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Ministerial Interests (Emergency Powers)

Volume 688: debated on Wednesday 27 January 2021

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require a Minister to give make an oral statement to Parliament if a contract is awarded under emergency statutory powers to a person in whom, or a company in which, a Minister has a personal, political or financial interest.

Today, I present an important Bill, which would help safeguard against the risk of procurement corruption and restore some trust in the integrity of our democratic processes at a time when that trust has been rocked to the core. Anyone in public office should be there to serve the public good, not to exploit their position to line the pockets of themselves, their pals, or their party donors. Yet during this crisis we have seen lucrative contracts go to firms with little experience in public procurement, but with very clear links to people in power. Issues with cronyism are not new, but there has been nothing of this scale before, nothing so blatantly disregarding due process. It could be said that a crony virus is threatening the health of our public services and emergency action is needed to get the Government under control.

I fully understand that there was a need to procure goods at a scale and speed never done before when the pandemic struck, so the usual processes to ensure best value for the public purse had to be set aside. But to many, it looks suspiciously like the emergency has been used as a catch-all excuse by this Government to bypass due process at every turn. The National Audit Office reported that a staggering £10 billion-worth of contracts had been awarded without competition by the end of July last year and more than a few of them have raised eyebrows. There are serious questions to be answered about why politically connected and relatively new companies with no track record in procurement were among those awarded contracts to supply our NHS.

To give just a few examples, the Good Law Project reports that, within two weeks of inviting tenders in March last year, the Government had 24,000 offers from 16,000 suppliers, many of whom had a wealth of experience in providing personal protective equipment for healthcare professionals. Yet three of the biggest beneficiaries of Government contract awards were a Florida-based jewellery company, with no experience of supplying PPE, a tiny vermin control operation called PestFix, valued at just £19,000, and an opaque family office owned through a tax haven, Ayanda Capital, whose senior adviser, also by chance, had a role on the Board of Trade. To make matters worse, 50 million masks purchased from Ayanda failed to meet NHS specifications and were never able to be used. Then, as reported in The Guardian, there was the awarding of a £30 million contract to the Health Secretary’s former neighbour, who used to run a local pub in his constituency, after an initial conversation over WhatsApp. Now he may well be the best person for that role, but without greater scrutiny and clarity it is no wonder that questions are raised about the legitimacy of such deals.

In many ways, we could be forgiven for thinking that being a donor to the Tory party must carry an inherent specialism on delivering covid contracts, as Tory donors have really done very well out of this crisis. Millions have been awarded to firms such as Globus (Shetland), which donated £400,000 to the Conservatives, or P14 Medical, owned by a Conservative councillor. Those issues and details are public only thanks to the efforts of many public-spirited citizens, academics, legal experts and investigative journalists, who are working so hard to shine a light on what is going on in the murky corridors, such as Byline Times, openDemocracy, Transparency International UK and the Good Law Project.

There are many more examples that deserve far greater time and scrutiny than I could give today as I present the Bill, so I look forward to its passing for a Second Reading, so that there is a chance for further debate and more hon. Members have the chance to have their say on the issue. In the full light of day, it may well be a scandal to rival or even surpass the MP expenses scandal, but even if it is not we should at least get the regulations in order to prevent any suggestion of corruption setting in. When processes to protect the public purse and ensure fairness are stripped away, it leaves open the clear risk of unscrupulous individuals exploiting the system for private gain, so it is important that the Government do all that they can to mitigate those risks. Instead, sadly, they seem to have revelled in the freedom to bypass due process.

The need for greater scrutiny is clear. The anti-corruption organisation Transparency International UK has been looking at the publicly available contract data since February last year, and found that at least 68 contracts, worth over £3 billion of public money, deserve further investigation. The Department of Health and Social Care awarded 57 of those contracts, 47 of which were for personal protective equipment, totalling £2.1 billion. It was found that 17 of those, worth just under £1 billion, relate to companies with political connections. There is no public record to tell us which of them were referred via the high priority VIP lane, which the Government set up to allow suppliers with links to politicians and senior officials to pitch directly. The criteria for that are not clear, and its existence was not mentioned in the Cabinet Office guidance note. In fact, we know about VIP lanes only as a result of the report from the National Audit Office.

We do know, though, that the mysterious VIP lane was the best bet for getting a contract. One in 10 offers were successful compared with just 0.7% through the normal channels. It is simply appalling that, while underpaid frontline staff struggle, billions of pounds in public contracts seem to be handed out like sweeties to people with friends in high places. People with questionable experience but unquestionable links to power were fast-tracked towards big money deals to supply lifesaving equipment, without competition, behind closed doors and often producing faulty or substandard goods.

Meanwhile, those with a track record in public procurement or an expertise in NHS supplies, but who do not happen to rub shoulders with the right people, have struggled to get a toe in the door. It seems to be much more about who they know than what they know. There should be absolutely no question mark about the motivation behind covid-19 contracts. It cuts to the heart of how a Government operate and what their priorities are. Either it is in the best interests of the public, or it is in the interests of lining the pockets of their pals. All of us will pay for these contracts through our taxes for years to come, and tragically some have paid with their lives for PPE mistakes. The Government must be held to account for the decisions that they have taken.

The great thing about the Bill is that if the right people and companies are getting the jobs it should put an end to any question marks hanging over the decision-making process—something that surely the Government would welcome. It is about Ministers having to answer in Parliament for their reasoning—taking back control. They will have a chance to convince us that it is a mere coincidence that a contract has been given to an old school chum, the local pub landlord, a colleague’s wife, a Tory donor, or perhaps even a Vote Leave campaign colleague. If they are the best person for the job, it should be clear from their credentials, skills and record. There is nothing to fear from the Bill if there is nothing to hide. Indeed, I imagine the Government will want to seize the opportunity to put this simple measure into law. Given the damage being done to public trust, they will be keen to help to set the record straight and show that there is nothing shifty going on.

For the moment, these contracts look like public scandals being hidden in an overgrown, privileged public schoolboy arena. Those of us asking inconvenient questions are not going away. Of course, much more needs to be done to improve transparency over public contracts, both during and after the emergency. The UK is well behind the curve internationally on this front, but declaring ministerial interests is one simple, important and effective step we could take now, with no cost, to enshrine greater accountability in law. I very much welcome the cross-party support that this proposal has received, from every single party in this place except the governing one. This is a chance for us to restore some badly bruised faith in democracy, and bring back the principles of accountability, public service, and public good and fairness for all. I urge the House to back this Bill.

Question put and agreed to.


That Owen Thompson, Dan Carden, Deidre Brock, Liz Saville Roberts, Wendy Chamberlain, Caroline Lucas, Stephen Farry, Claire Hanna, Jim Shannon, Patrick Grady, Alyn Smith and Richard Thomson present the Bill.

Owen Thompson accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 247).

Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill (Programme) (NO.2)

Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 83A(7)),

That the following provisions shall apply to the Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill for the purpose of supplementing the Order of 5 October 2020 (Covert Human Intelligence Sources (Criminal Conduct) Bill (Programme)):

Consideration of Lords Amendments

(1) Proceedings on consideration of Lords Amendments shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion three hours after their commencement.

Subsequent stages

(2) Any further Message from the Lords may be considered forthwith without any Question being put.

(3) The proceedings on any further Message from the Lords shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion one hour after their commencement.—(Rebecca Harris.)

Question agreed to.