Dossier reveals errors and gaps in government 'debit card' spend data

MoD figures so “riddled with anomalies” they could not be included in database of government procurement card spend, Labour says
Image: Hebi B. from Pixabay

A months-long project by the Labour Party to pull together records on government “debit card” spending has revealed that spending has risen by 71% since 2010 – but that record keeping is patchy and at times inaccurate.

Government departments spent £145.5m using government procurement cards in 2021-22, up from £84.9m in 2010-11, according to a database compiled using publicly available transparency data, Freedom of Information requests and parliamentary questions.

It covers the 14 main Whitehall departments, with the exception of the Ministry of Defence, whose data was “neither reliable nor comprehensive enough” to include, Labour said.

The biggest spender was the Ministry of Justice, which recorded £84.9m in GPC transactions last year – up from £36.9m in 2010-11 – and accounts for 58% of the total.

The Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office spent £34.4m – nearly four times the £9.3m spent by the Foreign Office and Department for International Development 11 years prior – and accounted for 24% of total GPC spending. DWP’s spending doubled from £3.65m to £8.6m in the same timeframe.

Notable purchases recorded in the dossier include £3,393 for 13 fine art photographs from The Tate Gallery to hang in the Treasury’s Horse Guards Road building while Rishi Sunak was chancellor – despite departments having free access to the Government Art Collection. 

Foreign Office officials spent £343,803 classified under “restaurants and bars” spending, while a reception for then-foreign secretary Liz Truss next to Sydney Harbour cost £7,218. 

The dossier highlighted spending on branded items, including £4,019 spent by the MoJ on 850 branded USB cables for staff participating in a virtual conference; and a £9,236  purchase by HM Prison and Probation Service of branded hand sanitiser.

Not included in the data for 2021-22, but noted in the dossier, HM Passport Office’s Belfast branch spent £584.50 on “corporate coloured cups” in May 2022 and UKVI spent £968 on “thermos cups in corporate colour (purple) unavailable on standard catalogue platforms” four months later.

‘Riddled with anomalies’

Labour said the MoD’s records were so “riddled with anomalies” that it had been left out of the published database.

The publication also shows incomplete record keeping by other departments. 

Each department is required to publish data on its spending over £500 each month. Labour also requested records of spending on GPCs under £500 for each department, which are included in the publication and which account for £43.53m of the £101.97m total. However, the Home Office was “unable to provide” figures for its sub-£500 payments, the dossier said.

For a large number of purchases recorded in departments’ monthly spending data, the “spending category” and/or “merchant category” – which is used to set out clearly what the spending is for – are left blank.

Of the 50 largest transactions recorded in the data, 24 give no information on the category of goods or services being bought, and 32 give no information on the type of supplier.

Meanwhile, a number of transactions were incorrectly classified.

For example, the FCDO spent a total of £21,552 on five new ministerial red boxes and 13 ministerial red folders from specialist supplier Barrow Hepburn & Gale in 2021-22, but recorded them only as purchases from “computer software stores”.

An October 2021 payment to trade consultancy DMA Invest Ltd, to support an event promoting UK expertise in renewable energy to Nepal, was categorised under “bands, orchestras and miscellaneous entertainers”.

Aeroplane tickets costing £1,372 for UK officials “to deliver underwater counter-terrorism training at the Maldives Police Academy” were categorised as “computer equipment and services”; as was £1,190 spent at a leisure complex in the Maldives. When questioned, the FCDO said the latter was “a UK-hosted diplomatic event with key Maldivian government contacts”.

And payments totalling £4,333 to a company called Finishing Touches – which the FCDO said when questioned was for building work in Gibraltar – was recorded under “barber and beauty shops”.

As well as gaps in departmental data, the dossier highlighted failures to publish spending figures in a timely manner.

The MoJ and DCMS “had to be repeatedly harried” through parliamentary questions into publishing their full data for 2021-22, according to the dossier, and the MoJ and the Treasury have yet to publish any GPC data for 2022-23.

Government procurement cards are used to reduce payment processing times, increase operational efficiency and support the government’s prompt payment initiative for small and medium enterprises.

A policy on the use of procurement cards published by the Crown Commercial Service in 2017 said they were the “the recommended method of purchasing and paying for goods or services under £10,000”.

In 2020, in response to the outbreak of the Covid pandemic, the limit was increased to £20,000 in a single transaction, and up to £100,000 for certain senior officials. The limit could be increased to more than £100,000 in some cases to meet business needs.

Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner 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.”

Rayner said the Labour Party would set up a new watchdog, Office of Value for Money, to monitor civil service spending more closely.

But transport minister Richard Holden said the government should not "introduce more bureaucracy, a sort of Jim Hacker-style Department of Administrative Affairs to administrate the other administrators, " referencing Yes, Minister.

Responding to criticism of the level of spending, Holden told Sky News: "If everything had to be invoiced, you can't actually do stuff that you need to do and it can be more expensive and add more bureaucracy."

However, he said departments should be transparent about their spending, pointing to monthly transparency reports.

"Sunlight is a great disinfectant for this sort of stuff," he said. "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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