UK ministers have been urged to release all the correspondence relating to how the government granted more than £200mn of contracts for personal protection equipment to a company called PPE Medpro in 2020, which recent reports suggest led to substantial financial gain for Tory peer Baroness Michelle Mone.
Angela Rayner, deputy leader of the Labour party, told the House of Commons on Thursday that leaked documents in the Guardian newspaper had revealed “a total failure of due diligence and a conflict of interest at the heart of government procurement” relating to Medpro.
The UK government spent more than £13bn on PPE during the Covid-19 pandemic and has been accused of failing to carry out adequate due diligence in awarding contracts, with billions wasted in fraud and unused equipment.
The High Court ruled in January that the government had acted unlawfully in operating a special VIP lane for potential suppliers of personal protective equipment who had links with politicians or government officials.
Early in the pandemic Medpro received two contracts for £80mn and £122mn to provide the government with PPE without competitive tender following a recommendation from Mone, a lingerie entrepreneur.
“In May 2020, PPE Medpro was set up and given £203mn in government contracts after a referral from a Tory peer,” Rayner told MPs.
“It now appears that tens of millions of pounds of that money ended up in offshore accounts connected to the individuals involved, profits made possible through the companies’ personal connections to ministers and the Tories’ VIP lane that was declared illegal by the High Court.”
The Guardian reported on Thursday that a document from HSBC indicated how Mone and her children received £29mn of profits from the PPE contracts through an offshore trust.
Properties connected to Mone and her husband were raided in April as part of a probe by the National Crime Agency into PPE contracts awarded during the pandemic.
Last year, after Mone denied any involvement with PPE Medpro, it emerged that she had been the “source of referral” between the government and the company, helping place it in the VIP lane.
Earlier this year, data from freedom of information requests revealed that Mone had corresponded with cabinet minister Michael Gove and Theodore Agnew, a fellow Tory peer and then Cabinet Office minister responsible for procurement, via Agnew’s personal email, in an attempt to secure PPE Medpro a contract for face masks.
One of PPE Medpro’s directors, Anthony Page, had been the registered secretary of MGM Media — the company that manages Mone’s personal brand, according to the House of Lords register of financial interests, until he quit the role on the same day that PPE Medpro was set up.
Page is also a director of the Knox House Trust, part of the Knox group, a group of companies founded by businessman Douglas Barrowman, Mone’s husband.
Mone has repeatedly denied any relationship with PPE Medpro.
Rayner told the Commons that ministers had so far refused to publish correspondence relating to the award because they were waiting for the result of a “mediation process” between the company and the government which has been going on for about a year.
“What due diligence was performed in awarding the Medpro contract?” she asked.
“Today’s (Guardian) reports concern just one single case but this government has written off £10bn alone of PPE that was deemed unfit for use, unusable, overpriced or undelivered. Ministers appear to have learnt no lessons and learnt no shame.”
Neil O’Brien, under-secretary of state for primary care and public health, said PPE Medpro had been “an underperforming contract”.
He told the Commons: “The first step is to send a letter before action which outlines a claim for damages and that is then followed by litigation in the event that a satisfactory agreement has not been reached. We have not got to a point where a satisfactory agreement has been reached at this stage.”
O’Brien defended the government’s record on PPE procurement, saying that 9,000 people had come forward offering to supply PPE. At the time there was a “global scramble” for protective equipment with bidders “gazumping” each other, he said.
The minister said the VIP lane was set up to handle the “huge” number of potential contacts coming through to ministers.
“It did not give any guarantee of a contract,” he said. “Ninety per cent of bids that went through it were not successful and every single bid that went through that route went through the same, exactly the same, eight-stage process as all the other contracts looking at quality, price, bona fides.”
Mone did not immediately respond to the FT’s questions.