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Covid-19: Government Use of Consultants

Volume 683: debated on Thursday 12 November 2020

What plans he has to review the (a) Government’s use and (b) value for money of consultants during the covid-19 outbreak. (908680)

What plans he has to review the (a) Government’s use and (b) value for money of consultants during the covid-19 outbreak. (908683)

Working effectively with the private sector is a vital part of our response to tackling the covid-19 crisis, allowing us to procure quickly and innovatively and to obtain specialist solutions to the myriad challenges that are facing us. Rapidly obtaining PPE is the most obvious example, but we have also turned to the private sector to help us operate things such as the virtual courts service and video services for families wishing to see loved ones in intensive care units.

We are clear throughout that contracting authorities must use good commercial judgment and continue to achieve value for money for taxpayers, and we are engaged in both internal and external audit to satisfy ourselves that that has been the case. Through “The Outsourcing Playbook” we are also improving the decision making and quality of contracts that the Government place with industry, and we are building our internal civil service capability, as we believe it is important that we invest in our in-house capacity and expertise so that we rely less on external consultants and contractors.

The Government failed to publish any information about £4 billion-worth of covid-related contracts, all awarded to private companies, in what appears to be a flagrant breach of the law. Will the Minister hold an independent inquiry—and if not, why?

I am unaware of the details of the allegations that the hon. Lady makes and I would be grateful if she wrote to me about them. As I mentioned in my earlier answer, the National Audit Office will conduct an external review of the procurements during the pandemic, but we are also doing our own internal review. I note some of the criticisms that are made by the Opposition and I wish to satisfy ourselves that those have no basis, because it is very important in this time of crisis that we maintain public confidence in everything that we are doing.

Some £175 million of taxpayers’ money has been shelled out so far on covid consultants. There has been £252 million for face masks from a company specialising in currency trading and offshore property—more than half the masks were not even fit for purpose because they had the wrong straps on—£43 million for hand sanitisers from a company that was previously dormant, 11 PPE contracts for a pest control company, and so the sordid list goes on. All aboard the covid Tory gravy train. It is no wonder that across our country, there are accusations of corruption and cronyism, with contracts handed down to Tory firms that have links to Tory chums and donors. Does the Minister think that it is right that consultants should be paid up to £7,000 a day to work on test and trace, which, in itself, is a world-beating failure?

We are going to have to have shorter questions for other people to get in—it is only fair.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for the points he raises. As I mentioned, we wish to reassure the public through the use of external and internal audits on some of the issues that he raises, but when it comes to some of the contracts that have been let, we were advised by Labour that we should be looking into a number of different companies, from people producing costumes to a number of other interesting leads that actually led nowhere. We were trying to procure at speed and I have a good degree of confidence in the PPE contracts that were let during this time.

I understand what the Minister is saying about trying to procure at speed, but it does seem that some of the agencies that the Government have chosen to do this are completely not fit for purpose and inappropriate. I cite Deloitte, which was appointed to set up a testing centre in south Leamington in my constituency. It took six weeks for a couple of portakabins and a couple of gazebos. How difficult is it? Why was Public Health England not more involved? It could have done this better.

There is some naivety from Labour Members about how easy it is to do some of these very complex operations at the speed at which they need to be done. We have to thank the private sector for the support that it has given us. We do not have huge volumes of public sector workers sitting there ready to be deployed, and if we did, they would have to be sucked out of other important frontline services. I think we should thank the private sector for the support that it has given us in this very difficult time.

£1,040,585,807—that is the value of Government contracts that have been directly awarded without competitive tender to companies that have links to the Conservative party’s friends or donors during the covid crisis. Will the Minister explain why, with the Tory party, it seems to be all cheques and no balances?

The hon. Lady makes a very serious insinuation about some of the ways in which contracts were let. As I said, we have external and internal audits to make sure that those allegations are investigated and that we are confident that they are baseless. I am happy to continue to engage with her on these issues, but the challenges that have faced us in this time have been substantial and a lot of people have dedicated substantial amounts of time, often for free, to giving their services at a time of crisis. To have insinuations about their character and integrity is very damaging to public confidence.