Urgent questions are appearing like buses for me this week.
I am grateful for the chance to address the House about the Government’s use of emergency covid contracts. I have previously responded to debates on this issue with as much detail and candour as I have been able to provide as someone who came to this brief last June and who has tried subsequently to understand what happened in the early months of the pandemic.
The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) will know that all corners of our country have worked together to tackle covid. The public have all too often seen division between different regional authorities but, in truth, close collaboration with the devolved Administrations has been at the heart of our pandemic response, enabling swift policy action such as the roll-out of the vaccine programme UK-wide, the furlough scheme and a rapid increase in testing capacity.
At the beginning of the pandemic, over 13 million items of personal protective equipment were distributed to the devolved Administrations. Throughout the pandemic, the UK Government and the devolved Administrations have worked side by side on sourcing and supply of PPE such as FFP3 masks, and they continue to work together on meeting future demands on frontline staff. The existing procurement rules rightly allow the Government to procure at speed at times of emergency under the Public Contracts Regulations 2015. The rules predate covid-19, and there was no need for suspension or relaxation in order for them to be used. None the less, I understand and welcome questions that right hon. and hon. Members have about covid contracts, because how we spend taxpayers’ money matters very deeply to public trust.
It is true to say that the Government faced a number of challenges at the height of the pandemic, and we should be open about those. It is incumbent on all of us to understand not only the kinds of pressures that were on the system, but some of the shortcomings that desperately need to be addressed. That being the case, the Government are already adapting their commercial guidance and work. Following the first, independent Boardman review of procurement processes, looking at a small number of contracts in the Government Communication Service, 24 out of 28 recommendations have already been implemented, and the remainder will be met by the end of the calendar year. Following the second, wider Boardman review, which looked at PPE, ventilators, test and trace, vaccines and food parcels across Government, 28 further recommended improvements were identified, and progress on those is under way. Our Green Paper on transforming public procurement also sets out proposals to update the rules on procuring in times of extreme emergency or crisis.
Let me also briefly address the issue of Government polling during the pandemic. The Government regularly undertake research to support policy development, which includes work related to the impact of covid in areas across the UK. It is the sign of a responsible Government to understand the public’s views on how best to keep people safe to recover from the pandemic and to ensure that we will continue to deliver for all parts of the United Kingdom.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I welcome the Minister to her place; it is the first time I have appeared opposite her.
After the revelations and resignations at the weekend, this urgent question concerns yet another scandal at the very heart of this Tory Government. It seems that not even a health pandemic can do away with classic Tory cronyism, and the scale of this particular scandal makes it one of the biggest yet.
The Secretary of State ordered the use of a £560,000 emergency covid contract to conduct constitutional campaigning on the Union. Instead of using an emergency covid contract to order PPE for the NHS, the Minister chose to order political polling. This is not media speculation, and it is not even a political accusation. It is, Mr Speaker, a plain fact. It comes directly from official evidence that has been published in the High Court. It comes in evidence from the Cabinet Office, in a witness statement dated 24 December 2020, which states:
“I...received an urgent request for Union-related research from the office of the Rt Hon Michael Gove...In response, I asked Public First to conduct some testing of people’s attitudes”
on this issue.
Did the Prime Minister know or approve of that polling and constitutional campaigning? Who were the polling results shared with, and will they be published in full? How many other pieces of political research were ordered during the pandemic, and exactly how much public money has been spent? These are just some of the questions that the Secretary of State needs to answer. There are many, many more.
The Secretary of State was in Scotland yesterday. He held a press conference. He told Greg Russell of The National newspaper:
“We don’t use taxpayer funds for party political polling”.
He went on to claim that the contract was assigned by others. We know from the witness statement that these things are not true. The truth and this Government are distant strangers, and that should come as no surprise when we remember the Prime Minister has been sacked not once but twice for lying.
Order. A serious allegation about somebody lying will have to be withdrawn—as we know, hon. Members would never lie. I am sure we would like to think about the language being used, because I am not convinced about the proof of that. I think we should withdraw the word “lie”.
