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Sun 5 December 2021

A minister has been accused of making statements that are “categorically not true” in an attempt to defend the Government, Sam Bright reports

A minister has been asked to correct the record, after being accused of giving misleading information to MPs about the Government’s handling of contracts during the pandemic.

Labour MP Dawn Butler has sent a letter to Health and Social Care Minister Gillian Keegan, asking her to give a statement to the House of Commons and “correct the record”, after comments that Keegan made to MPs on 17 November.

Keegan was participating in a debate about the awarding of Government contracts during the pandemic, during which she attempted to deploy the words of the National Audit Office (NAO) – the independent spending watchdog – to defend the Government’s approach.

“The National Audit Office has reviewed the testing contracts and they have confirmed that all the proper contracting procedures were followed,” Keegan said.

Specifically, Keegan was defending the Government’s awarding of COVID testing contracts to Randox, without competition. Randox employs former Conservative MP Owen Paterson, who resigned from the House of Commons earlier this month after a scandal surrounding his lobbying on behalf of Randox and Lynn’s Country Foods.

An investigation into Paterson’s lobbying did not cover any potential overtures that the former North Shropshire MP made to ministers on behalf of private firms during the pandemic. Randox strenuously denies that Paterson was involved in the awarding of the contracts. However, it remains that case that Paterson held a meeting with Randox and a Government minister at the outset of the pandemic, but the minutes of that meeting have now disappeared.

However, Butler has questioned the Government’s defence of its procurement process – claiming that Keegan misrepresented the words of the NAO. The minister’s claims were “categorically not true”, Butler says, in her letter to Keegan. “The NAO specifically stated that not all the paperwork it needed was present to enable them to follow the trail of contracts that had been issued,” she adds.

The letter sent by Dawn Butler to Gillian Keegan.

Indeed, the NAO issued a report on 18 November last year, evaluating 20 contracts awarded during the early stages of the pandemic – up to July 2020. This included multiple COVID testing contracts. The NAO report concluded that:

“Although we found sufficient documentation for a number of procurements in our sample, we also found specific examples where there is insufficient documentation on key decisions, or how risks such as perceived or actual conflicts of interest have been identified or managed.

“In addition, a number of contracts were awarded retrospectively, or have not been published in a timely manner. This has diminished public transparency, and the lack of adequate documentation means we cannot give assurance that government has adequately mitigated the increased risks arising from emergency procurement or applied appropriate commercial practices in all cases. While we recognise that these were exceptional circumstances, there are standards that the public sector will always need to apply if it is to maintain public trust.”

In fact, a High Court judge found in February that former Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock acted unlawfully in failing to promptly release the details of Government agreements with private firms.

Specifically in relation to the procurement of personal protective equipment, the NAO noted the Government’s creation of a ‘VIP’ lane for suppliers with links to ministers, MPs and officials. These firms were 10-times more likely to be awarded a contract, the NAO found.

However, the watchdog noted that, “The sources of the referrals to the high-priority lane were not always recorded on the team’s case management system and we found a case where a supplier was added to the high-priority lane in error.”

The names of the companies processed through the PPE VIP channel have now been revealed. Notably, the office of Cabinet minister Michael Gove referred a firm owned by a Conservative Party donor, one of Gove’s close political allies, to the VIP lane.

More generally, away from just PPE contracts, the NAO reported that, “We found inadequate documentation in a number of cases on how the risks of procuring suppliers without competition had been mitigated”.

Keegan may have been intending to refer to the NAO’s conclusion that, “we found that the ministers had properly declared their interests, and we found no evidence of their involvement in procurement decisions or contract management”. However, this statement is markedly different to Keegan’s claim that proper contracting procedures had been followed in all cases.

The NAO has issued subsequent reports, investigating the relative success of the Government’s COVID ‘Test and Trace’ operation. These reports also seem to mirror the NAO’s earlier conclusions. The spending watchdog released an interim report in December 2020, in which it noted that Test and Trace had “examined its commercial arrangements” and had recognised that there “was insufficient commercial control across [the operation]” and that it “needed to improve”.

According to the NAO, the Test and Trace system had itself acknowledged that it “lacked a commercial strategy, and had limited visibility of its commercial pipeline and contract risk exposure”. Therefore, the system had a lack of central oversight over the work that it was commissioning, while conflicts of interests were “not being comprehensively managed”. There were also “examples of work starting before a contract had been awarded”, the NAO report stated.

Given this evidence, it does appear misleading to claim, as Keegan did, that “all the proper contracting procedures were followed” in relation to testing contracts.

“Keegan was handed a script that was incorrect. Given that more than 140,000 people have died from COVID-19 under this Government’s watch, and that it continues to stall on the terms of a public inquiry, it is vital that we call out ministers when they attempt to rewrite history,” Dawn Butler told Byline Times.

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