Skip to main content

Emergency Covid Contracts

Volume 813: debated on Thursday 1 July 2021

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Tuesday 29 June.

“I am grateful for the chance to address the House about the Government’s use of emergency Covid contracts. I have previously responded to debates on this issue with as much detail and candour as I have been able to provide as someone who came to this brief last June and who has tried subsequently to understand what happened in the early months of the pandemic.

The right honourable Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Ian Blackford) will know that all corners of our country have worked together to tackle Covid. The public have all too often seen division between different regional authorities but, in truth, close collaboration with the devolved Administrations has been at the heart of our pandemic response, enabling swift policy action such as the rollout of the vaccine programme UK-wide, the furlough scheme and a rapid increase in testing capacity.

At the beginning of the pandemic, over 13 million items of personal protective equipment were distributed to the devolved Administrations. Throughout the pandemic, the UK Government and the devolved Administrations have worked side by side on sourcing and supply of PPE such as FFP3 masks, and they continue to work together on meeting future demands on frontline staff. The existing procurement rules rightly allow the Government to procure at speed at times of emergency under the Public Contracts Regulations 2015. The rules predate Covid-19, and there was no need for suspension or relaxation in order for them to be used. None the less, I understand and welcome questions that right honourable and honourable Members have about Covid contracts, because how we spend taxpayers’ money matters very deeply to public trust.

It is true to say that the Government faced a number of challenges at the height of the pandemic, and we should be open about those. It is incumbent on all of us to understand not only the kinds of pressures that were on the system, but some of the shortcomings that desperately need to be addressed. That being the case, the Government are already adapting their commercial guidance and work. Following the first, independent Boardman review of procurement processes, looking at a small number of contracts in the Government Communication Service, 24 out of 28 recommendations have already been implemented, and the remainder will be met by the end of the calendar year. Following the second, wider Boardman review, which looked at PPE, ventilators, test and trace, vaccines and food parcels across Government, 28 further recommended improvements were identified, and progress on those is under way. Our Green Paper on transforming public procurement also sets out proposals to update the rules on procuring in times of extreme emergency or crisis.

Let me also briefly address the issue of government polling during the pandemic. The Government regularly undertake research to support policy development, which includes work related to the impact of Covid in areas across the UK. It is the sign of a responsible Government to understand the public’s views on how best to keep people safe to recover from the pandemic and to ensure that we will continue to deliver for all parts of the United Kingdom.”

The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, and the noble Baroness, Lady Wheatcroft, have withdrawn, so after the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, the noble Baroness, Lady Brinton, will be followed by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke.

My Lords, we are learning more day by day, are we not? In addition to a VIP fast lane for contracts, we know that Health Ministers had at least 27 undeclared meetings, including with potential contractors, some of whom then went on to win handsome contracts. Why did these meetings take place without civil servants being present, both to advise and to minute? How much did the Permanent Secretary know about this and what advice was given? Most importantly, has this practice now stopped?

My Lords, I believe the noble Baroness is referring to meetings that took place within the Department of Health and Social Care. I am advised that those meetings were not declared or reported simply because of an administrative error, which has been corrected. Therefore, the implication that this was something intended to hide meetings which were obviously involved in seeking to respond to the Covid crisis and to encourage people, as I understand it, to be involved with assisting the national effort is wrong. Those meetings were regular meetings that took place within the department; they simply were not reported, through an administrative error. As to the specific details of the meetings, although I acknowledge the responsibility to answer on behalf of the Government, I would have to refer to the Department of Health and Social Care for details of their content.

My Lords, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde: to make one error with a Covid contract is unfortunate; two looks like carelessness but four is suspicious. Can the Minister explain why the meeting of the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, with David Meller, a £60,000 donor to the Conservative Party, was not published on time in his ministerial meetings schedule? Why was that meeting incorrectly marked as being about testing materials, when in fact it was about the supply of PPE? Why was Meller Designs, which has no background in PPE supply, awarded an £86 million contract without any competition? And why was that contract not published on time? This is far from an isolated example. Surely these repeated breaches of ministerial and procurement rules need urgent and independent investigation now.

