Legal fees for reclaiming TCP overspend reach £1m

Cargo nets cover boxes of disposable PPE gloves stored on passenger seats inside an aircraft cabin, after it landed in southern England in 2020 - AFP

Cargo nets cover boxes of disposable PPE gloves stored on passenger seats inside an aircraft cabin, after it landed in southern England in 2020 – AFP

Health officials have spent more than £1m on legal fees to try to recover funds wasted on unsuitable personal protective equipment (PPE).

About a quarter of contracts awarded during the pandemic are now in dispute, with almost £15 billion written off because products were overpriced, unusable or out of date.

It comes as Department of Health and Social Care accounts revealed £14.9 billion was spent on unusable or overvalued PPE and medical equipment over two years.

The Labor opposition said such spending could fund the police force for a year, warning the money was “going up in smoke” with unused PPE now being burned and disposed of.

Last year the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) warned that £4bn of PPE is set to be destroyed – some of it to generate power – because so much useless equipment has been bought.

It followed allegations of cronyism, with Conservative peers among those associated with companies winning contracts, and that there was a “high priority lane” for businesses backed by MPs or officials.

In a report published in June the CCP said that 24 per cent of the PPE contracts awarded are now in dispute as a result of the DHSC’s “random procurement strategy”.

One contract for 3.5 billion gloves saw allegations of modern slavery against the manufacturer.

During select committee hearings, civil servants revealed that remaining PPE was being burned at a rate of 580 lorry loads per month.

Government contracts data shows the Department of Health and Social Care spent £1.03 million last year on legal fees for PPE-related litigation.

The majority went to Burges Salmon LLP, a firm whose lawyers have previously advised the government during the pandemic on testing and vaccines.

The company’s website says one of its lawyers “advised the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health and Social Care during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic”, noting that he “provided procurement and contract advice for both Government departments in relation to the provision of PPE”.

Burges Salmon said the individual did the work while working for the Government Legal Department, not while working for Burges Salmon, and said they had not advised on any contracts related to COVID since their arrival into Burges Salmon.

Civil servants have previously admitted that the government was “not looking” at whether some businesses selling PPE were making a profit when the contracts were negotiated, so they would not be able to dispute any contracts on those grounds.

Last April, Sir Chris Wormald, Permanent Secretary of the Department of Health and Social Care, said that retrospective action was now “not applicable” because the Department had failed to write the relevant clauses into the PPE contracts.

Labor's Wes Streeting - Jeff Gilbert

Labor’s Wes Streeting – Jeff Gilbert

On Saturday shadow health secretary Wes Streeting accused the Prime Minister of “unbelievable negligence” in overseeing such spending.

He said: “When Rishi Sunak was in the Treasury, he was handing out billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money, unaware that he was being taken for a ride.

“Now he is dipping back into the public funds in an attempt to recoup some of what he lost.

“Labor will establish an Office of Value for Money so that taxpayers’ money is treated carefully and wisely,” said Mr Streeting.

This comes after the head of the National Audit Office (NAO) issued a damning appraisal of the Department of Health’s spending, with billions of taxpayers’ money written off.

The accounts of the Department and its agencies show that £6bn was wasted in 2021-22 on PPE, vaccines and medicines that will not be used, or were overpriced.

Combined with almost £9bn written off the previous year, it amounts to £14.9bn of waste in two years.

The NAO warned of poor financial control that auditors could not even sign off the accounts for the UK’s Health Security Agency, part of the Department of Health.

On Thursday Meg Hillier, chair of the Public Accounts Committee, which scrutinizes public spending, said the scale of the waste was “extraordinary”.

“It is another reminder to Whitehall of the vital importance of proper controls in public procurement, including in times of crisis,” she said.

A Department of Health and Social Care spokesman said: “We are working to recover value for the taxpayer from contracts that have not been fulfilled. To date, we have recovered nearly £1 billion in value for the taxpayer from unfulfilled TCP contracts.

“Some of these cases are complex and therefore require legal support. However, we only pursue cases where this represents value for money for the taxpayer.”

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