As I am sure you can appreciate, the COVID-19 outbreak has been unprecedented. No-one in government or in the country has had to respond to the rapid spread of a virus in the UK on this scale in the last hundred years. As the National Audit Office report explains, the Government needed to procure contracts with extreme urgency.
Regulation 32(2)(c) of the Public Contract Regulations 2015 allows contracts to be awarded to companies directly. To have run a competitive tender process for PPE equipment over weeks and months at the peak of the pandemic would, in my view, have been negligent. Our healthcare workers could not wait for essential supplies and ministers, officials and those in the private sector have worked incredibly hard to deliver this lifesaving equipment. Over 32 billion items of PPE have been procured.
I understand the concerns raised about potential conflicts of interest between ministers, advisers and contracts awarded. Value for money and confidence in the procurement process is a key consideration for taxpayers. The National Audit Office has been clear, however, that where potential conflicts arose, ministers declared their interest properly and there was no evidence of ministers’ involvement in procurement decisions or contract management. The High Court ruled that there was no suggestion of actual bias in the contract awarded to Public First and that the decision to award the contract was not due to any personal or professional considerations.
I do not believe that a Bill requiring ministers to make a statement on their personal interests is necessary. The Ministerial Code already states that "Ministers must ensure that no conflict arises, or appears to arise, between their public duties and their private interests." If a conflict is unavoidable, the Code explains that the Prime Minister must be consulted, and the Minister may be required to cease to hold the office concerned.
It remains the case that due diligence is conducted before entering into contracts with third parties including when made under the Public Contract Regulations 2015. Suppliers are evaluated by government departments on their financial standing and their ability to meet the requirements of the contract. Contract management clauses allow departments to assess performance and value for money for the duration of the contract.
Furthermore, the Government took urgent action in response to COVID-19 last year and the contract awarded to Hanbury Strategy was for research into public attitudes and behaviours in relation to the pandemic. The research supported public health messaging, which helped to protect the NHS and save lives during the height of the public health crisis. Details of the contract have been published online for the public, the media, and parliamentarians to scrutinise.
The alleged ‘VIP’ or ‘fast-track’ lane for COVID-19 contracts during the height of the pandemic in 2020 was actually a mailbox set up by officials to consider some of the 15,000 offers of assistance to provide PPE. At the height of the pandemic last year, leads were being provided more quickly than they could be processed. The huge breadth of offers directed to MPs and civil servants were directed to a central point where they were subsequently triaged. All PPE offers went through the same robust and rigorous checks by civil servants no matter which route they came from. This included assessments on price competitiveness. All due processes were followed, and this was a normal procurement process for times of emergency.
Of the 493 offer that went through the mailbox, I understand that only 50 were taken forward. This means that 90 per cent were rejected. Ministers were not involved in the awarding of contracts.
I also understand the concerns raised that contracts could have been awarded to firms because of their links to the Government but I can assure you that this is not the case. The role of special advisers is to advise ministers on policy. It is not to award contracts. The Special Adviser Code of Conduct expressly prohibits special advisers from authorising expenditure of public funds. The Ministerial Code of Conduct also requires ministers to ensure that there is no conflict or perception of conflict between their public duties and private interests.
Moreover, I recognise the concerns raised but the National Audit Office has made clear that ministers are not involved in procurement decisions or in contract management. The Department of Health and Social Care has said that there is no evidence to support claims made in the media about the contracts awarded to Mr Bourne.
Finally, it is wrong to claim that Home Office expenses which circulated in March 2021 were that of the Home Secretary’s. They were department wide and for vital equipment such as PPE. It is also completely false to say that the Home Office has spent money on beauty products. The expenses were for PPE.