The new Guardian revelations about Michelle Mone – claims that she and her children secretly received £29m originating from the profits of a PPE business that was awarded large government contracts after she recommended it to ministers – go way beyond startling headlines. They also clearly highlight the conflicts of interest and failures of due diligence that lay behind the waste of billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, and a Tory “VIP lane” that was declared illegal by the high court earlier this year.
We learn that PPE Medpro was given £203m to supply face masks and sterile surgical gowns at the height of the pandemic. Lady Mone, a Tory peer, referred PPE MedPro to the Cabinet Office in May 2020, five days before it was even registered as a company. She contacted the then ministers Michael Gove and fellow Conservative peer Lord Agnew, offering to supply PPE – for a price. Lord Agnew referred PPE Medpro to the “VIP lane”, fast-tracking the bid for public contracts.
It now appears that tens of millions of pounds from those contracts ended up in offshore accounts connected to the individuals involved.
The government has admitted holding records and correspondence relating to the award, including any declarations of interest and due diligence. But it has refused to publish it, saying that it is in mediation with the company, so commercial confidentiality applies. This is an excuse it has been making for 10 months now.
It’s the opposite of transparency. Today in the House of Commons I called on ministers to commit to their release, both to the UK Covid-19 public inquiry and to parliament. They gave no such commitment.
Asked what progress had been made in mediation, they would say only that it had not yet reached a satisfactory conclusion. That is certainly one way of putting it. We know that 25m surgical gowns, for which the government paid PPE Medpro £122m of our money, were subsequently rejected after inspection. They were never even used.
Ministers have failed to explain that abject failure, and would not say today whether a penny of public funds had been recovered. Today Gove, back in the cabinet, claimed Mone’s referral had been passed to an “independently” run channel but was unable to say what due diligence was being performed.
There are, rightly, separate questions for Mone to answer about her previous denials of involvement in PPE Medpro and her apparent failure to declare it. When asked about this omission, her lawyer replied: “Baroness Mone did not declare any interest as she did not benefit financially and was not connected to PPE Medpro in any capacity.” The Guardian’s latest revelations cast doubt on this claim, raising serious questions about this apparent conflict of interest and what the government knew at the time.
What the government has not denied is that a Conservative politician apparently benefited personally and financially from her connection to a business that was awarded substantial government contracts as a result of her lobbying by a backdoor route not available to others.
But it’s not just about one case: this goes far wider.
This government has written off more than £9bn alone on PPE that was procured with public money and then deemed unfit for use – unusable, overpriced or undelivered. These were the gloves, goggles and gowns that were needed on the frontline in the NHS and care when nurses were left wearing bin bags instead.
As families struggle to make ends meet, taxpayers are still paying £770,000 every day on the storage of PPE that is unfit for use. That’s enough to put more than 36,000 children into part-time nursery care. It represents billions wasted through downright incompetence and sleaze.
It took a successful Labour motion to force this government to release records over the Randox scandal, which led to the exposure of now disgraced former Tory MP Owen Paterson, who broke parliamentary rules to lobby for that firm. He now says the investigation into his conduct breached his right to privacy, and was unfair. It’s a total mess. But it’s certainly also time the government committed to release all the records relating to PPE Medpro.
Worse still, shameless ministers appear to have learned nothing from these scandals. The government’s new procurement bill gives them free rein to hand out billions of pounds of taxpayers’ cash once more. Far from showing that they will take steps to prevent a repeat of this scandal, they’ve brazenly admitted that if a new pandemic were unleashed upon us tomorrow, they would do it all again. But we can no longer afford another of these scandals – or waste on this epic scale.
Labour will put an end to this culture of cronyism and waste with a new plan for procurement and an Office for Value for Money to ensure public money is spent with care – and it’s Labour that has a plan to clean up politics by restoring standards in public life through an Independent Ethics and Integrity Commission.
Britain is sick of being ripped off by the Tories. It’s time to turn their procurement racket on its head.