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Civil Servants: Public Procurement

Volume 807: debated on Thursday 29 October 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what plans they have to ensure that civil servants engaged in public procurement declare any conflict of interest in an accessible public register.

My Lords, there are currently no plans for an accessible public register centralising conflict of interest declarations of civil servants engaged in public procurement. Government departments are required to take appropriate measures to prevent, identify and remedy conflicts of interest in procurement procedures. This includes identifying and addressing situations where civil servants have financial or other interests that might be perceived to compromise their impartiality and independence in the procurement process.

My noble friend will no doubt be aware of the concerns expressed by the National Audit Office about the lack of transparency in the recent procurement of Covid-19 contracts. I hope that he will agree that good governance means good transparency. While I hear what he has said about the current situation, I hope that he shares my concern that public confidence both in the Government and the way government works would benefit more if a register that was openly available to the public was made a matter of urgency.

My Lords, of course I have listened to what my noble friend said. Like her, I have spent a lifetime in public service in different guises and I attach the highest importance to probity in every place and at every level. As she says, the NAO is undertaking an investigation to examine government procurement during the pandemic covering the period up to July 2020. The report is expected to be published in December.

What a disappointing reply from the Minister. Does he not realise the deep concerns over the relationship between HMG and various companies in recent months? Have any formal reservations or qualifications been lodged under their code of conduct by senior civil servants on Ministers’ proposals? Whatever, will he confirm that eventually, there will be an inquiry into these activities?

My Lords, I have already referred to the ongoing NAO investigation. So far as the Civil Service Code is concerned, Section 4.1.3c is absolutely specific that

“civil servants must not misuse their official position or information acquired in the course of their official duties to further their private interests or those of others … Where a conflict of interest arises, civil servants must declare their interest to senior management.”

Every civil servant will be expected to abide by that.

My Lords, the Good Law Project has today published official government procurement documents which show that VIPs and Cabinet Office contacts have been awarded lucrative contracts for PPE above normal market rates and outside the usual procurement processes. As a matter of transparency, will the Minister set out what the total value of the contracts awarded in this way is and which companies that have links with Conservative Ministers, MPs or Peers were awarded business via this route?

My Lords, the Government’s policy is to adopt and encourage greater transparency in commercial activity. Central government buyers must publish all tender documents and contracts with a contract value of over £10,000 on the Contracts Finder site. I am not commenting on press allegations. The Government are certain that the proper procedures have been and are being followed.

My Lords, in the absence of a register, can my noble friend explain who checks that appropriate measures have been taken, in particular if it is a close friend or family member who may have benefited from such a contract? Also, what is the sanction if a breach is found to have occurred?

My Lords, any breach of the Civil Service Code will be dealt with by the appropriate procedures within the Civil Service. Every department is expected to develop and set up its approach under the central framework. Each department is responsible for defining the standards of conduct it requires and for ensuring that those are carried out. Internal guidance and procedures must be followed in all cases.

My Lords, the Minister has clarified some concerns. However, a response to my Question for Written Answer some time back stated, “It is a matter for each council to put in place whatever arrangement it considers appropriate for the recording and disclosure of officers’ interests.” I was surprised by that and I find it odd that there is no national standard. I will ask again whether the Government intend to instruct local authorities to maintain a public register of the disclosable pecuniary interests of officers to whom delegated authority has been granted by elected members to ensure that local government officials maintain transparency and compliance with the Nolan principles?

My Lords, the noble Viscount is referring to local government, but I shall repeat what I said at the start. I believe that we need probity at every level of the public service. He has raised an interesting point about necessity. The current position is obviously that normally, departments require staff to complete a declaration of interest form prior to working on any new procurement and to provide details of any new interest which arises during the course of a procurement. Departments should have appropriate safeguards in place to ensure conflicts are properly managed throughout the procurement. That is good practice and ought to be followed.

My Lords, I have listened to the answers given by the noble Lord, Lord True, but I am not sure that he has really understood the depth of concern about this matter. There are two issues. One is that these contracts on Covid-19 for test and trace and PPE were vital to public safety and remain so, and the second is that millions and millions of pounds are involved. The noble Lord says that he is not going to refer to press speculation following the investigation by the Good Law Project, but I would say that it is a little more serious than that. I think he has to be clear that we need complete and total transparency on all of these contracts from the National Audit Office report, which we will see. Is there not a case for a public inquiry or a Select Committee inquiry on this issue as well?

My Lords, one of the delights of the United Kingdom is that the Government are not responsible for the actions of the Select Committees of either House of Parliament. So far as the NAO is concerned, I have already reminded the House that an inquiry is in progress.

My Lords, in the light of the report from the Good Law Project on procurement referred to by my noble friend Lord Scriven and the noble Baroness just now, can the Minister confirm that there is comparable transparency where the personal and political interests of Ministers and special advisers are in question? I cite the specific example of the £276 million PPE contracts, to which I have drawn Ministers’ attention.

My Lords, Ministers are bound by the Ministerial Code and civil servants are bound by the Civil Service Management Code, from which I have quoted. Special advisers are also required to conduct themselves in accordance with the code of conduct for special advisers and the Civil Service Code.

My Lords, the Minister accepts that the public procurement system has to be whiter than white, I am sure, but does he accept that the registration of interests is as much to protect public servants as it is to protect the wider public interest in the objective and open placement of any public contracts?

My Lords, these issues are important; in my initial reply, I tried to convey the importance that I attach to probity. I recognise the role of transparency therein. I have told the House about the current good practice inside government. I personally believe that it is efficacious but obviously I listen to everything said by noble Lords.

Every day, the House starts its proceedings with Prayers, reminding us to set aside factional interests and private prejudices in the work we do, yet, with some notable exceptions, we frequently make appointments to the House as rewards for political loyalty or cash donations. Does the Minister agree that our concern about conflict of interest and civil servants would carry greater weight if we were true to the biblical injunction of looking to the defect in our own vision before criticising the lesser defect in our brothers?

My Lords, as I said in my first Answer, humility, respect for proper conduct and ethics are the best guide for any person at any level or in any place in public service. To that extent, I agree with the noble Lord.