‘Lavish’ Whitehall spending revealed by purchase card data, says Labour

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Ministers are facing accusations of overseeing a “lavish spending” culture in Whitehall that has seen taxpayers’ money wasted on luxury items, after a Labour analysis of the use of Government procurement cards (GPCs).

Labour raised concerns about dining and alcohol purchases, including almost £345,000 by Foreign Office (FCDO) officials in 2021 under the heading “restaurants and bars”, as well as entertainment spending and evidence of end-of-year sprees to use up budgets.

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said the investigation into the use of GPCs revealed a “scandalous catalogue of waste”.

That figure was up from £84.9 million in 2010/11 in the equivalent departments, although around £20 million of the difference could be explained through inflation.

But transport minister Richard Holden accused Labour of wasting civil servants’ time on information already in the public domain.

“In the big picture, what we’ve seen since 2010, is an 85% reduction in this,” he told ITV’s Good Morning Britain.

“All of this data is publicly available online, it has been since 2012 — something which didn’t happen under the last Labour government.

“We publish it on a monthly basis.

“The Labour Party has spent half-a-million pounds asking parliamentary questions, 2,500 of them, wasting my civil servants’ time for information that is already publicly available and that they hid when they were last in office.”

Labour’s work examined the main Whitehall departments apart from the Ministry of Defence, which the Opposition claimed had not produced sufficiently comprehensive data.

The dossier showed:

– In 2021, £3.3 million was spent at office supply firm Banner, £1.51 million with Amazon, almost £415,000 at Enterprise Rent-a-Car, almost £238,000 at Ikea, nearly £106,000 at John Lewis and more than £101,000 at Apple.

– The biggest single supplier was BFS Group, provider of food to the Prison Service, with sales over £500 worth a total of £54.9 million.

– On March 30 2021, when Rishi Sunak was chancellor, the Treasury spent £3,393 buying 13 fine art photographs from The Tate Gallery to hang in the department’s Horse Guards Road building, despite ministries having access to the Government Art Collection’s pictures.

– Foreign Office GPCs were used to buy £23,457 of duty-free supplies from Dubai-based International Diplomatic Supplies, thought to be for the use of UK embassies overseas; but in the first 10 months of 2022, that level of spending jumped more than four times higher, to £95,834.

Public Order Bill
Suella Braverman and guests spent almost £114 a head at The Cinnamon Club restaurant in Westminster (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

– Then-attorney general Suella Braverman and her Ukrainian counterpart visited fine dining Indian restaurant The Cinnamon Club in Westminster along with six others in May 2022 at a cost of £909 – just under £114 a head.

– Between January 2021 and June 2022, the FCDO spent £36,293 on items of fine bone china from Royal Crown Derby and £15,943 on items from the Royal Collection online shop, presumably to give as presents to foreign counterparts.

– From January 2021 to June 2022 the FCDO spent £11,853 at upmarket store Fortnum and Mason.

Labour Party Conference 2022
Deputy leader Angela Rayner was critical of the spending (Peter Byrne/PA)

“Today’s shocking revelations lift the lid on a scandalous catalogue of waste, with taxpayers’ money frittered away across every part of Government, while in the rest of the country, families are sick with worry about whether their pay cheque will cover their next weekly shop or the next tranche of bills.”

Mr Holden, who was quizzed about the spending details as he toured broadcast studios, called Labour’s proposal for an Office of Value for Money “straight out of Yes Minister”.

“I think the last thing we want to see at the moment is more Whitehall mandarins checking what other Whitehall mandarins are doing — what we want is stuff fully and transparently declared, and that’s the direction we’ve moved in over the last few years.”

Downing Street has insisted officials rather than Rishi Sunak authorised the spending on fine art photographs.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “In terms of art work in the Treasury, the PM – when chancellor – was not involved in that decision.

“It was a non-ministerial decision related to refurbishment of some of the offices.”

The official added: “As ever everyone who spends taxpayers’ money needs to be aware they’re doing just that and as a Government we’re very responsible on how we use these cards.

“But it’s important to understand they’re there to serve a purpose and the National Audit Office estimates that using cards typically saves around 35% in transaction costs, or £5 per transaction, compared to traditional methods.”

Shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry, who was behind many of the parliamentary questions used to uncover the details, said: “If you went by the Government spending revealed in this report, you would think we were in the last days of Rome, not the worst cost-of-living crisis for decades.”

GPCs are the preferred civil service method of purchasing low value goods or services, with the benefit of providing prompt payments for small and medium-sized firms.

The rules on GPC use were relaxed at the start of the Covid pandemic, allowing individual card-holders to spend up to £20,000 per transaction and £100,000 per month, and permitting the use of GPCs across all categories of spending.

A senior Conservative source said: “Awkwardly for Labour HQ they’ve forgotten that they introduced these ‘civil servant credit cards’ in 1997.

“By 2010 Labour was spending almost £1 billion of taxpayers’ money on everything from dinners at Mr Chu’s Chinese restaurant to luxury five-star hotels.

“The Conservatives swiftly stopped their absurd profligacy, cutting the number of cards, introducing a requirement for spending to be publicly declared and introducing controls.

“Typically, Labour’s ‘big idea’ is to spend millions to establish yet another quango, stuff it with thousands of bureaucrats and give them gold-plated pensions.”

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