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Covid-19: Consultants

Volume 686: debated on Thursday 17 December 2020

What plans he has to review the value for money of the Government’s use of consultants during the covid-19 outbreak. (910438)

What plans he has to review the value for money of the Government’s use of consultants during the covid-19 outbreak. (910450)

What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of Government outsourcing during the covid-19 outbreak. (910457)

With your permission, Mr Speaker, I will croak through these Questions together.

Working effectively with the private sector, including external consultants, has undoubtedly helped us to address some of the huge challenges the pandemic served up, but contracting authorities must extract value for money for taxpayers when working in this way. The outsourcing playbook updated in June includes many key policies to improve the quality of contracts in place with industry, but also to build internal civil service capability to reduce our reliance on external consultants.

The National Audit Office’s investigation into Government procurement during the pandemic reflects the chaotic culture of outsourcing across Government. Contracts have been awarded after work has begun without competition and without any meaningful due diligence checks. How can the public have any trust in the Government’s response if the Government are not transparent with them?

The National Audit Office set out a number of recommendations that we will be looking into, but the idea that we did not need to contract under emergency terms during the pandemic is inaccurate, and there are rules in place to allow us to do that. We have been slow to publish contracts because we experienced some problems, which I set out in the Westminster Hall debate last week, but we now have 100% of those contracts for the relevant bodies.

The Good Law Project estimates that £1.6 billion-worth of contracts for covid-19 services have yet to be published, and details of contracts are consistently being published late. This is despite the fact that there is a legal requirement for those details to be published no more than 30 days after the contract is awarded. The Government are clearly failing in their duties. What is the Minister going to do to improve transparency in Government procurement?

We have now published in full all the contracts for personal protective equipment. There are some difficulties in doing that, which, as I say, I set out last week in the Westminster Hall debate. This week we have launched a Green Paper on public procurement, and we will be introducing a number of changes to our existing procurement regime when the transition period is over, which will improve the way we do things in future.

The Minister mentions the Green Paper on procurement, which the Government published this week. The foreword to the Green Paper acknowledges the need to

“strengthen our longstanding and essential principles…of transparency, ensuring value for money and fair treatment of suppliers.”

With serious concerns being raised about the multiple contracts awarded by the Government, with no competition, to companies with strong connections to the Tory party and no clear track record of delivery, will the Minister put those warm words into action now and extend the Freedom of Information Act to all private companies, such as Serco, delivering public services?

I am not sure what the implications of extending FOI would be in terms of commercial confidentiality, but I am happy to look into that for the hon. Lady. The Green Paper is there to reassure and to deal with some of the problems we have had during the pandemic, where we have either had a full-fat tender that takes far too long in an emergency situation, or a situation of direct award. I am happy to look into her suggestion.

Let us head back to Norwich South and hope Alan Partridge does not get in the way of me hearing Clive Lewis.

Thank you, Mr Speaker; I can be heard at last. Given that this Government have doled out £10.5 billion of our money without any competition, according to the National Audit Office, and frittered hundreds of millions on consultants and individuals whose main qualification seems to be that they are friends with members of this Government, does the Minister agree that in any other part of the world it would be called corruption, plain and simple?

I would not agree. It is very important to understand that every contract went through the same eight-stage process, where it was looked into. The contracts were done on the grounds of commercial sense, rather than anything to do with any connections. As the NAO report said, Ministers declared all interests and there was no evidence of any wrongdoing.