The growing controversy over a PPE company linked to the Tory peer Michelle Mone has sparked an angry reaction in parliament, as MPs demanded an investigation into wider concerns over what one called “absolutely sickening, shameful and unforgivable” instances of politically connected firms profiteering from unusable PPE during the pandemic.
Parliamentarians asked ministers for more information about how PPE Medpro was awarded more than £200m in government contracts after it was referred to ministers by Lady Mone.
They also used the occasion to ask broader questions about the government’s procurement contracts during the pandemic – some of which, one MP said, had since been flagged by Transparency International as a “corruption risk”.
In response to an urgent question on Thursday from Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, the junior health minister Neil O’Brien repeatedly sought to defend the government’s actions and its use of a “VIP lane” that prioritised referrals from politically connected PPE companies.
The minister said that “the people who came through the high-priority route were not politically connected people, except in the sense that they were being referred in by MPs across the house”.
The urgent question was triggered by a report in the Guardian on Wednesday. It revealed that the Conservative peer Mone and her children secretly received £29m originating from the profits of PPE Medpro, a company that was awarded large government contracts after she recommended it to ministers, documents seen by the newspaper indicate.
Mone’s referral of the company to the Tory ministers Michael Gove and Theodore Agnew helped it secure a place the “VIP lane”, which was used by the government during the coronavirus pandemic to prioritise certain companies. PPE Medpro then secured two contracts worth more £203m.
Tens of millions of pounds of PPE Medpro’s profits were later transferred to a secret offshore trust of which Mone and her adult children were the beneficiaries, the documents indicate. The documents state that the secret payment to the trust was via Mone’s husband, Douglas Barrowman, who had weeks earlier received at least £65m in profits from PPE Medpro.
Mone’s lawyer last year said she “did not benefit financially and was not connected to PPE Medpro in any capacity”. On Thursday, Mone broke a 10-month-long silence on Twitter by sharing an image that said: “Don’t believe everything you read, or everything you think.”
The SNP Cabinet Office spokesperson Brendan O’Hara said it was “almost inevitable” the VIP lane “would come to this”.
“This get-rich-quick scheme to fast-track cronies, politically connected pals and colleagues was never going to end well. I suspect that today’s revelations, however shocking, are simply the tip of a very large iceberg – an iceberg that could yet sink this ship of fools,” he said.
He added: “Transparency International UK has flagged 20% of the £15bn given out by the Tories in PPE contracts at the height of the pandemic as a corruption risk. As we have already heard, they are spending £770,000 every single day to store much of that useless equipment in China.
“Now that we have one Tory politician who had absolutely no background in PPE procurement personally making millions from those contracts, does the government plan to proactively investigate how many others like that are in their ranks, or are they content to sit there and watch this dripping roast of sleaze, corruption and scandal unfold on its own?”
O’Brien replied that “the idea that there was some sort of greater success if you had a political connection, when you say ‘politically connected’, they were our constituents – they were getting in touch with all of us, they had to be referred on somewhere, they had to be managed and they went through the same process as every other contract”.
The UK government is continuing its attempt to recover money from PPE Medpro in relation to unused gowns purchased in a £122m contract – one of two the company was awarded. The gowns were rejected after a technical inspection and never used.
PPE Medpro insists the gowns purchased through the £122m contract passed inspection, and that the company – and, presumably, the beneficiaries of its profits – are entitled to keep the money.
O’Brien told parliament that a “process” was under way with regard to what he called an “underperforming contract”. “The first step is to send a letter before action, which outlines a claim for damages. That is followed by litigation in the event that a satisfactory agreement has not been reached.”
Rayner called on the government to publish correspondence on the award of PPE Medpro’s contracts once the mediation process was finished, a call that O’Brien did not respond to.
The SNP MP Alan Brown called for “a public inquiry into PPE procurement”, while Labour’s Sam Tarry called for the government to publish “in full” the names of the ministers, MPs and officials who referred companies to the VIP lane. “We need to know what corruption happened,” Tarry said.
The Commons speaker reminded members that parliamentary procedure meant MPs were not allowed to specifically criticise the conduct of Mone, a sitting member of the House of Lords.
However, several MPs expressed strongly worded criticism of the revelations in the Guardian.
Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, who lost three family members in the pandemic, said: “For Tory peers and other chums of the Conservative party to have been profiteering at taxpayers’ expense from shoddy, unusable PPE, especially through the VIP procurement lane, at a time when people were locked down in their homes and tens of thousands of people, including my loved ones, were dying is absolutely sickening, shameful and unforgivable”.
Dhesi called on O’Brien to offer an apology to bereaved families for “the amazing lack of integrity at the heart of this whole process”. The minister did not do so.
Criticism of the PPE contracts came from both sides of the house, with the Conservative MP Christopher Chope asking O’Brien: “What has happened to the £122m which was spent on 25m gowns supplied by the company referred to earlier, but whose gowns were never used and weren’t fit for purpose?”
But another Tory MP, Peter Bone, said there was a “rewriting of history” taking place, alleging that the opposition was making political points “out of what was actually a great success in getting our NHS staff protected”.
Contacted about the Guardian’s new disclosures on Wednesday, a lawyer for Mone said: “There are a number of reasons why our client cannot comment on these issues and she is under no duty to do so.”
A lawyer who represents both Barrowman and PPE Medpro said that a continuing investigation limited what his clients were able to say on these matters. He added: “For the time being we are also instructed to say that there is much inaccuracy in the portrayal of the alleged ‘facts’ and a number of them are completely wrong.”