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David Conn www.theguardian.com
The Conservative peer Michelle Mone referred a business to the Cabinet Office for potential multimillion pound PPE contracts before it had even been incorporated as a company, it has emerged.
The business, PPE Medpro, was fast-tracked by the government through its “VIP lane” for politically connected firms following the referral by Mone.
Within weeks of the company’s incorporation on 12 May 2020, PPE Medpro was awarded contracts worth £203m to supply millions of masks and gowns.
The Guardian revealed on Thursday that leaked files appear to suggest that Mone and her husband, the Isle of Man-based financier Douglas Barrowman, were secretly involved in PPE Medpro, despite both consistently denying any “role or function” in the company.
It has now emerged that Mone’s referral of PPE Medpro occurred five days before the company was formally registered.
Responding to a recent parliamentary question from the late Labour MP Jack Dromey, health minister Edward Argar said: “Departmental records indicate that Baroness Mone identified Medpro as a potential supplier on 7 May 2020 and highlighted this opportunity by email on 8 May 2020.”
Mone referred PPE Medpro to the office of her fellow Tory peer Theodore Agnew, a Cabinet Office minister responsible for procurement during the Covid pandemic. PPE Medpro was then added by Agnew’s office to the VIP lane, which analysis later showed gave companies a 10 times greater chance of being awarded a contract.
PPE Medpro was not incorporated in the UK until 12 May 2020, five days after the initial referral. The UK company was effectively a subsidiary of another PPE Medpro, registered in the Isle of Man on 11 May. The director of both companies was Anthony Page, who works for Barrowman’s Isle of Man-based financial services firm and runs his family office.
Lawyers for Mone, who ran a lingerie company before David Cameron made her a member of the House of Lords, have always said she “was not connected to PPE Medpro in any capacity”.
They also said she had no “association” with PPE Medpro, and “never had any role or function in PPE Medpro, nor in the process by which contracts were awarded” to the company.
Contacted on Friday, Mone did not respond to questions about why she referred PPE Medpro the week before the company had even been incorporated. Both Mone and Agnew have declined to say what, if anything, she disclosed about her own links to the company when she referred it.
A Cabinet Office spokesperson said Mone’s emailed referral is considered “private correspondence” that would not normally be publicly disclosed.
Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, wrote to Cabinet Office minister Stephen Barclay on Friday, expressing concern about “the lack of transparency around the award of significant sums of public money to PPE Medpro”.
“I would ask now that the government … commits now to place all correspondence and records relating to the award in the library of the House [of Commons] for parliamentary scrutiny,” Rayner said in her letter.
The timing of Mone’s referral of PPE Medpro also appears to be significant because it seems to have occurred days before the company had even secured the crucial business deal that enabled it to supply PPE to the NHS.
Documents seen by the Guardian suggest it was not until 11 May – the same day the Isle of Man PPE Medpro was registered – that the company secured its agreement with a London importing company, Loudwater Trade and Finance.
Under the terms of the business deal, documents suggest Loudwater promised to supply the PPE, whereas PPE Medpro appears to have committed to use its “extensive network to seek to secure … contracts with the NHS and other government bodies within the British Isles”.
It appears PPE Medpro undertook that commitment just days after Mone had made the referral to the Cabinet Office.
Documents seen by the Guardian also appear to show Barrowman was personally involved in setting up PPE Medpro’s deal with Loudwater’s director, Maurice Stimler, as well as related business matters.
Barrowman’s lawyers have also repeatedly distanced him from the company, saying he was not an investor, director or shareholder. They have said the Guardian’s reporting amounted to “clutching at straws” and was “largely incorrect”.
Mone’s lawyers have said the Guardian’s reporting is “grounded entirely on supposition and speculation and not based on accuracy”, adding: “She is under no obligation to say anything to you.”
They have also said that after she took the “very simple, solitary and brief step” of referring the company to Agnew, she “did not do anything further in respect of PPE Medpro”.
However, WhatsApp messages believed to have been sent by Mone in late June 2020, over a month after the referral, appear to show her discussing the gown sizes and purchase order details with a person in PPE Medpro’s supply chain.
The messages, which Mone appears to have sent shortly before taking off in a private jet, occurred shortly before PPE Medpro secured its second contract with the government.
Mone’s lawyers said she could not be expected to comment on “unknown and unattributable WhatsApp messages allegedly sent 19 months ago”.
Her lawyers have also refused to be drawn on why, according to a Financial Times report, Mone was in contact with officials as recently as February 2021, and appeared to be “incandescent with rage” over the treatment of PPE Medpro.