Labour has demanded the government apologise and release 100 Covid-related contracts it says remain unpublished despite the prime minister’s commitment to releasing them.
Rachel Reeves, the shadow chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster, accused ministers of handing out taxpayer money to those with “close links” to the Conservatives “without any transparency” during the scramble to procure personal protective equipment.
MP Chris Bryant also claimed “it looks like corruption” and that if the government refused to publish all the contracts, then it risked appearing like a “cover-up”.
It comes weeks after a high court judge ruled that the failure to publish contracts within the 30-day period required by law breached the “vital public function” of transparency over how “vast quantities” of taxpayers’ money was spent.
Reeves seized upon Boris Johnson’s insistence that the contracts were “there on the record for everybody to see”, saying that they were not and pressing for the outstanding 100 documents to be published by the end of the week.
She also used the issue to draw attention to the 1% pay rise offered to NHS workers, challenging health minister Edward Argar in the House of Commons on Tuesday to “honestly tell our NHS nurses, now facing a pay cut, that the government has not wasted a single penny of their money on this curious incident of the missing contracts”.
Argar defended the government’s handling of the contract awarding, saying it was civil servants not ministers who determined which contracts were or were not offered.
He added that the government was faced with the challenge of expanding PPE supply chains from 226 NHS trusts in England to over 58,000 different settings amid a “global demand greater than ever before”. He said that meant “we’ve had to work at unprecedented pace”.
Argar also confirmed there was a stock take underway to audit the PPE provided by companies procured to provide it, to make sure taxpayers’ money is reclaimed for any faulty items.
But he also faced some flack from a Conservative MP, Sir Edward Leigh, who admitted: “In the middle of an emergency, value for money goes out of the window and I’m sure that terrible mistakes were made in the tendering process.”
Another Tory backbencher, Ben Spencer, said that as part of the government’s inquiry into the handling of the pandemic, improving procurement should be prioritised.
Reeves said the issue of procurement matters “because our frontline workers were not adequately protected with the high-quality PPE that they needed during this crisis”.
Bryant agreed, saying the lack of PPE provided to places such as care homes by the government was “why so many people died”.
“What they set up was a VIP track for some people to be able to get massive contracts and some people enriched themselves phenomenally during this pandemic, and many of them – surprise, surprise – happen to be Conservative party donors,” he said.
“It looks like corruption and the only way the government can wipe that slate clean is if it comes clean with all the contracts, because otherwise it just looks like a cover-up.”
Meg Hillier, another Labour MP and chair of the Commons public account committee, said it was either “insouciance or incompetence” all the contracts were not released and pressed the government to confirm “every contract will be published in time”.
Argar told her: “I can give her the reassurance that this department is doing everything possible to make sure it does meet those transparency requirements.”