Nick Smith MP Labour MP for Blaenau Gwent
It was 1978 when Ian Drury released the cult classic ‘What a Waste’, but it seems little has changed since then.
I was honoured to be elected to the Public Accounts Committee after entering parliament. Since then I have been amazed that while people’s lives and livelihoods are being blighted by the government’s ‘too far, too fast’ cuts agenda, so much public money is being wasted.
While we certainly cannot claim that reducing waste would eliminate the deficit, massive waste certainly exists.
Waste is a moral issue. In government, we do not spend our own money. It is easy to forget that public money does not come from a faceless Treasury department, but from the public who work hard to earn it. So we have a duty to spend taxpayers’ money in a responsible way.
In my time on the PAC we have considered a number of projects that have been bad value for tax payer’s money. We should highlight these examples and be ready to explain to voters how we will do better.
While the government are cutting £81bn in this parliament, the Times has calculated that PAC reports over the last two years show that more than £31bn has been wasted.
The MoD is well known for its poor performance in terms of value for money. The Major Projects Report found that despite cuts, defence equipment programmes are £6.1bn over budget, an increase of £466m from last year.
Furthermore, Liam Fox’s decision to alter the aircraft flown from the new aircraft carriers, currently under construction, caused a massive redesign that will add billions to the final bill.
The administration of HMRC has been questioned recently, as the committee discovered that in their negotiations over unresolved tax disputes at least £10.9bn of unpaid tax last year will never be collected. This includes £20m from investment giant Goldman Sachs.
In the NHS the NHS care records system has cost £6.4bn already, £2.7bn of which has brought no recognisable benefit.
These cautionary tales highlight a serious knowledge gap in Whitehall. The Civil Service does not have the expertise in procurement that industry does, so negotiations are often one-sided and end up representing poor value for the taxpayers.
There is also evidence that when purchasing IT systems or complex equipment civil service mandarins do not understand what they are buying, often tying themselves into long term deals without the flexibility to improve the terms. An obvious solution is to train civil servants in the skills required for procurement and negotiation.
After quizzing civil servants on the PAC, they say they are addressing this core skills gap, but we must wait and see what form this takes. This relatively small outlay could save billions in future government spending, and reassure the public that we are looking after their money.
So while Ian Drury could have been a lawyer, doctor, or ticket man at Fulham Broadway Station in 1978 -; perhaps in the future he could be a government procurement expert or project manager?