Order. [Interruption.] Order. Mr Blackford, please. You cannot criticise another Member such as the Prime Minister without a substantive motion. That is not what has been granted. The language we use is important for me to keep good order, and I am sure you could reflect on the words about another Member, who I presume has also been given notice of any criticism.
Indeed, I am relying on matters of fact, Mr Speaker. Just as the Prime Minister failed to act and sack his Health Secretary, he has failed to act on this scandal, too. But no matter how hard they might try to sweep this under the carpet, this scandal is not going away. This morning I have written to the Cabinet Secretary, urging him to launch—
This morning I have written to the Cabinet Secretary urging him to launch an independent investigation into this blatant misuse of public money for political purposes. So finally, if this UK Government have nothing to hide, will the Minister join me in supporting that investigation by the Cabinet Secretary, and will she co-operate with it?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his questions, and I will try to address them with facts, not party political allegation. First, if I may, I would like to provide some context to the direct award of the Public First contract for communications during the pandemic. In March 2020, there was no vaccine, no test and trace, and very little knowledge of how to best 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 in our arsenal in the battle against transmission. It was in this context that rapid decisions were made on comms contracts, including a decision that was challenged in court recently.
Public First was taken on, alongside BritainThinks, as one of only two companies in the market deemed to have the scale, expertise and experience to provide focus group testing in March last year. Both were rapidly diverted from existing work to take a snapshot of public reaction, and that allowed us to test things such as the contain strategy, the early “Stop The Spread” campaign and the “Stay Home” message, alongside an understanding of how best to tailor messages to different audiences across the UK. These key communications campaigns were seen on television and social media, and I am sure we will all be familiar with them.
Ministers had no personal involvement in the decision to award this contract, and they do not, of course, personally approve contract awards. This contract did not relate to constitutional campaigning, and any suggestion that the Government carry out party political research is entirely false.
The Government regularly conduct research in every part of the UK to support policy development. In this case, we were testing public attitudes relating to the covid-19 pandemic. This became particularly relevant as different regions of the UK began to diverge in their approach to tackling covid, and that created understandable confusion.
Focus groups, which were conducted by Public First but commissioned by the national resilience communications hub, looked at attitudes towards the virus, upcoming recovery and the wider context in which to interpret the results, and the results were shared with relevant policy and communications teams. They were involved in developing and delivering covid policy and communications across the devolved Administrations, enabling them to differentiate their content and messages as appropriate. We do not plan to publish the full results of the polling and focus groups that have been used to inform ongoing policy formulation. However, we regularly review all the data we collect, and we intend to publish the elements that are not sensitive in due course.
Separately, the Cabinet Office carries out polling on attitudes towards the Union on a regular basis, but this work was paused during the coronavirus crisis. We are aware that the Scottish Government also conducted polling on attitudes in relation to covid. We did not see this research, nor would we expect to. The Secretary of State for Scotland has already addressed some of the questions that the right hon. Gentleman has raised online on his Twitter account.
Finally, to return to the judgment on Public First at the recent court hearing, that judgment found in favour of the Government on two grounds, which were emergency award and contract terms, including length. It was recognised that
“everyone involved was acting under immense pressure and the urgency of the…crisis did not allow time for reflection. The time constraints justified…derogation from the usual procedures required under PCR 2015. But they did not exonerate the Defendant from conducting the procurement so as to demonstrate a fair and impartial process of selection.”
We have already recognised that there was an issue of process, where we could do much better. That is why we investigated what had happened to prepare for the court case. We launched an internal independent review—the subsequent Boardman review—which is published in full online. We have taken forward its recommendations in full, and have nearly delivered all of them. A steering group, chaired by our chief financial officer, has been tracking implementation.
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman feels reassured by my answers. I look forward to continued collaboration with the Scottish Government to the benefit of citizens across our Union.
