The growing controversy over a PPE company linked to Tory peer Michelle Monet has sparked an angry reaction in parliament as MPs demanded an inquiry into wider concerns over what they called “absolutely sickening, shameful and inexcusable” cases of politically connected firms profiting from useless PPE during the pandemic.
MPs asked ministers for more information about how PPE Medpro was awarded more than £200 million in government contracts after it was referred to ministers by Lady Mone.
They also used the opportunity to ask wider questions about government procurement contracts during the pandemic – some of which, one MP said, had since been flagged by Transparency International as a “corruption risk”.
Responding to an urgent question on Thursday from Labor deputy leader Angela Rayner, junior health minister Neil O’Brien repeatedly tried to defend the government’s actions and its use of a “VIP lane” that prioritized referrals from politically connected PPE companies.
The minister said “the people who came through the high priority route were not politically connected people, except in the sense that they were referred by MPs across the House”.
The pressing question was sparked by a report in The Guardian on Wednesday. It revealed that the Conservative peer Mona and her children secretly received £29m from the profits of PPE Medpro, a firm awarded major government contracts after she recommended it to ministers, documents seen by the newspaper show.
Mones referral of the company to Tory ministers Michael Gove and Theodore Agnew helped it secure a place in the “VIP lane”, which was used by the government during the coronavirus pandemic to prioritize certain businesses. PPE Medpro then secured two contracts worth more than £203m.
Tens of millions of pounds of PPE Medpro’s profits were later transferred to a secret offshore trust of which Mone and her grown children were the beneficiaries, the documents show. The documents state that the secret payment to the trust was via Mone’s husband, Douglas Barrowman, who weeks earlier had received at least £65m in profits from PPE Medpro.
Mone’s lawyer said last year that she “did not benefit financially and was not connected to PPE Medpro in any way”. On Thursday, Mone broke a 10-month silence on Twitter sharing a photo that said: “Don’t believe everything you read or think.”
SNP Cabinet Office spokesman Brendan O’Hara said it was “almost inevitable” that the VIP lane “would come to this”.
“This get-rich-quick scheme to track down cronies, politically connected friends and colleagues was never going to end well. I suspect that today’s revelations, shocking as they are, are simply the tip of a very large iceberg – a iceberg that can yet sink this toe ship,” he said.
He added: “Transparency International UK has flagged 20% of the £15bn handed out by the Tories in PPE contracts at the height of the pandemic as a corruption risk. As we’ve already heard, they spend £770,000 every single day on store much of the useless equipment in China.
“Now that we have a Tory politician who had absolutely no background in PPE procurement personally making millions from these contracts, the government is planning to proactively investigate how many others of this sort are in their ranks or are they satisfied to sit there and watch this dripping stew of sleaze, corruption and scandal unfold by itself?”
O’Brien responded that “the idea that there was some kind of greater success if you had a political connection, when you say ‘politically connected,’ they were our constituents—they connected with all of us, they had to be referred to a place to be managed and they went through the same process as any other contract”.
The British government continues its attempt to recover money from PPE Medpro in connection with unused dresses bought in a £122m contract. – one of two the company was awarded. The dresses were rejected after a technical inspection and never worn.
PPE Medpro insists the gowns bought through the £122m contract. passed inspection and that the company – and presumably the recipients of its profits – have the right to keep the money.
O’Brien told parliament a “process” was underway regarding what he called an “underperforming contract”. “The first step is to send a pre-action letter outlining a claim for compensation. Legal proceedings will then follow in the event that a satisfactory agreement is not reached.”
Rayner called on the government to release correspondence about the award of PPE Medpro’s contracts once the mediation process was complete, a call to which O’Brien did not respond.
SNP MP Alan Brown called for “a public inquiry into PPE procurement”, while Labour’s Sam Tarry called on the Government to publish “in full” the names of the ministers, MPs and civil servants who referred companies to the VIP lane. “We need to know what corruption happened,” Tarry said.
The Commons speaker reminded members that parliamentary procedure meant MPs were not allowed to specifically criticize the behavior of Mone, a sitting member of The upper house.
However, several MPs expressed strongly worded criticism of the revelations in The Guardian.
Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi, who lost three family members in the pandemic, said: “For Tory peers and other Conservative Party peers to have profited at the taxpayer’s expense from sloppy, useless PPE, particularly through the VIP shopping lane, at a time when people were locked up in their homes, and tens of thousands of people, including my loved ones, died, it is absolutely sick, shameful and inexcusable”.
Dhesi called on O’Brien to issue an apology to the bereaved families for “the stunning lack of integrity at the heart of this whole process”. The minister did not.
Criticism of the PPE contracts came from both sides of the House, with Conservative MP Christopher Chope asking O’Brien: “What has happened to the £122 million that was spent on 25 million dresses supplied by the company mentioned earlier, but whose dresses were never worn and were not fit for the purpose?”
But another Tory MP, Peter Bone, said a “rewriting of history” was taking place, claiming the opposition was making political points “out of what was actually a huge success in getting our NHS personnel protected”.
Contacted about the Guardian’s new revelations on Wednesday, a lawyer for Mone said: “There are a number of reasons why our client cannot comment on these matters and she is under no obligation to do so.”
An attorney representing both Barrowman and PPE Medpro said an ongoing investigation limited what his clients were able to say about those matters. He added: “At the moment we are also asked to say that there is a lot of inaccuracy in the presentation of the alleged ‘facts’ and a number of them are completely wrong.”