I beg to move,
That this House believes the Government has failed to give full details of the process behind the issuing of emergency covid-19 contracts; and therefore calls on the Government immediately to commence the covid-19 public inquiry, announced by the Prime Minister on 12 May 2021.
There have been many instances during this covid-19 pandemic when we have seen the very best in our society, from our frontline workers keeping food on supermarket shelves, to our extraordinary scientific community who have produced life-saving vaccines, to, of course, our NHS heroes who have been so deserving of the George Cross. The pandemic has also led to opportunism, greed, and covid profits being put above accountability. This Tory Government are guilty of funnelling covid cash from the frontline into the pockets of their rich friends. We are talking about endemic cronyism during a global pandemic, the misuse of funds, and covid profiteers raking in billions of pounds for services that have often been too substandard or irrelevant in the fight against the virus. Yes, Mr Speaker, it is billions of pounds that we are talking about—billions of pounds while millions in our society have been excluded from any help from the Government.
Today, the SNP is saying enough, no more dodgy dealings, no more undeclared meetings, and no more billion-pound contracts to friends. The Prime Minister promised an inquiry into the UK Government’s handling of the pandemic; it must start right now.
I have the greatest respect for the right hon. Gentleman and I understand why he is bringing this debate forward, but he must realise that we have just had a week where his own country’s newspapers are full of headlines saying that Scotland is becoming the covid capital of Europe. Who is responsible for that?
We really should not be playing political football—[Laughter.] I have to say, Mr Speaker, that says it all. [Laughter.] They should just keep going, because, friends, we are talking about people who are getting a serious illness, we are talking about people who are getting long covid, we are talking about people who are going on ventilators, we are talking about people who are losing their lives, and that is the behaviour that we get from the Conservatives. They ought to be utterly, utterly ashamed of themselves.
When it comes to the covid numbers in Scotland, let me give those Members a reality check. The reason that covid numbers are rising so dramatically right across the United Kingdom—and we have seen the projections this morning of what is going to happen here over the coming weeks—is largely down to what has happened with the delta variant. My Government in Edinburgh told the Government in London that we had to lock the door on the delta variant. It is the UK Government who have been asleep at the wheel, so we take no lectures about our responsibilities when there is a Prime Minister who talks about letting the bodies pile high. We know where the blame lies and the blame lies at the door of No.10 Downing Street.
Order. Let us just calm down. Two of you cannot be standing at the same time. If the hon. Gentleman wants the Member to give way, he will give way. If the hon. Gentleman really felt that it was so bad, he could have made a point of order. The fact is that we need to calm it down. We need to get on with this debate, as it is important for all. People are watching it and we need to be able to hear all sides, and I am struggling at times. With so few Members here, it is amazing how much noise is being generated; I see Mr Shelbrooke is back in town. Carry on, Ian Blackford.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. These are important matters and we need to be able to deal with them respectfully.
Last week, I asked an urgent question in this House regarding the misuse of covid funds for political campaigning. The Secretary of State ordered the use of a £560,000 emergency covid contract to conduct constitutional campaigning on the Union. That was taxpayers’ funds, which were earmarked for the NHS to protect supplies of personal protective equipment but were instead used to order political polling. [Interruption.] I can hear an hon. Friend asking whether they can do that; no, it is not permissible to engage in such behaviour. We are talking about taxpayers’ funds that were earmarked for the NHS to order PPE but were instead used to order political polling.
At Prime Minister’s questions on the Wednesday prior to my urgent question, the Prime Minister told me that he was unaware of the contracts. The accusation of misusing covid contracts was not media speculation; nor was it a political accusation: it was a plain fact. It came directly from the official evidence published in the High Court judgment on the Good Law Project v. the Minister for the Cabinet Office, which revealed that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster instructed—instructed—officials to commission research on
“attitudes to the UK Union”
using the emergency contract given to Public First for pandemic research. As I have stated, that is a fact admitted in a court of law, but in this very Chamber last week the Government sought to deny that any such spending took place and said that the Minister had no part to play in it. These are serious matters and we need honesty and transparency from the Government. Perhaps today the Minister on the Front Bench—the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the hon. Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill)—could put the record straight on the fact that it was admitted in court that that had happened.
We are dealing with a Government acting in a sleekit manner and in a covert way, using covid funds for research on attitudes to the Union without authority. For the UK Government to funnel funds earmarked for emergency covid spending into party political research is jaw-dropping and morally reprehensible. Can we imagine the reaction if the Scottish Government had used emergency covid funds to conduct polling on independence? There would have been justifiable outrage from Government Members.
In another court case, the failure to publish details of contracts within the required 30 days led the judge to rule that the then Health Secretary, the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), had acted unlawfully. It took the Government until last month to publish the details of 40 PPE contracts worth £4.2 billion, despite the contracts having been awarded a year before and despite the Government claiming months earlier that all PPE contracts had already been published. In documents seen by the BBC, Government lawyers admitted in February that 100 contracts for suppliers and services relating to covid-19, signed before October last year, had yet to be published. Yet three days earlier, the Prime Minister told MPs that the contracts were
“on the record for everybody to see.”—[Official Report, 22 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 638.]
Was this yet another example of the Prime Minister being unaware of the situation that his Government had found themselves in? The alternative is—and can only be—that the Prime Minister willingly misled the House and the public. There is no other conclusion that can be drawn—
Order. I went through this earlier with other Members. “Inadvertently”—we do not use the direct accusation that somebody misled the House, but “inadvertently” I will accept. We have to use the right language, which is the language that we expect, and I am sure that the leader of the SNP would not want to break with the good manners of this House.
I will be generous to colleagues and the Prime Minister and for the purposes of this place I will respectfully do so.
The court cases highlighted that the covid contracts were not published on time, and poor records left big unknowns, such as why some companies won multi-million-pound contracts and others did not. Clarity on the latter has been provided through the revelation that civil servants were requested to triage contract proposals into high-priority lanes. That means that proposals from a supplier recommended by Ministers, Government officials, or MPs and Members of the House of Lords were given preferential treatment. That was crucial to the success of those seeking procurement deals: a National Audit Office report found that up to July 2020, one in 10 suppliers that had been put in the high-priority lane were awarded a contract, while the figure was less than one in 100 for those outside that lane. It is not what you know, or what you can provide: it is who you know in Government. These priority lanes created a tale of friends and family fortunes.
I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way, and for outlining his case forensically. What does this so-called VIP lane indicate about the priorities of the British Government, when we compare it with the fact that when the Welsh Government, the Scottish Government and the Northern Irish Government together asked for extra borrowing capacity to deal with the covid crisis, they were turned down? What does that say about the priorities of the British Government, and—more to the point, perhaps—what does it say about the nature of the relationships among Governments within the British state?
My hon. Friend is quite correct. There have been a number of occasions on which all the devolved Administrations have sought support from the UK Government for borrowing, and have been frustrated in that, but for friends of the UK Government, it is a case of “Come in, there are contracts to be had.”
Let me give a few examples. There was the neighbour and local pub landlord of the former Health Secretary, the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), who supplied tens of millions of vials for covid-19 tests despite not having had any previous experience of providing medical supplies: off the street, no experience whatsoever, but he was a friend of the Government. There was the small Stroud-based company which, despite making a loss in 2019, was awarded a £156 million contract for PPE. Wait for it: the company was run by a Tory councillor, and no evidence—none whatsoever—was ever found of its supplying PPE previously.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for giving way. I respectfully suggest that before he starts throwing stones at the UK Government, he looks at his own Government’s record in Edinburgh. Over 160 contracts awarded by the Scottish Government, worth £539 million from NHS Scotland, the Scottish Government and Scottish local authorities, were awarded during the pandemic to suppliers with no competitive process. It is quite clear that every Government on these islands and around the world were dealing with an unprecedented situation and rushing to save lives. Exactly the same was going on in Edinburgh as was happening in London, and for him to stand up and claim it is “Tory cronyism” does not dignify him or this place.
I am afraid to say that the lack of dignity in the Conservative Government is what is at stake here. The Scottish Government’s processes on procurement were open and transparent—that is the difference with what has taken place in this place.
Let me give a couple of other examples. A company run by a former business associate of the Tory peer Baroness Mone was awarded a £122 million contract seven weeks after the company was formed—my goodness, who has ever heard of such a thing? Another company, owned by a Tory donor, that supplied beauty products to high street stores was awarded a £65 million contract to produce face masks. Public First, which was awarded a £560,000 contract by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to conduct polling on the Union, was run by a former employee of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Colleagues, right hon. and hon. Members, there is a thread that runs right through this. Incidentally, we have yet to see any of the research into support for Scottish independence: perhaps the Government did not like what they found.
My right hon. Friend is making a valid point. Is he aware of the recent report from openDemocracy that another person who helped to run Public First was Rachel Wolf, who was also a non-executive director at the Department for Work and Pensions at the time? Not only are Tory cronies getting contracts, but they have placemen who are supposed to challenge the Government but are actually helping to get contracts.
My hon. Friend is quite correct. I am delighted that we have an opportunity today to shine a light on all this, but it demonstrates that we need to get on with the public inquiry. The public deserve to know what has been happening with this Government as we have come through the pandemic.
We have heard excuses from the Prime Minister and the former Health Secretary that some of these contracts were fast-tracked because there was no time to be wasted in such urgent circumstances. Well, some basic due diligence might have been useful. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the lack of expertise of some of those securing the covid procurement contracts, there have been numerous issues with the orders.
As reported by the BBC, 50 million face masks bought in April 2020 could not be used by the NHS because they did not meet its specifications. The use of 10 million surgical gowns for frontline NHS staff was suspended because of how the items were packaged. Millions of medical gowns were never used, having been bought for the NHS at the end of the first lockdown for £122 million. A million high-grade masks used in the NHS did not meet the right safety standards and have been withdrawn. What a waste of taxpayers’ money. What a shambles. At the same time, 3 million of our constituents have been left with no financial support. Those are the warped priorities of the Government.
There are, of course, numerous further examples of Tory sleaze in the Government’s response to the pandemic, of which we are all too aware. There was David Cameron’s lobbying of Cabinet Ministers to benefit Greensill Capital, of which he was a shareholder. We had Dido Harding, wife of a Tory MP, put in charge of the disastrous and costly Test and Trace despite a lack of experience in public health. And of course there is the issue of the £37 billion that has been spent on it. Where is the value for money? Money wasted. [Interruption.] I suggest to the right hon. Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) that this is a debate where he is permitted to put in to speak, but—[Interruption.]
If the right hon. Gentleman tries, he might catch your eye later on in the debate, Mr Speaker. I think we have heard enough of him from a sedentary position. [Interruption.] Government Members can carry on—there might not be that many of them, but my goodness they make a hullabaloo as they try to shut down and shout down the representatives of Scotland who are here to stand up for our constituents. [Interruption.] Yeah, carry on, carry on.
Well, well, well. We are not the representatives of the people of Scotland? Let me remind the hon. Gentleman that we have just won an election to the Scottish Parliament. Thank goodness that we have a Parliament that has a majority that can take Scotland out of this Union, into the future of an independent Scotland back in the European Union and away from the Tory sleaze and corruption that I am outlining this afternoon.
It was just last week that I asked my urgent question from this spot on the misuse of public funds in covid contracts, but since then the revelations of cronyism have continued. As revealed by The Sunday Times, Lord Bethell has something in common with his close friend the former Health Secretary: he failed to declare meetings—27 meetings that we know of, with companies that went on to receive £1 billion-worth of covid contracts. Puzzlingly, despite having had—wait for it—no relevant experience, Lord Bethell took ministerial responsibility for Test and Trace. His only qualification seemed to be that he was a long-time close friend of the then Health Secretary who happened to chair and donate thousands of pounds to his failed Tory leadership campaign. Lord Bethell also provided Ms Coladangelo with a parliamentary pass to the Houses of Parliament despite her not undertaking any work for the peer. This has rightly been referred to the House of Lords Commissioners for Standards. It prompts the question: why is Lord Bethell still in post?
Such examples of Tory cronyism and multimillion-pound deals in the pockets of Tory friends are difficult to digest. It is hard, looking at this covid contracts scandal, to conclude anything other than that Westminster is rotten to the core. As well as unlawful covid contracts, we have seen dodgy donations to refurbish the Downing Street flat, peerages handed to billionaire Tory donors, and offers of tax breaks by text. The Scottish Government have committed to a public inquiry on the covid pandemic to start this year. The UK Government must do the same.
Those of us on these Benches know Scotland can do better. We are doing better and we could go further still with the powers of independence. While NHS heroes received a measly and insulting 1% pay rise from the UK Government, the Scottish Government pledged 4% with a £500 one-off thank you. While 3 million people are excluded from UK Government support, the SNP will continue to argue for them and stand up for them. While Tory aid cuts mean that the global fight against the virus is hindered, we will continue to make the case that none of us will be free from the threat of covid-19 until it is eradicated from all around the world.
Support in Scotland for the First Minister remains steadfast, while the Prime Minister continues to be incredibly unpopular. A recent Ashcroft poll of Scottish voters found support for Nicola Sturgeon to be the highest of all party leaders, and common descriptions used for the First Minister were “determined” and “competent”. By comparison, the Prime Minister was commonly referred to as being dishonest, arrogant, out of touch and out of his depth. When it comes to our recovery from the pandemic, the question for Scots will be: who do you trust to lead us? For many Scots, the answer is becoming clearer and clearer with every passing day.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to speak in this Opposition day debate on covid-19 contracts and the public inquiry into the handling of the outbreak.
Possibly the only two sentences that I could agree with in what, unfortunately, was largely just smear—[Interruption.] Mr Blackford—[Interruption.] I am frightfully sorry. I would just gently say this to the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford): I sat quietly, with respect, listening to what you had to say. I would be really grateful for that same courtesy.
Order. Let me just say that we do not call Members by their names; we use their constituency. We need to take the tension out and take the heat out. Everybody should quite rightly be listened to. The same that I expected for the leader of the SNP I certainly expect for the Minister.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker.
I agree that we have seen, totally, the best of people—our frontline workers and our NHS workers. They have really stepped up. They need to know that we did everything we could in exceptional circumstances. I remember the weekend I went to Liverpool to meet the plane that flew back from Wuhan with those very first individuals who were carrying the virus. We knew nothing of it at the time, so how far have we come?
The other point on which I would agree with the right hon. Member is that very pithy sentence, “Those of us on these Benches know Scotland can do better.” As he will appreciate, covid-19 has presented this country with one of the most unprecedented challenges we have ever faced. It has been imperative for us to work together closely throughout this pandemic. In particular, the Government recognise the key role devolved Administrations have played in this, and I have been incredibly grateful for the meetings I have had with my counterparts not only on issues relating to the pandemic but on other issues—there was a meeting last week in which we spoke about how we might address the challenge of those going through the journey of cancer. We are very grateful for that.
It is thanks to that close collaboration and co-ordination that we have been able as a United Kingdom to achieve success in our vaccine roll-out programme. Over three quarters of adults in the UK have received at least one dose and well over half have received both doses. Our job was to protect the weakest and most vulnerable, and that goes for all of us.
