Michael Gove has been accused of falsely claiming that a personal protective equipment (PPE) contract linked to a Conservative peer went through “eight stages” of checks, after the government admitted the vetting process did not happen.
But the government has now conceded that a £22.6m contract to supply goggles, masks and gowns was awarded to Bunzl Healthcare before a more vigorous eight-stage vetting process was put in place.
Tory peer Lord Feldman lobbied for the contract last March while acting as a government adviser on PPE – whilst also being paid by Bunzl as a client of his lobbying firm.
Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, told The Independent: “Ministers have finally admitted what we all know to be true – if you’re the mate or a client of an influential Tory then the rules don’t apply and you get to the front of the queue for taxpayers’ money.”
Both Mr Gove and junior Cabinet Office minister Julia Lopez claimed in parliament that all offers of PPE at the height of the Covid crisis went through “eight stages” of checks.
Ms Rayner said: “Michael Gove and Julia Lopez have clearly misled parliament. They need to correct the record and explain why they haven’t been telling the truth, and then publish the details of every other contract that was awarded to their mates outside of the eight-stage process.”
The Labour deputy said the government still had to “explain why a lobbyist was serving as an adviser to the government, seemingly helping his clients get access to public money”.
Emails obtained by the Good Law Project campaign group showed that Lord Feldman discussed the possibility of PPE contract being awarded to Bunzl with a government official last March, shortly before the company received a £22.6m deal.
The peer – a former co-chair of the Conservative Party – was working in an unpaid role advising junior health minister Lord Bethell at the time, and Bunzl was a client of his lobbying and PR firm Tulchan.
Ms Rayner had asked the government to explain whether the contract awarded to Bunzl was approved through the government’s eight-stage process designed to assess and approve PPE offers.
In a written response, the junior health minister Jo Churchill admitted Bunzl was one of 71 PPE suppliers who had not undergone the eight-stage vetting process in the early weeks of the pandemic.
The minister pointed to a National Audit Office assessment which estimated the value of all the contacts handed out by the end of April 2020 – before the vigorous vetting process was introduced – amounted to £1.5bn.
Ms Rayner has previously uncovered the fact that the eight-step process was not used in the case of Ayanda Capital, awarded £252m of deals for PPE supplies. Nor was it followed in the case of PestFix, given a contract to supply PPE worth £350m.
Lord Feldman previously defended his actions over the Bunzl contract, telling the Financial Times: “When I agreed to help at the start of the first lockdown, it was clearly a time of significant national crisis.”
He added: “My sole motivation was to try to support the government and the NHS in protecting medical staff and saving the lives of patients.”
A government spokesperson said: “All PPE contracts went through a robust process of checks and controls led by officials. These contracts have delivered over nine billion items of PPE to protect frontline workers.”
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