‘Star chamber’ to wage war on Whitehall’s wasteful spending

Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak are to launch a war on waste, forming a “star chamber” to hold Cabinet ministers to account over government spending.

In a move designed to put pressure on ministers to achieve value for money for billions of pounds of spending on public services, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor will hold monthly meetings with secretaries of state to ensure that they are getting “the best out of the system”.

Sources said the meetings would be “data-driven” and include the setting of specific targets to measure the success of the most expensive public services and infrastructure projects.  

Mr Johnson is understood to have signed off the idea of the “star chamber” last week after Mr Sunak presented plans for the panel as a way to hold departments to account for public spending. Both hope to be able to put aside funds to introduce tax cuts before the next election.

The pair will be joined in meetings of the new panel by Steve Barclay, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and Simon Clarke, his successor as chief secretary to the Treasury.

A senior government source said: “The Prime Minister and Rishi want to change the mentality of departments to ensure they are constantly focused on delivery and efficiency.

“This new structure will allow them to properly hold secretaries of state and their departments to account, with value for money placed front and centre. As we tackle backlogs, this work will be absolutely crucial in delivering our plans and levelling up the country.”

A Whitehall source added: “The Prime Minister and Chancellor are clear that we must now ensure we have clearly defined targets for the delivery and performance of public services now that budgets are settled. All departments must be held to account to ensure value for money from every pound of their spending review settlement, with a focus on efficiency.”

Sajid Javid, the Health Secretary, is under pressure to deliver value for the  £12 billion in extra annual funding for the NHS that will be raised by a National Insurance increase from April, and  £5.9 billion given to the health service to tackle Covid backlogs.

Grant Shapps, the Transport Secretary, will be asked to account for billions being poured into infrastructure projects such as the HS2 rail link.

In a Cabinet meeting last week, Mr Sunak warned that the NHS must show “tangible” signs of improvement amid a growing number of MPs reporting concerns among their constituents about whether the health service was delivering for them.

Last month, in a focus group of working class voters who backed the Conservatives in 2019, several participants raised concerns about difficulties attempting to see their GPs.

“My concern is the NHS, the state that it’s getting in,” Debbie, a project administrator in Old Bexley and Sidcup, told the group convened by Public First for The Telegraph.  

Laura, a cafe assistant, said: “I haven’t been able to get to see a doctor for I can’t remember how long. It’s literally been years. My son got an ear infection and I was told to go to A&E with him with an ear infection.”

Mr Barclay, Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary, and Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Leader of the Commons, are all said to have supported Mr Sunak’s intervention in Cabinet.

Last month, The Telegraph disclosed that Mr Javid had drafted in Sir Michael Barber, the first head of Tony Blair’s Downing Street delivery unit, to lead a similar unit run jointly by the NHS and the Department for Health, which will focus on recovery and raising the performance of the health service after the pandemic.

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