On Tuesday lunchtime there was a debate on the subject of “Covid-19: Government’s Publication of Contracts” which took place following several Court issues. They all related to the way the Government has dealt with procurement over COVID and there was a particular focus on PPE although that is not the whole picture. Inevitably there are comments from both sides that are critical towards the other but one wonders if all Ministers are trained to ignore all questions rather than being trained and instructed to answer the credible ones. The Minister who attended the session on Tuesday was not the Minister that was being called out to so that was a bad start. The opening element came from Rachel Reeves who is of course the Labour MP for Leeds West but she is also the Shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. The Duchy of Lancaster is Michael Gove. So she asked the question:
To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, if he will make a statement on the recent court order regarding the Government’s publication of contracts during the covid-19 pandemic.
And the response came from Edward Argar who is the MP for Charnwood and the Minister for Health. His opening few words were
Although I am not the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, I hope the hon. Lady will none the less allow me to respond to her urgent question.
So inevitably there was a further response from Rachel and Edward and then one of Edwards own party colleagues asked the following question. His name is Nigel Mills and he is the MP for Amber Valley. He said
As the co-chair of the all-party parliamentary group on anti-corruption and responsible tax, I think that the Government’s following robust procurement measures is absolutely critical, but clearly a year ago we were not in normal circumstances; most reasonable people would accept that desperate times called for desperate measures. Will the Minister confirm that the Government are now following all normal, standard procurement processes? Will he confirm what percentage of the contracts from a year ago have been fully published and when the remainder will be published?
The response from Edward Argar was
My hon. Friend highlights the situation we faced at the time. He also, quite rightly, highlights the importance of transparency and complying with all transparency processes. The Government invoked regulation 32, which recognised the exceptional circumstances that allowed for procurement without the usual tendering process. I believe that the usual tendering process could take, at a minimum, 25 days. My hon. Friend recalls the situation at the time. The Government did what we felt was right to ensure that we got the PPE that our frontline needed. The court case also found that there was no policy to deprioritise compliance with transparency regulations. I give him the assurance he seeks: the Government are doing everything possible to ensure that we fully comply with those regulations going forward.
Another question from an SNP MP took place and then there was this question from another MP from the Conservative Party. He is Dr Ben Spencer who is the MP for Runnymede and Weybridge and his question was
This time last year, there was a desperate need to secure PPE urgently when, almost overnight, it became one of the most hotly sought-after commodities globally. I congratulate the Department on its Herculean efforts to keep my residents safe and get them the PPE they needed when the shortage hit. Of course, delays to publication are not ideal, and I am glad that the Department is urgently trying to resolve that. Does my hon. Friend agree that, as part of the review into the pandemic, we need to look at how procurement procedures can be improved when responding to a national crisis or, indeed, future pandemics?
The response from Edward was
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his work on this issue; he is a strong and vocal champion for the NHS and those who work in it. The context he sets is absolutely right. I will quote from the summary of the NAO report without making a value judgment on it. It highlighted in paragraph 2:
“Demand for PPE rocketed in England from March…There was also a surge in demand in other countries. At the same time, the global supply of PPE declined as a result of a fall in exports from China (the country that manufactures the most PPE) in February.”
That is a statement of fact, and it highlights the context in which we were operating.
My hon. Friend is right: all Governments should rightly look at what they have done and what lessons they can learn, to ensure that they are well prepared for future events.
It seems as though these basic questions are not being answered so what is the point of Edward Argar taking part in a debate that is costing us a great deal of money? There were a number of other questions which one could be equally concerned about such as why did the Prime Minister not answer questions back on the 22nd February, but if Edward Argar cannot respond to these two questions with a meaningful response to other Conservative MPs what potential is there for him to deal with the political elements?