Against unprecedented global demand for vital equipment, the UK Government secured over 32 billion items of PPE, including for our devolved Administrations. Also against the odds, and against the desire of some on the Opposition Benches who wished to remain in the EU vaccine programme, the UK again successfully secured a world-leading programme. The marketing budget for the vaccine programme was just 0.07% of the budget. Sensibly, it included work to ensure that messaging had the maximum impact in all parts of the United Kingdom to save as many lives as possible. This was rightly done at pace, and should this not be celebrated, rather than be used as a party political point-scoring urgent question by the Opposition SNP?
I thank my hon. Friend for pointing out just how fantastic the co-operation has been between all parts of our United Kingdom. The UK Government have provided huge support to the Scottish Government and other devolved Administrations—that comes in testing capacity; we have helped with PPE; we have obviously helped with the furlough scheme—and, as he says, that should be celebrated, not denigrated.
I think it is worth reiterating that the Government have been found to have acted unlawfully over the contract with Public First. Their attitude is that the rules do not apply to them. Given that the judge found apparent bias, surely this must now be referred to the independent adviser and the Cabinet Secretary. What are they scared of?
I know all too well, on the point made by the hon. Member for North West Durham (Mr Holden), the need to secure PPE for our frontline NHS and social care workers, but while nurses were working in bin bags, others were filling their pockets at the taxpayer’s expense. The Minister quoted the National Audit Office, but the Comptroller and Auditor General said that the evidence shows that
“standards of transparency…were not consistently met”.
Perhaps the Minister can explain today why the National Audit Office found that PestFix, for example, was wrongly added to the high priority lane and awarded over £300 million after a shareholder reminded a senior official that he was a friend of his father-in-law.
The Minister claimed that a full eight-stage process always took place, but the NAO found over 70 contracts awarded before that process even existed. Can she confirm that Ayanda Capital was placed on the VIP list without that process, thanks to an adviser to the International Trade Secretary? Officials admitted that due diligence had not been carried out on Ayanda, and the bar seems to have been lowered in that case.
Mr Speaker, £150 million was spent on entirely useless PPE, so can the Minister confirm how much equipment bought this way was not fit for use? We already know that over £10 billion has been awarded without a competitive tender—for example, the £100 million given to Pharmaceuticals Direct Ltd after lobbying by the Home Secretary, with millions apparently ending up in the hands of her close associate, the “broker” to the deal. Will the Home Secretary be referred to the independent adviser—and if not, why not?
Yesterday, the Minister accepted that private emails were used by other Ministers in the process of awarding contracts, but the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson denied it. Will the Minister ensure that the record is now corrected?
Finally, the Minister promised that all such emails are covered by freedom of information. We have submitted such a request, but how will the former and current Health Ministers be prevented from permanently deleting the emails first? I urge her to refer the whole issue to the Information Commissioner. Surely she can see why only an independent process can restore trust. If Ministers want to be taken seriously by the public, then, quite frankly, they need to stop taking the hit and miss.
I have listened over this past year to the criticisms and attacks made by the Opposition and campaign groups on covid contracts, and I take them very seriously. That is why I took the time, when I assumed my role after maternity leave, to understand what happened. I do not think anyone is standing here suggesting that everything went smoothly during the height of pandemic. It did not. A whole series of challenges were faced and shortcomings highlighted. I have now twice set out in some detail the problems that have been described to me, and I have set out what we are doing to resolve them.
Let me go through some of them in relation to PPE. Some 450 people from across Government were moved into the Department of Health and Social Care to become a stand-up virtual team to assist with securing PPE. That team is normally only 21 people strong. That meant a lot of people who did not know each other working remotely on a range of different IT systems, with suppliers they did not know, on product they were not familiar with, in the most highly pressured market of their careers. That has led to lags in contract publication, as paperwork has been very tricky to join up across systems.
