House of Commons
Tuesday 1 February 2022
The House met at half-past Eleven o’clock
[Mr Speaker in the Chair]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Chancellor of the Exchequer was asked—
Cost of Living
To help people with the cost of living, the Government are providing support worth around £12 billion in this financial year and next. That includes: cutting the universal credit taper rate to make sure that work pays; freezing duties to keep costs down; and providing support to households with the cost of essentials. In addition, the Government’s plan for jobs is helping people into work and giving them the skills they need to succeed—the best approach to managing the cost of living in the long term.
The Chancellor will have plenty of opportunities to get the answer right this morning. Data from the Office for National Statistics show that on average people aged 65 or over spend twice as much on energy compared with those under 30, so they will be hit twice as hard by escalating bills. Meanwhile, Energy UK tells us that without Government action there will soon be 6 million people, many of them pensioners, living in fuel poverty. Will the Chancellor persuade himself to really get into this and take up our pledge to remove VAT from energy bills and extend the warm homes discount? If he will not, what will he do, particularly for our most vulnerable pensioners who are suffering from this cost of living crisis?
I am proud of this Government’s track record in supporting pensioners. Thanks to the triple lock, in place since 2010, pensions are, relative to earnings, the highest they have been in more than three decades. However, I recognise the anxiety that many pensioners will feel about rising energy bills, and we are always looking at the best way to support people. To help with exactly that phenomenon, the winter fuel payment provides up to £300 for everyone over the state pension age.
With the cost of living crisis upon us, millions across our country must choose between heating their home or putting a meal on the table. Hunger is a political choice made by this Government and the buck stops with the Chancellor. Last week, he wrote off £4.3 billion of covid fraud. If he has the will, he can end the crisis of food insecurity for millions across our nation. Will he use his spring statement to implement a right to food, including universal free school meals and setting social security payments and the living wage at rates calculated to take account of the rising cost of food?
On providing food for those who most need it, I am pleased that the recent spending review confirmed £200 million of extra funding for the holiday activity and food programme to provide support to families and children outside term time. The national living wage, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, is going up by 6.6% to £9.50 in April, putting an extra £1,000 in the pockets of hard-working people up and down the country.
A constituent wrote to me recently; she is 57 and works four days a week on the minimum wage. Her energy bill is rising from £95 to £220 a month, eating up an extra 11% of her take-home pay. Weekend reports suggest that Treasury action on the cost of living crisis has stalled due to the paralysis engulfing No. 10. Those struggling to heat their homes should not pay the price for the Prime Minister’s conduct, so will the Chancellor agree to extend eligibility for the warm homes discount further and increase it beyond the pitiful £10 that is planned?
Although I do not know the specific circumstances of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent, it sounds like she will benefit from two measures that we have already announced: the significant increase in the national living wage by 6.6% in April; and the cut in the universal credit taper rate, which will mean that a single mother working full time on the national living wage will be an extra £1,200 better off. That will help significantly with energy and other bills, and of course the warm home discount provides a £140 rebate to those who need it.
I have met a number of pensioners in my constituency who are on the state pension, but who also worked hard and saved for a private pension; not a huge pension, but a pension that they believed would help them meet the cost of living. Unfortunately, years of low interest rates and now the rising cost of energy, food and other things have made them begin to worry and they are very concerned about the year ahead. Can the Chancellor provide more information on how he will monitor the situation, and support the families and pensioners whom we encouraged to get private pensions but now find that they cannot meet the cost of living?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to highlight pensioners and their needs. As I said, I am proud of the Government’s track record in supporting them. I can also provide him with the reassurance that we continue to look at the best way to provide support to all those in need, as we have done over the last year of two. In the meantime, he will be reassured to know that we have protected pensioners this coming year with the double lock and, as I said, the winter fuel payments providing up to £300.
Energy prices are rocketing but the price of producing energy has not, meaning that energy companies are experiencing record bonanza profits this year if they are producers. The Chancellor is, of course, worth more than a billion pounds. Could he tell constituents struggling to pay their energy bills what should be taking the cut? Should it be the profits of the energy companies or the lifting of the energy cap that he proposes, costing constituents £1,800 on average a year?
The energy price cap has already protected millions of people against rising energy bills. On the taxation of companies, it is probably worth bearing in mind that one thing that the last few months have shown is that there is an opportunity to invest more in providing natural gas as a transition fuel as we make our way to net zero in a measured manner. To that end, we should be encouraging investment in exporting our natural resources, not disincentivising it.
While Ministers travel the globe in private jets, more and more families across the UK go hungry. Last year, the Trussell Trust delivered 2.5 million food packages through its food banks, which is 100 times more than in 2008-09. Now families face further cuts in benefits, increasing taxes and the cost of living crisis. Does the Chancellor not think that addressing that perfect storm of poverty drivers would be a better use of his time than plotting leadership bids as he waits for the downfall of his lame duck Prime Minister?
The hon. Lady talks about poverty, but the track record of this Government and the Governments since 2010 shows very clearly that more than 8 million fewer people are living in poverty as a result of the actions of those Conservative Governments. Income inequality today is lower than it was in 2010.
It is not good enough to simply say that work lifts people out of poverty when we know that millions of people up and down this country with one job, two jobs or three jobs are still not even making ends meet. The universal credit cut is having a devastating impact, combined with growing food prices and the rise in rents—not to mention the huge hike in national insurance contributions.
I know it is difficult, Chancellor, for someone with financial privilege to really understand what is facing people in communities like mine, but I must say that when I have got elderly people freezing in their homes and more people than ever before using food banks, we need some help from the Government. Poverty is a political choice.
Anyone who has questions about my values can just look at my track record over the last year or two. I am proud of this Government’s achievements in supporting those who most needed our help at a time of anxiety for our country. I respectfully disagree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman: I do believe that work is a route out of poverty. All the evidence shows that children who grow up in workless households are five times more likely to be in poverty than those who do not, which is why I am proud that there are almost a million fewer workless households today as a result of the actions of this Conservative Government.
The most effective sanctions that we could impose on Russia would be to block Russian banks’ access to UK and international markets. Will my right hon. Friend consider that and consider cushioning the inevitable blow to our banks, businesses and households from the financial impacts, including to the cost of living?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. With regard to sanctions, absolutely nothing is off the table. We are working extremely closely with our international allies to make sure that we can send a robust signal to deter Russian aggression, and we continue to explore diplomatic solutions at the same time. He should rest assured that nothing is off the table.
I visited the citizens advice bureau in Malvern and people there were sharing with me the fact that they still have tens of thousands of pounds in household support grants that they can give away between now and the end of March. Will the Chancellor join me in encouraging families who are struggling with the cost of living to apply for the help available?
My hon. Friend, as always, makes an excellent point. I join her in encouraging all those local authorities and others to get those funds out to people who need them as quickly as possible. That is why we have created the household support fund: half a billion pounds to provide £100 or £150 to millions of our most vulnerable families. It is there to help, and I hope we can get the rest of the money out as quickly as possible.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer is exactly right in all the measures that he describes the Government taking to protect families’ incomes. He has always shown a powerful instinct for protecting those on the very lowest incomes, but may I say respectfully to him that we must do something about energy costs? On Friday, I met a couple in my constituency who showed me their fixed tariff agreement with their energy company, which is coming to an end, and the new one coming on stream, which is more than double. They will really struggle to pay their energy costs this year, so may I ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer to look at the issue? The warm home discount scheme is not perfect, but it is a useful vehicle for doing something to help those on the lowest incomes.
My right hon. Friend speaks with compassion and authority on these topics, and I join him in making sure that we are aware of the issue. I am, of course, aware of people’s anxiety about what is coming; he can rest assured that we continue to look at all the policies we have in place to make sure that we are supporting people in the best way possible through the months ahead.
With the risk of inflation becoming entrenched, we need fiscal discipline while the Bank of England undertakes the tricky task of monetary tightening. What does the Chancellor think of proposals that would break down that fiscal discipline and therefore risk increasing inflation and being completely counterproductive?
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right; given his career before he was in this place, he, too, speaks with authority on these matters. He is right to highlight that many of the proposals that people suggest would involve a significant fiscal loosening, which would be inflationary and counterproductive at this time. It is right that fiscal policy is supportive of people, but also mindful of the risks of rising inflation, not least because of the risks for the costs of servicing our debt.
The Chancellor will be aware that voters are being hit by a triple whammy on the cost of living: soaring energy bills, the Chancellor’s own tax rises and falling real wages. Next week, the energy price cap could rise by as much as £600. Labour has set out a fully costed plan to cut these bills, funded by a windfall levy on the oil and gas companies making the most money from the current spike in prices. Where is the Government’s plan for those energy costs? What has distracted them from producing one?
I would probably slightly disagree with the idea that Labour’s plans are fully costed, but it would not be the first time that its numbers do not add up. With regard to the responsible way forward, the right hon. Gentleman has talked about funding the NHS—a good example of something that is funded, because Government Members know that the NHS is the people’s No. 1 priority. It is right that we tackle the backlogs and reform social care, as the Prime Minister has set out, but it is also right that we fund that sustainably and responsibly, which is what this Government are committed to doing.
On Sunday, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor nailed themselves to the mast of the national insurance rise coming in this April—like Thelma and Louise, they have held hands and are going to drive off the cliff. The Chancellor says that it is all about public services, but we know that the real reason he is so desperate to stick to the timetable is so that he can implement planned tax cuts before the next election. Why should the cost of living crisis be made much worse for families this year just to fit in with the Tory party’s planning grid for the next election?
With regard to the cost of living, the Government have, as we have already discussed, put a range of measures in place to help people, not least the increase in the national living wage by £1,000 a year, the cut to the universal credit taper rate and the freezing of fuel duty. The Government will not shirk from funding the NHS sustainably and responsibly. It is the people’s No. 1 priority; the backlogs are rising at an unprecedented rate, and I think people would like to see them addressed, which can be done only with a sustainable funding stream. That is what we have created, and this is a progressive way to do it. Although these decisions are difficult, a responsible Government do not shirk from them.
Inflation is running at 5.4%, the highest level in nearly 30 years. It is already having a real and painful impact on people and businesses, with worrying reports today that increased bills are pushing businesses to lay off staff. The upcoming national insurance hike is a tax on jobs as well as on individuals. This is a cost of living crisis, yet today is the first time that the Chancellor has been to this House since the start of December, and we still do not hear a plan from him—he is too distracted by plotting for the Prime Minister’s job to help those affected by this crisis. People are struggling, so what additional practical financial support can they expect from this Chancellor, and when?
The hon. Lady talked about inflation; she is right and I am very cognisant of the anxiety that people are feeling about rising inflation. It is also right to put that in context. She said it is the highest tier since the early 1990s, and that is right. We are also seeing this as a global phenomenon—inflation in the US is running at its highest since the 1980s, and the highest since the eurozone was created—so we are not alone in facing those challenges. The Government have already set out a plan, but it is a plan that is working. In contrast to what she said about people losing their jobs, what we have seen is 11 months of falling unemployment, which is now back to the almost record pre-pandemic lows, and record numbers of people in work. That is the best way to tackle the cost of living—get people into work and make sure those jobs are well paid.
