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Ministers’ efforts to claw back cash from PPE fraud branded ‘pitiful’

Ministers have been accused of making a “pitiful attempt” to recoup taxpayers’ money wasted on fraudulent Covid contracts, after it emerged that only a fraction of the estimated total had been recovered so far.

About £18m has been retrieved by the Department of Health and Social Care through checks on personal protective equipment (PPE) contracts identified as “high risk” and through “contract management”, the Guardian can reveal.

Will Quince, a health minister, said the figure was correct as of 12 December, and stressed that the government was working to “prevent loss”. However, the amount of taxpayers’ money clawed back is significantly less than that believed to have been lost through PPE fraud.

By January 2022, the DHSC said it had spent £12.6bn on PPE. It estimated that up to 5% of this could have involved fraud or error – worth £630m.

The Public Accounts Committee, which scrutinises the value for money of government spending, also said a stockpile of items worth £3.9bn was not needed. It added that there were disputes with more than 100 suppliers over £2.7bn worth of stock – mostly over concerns about the quality of PPE provided.

Daisy Cooper, the Liberal Democrats’ health spokesperson, tabled the written question to Quince that revealed the sum recovered so far. She criticised the government for having “frittered away” billions on useless PPE, and claimed the £18m figure was “a damning indictment” of the Conservatives’ record on “dodgy Covid contracts”.

Cooper said: “These pitiful attempts to recoup the money lost is adding insult to injury. Conservative ministers must step up efforts to recover the money wasted on Covid contracts handed out to their wealthy friends and donors during the pandemic.”

It is understood that the Lib Dems are planning to table an amendment to the forthcoming procurement bill, which will have its second reading on 9 January, to ban “VIP lanes”, through which contracts were directly awarded to some firms.

Cooper said the move would stop “this staggering waste of public money from happening again” by preventing preferential treatment in government procurement processes being given to organisations and individuals recommended by MPs and peers.

The use of the VIP lane has come under renewed scrutiny, after it was revealed that Michelle Mone and her children secretly received £29m originating from the profits of a business, PPE Medpro, that was awarded large government contracts and placed in the VIP lane after she recommended it to ministers.

The DHSC said: “We continue to sell, donate, repurpose and recycle excess PPE in the most cost-effective way, as well as seeking to recover costs from suppliers wherever possible to ensure taxpayer value for money.

“We are also exploring innovative solutions to reprocess excess PPE into materials or new products that have further uses.”

The department also said it had prevented £139m of fraud occurring because of extra checks put in place.

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