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Transparency in Government Contracts: Covid-19

Volume 689: debated on Thursday 11 February 2021

What steps the Government are taking to help increase transparency in procurement of Government contracts as part of the covid-19 response. (912178)

The Government already have robust processes in place for spending public money fairly and achieving value for money for the taxpayer. We recently published detailed proposals for new and improved procurement rules in the Green Paper that I mentioned earlier, and these proposals include specific measures to strengthen transparency through the commercial lifecycle, from planning through to procurement, contract award, performance and completion.

Last week, the Government’s own legal representatives admitted that they had breached procurement law by persistently failing to publish details of covid-19 contracts. The Good Law Project could also expose the wholesale failure to comply with obligations of transparency, and questions remain over the £500 million-worth of taxpayers’ money spent on personal protective equipment deals with companies that are Tory donors. Does the Minister agree that this is reflective of the Government’s failed response to the pandemic and that this lack of accountability has completely damaged confidence and trust in the Government?

I do not quite agree with that. It is fair to say that we do need to be vigilant when it comes to the use of public money and the awarding of contracts, but it is the case that, if we look at, for example, personal protective equipment and other goods that were sourced during the course of the covid pandemic, 99.5% of the goods that were sourced were operational and effective. We were also procuring at speed. There were suggestions from across the House as to some of the companies that we should have contracts with. Not all of those suggestions were necessarily absolutely spot on, but what we did do was to ensure that we prioritised those companies that were capable of meeting the needs of the hour.

The Institute for Government last week highlighted that 99% of the Government’s covid contracts had not gone out to tender. Does the Minister agree that this cannot continue and only leads to suspicion about the nature of the awards and who is getting them? Will he tell the House when the Government intend to wind down the extensive use of these extraordinary procurement powers? Can he give a date?

Again, let me welcome a new member to the shadow Cabinet Office team, and I look forward to working with the hon. Lady and congratulate her on her promotion. It is the case, of course, that we want best practice to apply in all procurement, and the recent Boardman report that the Cabinet Office commissioned emphasises some changes that we can make in order to ensure even greater effectiveness and transparency. At the beginning of the covid pandemic, when there was a global demand for personal protective equipment, we used perfectly legitimate, well-understood expedited practices. There were, as I mentioned earlier, a number of suggestions from across the House, including from Labour MPs, of companies and firms that could help. It was important that we looked at those with speed and expedition in order to ensure that those who were capable, as many were, of providing us with the equipment that we needed were able to get that equipment on to the NHS frontline as quickly as possible.