Rishi Sunak has been accused of failing to rein in a “culture of lavish spending” across government departments as Labour published details of thousands of purchases over the past two years on taxpayer-funded debit cards.
The opposition party’s report on Government Procurement Cards (GPCs) showed 14 departments spent at least £145.5m in 2021 compared with the £84.9m spent a decade before, an increase of 71.38% in 10 years.
It follows the rules around GPCs being relaxed at the start of the COVID pandemic, with card holders able to spend up to £20,000 per transaction and £100,000 a month across all spending categories.
Labour said the increase in spending was driven by the Ministry of Justice, which went from spending £36.9m a year in 2011 to £84.9m in 2021.
The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office’s spending was 3.7 times higher in 2021 – at £34.4m – than the Foreign Office and Department for International Development’s combined spending of £9.3m a decade prior, according to the report.
Nine of the 14 departments analysed spent more in the last month of the financial year than any other month of the year, with overall GPC spending more than two-thirds higher in March 2021 than the monthly average for the rest of the year.
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Labour also found there were 34,661 transactions of over £1,000 in 2021 across the 14 departments.
The party named the largest suppliers to departments through GPCs in 2021 too – they included: Banner Stationery (£3.3m); Amazon (£1.51m); Enterprise-Rent-a-Car (£414,785); IKEA (£237,683); Posturite Chairs (£131,652); John Lewis (£105,832); KPMG (£105,014); and Apple (£101,467).
It said the biggest was BFS Group, which provides food supplies to the Prison Service, with sales over £500 worth an overall £54.9m.
The dossier showed:
In 2021, £3.3m was spent at office supply firm Banner, £1.51m 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 £54.9m.
On 30 March 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.
Several departments appeared to be using GPCs to exhaust their budgets at the end of each financial year, including the Department of Health and Social Care spending £59,155 on items of stationery in March 2021, compared to just £1,470 in the whole of the rest of the year combined and the Treasury spending £90,596 on training courses in March 2021, compared to an average of £38,357 in the other 11 months of the year.
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.
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Labour said it was concerned about “lax controls” over GPCs and “unchecked spending sprees engaged in by multiple departments across Whitehall at the end of each financial year”.
It claimed there was “excessive spending” on “extravagant events, expensive restaurants, high-end catering, five-star hotels, lavish gifts and hospitality, luxury furnishings and fabrics, unnecessary corporate branding, non-essential training, high-priced awayday venues, and the purchase of alcohol at taxpayers’ expense”.
Deputy leader Angela Rayner said the spending was not appropriate during a cost of living crisis.
She told Sky News: “We’ve seen scandal and we’ve seen sleaze, we’ve seen billions of pounds wasted under the Conservative government that we have now, and no action to clear up this mess.
“[These] cards are a way of bypassing the normal auditing process. And we see when it comes to the end of the financial year, big jumps in the spend and we’ve seen expenditure which is just not justifiable during the cost of living crisis.
“So there has to be transparency and there has to be regulation of the use of these cards.”
Ms Rayner said her party would create an “Office of Value for Money” to “get tough on waste”.
“Britain may be facing the worst cost of living crisis for decades, but whether as chancellor or prime minister, Rishi Sunak has failed to rein in the culture of lavish spending across Whitehall on his watch,” she said.
“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.”
Tories hit back at Labour report
Transport minister Richard Holden defended the use of the cards, telling Sky News: “If everything had to be invoiced, you know, you can’t actually do stuff that you need to do and it can be more expensive and add more bureaucracy.
“I don’t think what we should do is introduce more bureaucracy, a sort of Jim Hacker style department of Administrative Affairs to administrate the other administrators, which seems to be Labour’s proposal.”
However, he agreed about the need for transparency over the spending, pointing to the monthly report on what is spent on the cards.
“Sunlight is a great disinfectant for this sort of stuff,” added Mr Holden. “And so I think that’s why it’s so important that we’re as transparent as possible with what the government spends.”
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A senior Conservative source hit back harder at the Labour report, saying: “Awkwardly for Labour HQ they’ve forgotten that they introduced these ‘civil servant credit cards’ in 1997.
“By 2010 Labour was spending almost £1bn 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.”