My Lords, I said in my previous answer that I am not equipped, at this notice, to answer specific questions on specific meetings in another department about which allegations are being made. What I will say to the noble Baroness, and to everyone, is that an extraordinary effort was made, and was required of government by the country—and by opposition parties, as a matter of fact—to procure material that was needed to address the Covid crisis. While criticism is made of the alleged fast-track process of urgent procurement procedures, the absolute priority was to save lives, and those procedures were in line with procurement policy. There was extreme urgency, and indeed the Government’s case that emergency procurement regulations could be used because of the extreme urgency of the Covid-19 pandemic was upheld by a judge in the High Court in a recent case.

My Lords, I hope that the Government will seek to establish why there have been these administrative errors and give a full report to both Houses. I recognise that the Government had to act urgently in the circumstances in which they found themselves, but I see no reason why they needed to break existing rules. The previous Secretary of State used a personal mobile in a way that was in contravention of all the guidance given to him. There is no reason why he should not have used the official mobile. Can the Minister tell me whether the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, has been having private conversations on his mobile? Has this been investigated? If not, why not? The public need to know what is going on. If there is nothing to be worried about, let us bring it out into the open and the Government will be cleared—there will be a smell continuing if they will not investigate these issues.

My Lords, the matter of the letting of contracts has been reviewed by many people and many reviews. The Boardman first review covered communications contracts, and 28 of its recommendations are complete, as of today. The Boardman second review covered areas of PPE, ventilators, vaccines, et cetera. Work is under way to implement those recommendations. The NAO found no irregularities or potential conflicts of interest involving Ministers in its report up to 31 July. I think the background is a little less perfervid than is described. As far as email is concerned, of course Ministers should have a care. All Ministers are aware of the guidance around email use. Government guidance is that official devices, email accounts and communication applications should be used for communicating classified information, but Ministers have other lives—parliamentary lives and so on—and other forms of communication may be used in conducting government business. As for my noble friend Lord Bethell, he spoke on this matter in the House on Tuesday, so I refer the noble Lord to his comments; obviously, he is best equipped to answer those kinds of charges.

My Lords, I think that, when the final inquest on this affair is ended, we will find that the Civil Service also was not up to it in certain areas when it came to commissioning contracts. Ministers undoubtedly cut corners. I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, the other day when he was here, and he said he had obeyed the Nolan principles. I want to ask the Minister whether the Nolan principles specifically forbid the use of private emails, because I am not sure that they do. If they do not, will he try to ensure that the Nolan principles are brought up to date, to reflect where we are and modern technology?

My Lords, the Nolan principles arise from outside government. I was there at the start of the Nolan process and recall that it arose from recommendations that were requested by the then Prime Minister. I do not believe the principles necessarily cover emails—I may be wrong—but there are other areas of guidance to Ministers; there are duties under the Ministerial Code and so on. Obviously, Ministers must have an eye to all of those in their daily work.

I think the Minister was quite correct that an extraordinary effort was made. My concern is that that effort was focused on political friends and actual friends. It has been confirmed, as the Minister said, that a VIP lane, or high-priority route, existed for PPE offers referred by Ministers, MPs or officials. Will the Minister confirm that there was also a fast track for test and trace offers if they came from a Minister/private office? What percentage of those politically connected offers were successful in the triage process?

My Lords, I am advised that the claims that have been made in this respect are completely false and that there was in fact no high-priority lane for testing suppliers. All offers of testing went through the same robust assurance checks, and there was no separate so-called fast-track process—that is the clear advice that I have been given. Any discussions relating to government business were fed back to officials in the usual way. It does not matter what I think, but I assure the House that we as a Government take the impartiality and integrity of government procurement processes extremely seriously. When I say it does not matter what I think, I am saying that I think that and the whole Government think that, so I think I can set the noble Baroness’s fears at ease on that score.