Had we remained in the EU scheme, which has not performed as well as ours, we would not be here at this point, and I am proud of the work of the vaccines taskforce and proud of the leadership that Kate Bingham showed. I seem to remember these debates revolving around that at one time; I do not see anybody now denying and saying, “No, don’t give me a vaccine.” That work was led and driven by Kate Bingham and her team, who worked ceaselessly—longer days for longer weeks for longer months—to find our pathway out of this.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, and totally share in the point she just made about the vaccine. As she will have seen, when I intervened on the SNP spokesperson earlier I raised the point that Scotland has been described recently as the covid capital of Europe, and the SNP is refusing to take responsibility, and indeed is blaming the UK Government because of the delta variant. But is it not the case that since it became identified as a variant of concern, England played Scotland and the Scottish Government could have stopped thousands of Scots travelling south of the border? There was nothing to stop them doing that; they must take some responsibility for the fact that there are so many covid cases in Scotland.
I thank my hon. Friend and constituency neighbour. The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber referred to his leader, who early on in the pandemic spoke about elimination, yet now the World Health Organisation says six out of 10 of the highest rates across Europe are currently in Scotland. That is why I think that if selective lines are picked out, and people are used as battering rams against each other rather than us looking sensibly at the facts, that means that we do not get the perspective we need to make sure that we come through this and that we stand shoulder to shoulder with the population and deliver the vaccine programme.
As I said, I am proud of the work that the UK Government have done in driving the vaccine. At the beginning of the pandemic we were told this would be a 10-year process; we got there in a year. That is utterly phenomenal, and there were great academics from Scotland who joined in; there were academics from across the world. We can deliver this, and the NHS is getting on with the job of vaccinating and allowing us that road to freedom.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Does she agree that, because of the investment the UK Government made in the AstraZeneca vaccine and the Government’s worldwide collaborations and investment, not only have we been able to produce the vaccine in 10% of the predicted time but we unlocked technology that will serve the health service and people of this country for many years to come?
I could not agree more. The vibrancy and quality of the life sciences industry, the pharmaceutical industry and the academic ecosystem in Scotland, in Wales, in Northern Ireland and in the UK really does unleash a bright future for us. It is thanks to that joint working that we have been able to procure at speed vital goods and services, such as ventilators and PPE, which have been so critical to our response in the pandemic. To date, every patient who has needed a ventilator has had access to one. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber will celebrate the jobs that have been created—I think it is 450 of them—at the Honeywell factory in Motherwell, producing PPE for the frontline. We now have a home-grown industry that provides 70% of all PPE, apart from gloves, and we are working hard to find the right materials so that we can have a glove industry as well. That is what I call a success story, from a standing start back in April.
I will give way in a minute. The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber is well aware of the public contract regulations, which existed before the pandemic and which allow the Government to procure at speed in times of emergency. There was no need to suspend or relax the procurement rules in order to use those regulations. I gently say that these were the same systems as in Scotland and Wales. We had an unprecedented global crisis and, quite rightly, people had to use existing regulation that allows them to flex in order to deliver for their populations.
The use of the emergency contracting procedures has reduced since the early days of the pandemic. That contingency procedure is, however, still available to Departments provided the key tests are met. The Government have always understood the scale of the challenges that we have faced as a nation, and that is why, from the start of the pandemic, we were clear with public authorities that they would need to act extremely quickly to meet the challenge of covid-19. We have also been clear about the continued need to use good commercial judgment and to publish the details of awards made, in line with Government transparency guidance.
I thank the Minister for giving way. The emergency tender procedure that she highlights is the one that was previously used to award a ferry contract to a company with no ferries, so we know how bad the governance is from this Government. On governance, openDemocracy recently confirmed that 16 non-executive directors appointed to various Departments are Vote Leave compadres, Tory chums and Tory donors. They are the ones who are supposed to hold the Government to account. Can she explain the selection process for these non-executive director roles?
No, I will not. Those non-executive directors are selected through a selection procedure because they hold skills—commercial skills, legal skills and so on—from the outside world. If the hon. Gentleman is telling me that the way someone votes in an election makes them unable to scrutinise, that makes a mockery of the way that we set up Select Committees and so on. It is important that people are enabled to come in with their skills from the outside world to scrutinise.
That being said, we are committed to looking for opportunities to improve the way that we work. The first independent Boardman review of procurement processes, looking at a small number of contracts in the Government Communication Service, has reported to Government. Twenty-four of the 28 recommendations have already been implemented, and the remainder will be met by the end of the calendar year. A second review by Nigel Boardman into pandemic planning and procurement across Government identified further recommended improvements to the procurement process. Work is under way to progress them, and an update will be given to the Public Accounts Committee this month—a double layer of making sure that we are doing the right thing. The Cabinet Office Green Paper “Transforming public procurement” also sets out proposals to update the rules on procuring in times of extreme urgency or crisis to include lessons learned from the pandemic.
Procurement has been and is being extensively reviewed, including by the independent National Audit Office report published last year on Government procurement during the covid-19 pandemic, but the Government know that there is so much more to learn from the experience of the pandemic. That is why the Prime Minister confirmed a public inquiry into covid-19, which will begin its work next spring. I hear the calls for that inquiry to be brought forward, but I believe it would be irresponsible. A premature inquiry risks distracting Ministers, officials and Departments from the ongoing pandemic response, slowing down action and diverting the very people we need to be focused on each delicate stage of our ongoing response. I would also gently say that with six out of 10 of the highest-rate areas in Scotland and the pandemic still very visible in the north-west, north-east, Yorkshire and Humber, it is incumbent on us to deal with the pandemic as our first priority.
This was a global pandemic. It impacted all of us: individuals, friends, businesses and our own families across the UK and across the world. We have to recover as one team, team UK, or else we are weakened. It is right that we learn these lessons together. We will continue to work with the devolved Administrations as we develop the inquiry. I know that they, too, will welcome the scrutiny and the diligence that an inquiry will bring not only to England, but also to Scotland.
I apologise, Madam Deputy Speaker, for missing the first couple of minutes of the debate. I did, however, hear the excellent contribution by the leader of the SNP, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford). It is no reflection on my feeling about the importance of this debate not just for us as Opposition parties, but for the people of the whole of Britain who are listening to these questions and who want more answers than those we have just heard. Maybe we will have them at the end of this debate.
On the Opposition Benches, we share the conclusion that the right hon. Gentleman came to in his remarks, which is that Government procurement over the past 16 months has been marred by huge waste to the taxpayer and brazen cronyism. That is not to say that the vaccine roll-out has not been an enormous success, but if that is all we going to hear from Conservative Members we will not get to the heart of the debate. At the same time as we were rolling out the vaccine, these crony covid contracts were being made and there are questions that must be answered for contracts being given now and for the future, as well as those given last year.
The hon. Lady will have heard the Minister suggest that the same processes have been followed in Scotland and Wales as were followed by the British Government; but does she agree with me that it is only the British Government who have been found, twice, to have acted unlawfully?
I agree with the hon. and learned Lady. This is not about the processes and whether they have been followed, but about what undue weight was given to the resulting contracts that came out of those processes. Some of them have been taken up in court, so there are questions to be answered.
For over 12 months now, my colleagues and I in the shadow Cabinet Office team have been asking some very simple questions again and again of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, the right hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove), and his team over their procurement policy during the pandemic. Every time, we have been met with deflection and non-answers. Those questions have not been getting an answer, so I will try again today. That is not very impressive for the Department responsible for increasing transparency across Whitehall, and it is transparency that we are talking about today. But it is not only about transparency. Were those contracts given to the right companies to save lives at the right time? Without question, we needed speed. Without question, we needed the best companies to be chosen. The question is, when it comes to another emergency, pandemic or crisis, do the Government throw due transparency out of the window and just start talking to their friends?
The hon. Lady said that shadow Cabinet Office Ministers have been asking the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster questions about the things going on. However, I warn the hon. Lady—I say this to draw us back to where we were 12 or 15 months ago —that the then shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the hon. Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves), wrote to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster saying that he was not awarding PPE contracts quickly enough, and that he should be bypassing the system to get them out there. She then gave a list of companies in my city of Leeds that had offered support, and they included a football agent, an historical clothing company, an events company in Surrey and a private legal practice in Birmingham. All I say to the hon. Lady is that there are lessons to be learned, but in terms of what she is trying to say, please do not think that Opposition Members were all innocent and that the Government were guilty and need to follow some lesson, because the reality is that the then shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster put it in writing.
Of course there are questions to be asked, and that is what we are doing—we are asking these questions. I hope that there is a real-time review going on right now, and I hope that all the questions we are asking will be in the public inquiry to come. All these questions need to be looked into.
I have 15 questions for the Minister today, which I hope she will be able to answer. Question 1: what assessment has she made of the accuracy of the Prime Minister’s official spokesperson’s statement on 28 June 2021 on the conduct of ministerial Government business through departmental email addresses? The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster (Julia Lopez), said, only two hours after the statement that day, that
“a huge volume of correspondence was coming to Ministers via their personal email addresses”.—[Official Report, 28 June 2021; Vol. 698, c. 33.]
The Minister will have seen the leaked minutes from the Department of Health and Social Care meeting on 9 December, confirming that. So was the Prime Minister’s spokesperson not telling the truth, or just wrong, and will the Prime Minister be correcting the record? The use of private email addresses, how it all came to be and the murky times around that time need to be opened up to transparency.
It is hugely welcome news that the Information Commissioner’s Office will be investigating that point. The Government must co-operate fully. It is not just about freedom of information law and data protection law, important as that is; it is about taxpayers’ money being dished out secretly on private emails. Labour expects the Government to ensure that they come clean on private email use in other Departments, and that anyone found to have acted unlawfully or inappropriately in ministerial office faces the consequences.
Question 2: in her response to last week’s urgent question, the Parliamentary Secretary said that 47 offers of PPE supplies were processed through the Government’s priority mailbox. The Government have said that the details of all contracts will be published, but have refused to name the 47 companies. Who are those 47 companies, why are they not being named, and will those names be published now?
Question 3: can the Minister tell us which Ministers formally approved contracts awarded under the emergency procurement process during the covid pandemic? The Minister will have no doubt read the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee’s recent report on decision making during the pandemic, and it has a whole slew of other questions. It concluded:
“Ministers have passed responsibility between the Cabinet Office and Department of Health and Social Care”.
So who was responsible for actually signing off those contracts?
That leads me to question 4: which Minister made the decision to award a contract to Public First for contact focus group testing in March 2020? The Cabinet Office has stated that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster did not personally sign off the decision, so if he did not, who did?
Question 5, which was raised earlier in this debate: what role do the army of non-executive directors currently employed across Whitehall have in influencing the award of contracts? Did they have a say in the process or the decisions behind the award of those contracts? For instance, how can the Minister explain the fact that Kate Lampard, the lead non-executive director on the Department of Health and Social Care board, is also a senior associate at the consultancy firm Verita, which in May was awarded a contract by the same Department, worth £35,000, to assist Public Health England? It is not just about how people vote when they are awarded these positions. It is not about their voting tendency. It is their closeness to Ministers and others, and their closeness to some of the contracts being given out, that the public need to know more about.
This brings me nicely on to question 6. What steps were taken by the Department to identify and address conflicts of interest in relation to the contracts awarded through the VIP lane? Is the Minister confident that all meetings between Ministers and companies that were awarded contracts have been fully disclosed and added to the transparency data? Can we be assured of that today?
Question 7: I mentioned the leaked minutes of the December meeting of the Department of Health and Social Care. In that meeting the second permanent secretary used the term “sub-approval”. Can the Minister enlighten us on the sub-approval process? What does it mean in relation to Government covid contracts? The public have so many questions about what was going on in the contracting last year.
Question 8: the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Hornchurch and Upminster, spoke in a Westminster Hall debate on Monday 21 June, which I attended, about the market conditions facing suppliers in China. There have been questions about links with China. In that same debate, I referenced evidence uncovered by the Good Law Project that showed officials in the Department of Health and Social Care were aware that an agent working for PestFix, the pest company that got a covid contract, may have been bribing officials in China. The point was not addressed by the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, in that debate, so I ask the Minister to comment on it today. Is she aware of this allegation? Does she agree that, no matter how difficult market conditions were at the time, it warrants urgent investigation?
Question 9: I also asked in that debate whether the Cabinet Office would commit to auditing in detail all the contracts identified by Transparency International as raising red flags for possible corruption, and to commit to publishing the outcome of that audit. This would go a long way to restoring public trust. If it cannot be done, why not? What do the Government have to hide? I am afraid this is a question to which I did not receive an answer in that debate, so I hope to receive an answer this afternoon.
Question 10: the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, said she believes there are cases where clawback is taking place, and other Ministers have mentioned it, too, but we do not know when it has happened and what was in the contracts for those that failed, by millions of pounds in some cases. Is the Minister in a position to provide more detail?
In the past 12 months, the Government have awarded £280 million of contracts for masks that did not meet the required standards, at a time when we were crying out for PPE that would save lives. I presume those masks had to be mothballed. I do not know where they are.
The Government spent £100 million on gowns without carrying out technical checks, so they could not be used. It is incredibly important that as much of this taxpayers’ money as possible is retrieved as soon as possible. Perhaps the Minister can explain to the nurses facing a pay cut, and to the 3 million who have been excluded from any help, that the money has gone to boost the profits of the firms that received these contracts, rather than coming back to the public purse.
Similarly, my eleventh question is about how much money the Government have spent defending themselves in court against the unlawful decisions that have been made.
I do not know how much further investigations will cost, but that does not preclude from needing to investigate this point. We cannot deflect by looking at other investigations; we need to have an investigation into this point.
Hundreds of millions of pounds have been spent on masks that have been mothballed and on gowns that could not be used because the contracts were not good enough. At a time of public emergency, we need the Government to be excellent in their competence in contracting, and not to throw the rules out of the window and end up with these failed contracts.
Question 12: why, despite all the evidence uncovered this year, will the Government still not commit to ensuring these contracts are in the public inquiry? I hope to hear confirmation that this will happen.
The hon. Lady is asking a series of highly pertinent questions, and I wonder whether we will receive the answers with any haste. Does she agree that we also need an urgent inquiry in Wales, where it has become apparent that almost 2,000 deaths occurred from infections that probably, or definitely, took place in hospitals and were therefore the responsibility of the Welsh Government, and that we need that inquiry urgently?
Inquiries need to happen in real time, as we are learning, because we are making decisions all the time that affect our lives. There also need to be major Government inquiries, and I hope that all of this will be included in the Government inquiry to come.
The Minister made much of the Boardman review, saying, “There has been an inquiry. Don’t worry. The Boardman review has done it,” but this is my thirteenth question. It is, again, a question that I have asked before and received no answer to: does she seriously believe that the Boardman review is an independent and unbiased review, and good enough? How can she think that when Mr Boardman’s law firm has been the recipient of Government contracts in the past year, and given that Mr Boardman once ran to be a Conservative councillor—far more than just voting for one party or another? 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.
