MPs question Treasury oversight of PPE procurement

23 November 2020

MPs have demanded answers from chancellor Rishi Sunak over the Treasury’s procurement processes in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

In a letter to the chancellor, Mel Stride (Con), chair of the Treasury Committee, said the committee had examined “reported problems in public sector procurement during the pandemic” and the Treasury’s role.

Stride highlighted the report published by the National Audit Office (NAO), which he said “identified elements of the procurement process that appear to be of concern including a lack of effective oversight leading to poor value for money”. 

The NAO report said spending proposals above certain thresholds were required to go through the Treasury Approvals Point (TAP) process, and the Treasury was expected to scrutinise and approve the spending. “Many new Covid-19-related spending commitments have been large and have consequently required HM Treasury approval of this kind,” the report said. 

Stride said: “Some of the elements of the procurement process identified by the NAO appear to be of concern.

“The Treasury has a key role to play in achieving value for money for taxpayers. The efficacy of its oversight of public sector spending has been called into question.”

Stride called on Sunak for clarity on the Treasury’s role in pandemic-related procurements, including whether all government procurements during the pandemic went through the TAP process and whether some usual procedures were curtailed. 

The NAO report had also noted that the Treasury entered into 30 contracts, with a contractual value of £25m, in response to the pandemic. 

Stride said: “Did HM Treasury follow its own internal procurement procedures in agreeing these contracts? Were any of these procedures curtailed at this time?” 

He also called for an explanation on why the Treasury “did not participate in the clearance board established by the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health and Social Care to approve new PPE contracts”.

Stride asked Sunak to reveal “whether going forward any changes to these procedures are needed in light of the NAO report”.

Meanwhile, an investigation by The Guardian reportedly found evidence that the British government had sourced PPE from factories in China where “hundreds of North Korean women have been secretly working in conditions of modern slavery”.

Rachel Reeves, shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, told The Guardian: “These findings are extremely concerning and will worry all who read them.

“We urge the government to investigate them immediately and outline exactly how procurement processes could have got them in a place where this kind of supply chain check didn’t happen. The UK’s ethical obligations should not be jeopardised at a time like this.”

Paul Scriven, a Liberal Democrat peer, added that more must be done to ensure human rights are not sidelined in the rush to secure PPE. 

“This is another example of the way in which PPE procurement clearly isn’t being done with both probity and ethics at the centre of its operation,” he told the newspaper.

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