Below is the full text of the speech delivered by Labour Party Chair Anneliese Dodds in the opposition day debate on strengthening standards in public life.
Thank you very much, Madam Deputy Speaker. This is a vital moment for everyone who cares about democracy. About transparency. About stemming the waste and abuse of public money. And about improving the way our country responds to future crises. And I have to say Madam Deputy Speaker I find it extraordinary that on a matter of such national significance there wasn’t a single Conservative member on the list to speak during this debate.
As my honourable friend for Huddersfield damningly stated, this is the worst such situation he had seen since he came into parliament in 1979, when I was at the very tender age of just one year old. Madam Deputy Speaker, let’s recall the reasons why we are here today. Randox paid Owen Paterson over £8,000 a month to lobby on its behalf. Mr Paterson then sat in on a call between Randox and Lord Bethell, the health minister responsible for handing out government contracts.
And Randox landed government contracts worth more than half a billion pounds without any kind of proper tender process. No competition. Just deals done behind closed doors. Discussions between a government minister, a Conservative MP and the company paying him handsomely to hawk its wares around the corridors of power. That tells you everything you need to know about how this Conservative government goes about its business.
But the situation with Randox is even more disturbing, because of what happened next, as set out very ably by my friend for Ashton-under-Lyne. After pocketing £133m of public money to carry out Covid testing, Randox failed to deliver. So in the middle of an unprecedented national crisis, we witnessed an unedifying spectacle. The Health Secretary sending the begging bowl around our universities asking to borrow equipment – just so Randox could deliver what it promised.
Now, I echo what so many on these benches have said: the minister does have a very positive reputation on this side of the House. But my word she’s been given a hospital pass today. And I regret that the hole in which she was placed has become larger, not smaller, during this debate…
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and many thanks as well to my honourable friend. She is absolutely right that we’ve seen failure upon failure upon failure to meet the targets that were set and of course she knows that really well from her experience in this place and her focus on health matters. And I find it quite extraordinary that the process of the Health Secretary having to call on others so that Randox could deliver what it promised was described as an example of the “triple helix”.
I remember those days. I remember them very, very well. I remember academics begging the government to come to them because they said they could deliver that testing that our country needed. And were they listened to? Well, we all know what happened. They weren’t listened to; they were ignored when our country needed that testing. This wasn’t an example of collaboration; this was an example of outsourcing that failed spectacularly on the Conservatives’ watch…
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and of course my honourable friend is absolutely right. He is right to point to the concrete impact of these failures, of that procurement system – matters that I will come to later in my remarks and matters which he detailed very, very ably in his important speech made just a few minutes ago
Now again the minister maintained in her speech that all details of contracts, she stated, are published. Well, as my friend for Oldham East and Saddleworth set out earlier today, the Government was taken to court and it was found to have acted unlawfully because of its determination not to provide transparency over contracts. Again, a rewriting of history.
And what else did we see at that time? We saw the Conservative government paying airlines to fly kits out to Randox’s laboratory in Northern Ireland for them to be analysed. We saw the Health Secretary warning people not to use Randox testing kits because they were “not up to standard”. His words. And in the end, Randox had to recall 750,000 tests because they were not good enough, as my friend for Leicester South rightly explained. They threw away over 12,000 swabs in a single day because they had to be voided.
Now, the minister said earlier that we should pause and reflect on what happened. Well, many of us have been pausing and reflecting. And we’ve been remembering. We’ve been remembering what happened. Let’s cast our minds back to that time: the beginning of the pandemic. We remember when our country faced that nationwide testing shortage as the devastation of Covid ripped through our communities. We remember when people were scared; when they were sick; when they were dying.
We remember when in Plymouth, people were told their nearest testing centre was in Inverness. We remember when in Bolton, at the epicentre of the pandemic, people couldn’t access any testing at all. We remember – as my friend for Blackburn devastatingly set out earlier – we remember when care homes were not able to access the testing that they needed for elderly and vulnerable people. And we remember the impact that that had.