I have two more questions, and then I will close. Question 14: when will we see a return of all public sector procurement to open competitive contracting as a default? The Minister said that emergency procurement procedures are still continuing, but they do not need to anymore. We need a way of having a contract in good time but with all the open competitiveness that the public need to see. There is no justification for the continuation of emergency procedures. They should be wound down immediately, and ways found to make contracting work without being secretive.
Finally, my fifteenth question: where is the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to answer these questions? The Cabinet Office is responsible for overseeing transparency across Government, and these are the fundamental questions that we have today. Why has he once again dodged an opportunity to explain the decisions made by his Department? Will he ever take responsibility and stop getting other Ministers to do his explaining for him, as has happened in many previous debates on this issue? The public will not stop asking these questions. We on the Opposition Benches will not stop asking these questions. We need some answers.
I have a lot of sympathy for the Minister, who will have to field some incredibly difficult questions about serious allegations. When such debates come up I can imagine that the conversation that Ministers have about who will reply is not a pleasant one. There are some very serious allegations, and I hope to hear the answers this afternoon.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this Opposition day debate on the awarding of covid contracts. It is probably worth starting with where we were 16 or 17 months ago. At the time, we were just hearing about the covid-19 pandemic and what it meant for our lives. With the benefit of hindsight, things may have been done slightly differently, but we should not use our experience over the past 16 or 17 months to prejudge the decisions that we had to make very quickly as a nation back in February and March last year.
I had the honour of sitting on the Public Accounts Committee earlier in my parliamentary term. Under the stewardship of Gareth Davies, the Committee works hand in glove with the National Audit Office. I know that the Committee, ably chaired by the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier), has done various investigations into the response to the pandemic, with a particular focus on procurement and money. Scottish National party Members will be grateful to know that their colleague the hon. Member for Glenrothes (Peter Grant) is a vocal member of the Committee and, I am sure, will give wise counsel in future debates.
When I saw the topic of the debate, I was a bit surprised that the SNP had decided to call for it. I refer to its manifesto earlier this year in the local government elections that we had up in Scotland.
Sorry—the national Holyrood elections. The manifesto, on page 9, committed to a Scotland covid review. Unfortunately, the leadership up there has now done a U-turn and has not committed to that, so on behalf of the Royal College of Nurses and the GMB union, I urge them to have a rethink and hopefully commit to delivering what was promised in the manifesto.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) referred to the disappointing news that Edinburgh is regarded as the covid capital of Europe. I will not be political on this one; I just think that it is a disappointment and that all colleagues across the House will hope that, with our heated debate and constructive criticism, we will get a better result quickly. With that sentiment in mind, I urge colleagues: where Government Members can help, please do not be shy about asking.
Let me go back 16 or 17 months, with the benefit of hindsight—unfortunately the Leader of the official Opposition is not in his place; he uses hindsight a lot. There was a real fear that, as a country, we were potentially running out of PPE. It was this Conservative Government who gave a call to arms and said, “Actually, the United Kingdom needs a national effort”. We did that to ensure that we had the right PPE and other things in place for those on our frontline. Reference has been made to not using the normal procurement process and I urge colleagues to look at the Public Contracts Regulations 2015, which allow the accelerated procurement that has been used during this global pandemic—an event that fortunately happens only once every 100 years, approximately.
Colleagues on both sides of the House refer to the quantum of PPE and I think we need to put that in context. We have an additional 22,000 ventilators, 11 billion pieces of PPE and 507 million doses of vaccine. Those are phenomenal figures. Did each procurement absolutely hit the spot? No, but the figures quoted earlier in this House, I suggest, were a very small percentage of poor delivery, and I am sure that the National Audit Office, the Public Accounts Committee and various other bodies in this House and in the Palace will look into that further.
There have been various accusations about relationships that Conservative Members of Parliament may have with business owners or others involved in procurement. I gently urge Members to be mindful that there have been multiple independent investigations, including some in this House and from the National Audit Office, that have all shown that there was no conflict of interest with Members of Parliament, and that if there were, they were properly declared at the time.
Reference has been made to the Boardman review, which reported at the back end of last year and the 28 recommendations that the Government have already committed to implementing. I know that Opposition Members were urging a quicker review and investigation on the pandemic, but the deputy chief medical officer has argued that this would be regarded as “an extra burden” and a “distraction” from the successful vaccine roll-out.
Reference has been made to the SNP Scottish Government’s procurement processes and the fact that £539 million of grants and contracts were awarded without a competitive process or proper scrutiny. I urge colleagues to have a look at the Audit Scotland review, which has investigated the three separate pandemic preparedness exercises that were undertaken, with some of the lessons that should and need to be learned from that. I will leave it there; I look forward to other contributions.
If you type the words “covid contract” into Google, the first suggested return is “corruption”, so this Government are fooling nobody. There is no denying that the pandemic was unprecedented. There is no denying that every single Government across the globe have made mistakes, even in countries regarded as having a high degree of covid success, ahead of that of the UK—and there are many countries ahead of the UK in that respect. But the havoc wreaked on the UK by this Government is unforgivable. Efforts to secure contracts for friends and jobs for associates were their priority. That is the epitome of sleaze, and makes the cash-for-questions scandal that engulfed the same Tory party in the 1990s seem like a teardrop in the ocean. Many tears have been shed over the past 14 months, and I would like to pay my respects to the devastated families across these islands whose loved ones have succumbed long before their time as a result of this pandemic.
The UK is currently at the wrong end of the European table, with 1,952 deaths per million, compared with Ireland at 1,011, and Japan—the benchmark—at 127. That is an unforgivable outcome for an island nation with a developed economy and a developed, highly functioning health service. British exceptionalism lies at the heart of this Tory Government’s failed response, combined with delay, dithering and distraction by financial considerations and commercial opportunity. That saw an inevitable UK covid death toll expand to the actual UK covid death toll, and we need to see the gap between those two figures quantified in a public inquiry.
We must also inquire why it was only recently that such an inept Health Secretary was replaced. He presided over a litany of judgments as arrogant as they were poor and over decisions that, when taken together, allowed the covid death toll to reach more than 128,000 people during the pandemic in the UK. He was a Health Secretary whom the Prime Minister himself described as useless. We need the public inquiry to commence immediately.
The Prime Minister’s watery defence that we are fighting the pandemic and must wait till next spring was weak when he announced it and it has collapsed completely now. If he thinks it is time to remove face coverings— and it is not—then it is time for a public inquiry. No more time must be afforded to this dodgy, delinquent Administration of clientelism to tidy up their loose ends and administer away their inconvenient paper trails—where paper trails exist at all.
These Ministers are quite prepared to break domestic and international law if it suits their objectives—“Why let the law get in the way of Tory ideology?” is what I take to be their mantra. Let me provide three examples: the preparedness to breach the Northern Ireland protocol, the unlawful prorogation of Parliament in 2019 and Ministers now unlawfully refusing to publish a full list of covid contracts. What we do know is that billions have gone to politically connected companies, to former Ministers and Government advisers, and to others who donated to the Tory party; billions have gone to companies that had no prior experience in supplying PPE, from fashion designers, to pest controllers and jewellers; and billions have gone to companies with a controversial history, from tax evasion to fraud, corruption and human rights abuses.
In November, the National Audit Office revealed that this Tory Government had awarded £10.5 billion-worth of pandemic-related contracts, without a competitive tender process, in a VIP lane—how very Tory—and that companies with the right political connections were 10 times more likely to win than those outwith. The attitude at the heart of this UK Government was so demonstrably rotten, so bold and so unashamedly opportunistic that the Chancellor of the Duchy of the Lancaster felt that he could simply spend vital covid moneys on political polling on the state of the Union in Scotland. He could have asked me, because I would have told him for nothing: the Union is a busted flush in Scotland. He even made sure that his pals, the private fund Public First, got the contract into the bargain.
On track and trace, quite how this Government have budgeted £37 billion—a cost described as “unimaginable” by the Public Accounts Committee—to a system that has singularly failed to do its solitary job of helping to avoid a second lockdown, when we have now just emerged from a third, is simply incomprehensible. The UK Government have committed to wasting more than the entire budget of the Scottish Government in 1920 on a project that has failed miserably. For context, let me say that £37 billion would buy 148 Type 31 frigates from Babcock in Rosyth. That is the colossal scale of what we are talking about, but that is the Tory way, and they have no opposition in this place, as we can see from a depressingly empty set of Labour Benches—we might have thought that Her Majesty’s Opposition would front up to talk in detail about some of these important issues. That is the Tory way, where patronage and cronyism are rife and are upheld by privilege that starts at Eton and Harrow, and gets refined at Oxford and Cambridge, before reaping its entitlement off a weary population of taxpayers.
But that is not Scotland’s way. When the public inquiry reports, if it does, Scotland will take a different way. We take one look at the posh old pals’ network masquerading as a Government—for the next 30 years, unopposed—and Scotland says no. We have already rejected their so-called Union, we will have our referendum and we will be independent, forever turning our back on unending Tory sleaze.
As a comprehensive schoolboy, that privilege really runs right through me! However, let us be serious. First, let me say that we are dealing with a subject that has cost hundreds of thousands of people their lives. Millions of people around the world have died from a disease that nobody had even heard of, because it probably did not exist, two years ago. In that short time, we have had to do things, in the developed world and across all of the world, including in this country, that nobody would ever have dreamed of. We had to react very quickly to those things.
It is worth taking a step back to where we were, because short memories do not serve us well for the future. As I mentioned to the hon. Member for Putney (Fleur Anderson), at that time several people were coming to MPs, from all over, with suggestions, and not to make a quick buck; a lot of them answered the call to help out in the crisis the country and the world were in—one that not only affected this country, but created a worldwide shortage of the very equipment and supplies that the world needed. Of course, what has come out of this pandemic is a look at the global supply chains and how they have to change, and that is tearing up the convention that has existed for many decades across many parts of the world. It took the crisis to say, “When we stretch out your supply chains like that in a world crisis, they are not going to work in the best way possible.” The pressure for personal protective equipment was enormous.
Again, I make the point about the letter that the shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster sent to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, which covered two aspects. First, it said, “All these people are offering you PPE. Why haven’t you bought it? Why are you taking so long to buy it?” That is there in black and white, in an official letter sent to the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. The letter then listed other companies that had come to the shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and said that they could supply things; as I said before, there were football agents, historical clothing companies, events companies and private legal practices in Birmingham. I am not saying that in a sense of mockery; I am saying that to make the point that Members of Parliament from all parties—from across the House—received several emails and representations from those trying to supply PPE to deal with the crisis. It was the responsibility of Members of Parliament to pass those emails and those contacts into the system to see what would happen.
I equally understand that the shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster had a frustration about the length of time it was taking for those contracts to be awarded, because we were all desperately trying to solve a problem that the world was facing to get PPE to where it needed to be. Of course we can name contracts that went wrong. We can do that in any walk of life and for any contract. It does not mean there was an endemic failure. Things were happening in a very short space of time and certain procurements did not meet the standards, but the last figure I heard showed they amounted to less than 1% of all the PPE that was procured. That is not a bad hit rate when there was not time to fill in the paperwork.
It is important that we bring these issues out in these debates, but why we do that is being lost in this one. There are, quite rightly, calls for an inquiry, but do we want it so that the country can learn, move forward and understand how to tackle things in the future, or is it for cheap political points? What I have heard so far is, pretty much, “If we had independence, we wouldn’t have any problems.” From almost the first sentence that came out of the mouth of the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) there was the argument for independence, and it has gone on and on. We have heard, “If Scotland was independent, it would be different.” Well, it would not be that different, because Scotland would not be in the EU and it would not have had a chance to take part in the UK-wide procurement that supplied the vaccine programme. Let us not forget that the British armed forces have also contributed a huge amount to the fight against the pandemic. There has been a UK-wide force—the strength of this Union—delivering for every adult in the country. It does no service at all to try to make what has happened in the last 18 months into an argument about independence. It should stop this afternoon.
Since the right hon. Member has taken us on to the Union, why did the Government seek to poll Scottish attitudes to it if its benefits were so self-evident throughout? Why were public funds that were intended for covid procurement misdirected to pay for that polling?
I despair. I literally just said that we are supposed to be examining the procurement of PPE and when the inquiry comes, and yet we go back to those allegations. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Paymaster General will once again give the answers that were given previously. Stop it! Grow up! The reality is that we are dealing with an issue that has caused the deaths of millions of people across the world, including tens of thousands of people in this country. Today we need to explore where things went wrong—that is important —why the inquiry should wait and how it should take place.
By profession I am a mechanical engineer and, as somebody who flies around the world, I have an interest—a morbid interest, I suppose—in the programme “Air Crash Investigation”, which my wife will not watch under any circumstances, given her fear of flying. Aircraft safety has improved immensely in the past decades, and that is because there is a no-blame culture. That ties straight in with the report published this week by the Health and Social Care Committee on deaths in natal care and having a no-blame culture. We may want to get to the analysis of what went wrong and why it went wrong, but we cannot do that from a position of wondering, “Am I covering my political back? Am I covering my professional back? Can I have an honest conversation?”
We have to understand what went wrong. Things did go wrong. There cannot be a single person in the Chamber or indeed across the country who felt that everything went really well and was fine. Nobody says that. Nobody believes that. It is self-evidently not true that everything went fine. We do have to learn lessons, and it is important that we learn them though the matrix of what went wrong. As we have said, plenty of preparation was done for a flu pandemic, but that turned out not to be able to handle this pandemic. It is therefore important that we analyse the pressures caused by different diseases that can come forward. [Interruption.] I heard things from a sedentary position, but I did not notice what was said.
Ultimately, we have not had any sense of the SNP taking responsibility where they have responsibility—indeed, it was noticeable that the leader of the SNP just dismissed the intervention from my hon. Friend the Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge), mocked it and tried to put the blame back on the UK Government. Quite simply, if people are really taking notice of this debate this afternoon, they will think that it needs to be a lot more mature and serious than it has been so far.
I begin by remembering those who have lost their lives over the last year and a half. Like many Members in the House, I have lost loved ones. I am sure that many people who have lost loved ones will be watching this and will be interested to note the manner in which parliamentarians are conducting themselves.
“Gesture politics”—if the Home Secretary claims that taking the knee in a football match is gesture politics, I have news for this Government: clapping hands for the NHS rather than giving them an adequate pay rise is a gesture. Rather than providing financial assistance to those, such as NHS staff, who risk their lives, the Government are lining the pockets of their rich friends.
As a relatively new Member of this place, I was informed of the seven standards of public life—the Nolan principles. As an elected Member, I must hold myself to these standards, as must all Members, including those on the Government Benches. Let us take a moment to examine these seven principles and see just how this Tory Government fit in. “Selflessness”: Members must
“act solely in terms of the public interest.”