The Chancellor has brought forward a number of measures to encourage business investment, and I shall mention just two. Under the super deduction, from April 2021 until the end of March 2023, companies can claim a 130% capital allowance on qualifying plant and machinery investments. That is the biggest two-year business tax cut in modern British history. We have also extended the temporary £1 million annual investment allowance level until the end of March 2023.
That was an interesting answer. There is a business in my constituency, Cytronex, which has developed a green solution to increase cycling rates by converting existing bicycles into e-bikes—I recommend it. Last year, its product won the e-bike of the year award; as a result, international demand has far outstripped its ability to support it. Cytronex is passionate about manufacturing its product in Britain and even assembles its own lithium battery packs in Winchester. What more can we do to help small businesses such as Cytronex make the leap into mass production, and will one of the excellent Treasury Front-Bench team meet us to discuss how we can explore that?
Cytronex sounds like a fantastic company, and it is great to see it in Winchester. It is precisely the type of company that we want to support. As I mentioned, it could benefit from the super deduction that we have brought in. Under the super deduction, for every £1 a company invests, its taxes are cut by up to 25p. That type of investment will help manufacturing and the manufacturing sector.
Jobs and job security clearly depend on economic growth. The International Monetary Fund’s forecast putting the UK at the top of the G7 is an endorsement of this Chancellor’s and this Prime Minister’s approach to economic policy throughout covid. Will the Minister assure me and my Dudley constituents that we will increasingly return to revenue from growth as soon as possible, and continue investing in skills for jobs for the future, building on, for example, the successful delivery of Dudley’s institute of technology?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right to focus on skills, and that is exactly what the Chancellor did in the spending review, with an investment, over the Parliament, of £3.8 billion. My hon. Friend mentions the Marches institute of technology, and we are investing in a total of 21 of those innovative institutions across England. Employer-led training is key to growth, and that is why we are quadrupling the scale of skills boot camps in England, including digital skills boot camps, which are available in Dudley and funded by the Government.
Businesses in financial services are more likely to invest here as opposed to European markets if an agreement is reached with the EU on financial services regulation. Last March, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, the hon. Member for Salisbury (John Glen), said that he expected such an agreement to be signed expeditiously. It still has not been. When does the Minister think the memorandum of understanding on financial services regulation will finally be signed?
A local businessman in my constituency would love to be able to invest, but he is facing business ruin because he made an order to China for some fireplace tiles worth £15,000 and, because of anti-dumping duty, customs duty and various other taxes, he is going to be charged £43,000 of costs for a £15,000 order. He is a sole business person and he is facing bankruptcy. I have contacted HMRC about this, but I seem to be hitting a dead end, so will the Minister please look into this matter and see if anything can be done to help him?
Glasgow Climate Pact: Fossil Fuel Taxation
I am pleased to have an opportunity to underline the Government’s commitment to reducing carbon emissions through taxation and the UK’s success in limiting global emissions at COP26. The Government have reduced carbon emissions through their carbon pricing policies, including through the UK emissions trading scheme. We are committed to delivering on our carbon targets, and our net zero strategy sets out a roadmap for reaching net zero by 2050.
I thank the Minister for her answer, but she will know that the UK has one of the most lax tax regimes in the world for the oil and gas sector. In 2019, companies got away with paying 12.5 times less tax for a barrel of oil produced here compared with in Norway, for example. In 2020, Shell paid absolutely no tax in the UK, the only country in the world where it operates where that was the case. For 2021, HMRC expects that the industry will pocket £910 million-worth of tax reliefs for decommissioning. Given our commitments under the Glasgow climate pact, and given the fact that the oil and gas industry is currently making near-record profits while UK households are struggling with a real cost of living crisis, will the Minister address the imbalance and commit to a review of the tax regime?
Insurance Industry Regulation
I hold regular discussions, usually on a six-weekly basis, with the chief executive of the Financial Conduct Authority on a range of issues regarding the regulation of financial markets, including the insurance market.
Insurance companies are exploiting the cladding scandal by charging leaseholders extortionate, punitive and unethical prices for their buildings insurance. The Treasury and the FCA have frankly done nothing while people are forced to find eye-watering sums of money because of a scandal that they did not cause, and there is no transparency as to how their premiums are being calculated. After many years, a Government Minister has finally written to the FCA, but will the Treasury now step up and ensure that the FCA not only looks into this matter but provides redress for my constituents and the thousands of people across this country who are experiencing severe financial distress?
The FCA has been looking at this matter, and last week my colleague the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities wrote to the FCA to ask it to look at whether there is a market failure. Since then, it has written back, with the Competition and Markets Authority, to say that they are engaging with the industry and will produce a statement on the matter in due course. I recognise the concerns that the hon. Member has raised and the dysfunctionality that may exist in the market, and it is important that that is looked at carefully.
We are making progress. We are in deep conversations with the Prudential Regulation Authority and its actuaries on the way that the risk margin and the matching adjustments should be altered to release that additional capital. We are confident that progress will be made and we are also working closely with the insurance industry to see that that comes to pass.
National Infrastructure Projects
The 2021 national infrastructure and construction pipeline set out nearly £650 billion of planned and projected public and private investment in infrastructure over the next 10 years. Last year’s Budget and spending review set out how we will deliver on commitments in the national infrastructure strategy, and go further in providing more investment to every part of the UK.
The first great energy revolution of oil and gas saw Scottish communities largely miss out, other than in Shetland. The offshore renewables revolution is occurring off East Lothian’s coast and landing on its shores, largely then to be cabled south. Where are the jobs and benefits for the county, or the revenue that accrued to Shetland? Will the Minister agree to meet me and representatives of East Lothian Council to ensure that the offshore renewables revolution benefits the communities where it actually lands?
The Government are committed to ensuring that the whole of the United Kingdom benefits from our investment in renewables and our transition to net zero and the growth that that affords us, and I am happy to look into the matter that the hon. Gentleman raised.
Support for Lowest-income Households
As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has announced, we are increasing the national living wage to £9.50 an hour for workers aged 23 and over from this April. That means a pay increase of £1,000 a year for a full-time worker earning the national living wage, and keeps us on track to meet our target to end low pay by the financial year 2024-25. As we have heard, we have taken further decisive action by cutting the universal credit taper rate and increasing the universal credit work allowances.
When it comes to high-paid jobs in the Ipswich area, Freeport East has generated great interest. However, my constituents are keen to see meat on the bones, and for that exciting principle to become a reality. Currently, the plan is to put in the full business case this April. Clearly, that is a most exciting prospect, being near to Ipswich. Will my right hon. Friend give me a firm guarantee that rocket boosters will be put under the plans, to ensure that the benefits of Brexit and the benefits of the freeport can be realised for my constituents as soon as possible?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. In the week that we announced the Brexit freedoms Bill, that is a really good example of why our decision on the Government Benches to honour the people’s decision to leave the European Union was the right one, and why the Labour party was so wrong to oppose it. The Prime Minister was at Tilbury only yesterday to identify the benefits of freeports, and I can reassure my hon. Friend that we are putting rocket boosters under this policy, for the benefit of places like Ipswich.
Does the Minister agree that some of the ways in which low-income families could be helped would be to drop the national insurance increase, which is wiping out part of the increase in the national living wage anyhow, and to drop many of the green levies, which have a massive impact on electricity bills—up to 20%?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question. He knows the high regard that I have for him. I do, however, respectfully disagree with him on these points. There is no other responsible way for us to finance the 9 million more checks, scans and operations that the health and social care levy will unlock than through a broad-based tax increase, which is highly designed to ensure that we protect vulnerable families, so that the 6 million lowest-paid will pay no extra tax at all as a result of the levy.
When it comes to the green levies, it is worth noting that we have reduced our reliance on natural gas, as a country, by 26% since 2010. That is saving taxpayers now, in an era of ultra-high gas prices. It is also worth noting that clean technologies are now the cheapest form of new energy to procure—cheaper than new gas.
Lower-paid, and especially young part-time workers, do not currently benefit from tax relief or employers’ contributions towards pensions under the auto-enrolment scheme. Will the Minister speak to colleagues across Government to look at extending auto-enrolment to lower-paid workers, to ensure that they get the long-term benefits?
My hon. Friend has campaigned consistently on this theme. I would certainly be very happy to have further discussions with him about it. It is worth noting, and celebrating, the fact that the proportion of people who are in low-paid work is actually at its lowest since records began in 1997.
The Trussell Trust finds that three out of four referrals are disabled people, and the Office for National Statistics finds that people who work online at home are more likely to work longer and not retire early, particularly if they are disabled. So will the Chancellor, the Treasury and the Minister look at the idea of promoting working from home after the pandemic, to help enable people with disabilities and other people to be more productive, and at the same time target more support for those in greatest need, as we have found from the Trussell Trust?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question, and for the spirit in which he asks it. Over the course of the spending review we are investing £1 billion in disability-related programmes, and that is an aspect that I am happy to look at further. More broadly, the Government as a whole spend £58 billion a year on wider disability support, so we certainly take that area very seriously.
Some of the lowest-income households are made up of pensioners, and important extra help for the most vulnerable is already available and budgeted for through pension credit, yet up to 1 million people—including, potentially, 4,500 pensioners in north Northamptonshire—are failing to claim up to £1.8 billion in pension credit. Please will the Government do more to promote the take-up of pension credit?
My hon. Friend raises an important point. The state pension and pension credit are rising by 3.1%, which is helping to protect more than 12 million pensioners from cost of living increases. It is vital that people get the help to which they are entitled. If any Member has any practical suggestions to bring to our attention, we will happily look at those, and I will task officials to make sure that we are doing all we can.
Council Tax: Second Homes
I am aware that the hon. Gentleman raised a similar question with the Chancellor when the Chancellor was a Local Government junior Minister. The hon. Gentleman will know that we announced in the middle of last month that we are closing a tax loophole that allowed owners of second homes who claimed that their often-empty properties were holiday lets to receive small business rates relief instead of paying council tax. We are also committed to ensuring that first-time buyers are able to get on and move up the housing ladder.
Rural Britain’s housing crisis has become a catastrophe over the last two years of the pandemic. The Chancellor will know all about that, given the kind of constituency he represents. Some 80% of all house sales in the lakes and dales in Cumbria have been to the second home market, and in some rural communities there has been a reduction in the private-rented affordable market of 70%. Local families are being forced out of our communities. The need for drastic and immediate action is obvious, well over and above what has been said. Will the Minister agree—or will she agree to persuade her right hon. Friend the Chancellor—to meet me, as the Chancellor’s constituency neighbour, to sit down and look at seven steps for saving our rural communities, so that we can prevent our towns and villages being emptied of their full-time populations? That will surely include giving councils the freedom to double council tax on second homes.
