Labour has accused ministers of a potential cover-up over a PPE contract with a company linked to Tory peer Michelle Mone, after the health department refused to release documents connected to the deal, citing commercial sensitivities.
Peter Walker www.theguardian.com
The row comes days after the National Crime Agency (NCA) searched Mone’s home as part of a potential fraud investigation into the company, PPE Medpro, which won more than £200m in government contracts without public tender.
Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, wrote to the government in January to seek the release of correspondence and records connected to the deal, as happened over a testing contract won by another company, Randox, after lobbying by the then Tory MP Owen Paterson.
In the letter, Rayner noted that Medpro won the two contracts via a “VIP lane” for politically connected companies after Mone contacted two ministers in May 2020 to say she could source PPE.
“I would ask now that the government takes the same approach as it has to the contract with Randox, which was a similar matter of controversy, and commits now to place all correspondence and records relating to the award in the library of the house [of Commons] for parliamentary scrutiny,” Rayner wrote.
In a reply sent last week, the junior health minister Edward Argar defended the efforts made to buy medical protective supplies at the start of the Covid pandemic, saying the alternative was “not securing the PPE that was desperately needed; clearly not an option”.
“All offers underwent rigorous financial, commercial, legal and policy assessments,” Argar said, adding that decisions were made by officials, with no evidence ministers were involved, and that “due diligence checks were appropriate given the circumstances”.
He added: “However, we are unable to provide correspondence and records relating to the award of the PPE Medpro contract as these remain commercially sensitive, given the department is currently engaged in a mediation process concerning the products it received from PPE Medpro Ltd, which involves confidentiality undertakings.”
The 25m medical gowns supplied by the company were never used after officials rejected them after an inspection, with the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) seeking to recover money from PPE Medpro through mediation. PPE Medpro has maintained that it complied with the terms of its gowns contract and is entitled to keep the money it was paid.
In a statement, Rayner said the government’s refusal to release the documents “reeks of a cover-up”.
She said: “The fact that Medpro is in mediation for providing useless PPE is no excuse for failing to be transparent with the public – in fact it only strengthens the need for clarity about how this eye-watering waste was allowed to happen.
“The government have shown complete disregard for working people by wasting taxpayers’ money on dodgy contracts.”
On Wednesday, the NCA searched several properties associated with Medpro in the Isle of Man and London, including the Isle of Man office building where PPE Medpro is registered and the mansion where Lady Mone lives with her husband, the business magnate Douglas Barrowman.
Responding to previous stories, Mone’s lawyers have said any suggestion of an association or collusion between the Tory peer and PPE Medpro would be “inaccurate” and that she was not involved in the business. “Baroness Mone is neither an investor, director or shareholder in any way associated with PPE Medpro. She has never had any role or function in PPE Medpro, nor in the process by which contracts were awarded to PPE Medpro.”
Mone’s lawyers have said that after she undertook the “simple, solitary and brief step” of referring PPE Medpro to the government she did nothing further in respect of the company.
The Isle of Man constabulary confirmed that search warrants were executed at four addresses on the island on Wednesday “in support of an ongoing NCA investigation”. There were no arrests.
The DHSC referred any queries on Medpro to the NCA.