Covid-19: Government’s Publication of Contracts - Commons Urgent Question

– in the House of Lords at 1:00 pm on 11th March 2021.

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The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 9 March.

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

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

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

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

Photo of Baroness Thornton Baroness Thornton Shadow Spokesperson (Health) 1:01 pm, 11th March 2021

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that 100 contracts remain unpublished, while those that have been published are so heavily redacted that it is impossible to ascertain whether the orders reflect value for money for the taxpayer. Procurement guidance, which is still in force, says that once the contract is commenced, most of the contact details should be released and that only detailed pricing arrangements should be redacted and not much else. Indeed, Cabinet Office guidelines say:

“The government is committed to greater transparency across its operations … This includes commitments relating to public procurement.”

Can the Minister explain to the House and propose how meaningful transparency can be achieved to give effect to the Government’s stated policy?

Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

My Lords, with regard to the publication of contracts, the number of contract award notices that have been published is 609 out of 609. For contract finder notices, it is 892 out of 913—97.7%—and of the redacted contracts to which the noble Baroness refers, it is 792 out of 913, which is 86.7%. That is an enormous proportion of the contracts that exist that have already been published. The redaction is utterly according to Cabinet Office guidelines. I encourage the noble Baroness to have a look at them; it is remarkable how much detail there is in those contracts as they are published.

Photo of Baroness Brinton Baroness Brinton Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Health)

My Lords, the inevitable public inquiry will eventually set out the truth of what has happened with contracts during the Covid pandemic. In the meantime, given that the Urgent Question Statement says that the Government

“have always been clear that transparency is vital”, can the Minister say how many of the private meetings that the noble Baroness, Lady Harding, held on test and trace matters were with companies or their directors or staff who won contracts subsequently?

Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I do not know about a public inquiry; that will be for others to decide. I absolutely re-emphasise the Government’s commitment to transparency. As for my noble friend Lady Harding’s meetings, I do not have a full account of them in front of me, but I remind the noble Baroness that of course she met suppliers of test and trace. That is part of her role and that has been an important part of the engagement necessary to put together a very large organisation from scratch, and she has done a terrific job in the way that she has done it.

Photo of Baroness Pidding Baroness Pidding Conservative

My Lords, crisis situations such as the present pandemic require action, not paper. Does the Minister agree that, during a national emergency, the British people want a Government who focus resources on saving lives over prioritising red tape?

Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I am grateful for my noble friend’s remarks. Absolutely—the public expected us to act, not to push paper. I pay tribute to officials from the Department of Health and in particular from the Crown Commercial Service and the MoD who stepped forward in unbelievably difficult circumstances, particularly around PPE, to transact on a very large amount of extremely complicated and very difficult procurements that ensured that our front-line healthcare workers were safe.

Photo of Lord Young of Norwood Green Lord Young of Norwood Green Labour

My Lords, I declare an interest as I am on the advisory board of a local clothing manufacturing company in Haringey in an unremunerated capacity. Can the Minister explain why a high-quality SME capable of supplying reusable, RFID-tagged PPE gowns which can be laundered 70 times at a cost of 80p per wash—compared to disposable gowns which cost £10—and which are better for the environment and support local employment has not been given a contract?

Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

My Lords, I personally share the noble Lord’s frustration over the subject of reusable gowns. It strikes me as sensible and good for the environment for us to be able to use reusable gowns wherever we can. However, those who do the procurement understand fully what is required of a fully sterile gown and, unfortunately, with the amount of moisture and liquids that are involved in operations and in the front-line healthcare service, quite often it is not possible to have reusable protocols in place. That is why we use so much disposable PPE kit. It is a huge regret to me, and I share the noble Lord’s frustration. If he would like to write to me with details, I would be glad to pass them to the right people.