I am happy to meet the hon. Member to discuss the points he raises. We have taken a number of steps to ensure that people pay the full rate of council tax on second homes—96% of second home owners pay the full rate of council tax. He will know that the Government introduced the higher rate of stamp duty land tax for those purchasing additional properties, and only last year introduced a new SDLT surcharge of 2%, to ensure that houses are available for local people at reasonable prices. I am happy to discuss this further with him.
We know that young people have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. I am delighted that, to date, more than 122,000 kickstart jobs have been started by young people across Great Britain, including in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Tom Randall). Youth unemployment fell by 11.1% in the three months to November 2021 and is lower than it was prior to the pandemic, and in December there were half a million more employees aged under 25 than in December 2020.[Official Report, 7 February 2022, Vol. 708, c. 7MC.]
I recently visited Severn Trent Water in Gedling, and staff told me how impressed they were with the kickstarters that the company had taken on. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that he is working hard to encourage more companies and organisations to get involved in the kickstart scheme, to get even more people back into work?
I completely agree with my hon. Friend. Kickstart is delivering valuable jobs and work experience to young jobseekers at risk of long-term unemployment. Although kickstart closed to new applications on 17 December, we are genuinely delighted at the response from employers. As I noted, more than 122,000 kickstart jobs have been started so far, and we expect more between now and the end of March. Employers should continue to engage with Department for Work and Pensions jobcentres and support the new way to work campaign to get more people into work.
In my constituency, 130 new jobs for young people have been created. A group of young people started this week at Ball Aerocan in my constituency. The company is very pleased with the scheme and the young people it found but said it took a little while to get through the system. What can the Government do to encourage businesses to make use of the scheme before it ends in March?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we want to encourage maximum uptake. Kickstart is only one part of the comprehensive package of support available to young people and, following the closure of this scheme, young jobseekers will still be able to benefit from the DWP’s wider youth offer, while work coaches across the country are working to support young people into jobs.
Young people who lost jobs during the pandemic have returned to less secure jobs, typically gig economy roles. The Resolution Foundation report published yesterday showed that one third of 18 to 34-year-olds who have returned to work have returned to atypical, insecure jobs. Almost 18 months ago, the Chancellor launched his kickstart programme, setting a target of 250,000. The Minister has said how many have found jobs, but, on the evidence of the Resolution Foundation report, those jobs just are not there and they are typically insecure.
I am afraid the hon. Gentleman confuses what he is talking about. The fact that we have not hit the target is precisely a reflection of the fact that the wider economic recovery has been so strong. It is a measure of the success of the wider recovery that we simply do not need to offer those opportunities and that the regular economy is generating them.
I have heard from so many on the Government Benches how good the kickstart scheme is. It has huge potential, but I keep telling the Treasury Bench to get their finger out and get on with it. It needs to be bigger and better; it must be linked to green skills and real opportunities for getting young people to roll up their sleeves and work in the community. It could be backed by a windfall profit tax on supermarkets and others, or on the gambling industry. Get on with it!
We are getting on with it. I remind the hon. Gentleman that when we compare the scheme to the last Labour Government’s future jobs fund, we see that we have already comfortably exceeded the number of young people it supported into work. Those are good, well-paying jobs in sectors that, he rightly highlights, are some of those of the future.
Public Spending: Value for Money
I will comment specifically on some of the fraud relating to Government economic support schemes put in place during the pandemic. My colleagues and I share the anger and frustration of hon. Members across this House and of people across this country that schemes designed to help businesses to get through an unprecedented crisis were exploited by a minority. We rightly placed an emphasis on speed when introducing those schemes, but we will robustly pursue anyone who has taken advantage of the Exchequer.
I welcome the Minister’s response, but does he realise that people in Blackburn are really concerned about our cost-of-living crisis? They have a right to expect this Government to be prudent with the public purse, but what they find is that this Government simply do not operate under normal rules. They have hit working people and ordinary businesses with tax rises, yet wasted billions of pounds on contracts, fraud and outsourcing. Does the Minister accept that people should not have to pay for a Conservative tax rise when billions in taxpayers’ money has been leaked due to fraud and mistakes—or, as Lord Agnew said last week, “schoolboy errors”?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question, and I completely agree that we want to pursue fraud whenever it has occurred. That is why, at the March 2021 Budget, we established a £100 million taskforce with more than 1,000 employees, designed precisely to go after every penny that has been taken by people not entitled to it. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has already recovered and prevented £743 million-worth of loss; the taskforce is expected to recover £800 million to £1 billion from fraudulent or incorrect payments over the two years of its existence, and HMRC reserves the right to carry on for as long as it takes.
I welcome the Chancellor’s clear confirmation last week that, far from writing off any of that money, the Government are going after everyone who has claimed it fraudulently. However, it is important to remember the context. The businesses in my constituency know the jobs that were saved by the rapid roll-out of bounce back loans and furlough and know that the Chancellor had to balance those constraints: while it is right to go after criminals, it was also right to make fast, smart decisions to protect thousands of jobs across our nation.
My right hon. Friend puts it extremely well. We must remember the context: the economy was going through a heart attack at that time, owing to the necessary steps we took to support wider public health. I would remind the Opposition Benches that the shadow Chancellor wrote to the Chancellor at the time, describing the loan scheme application process as “cumbersome” and calling for access to be made easier. We were operating in that context of needing to ensure that businesses could access the support to which they were legitimately entitled.
What does the Minister think would happen to an employee in the private sector who lost more than £4 billion of someone else’s money to fraud, having ignored numerous warnings? Would they really be eyeing up a possible promotion, or is it more likely that they would be sacked on the spot?
We are running the Government of the United Kingdom, and we needed to respond at speed to an unprecedented public health emergency. If we had failed to provide the £400 billion of support that we gave, we would have seen the worst fears, with millions of people unemployed and thousands of companies closing. We struck the right balance in getting that support out to firms and then building in the protections needed to protect the taxpayer interest, and we are, as I have said, going to go after anybody who has defrauded the Exchequer.
Thanks to our vaccine booster roll-out, we now have one of the most open economies in Europe, and thanks to our economic plan, we are set to have one of the highest growth rates in the G7 this year and last. We continue to deliver on our plan for jobs, doubling down with a new target to move half a million more people off welfare and into work by the end of June. Unemployment is falling and is now down to almost record lows. Youth unemployment is already at record lows. All of this shows that our plan for jobs is working.
People in Ukraine are living in dread at the prospect of Russian invasion. While the UK Government talk tough about sanctions, US think-tanks warn that the UK is such a haven for money laundering that such sanctions would not be meaningful. Will the Chancellor take heed of Lord Agnew’s powerful resignation speech and bring his powerful economic crime Bill before the House as soon as possible?
With regard to sanctions, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake), nothing is off the table. It is right that we work with our international partners to develop the most robust sanctions package that we can. The hon. Lady can rest assured that I and my team are doing that. With regard to the economic crime Bill, which contains important measures to strengthen our ability to tackle money laundering, obviously it would not be right for me to pre-empt the Queen’s Speech, but the hon. Lady can be assured that I, the Home Secretary and others fully support the Bill.
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point about giving local councils that certainty to plan budgets years at a time. That is why I am pleased that last year’s spending review was a multi-year spending review—the first we have had in some time—so there are now three-year budgets in place to enable that planning. In terms of the overall quantum, it is £2.7 billion, which represents a 10% increase on the amount we spent on local maintenance in the last Parliament. Hopefully that is reassuring to her and her local council.
“Schoolboy errors… a combination of arrogance, indolence and ignorance… nothing less than woeful.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 24 January 2022; Vol. 818, c. 20-21.]
Those are not my words, but those of former Treasury Minister, Lord Agnew. Some £4.3 billion of taxpayers’ money has been written off as a result of the Chancellor’s fraud failures; a thousand loans were made to companies that were not even trading at the start of the pandemic; and £50,000 was awarded to a person with 48 criminal convictions, and £25,000 to a drugs gang. Is the Chancellor really saying that such examples strike the right balance between getting money to the businesses that need it and looking after the public finances? Will he inform the House of the total amount lost to fraud underwritten by the Treasury and the amount recovered to date?
First, I take this opportunity to pay tribute to Lord Agnew for all his work. I am very grateful to him for everything that he did, and of course we will listen to what he has to say. With regard to the hon. Lady’s questions, she talked about fraud estimates. It is important to be clear, as my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury said, that nothing has been written off in that regard—we are going after each and every person we suspect of defrauding the taxpayer. I am pleased to tell her that the original estimate of £4.9 billion of fraud—it was an estimate, independently provided—has already been revised down by a third since it was first published, thanks to the actions that we are taking. She asked how much has been paid out already, and I can confirm that the sum total to date is £13 million.
It is in black and white on the Government’s own website still today, and in the Government accounts—£4.3 billion written off. Despite the Chancellor’s words, “written off” means giving up on that money. This is just the tip of the iceberg. [Interruption.] It is on the Government’s website and in the Government’s accounts. Can he tell us how many of the covid fraud cases have gone to court? Given his failure, will he ask the National Crime Agency to conduct a full investigation into all cases of covid fraud and ensure that those responsible are held to account? It is not the Chancellor’s money to write off; it is the public’s money, and the public want their money back.
It is great that the Labour party has realised that it is the taxpayer’s money and not the Government’s money. I am glad that it has joined us in recognising that. I can say categorically that no one has written this off; we are going after it, as the Chief Secretary said. We invested £100 million last March in creating a taxpayer protection taskforce staffed with over 1,200 people to recover hopefully up to £1 billion. That is just one of the many things we are doing, as well as taking more powers to go after rogue directors, enabling Companies House to do exactly that. The hon. Lady asked about the National Crime Agency. I am pleased to tell her that it has already helped in investigations that have led to 13 arrests with regard to bounce back fraud, so that work is already under way.
My hon. Friend, who has great expertise in this area, makes a reasonable point. The Government’s Help to Save scheme is under way, but the Government continue to work very closely with the Money and Pensions Service to look at new ways of increasing financial resilience and getting young people to understand the opportunities of saving earlier.
Lord Agnew resigned because he could no longer defend the level of fraud in the bounce back loan scheme and the lack of action to tackle it. Much of that has been facilitated by the absolute shambles of the Companies House register. I do not want Ministers to fob this off to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, because that is exactly the disconnected approach that Lord Agnew criticised. If there is an economic crime Bill, will Ministers take action to give Companies House anti-money laundering responsibility, rather than watching as fraudsters using UK shell companies waltz off with billions of pounds of public money?
I am grateful to be able to confirm to the hon. Lady, as I have on numerous occasions in Committees over the last two or three years, that this is a key priority for us in the Treasury. Obviously, as the Chancellor said, we cannot comment on future legislative agendas, but the measures she mentions, picking up on the Financial Action Task Force report from 2018 with respect to Companies House, are something we agree with.
Like my hon. Friend, I am keen to support high streets in towns such as Barnstaple. At the autumn Budget, we announced business rates relief for thousands of retail, hospitality and leisure businesses to help them get through the pandemic and adapt to wider economic changes. I would also point my hon. Friend to the £4.8 billion levelling-up fund and encourage Barnstaple to apply for round 2, which will be opening this spring.