Instead, the Minister for the Cabinet Office used taxpayers’ money intended for covid recovery on examining attitudes towards the Union. “Integrity”: Members
“should not act or take decisions in order to gain financial or other material benefits for themselves, their family, or their friends.”
Well, where do I start? “Objectivity”: Members
“must act and take decisions impartially, fairly and on merit”.
But we know that judges ruled that the UK Government had acted unlawfully in awarding a contract worth over half a million pounds to a firm known to associates of Government Ministers. “Accountability”: Members
“are accountable to the public for their decisions and actions”.
Yet the Department of Health and Social Care failed to declare 27 meetings of a Minister in the other place at the outset of the pandemic. The companies involved in those meetings went on to acquire public service contracts worth over £1 billion. “Openness”:
“Information should not be withheld from the public unless there are clear and lawful reasons for so doing.”
In May 2020, the former Health Secretary was found guilty of a minor technical breach of the ministerial code after initially failing to declare his stake in an NHS supplier—a company run by his sister and his brother-in-law. Members must also “be truthful”. The former Health Secretary used private email accounts to communicate and award substantial covid-related contracts to his friends.
Finally, there is “Leadership”: Members
“should exhibit these principles in their own behaviour.”
I am not sure whether we are seeing that.
When we consider the record of this Tory Government, we see that they have failed to uphold a single one of the seven principles of public life to which we are bound. They have failed to act selflessly, placing the financial prosperity of their friends and colleagues above the needs of our NHS. They have lacked integrity, indebting themselves to private companies and exchanging contracts for donations and favours. They have lacked objectivity, handing out contract to their friends while some of the most vulnerable in society suffer under their policies. And now they are delaying this public inquiry, denying the country the openness, honesty and accountability that the electorate deserve.
However, we in Scotland have a choice to escape this Tory sleaze and build a fairer and more democratic future as an independent nation. Scotland taking the reins and becoming an independent nation is not just for the sake of independence: I truly believe that with independence, we can build a fairer Scotland, a Scotland that is reflective of all those who choose to make it their home. We can build a society that invests in our people; we can build a stronger, more diverse economy; and we can finally ensure that power resides in Scotland, with a Government that the people of Scotland have elected.
It is a pleasure to speak in this Opposition day debate, and I will address the motion—which I am not sure has anything to do with Scottish independence, which is what we heard about in the last speech. It calls on the Government to immediately commence the covid-19 public inquiry.
The hon. Member says that the motion has nothing to do with Scottish independence, so why did the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Cabinet Office put forward a contract that specifically looked for Scottish views on independence? What was the purpose of that, if not to understand independence?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but as I said, I am going to speak to the motion that his party has tabled today for discussion.
The Prime Minister has already confirmed that an independent inquiry into the handling of the pandemic is expected to begin in the spring of 2022. This inquiry will be on a statutory basis, with full powers under the Inquiries Act 2005, including the ability to compel the production of all relevant materials and take oral evidence under public oath. Every part of the state pulled together to tackle this virus, and as we recover as one United Kingdom, we must learn the lessons together in the same spirit. That is why the Government will consult the devolved Administrations before finalising the scope and details of the arrangements of this inquiry.
Given the scale of the inquiry and the resources required to carry it out, from identifying and disclosing all relevant information to giving that oral evidence, launching an inquiry would place a significant burden on our NHS and scientific advisers at a time when focus must still be on the fight against the virus. We are still rolling out the vaccine project; we have booster jabs to get into arms in the autumn; we will have winter pressures on the NHS; and, as we have discussed in recent days, we are rightly focused on addressing all of those missed appointments for other health concerns. Our deputy chief medical officer has said that an inquiry now would be an unnecessary extra burden that would distract the NHS from the vaccine roll-out:
“Personally, would an inquiry be an unwelcome distraction for me personally, at the moment, when I’m very focussed on the vaccine programme and the vaccine programme we might need in the autumn? Who knows, I think it would be an extra burden that wasn’t necessary.”
I agree with my right hon. Friend: as always, he makes an excellent point.
We have acted at pace to protect our NHS and save lives, by delivering more than 11 billion items of personal protective equipment to our key workers and helping to protect all those working on the frontline in our fight against the virus. From the onset of the pandemic, we have acted at pace to secure the PPE that we all need. We purchased over 32 billion items for the whole of the UK, three quarters of which will now be provided by British manufacturers—that is massive upscaling at speed—and we have distributed over 11.7 billion items of PPE across England since February 2020.
We have talked about the success of the vaccine roll- out, but what was amazing was securing those 507 million doses of the eight most promising vaccines through our vaccine taskforce for every corner of our Union. We can be incredibly proud not only of that but of the investment in the COVAX project.
Let me share with the hon. Lady my appreciation that the vaccine roll-out has been a tremendous success. I am not certain that any of my colleagues said that it was not a tremendous success. Does she agree, however, that it is the one thing that this Government got right in the whole pandemic, and that a vaccine never brought anybody back from the dead?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but I think he is being a little bit too narrow in his focus by saying that we only got one thing right. The way we invested in that scheme was replicated across many areas. We rightly hold that up as the absolute beacon of success, but there are many other areas where we used similar sorts of processes and where we had successes. We need to keep that in mind. Our diagnostic capacity has been excellent at identifying new strains, and we have to discuss that as well.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Those therapeutics have made a huge difference to people who are unfortunately hospitalised. In my local hospital, the Royal Surrey, the doctor who led the covid ward was seconded from treating cancer, and he has learned many things by being involved in running that ward that will be beneficial not only for the pandemic but for anything coming down the line.
The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) is no longer in his place, but in his speech he gave several examples of companies that had no previous experience in the production of something but had turned their hand to helping us to source things that we needed for the pandemic. I would ask the right hon. Member, if he were in his place, what he would say to all the whisky distilleries in Scotland that turned their hand to making hand sanitiser. What message is he giving to them today? I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the gin distilleries in my constituency and neighbouring constituencies that got in touch with me. They had made hand sanitiser and wanted a contact to speak to at my local hospital so that they could gift that hand sanitiser to it.
The Opposition would like us to take a trip down memory lane. Well, I am quite happy to do that. I was newly elected in December 2019, and I still have my training wheels on. I think a lot of us still feel like that. I had barely given my maiden speech before we were locked down and put into this situation. When you start as a new MP, you build your team from scratch. It is not there already waiting for you. At the most difficult time, I had about 1,500 emails a day coming into my inbox, and there were three of us dealing with them. We were trying to triage them and help as many people as we could. At the same time, I was receiving emails from people I had never met. I am an immigrant, and I went to a state school, so I am not connected in the way that the Opposition like to suggest about Conservative Members. It is a complete farce to talk like that, especially about a lot of those who have come in in the new intake—
It is. But I was receiving those emails and I knew it was my duty and responsibility, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Elmet and Rothwell (Alec Shelbrooke) has said, to pass on every single one of them, because I did not know which one would make a difference. That was not up to me; my job was to pass them on. I did not know most of those people from Adam, but I knew I had a responsibility to do that. I did not know about the eight-step process that civil servants were looking at for awarding contracts. I did not know whether any of them would be successful, but I hoped they would be. I hoped that many of the companies and individuals who put forward good ideas would have some success, because that is what we needed to tackle the pandemic.
We are at risk today of politicising this and going back into the Westminster bubble. We are at risk of not acknowledging the true heroes of the pandemic. Not us politicians, as we were just doing our job, but the businesses, schools and individuals in my constituency that suddenly came up with an idea or turned their hands to something. They were so proud of creating PPE for our local hospital, and they did an amazing job. We must remember, as we look back over the pandemic and as we consider our lessons learned, the trust spirit of communities coming together. I would wager that not just in constituencies in England, but in all four corners of the nation—in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland—there were people in the community who were making a difference. We have so much more in common than that which divides us, and that is how I would like to finish my speech.
Any private company or public organisation worth its salt will have procurement policies in place that ensure it purchases materials that provide value for money and are fit to do the job. Those working in procurement teams will be expected to maintain high standards of propriety and ethics. Contracts to supply will be based on a mature purchasing system that has been developed over years, to ensure that both the purchaser and the supplier are satisfied with the deal, which means paying a fair price for suitable goods. That is a basic, standard guideline. Any junior procurement officer would understand that from day one.
Yet the procurement process that is within the full control of the UK Government, controller of all UK citizens’ tax, appears to have embarked on a poorly orchestrated spending spree, with many contracts being handed out in what can only be described as dubious fashion.
Recently, the Government quietly published the details of 40 PPE contracts awarded a year ago during the first wave of the pandemic. The value of those contracts was an eye-watering £4.2 billion. I accept the figures will be large when the Government hand out contracts, so what is required is transparency and the utmost integrity. I am sure we all remember our maths teacher setting problems for us and saying, “I don’t just want the answer. I want to see your workings.” The same principle applies.
It is interesting that 365 Healthcare, a trading division of Bunzl, was handed a £151 million PPE deal on 1 April 2020 without explaining why it won the contract or what was better about its bid compared with the competition. That is not good enough, especially when, as the Good Law Project revealed, a Conservative peer had lobbied for PPE contracts on behalf of Bunzl while still acting as an adviser to DHSC. Globus Shetland landed a £14 million deal in April 2020 to provide eye protection and respirators. The firm had previously donated £375,000 to the Conservative party.
The UK Government should be held up to the highest scrutiny, and they should govern in such a way that they have nothing to fear. Who created the VIP list? What were the criteria, and what was the motive behind creating such a list? Emails revealed in a hearing during the legal challenge by the Good Law Project to the direct award of PPE contracts show civil servants raising the alarm that they were drowning in VIP requests from political connections that did not have the correct certification or could not pass due diligence. One email showed a civil servant warning that, when VIPs jump to the front of the queue, there is a knock-on effect on the remaining offers of help. Why were these civil servants ignored? Who within the UK Government thought they knew better? This is not scaremongering; the facts exist if we are prepared to look for them.
In February, the Prime Minister falsely claimed that details of all PPE contracts awarded by the Government had been published and were on the record. A few weeks later, a Cabinet Office Minister doubled down on the Prime Minister’s statement, claiming that he spoke accurately. Well, they were both wrong. This leads to a lack of confidence in the Government over the pandemic. It undermines the sacrifice that millions have made and it mocks the financial hardship that so many citizens throughout the UK are facing during the pandemic. A deadly pandemic should not be an opportunity for the UK Government to line the pockets of their cronies and business acquaintances, and yet the more we scrutinise the PPE contracts awarded by the UK Government, the more the questions arise. Enormous amounts of public money have been handled without any advertising or competitive tendering process.
This simply is not good enough, and we have to understand why these mistakes have been made. To protect taxpayers’ money and prevent further PPE procurement failures, we need answers. We need a public inquiry that is free from UK Government interference. Only with good procurement practice, which means learning from mistakes, can we safeguard the lives of the public and our highly valued healthcare workers, and that comes from scrutiny of and transparency from the UK Government.
It is kind of a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan). His tieless, sedentary, relaxed demeanour contrasted somewhat with the demeanour of the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), who I admire and respect, because when I intervened on him and raised the issue of the very widespread levels of covid currently pertaining in Scotland, it is fair to say that he did not react with what I would describe as calm statesmanship.
Only two days ago, The Scotsman, no less, had as one of its headlines the question, “Why does Scotland have the highest covid rates in Europe?” That is a fundamental question.
Of course, The Scotsman is well known to be a great supporter of the Scottish National party; the hon. Gentleman might want to have a look at that. The Scottish Government do not have control of our borders. The delta variant has come in and has created so many of these cases. That is outwith the control of the Scottish Government, who are doing everything they possibly can to bring them down.
I might give the hon. Gentleman another turn, but let us just put some facts on the table.
In June, 2,000 people in Scotland who tested positive for covid had attended a Euro 2021 event. I am no killjoy. I am quite happy that they attended. I will be attending a Euro 2021 event tonight to watch England vs Denmark. I am quite happy that many thousands of Scots made the journey to London to watch that game, in which their team performed admirably—far better than we did. The idea that the Scottish Government had no power in this matter is ludicrous. If they really thought that this variant was such a concern and that we should have closed the borders, they should not have allowed people to come down in their thousands. The evidence shows that those people are now super-spreaders of covid in Scotland. The hon. Gentleman should not pretend that the Scottish Government had no power in this matter.
Having said all that, I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, who has now returned to the Chamber, for introducing this debate about covid contracts, because it gives me the opportunity to talk about two covid contracts that are far more important than all the other guff we have heard today. Those contracts are, first, the contract that this Government—indeed, my right hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock)—signed with AstraZeneca to procure a vaccine, along with all the other ones that we took a risk on procuring before the rest of the EU. That has brought liberty to millions and saved the lives of thousands, for which we should all be grateful.
The second contract is one that we will not find a copy of, and there was no procurement for it, but again it is of fundamental importance: it is the social contract that exists between the Government and the governed on the basis of when we are expected to give up our precious rights because an emergency exists and when—the key question for me—those rights should be returned because the emergency has passed: a fundamental point given the Prime Minister’s statement on Monday.
The first contract was the generic process through which the UK Department of Health and Social Care negotiated contracts for those vaccines and delivered them in a way exceeding almost all other major nations, delivering millions and millions of doses. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Angus (Dave Doogan) for saying in his intervention that that was the one thing the Government got right, but, boy, that one thing is more important than anything else: it is the way out of the mess; it is the way we get out of lockdown; it is the ways we save millions of lives. And it is not just lives in the United Kingdom that are being saved; it is not just lives in every corner of this precious Union. The AstraZeneca vaccine contract was negotiated so it would be produced at cost. The significance of that enormous contractual point is that the vaccine has been spread around the developing world. We have seen 400 million Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines go into the arms of the poorest in the world. We should be incredibly proud of that. This Government have an incredibly honourable record in what has passed.
Covid was one of the greatest crises the world has faced; it was completely unprecedented, and every time we have had to make a choice we have been between a rock and a hard place, but the only way out of it, as we all knew, was through vaccines, and we made the right call at the right time, which no other Government in Europe made at that point, and we should be proud of that contract, and it is far more important than all the other stuff mentioned today.
On the second point, the social contract, this is my first opportunity to respond to the enormous announcement we heard on Monday—one I am so grateful for—that we will be returning to normal, restoring our precious freedoms. I believe in the social contract; it is implicit—we all have our own interpretation of it—but at its heart must be the idea that Government have certain powers but they can only use them in exceptional circumstances, if those circumstances are truly an emergency.
Tonight, as I said, thousands—millions—of people around part of the Union will be going to watch a football match. They will be crowded in pubs. The idea that we are still in an emergency is for the birds, and that is because of medical science, and I am profoundly grateful; it is because of the first part of the contract that I spoke about, but because of that we must start taking decisions that restore freedom and return this country back to normal.
