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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 6:26 pm on 21st June 2021.

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Photo of Catherine West Catherine West Shadow Minister (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 6:26 pm, 21st June 2021

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Ms Fovargue, in this important debate, brought to us by my hon. Friend Tonia Antoniazzi from the Petitions Committee.

Our constituents expect two things from Government procurement: first, for the Government to be careful with public funds; and secondly, for Ministers to undertake their duties honestly and with integrity. Sadly, those two requirements appear to be severely lacking in our current arrangements. The Government’s approach to contracting has been marred by waste, cronyism and a deep disrespect for our NHS heroes. They spent more than £22 billion—I believe my hon. Friend said it is £37 billion—on the Test and Trace system, which appears to make only a marginal difference, but only £3.50 a week extra on our nurses. They spent £7,000 a day on management consultants while withholding a much-needed pay increase for our NHS heroes. The values are all wrong.

The Government approach has lacked transparency from the start and, as the High Court ruled, they acted unlawfully on transparency and publishing contracts in a timely manner. The Prime Minister brushed off that suggestion, saying that the Government had published a few PPE contracts a fortnight late. Many contracts were not for personal protective equipment, but for management consultants and other services, and many remain unpublished. Some were published as late as 97 days after the recommended deadline.

The Prime Minister also said that the outstanding contracts were

“there on the record for everybody to see.”—[Official Report, 22 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 638.]

But it recently emerged in a court order that 100 contracts were still waiting to be published, one of which dated as far back as March 2020. The Government must take urgent action now to ramp up transparency rapidly and stop the huge waste to the public purse. They must publish the outstanding contracts and the companies in the VIP fast lane now. It is not good enough that people are able to write to a Minister in the House of Lords they happen to know in order to fast-track their company for a contract.

The emergency procurement powers should be wound down immediately, and money should be clawed back on contracts that have not delivered. If there is money to be clawed back, given that there appears to be largesse in Government, who are spraying money around on some of those contracts, instead of hiding the available money, why not make it available for staff who do not get sick pay and therefore cannot self-isolate, thereby spreading the virus? That would be a very good use of that money.

Recently, explosive emails were revealed about Public First, which had a strong connection with Mr Cummings and another member of staff from No. 10 Downing Street called Lee Cain. It appeared to be getting work to do focus groups. To the mind of my constituents, that is an utter waste of money at a crucial time when we should focus resources on our NHS. The High Court ruled that the Health Secretary acted unlawfully on transparency and publishing contracts on time. Those are damning revelations. I wonder whether the Minister will tell us what the medical regulator has said about the Health Secretary’s pub landlord, who won a lucrative contract after a WhatsApp message exchange but appeared to lack the relevant experience.

We need to do things differently. In the next minute I will conclude my remarks with what I think needs to be done. First, we need to re-examine whether the instinct to immediately contract out is, in fact, the best way to run public services. Surely we should have a properly funded health service to directly provide public services for our health service. Secondly, are our freedom of information requirements and practices sufficient to cope with the requirements on them? Are the private companies that are successfully awarded contracts subject to freedom of information requests? I do not believe that they are. We, as MPs, want to know the information. We want to know whether the money is being spend in a transparent way.

As a Parliament we need to demand that the Government make the UK a world leader in transparency again, which we used to be, by introducing a genuinely independent anti-corruption commissioner, which the hon. Member for Gower mentioned. An independent anti-corruption Minister should not be married to an individual who is in charge of an operational contract. That does not look right; it does not appear to be transparent, and that must be changed as soon as possible, regardless of who the individuals are. It is simply inappropriate for a spouse to purvey the corrupt or not corrupt practices of a Government.

Finally, we need to establish an integrity and ethics commission that will cover a number of different Government functions ranging from the Electoral Commission. I believe from reading the papers over the weekend that the Prime Minister wants to water down any provision to punish MPs who may be doing the wrong thing. That goes against what our constituents actually want. An integrity and ethics commission could lay out the Nolan principles, which appear to be being ignored, with individual MPs, Ministers or companies taking our contracts. We must have the highest standards in public service and public life. I thank you, Ms Fovargue, the Petitions Committee and every single petitioner who is watching this debate, for bringing this issue to our attention.