The stakes couldn’t have been higher. Lives depended on the government securing the best possible testing contract. Almost 40,000 people died in care homes in the year after Owen Paterson’s phone call with Lord Bethell and Randox. Care homes which took in people from hospital who hadn’t been tested at all. Care homes whose own staff and residents couldn’t access the tests they needed until nearly two months after the national lockdown began, by which point it was too late. And as my friend for Rochdale said, we have got to know whether this contracting played a role in those awful, awful outcomes.
And how did the government respond to its abject failures to deliver? Did they learn the lessons when new contracts came up? For example, a contract twice as lucrative as the previous one for testing? Of course not. They doubled down, and Randox doubled up with a brand new deal. Again, no competition. Again, behind closed doors. Another £350m of public money, dropped in the lap of the firm which just so happened to have a Conservative MP and former Secretary of State on its payroll.
Now, the minister attempted to dispute this course of events earlier. And I say to her: prove it. Publish every dot and comma related to these deals. Every email, every message, every letter between ministers, special advisers and MPs. Explain why Lord Bethell’s WhatsApp messages have been lost, as part of the sorry saga that was detailed by my friend for Ashton-under-Lyne. The 21st century equivalent of ‘the dog ate my homework’. Come on. This is ridiculous.
And explain to us please: what on earth is going on with these minutes? What’s going on with these minutes about the phone call with Lord Bethell and Paterson? Because we seem to have had mixed messages during this debate. You know at one point it seemed to be suggested that there weren’t any minutes. They never existed. Now that in and of itself raises extremely important questions. So no minutes relating to two contracts worth £500m of taxpayers’ money. Then it was suggested: ‘oh no, wait, it’s not that we necessarily know that there weren’t any minutes or that maybe, perhaps they were destroyed’. No, ‘we were unable to locate”’ those minutes. Well, when are they going to be located? They need to be located.
And why, if the Department’s been unable to locate them, why has the Department of Health been stating that it’s not able to respond in a timely manner to Freedom of Information requests about this, and not stated that was because it believes the minutes may not exist or they’re unable to locate them or whatever it is? Instead, they just said they’re “trying to respond” to those FOIs. My goodness, what a mess. Explain how many other meetings might not have been minuted. How many meetings might have minutes actually in reality but nobody knows where those minutes are? When are we going to see them?
And explain why the government is so resistant to letting sunlight be the disinfectant that it needs to be on this process. As the member for Amber Valley said: just publish it. Because while we are talking today about this specific contract, we all know that the problem does not begin and end with Randox.
This is a government that rolled out the red carpet for many more companies with close links to senior Conservatives. Just yesterday, we learned that of the 47 firms which won contracts via the so-called VIP lane – which so many on these benches have referred to – four were helped by a former Conservative chair, four by the former Health Secretary and one by Dominic Cummings. And I regret that the Conservative minister stated – her words: “Ministers have no role in the procurement process.” Well that wasn’t the case, was it, with that VIP lane? We know that now, in black and white.
She has the opportunity now to intervene on me if Ministers played no role in that VIP lane. No, she can’t – because she knows that they were recommending those companies, including her Health Secretary…
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. The minister is obviously doing her very best but yet again I’m afraid that this is not an edifying spectacle. That recommendation led, as I said before, in the overwhelming majority of cases to those companies receiving enormously expensive contracts. It is risible to suggest anything less. And it’s also risible to suggest that in these cases the government followed its own emergency procurement guidance. Let me quote that: “Contracting authorities should maintain documentation on how they have considered and managed potential conflicts of interest in the procurement process.” I go on: “Particular attention should be taken to ensure award decisions are being made on the basis of relevant considerations and” – wait for it – “not personal recommendations”.
And there was nothing inevitable about this. Because I know how things ran in Labour-run Wales and they did not run like this there. What we’ve seen in these situations are companies with links to the Conservative Party being ten times more likely to secure a contract than others. Public money, which has been doled out based not on a company’s abilities, but on its contact book. And when it comes to spending taxpayers’ money on testing and PPE equipment that can save lives, you’d hope that this government would take things more seriously. But as my right honourable friend for Wallasey said, the switch into an emergency process provided no justification for the ransacking of public money that we’ve seen.
