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Volume 617: debated on Tuesday 29 November 2016

3. If the Government will establish a public inquiry into Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ contract with Concentrix. (907541)

9. If the Government will establish a public inquiry into Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs’ contract with Concentrix. (907547)

The independent National Audit Office is carrying out an inquiry into the Concentrix contract and it plans to publish its report in early 2017. That is in addition to Select Committee and Public Accounts Committee scrutiny, which has been extensive to date and will no doubt be extensive in the future.

I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh), who is not in her place, whose hard work got this issue on to the agenda and forced HMRC to act. In July, the independent Social Security Advisory Committee said that the Concentrix contract was a

“major departure for HMRC, as decisions about a claimant’s past eligibility to a benefit are being made by a commercial organisation”,

and that

“this same organisation is then performing mandatory reconsiderations when a claimant challenges the initial decision.”

What are the Government going to do to prevent this situation from happening again?

The chief executive of HMRC addressed that particular issue in one of his evidence sessions to a Select Committee. I hope the House will be pleased to hear that HMRC has taken back and completed all 181,000 cases from Concentrix and has now cleared most of the mandatory reconsiderations. [Interruption.] There are of course issues to consider. That is why the National Audit Office is carrying out its inquiry, which is already under way, and the Government will of course respond to its report in due course.

The Concentrix scandal left huge numbers of people in hardship, and some of them are still paying off the debts to loan sharks that they took out to see them through. Ministers must have seen the complaints letters, and they must have seen what was in the media. Were they asleep at their desks? Were they just caught napping? Concentrix, HMRC and the Minister at the time need to be held responsible for this, and we need a proper inquiry.

I would make the point to the hon. Gentleman that a proper inquiry is exactly what the National Audit Office will be undertaking, and I am sure that the hon. Member for Hackney South and Shoreditch (Meg Hillier) and her Committee will have that report in front of them in due course. This matter will be properly looked at in some detail. Over the course of the contract, considerable savings were made for the taxpayer in relation to fraud and error, but it is true that things went badly wrong towards the end of the contract, which is why swift action was taken.

While recognising the points made by the hon. Members for Great Grimsby (Melanie Onn) and for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) on the Concentrix contract, which will be covered in the Select Committee’s report, I would like to congratulate Treasury Ministers on responding very fast when these issues really came to a climax in August and on being extremely prompt in looking after constituents who contacted their MPs about this matter.

I thank my hon. Friend for those words. Having looked carefully at the profile of complaints from Members over the period of the contract, it is clear that there was sharp increase in their number right at the end of the contract, when it became apparent that a number of Members were contacting us on behalf of their constituents. As I have said, it was the sharp decline in service that led to the actions that we took. It is also worth noting that all the 181,000 cases that were taken back have now been resolved and that, where appropriate, compensation has been paid. Most importantly, when claims have needed to be renewed and reinstated, this has been done.

Given the issues in my constituency that I have raised, I am pleased that the Concentrix contract has now been brought to an end. Does the Minister agree that an inquiry by the National Audit Office, which works for and answers to this House, will be far more effective in getting lessons learned than a long-winded public inquiry that could become a lawyer-fest?

My hon. Friend is exactly right to say that the National Audit Office inquiry is the way to go. This is an area in which it is deeply experienced and the work is already under way. The report will be produced in the new year. In order to draw conclusions and to find these reports helpful, that speed of inquiry is important. We will have the report early in the new year, and the House will have further chances to scrutinise it at that time.