Conservative peer Michelle Mone has become the subject of controversy amid accusations of corruption linked to the “unlawful” so-called VIP lane. The wider scandal centres around the government circumventing the standard procurement process to provide personal protective equipment (PPE) to the NHS at the start of the pandemic. Instead they awarded huge contracts – some in the hundreds of millions of pounds – via personal recommendations. The result was vast overpayment for the supplies, a large quantity of which was subsequently found not to meet NHS standards and was therefore unusable.
Government to sue Mone-linked firm
Coming under increasing pressure, the government has finally announced it will take legal action against one of the companies in question: PPE Medpro – a business linked to Baroness Mone and her husband. Yet while the media focus has been on how they won the contract and their relationship with the company, questions remain over the actions and inactions of a number of East Anglian MPs.
The list starts with Matt Hancock, MP for West Suffolk, who was the secretary of state for health and social care at the time. He was responsible for creating the mechanism through which companies – some of which had no prior experience in delivering PPE – were awarded contracts worth hundreds of millions of pounds, without any tendering process.
The VIP lane was created to bypass the traditional – and sometimes slow – procurement channels in order to try to speed up the purchase of PPE, given there was a high global demand due to the pandemic. Whilst the process did expedite the placement of orders, it also removed a number of critical safeguards to prevent any abuse. At the time of the “unlawful” judgement, the government argued it was a “perfectly reasonable” thing to do.
Baroness aggressive towards Hancock
Hancock has recently made it clear that he felt threatened by the emails he received from the baroness. It has since been reported the PPE provided by PPE Medpro was amongst those rejected as being unsuitable as it failed to meet NHS standards.
After his high-profile resignation in June 2021, Hancock was replaced as health secretary by Sajid Javid. Javid went on to resign a year later, triggering the chaotic scenes in Cabinet that led to the resignation of Boris Johnson as prime minister. The MP for North East Cambridgeshire, Steve Barclay then took on the role on an interim basis.
No interest in an inquiry
Neither Javid nor Barclay conducted any inquiry or process to learn any lessons from the VIP lane controversy.
When Liz Truss, MP for South West Norfolk, became prime minister on 6 September 2022, the job of health secretary fell to Thérèse Coffey, MP for Suffolk Coastal. During their short tenure, neither launched an inquiry into, or sought to learn any lessons from, the controversial awarding of contracts. Under PM Rishi Sunak, Barclay has now returned to the health minister role.
Successive governments – three this year – have been aware of concerns over the numerous decisions and actions that were taken during the pandemic. In late 2021 the National Audit Office was critical of the Johnson government for failing to put in place measures to stop abuse of various Covid schemes.
Failure to provide anti-fraud measures
Soon after, Lord Agnew of Oulton (Norfolk), himself linked to a contract awarded via the VIP Lane, dramatically resigned in January 2022 as minister of state in the Treasury. He cited “school boy” errors in the government’s anti-fraud efforts for its Covid loan scheme.
A month later, the then chancellor of the exchequer – now prime minister – Rishi Sunak made clear that recovering money lost to fraud was still a priority. Labour went further, calling for the National Crime Agency (NCA) to investigate.
Whilst the NCA chose not to investigate, it is surprising that the home secretary at the time, MP for Witham in Essex, Priti Patel, was relatively silent on the issue. She herself was accused of breaching the ministerial code in May 2021 as a result of lobbying on behalf of a PPE company which was later awarded a contract.
Leave of absence
Baroness Mone took a leave of absence from the House of Lords ahead of the government’s decision to take legal action against PPE Medpro, while her husband, Douglas Barrowman, faces unrelated criminal charges in Spain related to tax fraud.
As more details of the various scandals linked to the VIP lane come to light, it is clear the ad-hoc process and its vulnerability to abuse, and decisions surrounding it, were a long way from ‘perfectly reasonable’.