The value of UK government contracts for personal protective equipment (PPE) that went through the VIP “high-priority lane” was £1.7bn, according to MPs.
In a report the Public Accounts Committee said 47 suppliers came through the high-priority lane and were awarded contracts. Of these 12 were introduced by MPs, seven by Peers and 18 by officials.
“In five cases the course of the referral was not known and one referral was put in the lane in error,” said the report.
The PAC said when MPs passed on leads “they were not necessarily based on personal experience or expertise in PPE procurement and therefore not in a position to vouch for the validity or credibility of the lead”.
The PAC said the high-priority lane, set up as part of a parallel supply chain to support PPE supplies, “was not designed well enough to be a wholly effective way of sifting credible leads”.
“Government’s PPE buying team, within the parallel supply chain, received over 15,000 offers to supply PPE,” said the report. “This cross-government PPE buying team set up a high-priority lane to separately assess and process high-priority leads that it considered more credible, which sat alongside an ordinary lane to process other leads.
“Leads that were considered more credible were those from government officials, ministers’ offices, MPs and members of the House of Lords but it is not clear why this assumption was made.”
The report said the same eight-stage process for assessing and processing offers was applied to both lanes, but the Cabinet Office and Department for Health and Social Care (DHSC) “accepted that leads that went through the high-priority lane were handled better”.
The PAC said the DHSC “wasted hundreds of millions of pounds on PPE which is of poor quality and cannot be used for the intended purpose”.
MPs said a lack of transparency in letting multi-million pound contracts “undermines public trust in government procurement”.
The report said by July 2020 more than 8,000 contracts valued at £18bn had been awarded in response to the pandemic. More than £10bn worth of goods and services were purchased without competition under emergency procurement regulations.
MPs said market price increases in an “overheated” international market pushed up costs by £10bn.
Meg Hillier, PAC chair, said: “Government had permission to procure equipment at pace and without tendering under the law, but acting fast did not give it license to rip up record keeping on decisions.
“It did not publish contracts in time and kept poor records of why some companies won multi-million pound contracts. The cost of emergency procurement – billions higher than the equivalent a year before – highlights how both its pandemic plan and supply of essential equipment were inadequate.”
Labour has accused the government of “cronyism” in the award of contracts and claimed around £2bn worth of contracts had been awarded to “businesses with clear links to the Tory party without any tender at all”.
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