Faced with exceptional global demand, the usual vendors in China, which service the central procurement function, very quickly ran out of supply, and the world descended on a few factories in that country to bid for available items. It was in that market context that the Government had to procure with extreme urgency. That was often through direct award of contracts. If we did not do that, we risked missing out on vital supplies. We never ripped up procurement rules. It was a situation of genuine crisis and extreme urgency, where offers had to be accepted or rejected in a matter of hours or days, and it was simply not viable to run the usual procurement timescales.
The effort to secure PPE was herculean and involved setting up a new logistics network from scratch. I have explained in Parliament on a number of occasions that the VIP fast-track lane that has been touted often by the Opposition, was actually a mailbox set up by officials during the height of the pandemic to consider some of the 15,000 offers of assistance to supply PPE. In the early months, leads were coming in a lot faster than they could be processed. When they were rejected, or if they were delayed, people started chasing them through their MPs or through Ministers. To manage that influx of offers, a separate mailbox was set up to handle this area of work and sift credible offers.
I addressed yesterday concerns about private email use and the rules governing it. Government guidance is that official devices, email accounts and comms applications should be used for communicating classified information, but that other forms of electronic communication may be used in the course of conducting Government business. Each Minister is responsible for ensuring that Government information is handled in a secure way. We also set out that where business is conducted on non-official IT, relevant information should be recorded on Government systems, but we are keeping the guidance under review to ensure that it is up to date.
The most important thing to note, as the right hon. Lady does, is that all PPE offers, no matter where they came from, went through the same eight-stage checks. The PPE team compared prices with those obtained in the previous two weeks, to benchmark the competitiveness of those offers. Separate approval and additional justification were required for any offers not within 25% of the average that were considered for possible approval. It is also important to note that of the 493 offers that went through the priority mailbox, I understand that only 47 were taken forward—in other words, 90% were rejected.
There have been judicial reviews in respect of some of those contracts. The case relating to the Department of Health and Social Care looked not at the awarding of contracts, but at the delays in publishing their details. Health Ministers have always been clear that transparency is vital, and the court found that there was no deliberate policy to delay publication. In the judicial review relating to Public First, the court recognised
“that everyone involved was acting under immense pressure and the urgency of the…crisis did not allow time for reflection. The time constraints justified the…derogation from the usual procedures required under PCR 2015. But they did not exonerate the Defendant”—
“from conducting the procurement so as to demonstrate a fair and impartial process of selection.”
We recognised very quickly that there was an issue of process where we could do much better. That is why we investigated what happened to prepare for that court case and launched an internal review into the contracts that were undertaken. Public First has cross-party directors and, as I mentioned, we already have a programme of work in the two Boardman reviews.
I appreciate that throughout the pandemic the Opposition have wanted to raised questions about the contracts. I hope that I can address them as best I can. If there are any questions that the right hon. Lady feels I have not covered, I will come back to her on them.
With nothing better to do, the Opposition continue to sensationalise the details surrounding a handful of high-value contracts that were subject to the emergency procurement procedures at the outset of the pandemic. Can my hon. Friend confirm that the Government are committed to transparency surrounding the use of taxpayers’ money and that all new contracts over £10,000 are published online for anybody who wishes to see them?
Order. Can I just say that it is my decision to grant a UQ? You are now questioning my judgment, and I am not going to have my judgment questioned.
The other thing to say is that I do feel sorry for the Minister being set up. I am sorry that Minister Gove was not here to take some of the questions, because most of them are named for him, but this House will not be taken for granted. When statements continue to be made outside the House, I will continue to grant UQs, so let’s get used to it. If the Government do not want to come here, I will ensure that they are heard here.
Thank you, Mr Speaker; I appreciate your zeal and I think you are right.
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. We have tried throughout to be transparent, but I have set out some of the very good reasons why it has been difficult sometimes to publish the contracts in a timely way. This has been a very complex process where we have had to surge teams at very short notice and go back through all the paperwork, looking across different IT systems across different Departments. That has been a challenge that I have tried to address, as has the Department of Health and Social Care. My understanding is that all PPE contracts are now transparently published. We are working through them all in relation to comms and have a programme of work under way to make sure that we have transparent publication. I completely agree that it is important that we offer reassurances to the public on how taxpayers’ funds are used.
