An Opposition day debate in the name of the Leader of the Opposition is scheduled for 6 December 2022 on the following topic:

Government PPE contracts

The full text of the Motion as printed in the Order Paper is as follows:

That this House –

(a) notes that the Department for Health and Social Care purchased more than £12 billion of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in 2020-21;

(b) regrets that the Government has now written £8.7 billion off the value of this £12 billion, including £4 billion that was spent on PPE which did not meet NHS standards and was unusable;

(c) is extremely concerned that the Government’s high priority lane for procurement during the pandemic appears to have resulted in contracts being awarded without due diligence and wasted taxpayer money;

(d) considers there should be examination of the process by which contracts were awarded through the high priority lane; and

(e) accordingly resolves that an Humble Address be presented to His Majesty, that he will be graciously pleased to give direction that all papers, advice and correspondence involving Ministers and Special Advisers, including submissions and electronic communications, relating to the Government contracts for garments for biological or chemical protection, awarded to PPE Medpro by the Department for Health and Social Care, references CF-0029900D0O000000rwimUAA1 and 547578, be provided to the Committee of Public Accounts.

PPE procurement during the Covid-19 pandemic

In the early stages of the pandemic there were widespread reports of shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the health and social care sectors (as well as hand sanitiser and other protective equipment). International demand, and prices for PPE grew rapidly in response to the pandemic, while much of the UK’s pre-pandemic central stockpile of PPE was designed for a flu pandemic and lacked items such as gowns and visors.  

The National Audit Office (NAO) report on the supply of PPE during the COVID-19 pandemic (November 2020) noted that “neither the stockpiles nor the usual PPE-buying and distribution arrangements could cope with the extraordinary demand created by the COVID-19 pandemic”, and that as a result UK procurement systems were “overwhelmed” in March 2020.

The NAO outlined the measures taken by the UK Government, the devolved administrations, and the NHS to improve the supply of PPE, including the creation of a parallel supply chain, the PPE Dedicated Supply Channel, and bringing in the armed forces to help with distribution to the frontline. On 10 April 2020, the Government published a PPE plan “to ensure that critical PPE is delivered to those on the frontline responding to coronavirus”. The Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) took the lead in sourcing and payment for all PPE for the public sector.

Procurement in exceptional circumstances

The public sector’s broad approach to public procurement is to seek value for money. This is achieved through competition, unless there are compelling reasons to the contrary.

Due to the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic, in March 2020 the Government instructed contracting authorities – from government departments to NHS bodies and the wider public sector – how to utilise expedited procurement procedures allowing to buy goods and services with extreme urgency (Procurement Policy Note 01/20). For example, contracting authorities could choose to award contracts directly without advertising the procurement via a prior notice. They could also contract pre-selected suppliers from existing framework agreements.

Another NAO report, also published in November 2020, examined government procurement during the pandemic, including the checks carried out into the suitability of new suppliers of PPE, and how offers from suppliers were considered. The NAO said that while procurement processes established by the government enabled PPE to be purchased quickly, some contracts were awarded “before all key controls were put in place”. The NAO recommended the Cabinet Office to issue further guidance on specific procurement risks arising from direct contract awards (paragraph 18).

An updated government procurement policy note PPN 01/21 (February 2021) included more information on the commercial risks involved in direct contract awards and the due diligence checks on suppliers.

The Government has stated (PQ 96763, 11 January 2022) it was aware that “the direct, urgent sourcing and purchasing of PPE in 2020 involved higher risks in ethical and business practices” and put a number of mitigations in place.

NAO’s most recent investigation into the management of PPE contracts by the Department of Health and Social Care during the pandemic was published in March 2022. According to the report, by January 2022 the Department had awarded nearly 10,000 contracts of PPE worth £13.1 billion. Of these, the DHSC has identified some 3.6 billion PPE items (11% of the total) as “not currently suitable” for front-line services (some of these items could be repurposed). These items were purchased at a cost of £2.9 billion. Of the PPE items considered not currently suitable for front-line services, 1.4 billion items purchased at a cost of £646 million are disqualified for reasons such as “incomplete paperwork or concerns about modern slavery” (paragraphs 11, 15).

Further information:

Public Accounts Committee inquiries

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has held several inquiries into covid procurement following NAO reporting.  This page brings together information about earlier PAC work on the Government response to the covid-19 pandemic in 2020.

