A minister has confirmed the government has been “unable to locate” minutes of a meeting which took place between disgraced former Tory MP Owen Paterson, former health minister Lord Bethell and Randox representatives.
The admission came less than 90-minutes after Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed to release details of the contracts after being pressured on the matter by Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.
The Labour leader had called for a “full and transparent investigation into Randox and the government contracts” after Mr Paterson, who had been employed as a consultant by the firm since 2015, was found to have broken lobbying rules in an “egregious” manner.
Mr Paterson, who resigned earlier this month amid the sleaze scandal surrounding his case, was paid £8,333 a month for 16 hours of work by the clinical diagnostics company.
The parliamentary commissioner for standards Kathryn Stone found in October that the former Conservative MP “repeatedly used his privileged position” to benefit Randox and should be suspended from the Commons for 30 days.
During prime minister’s questions, the PM told Sir Keir he was “very happy” to publish “all the details” relating to Randox’s contracts.
But speaking in the Commons later on Wednesday, Health Minister Gillian Keegan said the government had been “unable to locate a formal note” of the phone call in question which occurred between Lord Bethell, Mr Paterson and Randox associates on 9 April.
Labour’s deputy leader Angela Rayner called the admission evidence of “corruption”.
The Irish company has been a big player in the COVID testing programme and was awarded almost £600m worth of contracts.
Ms Keegan said the call in question came after contracts had been awarded to the clinical diagnostics firm.
Labour had called for all correspondence relating to three COVID contracts awarded to Randox to be disclosed.
Opening a debate on the awarding of contracts to the firm, Ms Rayner questioned whether “the government have anything to hide”.
Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael asked Ms Keegan what benefits Randox had of engaging the services of Mr Paterson, and called on the minister to commit to publish the minutes of the telephone conference call of which he was part.
Mr Carmichael said if the government do not hold minutes of the call, it would be a “remarkable departure” from convention.
Ms Keegan noted that the Liberal Democrat MP has not been in government “during a global pandemic”, but vowed to publish minutes in the library.
“We will review what information is held,” the health minister said.
Pressed further, Ms Keegan added: “I have been unable to locate a formal note of that meeting.”
Labour’s Tony Lloyd, probing the minister more, asked: “Can the minister be absolutely clear whether she knows that the conversation between Lord Bethell and representatives of Randox was minuted by civil servants, or does she know that it was not minuted, or can she simply not say?
“It would be helpful for the record if we had that information. Does she know?”
Ms Keegan replied: “The meeting that he refers to was a courtesy call from the minister to Randox to discuss RNA extraction kits. That was declared on the ministerial register of calls and meetings.
“We have been unable to locate a formal note of that meeting, and that meeting was by the way after any contracts were let with Randox.”
Intervening, Commons Speaker Sir Lindsay Hoyle said: “I would say, and I would expect, that the government meetings that take place with people around would always be minuted. If not, I think it opens up another question – and I don’t want that question to be opened up.”
Mr Lloyd quipped: “It would be funny if it wasn’t so serious.”
His Labour colleague Maria Eagle called the revelation “astonishing”, adding: “There have been meetings with no minutes that are official and involve government ministers.”
Seizing on the minister’s admission, Ms Rayner posted on social media: “A government minister just confirmed in Parliament that there are no minutes to the meeting(s) that took place between Lord Bethell, Owen Paterson and Randox as part of Randox being awarded £600 million of contracts without any kind of tender or any process. This is corruption.
“By admitting that no minutes exist for the Randox lobbying meetings, the government has admitted that the government is routinely breaking the Ministerial Code. When a minister meets an organisation or company an official must be present to keep a record of that meeting.”
Meanwhile, one of the government’s own backbench MPs urged ministers to “publish” all the details surrounding coronavirus contracts.
Conservative Nigel Mills told the Commons: “Let’s publish everything we feasibly can, let’s be as clear as we possibly can what happened and why.”
Mr Mills added that he would support Labour’s motion calling for the details of the contracts to be revealed, adding: “I don’t see why we’re trying to hide things now. I don’t see why we’re resisting publication. So I would support this motion if there’s a vote later on.”
Ms Keegan later told MPs that the government would not be opposing the Labour “humble address” motion that will oblige the government to publish minutes and correspondence of the 9 April phone call.
It passed without a vote, meaning details of the contracts the government awarded to Randox will now have to be released.
A Randox spokesman said: “Randox will be pleased to co-operate fully in laying before the House all the material required.
“Public disclosure will demonstrate the efficiency and value for money provided by Randox through contacts awarded in full compliance with Government regulations at a time of national crisis.
“Contrary to much of what has been written and broadcast, lobbying played no role in the awarding of these contracts.
Dave Penman, general secretary of the FDA trade union said: “The admission from the minister that they “have been unable to locate a formal note of the meeting” raises serious questions about whether officials were present and whether a note was actually taken. Those are matters of fact which should be clarified urgently.”