I understand that some people are nervous, because I have had emails from constituents who voted in all ways for all parties—and in all ways in the referendum, in case anyone tries to make that link. Some people are still nervous; they worry and think we should still have to wear masks after 19 July and that the Government should still keep measures on. I have no idea where the Labour party stands on this; as far as I can see, they want us to remain in lockdown, but, as the Prime Minister said, if not now, when? Let me answer that: if not now, it is never, because the whole point of the social contract is that if we allow the state to keep that power for too long, it will not come back. The default disposition of the state must be that its citizens are free and that they are only not free in exceptional circumstances, and I believe those circumstances have now passed, and that is because of the vaccine; there are still high numbers of cases, but they are generally not resulting in significant ill health, and because of that we can unlock this lock- down.
For the record, I agree with a lot of what the hon. Gentleman says with regard to the social contract, but if his analysis is that we are genuinely out of the end of the emergency period, then surely the same question—if not now, when?—should be applied in respect of the start of the inquiry?
I have great respect for the right hon. Gentleman and that is a fair question. My own view is that to most of my constituents the question of how soon the time comes when, for instance, they can sing in a choir in a church or go to a nightclub or gather inside with family and friends and loved ones without fearing that they are breaking the law, is more important than how soon the Westminster bubble can get excited about something that will take months and months and months and be pored over by legal people and many others.
Well there you go—everybody is a winner. Just to expand on the point that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) has just made, I entirely agree with my hon. Friend that now is the time that we should come out of the restrictions, and things are moving to a close, but they are not over yet, because we have to get the autumn booster programme right. I would rather that that was properly in place before we move on to inquiries.
My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point. I hope he will be writing to our brilliant new Health Secretary to make that point to him.
Let me conclude by saying this. We ask ourselves when those freedoms will return and when the Government will do their part of the social contract and say, “The worst has passed, so it’s fair that you should now be able to do those things you used to do in normal life.” The answer is when those first contracts have delivered—the ones we signed with those companies, such as AstraZeneca and Pfizer, that have delivered this amazing vaccine programme that has benefited every part of the UK and every part of the world.
Every country in the UK has played a role in that. It has been a true feat of the Union, and we should be proud of it, because we are stronger together as a Union. Instead of falling back on narrow nationalism and bitterness, we stand together with a positive agenda. We have done the right thing. We have delivered an amazing vaccine programme. We have brought freedom, we have brought hope, and we look forward to better times ahead.
If I may, I am going to return to the subject of the motion, which is about methods of scrutiny of the United Kingdom Government.
It has been clear from the outset of the current Prime Minister’s term of office that this is a Tory Government who abhor scrutiny. Shortly after he took office, the Prime Minister tried to shut down Parliament completely. He did so because he was finding its scrutiny of his Government’s hapless progress towards Brexit tiresome. But it is Parliament’s job to scrutinise, and no matter how tiresome hon. Members on the Government Benches may find the subject of the debate, it is actually rather important.
I say to the hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) that I suspect that his constituents, like mine, also care about how their hard-earned money is spent by his Government. They are rightly concerned because two court cases so far—there are others in the pipeline—have revealed that there are major question marks over whether this Government have abused their privilege to line the pockets of their mates.
This Parliament, when it was unlawfully prorogued, sat again only because of the intervention of the courts. That is an indication of how important the rule of law is, and one of the many reasons why the UK Government want to reduce both the scope and the availability of judicial review.
An unlawfully prorogued Parliament is dangerous for democracy, but so is a supine Parliament, and this Parliament is, frankly, a shadow of its former self. Regulations impinging on our basic civil liberties during the covid crisis have been rushed through with the minimum of parliamentary debate. It is not just urgent business regarding covid that this Government treat in a cursory fashion in this Parliament. Earlier this week, we saw a Bill with major implications for civil liberties—including the civil liberties of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller community, who are protesting outside Parliament this afternoon—go through without proper debate or scrutiny because of the ridiculously short time that the Government allocated to hundreds of new clauses and amendments.
The brutal fact is that this Government do not like evidence-based policy making. In fact, they do not like evidence full stop. They like to run the country and the four nations of this Union free from scrutiny or accountability. They like to do so based on their little Britain, me first ideology and the personal ambition of Ministers—Ministers who have not dared to show their face in the House this afternoon—who look only to their mates for assistance, in return for handsome remuneration and keeping records minimal.
The way in which the Government have handled the emergency covid-19 contracts typifies that approach. The sad thing for British parliamentary democracy is that it is only through judicial processes instigated by concerned citizens acting through the Good Law Project that the full scale of this Government’s chicanery has come to light. So far, the Good Law Project has brought two successful legal challenges against the Government’s handling of pandemic-related procurement, but there are quite a few more in the pipeline, and I suspect there will be more than two successes to come. The two successes so far have established that both the former Health Secretary and the current—for now—Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster acted unlawfully. That is a really serious matter, and we would be failing in our duty as an Opposition if we did not bring it to the Floor of the House.
Over and over again, we have heard representatives of the Government try to argue that in the case of the Good Law Project v. Minister for the Cabinet Office, the Court did not find the Government guilty of any actual bias. That is a total red herring, however. The Good Law Project did not seek a finding of actual bias; it sought a finding of apparent bias, which is a well-understood legal term. The test for apparent bias in the law of England, and indeed that of Scotland, is whether the
“circumstances would lead a fair minded and informed observer to conclude that there was a real possibility, or a real danger,”
that the decision maker was biased. That is the test that the Court applied.
Looking at the contract awarded by the Cabinet Office, the Court found that a fair-minded and informed observer would conclude that there was a real possibility that the Government had awarded a significant contract to a company on the basis of bias. In layman’s terms, that means that the Court found that the Cabinet Office awarded a lucrative contract on the basis of favouritism. Even in the middle of a crisis, that is illegal. It is illegal because that money is not the Government’s, but the taxpayer’s. It is my constituents’ money; it is the money of the constituents of the hon. Member for South Suffolk; and it is the money of all our constituents.
These court processes have brought to light emails that would never otherwise have got into the public domain. These emails show that the much-maligned newspaper The Guardian newspaper and openDemocracy were right last year when they alleged that there was institutional cronyism at the heart of the British Government.
I very much share the hon. and learned Lady’s analysis of the work of openDemocracy and the Good Law Project. On the subject of emails that are only now coming into the public domain, does she agree that intervening to delay the publication of data relating to care home deaths in Scotland, as a story in The Scotsman indicates that Fiona Hyslop did, was, at the very least, ill advised?
I am not aware of the detail of that allegation, but, like the right hon. Gentleman, I was elected by my constituents—for my sins—to come to Westminster to scrutinise the actings of the British Government. Just earlier this year, a whole bunch of MSPs were elected to scrutinise the actings of the Scottish Government, and that is for them to do. Today, I am focusing on this Government.
The point I want to make—I am coming to a close, because I know others want to speak—is that the sunlight that these two judicial reviews have shone on the Government’s back-door dealings shows why a judge-led inquiry is so important. Even when this Government lose in court, they cannot tell the truth about the reasons why they lost. That is why the power of a judge-led inquiry to compel witnesses and the production of documents will be so important. Not telling the truth, or indeed not telling the whole truth when on oath is a very serious matter. In a judge-led inquiry, doing so would have the sorts of repercussions that ought to make most people—even in this Government—think twice. Witnesses are far less likely to get away with prevarication and obfuscation under questioning from lawyers, supervised by a judge. An approach to government that involves saying, “The cat ate the paper trail” or, “My redaction pen is my trusty shield” will not cut it in a judge-led inquiry. Obstructing judicial orders for documents constitutes contempt of court, and experience shows that that threat in a judge-led inquiry often brings to light records that would otherwise have found their way to the virtual shredder.
There is something wrong with British democracy, in that a Government elected by only 43.6% of the UK-wide vote can rule like a dictatorship, treating this Parliament as an inconvenience. Seen from Scotland, the situation is even worse: this Government have no mandate in Scotland, and the party that does have a mandate—the Scottish National party—is frequently treated with contempt in this House. In the past few days, we found out what most of us already suspected: the Prime Minister has so little respect for democracy in Scotland that he wants to close Scotland’s Parliament down. He does not need to worry too much about this Westminster Parliament, because he has already emasculated it.
The rule of law is our only hope. That is what the Good Law Project’s successful cases show: the only way that we can get to the truth of what this lot have been up to is by litigation and a judge-led inquiry. No wonder they are so desperate to limit the scope and availability of judicial review, and no wonder they fear a judge-led inquiry.
I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this debate.
I start by saying something with which I hope most Members can agree: I welcome the announcement of a public inquiry and I am glad that the Government are committed to learning the lessons from one. After the most unprecedented time of our lives, when there was no prior institutional memory of what was likely to happen and the risk calculation suggested that a pandemic based on coronavirus was extremely unlikely, we none the less need to learn lessons from what we have gone through and work out how, if there is ever a future pandemic, which I hope there never will be, we ensure that we approach it differently. We must also try to learn lessons from a wider community, society and government perspective.
If we all agree with the concept of a public inquiry, that there are lessons to be learned and reviews that need to happen, and that we need to understand how to work better in future, what do we disagree on? Why are we here, other than for another debate to push forward the suggestion of Scottish independence, in all but another name? The right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford), who is no longer in his place, said clearly that he wishes to see a public inquiry this year; the first obvious thing on which we disagree, then, is the question of when. I acknowledge that there are arguments for both—I understand and accept that there is a logic to a quick inquiry and a logic to a longer one—but to me the basic premise is that an inquiry should have the opportunity to review what has happened calmly, and not while in the middle of or even near the challenges, or while we run the risk of those challenges coming back. That does not seem to be an inappropriate approach to take.
We have obviously made a huge amount of progress in recent months in terms of resuming normal life and hopefully being able to move back to what we did previously when we get to 19 July, but it remains the case—I presume that, when we pull back all the hyperbole and political machinations, everyone in the Chamber would accept this—that we are not necessarily absolutely and completely out of the woods yet, and throughout the winter a huge amount of work is going to have to be undertaken to make sure that we hold the line and do not go back to lockdowns and the like, to which we do not want to go back. With that in mind, I simply do not understand how we could conclude, on the balance of risk and the weight of evidence, that the inquiry should start immediately, or nearly immediately, when that would almost be guaranteed to take capacity out of our ability to prevent or reduce the chances of any problems over the coming winter. I think most average men and women on the street would accept that.
The second thing on which I fundamentally disagree—or on which those on the Government and Opposition Benches seem to disagree—is how cautious and careful we want to be about the conclusions we draw. I want to learn lessons from this pandemic; it is clear that there are lessons to be learned. I want the Government to improve and to be as effective and as efficient as they can be in terms of their procurement and processes—I say that as somebody who served on the Public Accounts Committee for 18 months in the previous Parliament and saw lots of examples of where we need to improve—but we forget the context of last year, simply to score political points, at our peril.
On procurement, the hon. Member for Inverclyde said that any junior procurement officer would understand from day one exactly how they should approach this. Well, any junior procurement officer would understand from day one that the circumstances of last March and April were entirely extraordinary and are unlikely to be repeated. The concept of procurement is to ensure a process that takes time to get a satisfactory outcome, but if we do not have that time then we have to accept that we are undertaking a prioritisation exercise that pits time against outcome.
If there are people on these Benches, including the hon. Member for Inverclyde, who genuinely think we should have gone through the process of tender, submissions, reviews, notices of publications, cool-off periods, mobilisations and all the things that so many of us who have operated either in local government or in this place for many years know about and understand—we understand the amount of time it takes to get through them—then they should come to this Chamber right now and argue that in March and April last year we should have put out a series of call to tenders for things we needed in our hospitals, our care homes and across our society. That was simply not proportionate or reasonable.
I am so grateful for the hon. and learned Lady’s intervention. She just spent about two minutes talking to this Chamber about the difference between bias and apparent bias, and she has just conflated the two points to make a political point.
On the need to be cautious and careful in the conclusions we have drawn, I just say calmy and gently to Members that there were opportunities for two approaches last year, and we should be very careful about drawing a conclusion on one that would not have put us in the best place to deal with the problems we were seeing last spring in an already very difficult circumstance.
Finally, what we clearly and obviously disagree with is the utility of the inquiry. All those who are calling for the inquiry to be brought forward and asking for additional scrutiny, as the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) rightly went on about, do not actually seem to want to scrutinise things or to be that interested in the evidence, because they have made their decisions already. The level of hyperbole, smear, rumour, gossip and assertion in this debate, from the moment it was started in that unseemly way by the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber, shows that they are not interested in having a cool, calm and collected discussion about how we learn lessons, make things better and ensure the inquiry puts us in a better place if we are ever to suffer this or something similar again. They have decided what their answer is. They know what the outcome is. They know what the conclusion will be, and I certainly disagree with them on that basic premise.
Should lessons be learned? Yes, absolutely. Should an inquiry happen? Definitely. Should we do the exact opposite of what the SNP and to a lesser extent Labour have done and not seek to predetermine the outcome before we draw conclusions? I would certainly think that that was relatively sensible. Do I expect problems to be found and that things will need to be done better next time? Of course I do. That is the point of an inquiry. Will we, in a mature political democracy, acknowledge the difficulties of last spring in simply trying to ensure we had the things we needed at a time that we were never expecting and that it was never reasonable to assume would happen? Well, I certainly would, and I hope, in a cool, calm and collected way, that some of those who have engaged in hyperbole in this debate will acknowledge that too when things are not quite as political as this debate has been. Should we play political games with this? No, we should not. The one thing I agree about with the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber is that these are serious matters. They deserve to be treated with seriousness as a result.
I am pleased that the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Lee Rowley) took us back to the position pertaining to March last year, because that is a very important piece of context for this whole debate. It informs the decisions we took then: what we knew about the likely course of the pandemic and how much, in fact, we now know was probably guesswork. I will return to that, because I think it is an important piece of context for the decisions that this House took then and the accountability we are now entitled to demand of Government for the exercise of the powers that this House gave them at that time. Effectively, we gave them the powers on trust.
My right hon. and hon. Friends will support the motion in a Division; however, by way of clarification, we will do so because of the words that SNP Members have put in it, not necessarily because of many of the arguments that they have advanced in support of it. The inquiry requires to be early. There is no real justification for a delay until the spring of next year. The hon. Member for South Suffolk (James Cartlidge) spoke about the social contract. As I said to him at the time, I very much share his analysis. In fact, it is because of that social contract, which essentially comes down to the relationship between the citizen and the state, that an early and thorough, but not overly lengthy, inquiry is absolutely necessary.
To go back to the spirit of March 2020, there was a genuine sense of national endeavour. It was a rare moment in public life, because there was a sense that—in that much misused and overused phrase—we were “all in this together”. It pains me to say that many of the things that we have seen and heard, and that we have discussed today, have done so much to damage and diminish that sense of national endeavour. The earliest possible clarity and resolution of these things—to pick up the words of the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire, the earliest opportunity to decide what is hyperbole and what is hard fact—matters for our politics as a whole.
