Minutes of a key phone call about a contract awarded to Randox after it employed disgraced former MP Owen Paterson as a consultant have been lost, a minister has claimed.
MPs were told that details of the conference call could not be found – just an hour after Boris Johnson relented to opposition pressure and pledged to release details of the contracts.
Minister Gillian Keegan admitted in the House of Commons on Wednesday the government had “been unable to locate a formal note of that meeting”.
Labour’s Angela Eagle branded it an “astonishing revelation”, saying: “There have been meetings with no minutes that are official and involve government ministers.”
Sir Lindsay Hoyle also made plain his alarm at the onset of a long-awaited Commons debate on sleaze, as Labour sought to force the release of all records.
The Commons Speaker said accurate record keeping was even more significant during the Covid pandemic, telling minister Gillian Keegan: “I’m very, very concerned.”
Paterson’s work for Randox has come under scrutiny after documents seemed to show the firm was awarded a £133 million coronavirus testing contract, despite government officials knowing that it did not have enough equipment.
The army eventually had to be drafted in to help secure the equipment for Randox – which subsequently won £600 million in Covid testing deals.
Attention has been focussed on a call between Paterson and Tory peer Lord Bethell – the minister responsible for testing contracts. The Sunday Times reported this week that the Department of Health and Social Care was refusing to release minutes of the call.
Labour’s Angela Rayner said the comments were tantamount to an admission “that the government is routinely breaking the ministerial code”.
She tweeted: “When a minister meets an organisation or company an official must be present to keep a record of that meeting.”
Keegan later suggested the government will abstain on a vote on the release of the Randox contract details, allowing it to pass with Labour votes.
Earlier, in PMQs, Boris Johnson clashed with Hoyle ahead of a showdown with his own MPs over plans to ban them from paid political consultancy work.
The Prime Minister insisted he wanted to find a cross-party approach out of the Westminster sleaze rows but became involved in tetchy Commons exchanges with Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer.
MPs will vote later on drawing up new rules to curb their outside business interests, something which has increased tensions between Johnson and Tory backbenchers.
The Prime Minister acknowledged he had made a “mistake” in his handling of the Paterson case, where Conservative MPs were ordered to block the immediate suspension of the former cabinet minister over lobbying rule breaches.
He said he wanted a new approach based on “two key principles” – that MPs should focus on their job in Parliament and “no-one should exploit their position in order to advance the commercial interests of anybody else”.
But any attempt at forging an alliance across the House was undermined by Johnson repeatedly questioning Sir Keir’s own outside earnings as a lawyer before he became party leader during angry exchanges in the Commons.
Sir Keir’s entry in the register of interests shows he has earned more than £25,000 for legal work during this Parliament, carried out before he became Labour leader.
At PMQs, Johnson accused the Labour leader of “Mish-conduct” – a reference to talks Sir Keir had with legal giant Mishcon de Reya about a possible role in 2017.
The Speaker repeatedly ordered Johnson to stop asking Sir Keir questions and said the exchanges had been “ill-tempered”, adding: “I think it shows the public that this House has not learnt from the other week.
“I need this House to gain respect but it starts by individuals showing respect for each other.”
Sir Keir said Johnson’s refusal to fully apologise for his stance on the Paterson case showed he was “a coward, not a leader”.
The Labour leader said: “Weeks defending corruption. Yesterday a screeching last-minute U-turn to avoid defeat on Labour’s plan to ban MPs from dodgy second contracts.
Sir Keir later withdrew his allegation that the Prime Minister was a “coward”.