Lords watchdog launches inquiry into Michelle Mone over ‘VIP lane’ contract

Michelle Mone
Michelle Mone

The House of Lords commissioner for standards has launched an investigation into the Conservative peer Michelle Mone, relating to the PPE company awarded £203m government contracts via the “VIP lane” after she referred it to the Cabinet Office in May 2020.

The investigation follows a complaint by the Labour peer George Foulkes on 6 January, after the Guardian reported that leaked files appear to suggest Lady Mone and her husband, the Isle of Man-based financier Douglas Barrowman, were secretly involved in the company, PPE Medpro.

Foulkes asked the commissioners to investigate whether Mone may have breached the Lords code of conduct by failing to declare an interest in the company, and by lobbying for it to be awarded government contracts.

The commissioner confirmed that the investigation would be for “alleged involvement in procuring contracts for PPE Medpro, leading to potential breaches” of three provisions of the Lords code, which cover the requirement that peers publicly register “all relevant interests”, and prohibit them from lobbying for a company or a person in which a peer “has a financial interest”.

The commissioner also stated that Mone would be investigated under the more general provisions of the code’s paragraph 9, which includes that peers “should always act on their personal honour”; must never accept “any financial inducement as an incentive or reward for exercising parliamentary influence”; and “must not seek to profit from membership of the house by accepting or agreeing to accept payment or other incentive or reward in return for providing parliamentary advice or services.”

Mone, appointed a Conservative peer by David Cameron in 2015 after selling an 80% stake in her Ultimo lingerie company, has consistently denied any “role or function” in the company, and her lawyers have said she is “not connected to PPE Medpro in any capacity”.

The possible sanctions for a peer found to have breached the code of conduct, which are determined by the conduct committee, range from merely having to correct a breach, to the most serious penalty of expulsion from the Lords.

PPE Medpro was awarded an £80.85m contract in May 2020 to supply face masks, followed by a £122m contract in June 2020 to supply 25m surgical gowns. Barrowman has also denied being an investor, and his lawyers have said he “was not personally involved in working for PPEM in relation to PPE contracts”.

In December 2020 lawyers for Barrowman and the company also told the Guardian that: “Neither [Barrowman] nor anybody involved with PPEM approached any MPs, peers, government officials, ministers, NHS staff or other health professionals as part of making the approach to the government to offer to supply PPE.”

Corruption: ‘VIP lane’ used by government to hand out PPE contracts to two companies during first coronavirus wave was unlawful, High Court rules

The leaked files seem to suggest that the UK company is in fact a subsidiary of another company called PPE Medpro Ltd, registered on the Isle of Man a day earlier. Barrowman appeared to have been personally involved in the creation of agreements for the Isle of Man company with a London import company, Loudwater Trade and Finance, which would procure and supply PPE.

In one of the agreements, the PPE Medpro (Isle of Man) stated that it would use its “extensive network to seek to secure rolling order contracts with the NHS and other government bodies in the British Isles”.

From the two contracts, to supply millions of face masks and surgical gowns, The Guardian understands that PPE Medpro may have earned more than £ 40 million in gross profit. The company declined to say whether this figure was correct.

Mone’s representatives have said she had no interest in PPE Medpro, denying any wrongdoing.

“The reason there is no interest in PPE Medpro in the Baroness Mones register of interests is that no such interest exists,” her lawyer said in December 2020.

Barrowman’s lawyers have said that The Guardian’s report was similar to “grabbing the straw” and was “largely incorrect”.

Mone’s lawyers said The Guardian’s reporting was “entirely based on assumptions and speculation and not based on accuracy”, adding: “She is not obliged to say anything to you.”

In a statement, Mone said: “I completely reject these allegations. I was asked to help at some point with national emergency. I declared all necessary interests and have done nothing wrong. I will cooperate fully in any investigation.”

Foulkes told the Guardian: “I welcome the Commissioner’s decision to investigate what appears to be a breach of the Baroness Mone Code of Conduct under three provisions dealing with non-registration of interests and paid lobbying.”

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