Last month, the Government came out against Labour’s plan to help people on modest incomes pay their energy bills using a one-off £1.2 billion windfall tax on the profits of oil and gas producers. The Education Secretary complained that oil and gas companies are “already struggling”. The truth is that pensioners and people on modest incomes are the ones who are struggling. Oil and gas companies are expected to report near-record income this year. Will Ministers now admit that the Government have got it wrong and commit to looking again at our plan?
The hon. Member will know that the oil and gas industry pays a significant amount in taxation—I mentioned the figure earlier. In terms of helping people who are struggling with their bills, he will know that we already have the energy price cap, the winter fuel payment, the warm home discount and the cold weather payment. We are looking out for and supporting those on the lowest income to enable them to get through this difficult period.
My hon. Friend will know that we have already made a significant input to support those in the hospitality and tourism industries. He will know that we extended the 5% reduced rate of VAT for those sectors to the end of September. On 1 October, we reduced the rate to 12.5%. That relief has cost the Government and the taxpayer more than £8 billion. Although all taxes are kept under review, there are no plans to extend the 12.5% reduced VAT rate.
The hon. Gentleman is right to point out the measures that we can take to strengthen the powers against money laundering and illicit crime. Those measures require legislation, as he knows. Although I cannot pre-empt the Queen’s Speech, he should know that I, the Home Secretary and others strongly support the inclusion of the economic crime Bill, which contains those measures.
My hon. Friend raises an important point. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor worked closely with him in his previous post as a local government Minister. The supporting families programme provides funding for local authorities to deliver early intervention in children’s services. The programme was the subject of a robust national evaluation between 2015 and 2020, which demonstrated that in addition to improved outcomes for children and families, it delivered a return on investment of £2.28 of economic benefits for every £1 spent.
I am happy to look at the point that the hon. Gentleman raises. I do not think there is a bias against that. The spending review contained billions of pounds for new bus transformation deals across the country and thousands more zero-emission buses. I know that the Prime Minister is passionate about hydrogen buses, so we will look into it and get back to the hon. Gentleman.
I have no argument against compensation being paid to the victims of the London Capital & Finance scandal, but I am concerned that they were paid 80% of the losses, yet the 800,000 victims of Equitable Life received only 22%. Does the Minister agree that it is a principle of fairness and of ensuring that people who save for their retirement are properly compensated?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He has a long-standing interest in the issue. The difference between the two is that people received compensation from Equitable Life on the basis of relative losses, which is the gap between what they received from their policy and what they could have expected from investing in a similar product. With LCF, the bondholders were expected to lose the majority of their principal investment and stood to get less back than they put in. The schemes were looked at in the context of their respective instruments and appropriate support was given. There are no plans to open up compensation for Equitable Life again.
The Budget confirmed that total funding through the UK shared prosperity fund will, at a minimum, match the size of EU funds in each nation, and in Cornwall. If the Treasury were to do the same with all the other less-developed regions, as it should, South Yorkshire would be on course to receive £900 million of investment over the next seven years. Will the Chief Secretary to the Treasury give an assurance that we will get our fair share?
I have the highest regard for the hon. Gentleman, and he is a doughty champion for the people of South Yorkshire. The levelling up White Paper will be a key moment in setting out our plans in that space, and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities will be coming to the House shortly to set out our plans in that regard.
I welcome the Government’s intent that levelling up should be measured by more than simply spending money. Indeed, the data that is collected across the UK to measure its effect varies. What is my right hon. Friend doing to address that, and will he reassure Aberconwy residents of an effective UK-wide levelling up?
Absolutely. My hon. Friend makes an important point, and we should indeed measure success in outcomes, not just inputs. The Department’s delivery of levelling up ambitions will be monitored, and it will of course be held to account. I point my hon. Friend towards the levelling up White Paper, which will be published shortly.
Lord Agnew, obviously, has spoken for himself, and I do nothing but thank him for his service. We look forward to continue working on all the areas he has mentioned, in most of which we are already undertaking work. We are relentless in our aim to tackle those who have defrauded the taxpayer, and we will not stop until we have got as much back as we can.
The Wrexham Gateway levelling-up fund bid attracts around £35 million of private finance. However, that investment in Wrexham will depend on a successful levelling-up fund bid the next time round. Will the Minister explain what considerations are made for bids with substantial private investment?
Will the Chancellor confirm or deny that millions of pounds of taxpayers’ funds have been sunk into an online gambling company with the Government’s start-up scheme? If so, is this the right time to invest in a private gambling firm, since a review of the Gambling Act 2005 is already being undertaken?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. This relates to the future fund, a rules-based scheme that means that any firm is eligible for funding, providing it meets the required eligibility criteria for the scheme and passes the necessary checks. Neither the Government nor the British Business Bank chose specific investments; it is about helping innovative equity-backed companies to weather the economic disruption caused by covid and continue their long-term growth projection.
I commend my right hon. Friend for the steps he has taken to level up in Darlington, with the establishment of the Darlington economic campus. Will he update the House on the progress to bring high-quality, well-paid jobs to my constituency?
I am delighted to update the House on the progress the Treasury is making with our Darlington economic campus. We have already recruited more than 100 Treasury employees to be based in Darlington, and we are on track for our ambition of 300 employees based there.
Points of Order
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Seventy-six days have passed since this House agreed to the terms of a Humble Address compelling the Government to publish the minutes and notes of the meeting of 9 April 2020 between Lord Bethell, Owen Paterson and Randox representatives, and all correspondence relating to two specified Government contracts awarded to that company. Sixty-seven days have passed since the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care promised, in writing, that the Government would respond to the House no later than the end of January. Given that today is 1 February, and taking into account the fact that the Chair has expressed an expectation on the Government to fulfil their obligations under that Humble Address in a timely fashion, is it in order for Ministers to fail to meet a self-imposed deadline to comply with the instructions of this House? If not, what consequences should befall those on the Government Benches who failed to keep their promise?
The Secretary of State for Health notified me yesterday that he will confirm that the relevant materials will be laid by the February recess. If not, I am sure that the hon. Member would use an urgent question and other ways to ensure that they are delivered, but that is the state of play at the moment.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. Yesterday the Prime Minister answered questions in this House on the initial Sue Gray report, and we saw the usual bluster and thrashing-about stream of unconsciousness that we are used to. But in reply to one particular question, I think from my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the Opposition, in thrashing about, he threw in the question of Jimmy Savile—and actually I think it was found out that he was factually wrong on that. There are many, many victims of that awful, awful person, and I felt that for him to use that scandal and that tragedy in the way that he did was not only inappropriate and tasteless but perhaps out of order. I seek your guidance on his use of that awful, awful example.
I remind the House that I am not responsible for Members’ contributions and will seek not to intervene unless something is said that is disorderly. Procedurally, nothing disorderly occurred, but such allegations should not be made lightly, especially in view of the guidance of “Erskine May” about good temper and moderation being the characteristics of parliamentary debate.
While they may not have been disorderly, I am far from satisfied that the comments in question were appropriate on this occasion. I want to see more compassionate, reasonable politics in this House, and that sort of comment can only inflame opinions and generate disregard for this House. I want a nicer Parliament, and the only way we can get a nicer Parliament is by being more honourable in the debates that we have. Please let us show each other respect as well as tolerance going forward.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I rise in relation to media reports this morning of new education investment areas across England. This announcement was, once again, made to the press instead of to this House. The Government are disregarding their duties to Parliament and short-changing the people by preventing their representatives from questioning Ministers on this. Our constituents will be reading about these changes without access to information about which areas will be affected or the criteria for extra funding. I would be really grateful if I could have your guidance on this, please.
I thank the hon. Member for giving me notice of his point of order. He will appreciate that I have not had the opportunity to look into the detail of the case he has raised. I have made my position clear on the principle that important announcements of policies should be made first to this Chamber. I expect, Members expect and our constituents expect that we should hear it first—and the ministerial code, as we keep stressing, requires it. Unfortunately, I say to Members, I have not got power over the ministerial code, but that is where it lies.
I expect urgency in that anything of this type should be brought to this House first for constituents of all parties. You were elected to hear it here. We have got to remind the Government that they are accountable to this House and not to the media. I am very worried and very concerned about where this House is going. I take seriously the way that it is going. Unfortunately, the public out there somehow think I have got this magic power, but you, the Members, give me the power. If you are not happy with the power I have got, it is in your hands to change it.
Further to that point of order, Mr Speaker. I congratulate you on what you have just said. Is there anything we can do about Ministers who are serial offenders? The Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport keeps doing this. Only this week, she announced a whole new package of investment in the arts in the northern regions without coming to this House. She is a serial offender. Could we do something about her?
I think I have made my position very clear, and I do not want to extend this into a debate. However, I recognise the frustration of Members in all parts of the House. This is a problem that we have to deal with: the House has the right to hear things first.
Let us not delay any more. We now come to the ten-minute rule motion.
Social Housing (Emergency Protection of Tenancy Rights)
Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to give social housing tenants the right to continuity of secure tenancy in circumstances when they have to move because of a threat to the personal safety of the tenant or someone in their household; to place associated responsibilities on local authorities and social housing providers; and for connected purposes.
If a member of our household were threatened with violence, and the police advised us that we had to move straight away in order to stay safe, any one of us would find that terrifying and bewildering. We might reasonably expect to receive support; we would not expect to lose our home altogether and find ourselves in the homelessness system. However, that is what happened to my constituent Georgia when gang members came to her home and threatened her teenage son.
Georgia is a housing association tenant who had lived in her home for nine years. She and her children were very happy in their home, which she had recently decorated. Then her neighbours told her that one afternoon while she was at work, they had heard loud banging on her door. Georgia eventually coaxed out of her son the information that he had witnessed something that some local gang members had not wanted him to see, and they had come to her home looking for him.
Georgia contacted the police, who told her that she had to move, immediately, for her family’s safety. She got in touch with her housing association, who told her that it was the council’s responsibility to provide emergency housing. The council placed Georgia and her children in temporary accommodation. The temporary accommodation was in another borough, was of poor quality and was very expensive. Georgia’s children did not have enough space, the flat was damp and dirty, it was hard for her children to do their homework, and Georgia started to suffer from panic attacks which affected her work.
By the time Georgia’s friend got in touch with me because she was worried about Georgia’s health and the wellbeing of her children, they had been in the temporary accommodation for six months. Worse than that, her housing association had started the process of ending her tenancy because she was no longer living in her flat. The consequence of this, in the context of the UK’s housing crisis, would have been Georgia and her children being added to the statistics of homeless households, in temporary accommodation and on the housing waiting list.
No one should become homeless because their child is threatened. In one London borough, 47 housing association tenants have required homelessness assistance from the council as a result of violence since 2019. Across the country, that means that thousands of families have to leave their homes each year, with their secure tenancies potentially at risk, on top of having to rebuild their lives in a new area.
