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Government Contracts: Randox Laboratories

Volume 708: debated on Thursday 10 February 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, if he will make a statement on the process for awarding Government contracts to Randox Laboratories Ltd, following the release of documents in response to the Humble Address of 17 November 2021.

In response to the greatest public health emergency that we have faced for a generation, the Government engaged with many businesses—big and small—as part of an unprecedented national effort. On 3 February, we responded to the Humble Address and laid the documents before the House. We are committed to transparency and helping the House perform its valuable scrutiny, and the Department dedicated significant resources to reviewing about 11,000 records to identify the 35 relevant documents. They show how we took every possible step to build the huge infrastructure for testing that we now have in this country—the biggest testing programme in Europe. The programme has done so much to stop the spread of this deadly virus and given us all hope that we can learn to live with covid-19.

Randox has been globally recognised in the diagnostics industry for nearly 40 years and even as early as March 2020 had lab-based PCR testing capacity for covid-19. Robust rules and processes are in place to ensure that all contracts are awarded in line with procurement regulations and transparency guidelines, and that any potential conflicts of interest with respect to commercial matters are appropriately managed. Direct awards, such as in this case, are permitted by public contract regulations for reasons of extreme urgency brought about by unforeseeable events. I am sure that no hon. Member would deny that the situation was one of extreme urgency.

As the House would expect, Ministers of course have a role in approving contracts, but their approval relies on the impartial evaluation conducted by civil servants. I reinforce to hon. Members that Ministers are not involved in the assessment and evaluation process for contracts, and that the documents given to the House show no evidence that any of those principles have been breached. Instead, they plainly show that we did everything in our power to keep this country safe at a time of crisis, as the British people would expect.

The Randox files published last week, later than the Government said they would be—that was not acknowledged by the Minister—paint a picture of a Conservative Government who are simply unfit for office. That Conservative Government played fast and loose with public money. They handed Randox a £133 million contract without competition. The Minister talked about every possible step being taken in testing infrastructure, but let us remember what happened. Randox tried to requisition equipment from universities that, because of the files that were released, we now know had to be stopped. Vital tests in care homes were voided, and 750,000 tests were recalled. The Government’s response was to hand it a second contract worth £350 million, again without competition.

We now know that both the civil service chief operating officer and the Minister, Lord Agnew, sounded a warning alarm. That Minister said that the Department was paying “dramatically over the odds” for Randox’s services, but the Government ploughed on. Why was he ignored, and did the Department do what he asked, and introduce a competitive tender process by March 2021? There does not seem to have been the operation of robust rules that the Minister referred to, or an impartial evaluation. Was that put into place or not?

Secondly, there are still no minutes of that crucial meeting on 9 April, just a rough draft email sent seven months later. Two years on, the Department cannot even explain who was there. We now know that Health Ministers held another four meetings that were never declared in the Register. How many more secret meetings were there?

That brings us to Owen Paterson who, as we now know from these papers, is called “O-Patz”—really, Mr Speaker, is there any clearer sign that we are in the twilight days of this Government? The files show that this former MP, a paid advocate for Randox, was arranging meetings with the Health Secretary in the Division Lobby, a place to which only MPs have access, and where it is impossible for civil servants to join them—hardly the appropriate management of commercial interests that the Minister referred to. Will she explain what was agreed in those discussions, and will she correct her Department’s claim that there is no evidence of any breach of the rules?

I make no apologies for how we as a country rose to the challenge that we faced in early 2020. I think that sometimes we forget what this country—indeed, the world—was going through. We must remember those days, and I am sure that hon. Members across the House will agree that what we have put in place since will ensure that we can cope far better in the future. We do need to learn lessons, and we will learn lessons.

However, one of the most important lessons that I take from when we worked together is that we can do incredible things. The NHS has been phenomenal, our hospitals have been phenomenal, and local government has been phenomenal, as has the private sector. We have all worked together and we have really worked hard, and that is why we can now see that—with the vaccine programme as well, along with the therapeutics and antivirals—we are combating this virus. We could not have come this far without everybody working together, and this country’s testing structure has been crucial in helping us to get through this time. I would like to take this opportunity to thank everybody who has been involved in this huge effort both at testing sites and working in the lab, and everybody who has come forward to get tested to keep their loved ones safe.

