Sir Keir Starmer urged Boris Johnson to spend taxpayers’ cash wisely after accusing the Government of spending at least £130 million on PR companies this year.
The Labour leader also pressed the Prime Minister over transparency measures in place for contracts awarded during the Covid-19 pandemic.
The Opposition cited Cabinet Office data as showing the communications company spend between January and September, adding the total does not include the cost of special advisers and civil servants working on press matters.
“Two big boxing gloves”
Mr Johnson defended the Government’s spending, including the reported £670,000 contract for public relations support for the vaccine taskforce.
The Prime Minister also insisted science has given the country “two big boxing gloves” in the form of a possible vaccine and testing, adding: “Neither of them is capable of delivering a knock-out blow on its own.
“That’s why this country needs to continue to work hard to keep discipline and to observe the measures we’ve put in.”
During Prime Minister’s Questions, Sir Keir said a £6 million package for Armed Forces charities is “insufficient”, and added: “Can I ask the Prime Minister to reconsider that support on their behalf?
“Because at the same time, we’ve all seen this weekend that the Government can find £670,000 for PR consultants. That’s the tip of the iceberg.
“New research today shows that the Government has spent at least £130 million of taxpayers’ money on PR companies, and that’s this year alone.
“Does the Prime Minister think that that’s a reasonable use of taxpayers’ money?”
Mr Johnson replied: “I think he’s referring to the vaccine task force and after days in which the Labour Party has attacked the vaccine task force, I think it might be in order for him to pay tribute to them for securing 40 million doses.
“And by the way, the expenditure to which he refers was to help raise awareness of vaccines, to fight the anti-vaxxers and to persuade the people of this country – 300,000 – to take part in trials without which we can’t have vaccines.
“So I think he should take it back.”
Labour’s analysis of PR spending by the Government revealed the vast bulk of the £130 million – more than £113 million – was part of a four-year deal with Manning Gottlieb OMD which was signed in 2018, rather than a response to the pandemic.
Sir Keir pressed further on the issue, telling MPs: “This is not the Prime Minister’s money, it is taxpayers’ money.
“The Prime Minister may well not know the value of the pound in his pocket, but the people who send us here do and they expect us to spend it wisely.”
Giving the example of a company awarded “about £150 million” to produce face masks, Sir Keir said the Government has “a lax attitude to taxpayers’ money”, adding: “How many usable face masks were actually provided to NHS workers on the front line under that contract?”
Mr Johnson replied: “We’re in the middle of a global pandemic in which this Government has so far secured and delivered 32 billion items of personal protective equipment.
“And yes, it is absolutely correct that it has been necessary to work with the private sector, with manufacturers who provide equipment such as this – some of them more effectively than others.
“But it is the private sector that in the end makes the PPE, it is the private sector that provides the testing equipment, and it is the private sector that, no matter how much the party opposite may hate them, it is the private sector that provides the vaccines and the scientific breakthroughs.”
“British people are paying the price for the mistakes of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor“
Sir Keir also warned “thousands of people were laid off” due to the failure of the Government to make an earlier announcement about the furlough scheme extension.
He said: “The trouble is the British people are paying the price for the mistakes of the Prime Minister and the Chancellor.
“If they’d handed contracts to companies that could deliver, public money would have been saved. If they’d extended furlough sooner, jobs would have been saved. If they’d brought in a circuit-breaker when the science said so, lives would have been saved.”
The Labour leader said the Prime Minister must also close gaps in support schemes to help self-employed workers, adding: “After seven months and so many warnings, why are the Chancellor and Prime Minister still failing our self-employed?”
Mr Johnson replied: “We have done everything that we possibly can to help.
“As for the self-employed, 2.6 million of them have received support at a cost of £13 billion. Quite right.”
The Prime Minister also highlighted the uprating of Universal Credit.