Photo of Baroness Warsi Baroness Warsi Conservative

My noble friend will recall the large number of offers made last year to assist the Government to respond to the pandemic, and he will be familiar in particular with the high- priority lane that was established for offers that came as recommendations from Ministers, officials and parliamentarians. This is not a party-political issue but, quite rightly, questions have been raised about the way in which the process gave preferential treatment to those connected to Ministers and indeed the Conservative Party, and about the quality of products contracted for. Can my noble friend therefore commit to an independent inquiry to ensure that public trust in public procurement using public funds is not severely damaged?

Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

I completely and utterly reject the suggestion that priority was given to people who had connections in the right place. Priority was given to those who had plausible products that they were able to sell to us. I take this opportunity to thank in particular Ian McKee, the noble Lords, Lord Evans and Lord Hunt, and Richard Baker for their recommendations, which were picked up by the procurement team, put into the high-priority lane and made a valuable contribution to our efforts to get PPE.

Photo of Lord Harris of Haringey Lord Harris of Haringey Labour

The noble Lord told the House on 1 March that he was content to be in legal breach, as the ends justified the means. That is a very slippery slope for a Government. Was it acceptable for Sitel to ignore GDPR by instructing staff to put patients’ personal details on their private emails because their computer systems could not cope? If that was not justified, the implication is that it is only Ministers who are above the law. But if it was okay, does he accept that it gives a green light to every dodgy or crony contractor to enrich themselves by breaking or bending the law?

Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

My Lords, the noble Lord’s imaginative reach is to be applauded. I will be absolutely categorical about what I said on 1 March. I never said that the ends justified the means or that I thought that Ministers were above the law. I always said that this Government champion transparency and that we would try to be within the law wherever we could be. I do not wish to make this point too many times: the public expect us to deliver safety for front-line workers, and that meant securing PPE. If we were a few days late on the publication of some contracts, then I think the public would definitely take our side in that decision.

Photo of Baroness Redfern Baroness Redfern Conservative

My Lords, during the Covid-19 pandemic, the fundamental aim of government has been to save lives and to do whatever is necessary to continue saving them. At the beginning of the pandemic, only 1% of PPE was produced here, whereas nearly 70% is produced here now. Will the Minister assure the House that the Government will do all they can to support this newly acquired manufacturing base for PPE and not return to relying totally on imports?

Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

The noble Baroness is right: it has been the most amazing turnaround—an achievement that has surprised me. This has absolutely turned on its head some of the assumptions about what Britain’s manufacturing base can achieve in terms of affordability, technical ability and return on investment. I am enormously proud of that achievement, and I can reassure the noble Baroness that we are absolutely doubling down on it. It has made us rethink our entire manufacturing strategy for medicinal, pharmaceutical and health products and medical devices.

Photo of Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle Green

My Lords, given that we are not now in an unpredictable emergency situation but in a long-term continuing pandemic, can the Minister reassure me that all treatments of future contracts will meet the legal reporting requirements and that the Government might even eventually publish the full structure of test and trace?

Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

We absolutely endeavour to fulfil the Cabinet Office guidelines on the publication of contracts, and I can provide that reassurance to the noble Baroness. It is my understanding that the structure of test and trace has been published. I will look into finding a link to that and would be glad to send it to her.

Photo of Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Lord McNicol of West Kilbride Deputy Chairman of Committees

My Lords, it feels a bit like déjà vu. The Minister complained on Tuesday about my use of rhetoric. At the end of this, he might wish that I had stuck to rhetoric rather than moving on to facts, so here are some facts. Fifty million facemasks could not be used as they did not meet the specifications: fact. Britain’s safety watchdog felt political pressure to approve the use of PPE suits: fact. One million hybrid masks were withdrawn as unusable: fact. There was contract inflation of 1,392% for the same product: fact. The Government have got this wrong, and I would simply ask: if they have nothing to hide, will they put all the facts about the contracts into the public domain?

Photo of Lord Bethell Lord Bethell The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Health and Social Care

My Lords, there was a global epidemic: fact. There was a breakdown in the global supply chains: fact. There was a need for PPE on the front line of healthcare: fact. We were prepared to do whatever it took to make people safe: fact.