I would like to respond to some of the questions posed by the hon. Lady. My Department did inform you, Mr Speaker, that we were unable to meet our initial deadline for responding to the Humble Address. That was mainly due to the surge of omicron at that time, and the way that my Department had to respond to ensure that we kept our citizens safe from that variant surge.

The hon. Lady raised the issue of the Randox kits that were recalled in the summer of 2020. It was on 15 July that year that NHS Test and Trace was notified that some kits produced by Randox laboratories may not have met the required standard for coronavirus testing. As a precautionary measure, while this was investigated further, NHS Test and Trace paused the use of these Randox test kits with immediate effect. It was on 7 August that the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency instructed Randox to recall the Randox covid-19 home testing kits with a specific catalogue number. That decision was taken as a precautionary measure to prevent any further use of these Randox tests. The risk to safety was low, and test results from Randox kits were not affected. An independent assessment in June 2020 had placed Randox ahead of other laboratories, and Randox was meeting its delivery targets by September 2020. We were very precautionary in the measures we put in place to ensure that we were protecting everybody at that time.

I did note the point of order that the hon Lady made this week about the meeting on 9 April 2020, which she has raised again today. The note was taken during the meeting, and it was saved in a draft folder of the private secretary who took the note. When the Department received a freedom of information request for the minute of the meeting, the private secretary found the minute and shared it. For clarity, “note” and “minute” mean an official record of a meeting; the words mean the same from that point of view.

I reiterate that there are robust rules and processes in place that ensure that contracts are awarded in accordance with the public procurement regulations of 2015, and that Ministers are not involved in the assessment and evaluation process for contracts at all. That is a really important principle that the Government work on now, and have worked on probably for decades, and that principle will never be broken.

You will remember, Mr Speaker, as the right hon. Member for Chorley, and every Member in this House will remember, the enormous pressure we were all put under, barely two years ago, to try to find businesses and organisations that could quickly produce much-needed equipment and services to assist the people of our country during an unprecedented global pandemic. Can I put on record my appreciation of the enormous work that the Government did, and does the Minister agree with me that, had it not been for their work, we would not have been able to protect and save the lives of so many people in our country?

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s recognition, remembering where we were barely two years ago, of how we have moved on since then. We have put in place a test and trace programme that is renowned across Europe and across the world, and we have a world-leading vaccination programme as well as the amazing work done on therapeutics and antivirals. Coming together in the national effort has been vital, which is why I make no apologies for my Department’s looking at every opportunity to ensure that everybody could get tested who needed to be tested, that everybody could be jabbed who needed to be jabbed, and that the right therapeutics were in place to keep people safe.

These secret communications reveal that Paterson corresponded directly with the then Health Secretary, the right hon. Member for West Suffolk (Matt Hancock), in January 2020 about the services that Randox could provide. Then, without competition, Government contracts were issued to provide Randox with equipment if it struggled to get it, offering loans of equipment that were drafted on the same day as the emails were exchanged. Nice work if you can get it, eh? In the exchanges, Paterson repeatedly noted that he was a paid consultant to Randox, but the Government seemingly overlooked that fact for months until The Guardian revealed he had lobbied for Randox to get the contracts. Internally, Paterson then asked the Health Minister to kill the story once and for all. Can the Minister explain to me how that is not institutional corruption? Nobody trusts this Government. They are rule breakers and system cheaters. Does this whole case with Randox not just prove that the Government are interested only in helping their friends?

Once again, I make no apologies for the Department working to look at every opportunity to make sure that we had the right mechanisms in place to keep our country safe. As I said earlier, Randox was a recognised company in the diagnostic industry. The hon. Gentleman talks about how he perceives the Department working. The fact is that we have released all the documents. As I said earlier, the 11,000 documents were looked at to identify what was relevant. We have been very open in putting that information in the House of Commons Library and responding to the Humble Address.

The documents seem to show that there was a meeting with the former Member for North Shropshire and the former Secretary of State for Health and Social Care in the Division Lobby. Will the Minister respond to the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds)? Did that meeting take place?