I was here when the House voted to go to war in Iraq. I believed then, and have believed since, that that was a major strategic error in the United Kingdom’s foreign policy. That was in 2003. It took until 2016 for us to get the Chilcot inquiry report—all 12 volumes and executive summary of it. I do not think that it is hyperbole to say that by the time the report came the moment had somewhat passed. Personally, I still use that report—six volumes act as a laptop stand, and the other six ensure that the door will not blow shut if I open the window. That, I am afraid, is the danger that faces us, and it is why we have to have an early start to the inquiry. If the need for restrictions has passed, as the Prime Minister and so many of his Back Benchers have told us, surely the time has come for us to start that work.
I am sympathetic to the views of those who act as scientific and medical advisers, but the inquiry, when it comes, will have to deal with so much more than just the public health aspects. We need a bit of sympathetic and strategic planning of the time to be taken. The matter that we are talking about today—covid contracts—is exactly the sort of thing that could be dealt with in the early stages of the inquiry, which is why we should be able to start it.
On the comments that the right hon. Gentleman makes about some of the aspects that could be considered now, yes, we are coming towards the end of the pandemic, but we are still in it. Considering that some fiscal measures will go on until at least September, does he not agree that we should wait until we can review the pandemic as a whole and then make meaningful conclusions, as opposed to trying to make quick ones now? Surely we do it right or we do it quickly.
Actually no: it is not an either/or. I think it is eminently possible to have a quick and dirty analysis. In fact, given that we may be looking at further waves, vaccine resistance and the rest of it, I think it is very important that we do have an early analysis of some of the public health aspects. However, that should not be a barrier to a fuller and more thorough analysis of things when we have the full facts available to us. As I say, other public inquiries have proceeded in that way, and I see no reason why this one should not.
The reason why I think it is particularly important that we have an early start is that, as we read in many of the newspapers, the Government’s intention is possibly to go to the country in a general election as early as 2023. An inquiry that starts now might have a fighting chance of bringing at least preliminary decisions to this House and to the public before that point. One that starts in the spring of next year—we know that spring is a moveable feast in Government calendars—will almost certainly still be doing its work when it comes to a general election in 2023, if that is when we get it.
The point is that, in March last year, this House gave a lot of power to the Executive—unprecedented amounts of power. Those powers for the most part, actually, have been unused, but still the Government insist on holding on to them, because that is in the nature of Governments. Once Parliament gives power to the Executive, the Executive are always very reluctant to give it back. We can go back as far as the granting of the power to force people to carry identity cards in 1939. We might have thought that that would finish in 1945, but in fact it was the early 1950s before a court ruled that the emergency had passed and the carrying of identity cards was no longer necessary.
I also want this inquiry to look at what the decision-making process was to ensure that we continued with these emergency powers, because I would suggest that the moment had probably passed in September of last year and had almost certainly passed by March of this year when we renewed them for the second time. So there are questions that can be answered now. They must be answered now, and it is in the interests of politics and the standing of this place that they should be answered now.
Madam Deputy Speaker, I will be as quick as I can. I am just sorry I am not with you in person today.
Opposition day debates are a precious opportunity to direct the subject of debate and focus national attention on areas of utmost concern to the country, yet today the SNP has used one of these few debates to repeat last week’s attempt by the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) to smear mud on the Government’s handling of PPE contracts back in 2020, hoping that some of it will stick. When we are still facing momentous decisions on how to handle covid, and with Scotland right now, as we have heard, being the covid capital of Europe, that tells us a lot about the SNP. With speech after speech starting with unsubstantiated accusations of sleaze and ending with the goal of separation, it feels as though it is more important for the SNP to build up the UK Government as some kind of bogeyman figure to boost support for separation than to try to make Scotland better, so here we go once again.
The motion asserts that
“the Government has failed to give full details of the process”
“emergency covid-19 contracts”,
which is just not correct. SNP Members should look at regulation 32(2)(c) of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015, which sets out the power used by the Government. Early on, the Cabinet Office published guidance on how procurement should take place in this framework, referring to the need to keep proper records of decisions; transparency and publication requirements; and the need to achieve value for money and to use good commercial judgement during any direct award. This guidance was published, and it is still on the gov.uk website. It is there for SNP Members to see, but they must know that because, after all, it was exactly the same approach that they used themselves in Scotland. There was one difference: in Scotland, the SNP Government tried to remove the ability of the public to question their procurement decisions by excluding freedom of information requests. They were foiled only by a parliamentary revolt. When it comes to their own record in government, this debate tells us a lot about the SNP.
As for the Government not giving details of the procurement process, SNP Members well know that the PPE offer was put through the same process by civil servants, working round the clock to save lives, no matter where the offer came from. The NAO made it clear that
“we found that the ministers had properly declared their interests, and we found no evidence of their involvement in procurement decisions or contract management.”
I hold my hands up, like so many others today. At the height of the emergency, I was personally inundated with offers to help from random businesses in my constituency. I have no idea whether they were Conservative, Liberal Democrat or Labour supporters, but I am pretty confident that they were not Scottish National party supporters. I passed them all on to the VIP inbox in the same way as other MPs, including Ministers, and thank goodness we did. One was from those at the Black Shuck distillery in Fakenham. They looked up the recipe for hand sanitiser on the World Health Organisation website. They made it themselves and donated it to local medical facilities—at least they wanted to. Was I wrong to help them to get around regulatory difficulties and pass that offer on?
Mistakes were definitely made—probably lots of them. After all, a lot of decisions had to be made very quickly and there was no precedent to follow. However, as we have heard, the Boardman review reported on that back in December 2020 and it made 28 recommendations on how the system should be improved. The Government welcomed those recommendations and agreed to implement them in full. SNP Members already know that. It feels as though they are less interested in the facts than in creating this image of a UK bogeyman in Westminster. They are less interested in improving government in Scotland than in their obsession with separation. This debate teaches us that.
It is nearly 50 years ago, long before I was born, incidentally—[Interruption.] It was a good decade before, I say to colleagues shouting to the contrary. It is nearly 50 years since the Poulson scandal began. It was a tawdry affair with politicians, civil servants, local government and industry all enmeshed in a network of bribery and corruption that rocked the establishment through the early ’70s, yet the amounts involved, even allowing for inflation, are miniscule when compared with the moneys that have flowed through the UK Government and been disbursed to the chosen ones.
Poulson went to prison for three years for paying around £500,000 in bribes to secure building contracts. Last November’s National Audit Office reports alone looked into £17.3 billion-worth of covid-related contracts, while the most recent total is over £31 billion. Those reports painted a picture of procurement policies that were simply ignored and skirted, where managing risk went out the window. They also lay bare the golden trough that was laid on for those fortunate enough to enjoy VIP status and the ear of Ministers or Government officials. Those able to use that high-priority lane were 10 times more likely to be successful in securing a contract than those unlucky enough to have to do things by the book.
Giving favoured companies and individuals VIP status and allowing them to jump over procedures put in place for mere mortals was a happy event for one pub landlord, who counted the former Health Secretary, the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), as one of his regulars—so regular that he appears to have had the former Minister’s mobile number and sent him a message selflessly offering his firm’s services. A few weeks later, those services were indeed taken up by a medical products distributor involved in supplying the NHS. At least that particular individual appears to have done nicely over recent months, because not everyone these days can afford a £1.3 million country house.
The National Audit Office report on Government procurement in the first months of the pandemic makes for damning reading. The word “inadequate” appears too often for comfort. At various points, the NAO mentioned that there was
“insufficient documentation on key decisions”,
“contracts…have not been published in a timely manner”,
as well as
“diminished public transparency…the lack of adequate documentation”,
and so on, and so on.
No one doubts the exceptional—perhaps unique—situation that the Government found themselves in last year. It is clear that emergency procedures are justified in a public health emergency. Indeed, we support them and have used them in Edinburgh, but that does not give Ministers and the Government the right to excuse themselves from basic norms of transparency and accountability and throw billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money—or rather, future taxpayers’ money, given the levels of borrowing needed—at companies who, in many cases, turned out to make Del Boy or even Arthur Daley look legitimate.
With apologies, I will not, just because of time.
Some £108 million was given to a company with net assets of £18,000, another £108 million was given to a company small enough to be exempt from publishing full accounts, and £252 million was given to a company advised by an individual who was also an adviser to the UK Board of Trade. There is no allegation that those companies have done anything wrong themselves. Many would say that their job is to make money—and that they certainly did. But the Government’s job was not to enrich obscure micro-companies with nine-figure sums, but to equip our public services with the equipment to do their job safely and to ensure value for money in the process.
In each of the cases, the Government have fought tooth and nail to hide behind secrecy and use the pandemic as an excuse for ignoring the norms of transparency and accountability that are there for a very good reason. That abandonment of transparency was then used by the Minister for the Cabinet Office to commission polling into attitudes to the UK Union at a cost of more than half a million pounds.
Like most people dealing with the effects of the pandemic, I struggle to see why polling aimed entirely at promoting the Government’s political agenda can in any way be classed as emergency procurement. It is shabby, disreputable and a complete misuse of what should be a carefully used and monitored short-circuiting of normal procurement rules.
It is also just a little ironic that the Conservative party, which almost hourly accuses the SNP and others of being obsessed with the constitution, demonstrates its own myopic obsession with the Union by using the cover of a national and international health emergency to do so.
No one is suggesting that routes should not be available for the Government in times of real crisis to act swiftly and decisively outside what the norms are during relative periods of calm. Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures, and we were and are still living in extraordinary times. But the evidence that has emerged—forced, bit by bit, out of the Government, against their will at every step of the way—shows how the measures have been abused by a cabal who appear no longer to care about probity and transparency, but instead to have been caught in the act of shifting millions out of the back door when no one was looking.
The Prime Minister has promised a “full, proper public inquiry” into the covid pandemic, which of course I welcome. But as others have said, there is no need to wait. That inquiry must also include a full and open examination of the Government’s procurement policies, with every one of these deals open to public scrutiny. Those who have attempted throughout the past 16 months to hide their dealings from Parliament and from the public must be called to account for their actions and asked to explain why.
There is a way for Scots to be rid of these spivs, speculators—
I am very grateful for that intervention; that was very useful. But the hon. Gentleman’s groans were indeed correct: I am going to talk about our way out of this, which is through independence. No number of attempts from the hon. Gentleman or the Front Benchers in front of him to muddy the waters by briefing on changing the voting franchise will stop it from coming. At the end of the day, the UK Government’s actions such as those we are debating today, when combined with Brexit, make Scottish independence absolutely inevitable. In their dying days, and as we witness what counts as a Government in this place, the time cannot come quickly enough.
I am pleased to be called to speak in today’s debate about the steps that the Government have been taking in the last 16 months to procure lifesaving equipment and PPE for our incredible frontline staff across the country. This debate is nothing more than another attempt by the SNP to trot out its same old line seeking to smear the Government, pursue its separatist agenda and obscure attention from being focused on its own failures.
In Scotland, the SNP-led Government have been using the same procurement process for protective equipment but have failed to launch their own inquiry into the Scottish Government’s handling of the pandemic. Measures that this Government have taken have undoubtedly sped up Whitehall bureaucracy while operating without the need to break, suspend or change pre-existing legislation on contract awards and procurement.
It is testament to the speed at which the Government acted and delivered PPE that even while the virus was raging and there was a global PPE shortage, every single recommendation for the procurement of PPE went through an independent eight-stage process verified by independent civil servants. That approach has meant that the UK Government have been able to procure more than 22,000 extra ventilators, 11 billion items of personal protective equipment in England and 32 billion items for the whole of the Union, protecting those workers on the frontlines of both the NHS and social care. It is therefore no wonder that the approach taken to procurement by the UK Government has been used across the world. Japan, New Zealand and Finland have used similar approaches, while the devolved Administrations in Holyrood, Cardiff and Belfast use the same techniques and purposes
I welcome the fact that the Government have been open and transparent with their procurement process, with the independent National Audit Office acknowledging the Government’s exceptional work while ensuring that Ministers were not involved in procurement processes and had “properly declared their interests”. Meanwhile, the Scottish audit found that the SNP had failed to prepare for the pandemic and was paying tens of millions more than normal for its PPE supplies.
Today’s debate is nothing less than a poorly thought out move by the SNP to create more soundbites by failing to address its poor handling of the pandemic. Far from intending to help save lives and protect the most vulnerable, the SNP is seeking to distract attention from a disproportionate rise in cases and deaths in Scotland and its opposition to a Scottish inquiry into the handling of the pandemic.
This Conservative Government, thank goodness, are getting on with the fastest roll-out of the vaccine that has been seen across Europe while laying the groundwork for their own in-depth, independent inquiry in spring 2022, delivering for our whole United Kingdom.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for calling me earlier than expected.
First, I pay special tribute to frontline workers who have worked tirelessly at the forefront of fighting this deadly virus. Our nation is indebted to all those doctors, nurses and other health workers who rose above the limits of their duty, saved lives and ensured the availability of essential services. However, I want to put on the record my thanks to one particular nurse who has never been mentioned in this place—my identical twin brother. He has been on a covid ward for the duration of this pandemic and has been unable to have a vaccine because he is allergic to them. He really has been at the forefront of this pandemic; I am proud of everything that he has done, and I cannot say so enough. People have said to me a number of times, “You have an identical twin. Who is the good one and who is the evil one?” I am a Conservative MP and he is a nurse, so I will let everyone else do the math of that one.
The public have gone above and beyond during this pandemic—whether it be brewers and distilleries making vital hand sanitisers, chemical works such as ITAC, which I visited last year, fundamentally changing its own production methods to make hand sanitisers, or firms such as Vitafoam in Heywood and Middleton, which has gone from making beds to making face masks. Everyone has fundamentally changed the way that they work, live and, in some cases, even eat, but we are all getting to the point where we are sick of Zoom and Teams. Thankfully, the way that we socialise is coming back to the forefront and we are now able to have a cautious hug, a cautious handshake and, heaven forbid, a pint over the football tonight—and it is coming home.
At the onset of the crisis, against a backdrop of unprecedented global demand, there was a real fear that we would run out of vital equipment. That is why we acted quickly to secure the medical equipment and the PPE needed for our frontline workers, securing more than 22,000 additional ventilators and delivering over 11.7 billion items of PPE to frontline workers. We have moved heaven and earth, as any responsible Government would do, to keep people safe, and we make no apology for acting at pace in securing the lifesaving equipment needed to save lives.
In addition, this Government have secured a portfolio of 507 million doses of the eight most promising vaccines. We are not only vaccinating this country but making sure that we donate 100 million vaccines to the most needy across the globe, and I am immensely proud of that. The UK has stormed ahead with its vaccination programme, which is why we are able to unlock and why, hopefully, we are able to go back to freedom. Despite that, the SNP wanted the UK to join the EU’s vaccines scheme, with the SNP’s Mental Wellbeing and Social Care Minister, Kevin Stewart, slamming our decision to opt out of it, calling it “lunacy” and “irresponsible”. We need only look to our neighbours on the continent to see that we were right. By contrast, the latest figures show that, as a result of our independent vaccine programme, 86% of people in the UK have received their first dose of a vaccine and 64% are fully vaccinated, having received their second dose.