The Government were able to award contracts using their high priority lane because this House gave them the power to do so. We did it, effectively, on trust. Will the Minister now repay the trust that this House placed in the Government by publishing the details not just of the contracts that were put through that high priority lane, but of those who introduced the contractors to the Government, the basis on which it was thought appropriate to put them through the high-priority lane and the economic outcomes of those decisions?
I thank the right hon. Member for his inquiries. As I say, 47 went through the high-priority lane, and discussions are under way on the extent to which we can be transparent about that because of commercial sensitivities. However, as I said, all PPE contracts have now been transparently published.
Our vaccine programme is a fantastic example of how the best of the British science industry and Government have worked together to tackle the virus. Does my hon. Friend agree that without the expertise, willingness to take risk and innovation of our private sector, the success of the vaccine programme would not have been possible?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is quite right to point out that we absolutely need commercial expertise in times of pandemic and any similar crises that may come along. As we look at how we can do things better on procurement in the future, we must guard against crowding out external expertise and taking an overly cautious approach to risk. While I absolutely accept that there are questions to be asked after the event, the priority in times of crisis must always be delivering on the ground, and that is what we have always sought to do.
I welcome the Minister’s tone in coming to the House in that she has acknowledged that mistakes were made and that the Cabinet Office has accepted both Boardman reviews and the National Audit Office’s recommendations on procurement. However, we are in a whole different ball game when members of her Cabinet are having private email exchanges and neither we nor officials know what is in them. She says that the Cabinet Office is reviewing guidance. Is it not time that she just said, “This must stop,” because nobody—not the National Audit Office or officials—can see what is in those conversations, and that is a very real concern for the taxpayer?
I thank the hon. Lady, who has done tremendous work through the Public Accounts Committee in scrutinising this area. Sometimes I think she has been leading the opposition—not the Opposition—on this. It is important that we focus on where we had problems and the very genuine concerns that need to be addressed. She raises matters in relation to emails. I cannot comment on email conversations that I have not seen.
But those are relevant only when officials are asked to take any action, and that is the point at which official process and procedure come into play. I know the hon. Lady does not want to listen to this, but that is why the eight-stage process that officials undertook is so important; that is the aspect that should reassure the public that there are procedures that ensure that taxpayers’ money is spent correctly.
Normal contract procedures for PPE take months to navigate—months that patients and staff simply did not have last year—so criticising the Government for abbreviating procedures to save time and lives seems a poor use of hindsight. Is my hon. Friend aware that exactly the same decision to abbreviate processes in the name of speed was taken by Labour in Wales and by the SNP in Scotland, the only difference being that the SNP wanted to suspend freedom of information requests at the same time?
My hon. Friend is right that the devolved Administrations also use regulation 32 to procure in an emergency. It is important to note that the Government are dissatisfied with the procedures at our disposal. That is why, in our procurement Green Paper, we are looking at what measures we can take to procure with greater transparency and success in times of crisis to give us a better option between a full-fat procurement, which takes too long, or a direct award, which raises concerns about transparency.
Diolch yn fawr, Llefarydd. Let us call this out for what it is: a gross misuse of public money. The shady deal to award a half-a-million-pound covid contract to Ministers’ friends at Public First is yet another example of Tories putting Tory interests first. Given that focus groups were held in Wales, did the Secretary of State for Wales consent to the decision to use the Public First contract for political research purposes?
I congratulate the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) on securing the urgent question.
The Minister seems to be auditioning for the role of Minister for the Cabinet Office; I do not know whether he has been kidnapped but he does not seem to be about at the moment—but my hon. Friend is doing very well. Is this urgent question not an opportunity to highlight the fact that if the Government had not used emergency powers, we would not have established the world-leading vaccination programmes, which have saved not just hundreds of thousands but probably millions of lives across the globe? They used the emergency powers to develop the vaccine programme, rather than go through the red tape and bureaucracy that the European Union did and did not develop a programme.