The evidence has been put in the Library and the information is there. I want to make it clear that my Department went through as much evidence as it could. As I said earlier, we were at the start of a pandemic; nobody had ever seen anything like it before. I make no apologies for making sure that we had everything in place to keep the country safe.

Oh dear; I almost do not know where to start. I have to be very careful, because the Standards Committee may well want to return to some of these issues and I will not stray into that territory. There is no rule that says that a Minister cannot be inappropriately lobbied, but there are rules saying that Members are not allowed to engage in paid advocacy. We may need to look at the rules to make sure there is a better way of dealing with this issue. I am not making any allegations about the Health Secretary or anybody else. I just wonder: when the Minister voted to protect Owen Paterson on 3 November, did she know about all of this or not?

I respect the hon. Gentleman and I look forward to the outcome of the work of his Committee. The code of conduct for MPs rightly remains a matter for Parliament. Today, we are talking about the Humble Address that my Department responded to, quite rightly. There are lessons that can be learned. We are now looking at making sure we have mechanisms in place for the future. Standards are in place in the House and it is quite right that hon. Members meet those standards. I look forward to the outcome of your Committee’s work to make sure we have a rounded approach and that the situation with Mr Paterson does not happen again.

It really is quite remarkable: what the Minister has outlined in her response is what should have happened during the course of the pandemic and what has been proven not to have happened. Instead, the situation has been epitomised by Tory donors receiving billions of pounds in contracts, Ministers losing mobile phones when their Department and the law have tried to find out what has gone on, and decent companies with great experience in this field—I am thinking of Arco up in the north-east—being left with next to nothing. How can the Minister stand there and defend the indefensible?

As I said, we follow the Public Contracts Regulations 2015, and in procuring goods and services we are committed to fair and reasonable timetables and procedures, and encourage open competition wherever possible. However, we were in the middle of a pandemic.

Let me go through the process in a bit more detail. Awarding bodies use three main procurement routes in awarding contracts. First, there are direct awards without competition using emergency procurement rules, and I am sure hon. Members will appreciate that we were in an emergency situation. Secondly, there are direct awards using variations to existing contracts. The third route is awards from framework agreements—both direct awards and mini competitions—where suppliers have previously undergone a competitive process to be appointed to the framework. As we move out of the pandemic, we will obviously get back to business as usual and use these other mechanisms.

I am sure that I am not the only one in the House who is finding this utterly excruciating. The Minister cannot stand at the Dispatch Box and say in one breath that she makes no apology and in the next breath say that the Government are going to learn lessons. The right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) asked her a simple and direct question about the meeting on 5 February. Did it happen—yes or no?

The chief operating officer of the civil service requested the restoration of competitive tendering by March 2021. Will the Minister confirm that that did not happen, tell us how many more contracts were issued without tender after that date, and explain why the emergency procurement rules are still in use almost a year after the deadline?

There is a lot of detail in that question. If I may, I will write to the hon. Lady with answers.

I am finding this really rather difficult, for the same reasons as my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson). Has the Minister actually read what has been laid in the Library? If she has, will she enlighten us as to what it says about the meeting in the Lobby?

Randox cashed in on covid contracts; its profits jumped from £12 million to £50 million, and as the money rolled in the company was re-registered in the Isle of Man. Does the Minister think that tax on UK covid contracts should be paid in the UK?

That is really for the Treasury to look at, but I come back again to the fact that Randox was an established company in diagnostic testing and that at the time we looked at which businesses could deliver our testing requirements. I am delighted that since then we have built up our own additional testing structure; in fact, later today I will be visiting the Rosalind Franklin Laboratory in Leamington Spa to see the amazing testing work that we have set up there under the UK Health Security Agency.

There were four meetings between Health Ministers and Randox that were not registered. Does the Minister accept that, if she had taken part in unregistered meetings of that kind, she would have breached the ministerial code?

This is agonising and frankly embarrassing. The Minister has been sent here to state repeatedly that we were in an emergency situation and a global pandemic, and she makes no apology. Does this scandal not just further prove that this Government are interested only in helping their friends to get richer?

I reiterate what I said earlier: we have robust rules and processes in place to ensure that contracts are awarded in accordance with the Public Procurement Regulations 2015, which I have also outlined in further detail. Ministers are not involved in the assessment and evaluation process for contracts.