Meg Hillier: Ministers licensed to act fast during Covid – but not fast and loose

Sienna Rodgers
© David Woolfall/CC BY 3.0

Labour’s Meg Hillier, chair of the public accounts committee, has hit back at the government after Matt Hancock dismissed concerns expressed by MPs about government procurement during the coronavirus crisis.

The select committee chair has warned the minister that ignoring the need for transparency in the pandemic is a “dangerous step”, and has pointed out that the government was “licensed to act fast” but not “fast and loose”.

During a Covid-19 update to the House of Commons today, the Health Secretary was asked about the recent National Audit Office report that found a “lack of adequate documentation” in procuring Covid suppliers.

The NAO concluded that it could not “give assurance that government has adequately mitigated the increased risks arising from emergency procurement or applied appropriate commercial practices in all cases”.

In the chamber this afternoon, Labour MP Nick Smith said: “It’s brilliant that the vaccine programme is beginning. Unfortunately there are real question marks over who is benefiting from some of the Covid-19 contracts.”

Following the update on vaccinations, the MP for Blaenau Gwent asked Hancock: “How will the Secretary of State ensure that cronyism and profiteering do not become features of this stage of the Covid-19 response?”

The Health Secretary replied abruptly: “Well, thankfully, as the NAO set out, they haven’t been a feature of any of the response to coronavirus. So that’s good.” He did not go on to answer Smith’s question.

Hiller, who chairs the public accounts committee that oversees and scrutinises government spending, asked Hancock to “commit to being open and transparent about publishing the contracts and all the paperwork that goes with it”.

Hancock replied: “Of course I will defend to the end the work that we did to get the [personal protective equipment] roll-out, to which she refers.” He added that the priority contracts were “all done through the proper processes”.

Addressing the MP’s additional question on whether private companies are involved in the vaccine roll-out, the minister added: “She asks whether private companies will be involved in the vaccine roll-out.

“Well, try Pfizer or BioNTech, the people who came up with and are manufacturing this vaccine. Without them, we wouldn’t have a vaccine at all, and a bit of a thank you would do well from the chair of the public accounts committee.”

Hiller later told LabourList: “Rather than acknowledging the NAO’s findings that there were issues with transparency and a lack of documentation on decisions including why particular suppliers were chosen, ministers continue to throw up sand and defend at best sloppy record keeping.

“Part of the PAC’s role is to help keep government honest and safeguard taxpayers’ interests. Because of the urgency in March the government was licensed to act fast, but that did not mean it should act fast and loose.”

On the issue of thanks, Hiller added: “If he was listening, Matt Hancock would have heard me celebrate the achievement of the vaccine, but to ignore and argue about the need for openness and transparency in relation to future contracts is a dangerous step.

“One success does not wipe away the need for proper accountability. Matt Hancock has overseen PPE procurement and test track and trace, he should be contrite and honest about the failings on his watch.”

Labour has challenged Conservative ministers over the amount of taxpayer money wasted buying unusable PPE during the pandemic after the government admitted buying 184 million items not fit for purpose.

Keir Starmer has used Prime Minister’s Questions to accuse Boris Johnson of “spraying public money at contracts”, while Anneliese Dodds has highlighted that Tory failure to stockpile PPE before the crisis cost the taxpayer £10bn.

The NAO report found that half of all Covid contracts, worth £10.5bn, have been handed out without a competitive tender process and that applicants with political contacts were ten times more likely to be successful.

The public accounts committee is a cross-party including nine Conservative MPs, five Labour MPs, one SNP and one Lib Dem. The NAO is an independent parliamentary body that carries out value for money audits.

The Good Law Project has detailed how special pathways outside of the normal procurement process were set up at the height of the pandemic to help “VIPs” win lucrative government contracts for PPE.

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