Labour to force vote on release of controversial PPE contract documents

Katie Neame
© UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor

Angela Rayner has described the ‘VIP lane’ used for government procurement during the pandemic as a “scandal of epic proportions” ahead of an attempt by Labour to force the release of documents related to the contract awarded to PPE Medpro.

Labour will table a humble address motion on Tuesday, forcing a binding Commons vote on the release of documents relating to the controversial decision to award contracts worth more than £200m to the company.

The Guardian reported last month that Tory peer Michelle Mone and her family received £29m from PPE Medpro’s profits after she recommended the company to ministers. According to the newspaper, Mone’s support helped the firm secure a place in one of the government’s VIP lanes.

Commenting ahead of Tuesday’s debate, the deputy Labour leader said: “Britain is sick of being ripped off by the Tories. We want our money back.

“Tory MPs can either back Labour’s binding vote to force ministers to come clean on the murky award of £203 million in taxpayers’ money to a shady company linked to a Tory peer or they are choosing to be complicit in a cover-up.

“The VIP lane for PPE is a scandal of epic proportions that has allowed the shameful waste of taxpayers’ money and inexcusable profiteering by Tory cronies.

“Instead of straining every sinew to clawback taxpayers’ money, and fresh from writing off the billions he carelessly lost to Covid fraud, Rishi Sunak is pushing a Procurement Bill full of loopholes that would give Tory ministers free reign to do it all over again.”

Labour’s motion would require “all papers, advice and correspondence involving ministers and special advisers, including submissions and electronic communications” relating to the contracts to be released to the Commons public accounts committee.

The Department of Health and Social Care paid PPE Medpro close to £81m in May 2020 to supply 210 million face masks at 38.5p a unit, while other suppliers provided the same masks for as little as 14.5p.

The company received another government contract in June 2020 worth £122m to supply 25 million surgical gowns. The gowns were never used by the NHS after government officials rejected them following an inspection.

Health minister Neil O’Brien told MPs last month that PPE Medpro had an “underperforming” PPE contract and that the first step of the government’s response to such companies was to send a letter before action, after which it would commence litigation if a “satisfactory agreement” had been not reached.

O’Brien added that, in the case of PPE Medpro, the government has not “got to a point where a satisfactory agreement has been reached at this stage”.

Labour is urging Rishi Sunak to back its amendments to the procurement bill when it comes to the Commons in the new year. The opposition is calling for VIP lanes to be outlawed and for the introduction of non-performance clawback clauses into contracts so that failing providers have to return taxpayer money.

The High Court ruled in January that the VIP lanes set up during the pandemic were unlawful. The judge said the operation of the “high priority lane”, which sped up the process for certain providers, was “in breach of the obligation of equal treatment”.

The court found that offers had been allocated to the VIP lane on a “flawed basis” and that “there is evidence that opportunities were treated as high priority even where there were no objectively justifiable grounds for expediting the offer”.

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