I assure my hon. Friend that I am not auditioning for that position; the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has not been kidnapped. He is in Scotland, as part of our efforts to make sure that we are less Whitehall-centric as a government—we have offices now in Glasgow.
My hon. Friend is right about the importance of being able to take sensible risks that save lives in times of crisis, which is what we did in a number of these areas, and that was the right decision to make.
The question is not about the emergency use of funds to buy lifesaving vaccines and equipment; it is about the deliberate misappropriation of those funds for political canvassing purposes—it cannot be disguised as anything more than that. It is noticeable that none of the fake outrage from Conservative Members has attempted to address that question as yet.
If the Minister is so concerned about knowing what Scotland’s attitude to the Union is, may I point her to the biggest opinion survey ever conducted in Scotland? In May, the people of Scotland voted by a majority for pro-independence parties. The Scottish Parliament has a pro-independence majority yet again. Does she accept that that is a proper demonstration of the will of the people of Scotland to be rid of this corrupt Union, once and for all?
There was a proper demonstration of the will of the Scottish people when they had their referendum on Scottish independence and made their views clear. Interestingly, Scottish National party Members never seem to accept that.
The hon. Gentleman is right to say that this was not a PPE contract; it was a contract about communications and the important role they played in managing the pandemic at a time when we did not have the vaccine, the testing capacity that we wanted or other measures that we needed to tackle the pandemic. Communications, in this context, were extremely important in making sure the public understood the behaviours they needed adopt to keep themselves safe.
Ministers are not actually in charge of checking contracts—the civil service is. Does my hon. Friend agree that any contract, whether urgent or not, always requires due diligence by the civil service, even after the decision, and that that happens within every Department? I find accusations of cronyism to be normally very wrong indeed—does she agree?
I thank my right hon. Friend for his question, and I do agree. As I set out, there are a number of assurances the public should take from the way in which contracts are managed and handled; these things are quite separate from Ministers, which should provide the public with the comfort they want.
It is clear that nothing is clear about the way this Government are procuring goods and services with public money, and it is these dodgy deals that anger my constituents who play by the rules while government fails to. Following the National Audit Office report and the Boardman review’s recommendations on process and practice, process in governance, and conflict of interest and bias, what progress has the Minister made in implementing those recommendations? Will she publish an update on the Government’s actions and place it in the House of Commons Library? In auditing these contracts, will she ensure that they have fulfilled what they promised to do?
Yes, I believe that the Public Accounts Committee will be updated on the second Boardman report in July. With regard to the first Boardman report on communications contracts, we are working through all the recommendations. I believe we are up to 20 of 24, but we will endeavour to complete that process by the end of the year.[Official Report, 12 July 2021, Vol. 699, c. 2MC.]
From the onset of the pandemic, the contracts we have signed have allowed us to procure billions of items of PPE and secure vital lifesaving equipment at a time of unprecedented global demand. Does my hon. Friend agree that if we had dithered and delayed, if we had not explored every possible opportunity, and if we had not tried to take advantage of every olive branch that was offered, the public would never have forgiven us and the Opposition would be sitting here today saying exactly the opposite: that we did not act quickly enough?
I thank my hon. Friend for the answers she has given thus far. At the start of the pandemic, we were competing across the world for the supply of PPE and other lifesaving equipment and for developing vaccines. It is quite clear that the Government had to make instant decisions on that procurement, competing against other nations. The key now is learning the lessons that come from that process, so will she undertake to ensure that there is a full review of the emergency procedures that may be needed, in case there is another pandemic or a requirement for us to set aside normal procurement rules?
My hon. Friend is quite right to set out some of the challenges we faced at the height of the pandemic. When it comes to procuring PPE, for instance, we were competing with every other country in the world for PPE from just a few factories in China, and that was extremely difficult. Frankly, if we had dithered and delayed, we would not have secured the supplies we needed. In terms of learning the lessons that he wishes us to learn, I can assure him that we are already doing that. That is why we conducted the Boardman 1 and 2 reviews, and the National Audit Office has looked over these matters in fine detail. The public inquiry into covid will begin next spring.
