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Managing the Public Finances

Volume 710: debated on Tuesday 15 March 2022

People are rightly angry that fraudsters stole from covid support schemes, as am I. When the schemes were launched, there was cross-party consensus that we needed speed to protect jobs, and because of our action unemployment peaked at 5.2%, not the 12% predicted at the start of the pandemic. We designed the schemes to prevent as much fraud as possible, and lenders stopped nearly £2.2 billion of potential fraud from the bounce back loan schemes. We continue to take action on multiple fronts to recover money that was claimed fraudulently.

It is not just a matter of fraud; it is a matter of incompetence as well. The National Audit Office has been scathing about the UK’s wasteful spending of £37 billion on private contractors to deliver the test and trace system in England, while we in Wales had a more efficient system through partnership with the Welsh Government and local councils. What guidance is the Chief Secretary giving Departments on how to avoid giving such wasteful contracts in the future? Does the guidance include considering, wherever practicable, the delivery of service contracts through public authorities, where any profit remains in the public purse?

We always continue to encourage best value, and this is at the heart of all Treasury documents on the use of public money. On the hon. Lady’s point about test and trace, it is very important to reaffirm that the great majority of the costs associated with this scheme were about testing as opposed to tracing, and it was only that scheme that allowed us to come through the enormous challenges of the period, particularly prior to the availability of the vaccine, in a way that allowed our society and our wider economy to keep going to the extent that they could.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor has been incredibly agile in responding to exceptional crises. As he tackles the impact of Putin’s war on our economy, will the Minister take every measure to accelerate growth, including reducing taxes on fuel and energy?

As has been discussed earlier in this session, as my hon. Friend rightly highlights, the Government recognise that households do need support with the rising cost of energy. Indeed, the Chancellor has already provided support worth some £9.1 billion for the financial year 2022-23. On her wider point about boosting growth, the Chancellor outlined in his Mais lecture the importance of the Government investing in capital, people and ideas, so that we can strengthen the economy and make sure that the UK is best placed to succeed in what is a challenging set of circumstances.

Just in the last seven days, we have learned that 7 billion items of personal protective equipment were not fit for purpose, the Government are burning 500 lorryloads of it a month and former Treasury Minister Lord Agnew admitted that the lack of anti-fraud measures in the Government’s covid business support packages meant it was

“happy days if you were a crook”.

When billions of pounds of public money have been lost through the Chancellor’s incompetence, is the Minister ashamed to be hiking taxes on working people by billions of pounds next month?

I am afraid the hon. Gentleman misunderstands the situation in regard to PPE. Over 97% of the stock that was ordered was suitable for use. Indeed, when it comes to the wider figure covering the PPE piece, £4.7 billion of that represents PPE that will be used by the NHS, but which was procured at a greater price than it carries today owing to the scarcity that prevailed at that time, and another £3.3 billion represents PPE that can be used in non-medical settings, and the Department of Health and Social Care has already sold and donated stock in this category.

On the wider fraud point, this goes back to my earlier answer that we had to design these schemes at pace to protect jobs—I think this was agreed across the House—and we rightly, I think, made sure that that was the priority. We then built in the protections that were needed, and the protections have made sure that we are able to pursue anyone who has defrauded the taxpayer.

Lord Agnew’s evidence to the Treasury Committee last week was a damning indictment of this Tory Government’s “terrible complacency”—his words—about fraud and protecting public money, and he does not buy what the Minister says about working at pace either. Lord Agnew anticipates that there will be an “avalanche of claims” from the banks on the state guarantee of the bounce back loan scheme arriving at the Treasury in the coming weeks, so can the Minister tell the House what actions he is taking to prevent yet further billions of public money from waltzing out the door in the midst of a cost of living crisis?

On the hon. Lady’s point, the Government set up the £100 million taxpayer protection taskforce at the Budget back in March 2021, and that taskforce is expected to recover between £800 million and £1 billion from fraudulent or incorrect payments over the next two years. That builds on the work that has already been done, which saw Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs recover £536 million in 2020-21. Other agencies of the state are also involved in this important work. The National Crime Agency has made 17 arrests, 106 directors have been disqualified as of February 2022, there have been 48 bankruptcy restrictions and 13 companies have been wound up in the public interest in relation to bounce back loans.