Keir Starmer has slammed Boris Johnson over his government’s lack of “basic accountability” over private contracts during the coronavirus pandemic.
Labour 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.
He told MPs: “The chancellor’s package for forces charities was just £6 million during this pandemic and that’s just not sufficient. 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?”
But Johnson insisted that Starmer should “take it back” for criticising the vaccine task force.
“I think he’s referring to the vaccines taskforce and after days in which the Labour party has attacked the vaccines taskforce 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.”
But Starmer persued with his questioning, asking Johnson how much government had wasted during the pandemic.
Sir Keir said: “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?”
“We’re in the middle of a global pandemic,” snapped back Johnson, “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.”
But the Labour leader pointed out while the government was wasting the money on controversial contracts, the chancellor had been reluctant to extend furlough during the second wave, claiming it was “not the kind of certainty that British businesses or British workers need”.