On Tuesday in the House of Commons there was a debate that related to a Petition that received nearly 127,000 signatures and is entitled “Hold a public inquiry into Government contracts granted during Covid-19”. The title of the debate which took place at lunchtime was Emergency Covid Contracts and the person who began the debate was Ian Blackford, the SNP MP for Ross, Skye and Lochaber and he began the debate with the question “To ask the Minister for the Cabinet Office if he will make a statement on the Government’s use of emergency covid contracts.” and once again the Minister who was willing to turn up was Julia Lopez who as I wrote here on Tuesday was the person who had to speak up even though Parliament expected Michael Gove to respond. She began her statement stating “Urgent questions are appearing like buses for me this week.” The issue of lying appeared after her opening statement and it involved a conversation between Ian Blackford and Lindsay Hoyle.
Ian Blackford: After the revelations and resignations at the weekend, this urgent question concerns yet another scandal at the very heart of this Tory Government. It seems that not even a health pandemic can do away with classic Tory cronyism, and the scale of this particular scandal makes it one of the biggest yet.
The Secretary of State ordered the use of a £560,000 emergency covid contract to conduct constitutional campaigning on the Union. Instead of using an emergency covid contract to order PPE for the NHS, the Minister chose to order political polling. This is not media speculation, and it is not even a political accusation. It is, Mr Speaker, a plain fact. It comes directly from official evidence that has been published in the High Court. It comes in evidence from the Cabinet Office, in a witness statement dated 24 December 2020, which states:
“I…received an urgent request for Union-related research from the office of the Rt Hon Michael Gove…In response, I asked Public First to conduct some testing of people’s attitudes”
on this issue. Did the Prime Minister know or approve of that polling and constitutional campaigning? Who were the polling results shared with, and will they be published in full? How many other pieces of political research were ordered during the pandemic, and exactly how much public money has been spent? These are just some of the questions that the Secretary of State needs to answer. There are many, many more.
The Secretary of State was in Scotland yesterday. He held a press conference. He told Greg Russell of The National newspaper:
“We don’t use taxpayer funds for party political polling”.
He went on to claim that the contract was assigned by others. We know from the witness statement that these things are not true. The truth and this Government are distant strangers, and that should come as no surprise when we remember the Prime Minister has been sacked not once but twice for lying.
Last Wednesday at Prime Minister’s questions, the Prime Minister said he was unaware of these contracts, and ever since he has ignored demands for a full—
Lindsay Hoyle: Order. A serious allegation about somebody lying will have to be withdrawn—as we know, hon. Members would never lie. I am sure we would like to think about the language being used, because I am not convinced about the proof of that. I think we should withdraw the word “lie”.
IB: I have been very careful with my language, Mr Speaker, and I am pointing out the contradiction between the witness—
LH: Order. [Interruption.] Order. Mr Blackford, please. You cannot criticise another Member such as the Prime Minister without a substantive motion. That is not what has been granted. The language we use is important for me to keep good order, and I am sure you could reflect on the words about another Member, who I presume has also been given notice of any criticism.
IB: Indeed, I am relying on matters of fact, Mr Speaker. Just as the Prime Minister failed to act and sack his Health Secretary, he has failed to act on this scandal, too. But no matter how hard they might try to sweep this under the carpet, this scandal is not going away. This morning I have written to the Cabinet Secretary, urging him to launch—
LH: Order. We are now one minute over the time that I granted. I hope the right hon. Gentleman is now going to end in the next seconds.
IB: This morning I have written to the Cabinet Secretary urging him to launch an independent investigation into this blatant misuse of public money for political purposes. So finally, if this UK Government have nothing to hide, will the Minister join me in supporting that investigation by the Cabinet Secretary, and will she co-operate with it?
Ian Blackford then only said three more words later on which was to claim that some of what Julia Lopez said “was a lie” which was in interruption of one of her comments. As it happened a piece by Angela Rayner and a response from Julia Lopez then persuaded another Conservative MP to speak. Fay Jones is the MP for Brecon and Radonshire and she stated:
With nothing better to do, the Opposition continue to sensationalise the details surrounding a handful of high-value contracts that were subject to the emergency procurement procedures at the outset of the pandemic. Can my hon. Friend confirm that the Government are committed to transparency surrounding the use of taxpayers’ money and that all new contracts over £10,000 are published online for anybody who wishes to see them?
Interestingly this then brought Lindsay Hoyle back to the microphone
Order. Can I just say that it is my decision to grant a UQ? You are now questioning my judgment, and I am not going to have my judgment questioned.
The other thing to say is that I do feel sorry for the Minister being set up. I am sorry that Minister Gove was not here to take some of the questions, because most of them are named for him, but this House will not be taken for granted. When statements continue to be made outside the House, I will continue to grant UQs, so let’s get used to it. If the Government do not want to come here, I will ensure that they are heard here.
The following few words from Julia Lopez were
Thank you, Mr Speaker; I appreciate your zeal and I think you are right.
So apart from the claim by Lindsay that no lies have been told which is clearly not true, he is at least willing to challenge the Government which is something we should be keen to see taking place.