We have one of the best testing regimes in the world, with the capacity to deliver over 1 million tests a day. Instead of the Opposition attacking our efforts, our achievements should be celebrated as an example of what we can do as a truly United Kingdom.
The Opposition’s claims about conflicts of interest in PPE contracts have been thrown out by multiple independent investigations, which have failed to find any conflicts of interest whatsoever in PPE procurement by Ministers. Indeed, the deputy chief medical officer said that an inquiry would be an unnecessary “extra burden” that would distract from the vaccine roll-out.
The SNP Government themselves decided to award over £500 million of contracts without competition, so perhaps the SNP should be keeping their own house in order rather than attacking our Government.
Transparency is fundamental to trust, and I will say that we have not got everything right. If I were to say otherwise, I would be lying—not just inadvertently misleading the House—which is why a fully independent public inquiry, starting next spring, will ensure the pandemic response is robustly examined. It will show where we got things right and where, unfortunately, we got things wrong, and we have got some things wrong during this pandemic because we are human. Hindsight is 20/20 and, in an unprecedented pandemic, people make the decisions they think are right at the time, and they can only be judged afterwards.
Furthermore, we have strengthened transparency around the awarding of Government contracts by bringing in new rules on Government procurement, so we can make sure that Government contracts are fully transparent and offer true value for money. We will also be publishing more information about Government contracts, so all details on the procurement process are in the public domain.
The Opposition have used every opportunity throughout the pandemic to play politics, from accusing Kate Bingham of cronyism to describing test and trace as money wasted. Labour and the SNP are more interested in sniping from the sidelines, but this Conservative Government have delivered for the people of this country. That is why we are able to reopen the economy and the country, and it is why we are hopefully moving forward.
Order. There are five more Back Benchers wanting to contribute, as two have dropped out. The wind-ups will start at precisely 3.59 pm, with two contributions of eight minutes. The vote is then expected at 4.15 pm. Could Members please be mindful of the length of their contributions?
I associate myself with some of the comments made by the hon. Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford), particularly in relation to the work being done by his twin brother and all those working on the frontline, for which we all share a great deal of respect.
I am delighted that my party has made time available today to discuss the scandal of the way in which covid-19 emergency contracts have been dished out by this Government. We have seen the Prime Minister make an artform of stripping away the processes that protect fairness and transparency, all under the cover of the pandemic. The justification has tended to be the same across the board—it has to be done in a hurry—but how far can that stretch?
I have no doubt that procuring goods at speed and scale was a challenge, and there are clearly things that had to be done to make sure it could be undertaken, but justifying the bypassing of due process in the early days is not a catch-all or an excuse for the growing list of questionable contract decisions that were not open to a competitive tender process.
The sense of right and wrong did not go out of the window when the covid virus came in. There must always be time for proper scrutiny of money spent from the public purse, and the Government must always be available to answer for their decisions. Perhaps the Government will tell us today whether the VIP channels that were so roundly criticised earlier in the pandemic are still operating today, who knew about them, who was on them or where we can find out more about them. It is only through the National Audit Office that we know the fast-track channels existed and that they vastly increased the chances of successfully landing a contract. Of over 15,000 suppliers, just 400 went through the VIP lane and one in 10 of them received a contract, compared with 0.7% of those that went through normal channels. I have plenty of talented and deserving constituents in Midlothian who would have been delighted to have that opportunity to have a leg up through a VIP channel and get a comfy Government contract, but that door was not open to them: it stayed firmly shut, unless a person happened to rub shoulders with the right people in the corridors of power. Details of those channels were certainly not advertised in the Government’s guidance, and many people—including medical professionals with invaluable experience of the NHS—were not even aware that they existed.
There is room for a fast track; I do not deny that. If it is an emergency, we need to look at new ways of doing things, but it is absolutely absurd that having connections to a party of Government is the criterion that is required to be on that fast-track list. This should slow things down, not get a person to the front of the queue. There are too many serious allegations of cronyism coming out now for this to be simply brushed aside or written off as a mere coincidence. Transparency International UK has so far found contracts worth over £3.7 billion—one in five—between February and November 2020 that raised red flags. According to its report, the Government displayed
“apparent systemic biases in the award of PPE contracts that favoured those with political connections to the party of government in Westminster”.
There is an ever-growing roll call of examples of apparent cronyism coming from the excellent investigative journalism of organisations such as Byline Times, openDemocracy and others, and we have already seen successful litigation from the Good Law Project over delays in publishing contract award notices. The more we dig, the dirtier it looks, and the emergency excuse for bypassing due process begins to wear a little thin when it is used for contracts with little to do with frontline emergency, such as the £500,000 awarded illegally to Public First—old colleagues and pals of the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and Dominic Cummings, of course.
Nor does the speed argument explain those early contracts being given to companies with such little experience in the field, when a wealth of other suppliers had put offers in. Can the Government tell us now why crucial contracts for life-saving protection went to a Florida-based jewellery company, or to a wholesaler of sweets with no obvious experience of supplying PPE? What made the tiny vermin control operation PestFix, valued at just £19,000, the best-placed company to provide a vital £32 million for isolation suits, and why did the former Health Secretary’s neighbour and pub landlord get a £30 million contract for producing plastic vials following a few chats on WhatsApp? The Greensill scandal and the Dyson scandal demonstrate that this is a Government that are overseeing a culture of taxpayers’ money being dished out through informal back channels removed from public scrutiny. If the Government have nothing to hide, I would again ask why they did not back my Ministerial Interests (Emergency Powers) Bill in the last term of this Parliament. We accept the need for speed, but that does not mean we cannot ask questions after the event.
Week after week at business questions, I have requested Government time to debate many of these serious concerns about the openness and transparency of the Government, but those concerns are dismissed. In one response, the Leader of the House put on his best poker face and assured me that
“We have in this country one of the most honest public sectors of any country in the world.”—[Official Report, 25 February 2021; Vol. 689, c. 1096.]
It is unfortunate that that does not always appear to extend to all within Government. If that is the case, the public sector is badly being let down by the Government and their culture of secrecy. This Government claim that they cannot find support for the 3 million excluded, nor can they afford to pay a decent pay rise to the NHS, yet they found a staggering, jaw-dropping £37 billion for private companies with connections to power to run a test and protect system that does not yet work properly, with consultants earning £1,000 a day. This is a system in which we now know—thanks, again, to the efforts of the Good Law Project—that yet another VIP lane existed. It is an absolute scandal.
The Government may claim that people do not care about these contracts issues because they do not affect them, but they do: people see what is going on, and they will be scunnered by it all. When faith and trust in democracy is lost, we are all lost. If the Government are innocent on all charges—except, of course, the ones on which they have already been found guilty—they need the public inquiry into covid contracts to press ahead now, not next year after the heat has gone from the issue. We need to have clear channels through which to scrutinise Government actions and hold the Executive to account. Standards in public life are the foundation on which democratic institutions are built, and we need systems with which to root out anyone in public office who puts profit for themselves, their partners or their pals before the public good. If corruption is ignored, it will fester: the small cracks will become fissures, and the very foundations of our democracy will crumble.
The Government remain far too blasé in response to allegations of cronyism and this cannot go unchecked. Like the ancient Romans, perhaps they still believe themselves to be untouchable and answering to no one, especially not those outwith their VIP circles, but if they let the rot set in, the public will soon lose trust in their leadership. If they do not stand up for decency, democracy and high standards in public life, we may be watching our current modern-day Nero see the end.
It is a pleasure to rise to speak in the debate this afternoon. I shall start by wishing all my English constituents, my English staff and even my English colleagues the best of luck in this evening’s semi-final. I do hope that England are successful in bringing football home to the island on which the modern game of football was created. Of course, like all the best things in the modern world, the modern game of football was invented in Scotland. Maybe next time, in Qatar in 2022, we will see the World cup going home to its real home at Hampden Park in Glasgow.
Since my election in 2017, I have become well used to the SNP’s tactic in Opposition day debates of mixing rank opportunism with righteous indignation and manufactured grievance. But today, we have seen the gall and the sheer brass neck of the Scottish National party. It takes some beating for the party in government in Scotland, the party responsible for public health north of the border, to come here to this place and put forward a motion on, of all things, covid-19 in the week when Scotland was declared by the World Health Organisation to have six of the top 10 covid hotspots in Europe.
I was now going to launch into a few well-constructed jokes about the Cabinet Secretary for Health disapparating, grabbing his invisibility cloak and using the Floo Network to get to the Harry Potter Studios in Watford. However—I mean this sincerely—everybody at all levels of all the Governments in the United Kingdom has been under immense pressure over the past year and a half, and who can begrudge any Minister in any position of responsibility taking some time to spend with their family, who have borne the brunt of the pressure they have been under? So I will refrain from attacking the Cabinet Secretary for Health, and I hope he enjoys the precious time he gets to spend with his children over the next few days.
This is not a laughing matter. Scotland is already leading the continent in terms of drugs deaths, but we are now leading it in terms of covid cases contracted, and this is putting at real risk Scotland’s own freedom day on 9 August. This is under a party whose leader claimed that the strategy north of the border was to eradicate covid. That would be incredible; we would be the first country in the world to do it. The SNP seems to be having about as much success in achieving that aim as it does in improving educational standards in schools, meeting the R100 broadband roll-out deadline, establishing Welfare Scotland or developing a new farm payments system. No wonder it scrapped the Scottish Qualifications Authority, for if there was an examination in good government, the Scottish National party would get a “must try harder” and a big F.
The reverse Midas touch of the SNP is quite incredible to behold, but this is incredibly serious. We have heard Scottish National party Members talking this afternoon about test and trace. They call it the failing test and trace, but I think it is a world-leading test and trace system. Let us compare it to how test and protect is operating north of the border. Test and protect is operating at its slowest-ever rate, and in the week ending 27 June, only 29% of positive individuals were interviewed within 24 hours of appearing on the case management system. If we are to escape from these awful restrictions that everybody on these islands is living under, we must have a functioning test and trace system. Again, the SNP must try harder.
It is true that vaccination in Scotland for covid-19 continues apace, even if the roll-out has slowed in recent weeks, and we are of course forever grateful to our amazing NHS workers—in my case, in NHS Grampian—and to the volunteers and the armed forces for their tireless efforts and the speed at which they are building the wall of protection that will get us back to normal. But there is a certain irony that the one part of the covid response that is working well in Scotland at the minute is the part that is solely as a result of Scotland being part of our United Kingdom. It is because this UK Government took the decisions they did, moved at the pace they did and invested what and when they did that we are leading the world in terms of vaccination, allowing us to dream of a day when masks are something we save for guising at Halloween and when we need never again use that awful term “social distancing”. Not that we would know any of that from a party that is reluctant even to use the full name of our world-leading Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine, should it in some way indicate that the people of Scotland are benefiting from our working together as one United Kingdom.
I could accept all that. After more than 10 years of being in Scottish politics at some level or another, I would expect all of that from a party for whom taking responsibility is anathema—indeed, I have concluded that the Scottish National party wants to take Scotland back into the EU only because, without Westminster, it needs somebody else to point the finger of blame at for its mistakes—but this motion really takes the biscuit. It takes the hypocrisy that we are so used to from the Government in Edinburgh to whole new levels—and, for me, whole new levels of incredulity.
For a party that refuses to deliver on a manifesto commitment to hold a public inquiry into covid in Scotland to come down here and call for a covid inquiry in this place, and for a party that wants to see an end to the UK, and that uses every single opportunity afforded to it to emphasise the differences between our two nations to seek to break up this country, suddenly to suggest that it would be untoward or improper for the Scottish Government to hold their own inquiry before the UK Government did the same, is quite a change of tack, particularly when that party usually grabs any chance to show that it is leading the United Kingdom or moving faster in some way.
That party has also come here today to complain about the process for issuing emergency covid-19 contracts. As has been said, this country, along with every country and every Government in the world, was dealing with an unprecedented situation a year and a half ago. We were moving heaven and earth to protect the British people the length and breadth of our country. We know that Governments moved faster to try to protect people, because the Scottish Government did exactly the same thing. They awarded over a billion pounds in covid contracts without tender and with no competitive process, including, but not exclusively, for call centres, PPE, housing and care contracts, IT support, hand sanitiser and consultancy work.
It is astounding to hear SNP Members complain that MPs came to this place and represented to the Government companies, organisations and individuals in their constituencies who had ideas, mechanisms or inventions that could ease the pressure on the NHS and save lives. Surely Members of Parliament are supposed to represent businesses and individuals in our constituencies who could help in a crisis. That is certainly what I did when an individual caught me at a rather inopportune moment. I happened to be giving blood at Aberdeen Royal Infirmary in Foresterhill when a constituent recognised me from across the room and started telling me all about his great idea for a new ventilation system. He had me tied to the spot, I am afraid, and I was all ears. I went on to represent his company and his ideas to Ministers. I have no idea whether his idea or invention was successful, but I know that I did what I should have done and took that idea to the people who could make a difference, so that it could save lives in this United Kingdom.
Goodness me, was I quite amazed to hear SNP Members raising the use of private emails to conduct Government business? That from the Scottish National party, whose leader’s office last year advised people that the First Minister would use only her party email address and that urgent matters should be sent only to her private SNP account, not her Government account. That from the Scottish National party, whose Ministers now seem to communicate exclusively by Signal and whose use of public money to further their own political ends is blatant and routine.
The time for inquiries will come. There will undoubtedly be questions for senior members of both Governments, who were thrust into an impossible and unprecedented situation and urged to act quickly and urgently for the public good. However, this House, and indeed this country, should have no truck with, and should take no lectures in good government from, a party that is failing Scotland and failing the Scottish people and whose arrogance in power grows by the day. There is less than five years until the next Scottish election. For the sake of my country, it cannot come a day too soon.
For someone who does not believe that this debate should be taking place, the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) trundled on for 10 minutes, although it felt like much longer. He criticises the Scottish Government—a Scottish Government, of course, overwhelmingly endorsed a mere eight weeks ago—when his own party cannot even win a by-election. Good luck to it with trying to hold its position in Scotland. The people of Scotland see through it.
We have undergone the most serious health pandemic of our times. Of course, the worst is not over, but we still hope that the future continues to improve, even as so many of us continue to mourn our lost loved ones. However, during dark times—the darkest times—democratic accountability and scrutiny of Government must continue. That is perhaps even more important in dark times than in normal times, given that when the populace is distracted by seismic events that touch their lives in such personal ways, a Government who realise that may be tempted to abandon the standards so essential in public office, in the belief that the usual corners may be cut, even when the public purse is involved. During dark times, as in all times, the Government must be seen to act with the utmost probity, disinterested in their dealings and with a laser-like focus on protecting their civilians. That is exactly why the bad smell permeating deals done and contracts signed on PPE and covid is so very unfortunate.
