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Public Spending: Value for Money

Volume 725: debated on Tuesday 20 December 2022

Value for money is a central priority for the Government and at the heart of every decision we take. The Government take our responsibility for managing the public purse seriously. The Government recently launched the efficiency and savings review, and that will help to keep spending focused on the Government’s priorities and manage pressures from higher inflation. It will include renewing our efforts to drive efficiency, tackle waste and re-prioritise spending away from lower value and lower priority programmes.

I hear what the Minister has just said, but he will be as aware as I am that, in the 2020-21 annual report from the Department of Health and Social Care, the Government wrote off a total of £8.7 billion-worth of the personal protective equipment they had acquired in the first year of the pandemic. When families are facing a choice between heating and eating this Christmas, does the Minister understand the real public anger that people are facing these difficulties at this time, when the Government are having such rampant waste of public money?

I acknowledge that figure in that report, but it refers to the write-down that was necessary following a situation where we acquired a lot of PPE at a time of acute demand and shortage of supply. It was an adjustment for that. Of course, 97% of all PPE was suitable for use in healthcare and non-healthcare settings. While I take the general point that the hon. Lady is making about concern for the most vulnerable in communities, which has been addressed by the £37 billion of support we have put in this year, those are the facts around the figure that she raises.

Figures suggest that at least £3 billion has been spent on agency staff in the civil service over the past three years, plugging the gaps in our public sector at a huge premium to employment agencies. With Public and Commercial Services Union members in the civil service now out on strike for fair pay and terms and conditions, and thousands of contingency staff already drafted in to break the strikes, can the Minister say how much this dispute is costing the taxpayer? Does he agree that it is a false economy not to give these dedicated public servants a decent cost of living pay rise?

Strikes are obviously very regrettable, and we as Ministers work closely with civil servants day in, day out, and we very much value the contribution they make to government. I will be looking carefully with Secretaries of State in the coming weeks at efficiencies across government and how we can get the economy, the country and public finances in the best possible place as we move forward through the pay review round next year.

Are the Government not just paying lip service to the need to get improved productivity in public services? For example, the NHS produced an internal report in April on its efficiency, or lack of productivity. I requested that that report be made available in the Library more than one month ago, and I have not even had a reply to the question. Why are the Government not more open with Members about the need for productivity improvements?

I can be very open with my hon. Friend today. We are absolutely committed to driving forward productivity across the economy and in the public sector. I will look into the specific question he has not had answered. That will involve conversations with the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, as well as across the Cabinet.

I just remind everybody that Members’ letters must be answered when they put requests in, please. We now come to the shadow Minister.

I echo the good wishes to you, Mr Speaker, to the Minister and to the whole House for a very happy Christmas.

Last year, the then Prime Minister and the then Chancellor, who is now the Prime Minister, announced a star chamber to crack down on waste and fraud in public expenditure. How often has the star chamber met, and how much of the £6.7 billion estimated to have been lost to covid fraud and error has been recovered?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we have instituted a range of interventions, investing in His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs fraud prevention measures to embed those in business as usual. I have been in post for the past eight weeks, and I will be having a series of meetings in January.

The Minister could not tell us whether the star chamber has met at all.

On top of all the examples that have been cited today, the rescue of the energy company Bulb is estimated by the Office for Budget Responsibility to be costing another £6.5 billion, partly as a result of our hedge fund Prime Minister’s failure to hedge against rising energy prices. Why do the Government not show more respect for public money and chase down every penny of these losses before putting up taxes for 30 million people at a time when the public already face the biggest cost of living crisis for generations?

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman about the imperative of chasing down all waste. The Government are providing continued funding for the Bulb Energy special administration regime while the sale of Bulb’s customers to Octopus is pursued by the energy administrator as an exit route from the SAR, but I will look at what the right hon. Gentleman said and reflect carefully on what we can do further.