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Personal Protective Equipment: Procurement

Volume 807: debated on Thursday 19 November 2020

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will (1) outline the transparency and reporting requirements of the procurement of personal protective equipment, (2) detail the steps taken to register any potential conflicts of interest in that process, and (3) publish all information about any such contracts awarded, including payments for intermediaries; and if not, why not.

My Lords, the National Audit Office report on Covid-19 procurement activity, published yesterday, recognised how we needed to procure new PPE contracts with extreme urgency in order to save lives. We are committed to publishing all the information about these contracts. Robust due diligence processes were in place. The report makes clear that there were no conflict-of-interest issues in procurement decisions. We will respond to the report’s recommendations in due course.

My Lords, I am surprised by the Minister’s reply. The NAO report revealed numerous issues of concern, from lobbying by an adviser to Liz Truss for a transaction in which he had an interest to the creation of a VIP fast track which happened to assist those with connections to senior Conservatives. Some awards were made without tender; some had no written contracts. There was no documented proof of urgency, nor of how to handle conflicts of interest. Awards were made to a pest control firm and £250,000 went to a jewellery company with no PPE experience. Today, we learn of a cannabis research firm with just £6,000 in assets being handed PPE contracts of £33 million.

The Minister has helpfully tweeted that he is going to respond by saying how well people did in responding to the Covid crisis. That is no excuse for improper dealing. Will the Minister say not only that these details will be published but that I and other Members of this House will get that list soon, as the information should have been published within 30 days of the contracts being signed?

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for this opportunity. We take transparency extremely seriously. We share the same values about doing things in the proper way. I stress “the proper way”. The NAO report does not say that the way in which the pandemic was responded to was “improper”, as she suggested. In many ways, the report is supportive of the point that we were facing an unprecedented global pandemic that posed a massive challenge to the entire country. We needed to procure contracts with extreme urgency in order to secure vital supplies. The shadow Health Secretary called on the Government to “move heaven and earth” to get needed PPE to staff. The leader of the Opposition quite rightly called on the Government to get rid of blockages in the system, saying:

“The Government must act to ensure supplies are delivered.”

We did everything we could to do that and I am proud of the achievement of those involved.

My Lords, the report does not make for happy reading, to put it mildly. There is a perception that the reality is some way away from where the Minister thinks it is. That may be fanned by the press, but the image of a tawdry chumocracy is to the fore in many newspaper reports. There were five recommendations in this report, all of which would benefit from the disinfectant of sunlight. My question to the Minister is quite simple: will the Government accept, implement and investigate the five recommendations?

I ask my noble friend to look beyond newspapers for his analysis of the report. I take the five recommendations very seriously. They are encouraging and ally absolutely with the Government’s values. We will look at how to implement them in due course.

My Lords, I listened yesterday to the Minister’s response to a similar Question. I accept that Governments were under an incredible strain, but many were better positioned and prepared than we were. Does the Minister have any regrets to which he will own up about the way in which money was handed out to procure PPE?

I have to be careful about what I say because legal proceedings are in place. The noble Lord is right; I do not pretend for a moment that everything was perfect. I have spoken quite candidly—possibly more candidly than I should have—about the challenges that we faced. Not everything was perfect or ran smoothly, and no well-honed machine sprang into life. However, I am proud that we reacted with energy, skill and elan. We made the most of a very difficult and unprecedented situation. I cannot hide my gratitude to those who stood up to help. Offers of help came from all sorts of places. We should be cheering them and not in any way attacking them.

My Lords, I declare my interests as in the register. I welcome the fact that the Minister intends to publish this information. I urge him to do so as rapidly as possible, as my noble friend Lady Hayter has suggested. Perhaps we could refine what sort of information would be desirable. Will the Minister ensure that the names of each of the 144 companies that the National Audit Office says were introduced to the VIP channel by Ministers’ private offices are published? Who authorised their acceptance into that channel? Who are the ultimate beneficial owners of those companies? This is critical. Which Minister made the introduction in each case?

The noble Lord, Lord Triesman, misconstrues the nature of events. The Prime Minister made a number of public calls for help, which resulted in more than 15,000 offers. Of course, those had to be triaged. Not all were credible. Some were helpful and some were well-intentioned but not all were practical. We had to find a way of prioritising the most impactful. Anyone in our position would have done the same. This credible list included senior professional healthcare clinicians; members of former Governments of all parties; leaders of British industry; and all manner of helpful people, some of whom came from completely unexpected places. I should be happy to tell the stories of some of those unexpected offers another time. The noble Lord’s description of the prioritised channel is a misrepresentation. I regret that I cannot proceed as he asks.

My Lords, let us be clear. The issue is not that people stood up; it is what the Government then did to procure goods and services. Yesterday’s National Audit Office report states

“we cannot give assurance that government … mitigated the increased risks … or applied appropriate commercial practices”

at all times. That is technical-speak for not being able to rule out fraud or corruption. How can the Minister stand at the Dispatch Box and say with any credibility that all the rules were carried out and there were no conflicts of interest? Which should we believe, a line from the Dispatch Box or a report from the National Audit Office?

