effort: 19,000 companies made offers, around 430 were processed through the high-priority group, and only 12% of those resulted in a contract for 51 firms. That group was primarily about managing the many, many requests that were coming in to Ministers from people across the House and from people across the country who were desperate to help with that national challenge of getting more PPE, and there had to be a way of dealing with them. To be clear, due diligence was carried out on every single company, financial accountability sat with a senior civil servant, all procurement decisions were taken by civil servants, and a team of more than 400 civil servants processed referrals and undertook due diligence checks. It was a huge operation run by the civil service, and I thank them for their work in getting our NHS the PPE that it needed.

Let me be clear, I will not stand here and say that there are not any lessons to be learned; of course there are. But we should be clear about what those lessons are. Despite the global race to get PPE, only 3% of the materials sourced were fit for purpose, but we have built more resilient supply chains. We are implementing the recommendations of the Boardman review of pandemic procurement in full. I have mentioned the growth of UK procurement of face masks and of vaccines.

In closing, I wish to thank all of those who have been involved in this important conversation. We should be rightly proud of what was achieved during those dark and difficult days at the start of the pandemic, operating in conditions of considerable uncertainty. We were in a situation where, literally, there was gazumping going on. If people did not turn up with the cash, things were removed that they had bought from the warehouses. That was the global race that we were in to source these things. The 400-strong team of civil servants who led this process did a remarkable job from a standing start of sourcing the goods that we needed.

During this debate, we have heard a number of deliberate obfuscations of the different things that Ministers and officials do. To be clear, all of these decisions went through an eight-stage forensic process that was run entirely by officials and it did not get anyone a contract to go into this high-priority group. It was simply about managing the sheer number of bids for contracts that were coming in to people across this House. At the time, although memories are very short and the barracking on this continued—

Photo of Alan Campbell Alan Campbell Shadow Chief Whip (Commons)

claimed to move the closure (Standing Order No. 36).

Question put forthwith, That the Question be now put.

Question agreed to.

Main Question accordingly put and agreed to.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means, Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons), Chair, Standing Orders Committee (Commons)

Order. It is inadvisable for people to shout other things if I am listening for the Ayes having it.

Resolved,

That this House –

(a) notes that the Department for Health and Social Care purchased more than £12 billion of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in 2020-21;

(b) regrets that the Government has now written £8.7 billion off the value of this £12 billion, including £4 billion that was spent on PPE which did not meet NHS standards and was unusable;

(c) is extremely concerned that the Government’s high priority lane for procurement during the pandemic appears to have resulted in contracts being awarded without due diligence and wasted taxpayer money;

(d) considers there should be examination of the process by which contracts were awarded through the high priority lane;
and

(e) accordingly resolves that an Humble Address be presented to His Majesty, that he will be graciously pleased to give direction that all papers, advice and correspondence involving Ministers and Special Advisers, including submissions and electronic communications, relating to the Government contracts for garments for biological or chemical protection, awarded to PPE Medpro by the Department for Health and Social Care, references CF-0029900D0O000000rwimUAA1 and 547578, be provided to the Committee of Public Accounts.