The PAC looked into the issues of the high priority lane in its Forty-Second Report – COVID-19: Government procurement and supply of Personal Protective Equipment (HC 928) of 10 February 2021 (paragraphs 8-10).

Julia Lopez, the then Parliamentary Undersecretary for Cabinet Office said on 25 March 2021 regarding the high priority “VIP lane”:

I wish to assure the House that although there has been a lot of discussion about the high-priority lane, it was effectively an email inbox that triaged the thousands of suggestions that were coming in for particular contracts. Even if people got through that—90% of people from that process were rejected—the contracts then went through the same eight-stage process. I wish to assure him that there have been no corners cut.

On 20 July 2022, the PAC published a report on the DHSC management of PPE contracts Session 2022-23 (HC 260), which said:

The Department is in dispute with PPE suppliers on 176 contracts with up to £2.7 billion of taxpayers’ money at risk. The majority of these disputes relate to the quality of the PPE provided. Progress in resolving these disputes has been slow with 86 of the 176 still at the very first stage of the commercial resolution process with an estimated 35% that will not be resolved by 2023. There is also little sign of action against potentially fraudulent suppliers despite the Department’s estimate that as much as 5% of PPE expenditure may have involved fraud. Insufficient due diligence checks prior to letting some contracts has left the Department unable to prevent or take action where suppliers and intermediaries may have made excessive profits whilst providing substandard PPE.

The PAC recommended that the DHSC keeps the Committee up-to-date on its progress in resolving any cases of potential fraudulent supplies of goods. The Government responded that much of this information is commercially sensitive (PDF) and could impact the department’s ability to successfully pursue cases to completion. Therefore, the Department would provide a summary update on the progress of negotiations as a whole in confidence to the Committee. It aims to report on implementation by August 2023.

Contracts with PPE Medpro

The DHSC has awarded PPE Medpro two contracts for supplies of PPE items worth £80,850,000.00 and £122,000,000.00 (PQ 119853, 7 February 2022).

During the inquiry into management of PPE contracts PAC took evidence from officials of the DHSC (PDF) and asked about contracts with PPE Medpro (see from Q84 onwards).

What is a humble Address?

This motion uses a humble Address to formally request Government papers to be presented to Parliament.

Erskine May, the authoritative source for information on parliamentary procedure, describes the House of Commons’ powers to call for papers in the following way (Paragraph 7.31):

The power to call for papers was frequently exercised until about the middle of the nineteenth century but has been used less frequently since then because much of the information previously sought in this way is now produced in Command Papers or in Act Papers, or in response to questions (but see below). The power has a continuing importance since it is regularly delegated to select committees, thus enabling them to send for papers and records (see para 38.32) although the House has itself ordered that certain papers be provided to a specified committee or under specified conditions. Returns may be called for by an Order or an humble Address, and it is not always clear which is appropriate. A return from the Privy Council or from departments headed by a Secretary of State is usually called for by means of a motion on the Order Paper for an humble Address. A return from a department not headed by a Secretary of State is usually sought directly by means of an Order of the House, although an humble Address will be appropriate where prerogative matters are closely involved. It is no longer the case that an humble Address is sent formally to the Monarch after such motions are agreed; the understanding is that the Government will comply.

The use of motions calling for a return of papers, both as a basis for debate and in pursuit of the papers themselves, has been revived in the House of Commons in recent years. Since 2018 the House has used the power to call for papers from the Government more frequently, both as a means of forcing a division on an Opposition Day and to secure specific pieces of information that would not routinely be published. The success of such motions depends on cross-party support. The papers called for must be clearly identifiable, but motions have varied in style, from calling all papers of a particular category to more detailed reference to specific papers. The long-standing practice of the House has been that papers should be ordered only on subjects which are of public or official character. Orders for returns of papers which it transpired did not fall into such categories have been withdrawn or rescinded. The power itself, however, is not so limited. In the case of a select committee with power to send for papers and records, for example, there is no restriction on its power to require the production of papers by private bodies or individuals, provided that such papers are relevant to the committee’s work as defined by its order of reference (see para 38.32). Although the opinions of the law officers of the Crown given to Ministers have generally been withheld from Parliament (see para 21.27), the failure of the Government to comply with a resolution calling for the production of the Attorney-General’s legal advice to the Government has been judged to be a contempt.

Further information 

The Library briefing on Commons Opposition Day debates since 1992 gives details of the occasions on which a motion for a return (either an humble Address or an order for papers) was moved.

Related posts