It has been revealed that a handful of Conservative party donors who gave the party £8.2 million have won Government covid contracts worth £881 million. It was also recently revealed that just three days after a Conservative billionaire donor was made a Lord—with the Prime Minister overruling his own appointments watchdog to push that decision through—the donor gave the party half a million pounds. What does the Minister say to my constituents who ask why the pandemic has meant growing poverty for them, while for Tory donors it has been an opportunity to line their pockets through dodgy deals?
The National Audit Office report on PPE procurement made it clear that there was a lack of transparency in the documentation relating to key procurement decisions. We now know about the routine use of private emails to conduct Government business, which raises the question of whether the NAO could not find all the documentation because it was hidden away in private email accounts. Can the Minister now give us an assurance that all relevant private emails were handed over to the NAO as part of its investigations? If she cannot give us that assurance, can she ensure that all those private emails will now be passed over to the NAO?
In relation to the challenges we faced in trying to transparently publish all the contracts, I have set out some of the reasons for them. It was partly because a team of 450 people had to be surged across Government, and they were all working on different IT systems. Going back and trying to look at all the documentation relating to PPE has been a real challenge, and those challenges have been acknowledged in the various court cases that have been brought. I wish to assure the hon. Gentleman with regard to the emails that, in so far as freedom of information requests are made, they will be looked at in the relevant way.
Every week, SNP Members come to this House with the sole focus of tearing our country apart, while every week this Government are focused on delivering on the British people’s priorities and building back better from the pandemic. Does the Minister agree that if the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) wants to use this time to explore conspiracy theories, he should instead go and look for the Loch Ness monster?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question about the Loch Ness monster whose existence I can neither confirm nor deny. He is right to highlight the fantastic ways in which our Union has worked together during the pandemic, whether that be on vaccine procurement, on the schemes that have been run out by the Treasury, or on some of the testing capacity that we have provided. We should not overlook the fantastic Union story that we have seen during this pandemic.
It is absolutely gobsmacking that, in the middle of a pandemic, Tory Ministers secretly redirected funds from an emergency covid contract to carry out political polling to benefit the Conservative party and its Unionist cause. Following the humiliation of the High Court case, will the Minister now commit to a full public inquiry into this gross misuse of public money? Does she take any responsibility for this failure and will she apologise for it?
The Opposition parties are accusing the Government of corruption—of deliberate and systematic corruption. They are claiming that Ministers used the biggest peacetime challenge that this country has ever faced for the simple purpose of enriching a few distantly connected contacts. As my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General put it in answering the right hon. Member for Ashton-under-Lyne (Angela Rayner) a few weeks ago, this is an absurd charge. It is simply unbelievable. Everybody knows it; we know it, they know it and the public know it. It is a conspiracy theory on the level of the anti-vax campaign. Will my hon. Friend join me in thanking the businesses that stepped up to supply the NHS with what it needed rather than smearing them?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to point out the importance of what business achieved with the Government in relation to the pandemic. Some fantastic commercial expertise has been brought into Government. One thing we want to do is to set up a secondments unit to make sure that we can get that private sector expertise into Government when it is needed. There are also number of other initiatives, such as civilian reserves, that can be used so that we can get that expertise as and when we need it in times of crisis.
Mr Speaker, here is how it works. Lord Bethell, the Under-Secretary of State for Health, held a private undeclared meeting with Abingdon Health, which then won a £85 million contract. Andrew Feldman, the former chair of the Tory party, became an unpaid adviser to Lord Bethell and he managed to lobby and get a client a PPE contract for £23 million. We have had David Cameron, the former Prime Minister, lobbying the Government direct. We know that the Minister for the Cabinet Office was found in court to have acted unlawfully with apparent bias with regards to an award to Public First. That is why we need a full proper inquiry not just into the awarding of contracts, but into the lobbying that goes on in the background for companies that have no track record in delivering the kinds of contracts that were awarded.
