It is a pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms Fovargue.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend Tonia Antoniazzi for leading this debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. Above all, I am thankful to all the people who signed the petition and to those who created it, because it means that, whether it is welcome or not, we must have this debate in the House, albeit on a Monday evening and in a small room. It should be happening on the Floor of the House of Commons, but the Government do not seem too keen to have it there, so we are having it here instead. Nevertheless, I thank all those who took the time to sign the petition, because this debate is not going away.
As my hon. Friend said, over 125,000 people have signed this e-petition, which shows the strength of feeling across the country about this issue. And those people signed it last year; if the petition had stayed open, we would have had a lot more signatures. That is because this situation did not stop when people were signing the petition; it has carried on and is carrying or now. There are questions to be answered.
Quite rightly, the British public do not like a cover-up. However, even the first response to this petition by the Government had to be sent back by the Petitions Committee —I thank the Committee for that—as the Government tried to dodge the question and did not really answer it. They had to resend in their homework; eventually, it was a bit better, but it is still not good enough.
Labour has been calling for months for this independent public inquiry into the Government’s handling of the covid pandemic, and the Government’s contracts must form a part of such an inquiry. That is what the public are asking for in this petition, and that is what we need to see. My hon. Friend eloquently outlined all the many different contracts about which there are questions to answer: contracts for PPE, contracts for free school meals and contracts for other things. We need to have an inquiry into all of them.
My hon. Friend Catherine West was right to say that the public want the Government to be careful with money, they want to know how that money is being spent and they want to see the details published. There are key questions about Government appointments and standards of ethics that we want answered. I am sure these questions would be key recommendations of any inquiry.
My hon. Friend Kate Osborne rightly went through the shocking costs of some of the contracts. They are not shocking in terms of their costs; this money needed to be spent urgently, to save lives. However, there was potential waste behind those contracts. There are also concerns that public confidence has been eroded because of the way that the contracting was carried out.
It is important to have an inquiry, because there are clearly questions to be answered, and lessons need to be learned rapidly. To be honest, I am concerned about leaving all those questions to the public inquiry. The questions about the contracting that is happening now need to be answered now. So a rapid-fire inquiry, which would also be part of the public inquiry, would be the best response to the questions being asked.
This is so important. Today could have been the day that has been termed “freedom day”. Who knows? With a correct track and trace contract, properly administered so that we could have confidence in it, we might not have had to rely only on the vaccine roll-out, which is impressive. Good test and trace could even have enabled us to have completed the opening-up today. That is how important this issue is.
The Government’s reply to the petition referred to the Boardman review, but that is not an independent and unbiased review, and just adds to the lack of transparency. It looks more and more as if the Conservatives are set on glossing over the cronyism in their ranks so that they can carry on as if nothing has happened. The Government have promised a covid inquiry “at the appropriate time”, but the appropriate time to look into these contracts is now. The next pandemic could arrive tomorrow: it is an ever-present threat, and the next one could be bigger and more deadly than covid. The Government cannot kick this inquiry down the road, because a moment of crisis is when our contracting should be better than normal, with higher standards than normal and more reliable than normal, not with more questions and more concerning, “given out to my mates” contracting.
The questions that I, many colleagues here and the public need answers to today are these. How did the urgent scramble to procure resources we needed to get us through the pandemic descend into corruption, waste, cronyism and secrecy? Why is this emergency contracting still going on? What has changed? Is anything better? It did not have to be this way; it should not have to be this way; and it cannot be this way when the next pandemic hits.
In the past 12 months, the Government have ordered £280 million of masks that did not meet the required standards. They have spent over £100 million on gowns without carrying out technical checks, and they could not be used. These were purchased by PestFix, a company that specialises in pest control products and that, by the Government’s own admission, was dormant in 2018 before being referred by the VIP channel. As the Good Law Project uncovered last month, officials at the Department of Health and Social Care were aware that PestFix’s agent may have been bribing officials in China. Most concerning of all, the Government have awarded almost £2 billion in covid contracts to friends and donors of the Conservative party.
Adam Holloway raised those points, and he said that there is nothing to see here, but I think he made a good argument for an inquiry.