Homelessness is fundamentally destabilising, involving the loss of a sanctuary and of a place in one’s community. It is deeply traumatising to have to make an emergency move because of a threat of violence and start again somewhere else. Our housing system should do everything possible to help families in such circumstances make the transition to a new permanent home as soon as possible, to limit the harm caused by the threat. My Bill would do that. It would require social housing landlords, whether councils or housing associations, to protect the tenancy rights of their tenants who have to move owing to a threat of violence. It would also confer a new duty on social housing landlords to co-operate with each other in circumstances in which a tenant, for safety reasons, has to move to an area where his or her current landlord does not own any property. There are some good examples of co-operation already, such as the pan-London housing reciprocal, and I commend that work, but for as long as this remains voluntary, some tenants will fall through the gaps.
I am delighted that this Bill has the support of Shelter and the National Housing Federation. Shelter has highlighted the case of Corey Junior Davis, “CJ”, whose mum had asked her housing association for an urgent move after her son had been threatened and had told her that he feared for his life. CJ’s mum had done everything possible to keep her son safe, including sending him to stay with relatives in a different area, but six months after her initial request, while they were still waiting for a move, CJ was shot and killed. I have also met constituents who have sent their children away to keep them safe, because they fear the consequences of being placed in temporary accommodation and losing their tenancy. That is not a choice any parent should have to make.
We have a housing crisis in the UK, and we need a comprehensive plan to tackle it involving the building of genuinely affordable, secure social housing and reforming the private rented sector to give greater security and stability to private tenants. I pay tribute to councils and housing associations across the country that work tirelessly to provide social housing and to support their tenants, but there is more we can do, right now, to stop many families entering the homelessness system by preventing families that already have the security of a social housing tenancy from losing that security and being added to housing waiting lists. This is not asking social landlords to find additional properties, because the people who would be protected by this Bill are already their tenants. It would simply require them to do everything possible to limit the harm of the traumatic event that has resulted in a need to move home.
In the end, following my intervention, Georgia’s housing association found her a new home in a safe area, but the months in temporary accommodation took a devastating toll on Georgia and her children. What started as one traumatic incident spiralled into long-term consequences.
The provisions in this Bill would apply in any situation where the police decide that a tenant should move because of a threat of violence, including: domestic abuse where the perpetrator does not live at the same address as the victim; an escalating neighbour dispute; or the threat of violence to a young person in the household. It would not have any impact on the existing rights and responsibilities of either the landlord or the tenant under the terms of the tenancy.
This Bill enjoys cross-party support, and I am grateful to all the co-sponsors and the shadow Housing Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Matthew Pennycook)—I know he has seen similar cases in his constituency—for their support. I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, the hon. Member for Walsall North (Eddie Hughes), for attending the Chamber to listen to the argument for this Bill.
I hope the Government will agree with us that no one should be made homeless because they or a member of their household is threatened, and I hope they will support this small reform that will make a really big difference to vulnerable families, such as Georgia’s, across the country.
Question put and agreed to.
That Helen Hayes, Mr Clive Betts, Bob Blackman, Ms Karen Buck, Stella Creasy, John Cryer, Florence Eshalomi, Robert Halfon, Dr Rupa Huq, Caroline Lucas, Luke Pollard and Christina Rees present the Bill.
Helen Hayes accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 25 February, and to be printed (Bill 243).
[11th Allotted Day]
Tackling Fraud and Preventing Government Waste
I beg to move,
That this House agrees with the remarks of Lord Agnew of Oulton in his resignation letter that the Government’s record on tackling fraud is lamentable; recognises the vast amount of taxpayers’ money that has been lost to waste and fraud since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, including the estimated £4.3 billion recently written off from Treasury-backed Covid business support schemes; notes the Government’s unacceptable record of poor procurement over the last decade, including £13 billion wasted on defence projects; further notes the warnings the Chancellor received in 2020 regarding the serious weaknesses allowing for public funds to be diverted to criminal enterprises; calls on the Government to set out a strategy to recover all taxpayers’ money obtained by criminal groups and to fully engage with a thorough National Crime Agency investigation into all issues related to the fraudulent exploitation of the covid-19 support schemes; and further calls on the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make a statement to this House before 31 March 2022 detailing how much taxpayers’ money has been successfully retrieved.
Millions across our country are facing a cost of living crisis, but while many are worried about soaring energy and food bills, the Government are preparing to hike taxes for working people and businesses. It will be the biggest tax burden in 70 years, yet while the Government are delving into people’s pockets for their hard-earned cash with one hand, they are throwing it away with the other. With endemic waste and fraud, taxpayers’ money is being poured down the drain. We see billions of pounds of waste on vanity projects, crony contracts and poor procurement. Basic checks and measures on who was handed covid support are completely ignored. We have had £4.3 billion in fraud written off by the Chancellor—that is a third of the tax hike that the Conservatives are about to impose on working people and the businesses that employ them.
The truth is, that is only the tip of the iceberg. That is why Labour has brought this motion before the House, calling on the Government to come back by 31 March with a clear answer on the true extent of fraud in their covid support schemes and to report back on how much taxpayers’ money has been clawed back from the criminals. It is because the Chancellor has lost a grip—and he seems to have fled the scene—that the motion calls on the Government to allow the National Crime Agency full access to investigate all aspects of fraud within covid support, not just the mere 13 cases that the Chancellor suggested they are looking at.
Was my hon. Friend as surprised as me not only by the terms with which Lord Agnew, the Minister in the Lords, resigned—the “schoolboy errors” made—but to learn that the National Crime Agency was shooed away by the Treasury when it offered help to try to get back some of the fraudulently taken money?
It was nice to see a Government Minister with a bit of integrity doing the right thing and resigning because of the errors that the Government are making.
Let us look at the details. On 12 January, the following details were published on gov.uk: £5.8 billion of fraud, with—yes—£500 million already retrieved and up to £1 billion to be clawed back by the end of 2023. That leaves an outstanding £4.3 billion of fraud written off by the Government. The grants number refers to the assessment of the losses made by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs from just three schemes: the coronavirus job retention scheme, which was £5.3 billion; the self-employment income support scheme, which was £493 million; and eat out to help out, which was £71 million. That fraud adds up to a combined £5.8 billion. In addition, page 121 of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy’s annual report states that bounce back loan fraud is estimated to be 11% of the total. When the Minister comes to the Dispatch Box, will he tell us whether he recognises those figures? Does he understand what an affront that is to taxpayers and to those who were excluded from Government support during the pandemic?
The shadow Chancellor is making an excellent speech. Does she agree that not only is it a disgrace to write off all those billions, but, to add insult to injury, working people will have to pay for that with the national insurance tax rise and through a lack of help on energy bills, which is another worry for households all around the country?
My hon. Friend is exactly right. The Government say that they need to raise taxes to fund public services, and yet at the same time they are writing off billions of pounds-worth of taxpayers’ money. That is why I say it is an affront to taxpayers and to all those businesses who were excluded from Government support when they most needed it. They now know that criminals got their hands on the money while genuine businesses and self-employed people could not get a penny.
Given the rate of return for every pound spent by HMRC in compliance, is my hon. Friend puzzled about why money is not being invested to get back furlough fraud?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right that it is good value for money to invest in HMRC to get that money back, but the truth is that it did not need to be like this in the first place. The Government could have avoided these enormous levels of waste and fraud, but they set up the covid support scheme without proper checks and balances. It is not beyond the wit of Government to direct money where it is needed without giving it to organised criminals and fraudsters. It is incredible that the Government were dishing out lump sums of £50,000 to businesses that were not even trading at the start of the pandemic. It just does not make any sense. The Treasury did not even require checks with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to see that self-certifying businesses had made a tax return as proof that they were genuine. What on earth was going on in Government? Those checks take just a matter of minutes. The result of those failures was that criminals created fake companies to receive public money and that is a disgrace.
My hon. Friend the shadow Chancellor is making an incredibly powerful speech on the eye-watering sums that have been wasted by this Government. The amount of funding that has been lost in Barnsley since 2018 is £30 million. In that context, is it not outrageous that the Chancellor, who cannot even be bothered to turn up today, has wasted so much public money?
As an hon. Member mentioned earlier today, this morning was the first we had seen of the Chancellor at the Dispatch Box since the beginning of December—perhaps we were lucky to see him today.
Disturbing reports of court cases are now emerging. They reveal how an organised crime leader, with no less than 48 previous criminal convictions, was handed £50,000 of taxpayers’ money. If only that were a one-off case. The same judge had seen, two months prior, a case where a drugs gang had been given a £25,000 Treasury bounce back loan. Well, good for them to bounce back! What about those who were excluded?
I thank my hon. Friend for making an incredible speech. What we cannot forget are the stories we have heard, like the one from a woman in my constituency who had set up a business as a driving instructor. The rules the Government set meant that she was entitled to no compensation and no support whatever. She was left with no income and had to rely on food banks. As my hon. Friend says, at the same time that drug barons were being given taxpayers’ money, people in my constituency were given absolutely nothing and were forced to rely on charity. It is a disgrace.
My hon. Friend speaks powerfully. I would like the Minister to explain, at the Dispatch Box, why drugs gangs got tens of thousands of pounds of taxpayers’ money when my hon. Friend’s constituents could not get a penny.
The Chancellor and other Ministers were warned repeatedly about the risk of fraud. In June 2020, the Chancellor was advised by the Fraud Advisory Panel, Transparency International, Spotlight on Corruption and the former director of the Serious Fraud Office that there were
“serious weaknesses that enable fraudsters and corrupt insiders to exploit the bounce back loan scheme and the covid business interruption loan scheme.”
and that that would create a “risk to the taxpayer”. They offered to provide the Chancellor with information, advice and support to improve the control of the funds, yet it seems the Government were not interested in that advice.
Stripping away the political rhetoric, the hon. Lady is making some very serious points for the Government to consider. However, on reflection, does she now think it was wrong for her Labour colleagues in 2021 to call so readily for the Government to use taxpayers’ money to support GFG Alliance, which was subsequently investigated by the Serious Fraud Office?
I understand that MPs want to represent businesses employing people in their constituencies, but it is the role of the Chancellor and the Government to make sure that money goes only to people who deserve it, not fraudsters. The hon. Gentleman was a member of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, which I chaired. The Committee did ask the Government to get money to businesses that needed it, like those mentioned by Labour Members, but basic checks that could have been done in a matter of minutes were not done. He will know, because of this Government’s tax rises and the increase in energy prices, that an average household in his constituency will, from April, be £1,378 worse off.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the £4.3 billion that has been written off is a disgrace, given that the austerity that local authorities have suffered over the past 12 years has had a major impact on the people they serve and our communities?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Her council in Liverpool and all our councils have lost money, and this Government are handing it out to criminals. Billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money has been written off, but it was not the Chancellor’s money to write off; it is the public’s. The Government have clearly lost their grip. We must restore faith and confidence in how taxpayers’ money is spent.
