Labour MP attacks 'fast track VIP lane' for PPE firms recommended by MPs

18 November 2020, 06:27

File photo: Health workers wearing full personal protective equipment
File photo: Health workers wearing full personal protective equipment. Picture: PA

By Megan White

The Government "ripped up the rules" by offering "special treatment" for firms recommended by ministers and politicians who could offer supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), a senior MP said.

Meg Hillier, chairwoman of the Commons spending watchdog the Public Accounts Committee, said she was "appalled" by the creation of a "fast track VIP lane" as the Government sought to find supplies of masks, gloves, aprons and other PPE as the pandemic hit in the spring.

Her comments came as a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) criticised a lack of transparency about the way emergency procedures were used to secure supplies and services in early 2020.

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Labour MP Ms Hillier said Parliament had allowed the Government to go outside the normal rules because of the need to act swiftly.

"But they have swung completely in the other direction and they've ripped up the rules and ridden roughshod over the taxpayer," she said.

The cross-government PPE team established a high-priority lane where MPs, peers, ministers and officials could refer businesses offering to supply equipment.

Ms Hillier said: "The high-priority lane is a real matter of concern and frankly I'm appalled because, even though I am an MP, the idea that I could recommend somebody or a company to go into that high priority lane is extremely suspect.

"There may be a few MPs with very specialist businesses who know a lot about something but really we're not the people that, because we're MPs, should be fast tracking people for contracts."

The NAO report identified failures to properly document where referrals to the fast-track lane had come from and it also criticised the Government for not publishing details of all contracts in a timely manner.

Ms Hillier said: "The fact that there is this fast track VIP lane where people inside Whitehall or the Westminster bubble can recommend people, the fact that contracts haven't been published, so we can't see what happens - they have been late getting that information out there - all smacks of secrecy and hiding things."

NAO chief Gareth Davies said that using emergency measures was correct in the circumstances of the pandemic.

"We think it was right that they used this emergency procurement approach in the way they did," he said.

"The issue it obviously gives rise to, though, is how do you secure public trust in the way you used money in that emergency situation.

"The only way to do that is to be very clear in the decision-making and to document everything you've taken into account in awarding big contracts to companies with no competition.

"And then secondly to be completely transparent about that and to get the details in the public domain as quickly as possible."

He added: "We found some examples of where the decision-making was well documented, but there were gaps, which is obviously critical in a situation like this.

"And it's taken too long to get the details into the public domain and the Government has missed its own targets there fairly significantly."

The high-priority lane was "obviously very unusual" but the Government was "inundated" with offers of PPE, some credible, some frivolous and some "possibly fraudulent".

"So it's quite reasonable that the Government tried to find a way of sifting the credible offers from the others."

But the use of the unusual process meant it was more important that decisions were properly documented.

"It's really important that those areas are tightened up because we're not out of this pandemic yet, there may still be a need for emergency procurement - hopefully less than at the peak.

"So these are not just theoretical recommendations, we think it's really important that they are put into effect straight away."

Shadow cabinet office minister Rachel Reeves said: "This report confirms that this Tory government's approach to procurement has fallen far short of what this country deserves. Lessons must be learned.

"The National Audit Office has shown how, at best, this incompetent government can't even get basic paperwork right

"At worst, that the government may be deliberately attempting to cover their tracks, avoid scrutiny or withhold information from the public while wasting taxpayer money."

One of the deals highlighted in the NAO report was a contract for focus groups with the firm Public First.

Media reports had highlighted the link between the firm's founders and Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove and Dominic Cummings.

The firm was asked to provide focus group research on an informal basis in March and on June 5 the Cabinet Office awarded a retrospective contract for a maximum £840,000 - the company invoiced for £550,000 in total.

James Frayne, founding partner at Public First, said: "It has suited opponents of this Government to omit this fact but, as the NAO finally makes clear, no great contract was ever agreed in advance with us.

"We agreed a pay-as-you-go deal where we could be terminated at any point if they weren't happy with our work.

"The reason we worked with Government for so long was because we provided useful insight, particularly amongst the hardest to reach groups."

Public service union Unison's assistant general secretary Christina McAnea said: "Ministers must be held to account and the government gravy train, whether driven by favours or incompetence, has to stop."

Jolyon Maugham QC, director of the Good Law Project which is bringing a series of judicial reviews against the Government over PPE contracts, said: "Some of the findings reflect what we have been saying for months.

"Government failed to manage conflicts of interest, dished out public money to deeply unsuitable companies and has improperly shied away from proper scrutiny."