Labour has demanded an apology for Boris Johnson’s claim that information on all Covid procurement was made public and asked for confirmation that no money has been wasted on the “curious incident of the missing contracts”.
Rachel Reeves tabled an urgent parliamentary question today asking the government to make a statement on the recent High Court order relating to its failure to publish details of contracts awarded throughout the pandemic.
The High Court ruled last month that Matt Hancock had acted unlawfully by failing to publish information on multibillion-pound government Covid contracts awarded throughout the pandemic within the 30-day period required by law.
An order handed down by the court last week confirmed that only 608 out of 708 relevant contracts had been published and reiterated that, in some or all of these cases, the Health Secretary had acted unlawfully.
Reeves highlighted that Johnson claimed on February 22nd that the contracts were a matter of public record. She added: “They’re not. A judge confirmed through a court order last Friday that 100 contracts are still to be published.”
The Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster added: “This question and the answers to it really matter because our frontline workers were not adequately protected with the high quality personal protective equipment that they needed during the course of this pandemic.
“And it matters because it is essential that taxpayers’ money is spent effectively and fairly. Not handed out to those who happen to have close links with the party of government.
“The government ran down the PPE stockpile ahead of this pandemic and it came back to haunt use when we needed it most. Contracts were handed out – many to friends and donors without any transparency.”
Minister Edward Argar told MPs that the case did not look at the awarding of the contract but at the delay in publishing related documents. He said the government “takes the judgement of the court very seriously and respects it”.
Reeves called on the minister to apologise for the comment made by the Prime Minister and to “put the record straight”. She also demanded the publication of all outstanding information on Covid contracts by the end of this week.
“Will the minister tell us how much money has and will be clawed back for taxpayers?” she asked. “Can the minister tell us which businesses were on the VIP fast lane for getting government contracts and how they got there?”
Her comments follow numerous stories on Covid contracts. The Good Law Project revealed in October that special pathways outside of the usual procurement process were set up at the height of the pandemic to help “VIPs” win contracts.
She added: “Finally, can the minister honestly tell our brilliant NHS nurses now facing a pay cut that the government has not wasted a single penny of their money on this curious incident of the missing contracts?”
The junior health minister said the backlog in publishing information built up during the first few months of the pandemic and argued that “officials began to bear down on it during the autumn of 2020”.
The government is required to publish a ‘contract award notice’ within 30 days of awarding a contract worth more than £120,000. Government lawyers confirmed that 94% of contract award notices had been published outside the 30-day limit.
Labour has repeatedly criticised the lack of transparency around contracting processes and argued they have led to “increasing evidence of cronyism and ‘chumocracy’” with a “catalogue of contracts handed to Tory friends and donors”.
Labour MP Chris Bryant told parliament this afternoon that “the truth of the matter is that the government didn’t even get personal protective equipment out fast enough to people who really needed it, especially in our care homes”.
“I’m not taking any of this nonsense about ‘they had to focus on that, which meant that they couldn’t deal with transparency’,” he said. “The truth is what they set up was a VIP track for some people to be able to get massive contracts.
“And some people enriched themselves phenomenally during this pandemic. And many of them, surprise surprise, happen to be Conservative Party donors. It looks, I have to say, like corruption.”