We have a National Crime Agency in our country for a reason: to tackle serious and organised crime. It should be the National Crime Agency that the Government ring first on such occasions, but instead there are reports that they do not even want it to look into the matter. The Chancellor said earlier that just 13 cases are being looked at by the National Crime Agency. That is why Labour has brought our motion to the House today: to call on the Government not only to come back by 31 March with a clear answer about how much of their money has been clawed back from criminals, but to allow the National Crime Agency full access to investigate all aspects of fraud within covid support. The Government should not be resisting any effort whatever to retrieve taxpayers’ money and to hold people responsible. We need to know how it is so easy for organised criminals to steal from right under the Treasury’s nose.
As a point of correction, the hon. Lady says that the Chancellor said that only 13 cases were being looked into by the National Crime Agency, but what he said was that 13 people have been arrested. Many more cases have been looked into.
I think the hon. Lady is in danger of missing the point. Lord Agnew actually said that the Government did a very good job of rolling out the schemes; his problems were with the checks and balances afterwards on banks drawing on the guarantee. Two banks were responsible for 81% of claims on the guarantee. That is where our attention should be focused: what are the banks doing about getting the money back?
Lord Agnew did not resign from the board of a bank; he resigned as a Government Minister because of
“schoolboy errors…indolence and ignorance.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 24 January 2022; Vol. 818, c. 20-21.]
How does the hon. Gentleman explain to constituents in Thirsk and Malton that they will be £1,175 worse off in April because of the energy price hike and the tax increases from this Government, who all the while are giving money away to criminals? That is why Labour has brought our motion to the House.
The shadow Chancellor is giving an excellent speech exposing the systemic problems with the Government’s schemes. Does she share my concern that the emergency procurement procedures and the crony contracts given out for personal protective equipment meant that £280 million-worth of substandard masks were contracted for, with £100 million on unusable gowns and £200 million to Conservative party friends and donors, yet those shady and untransparent emergency procurement procedures are still being used?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. What we are talking about would be appalling even if it were a one-off example of waste, but it has become the hallmark of this Government that they waste money and treat taxpayers’ cash with a lack of respect: £13 billion was wasted on failed defence procurements, including £4.8 billion of taxpayers’ money handed out for cancelled contracts. If that waste of public money had been avoided, more money would surely have been available for our armed forces, whose budget was cut by the Chancellor in October.
As my hon. Friend says, that just scratches the surface. Some £3.5 billion went on crony contracts, £300,000 went from the levelling-up fund to save a Tory peer’s driveway and £500,000 went on the Foreign Secretary’s flight to Australia, ignoring her own advice from 2009:
“Every public sector worker should feel personal responsibility for the money they spend and the money they save. They should spend taxpayers’ money with at least the care they would give to their own.”
I do not know what care the Foreign Secretary gives to her own money, but I would not spend £500,000 of taxpayers’ money like that. Some £900,000 was spent on working out whether a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland was remotely viable and cost-effective. I could have given that advice for nothing.
It all adds up to a total disrespect for taxpayers’ money—and it all matters, because if a Government Minister wastes money by letting it slip through the net into the hands of fraudsters and wastes huge sums of taxpayers’ money on vanity projects, they have to raise taxes to find the money. The fact that taxes are at a 70-year high is the other side of the coin from the waste that we are talking about. With one hand, the Government raise taxes; with the other, they throw away taxpayers’ money.
Labour would treat taxpayers’ money with respect. We care about value for money because we respect taxpayers and we respect our public services, which have been starved of funds by 12 years of Conservative Governments. We want to break our economy out of the cycle of low growth and high taxes. We will build a stronger economy, in which prosperity and security are enjoyed all across our country. That is why we will tax fairly, spend wisely and get our economy firing on all cylinders. People are facing a cost of living crisis. Labour’s answer is not to dip into their pockets even more or waste their money on vanity projects or fraud. As the Conservatives ask families and businesses to pay even more, the very least the Government can do is try to get their stolen money back. That is why I urge all Members to support the motion.
This is a Government who have been relentless in their efforts to protect lives and livelihoods throughout the pandemic, taking unprecedented steps to see the country through what have been difficult times for us all. It goes without saying that we took and continue to take our responsibilities to taxpayers extremely seriously. They rely on us to make decisions on their behalf in their best interests, and that is exactly what we do. As a Government, we have been consistent in doing exactly that, acting, in the words of the Chief Secretary, “quickly, effectively and responsibly”.
I will just make some progress.
I am sorry that Lord Agnew chose to resign from his position as a Minister in the Treasury and in the Cabinet Office, and I want to take this opportunity to thank him very much for the important work he did while he was in government. The Government have been working to achieve better quality government for citizens, with relentless focus on outcomes, ensuring every £1 of taxpayers’ money is spent well; ensuring policy making reflects the communities we serve through, for example, the movement of civil service jobs away from London to Darlington, Stoke, Preston and elsewhere; driving the post-Brexit procurement rules reform to make procurement more transparent, provide better services to citizens and deliver social value; and procuring ventilators at the beginning of the pandemic. We have focused on value for money and supporting the taxpayer.
The Minister is talking about good stewardship of public money, but was he as concerned as I was to read in the press that, under the Tory Tees Valley Mayor, the public share of the joint venture to develop and secure major industrial opportunities, which has had tens of millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money invested in it, has been transferred to JC Musgrave Capital and Northern Land Management? Does that not raise major questions about how public moneys have been spent? Does he agree that, given wider concerns about governance and the vested interests of political donors, what is needed is an independent inquiry into the governance of the Tees Valley Combined Authority and the South Tees Development Corporation?
What I do know is that Ben Houchen is an excellent Mayor and Labour wishes that it had mayors like him.
Fraud is unacceptable wherever and however it is perpetrated. The Government remain determined to stamp it out. I can say that as a Minister and a former Attorney General, and as someone who prosecuted such cases in an earlier life—
I will make a little progress, if I may.
As the House will be aware, since March 2020, the Government have delivered a comprehensive multi-billion pound package to support households and businesses. Before I turn to specific measures that we are taking and have taken to combat fraud, it is worth reminding ourselves of three key facts. First, with regard to the covid schemes that we introduced, the vast majority of people did the right thing. They understood what the schemes were for and accessed them in a way that was wholly appropriate. Secondly, this was a once-in-a-generation event and I ask the House to accept that. Businesses were on the brink of collapse. They needed support really quickly—something that the Labour party understood and Labour Members were screaming about at the time. We were able to deliver that support, and to do so properly, in record time and in a way that the world was envious of.
Thirdly, the support worked. Many thousands of jobs were saved, and today we have a thriving labour market, with record low unemployment, the economy returning to its pre-pandemic size faster than expected, and you know what, Mr Speaker—the fastest-growing economy in the G7.
Clearly, the Government have given unprecedented levels of support to people, especially those in Rother Valley. So would the Minister condemn, as I condemn, Labour-run Rotherham Council, which handed back millions of pounds of discretionary funding to the Government because it could not get the money distributed fast enough? That is a waste of taxpayers’ money and giving the money back to the Government was a scandal.
On Lord Agnew of Oulton, who resigned over the fraudulent covid business loans, the good, decent Lord said that there was “zippo of detail” on how the Government plan to deal with the issue of business loans. Can the Minister say how the Government will claw back the £77 million loss on the eat out to help out scheme from the missing Chancellor?
If the hon. Gentleman will allow me to make some progress, he may hear about what the Government have been doing, and will continue to do.
The Government’s priority at the time was to get financial support to businesses. That was the alpha and omega of everything—it was to get that financial support to businesses, and their employees by extension, and as quickly as possible, to protect jobs and livelihoods. In total, we made available over £100 billion of loans and grants to over 1 million businesses, through bounce back loans, the coronavirus business interruption loan scheme, the coronavirus large business interruption loan scheme, and business grants. There were myriad schemes that we were using.
The Minister’s defence—that this was a pandemic and the Government had to act quickly—does not seem to hold any water when we know that back in 2014 there were problems with Companies House. There were problems with international fraud and money laundering, and problems with how easily businesses could be set up through Companies House, yet the Government have dragged their feet; they have not taken action. That was years before the pandemic hit the United Kingdom. Had the Government taken action when they knew about the problems with Companies House, we probably would not be dealing with the amount of fraud that we are right now.
As it happens, we have given, as a Government, over £60 million to Companies House to continue its necessary reforms and we have undertaken myriad measures to prevent the problems that the hon. Lady refers to.
The first lockdown came into force on 23 March 2020. By 24 May, just a couple of months later, we had already paid out almost £28 billion in loans, rising to £80 billion by the time that the schemes closed on 31 March 2021—astronomical support.
Much has been made of Lord Agnew’s resignation and we should take his resignation points very seriously. We should also acknowledge that he described the bounce back loan scheme, in his resignation piece to the Financial Times, as an “important and successful intervention”. Is not his real point that we need to make sure that checks and balances have been followed by all banks who were given the responsibility of distributing these loans?
I agree with my hon. Friend on that, and also on Lord Agnew, who is a noble man and was an excellent Minister. The sheer volume of schemes introduced and the speed with which they were designed and implemented meant it simply was not possible at the time to prevent every instance of fraud and error, and I accept that. However—
I must make some progress. The measures that we implemented to minimise fraud and error were robust and comprehensive. Some £2.2 billion of what were deemed potentially fraudulent bounce back loan applications were blocked through up-front checks—£2.2 billion that the Labour party has not said anything about. Lenders were required to make and maintain appropriate anti-fraud, anti-money laundering and “know your customer” checks. Specifically, they were required to use a reputable fraud bureau to screen against potential and known fraudsters and, if an application failed the lender’s fraud checks, the lender was unable to offer a loan.
There were measures in place: those lender checks, with the duplicate loan check, incorporation date check and change in director check that were put in place in the following months, were the most impactful of all the checks implemented. The minimum standards were agreed following consultation with PwC and lenders on what would have the biggest impact on preventing fraud while still meeting the policy objective of delivering finance quickly.
It is true that PwC originally estimated the extent of fraud relating to bounce back loans at £4.9 billion, but last December it revised that figure down to £3.3 billion—so, as usual, the Labour party has its figures wrong. We will not be taking lectures from a party that, I seem to recall, left a multi-billion-pound black hole in the Defence budget the last time it was in government.
I should just pick up on that point. As the Paymaster General knows, those figures are all still highly uncertain. Around £17 billion—another highly uncertain figure—of the £47 billion of loans may never be paid back. Some of that will be fraud and some because businesses have gone under. However, the key point is that he says checks and balances were put in place. He knows that was not the case: they were dropped for speed. We all lobbied for speed but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) said, it was the Treasury’s responsibility to ensure that the checks were in place. Why were 61% of loans by value out of the door before checks were introduced in June so that people could not apply twice? That is a simple thing, and the door was shut after the horse had bolted.
The hon. Lady has fairly said that she and others on the Opposition side did push for the Government to take action. They are right to accept that—and they were right to do so. This Government did take the precautions and, if we had waited any longer, businesses would have gone under. They would have gone down.
