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Covid-19: Emergency Procurement Powers

Volume 704: debated on Thursday 25 November 2021

Existing procurement rules, which predate covid-19, rightly allow the Government to procure at speed in times of an emergency. The rules are not new and it is for contracting authorities to make their own determinations on when to use them. At the beginning of the pandemic, we issued guidance to set out the options available to Government Departments to buy at pace, bearing in mind the legal framework for procurement. We have since built on that with further guidance on the commercial risks inherent in direct awards. Our “Transforming Public Procurement” Green Paper sets out proposals to update the rules on procuring in times of extreme emergency or crisis, learning from the experience of the pandemic. We will be publishing our response to that consultation shortly.

The use of emergency procurement powers during the covid-19 pandemic has been a murky mess. The process has delivered multiple contracts to Tory party friends and donors, and hundreds of millions of pounds of public money has been spent on equipment that could not be used. The use of such powers might have been justified at the start of the pandemic, but 20 months on there is really no excuse for the continued use of accelerated procurement powers. It is now eight months since the consultation on the Green Paper closed and the Government still have not published a response. When will they end the use of emergency measures, and when will they clean up public procurement?

I do not accept the characterisation that the hon. Lady puts on the matter, and neither does the National Audit Office—it looked at this and said, as we have rehearsed in the Chamber, that it sees no evidence of the sort of the thing that she refers to. On emergency procurement, it is crucial in any society for the Government to be able to purchase items at emergency speed, for example if lives are to be saved as a consequence, or in other types of emergency. That is nothing new. The public interest was best served by being able to act quickly and decisively.

As for the point that the hon. Lady makes about the situation now, the public sector has reduced its use of regulation 32 powers—the emergency procurement powers. Their use peaked between April and June 2020 at the height of the initial wave of the pandemic. In central Government, the use of these powers has reduced by more than two thirds over the six months from April to September 2021 compared with the same period last year. The use of emergency contracts is rapidly declining.

We come now to topical questions; we will have quite a few free hits today, as we are moving on to them rather early.