The chair of the public accounts committee has warned ministers not to delay handing over government documents related to how a company linked to the Conservative peer Michelle Mone was awarded PPE contracts worth more than £200m.
Despite a Commons vote on 6 December forcing the government to release to the committee papers related to the company, PPE Medpro, a health minister has responded by suggesting the government may not do so until an investigation by the National Crime Agency has concluded.
Meg Hillier, the Labour chair of the public accounts committee, said any such delay would be unacceptable, and that it would be “entirely appropriate” for the papers to be released despite the ongoing NCA investigation.
In a letter on Monday to Hillier, the junior health minister Will Quince cited “sensitivities of the ongoing investigations”, and said only that he hoped to “come to an understanding that enables parliament and your committee to perform its important scrutiny role”.
Quince said the Department of Health and Social Care and the Cabinet Office were gathering the material in scope of the parliamentary motion, which was brought by Labour in an opposition day debate.
Hillier told Quince that unnecessary delays in handing over the information once gathered would not be acceptable to the committee and against the spirit of the motion as passed.
In her response, written and published on Tuesday, Hillier said a delay in providing parliament with the papers would “in effect thwart the purpose of the resolution of the house by preventing the committee from conducting its scrutiny function within a reasonable period”.
Citing the public accounts committee’s work in handling “highly sensitive and secret information”, Hillier said “it would be entirely appropriate for the committee to conduct its scrutiny alongside ongoing investigations by law enforcement”.
Hillier concluded her letter to Quince saying a committee clerk would be in touch “to confirm practical arrangements for receiving the papers in the new year”.
The potential delay was criticised by Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader. She said: “There can be no hint of another Tory whitewash. Ministers have run out of excuses and have now been forced under pressure by parliament to release these documents to the public accounts committee for proper scrutiny.
“They’re taking people for fools if they think they can wriggle out of complying with the clear instruction they’ve been given. If there’s nothing to hide, there should be no need for delay.”
Hillier said parliament was aware of the NCA’s investigation and an inquiry by the Lords commissioners for standards into whether Mone has breached any House of Lords conduct rules, when it voted for the papers to be released to the committee.
The Lords commissioners for standards inquiry has been paused until the NCA’s criminal investigation concludes.
The break in the commissioner’s inquiry was “to avoid the risk that an internal investigation and publication of the resulting report could prejudice the criminal process”, Lady Manningham-Buller, the former head of MI5 and chair of the Lords conduct committee, said on 1 December.