The list of potential wrongdoing when it comes to this Government would be far too long for me to outline in a very long speech, much less such a short one. There is simply not time to go through the catalogue of serious concerns. Suffice it to say that, with NHS contract tendering; the £23 billion spent on Test and Trace; the former Prime Minister’s lobbying for Greensill Capital, which The Guardian indicated today was given access to covid loans without detailed scrutiny, with Ministers asked to “nudge” the deals “over the line”; contracts for pals; and a Government shrouded in chumocracy while 3 million people across the UK have been left with no support at all, the bad smell is overwhelming. Let us not even start again on the money spent on testing the strength of the Union, which should have been spent on fighting the pandemic. All that gives this Government’s dealings a very bad smell.
In view of all that, I can well understand the desire to delay and dither over a public inquiry into the handling of the pandemic and the subsequent desire to ensure that any of the inquiry’s findings are buried until after the next general election, but that is simply not good enough. Let us have the public inquiry now, without delay, so that people across the UK can decide for themselves whether this Government have served them well during the darkest of our times, and so that the people of Scotland can decide for themselves whether the Government on offer from Westminster are the best they deserve. We in the SNP believe that the people of Scotland deserve better and must have better, and they will when they choose their own future.
This pandemic has been a time of extreme hardship and suffering for millions of people. In my constituency in east Leeds, many have lost loved ones, and others, who were struggling to make ends meet even before this crisis, have fallen into deeper poverty. But it has been a very good crisis for some—for British billionaires, who increased their wealth by £100 billion in the last year; for outsourcing giants such as Serco, pocketing money that should have gone to our public services; and for those with friends in high places in the Conservative party who have got their hands on huge covid contracts.
The one sure-fire way to make money over the past 18 months has been to be a mate of a Tory Minister. Access to the so-called VIP lane made someone 10 times more likely to win public contracts. Ministers have been found to have broken the law with contracts. A world-leading anti-corruption body says that one in five Government covid contracts has corruption red flags. Over £800 million in covid contracts went to donors who had given the Tories £8 million in total—a very good return for those in the know, with the inside track. Those super-rich donors hand over huge funds and expect public contracts and favours to come their way in return. The Conservative party, I am afraid, is up to its neck in it.
Because the Tory party is using the system to help super-rich donors with covid contracts, it thinks that that is what other people are up to, too. We have seen a Tory MP this week implying that the British Medical Association’s medical advice to wear masks is because of lobbying from mask manufacturers, and Ministers have admitted that they are refusing proper sick pay because they think that people out there would abuse the system. Is that not telling? It is a telling insight into Ministers’ thinking: the assumption that everyone else is as dodgy and corrupt as they are—that is why Ministers think that.
Polls show that huge swathes of the population believe that the Conservative party is corrupt, and the stench of corruption has grown ever stronger through this crisis. They have been using a crisis where tens of thousands have died needlessly as a money-making scheme for their mates and their super-rich donors. The link between big money and our politics has been exposed more than ever during this crisis. Of course, many will hope to get their reward with directorships and comfortable jobs when they leave this place, but this is rotten to the core. It is undermining confidence in our democratic system and we need to put an end to it.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon), but it is distasteful to listen to the braggadocious glee from the hon. Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie) when he celebrates the increased rate of covid cases in Scotland—
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Could you advise me on how we can correct the record, because the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Neale Hanvey) has distorted what I said only a few minutes ago? Never once did I express any glee at the record number of cases on the SNP’s hands in Scotland. I expressed my concern at what was happening in Scotland. He should withdraw that comment.
The Prime Minister demonstrated today a complete lack of comprehension of the fundamental principles of infection management. Kate Bingham’s achievement in bringing vaccines to market I have rightly celebrated in this place and Westminster Hall, but it is not the only game in town. The Prime Minister has bet the farm on vaccines, but the control and suppression of this virus relies on robust surveillance, treatment and control measures. All of that is at risk of being undone, with £3 billion wasted on tests that are absolutely unreliable. The Innova lateral flow device scandal presents a significant concern across three specific domains: public health, the impact on the domestic diagnostic sector, and a lack of contracting transparency and mounting concerns about chicanery.
On Monday 21 June, at the Dispatch Box, the Under-Secretary of State for International Trade, the hon. Member for North East Hampshire (Mr Jayawardena), boasted that the Government were “unleashing the potential” of the constituent countries of the UK “by backing British industry”. During that contribution, he derided China for “trade-distorting practices”. The experience of the domestic diagnostic industry differs significantly from that rhetoric. During a covid briefing on 29 June hosted by the Minister for Prevention, Public Health and Primary Care, it was asserted that the Government’s position on the United States Food and Drug Administration’s class 1 recall of dangerous and deadly Innova tests was attributed to the FDA’s over-reliance on the manufacturer’s data. Furthermore, it was asserted that the UK Government are utilising public resources at Porton Down in efforts to disprove the Chinese manufacturer’s own data, which suggests that these tests are unsuitable for asymptomatic screening and have been ever thus, and are not endorsed as sensitive to the prevailing delta variant. On 15 March, in a tweet to UK firms Omega Diagnostics and Mologic, Lord Bethell, the Minister for innovation and public health, promised 2 million daily lateral flow—
I was sitting on the Back Benches earlier listening to a lot of the debate and deciding on how I would open my remarks on this most important of topics, and then my hon. Friend the Member for Airdrie and Shotts (Anum Qaisar- Javed) got to her feet and rightly highlighted the Nolan principles—the seven principles of public life—with which we should all be familiar. I am sure some Conservative Members are not overly familiar with them, given their record. It made me think about what the public expect from their politicians, and the key to that is of course trust. In Scotland, in my lifetime, trust has changed in politics and politicians. The Labour party was once the panacea of politics in Scotland; it was where we all wanted to be, but of course it then took us into an illegal war in Iraq and that trust was eroded. The Liberal Democrats had much support in Scotland and had the trust of a lot of younger people, but that trust was eroded when the coalition Government U-turned on tuition fees, something they gleefully supported.
The question of trust in the Conservatives in Scotland in my lifetime is a difficult one, because they have not won an election in Scotland since 1955. There is a particular reason for that, and it goes to the heart of the debate here today: the people of Scotland simply do not trust them, and the situation in relation to covid contracts is a perfect example of why the people of Scotland do not trust them.
We heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) about the endless list of contracts awarded by the Government that have gone to their friends, family, donors and pub landlords, who have all managed to make a quick buck out of this pandemic—incidentally, I should add that that is taxpayers’ money, before Conservative Members forget. We must not break the trust that people should have in us, but Conservatives simply do not care.
As my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) said earlier when she eviscerated the Government in relation to their record on covid contracts, it is not just that these contracts have been handed out from a dodgy perspective—it is not just that they have gone to people with no expertise or to companies made up on the hoof—but that two of them have now been found to have been awarded unlawfully, and one of them in particular.
There was a particular moment in this debate when we were told that none of this was to do with Scottish independence and we should not be talking about that, but one of those contracts was awarded on the basis of polling the views of the people of Scotland and their attitudes to the constitution. Shame on Conservative Members, because that is not how public money should have been used during this pandemic. Imagine the indignation, the anger, the rightful fury of the people of Scotland if it had been the Scottish Government who had done just that. It is an appalling use of public money, and Conservative Members should be ashamed of having done that.
My hon. Friend is making a very powerful speech, but it is even worse than he has outlined. We know this spending took place—it was admitted in court by an official from the Cabinet Office—yet last week in this House the Government sought to continue to deny that it happened, and we have not had one word of contrition or an acceptance that this happened; now is the opportunity for the Government to do so.
My right hon. Friend makes an important point, because there have been opportunities, not just last week but throughout our debate today, for Conservative Members to stand up and clarify exactly why it happened, but they have failed to do so. It is incumbent upon the Minister to do so when she follows me in this debate.
But if the Conservatives are unwilling to do that, they should be willing to do one other thing: finally agree that a public inquiry must take place. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Macclesfield (David Rutley) says that it is. When is it happening? Is it happening now? It should happen now. Some Conservative Members argue that it is not happening now because we are still in the middle of the pandemic, but one of them said today that the emergency is over. So if not now, then when? The hon. Member for Macclesfield is wearing his mask; in two weeks, he will not have to. We will be told that the pandemic is almost over at that point. Yet the Government will not start a public inquiry because they are afraid of accountability, transparency and the consequences for them in the polls.
Ultimately, the people are watching—in particular, the people of Scotland. We will be at a crossroads once again in the not-too-distant future in relation to the constitutional settlement on these islands. The people of Scotland will have the opportunity to decide their future once again. Is this incompetent, sleazy and corrupt Government the limit of their ambitions? Absolutely not, and when they have the opportunity to decide, they will choose to take a different path. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Craig Williams) shakes his head. If he is not in agreement, he can get his Prime Minister to go to the polls any day, any time, and the people of Scotland will show him an alternative way.
It is not just about the cronyism; it is also about the handling of the pandemic. I have been appalled by some of the remarks from Government Members in relation to the situation in Scotland at the moment. We even had a Member at the back blaming it on Scotland fans going to the football. Of course, the only people who were not allowed to travel in the UK were football fans. I find the remarks that we have heard appalling.
The hon. Member had the opportunity to say what he said earlier, and he can reflect upon it. The truth of the matter is that the situation in Scotland is as it is because Government Members let the Johnson variant in. They brought the delta variant to our shores. They could have closed the door, and they chose not to.
On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Could you advise me, as you did my hon. Friend the Member for West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine (Andrew Bowie), how I correct the record? I did not at all blame Scottish fans. I said that personally I was happy for them to travel and to celebrate. The point I made, sir, was that SNP Members were saying that it was our fault that Scotland now has the highest rate of covid in Europe, but had they wanted to do something they could have stopped fans travelling.
The record is clear, and the hon. Member should reflect on his remarks. When the Scottish people look at it in totality—the cronyism, the corruption, the mishandling of the pandemic, and the bringing of the Johnson variant to our shores—they will say that they have had enough. The people of Scotland will vote for independence.
I thank all Members who have spoken in the debate and I associate myself with the remarks and the tributes that have been paid to all those who have lost their lives, and the incredible work that so many have done to help in the pandemic. I was particularly moved by the story of the twin brother of my hon. Friend the Member for Bury South (Christian Wakeford). My twin brother started the pandemic as cabin crew for Virgin Atlantic, and in fact still works for it, but he volunteered at the Nightingale Hospital London and then retrained as a phlebotomist to help with the blood plasma work and antibody work for the NHS. I am incredibly proud of him, of all my constituents and of everyone across the country who has done such an amazing job in the pandemic.
At the heart of all the speeches have been core questions of those in public life—that we should take responsibility, fulfil our duty and act in the public interest. This debate is the latest in a long line of debates and urgent questions on this topic. The Minister for Prevention, Public Health and Primary Care, my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St Edmunds (Jo Churchill), set out yet again the facts and figures, but I remind the House that we are talking about goods and services that included 32 billion items of personal protective equipment and 15,000 ventilators with enormous numbers of component parts. It was a massive and highly complex procurement at a time when the rest of the world was doing the same. Against that backdrop, less than 1% of that PPE was not fit for purpose. I pay tribute to all those who made that happen.
We were focused on getting the right spec in the right volumes to the right people in the right timeframe. We followed up thousands of offers of help and the same processes were applied to all expressions of interest. Although SNP Members have collective amnesia, they were on the daily calls and fully know the nature of the hotlines that we set up. All this information is in the public domain and subject to scrutiny. Procurement rules were not suspended. The efforts made and the motivation behind them were recognised by many public bodies that hold us to account. They were recognised by the National Audit Office in its November report and even in the judgment in respect of Public First. Are there lessons that could be learned? Yes. Could we have been better prepared? Yes. Were we late with our paperwork? Yes—but as a procurement officer at the Cabinet Office said, “I’d rather be late with my paperwork than a nurse go without PPE.”
We have been subject to an enormous amount of scrutiny: two PACAC reports; 15 Public Accounts Committee reports; one Treasury report; one report from the independent auditor; three Boardman reports; one review from the Committee on Standards in Public Life; one review from the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards; one review from the House of Lords Commissioner for Standards; two reports from the Information Commissioner’s Office; and one joint inquiry from the Health and Social Care Committee and the Science and Technology Committee. All those, as well as the inquiry that the Prime Minister has announced. We are also accountable before the law; it is ironic that I cannot talk about many of the contracts people would be interested in because they are subject to legal proceedings.
I always take pleasure in taking part in SNP debates; I have done a few and am beginning to notice a pattern. I have been called here previously to defend the UK’s position on jobs, while the SNP has dismissed the 545,000 Scottish jobs that are reliant on Scotland’s being part of the UK; I have been called here to discuss the importance of hypothetical EU funding mechanisms, while the SNP dismisses the very real United Kingdom dividend to the taxpayers of Scotland of £2,000 per person; and in another debate the SNP sought to be the champions of democracy while they ignored the result of two referendums. Although it might be a surprise to some that, in a week when we have had more revelations about the Scottish Government’s own lack of financial propriety and literacy, the SNP has called a debate on such schemes, it is not a surprise to me: I think it shows admirable consistency, as well as a complete lack of self-awareness with a large helping of assumed piety.
In addition to the many things we have done in government to improve transparency and procurement, let me tell the SNP and the House what we have not done. We did not hire to run our testing service, at the cost of £10 million, a firm that promptly furloughed its staff; the SNP did. We did not ignore firms that offered PPE to NHS Scotland; the SNP did. We did not provide guarantees to a company to the tune of £5 million per job to be secured—yes, £5 million per job—and then fail to secure those jobs; the SNP did. We did not secure loans without due diligence; the SNP did. Our National Audit Office did not say that we had no framework for working with private companies and, indeed, needed urgently to establish one; Audit Scotland did say that of the Scottish Government. We are not having to face replacing lost public funds from capital budgets—money earmarked to build schools and hospitals; the SNP is.
We did not ignore recommendations made by our auditing body, unlike the SNP, which has been criticised for ignoring Audit Scotland’s reports for the past three years; and we did not ignore inward investors who wanted to put their own money into Scotland and instead give preference to another firm that could do so only with public funds, as the media report this week.
If SNP Members want to start to gain some credibility on these matters, I suggest two things. First, they should implement the recommendations of their own scrutiny bodies and place information on deals, guarantees and dealings with private companies—including in respect of the Gupta Family Group—in the public domain.
Secondly, I want SNP Members to think about the context in which we are having this debate. This week, we learned that Scotland contains six of the 10 places with the highest infection rates in Europe. On average, Scotland’s schoolchildren have missed 119 days of schooling in this pandemic, and those from deprived backgrounds even more so. A massive 216,000 operations have not taken place in NHS Scotland. We have a huge catch-up job to do, and we must ensure that we can keep a vaccine programme on track.
We all face these issues and challenges, and we will meet them better if we meet them together. For our part, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will continue to engage with Scottish colleagues. Our four-nation NHS will continue to work together, as will our chief medical officers. My fellow Ministers and I—all comprehensive school educated, by the way—will come to this House to be held to account, and we will continue to reject the distracting, delusional and divisive debate from the SNP. We will do the responsible thing. We know our duty to the Scottish people, and we will always be guided by what is in their interest. I hope that, one day, the SNP will do the same.
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.