Michael Gove was secretly involved in the process through which a PPE company linked to the Tory peer Michelle Mone secured huge government contracts, according to newly released documents that show private emails being used for government business.
The correspondence threatens to embroil Gove in the deepening controversy surrounding PPE Medpro, the company awarded government contracts worth £203m after it was referred to the “high-priority lane” for well connected companies.
They will also add to the growing scepticism over Lady Mone’s repeated insistence that she was not involved with the company, and cast further doubt on statements made on her behalf by her lawyers. Her relationship to PPE Medpro is under investigation by the House of Lords commissioner for standards.
In one key email, sent on 8 May 2020, Mone proposed supplying large quantities of PPE face masks to the government, saying they could be sourced through “my team in Hong Kong”.
The email was sent to Theodore Agnew, a fellow Tory peer who was at the time a Cabinet Office minister responsible for procurement. Mone copied Gove in to the email, telling Agnew that Gove had asked her to “urgently” contact him.
Mone used her private email address, writing to Agnew at his private email address linked to his Norfolk private estate. She copied in Gove via his private Gmail account.
The Guardian was only able to establish that non-government emails had been used because of an apparent administrative error by the Cabinet Office, which failed to properly redact documents released after a freedom of information request (FoI) from the Guardian.
The information commissioner, John Edwards, is investigating the use of private emails at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) during the pandemic, including by then ministers Matt Hancock and Lord Bethell.
While it is not in itself unlawful for ministers to use private emails, there is strict guidance on ensuring it is done in accordance with transparency laws, and Edwards’s predecessor, Elizabeth Denham, expressed “concern” and “worry” at the practice.
The emails released under FoI reveal how Mone laid out a sales pitch to Agnew for the supply of PPE. The government had by then suspended normal competitive tendering processes and, it would later emerge, was fast-tracking to a “VIP” lane offers of PPE referred by politically connected people.
“I hope this email finds you well,” Mone wrote to Agnew, copying in Gove. “Michael Gove has asked to urgently contact you [sic]. We have managed to source PPE masks though [sic] my team in Hong Kong. They have managed to secure 100,000pcs per day of KN95 [face masks] which is equivalent to N95 or FFP2. In order to commit to this 100,000pcs per day could you please get back to me asap as freight will also need to be secured. Hope to see you in the House of Lords when we get out of lockdown. Kindest Regards, Michelle.”
Agnew replied from his personal email address, copying in the government email address of his private secretary. “Michelle, Thank you for your kind offer. I am forwarding this into the appropriate PPE workstream with Dept of Health. They will ask you some basic questions on the details of the offer and then hopefully progress it from there. Best wishes Theodore.”
One of his staff then emailed a Covid PPE “priority appraisals” mailbox, asking them to “pick up with Baroness Mone”. The staff member added the words “VIA LORD AGNEW” and “VIP” to the subject field.
Within weeks, PPE Medpro was awarded two government contracts worth £203m to supply millions of face masks and sterile surgical gowns.
Mone has repeatedly distanced herself from PPE Medpro, despite leaked documents and WhatsApp messages, seen by the Guardian, appearing to suggest that she and her husband, Douglas Barrowman, were secretly involved in the company.
Lawyers representing Mone said the Guardian’s reporting was “not based on accuracy”. They have repeatedly said she “was not connected to PPE Medpro in any capacity”, had no “association” with the company and “never had any role or function” in the process by which contracts were awarded to the firm.
Barrowman’s lawyers have similarly distanced him from the firm, but they have not denied that he benefited financially from PPE Medpro’s business.
The Lords standards commissioner, Martin Jelley, is investigating Mone for “alleged involvement in procuring contracts for PPE Medpro, leading to potential breaches” of three provisions of the Lords code, which requires peers to publicly register “all relevant interests” and prohibits them from lobbying for a company or a person in which a peer “has a financial interest”. Mone denies she broke any rules.
The newly released emails, in which Mone offered PPE sourced by “my team”, raise several new questions for the peer, who was previously involved in the lingerie company Ultimo before David Cameron appointed her to the House of Lords in 2015.
Her lawyers have previously said her involvement in PPE Medpro did not extend beyond a “very simple, solitary and brief step” of referring the company to “the office of Lord Agnew”. However, the emails suggest that it was not a solitary step, because she had already made contact with Gove , and she did not refer the company to Agnew’s office, but to his personal email address.
She also did not technically refer PPE Medpro – which, at the time of the email, had not been incorporated as a company. Instead she referred to PPE that would be supplied by “my team”.
Agnew declined to respond to questions about the issue, explaining that he had recently been interviewed by the Lords commissioner on the matter and had been asked to keep his evidence confidential.
Gove also declined to answer several questions from the Guardian, including about why he was Mone’s first point of contact. A government spokesperson said all emails were dealt with appropriately because they were passed on to officials, and contracts were awarded “in line with procurement regulations and transparency guidelines, and there are robust rules and processes in place to prevent conflicts of interest”.
A lawyer for Mone said there was “nothing new” or “sinister” in the new emails and accused the Guardian of having a “deliberate and vexatious interpretation of them, characterising them in a wholly negative manner”.
The lawyer did not respond directly to questions about the newly released emails, or about a previously disclosed civil servant’s email that appears to show that Mone was still lobbying government officials nine months after she first made contact.
The email was sent to colleagues by Jacqui Rock, the chief commercial officer for NHS test and trace, in February 2021. She revealed that Mone had been contacting officials on behalf of PPE Medpro, which appears to have been seeking government contracts for the provision of Covid tests.
In the email, published by the government last month, Rock told fellow civil servants: “Baroness Mone is going to Michael Gove and Matt Hancock today as she is incandescent with rage on the way she believes Medpro have been treating [sic].”