I suggest to the House that the news has been good in other ways too. In 2020, a National Audit Office report contained an estimate that as much as 60% of the sums lent might never be recovered. In fact, nearly 80% of the loans are being repaid or have already been repaid, and we are keeping up the pressure. For instance, we have given the Insolvency Service and Companies House new powers to prevent rogue company directors from escaping liability for their bounce back loans. So far, that has been used in respect of—
On a point of order, Mr Speaker, I am reluctant to make a point of order in a debate, but it is important to reflect on what the Paymaster General has just said and he may wish to correct the impression that he gave. Those loans are 10-year loans, so it cannot be the case that 80% of them have been repaid at this point. He may want to look again at his notes and perhaps correct the impression he gave.
It is not worth answering that point, Mr Speaker.
As I said, we have given the Insolvency Service and Companies House new powers to prevent rogue company directors from escaping liability for their bounce back loans. So far, that has been used in respect of almost 62,000 companies holding loans worth £2.1 billion. We are giving the Insolvency Service new powers to disqualify rogue company directors and we have already introduced regulations that allow for greater scrutiny of pre-pack administrations.
Crucially, newspaper reports that the Treasury has written off £4.3 billion in fraudulent covid support payments are simply not true. The £4.3 billion is not a figure produced or recognised by HMRC. As the Chancellor of the Exchequer has said, we are not—I repeat, not—ignoring money relating to fraud in our covid support measures and we are definitely not writing it off. We were and remain determined to crack down on fraud wherever it arises. That is why, for instance, we invested more than £100 million in a taxpayer protection taskforce. At the March Budget last year, we created a taskforce of more than 1,200 HMRC staff to combat fraud in our coronavirus loan schemes. To hear the Opposition, they would deny the existence of those 1,200 staff, who are busy working away to combat fraud. The taskforce is expected to recover up to £1 billion from fraudulent or incorrect payments.
Can my hon. Friend take us back to the points that Lord Agnew made and clarify whether I have it correct? In putting out much-needed money, the Government relied on intermediaries, and therefore much of it went through the banking system. I think I heard Lord Agnew say in the other place that many of the issues related to two banks out of the seven. It looks to me that a lot of the concerns raised by Opposition Members—validly—relate to processes within some of the banks. Can my hon. Friend clarify whether I am right on that, and the Government’s intentions regarding that?
As Mr Speaker says, a more detailed response can be given to my hon. Friend’s question in due course, but he is quite right to focus on the point about banks. More than 75,000 people have been contacted and could face criminal prosecutions and financial penalties. HMRC has already recovered more than £500 million through other robust measures, including: building automated controls into the digital claims process, to prevent more than 100,000 mistaken claims; blocking more than 29,000 claims through pre-payment checks based on risk and intelligence; using cut-off dates around scheme eligibility; and requiring customers to be registered for pay-as-you-earn online and self-assessment. Nor is HMRC’s work done; work to recoup fraudulently obtained funds continues. Those identified face repaying up to double the amount they actually received, plus interest; in more serious cases, they risk criminal prosecution.
The motion also refers to public procurement, another area in which the Government take our responsibility to the taxpayer extremely seriously. In the case of personal protective equipment, our focus was on saving lives and protecting our healthcare workers. That was the top priority, and I make no apologies for that. But again, that did not mean, either then or now, that we were lax in our approach to procurement. We acted swiftly to secure and deliver more than 17.5 billion pieces of PPE to the frontline. The vast majority of the PPE we ordered—in the region of 97%—was suitable for use, either in the NHS or other non-medical settings.
My right hon. Friend the Health Secretary explained in a written statement to the House that the need to procure PPE at incredible speed necessarily involved a change in risk appetite. However, I am also clear that, at all times, the principles set out in “Managing Public Money” continued to apply, even under the pressures at the time. The Health Department took decisions on the basis of sound commercial advice. All transactions were approved by the Cabinet Office and the Department of Health and Social Care clearance board. Treasury Ministers and officials made a calculated judgement that the costs of expediting normal processes were outweighed by the benefits to the health of the country. The health of our healthcare workers came first.
Importantly, as with alleged fraud relating to the covid support schemes, this is not over: the Government will pursue any contracts where there has been a technical failure or breach. I said that approximately 97% were okay, but we are pursuing those that were not, in line with the resolution process referred to in each contract.
On the issue of PPE procurement, which I have raised several times, it is frankly astonishing that the Government could not google “leading PPE equipment suppliers” and come up with the name Arco, which is a world leader in safety and PPE equipment. When it offered its services to the Government, it says that it was cold-shouldered and ignored, and that the Government went straight to those with connections to the Conservative party. It is disgraceful that the Government ignored a high-quality, world-leading company such as Arco.
I think the hon. Lady forgets that, at the time, the whole world was googling for PPE. There was a desperation for PPE. I do not know anything about the company that she mentions, but the reality is that there was a massive desperation to secure PPE for our healthcare workers.
The Government absolutely reserve the right to take legal action against suppliers where that is required, and the Treasury will continue to support the Department of Health and Social Care in doing whatever it needs to protect taxpayer money where there was a breach of contract. The House may also be interested to know that in cases where there is a significant surplus of PPE, we are passing that equipment to schools and public transport workers in this country, or we are donating it to other countries in need, alongside other efforts to sell or repurpose it.
The motion also refers specifically to defence projects. The Ministry of Defence is delivering some of the most complex and technically challenging programmes across Government. There is no doubt that defence acquisition has faced and continues to face some challenges, but we are working hard to address them. The National Audit Office has recognised that we are making progress. For example, in its March 2020 report, it noted that the MOD has reduced delays to delivering programmes over the last 10 years. We are determined to continue to build on that.
The financial settlement awarded to defence at SR20 has been a crucial opportunity for the MOD to move to a sound financial footing, and we are working hard with it to strengthen mechanisms to drive value for money, implement improvements in programme delivery and ensure that it can manage complexity, risk and the pace of technological change in a way that is rigorous and affordable.
This is not just about what we have already done; it is about constantly refining and improving the tools we have at our disposal. That is why we are committed to delivering reforms in the economic crime plan as well as those set out in the upcoming fraud action plan. The combination of last year’s spending review settlement and private sector contributions through the economic crime (anti-money laundering) levy will provide economic crime funding totalling nearly £400 million over the spending review period.
Importantly, the Government counter-fraud function is leading a review into counter-fraud workforce and performance, delivered jointly with the Treasury. The aim of the review is to map the counter-fraud workforce and capability across central Government and selected agencies to identify current resources and how that links to each Department’s ability to prevent, detect and recover fraud and error losses.
To conclude, the purpose of the debate seems to be to try to talk down all that the Government have done on behalf of the taxpayer in the last two years, but I am afraid that the facts paint a different picture. We understand our responsibilities as a Government and will never take them lightly. We will act at all times quickly, effectively and responsibly.
“Lamentable”, “woeful”, “arrogance, indolence and ignorance”—the words of Lord Agnew’s resignation should still be ringing in the Minister’s ears, as should the fact that the disconnect and disinterest in a range of Departments were part of the problem that he outlined. His words should prompt the Government to take action to fix the scandal of taxpayers’ money walking out the door.
In Lord Agnew’s resignation letter, he said:
“As the Minister for Counter Fraud, I have been asked today to publicly defend in Parliament our track record in countering fraud across Government. Unfortunately I am simply not able to do that given the lamentable track record that we have demonstrated since I took up this post nearly two years ago.
It has certainly not been through want of trying, but the Government machine has been almost impregnable to my endless exhortations.”
That is certainly a condemnation of the Government. The Paymaster General has become the Minister for defending the indefensible in the House, as he does yet again today. Perhaps if other Front-Bench Ministers and Conservative Back Benchers took the example of Lord Agnew and his attitude to them, many of them would learn something and resign too.
We are in a cost of living crisis, yet the sums of money that could go to help people now lie in the offshore bank accounts of crooks and fraudsters. Let us not forget that HMRC has stated that the levels of fraud in the covid support schemes are in line with its original planning assumptions. Planning for £4.3 billion-worth of fraud is absolutely breathtaking. The money that was committed in the Budget came far too late because these problems have been known about for years. The bounce back loan scheme, about which Lord Agnew was denied information as a Minister—that should really worry us all—is of course a UK Government-backed scheme, with an estimated £4.9 billion lost to fraud. Just look at the loans paid out to companies that were not trading. Lord Agnew indicated that 26% of losses are estimated to be attributed to fraud rather than to credit failure. This cannot be fobbed off to the banks, because the Treasury asked them to do this and they did it because the loans were Government-backed.
Let us put these figures into some context, because they are massive amounts of money. Scotland’s entire devolved social security system is forecast to cost £4.1 billion in the next financial year. The Institute for Fiscal Studies has calculated that a one-off £500 stimulus cheque for those on universal credit could cost £3 billion. A 5% pay increase for all the NHS staff in England would be £1.7 billion. This is money that could have been much better spent had it not walked out the door and into the hands of fraudsters.
We cannot deny that the money needed to go out the door quickly in the pandemic. I remember, during those early days, hearing on the Treasury Committee from banks and Treasury officials about how concerned they were about the fraud risk. Some of the checks that could have prevented this fraud are simple—a national insurance number or an HMRC reference—but others speak to a long-term systemic failure that the UK Government have been warned about repeatedly—the system of registration at Companies House. That is not an issue of reform, as some have tried to point out; it is an issue of legislation and an opportunity that this Government have missed time and again.
I am looking forward to hearing the hon. Lady’s recommendations on reforming this important area. She mentioned her role on the Treasury Committee. Did she, at the time, have concerns about the use of the British Business Bank for the delivery of loans to businesses?
The British Business Bank being a relatively new mechanism, of course there were concerns about that. We took a lot of evidence on the concerns that existed around loans and other things that were going out the door, but that does not mean that things could not have been put in place to prevent this, and we did hear evidence to that end.
I have a lot to get through. If the hon. Gentleman wants to make a speech later on, I am sure we will all be incredibly interested to hear what he has to say.
I have spoken at every opportunity, and Ministers have heard me at every opportunity, on the need for reform of Companies House, and it still baffles me why the Government are so lackadaisical about this clear open door to fraud. Companies House remains a repository of information, not a checking service. It is not an anti-money laundering supervisor. In answer to me at Treasury questions earlier, the Economic Secretary to the Treasury referred to the 2018 Financial Action Task Force report, but that still means four years of inactivity in this House. In 2018, as he will remember, we also had the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Act 2018, a further missed opportunity to have closed this door and locked the fraudsters out.
Companies House has no connection with the UK Government’s Verify scheme, which is required for a passport, a driving licence or a tax return. For a minimal fee of only £12, someone can set up a company in the UK with no checks on who they are and what they intend to do with that company. Compare this with, for example, the £1,012 for a child to take up their right to citizenship. The money involved is absolutely baffling. Last year, in This is Money, Martin Swain, director of strategy, policy and external communications at Companies House, admitted:
“Even though, sometimes, we know that the information is incorrect or potentially fraudulent, the registrar is legally required to register it.”
The Companies House website even has a disclaimer at the top that says:
“Companies House does not verify the accuracy of the information filed”.
