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Covid-19: Conflicts of Interest

Volume 807: debated on Wednesday 18 November 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they made of conflicts of interest before engaging specialist advisers to inform their response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

My Lords, in our nation’s time of need we have been very fortunate to call on the talents of many, including colleagues old and new, some paid and some unpaid. Appointments are considered on merit and, when required, we ask candidates to declare any interests. We assess these on a case-by-case basis, but declaring an interest is not always a barrier to being appointed. There are, however, robust processes in place to manage any conflict. These ensure that no one gains unfairly from advising the Government.

My Lords, can the Minister give a logical reason why a company with no history of supplying PPE that is introduced by a special adviser can be passed from a Minister’s office, be fast-tracked and be 10 times more successful in getting a contract to supply PPE—which sometimes cannot be used because it does not meet the standards—than a company with a solid track record of supplying PPE that has no access to a special adviser or Minister?

My Lords, we are enormously grateful for the very many people who stepped forward to offer help during this time. When the Prime Minister made his public call for help, 16,500 people contacted us with various offers. It was, of course, necessary to triage and prioritise that huge list. In that list there were a great many people who had extensive experience in their area; there were people who were new to the game; there were have-a-go heroes; there were multinational companies. There were also those whose intentions were not as pure as one would hope. We approached each and every one on their merit, and there were official guidelines to guide the procurement processes. We have stuck to those guidelines every step of the way.

Yesterday the Minister said that he had personally made 300 calls to potential suppliers of PPE earlier this year. Not surprisingly, given the report from the National Audit Office today, which the Daily Mail described as devastating, he did not tell us how the lucky recipients of all his calls were chosen. Could the Minister tell us whether one of those calls was to the jewellery designer Michael Saiger, based in Miami, who received more £200 million in contracts from the Minister’s department, paying £21 million to a Spanish fixer? How did Mr Saiger and his jewellery come to the attention of the department? Why were major British companies with well-established global supply chains, which offered to help, ignored?

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for referring to my calls. I would have made a lot more than 300 calls then, because those were extremely difficult times. I would remind him that the NAO report says that we found Ministers had properly declared their interests, and we found no evidence of their involvement in procurement decisions or contract management. Ministers were not involved in procurement decisions; they facilitated the introduction of potential suppliers at a time when there was a massive global crisis. Supplies to this country were being abducted by other countries, supply chains had broken down, the channel tunnel was constrained and the Indian transport system had ground to a halt. Presidents were literally diverting planes in the air with supplies meant for one country and grabbing them for their own. In those circumstances, Ministers and their advisers intervened to get the right supplies to the front line to help those seeking PPE. Those were extremely energetic efforts. I am extremely proud of that work. Procurement decisions were left to civil servants.

My Lords, Ministers have many opportunities to meet a wide range of individuals and organisations in the course of their work, and they have to declare their interests. Is it the department’s HR department or its Ministers who are responsible for ensuring that spads understand both their role and their boundaries, and that they stay within them?

My Lords, there is a very clear code for special advisers. They have line management through the Secretary of State and often on to Downing Street. The role of spads during the pandemic has been exceptional. I pay tribute to the large number of spads who made a huge difference, and I am very proud of the work that they have done.

My Lords, I have a certain sense of déjà vu, since this is almost exactly the same question that was asked yesterday, so I will try not to be repetitive. I know my noble friend is, like me, grateful to those who came forward and freely, pro bono, gave their time, expertise and experience to assist in this terrible crisis. I know he will also, like me, share the view that some people are grubbing around, looking for any dirt they can sling that will deter good public-spirited people from coming forward in future. I have one specific question: could the Minister tell me how long, typically, a procurement process would last if you are looking to get PPE through the Civil Service procurement procedures?

My Lords, my noble friend makes a very good point. I cannot tell him how long it would typically take but I can tell him that if everything went as smoothly as possible, 25 days is the absolute minimum that a procurement process could take. That is why, on 18 March, new guidelines for procurement were put in place. The PPE team converted those into a very diligent eight-step process, the effectiveness of which the NAO has paid tribute to. We have put in place exactly the kind of reasonable processes necessary to respond to a pandemic like this, resulting in the purchase of billions of items of PPE to protect those on the front line of our healthcare.

My Lords, I do not discount the many problems the Minister has talked about, but the displeasure—disgust, even—of the public often arises as a result of the National Audit Office uncovering information reactively, for example. What we need is a more proactive lookout for these problems, either in the Cabinet or the Cabinet Office. If the Minister says it is there, I would suggest that the National Audit Office is saying that it does not work very well.

My Lords, I am not sure that that is what the National Audit Office has said. It has, very reasonably, alighted on the importance of transparency and the declaration of interests, values that any reasonable Minister or public servant would subscribe to. The Cabinet Office itself has played a very energetic role during the entire pandemic, providing the systems, support and people, including contract staff, to make sure those values are upheld.

May I just say to the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, that we supported the Government having the emergency powers to allow them to act quickly but it is also important, even if people are giving their services for free, that they are held properly accountable.

It is rare to be able to return to a question that one feels was unanswered the day before. I asked the Minister if George Pascoe-Watson, the chair of the lobbying company Portland Communications, had signed a confidentiality agreement upon his appointment as a ministerial adviser. I would be grateful if the Minister could specifically answer that question: did George Pascoe-Watson sign a confidentiality agreement when he was appointed? Presumably, that is on the public record. Would the Minister also inform the House if he or any of his officials have had any contact, by any means of communication, with Mr Pascoe-Watson or anyone else at Portland Communications since the Sunday Times published its story online on Saturday evening?

My Lords, the very large number of advisers, both paid and unpaid, were all processed by the department and their paperwork was then handed on to the Cabinet Office for approval. George Pascoe-Watson, as others, was sent both a declaration of interest form, which he filled in and is on record, and a volunteer agreement, which has the Official Secrets Act built into it. His work was covered by that.

My Lords, could the Minister tell the House whether the Government’s anti-corruption champion, John Penrose MP, has been involved in looking at any conflicts of interest or whether he is in danger of having a conflict of interest himself?

My Lords, does my noble friend not accept that the arrival of battalions of advisers, both paid and unpaid, causes confusion within departments about the chain of command? Does he also agree that, as a general principle, the arrival of so many advisers in the Civil Service downgrades the role of the Permanent Secretary as the principal adviser to the Secretary of State?

The noble Lord asks a reasonable question about the management of staff in an epidemic such as this. He is right that these were extremely confusing times that put a huge amount of pressure on civil servants and all those who contributed to our response. I am enormously grateful to civil servants for their work, in particular Sir Chris Wormald, our Permanent Secretary—he played an absolute blinder and is one of the top civil servants of his class—and David Williams, the Second Permanent Secretary of our department. Both were absolutely fantastic.

I am grateful to all who stepped forward, not just at a senior level—from noble Lords who worked with us to people who worked at other levels of our response. It made a huge impact. The arrival of military advisers, consultants, volunteers and business advisers lifted the spirits of the whole organisation and brought with it networks of expertise and energy, which saw a huge amount of collaboration. When I hear a debate such as this and the tone that is sometimes represented in the Chamber, I do not recognise the incredible spirit of energy and collaboration that characterised our response to the pandemic. I cannot help repeating myself: it is something that I am extremely proud of.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. I apologise to the three noble Lords who were unable to ask their supplementary questions.

Sitting suspended.