School funding and NHS recruitment ‘must be new PM’s first priorities’

School funding and NHS recruitment must be the first priorities of the new prime minister, according to a watchdog.

The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) – Westminster’s public spending watchdog – has warned Brexit has been overshadowing other serious issues, including health, education and defence spending on nuclear submarines.

The incoming premier must “seriously plan” how to manage the issues that are not directly Brexit-related, PAC chairwoman Meg Hillier has said in her annual report.

Meg Hillier
Labour MP and Public Accounts Committee chairwoman Meg Hillier(PA)

Outlining areas of concern, she said: “Many of these have an immediate impact on the user – such as school funding or the need to tackle recruitment in the NHS so that patients can receive treatment in appropriate timescales.

“Other decisions may not cause an immediate issue but will store up problems for the future – defence spending is a classic example.

“There may not be big political kudos in tackling these issues today but there are huge financial and service consequences of deferring difficult decisions, as our recent reports on decommissioning nuclear submarines shows.”

She singled out education funding as a “crisis” and added children’s social care is “increasingly becoming financially unsustainable”.

NHS staffing shortages were described as “unsustainable” with one in 11 posts vacant including shortages of consultants, acute physicians and emergency physicians.

The chairwoman also raised concerns about a Ministry of Defence funding gap approaching £15 billion and a submarine dismantling project “drastically behind schedule” with no end in sight.

Ms Hillier has led more than 50 investigations into government projects in the last year and called on the new Tory leader to “consider the workload and upheaval in departments” before announcing new initiatives.

“If they don’t there is a risk that programmes will not deliver,” she said.

“For example, the Ministry of Justice is currently unpicking the probation reforms introduced in 2014 but just doing this is a major project in its own right.”

The chairwoman criticised Government for “too often” repeating mistakes and flagged the failure to involve users at an early stage of planning as a “stand-out concern” – particularly over major rail schemes including HS2 and Crossrail – costing the public purse billions.

She said: “We see this starkly with large-scale rail projects where the engineering challenges can overshadow passenger needs.

“And in our most recent inquiry into the sale by Network Rail of its railway arches the tenants’ concerns were only properly considered when the tenants themselves launched a vocal campaign.

“One of my ongoing ambitions is to persuade departments to allow the PAC and National Audit Office early access to projects – so we can examine them before they get going.

“I believe this could save taxpayers billions of pounds.”

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