As the member for Amber Valley said, an emergency situation wasn’t a reason for having no process at all. In practice, as he said, there should have been more sensitivity around the process, not less. And because of the government’s approach, British businesses that didn’t have Tory MPs on speed-dial missed out…
Thank you, Madam Deputy speaker. And of course my honourable friend is absolutely right. He detailed that very sorry tale in his speech in devastating manner, as indeed did also my honourable friend for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle. That company, Arco, that had existed for decades, for 135 years providing this kind of essential material, which was completely ignored. And yet we saw, for example, Ayanda Capital, an investment firm with no PPE experience, which ended up being used by the Government to purchase 50 million masks that weren’t even usable.
Again, we also saw other companies being missed out. Multibrands International, based in Bradford. It had been providing PPE to the Chinese government since the end of 2019. They spent months trying to offer those same services to the UK government but got absolutely nowhere. What did the government do instead? It bought 400,000 protective gowns from Turkey that were unusable. It seems to be always this way with the party opposite, Madam Deputy Speaker, one rule for the Conservatives and their friends and another rule for everyone else. And it’s the British people who pay the price.
Now Madam Deputy Speaker, this Conservative government is currently doing its best to suggest that every politician was engaged in graft. They’re trying to drag everyone down to their level, and feed a growing disillusionment with our politics that damages us all. But on the Labour benches, we know that is not true. (And I suspect a fair few on their benches opposite also know it’s not true.)
The people of Britain know when they’re being taken for fools. When a party found guilty of breaking the rules tries to remake the rules to protect one of their own. There’s a word for that: corruption. And that’s what this Prime Minister has brought into the heart of our politics. And the British people won’t tolerate it. Which is why, of course, the Prime Minister panicked last week and U-turned. Because he knew he’d been rumbled. We do all have to play by the same rules, whatever the Prime Minister thinks. That’s why Labour has been clear that if we were in power – things would change.
We would ban dodgy second jobs like those of the former member for North Shropshire. And I mean properly ban them, not the kind of watered-down cop-out the Prime Minister is trying to lay down this afternoon. We would close the revolving door and ban Ministers from lobbying for at least five years after they leave office. We’d stop Conservative plans to allow foreign money to flow into our politics and ban the use of shell companies to hide the source of donations. We’d create a new Office for Value for Money and reform procurement rules to put an end to the industrial-scale wasting of public money. And we’d create a new, genuinely independent Integrity and Ethics Commission to restore the standards in public life that have been trashed by this Government.
This scandal has presented a clear choice about the kind of politics that we want for this country. Boris Johnson’ politics of the gutter. Or Keir Starmer’s politics of decency and integrity. And the MPs in the bench opposite, they’ve got a choice today too. They can abstain, under orders from the Prime Minister, their Chief Whip and the Leader of this House. Or they can decide to make a stand. They can decide that they want to have a vote on this. Because they want to take a better path.
And let’s be very, very clear about the message that abstention is going to send. Because we’ve heard weasel words, frankly, during this debate. And it appears clear that the scope of what government is proposing today, in terms of what it’s willing to release, is far less than what Labour’s motion requires. I see the minister shaking her head; I sincerely hope that she’s got that correct, because I have to say: hearing what she said and comparing it to what’s written in the Labour motion, there seems to be far less this Government is willing to reveal…
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was really hoping that the minister might say at this stage: “Yes, absolutely, we will follow what Labour has called for. We will make sure that those documents are published. We will make sure that the minutes of meetings are set out.” Instead she seemed to, I’m afraid, muddy the waters. I don’t mean to be unfair to her, but that was what her response did for me just now. Very happy if she can clarify…
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. Well, of course the way to guarantee that the scope would indeed be of the breadth it needs to be, would be of course to have that binding vote in the House of Commons that Labour is calling for right now. Because of course we have been here before. As the minister is aware, we have been here before with promises being made about what this government will be transparent around and what it in practice is willing to do, which far too often is far, far less.
We have got the chance now to move beyond that cover-up and instead have the clean-up that my friend for Ashton-under-Lyne referred to. We’ve got the chance to make amends. The government has the chance. It can also immediately accept all outstanding FoI requests in relation to all PPE and testing contracts. And it can publish all documents and correspondence relating to the £3.5bn of contracts that have gone to Tory donors and Tory-linked companies. Let’s make that choice now. Let’s clear it up once and for all.