Government Contracts: Covid-19 — [Yvonne Fovargue in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 6:16 pm on 21st June 2021.

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Photo of Tonia Antoniazzi Tonia Antoniazzi Labour, Gower 6:16 pm, 21st June 2021

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered e-petition 328408, relating to Government contracts during the covid-19 outbreak.

It is an honour to serve under your chairship, Ms Fovargue. Some £31.2 billion has been spent on contracts in response to the outbreak of covid-19. It might be more now, but that was the figure I found last week. Anyway, what is a couple of million quid between mates? I say “between mates”, as a huge amount of money has been channelled into lining the pockets of the pals of the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the former Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—Mr Paterson—the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the Prime Minister’s former adviser Dominic Cummings and others. I have been an MP for slightly more than four years now, and I am slightly disappointed that I have had nothing offered to me. I do not move in those circles, unfortunately—or, fortunately.

When researching for this debate, I uncovered some great investigative work. I am grateful to all the journalists, lawyers and campaigners who have shed some light on the deals that have been struck over the past 17 months or so. I encourage people who want to know more about what is going on to look at the Good Law Project website or Sophie Hill’s My Little Crony project.

Transparency International has produced a scathing report about the state of procurement during the pandemic response. I quote its findings when I say that the evidence shows that the UK’s procurement response to the pandemic was beset by

“opaque and uncompetitive contracting…a suspiciously high number of awards to those with political connections…the system designed to triage offers of PPE supplies appears partisan and riven with systemic bias.”

I thank the petition creators and its signatories, who have enabled this debate to be held in Parliament. Those campaigners have shed some light on the contracts that have been awarded by the Government, and I would like to give a short taste of what has been happening behind closed doors while our frontline workers have battled to keep us safe from the disease.

First, there is the £560,000 to Public First, a communications agency run by old mates of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office and Dominic Cummings. The High Court ruled that the contract was unlawful and tainted by “apparent bias”. Samir Jassal, former No. 10 adviser to David Cameron and twice a parliamentary candidate for the Conservatives, was handed a £102.6 million contract for personal protective equipment. To be fair, at least the company in this case, Pharmaceuticals Direct, seems to have a history in providing medical equipment, given its appropriate name. However, the contract was again awarded without tender. What is more, even after the Prime Minister insisted in the main Chamber that all covid contracts were on the record, no details of that one were revealed until after the Good Law Project wrote to the Government about it. They were nine months late in providing those details.

A contract for nearly half a billion pounds was given to Randox with no tendering process. In fact, the right hon. Member for North Shropshire, who was paid £100,000 a year by Randox, was party to a call to the Health Minister in the other place, Lord Bethell, when the contract was extended. That extension came after 750,000 tests had to be recalled because they were not sterile.

There was also a contract with a jeweller. One part of the reported £250 million-worth of contracts is most interesting—namely, the £70.5 million contract to buy sterile gowns, almost all of which could not be used because the contract did not request the double packaging used in sterile settings. The jeweller, Michael Saiger, based in Florida, used a middleman to arrange logistics, and he earned over $16 million from the deal. Again, the contract was published unlawfully late.

A £425 million contract was handed to Edenred to supply free school meals, again without a tendering process. This is a company that the National Audit Office said showed “limited evidence” of its capacity to deliver meals to children in need. In fact, the families who waited nearly a week to receive vouchers would probably say that there was absolutely no evidence that it could deliver meals.

Sticking with school meals, will the Minister confirm whether any due diligence was carried out before a contract was signed with Chartwells to provide those meals? A quick search might have raised some questions even before a food parcel of a few pieces of fruit, a tin of beans, two carrots, a malt loaf, a block of cheese and a loaf of bread were delivered. I know it is difficult for some people to imagine having to survive on such meagre rations, but when some are able to secure contracts and cushy jobs, I cannot imagine they will want for much at all.

The head of Test and Trace for the UK, Baroness Harding, a chum of David Cameron, has overseen much of the maligned scheme, which has so far cost £37 billion. That is enough for five Mars Rover missions, which is incredible. Where has the money gone? Well, we have been paying thousands of private sector consultants, most on well over £1,000 a day and some even over £6,000 a day. The Public Accounts Committee was pretty scathing in its assessment of the whole thing and found that the system does not seem to have made much of a difference to the spread of covid-19.

Some people might want to raise the issue of apparently cosy contracts, the lack of a tendering process and the inability to declare contracts, but who would they turn to? Perhaps they could approach the Government’s own anti-corruption champion, John Penrose, although he might not be open to receiving complaints as he is married to Baroness Harding.

We all know that the Minister who has come to defend the Government against such claims is part of the Cabinet Office scene, and we know that her boss, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, is at the centre of many of these dodgy, questionable deals. I expect we will hear the same old lines trotted out: “We were in a crisis and we needed things delivered quickly. The Government will do whatever it takes. The Government have nothing to hide,” and so on. We all know that we were in the middle of a crisis. We were there, too, and no one would ever say that we did not need to respond quickly to plug the gaps left by the Government’s woeful underfunding of the NHS and social care sector, but the public have a right to question the validity of giving hundreds of millions of pounds of public money to shipping companies with no ships, PPE manufacturers who do not make anything, and a pub landlord who happens to know the Health and Social Care Secretary. People deserve to know whether they have got value for money. They need to know whether we can recoup some of the money we have spent on useless PPE.

These are serious matters that just cannot be brushed aside by the Minister. She needs to ask herself some very serious questions before parroting the lines given to her by her boss. Is she happy with the way in which the Government have spent the money of her constituents in Hornchurch and Upminster? Are they happy with it? Emergency demands urgency, but emergency is not an excuse for cronyism.