PAC chair says that MPs on the committee will continue to challenge government on its award of contracts
The head of parliament’s public spending watchdog has said that the urgency of coronavirus response “did not give government licence to act fast and loose” on procurement processes.
Dame Meg Hillier (pictured above), chair of the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, added that MPs are “clear about [their] role challenging spending and why transparency and value-for-money have never been more important”.
By the end of July 2020, government had awarded external suppliers more than 8,600 contracts related to coronavirus response. These deals were worth a cumulative £18bn, according to a National Audit Office report published late last year.
The Department of Health and Social Care and national NHS and public-health bodies were collectively responsible for 90% this spending: £16.2bn.
More than three quarters of this money was spent on acquiring personal protective equipment, for which 6,900 separate deals were signed.
In the 2019/20 year, the DHSC awarded just 174 contracts, worth £1.1bn in total.
During the early months of the pandemic, the majority of supplier spending – £10.5bn – was spent via contracts that were awarded without any competitive tender process.
This was made possible by a relaxation of procurement rules, as outlined in guidance published by the Cabinet Office in March 2020, which advised departments that they could invoke “extreme urgency” clauses allowing them to ditch the usual competition procedures.
According to Hillier – writing exclusively for PublicTechnology sister publication The House Live – alongside the DHSC, other big spenders were the Department for Education, which spent £556m – much of which will have been spent supporting the implementation of remote learning and, in particular, the rollout of laptops to disadvantaged children. More than a million machines have been supplied so far via the DfE’s Get help with technology scheme, which has also delivered tablets and 4G wireless routers.
The Cabinet Office was the third-largest-spending department during early 2020, with £279m of contracts awarded, the PAC chair said.
“But despite these huge sums, the government did not publish contracts in time and kept poor records of why some companies won multimillion-pound contracts,” she added. “Of the 1,644 contracts awarded across government up to the end of July 2020 with a value more than £25,000, 75% were not published within the 90-day target.”
Hillier, the Labour MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch, claimed that this “lack of transparency fuelled concern about the fairness of awards”.
“While millions of people were shielding or tightening their belts, the public was rightly concerned to see middlemen earning enough off the back of taxpayer-funded contracts to buy country estates,” she said.
PAC has held 20 evidence-gathering sessions related to pandemic response, and recently released a report outlining its findings.
“One of the key messages that we mustn’t lose sight of is that government is spending hard-earned taxpayers’ money,” Hillier said.
Read the PAC chair’s full piece here, including lots more insight on the lessons learned from pandemic procurement