In Parliament today I challenged the UK Government over its carelessness, incompetence and cronyism in an opposition day debate on tackling fraud and preventing government waste. In the debate, I also highlighted the government’s cavalier approach to managing taxpayers’ money.
The Hansard transcript of my speech is copied below in bold.
May I thank members of the Opposition Front Bench for choosing this subject to shine a light on? With everything else that is going on, it is really important not to lose sight of the Government’s woeful record on waste and fraud. I will speak on behalf of constituents—taxpayers—in Newport East hit by rising bills and energy costs, stagnant wages and facing the national insurance rise in April.
Families struggling just to get by, desperately wondering how they will cope through the coming months, are told time and again by the Government that there is little they can do to help; that the NI rise cannot be rethought because the Chancellor sees “little headroom for fiscal loosening”; that the £20 universal credit uplift cannot be maintained because of costs and an “ever-emerging and changing situation”; and that they will not take VAT off fuel bills, with Government Members even trooping through the Lobby to vote against Labour’s motion on this, despite the Prime Minister telling us during the Brexit referendum that:“When we Vote Leave, we will be able to scrap this unfair and damaging tax.”
That is not to mention all those excluded throughout this from Government schemes.
Yet all the while, the Government are writing off billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money lost to waste and fraud. As Conservative peer Lord Agnew—often mentioned today—said when resigning last week: “Total fraud loss across government is estimated at £29 billion a year. Of course, not all can be stopped, but a combination of arrogance, indolence and ignorance freezes the government machine.”
That is from their own side. The Government have been cavalier not only with lockdown rules and drunken parties but with due diligence when it comes to public spending. Just this week, it was revealed that £2.7 billion of taxpayers’ money was spent on PPE products that will go unused by the NHS; 71 UK Government contracts, with a total value of £1.5 billion, were awarded to suppliers without due diligence, with hundreds of millions going to firms with no experience of public contracts, including the Florida jewellery company and the pest control company; and £3.5 billion of covid contracts were given to Tory-linked firms. As the National Audit Office said, the Government’s approach “diminished public transparency” and fell short of the “standards that the public sector will always need to apply if it is to maintain public trust.”
The Conservative party defends all this by pointing to the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic, but other Governments did not make the same mistakes. In Wales, the Auditor General saw no evidence of priority being given to potential suppliers depending on who referred them, and the Welsh Labour Government introduced legislation, the Social Partnership and Public Procurement (Wales) Bill, to ensure that procurement contracts are fully open and responsible throughout supply chains—a Labour Administration doing it the responsible way.
As we have heard throughout the debate, the Department of Health was not alone in squandering our money. Thanks to my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), we know that the Ministry of Defence wasted £13 billion of taxpayers’ money since 2010 on failed procurement projects, overspends and other admin errors. The Public Accounts Committee concluded that the Ministry of Defence procurement system “is broken and is repeatedly wasting taxpayers’ money.”
The Ministry of Justice also wasted around £240 million in the last year on an array of projects, including £98 million on the new case management system for the electronic tagging of criminals, which was scrapped before it could be used.
As the Public Accounts Committee reported, the Department for Work and Pensions allowed universal credit fraud to spiral during the pandemic, with more than £8 billion lost to scams and errors. We all wanted money to go as quickly as possible to those who needed it, but the system was vulnerable to attack by organised crime groups and was overseen by Ministers who, to quote the Public Accounts Committee, had simply “lost control.”
The Chancellor has now decided to write off £4.3 billion of funds allocated to the coronavirus help schemes. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton South East (Mr McFadden) highlighted last month it is roughly the same as half the annual policing bill for the country. Hard-working police officers in Gwent police would have valued that money after a decade of Tory cuts in which they saw their budgets cut by 40%. It is more than the whole towns fund, it is almost the cost of the levelling-up fund, it is the same amount as the Chancellor took off universal credit in the autumn Budget, leaving thousands of my constituents worse off, and it would have been enough to help every family in the country who are suffering with their energy bills.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds West (Rachel Reeves) said, this all matters because it means less money for everything else and nothing to help with the cost of living crisis, and it means the Government are raising taxes in April. One of the many families in my constituency who have been in touch with me talked about how they have had to cut down to one meal a day so they can heat their home through the night to keep their baby warm. That is just one of hundreds of harrowing stories, and it is all down to competence and political choices. What this Government have shown us is carelessness, incompetence and cronyism.