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Public Spending: Value for Money

Volume 708: debated on Tuesday 1 February 2022

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.