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

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 7:11 pm on 21st June 2021.

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Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office 7:11 pm, 21st June 2021

I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s concern about perception, but it should actually be about fact. I am happy to address any concerns that he has. I find it extremely challenging to have people raising questions about my integrity in this space, when I do not feel that I have done anything improper. I am happy to get back to him on any questions that he might have, which I have also tried to address in other forums.

We have made it clear that there are opportunities to come back, analyse the situation and conduct reviews. Government procurement during the pandemic has already been extensively looked into by the National Audit Office. The report recognises that the Government needed to act with extreme urgency. The NAO found no irregularities and potential conflicts of interest involving Ministers in the awarding of contracts. The report underlined the importance of transparency in the Government’s procurement activity.

The Government take such matters extremely seriously, and we remain committed to continually improve our processes. To that end, as I mentioned earlier, we have had two independent expert reviews carried out by Nigel Boardman. They were initially internal reviews, but we have published them fully. In the first, he focused on a small number of contracts in the Government Communication Service and made 28 recommendations, 24 of which have already been implemented. The remaining four will be met by the end of the calendar year.

I have been tracking progress on this issue, including the publication of contracts, very closely. Better training of contract managers and commercial and communications staff has begun and there is now a requirement, at the point when a contract recommendation is made, that senior civil servants, special advisers and Ministers declare any interest that is either real or apparent. In his second, wider review, Mr Boardman has identified 28 further recommendations for improvements to procurement processes across Government. Progress is under way to begin the implementation of those, and a full update of progress will be provided to the Public Accounts Committee by July 2021. We are very grateful to Mr Boardman for his ongoing work. That review sits alongside a wider programme of work to reform public procurement, which I am leading.

In December, the Cabinet Office published our Green Paper on this issue, which sets out radical reform to our procurement regulations that will drive much better value for money for the taxpayer. The proposals, which have long been in development, address several areas highlighted in the NAO report, especially mandatory transparency requirements that would ensure that processes and decisions can be monitored by anybody who wishes to do so. The proposals aim to simplify complicated processes, reduce bureaucracy and create a fair, open and competitive system. They will strengthen transparency through the commercial life cycle, from planning and procurement to contract award, performance and completion. We also intend to clarify the rules on procuring in times of extreme urgency or crisis, learning from the difficult experience of this pandemic. The Green Paper consultations resulted in more than 600 responses, which are now being analysed in detail.

It is already Government policy to adopt and encourage greater transparency in commercial activity. Central Government buyers must publish all qualifying tender documents and contracts with a contract value of more than £10,000 on Contracts Finder, but we recognise and regret, as I have expressed already, that there have been delays to publishing some contracts, as raised by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green. Teams continue to work on publishing all contracts as soon as possible.

Since the High Court’s judgment in relation to the DHSC’s failure to publish some contracts, it has made significant progress. It has now published all known contract award notices and the contract documents for all historical covid-related contracts. As the permanent secretary for the Cabinet Office confirmed to the Public Accounts Committee earlier this month, all Cabinet Office contracts that related to the regulation 32 procedure on direct awards have been published.

Neale Hanvey raised very important points about the onshoring of critical manufacturing capability. Project Defend in the Department for International Trade has done a lot of work in that area. Some of the testing specifics I will need to take away and raise with my ministerial colleagues.

I would like to address some of the points raised by the hon. Member for Jarrow, who discussed the recent High Court judgment in relation to the public contract awarded by the Cabinet Office to Public First. I looked back in my role, to better understand the context in which that was contracted, because I received some early questions, when I was first in my ministerial role, that I personally wanted to investigate as well, and I think it might be helpful if I set out a little more of the context.

Back in March, there was no vaccine, no test and trace, and very little knowledge of how best to manage this novel disease. Strong messaging of the kind that could alter behaviours was, at the outset of the pandemic, one of the few tools that we had in our arsenal in the battle against transmission. It followed that the Government Communication Service needed rapidly to assess which messages would have the greatest impact. We needed to turn campaigns around in lightning-quick time, and teams had to be surged to deal with the unprecedented demand for effective comms material. In dealing with such an unforeseen set of circumstances, few officials knew which messages would be sufficiently hard hitting to influence and, most importantly, to change public behaviour.

It was in that context that rapid decisions were made on comms contracts, including the one that was challenged in court. That was for Public First, a research and policy company. It was taken on, alongside BritainThinks, as one of two companies in the market deemed to have the scale, expertise and experience to provide focus-group testing in March. They were both rapidly diverted from existing work to take a snapshot of public reaction. That allowed us in government to test things such as the contain strategy, the early “Stop The Spread” campaign and the “Stay Home” message, which was deemed by the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green in earlier comments to be a waste of money.

A legal challenge was brought against that contract, on three grounds: urgent procurement without competition; the proportionality of its award for six months; and inclusion of non-urgent work. We did not use money, as was suggested by other hon. Members, to cover up, but actually to find out what had happened, so that we could respond to that legal challenge. The judgment found in favour of the Government on two grounds: first, we were entitled to rely on the emergency procurement regulations because of extreme urgency; and, secondly, the terms of the contract, including length, were proportionate in the circumstances. The court ruled that the Government were entitled to award the contract on grounds of extreme urgency, in response to an unprecedented global pandemic. It recognised the very complex circumstances that we were operating in. It also recognised that a failure to provide effective comms would have put public health at risk.

On the one remaining ground of “apparent bias”, the judgment makes it clear that the decision to award the contract was not due to any personal or professional connections, although consideration should have been given to other research agencies, and the process followed should have been more adequately demonstrated when it came to the objective criteria used to select the supplier. The judgment none the less makes it clear that there was no suggestion of actual bias.

We have done a lot of work to address some of the procedural issues that were raised by this case and which I have mentioned, because I had my own concerns about it. Our implementation of the Boardman recommendations, which I have already discussed, has addressed several areas raised in the judgment. I agree with the hon. Member for Jarrow about winding down the use of regulation 32 in comms, and I have done a lot of work in this area.

Ms Fovargue, I apologise for the length at which I have responded to some of the issues raised. These are important issues and ones that I personally want to ensure that the Government are addressing proactively. I am very keen that we also provide greater context for some of the criticisms and challenges brought. It is absolutely fair that the public would have questions on this, and I want to try to address some of those. I am very grateful for the valuable points raised by hon. Members in the course of this debate, but I want to assure people that the Government are taking decisive action to improve transparency around procurement, alongside a full inquiry into the covid pandemic next year.