Peers and MPs should be required to report any links with firms they recommend for contracts even in emergencies such as the Covid pandemic, the head of the National Audit Office (NAO) has said, following controversies surrounding PPE, including the Michel Monnet scandal. .
Gareth Davies, auditor and comptroller-general at the NAO, said monitoring conflicts of interest was “a key part of public governance” which was not always respected during the VIP fast lane process.
He said the government had given detailed answers on how it would improve its processes following reports by the NAO and others which highlighted the failure to adhere to basic procurement standards when awarding some contracts during the pandemic.
But the auditor-general said the NAO was watching closely to make sure its recommendations on supply and pandemic preparedness were “not lost” as the government dealt with other crises such as Ukraine and high energy prices.
“We are always careful to recognize exceptional circumstances, but despite the intense pressure it is always necessary to cover the basic areas of transparency,” Davis said.
“Publishing what you have done in normal time frames is still possible even in emergencies and throughout the conflict of interest process.”
“You may need an expedited system to refer credible PPE suppliers to the system, but you must absolutely insist that people declare this if they have a vested interest in that supplier, especially if they are in a position of authority or responsibility such as a peer or a member of parliament or a senior civil servant. It simply could not be shown.
“Obviously there were people trying to do this at various stages, but there was no clear indication of how it was resolved.” The reason was the sheer pressure of an emergency, but now you can see where it’s leading you if you’re not careful.
His comments come in the wake of the scandal surrounding Mona, on leave as a Conservative peer, who is under investigation over her alleged involvement in the procurement of Medpro PPE contracts during the pandemic. She promised to clear her name.
Davies made his assessment after the NAO carried out 36 detailed reports on the government’s £300 billion spending during the Covid pandemic.
In an interview with the Guardian, he said the NAO was looking closely at resilience to help the UK be better prepared financially for events that could require large public spending, guarding against a “collective failure of imagination” to adequately prepare for a major pandemic.
He said there would be better “stress testing” of emergency responses, and the NAO would look at preparedness as a whole, asking: “How do you avoid getting caught up in this?”
“You could argue that it happened on more than just Covid.” What is happening with energy is quite unprecedented and needs another emergency scheme developed at high speed from scratch. “We don’t want to do that every time,” he said.
Davies also warned of the effects of inflation on public sector budgets, particularly major infrastructure projects such as HS2 and roads, as well as the risks of the NHS failing to meet its targets of eliminating waiting times of more than a year by 2025.
Davies said the NAO pointed to the “obstacles the NHS faces in implementing a planned approach” to waiting lists, as well as “the numbers where the plan is based on an assumed best-case scenario … rather than a harsh flu winter and … [without] industrial action currently underway”.
He said the NAO’s November report highlighted “serious risks” to meeting the 2025 target of eliminating waits of more than 12 months and that his job now was to monitor progress and “help identify obstacles to overcoming the backlog more quickly “.
“It is clear that many of the risks we identified are still present,” he added. Rishi Sunak last week recommitted to NHS waiting list targets as one of his top priorities.
Davies said inflation was a major risk to the NHS budget, as well as departments exposed to construction costs such as “HS2 and other rail and road improvement schemes”.
Warning that the government faced “tough decisions” on major infrastructure projects, he said it was possible to scale back some projects or ask for more money, but for others he said: “you either do it or you don’t: you have a binary choice there. So there are some very difficult decisions for the government.”
Davis said HS2 was “a good example where the legs that are currently committed will cost more than when the latest decision was made to recommit to the schemes, so that will have to be taken into account one way or another, either through additional funding or through consideration of the future scope of the scheme”.