My Lords, I do not really recognise the noble Lord’s technical-speak interpretation of the NAO report. In fact, the report is crystal clear. Yesterday, I quoted from its references to Ministers and conflicts of interest, and I do not think that I need to repeat it: it was crystal clear. However, perhaps I may reassure the noble Lord. I do not pretend for a moment that every single piece of paperwork got done on time during the pandemic—quite the opposite. We rewrote the guidelines on 18 March and reissued them: there is no way that you can jump through the hoops of a normal tendering process when you are in the middle of a massive global land grab. I am not pretending that; I am saying that there were not conflicts of interest, that Ministers were not involved in the procurement decisions and that the nation should be proud of the way in which we responded to the pandemic.

My Lords, what taxpayers will really want is a list of the Covid contracts that went wrong, either because the goods and services were not delivered or because they were not up to standard. They will want to know, in each case, the value of the contract, the amount of public money paid to the contractor, the amount reclaimed by the Government because of failure and the amount recovered for the taxpayer. Will my noble friend agree to produce such a list—eventually, at least—and put it in the Library of the House so that everybody can see it?

I entirely agree with my noble friend. Such lists will be published. Eighty-nine per cent of the contract award notices have already been published under the Official Journal of the EU; I would be glad to send my noble friend a link.

My Lords, in a Written Answer, the Minister confirmed to me that the NHS warehouse for PPE at Daventry has masks made by Medwell Medical Products. It is estimated that a quarter of the workers at its Chinese factory are Uighurs in a facility 3,444 kilometres from Xinjiang, so it is implausible that they went there voluntarily. In his Answer, why did the Minister not name the intermediary company involved? Will he now say whether it was Meheco or another state-owned company, what the value of the deal was, whether our embassy was involved, whether the UK made the deal before or after July—when Medwell was named in reports—and what steps he is taking to ensure that the United Kingdom is not complicit in using Uighur slave labour to produce PPE for the NHS and profits for the Chinese Communist Party?

My Lords, I acknowledge the extremely good work that the noble Lord does on this issue. Of course, no one wants to see Uighur slave labour used to produce PPE for the NHS. On his specific questions, I do not have the details to hand, but I am happy to revisit the Written Answer that I gave him to see whether I can provide any further details.

My Lords, this issue and the report fill me with despair, I must say, as does the fact that it appears that the Government took action almost in a panic. Yes, horrible things happen but Governments should not panic, and there are rules, which should be followed. One could understand an individual who is ill informed and not well educated grabbing a supermarket trolley and filling it with loo rolls, but that is not how Governments should act. There are very clear ways of behaving. When I was in Whitehall and wanted to procure things, I had to go through several hoops. Civil Service rules and the law demanded it, and the fact that we had to do things quickly was not an excuse. Post all this, will we check that Civil Service rules were complied with and that the correct actions were taken that did not break any laws of the land?

I am always grateful for advice from the Ministry of Defence on procurement, which it always manages extremely well. With regard to the work of civil servants, the report speaks for itself. That is the exact purpose of the report.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of a BBC Midlands TV news report earlier this week of a recent meeting at University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust regarding procurement? Those attending that meeting were informed that the DHSC had ceased funding the purchase of PPE by regional NHS trusts and that those trusts would have to purchase PPE directly from NHS Improvement. Further, is he aware that such a decision greatly affects a successful and efficient manufacturer of some 10,000 PPE gowns a week called Wearwell, based in Tamworth, Staffordshire? It will no longer be able to supply the local NHS trust, by which it is recognised and approved as a supplier, as it is not recognised and approved as such by the NHS national framework. Is that situation not completely ridiculous? Will he look into the matter urgently and perhaps write to me?

I am extremely grateful to my noble friend for giving me advance notice of his question. I am aware of the changes in procurement practices in the NHS, which I welcome. They will have a huge impact and protect us in the case of future pandemics. I am also aware of the phenomenal effort by British manufacturers, which have stepped up to the challenge of producing PPE and have, in my view, gone a lot further than anyone expected, producing around 50% of the NHS’s PPE. There have clearly been unintended consequences if this company, Wearwell, has somehow fallen off the procurement list. I would be happy to take a letter from my noble friend and look into the matter.

My Lords, public trust has clearly been lost over PPE procurement and the NAO report. What do the Government plan to do to restore it?

My Lords, I simply do not accept the assumption of that question. I think that the public see a Government who stepped up to an enormous challenge and did their best under very difficult circumstances. Many of the public individually stood up as volunteers and many professionals returned to former jobs to help out. Many businesspeople turned over their capacity, their staff or their focus to help out in the pandemic, and the Government took on a huge amount of support from members of the public. These sweeping assumptions that somehow everything was done in a negative way are very unhelpful and in fact do not chime with the mood of the public at all.