Why is this being allowed to continue? Even a simple drop-down menu in the registration process would stop people putting in things like “Anytown, Anywhere” rather than a place that really exists.
The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech and pointing out all the problems with Companies House. At the moment, as it says, it would take over 10 years, on the pace of change that we have from the Government, to see action taken on this, and all the time people are setting up these fraudulent companies.
The hon. Lady is absolutely correct. The rate at which people are doing that should be causing the Government real fear, and it is not. This makes no sense at all. Every day that the Government allow it to continue, the register becomes more and more useless and more and more full of junk information and fraudulent transactions, and they should be embarrassed by that.
It has been a matter of public record for years that the Companies House register is utter guff. It contains names such as “Holy Jesus Christ”, whose nationality is listed as “angelic”, residence as “heaven” and profession as “creator”, and “Adolf Tooth Fairy Hitler”, listed as one of the clearly invented directors of a company calling itself Spypriest Ltd. There are also some highly precocious company directors who are only a few months old. Research by Global Witness in 2018 identified 4,000 listed beneficial owners under the age of two, including one who had yet to be born—talk about being born yesterday!— as well as five beneficial owners who controlled more than 6,000 companies. This is just not credible, and the Government know it.
During the past week, the Companies House expert Graham Barrow has been monitoring in real time the construction of a network of companies using real names but fictitious addresses. This leaves real people affected, but often unaware that their names are being abused—and difficult to contact, because the addresses are not real. It also affects the counter-fraud efforts to which the Minister referred. The people setting up those fake companies cannot be traced and chased down, and are allowed to get away with it.
It gets worse, however, because this open door at Companies House allows dirty money to be laundered through the UK. Oliver Bullough is one of many who have pointed out that kleptocrats from around the world have been abusing UK corporate structures—including Scottish limited partnerships—for years to shift their ill-gotten lucre. There are pressing implications for the current situation in Ukraine, but this is not new; it has been going on for years, completely unimpeded. The news that the National Crime Agency has today been able to seize £5.6 million from an Azerbaijani MP based in London is of course welcome, but that is short of the £15 million that the NCA wanted to seize. It is the tip of a massive iceberg. Duncan Hames of Transparency International has said that it estimates that the ruling elite of Azerbaijan own £700 million worth of property in the UK, and that about £2 billion has been shifted around Europe, some of it through our corporate structures. That makes the delaying of a registration of overseas entities Bill even more unacceptable, and even more baffling.
Does the hon. Lady agree that while the arrangements relating to foreign entities do need to be a tightened, a culture change is also needed? She will be aware from press reports that the Foreign Secretary dined out at a Tory donor’s restaurant and charged that to the taxpayer although civil servants had said that the restaurant was too expensive. Does she agree that the Foreign Secretary should have to pay the money back?
I agree that there needs to be probity when it comes to that kind of money and that kind of behaviour—particularly the overruling of civil servants, if that has indeed been the case.
When I raised some of these matters in the House last week, Ministers pointed to unexplained wealth orders as a great badge of success, so I tabled a parliamentary question to find out how successful they had been. In 2018, the year in which they were introduced, there were three. In 2019, there were six. I thought, “That is great—the numbers are going up”, but there have been none since then. Is this a measure that is actually effective in tackling unexplained wealth? I am not sure that it is.
My hon. Friend will recall that the first ever unexplained wealth order was awarded against someone who was only allowed to become a United Kingdom citizen because of the billions of pounds that she had promised to bring into the United Kingdom. Does my hon. Friend believe that that is an indication that Government policy is fighting against itself? On the one hand the Government want to get people with lots of money into the UK, and on the other hand they do not ask too many questions about where that money has come from.
My hon. Friend is absolutely correct to draw attention to that. It is one of many deficiencies in the Home Office systems as well. It seems that those with money are given a free pass, whereas those who come here with more humble undertakings to begin their lives here, to work and to build a family, end up being penalised and having to pay an awful lot more in fees, and experiencing all the challenges that that brings.
Hon. Members may think that some of these issues with Companies House seem a bit remote from the real world and the real lives of our constituents, but that could not be further from the truth. During lockdown, a company in Glasgow using myriad company structures made claims under the furlough scheme, but employees of that company never received the money that they were entitled to. Even if the company directors ended up being prosecuted, or HMRC ended up getting its money back, those employees would still get nothing. That shows the complete unfairness in the system. I would be interested to know whether the Government have any figures, from when they have chased down these companies, on how many employees never saw the money that they should have got and that they needed to get by.
For those completely excluded from the covid support schemes, this is all the more galling. Limited company directors and pay-as-you-earn taxpayers were left out because they were deemed too much of a fraud risk, and new mothers who had taken time off to have a child in the preceding three years lost out because calculating their maternity leave was thought to be too complex. Yet as they were being told that by Ministers, the real fraudsters were raking it in, with drugs gangs getting payouts, and many of the people who benefited will never be caught.
These most recent examples of the Government’s relaxed attitude to the wasting of public funds are by no means the only cases. Best for Britain’s “scandalous spending tracker” sets out the following examples—I will list just some of them; otherwise, we could be here all afternoon, and I am sure that others want to speak—since the current inhabitant of No. 10 Downing Street came to office. It categorises them in three ways: as “crony contracts”, “duff deals” and “outrageous outgoings”.
Here are a few highlights: £11 million on blue passports; over half a million on chauffeuring Government documents, never mind Government Ministers; £56 million contracting to big consulting firms outside tendering processes; £29 million on the festival of Brexit; £900,000 painting a plane; £900,000 researching a bridge to Ireland, which I could have saved the Government money on, because I did a second-year geography project—at high school, not university—that could have told them it was a ropey idea; £32 million on unusable PPE suits; over £38 million on a test and trace contract that was not fulfilled; £10 billion on a failed test and trace system; over £300 million on expired PPE, and billions more on contracts for friends and family of Ministers and Conservative party donors through the fast-track lane.
All that totalled £25 billion, and all of it at a time when the screw was being tightened on those who have the least, with cuts to universal credit, some getting no money at all, and more effort spent chasing down those who happened to wrongly claim child benefit than those who deliberately defrauded the public purse to the tune of billions.
I find it difficult to understand why the Government are so careless with our money and why they do not want to act on fraud and money laundering. The question “who benefits?” continues to rattle around in my head. While those on the Government Benches do not like the inference that it was them and their chums, I wonder whether the fact that this coincides with the undermining of the Electoral Commission and the relaxing of the rules on overseas donors is any kind of accident. It is not just me; the Centre for American Progress flagged recently:
“Uprooting Kremlin-linked oligarchs will be a challenge given the close ties between Russian money and the United Kingdom’s ruling conservative party, the press, and its real estate and financial industry.”
This should worry us all, but it does not seem to worry those on the Government Benches.
Lord Agnew’s estimate of the total fraud loss across UK Government Departments is £29 billion per year. That could go, as he suggested, to tax cuts or, as we on the SNP Benches would argue for, to investment in public services and increases in social security. Either way, there is a cost to this fraud, and it remains absolutely baffling that this UK Government have continued to let it go on their watch.
I am just coming to a close, but I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have a contribution to make later.
The solution is not difficult if the will is there. We have lost too much time and too many opportunities to bring forward measures in different Bills. If we are to have an economic crime plan, it must tackle all these issues; we must not miss another opportunity. If the Government will not act, they should devolve full powers in this area to the Scottish Parliament and let our colleagues in Edinburgh get on with the job. Scotland has no desire to be tarnished yet further by this grubby excuse for a Government.
I am slightly surprised to be called so early in the debate, but very grateful. It is an honour to follow the hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss), who spoke a lot of sense about Companies House in particular. I welcome the Opposition’s use of their time on this debate, as this is an important matter that goes to the heart of competence in what the Government are supposed to deliver: good decision making while acting prudently with the public purse. Let us be clear that fraud and waste of public funds are entirely unacceptable.
Before I continue, I should point to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests. For 10 years, before becoming an MP, I worked in fraud and financial crime, and the organisation I worked for chaired the Joint Fraud Taskforce. I should perhaps also start with an apology. I have heard the phrase “single transferrable speech” a few times in this place, and this might be my opportunity to make one. My hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) and the right hon. Member for Barking (Dame Margaret Hodge) secured a debate on economic crime, and I will repeat some of the points I made in that debate, if the House will indulge me.
We would be right to be dismayed by some of the unrecovered sums from the various covid support measures, but we should not be quite so quick to jump down the Government’s throat. The recovery of such moneys, as the Minister said, takes time, and we must be realistic that the headline figure will look very different in six months’ time, let alone 12 months’ time. Having spoken to Ministers about this, I am reassured by their determination to drive down those figures further and further, and by the measures that they have already taken, but this is another reminder that we should be considering an economic crime Bill as a matter of urgency.
Here is where the single transferrable speech kicks in. I met the National Crime Agency a few years ago, and it had mapped an organised crime group and followed how it laundered the proceeds of economic crime, picking up money along the way from our constituents who had been defrauded, from people running small boats across the seas, from organised crime and from the dark web. The chain runs from telephone fraud across the channel and to the poppy fields of Afghanistan, and these groups are not rag-tag bunches of criminals; they are organised, they are not chancing their arm and they are deeply successful. They are not paying tax, and there are many of them out there.
As sure as eggs is eggs, some of the people who have been exploiting these Government schemes are connected to organised crime. They know how to manipulate the system, and they know how to avoid all the very good, robust checks that the Government mandated for the covid schemes. One of the things we need to do is tighten up the system and, again, there should be an economic crime Bill.
The hon. Gentleman is making an incredibly thoughtful speech, and so far I agree with all of it. Does he share my concern that the cut in Government aid means the National Crime Agency has had to put on ice its plan to grow the international corruption unit to look at this international form of organised crime?
I do not know enough of the detail to answer that question responsibly, but what would unlock the power of the NCA is far more access to data and data sharing. If we can get people sharing robust, high-quality information from the public sector and the private sector, the NCA could draw down on some of this economic crime with the tools it already has.
Some of the people responsible for misusing and misappropriating Government funds are engaged in high-level economic crime, but we need to consider the circumstances of the time. These support schemes, as has been said, were set up in very quick order, and they were designed to help people and businesses that were facing a very imminent precipice. I think we all acknowledge that furlough and income support saved thousands of jobs and helped to aid the recovery and the buoyant economy we are now seeing as we leave the pandemic.
The Chancellor has been clear that he will do everything he can to get that money back and to go after those who took advantage of the pandemic, and the taxpayer protection taskforce, which has had a £100 million investment, is a welcome measure. It is a good demonstration that the Government are working together and pulling together.
We should also consider what has already been achieved. Last year, the Government stopped or recovered nearly £2.2 billion-worth of potential fraud in bounce back loans and £743 million in overclaimed furlough grants, but we cannot afford to take our eye off the ball. Fraud is the No. 1 volume crime in the UK. It is an epidemic that is out of control, and we simply do not have enough of a grip on it. I will repeat myself: we need an economic crime Bill to give law enforcement the tools they need to collaborate better with the private sector.