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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 6:33 pm on 21st June 2021.

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Photo of Kate Osborne Kate Osborne Labour, Jarrow 6:33 pm, 21st June 2021

It is a pleasure to serve with you in the Chair, Ms Fovargue. I thank my hon. Friend Tonia Antoniazzi for leading this debate and, of course, everyone who took the time to sign the petition. The Government’s approach to procurement during the pandemic has been marred by rampant cronyism and huge wasting of taxpayers’ money. They have shown a consistent track record of handing out contracts to their mates and even breaking the law along the way. Although it was apparent that the Government had to procure large volumes of goods and services quickly to meet demand, that is no excuse for the serious levels of cronyism and corruption that are now becoming apparent.

The National Audit Office investigation into Government procurement showed that the Government awarded £18 billion of contracts, using emergency procurement regulations, to buy goods, services and works to support their response to the pandemic. Some £10.5 billion was awarded directly without any competition, and £6.7 billion was awarded directly to pre-approved suppliers, even though they were not necessarily pre-approved for the products that they were selling. Only £0.2 billion was awarded using a competitive process.

That approach to procurement naturally led to issues of quality. The 50 million face masks bought in April last year, for example, could not be used in the NHS because they did not meet its specifications. More than £2 billion-worth of those contracts were awarded to firms with links to the Tories, and Cabinet members personally intervened to help their associates win lucrative contracts.

Just under two weeks ago, the High Court ruled that the Minister for the Cabinet Office broke the law by acting with “apparent bias” when a £560,000 contract was awarded to Public First without the tender going out for competition. Public First was found by the High Court to be a company with close links to the Minister for the Cabinet Office and former No. 10 aide Dominic Cummings.

In February of this year, the Government’s legal department stated that the cost of defending that case reached £600,000. That was more than the original contract was worth in the first place. It is shocking that the Government used taxpayers’ money to cover up their own lawbreaking, while frontline workers were not adequately protected with the high-quality PPE that they needed, our NHS staff could not be afforded a decent pay rise, and the Government are managing to invest only 20p per child per day in their so-called catch-up plan.

I hope that the Minister will tell us the total amount of taxpayers’ money that has been spent by this Government to cover up the fact that they acted unlawfully in awarding that contract to Public First. Will she tell us what the Government are doing to recover the taxpayers’ money that was handed out to Public First?

The National Audit Office investigation into Government procurement also found specific examples of insufficient documentation being produced on key decisions or on how risks, such as perceived or actual conflicts of interest, were identified or managed. In addition, several contracts were awarded retrospectively or have not been published in a timely manner. The lack of adequate documentation meant that the National Audit Office was unable to give assurances that the Government had adequately mitigated the increased risks arising from emergency procurement or applied appropriate commercial practices in all cases.

There is no doubt that that has severely diminished public transparency and public confidence. We can see the public feelings from the number of people who have signed the petition. Does the Minister agree that the use of emergency procurement powers needs to be wound down, and that all contracts awarded using such powers must be published, with an assumption against redactions and in favour of uploading all contract documents? Let us be clear: none of this has happened in isolation. It is a case of the wealthy elite being given priority, to become wealthier from the pandemic. That is wrong on so many levels.

We know that an independent public inquiry will be held in spring 2022, with the exact scope of the review yet to be determined. Does the Minister agree that the Government’s approach to public procurement during the covid-19 pandemic must be explicitly examined as part of the public inquiry into the handling of the crisis? As the 127,000-strong petition states, there must be a public inquiry

“to ascertain whether contracts had been procured fairly and represent value for money for tax payers.”

The public have a right to know if their money was spent wisely and properly, and they have a right to wider scrutiny of the Government’s response to the pandemic.