Does the Minister agree that what the people of this country want to see is all politicians coming together to get this country back on its feet, rather than the party political squabbling around PPE contracts that were absolutely necessary and needed at speed to save lives? Let us put people first.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. As I have already said in this Chamber, tremendous work has been done with every corner of the UK and every devolved Administration, whether that is the vaccine programme, the furlough scheme or the rapid increase in testing capacity.
Has the Minister read the allegations made by Dominic Cummings that Ministers and officials would take procurement decisions and then subsequently a meeting would be arranged to pretend to retake them and go through the paperwork properly? Can she confirm that such behaviour would be completely unacceptable and that any investigation is taking place to determine whether these allegations are true?
I am afraid that I do not know in relation to the private meetings that Dominic Cummings had when he was in Government, but I know that he has set out concerns about our response to procurement in relation to getting the wrong answers after the event. I think he is concerned about whether we then create too much process around important decisions that need to be made in the heat of the moment, and he is right to set out those concerns. We need to make sure that our Green Paper on procurement makes us have better decision-making processes in times of crisis that can be properly scrutinised.
Last week at the Dispatch Box, the Under-Secretary of State for International Trade, the hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena), bragged that the Government were
“unleashing the potential of our whole country”—
“by backing British industry”—[Official Report, 21 June 2021; Vol. 697, c. 672-673.]
He derided China for “trade-distorting practices” and dismissed trade deals with China. That all sounds good, except it is just not true. Today in a covid briefing, the Government’s position on the US Food and Drug Agency judgment that the Innova tests were deadly was that it is down to an overreliance on the manufacturer’s data, and that the tests are being tested at Porton Down to disprove the Chinese manufacturer’s own data that they are unsafe. All the while, the UK diagnostic industry across the countries of the UK have been utterly betrayed. Can the Minister tell me: why are this Government using trade-distorting practices to prop up discredited Innova lateral flow devices made on the cheap in China but at massive expense to the UK? Why are UK diagnostic contracts and the hundreds of jobs that Lord Bethell—
I am enjoying your zest today, Mr Speaker.
The hon. Gentleman raised with me the importance of onshore manufacturing capacity in Westminster Hall last week. I have asked for a briefing on the issue and shall get back to him, because he raised an important issue about the extent to which we have key manufacturing capacity in this country. Project Defend in the Department for International Trade aims to ensure that we have the capacity that we need.
I thank the Minister and the Government for their massive and positive response to covid-19, and for a vaccine roll-out that is second to none. Has the Minister made an assessment of the sustainability of the Government’s use of emergency covid-19 contracts with large firms, and will she confirm whether the contracts have been beneficial to the UK, given the potential and alleged anomalies that occurred at their procurement?
The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight how fantastically the devolved Administrations have worked with central Government on some of the critical issues that have faced us during the pandemic. He raised the issue of large firms. One hope in our procurement Green Paper is that our procurement reforms will make it much easier for small and medium-sized enterprises to bid for key Government contracts.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. In the last 24 hours, we have had two urgent questions; the Minister for the Cabinet Office has not appeared, although the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez), has done her best. In the last hour, we have heard media reports that No. 10 has confirmed that Lord Bethell used his private email address in regard to procurement. I seek your advice as to how we get clarity on this matter, because there have been misleading reports over the last 24 hours. How can we get an independent inquiry so that we actually get to the facts of the case?
Obviously, I am not aware of what has just been announced. If we are going to criticise, there needs to be a substantive motion, but the right hon. Lady is asking about the internal arrangements. Her point is now on the record; I hope that people have been listening to her request. We will take it from there. I am sure that this will not be the end of the matter being raised. I know that she will use her best endeavours and offices to ensure that the issue continues to be addressed.
We are going to suspend the House for two minutes so that the necessary arrangements can be made before the next business.