Spending by the Ministry of Justice on consultants has increased nearly fivefold over the past two years, new figures show, fuelled by the implementation of the controversial £1.2bn courts modernisation programme.
And the consultants bill for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs nearly quadrupled in 2017/18 due to Brexit, a Labour probe from into Whitehall departments’ consultancy spending has uncovered.
Justice minister Edward Argar revealed in an answer to a parliamentary written question from shadow Treasury chief secretary Peter Dowd that his department’s consultancy spending doubled from £7.2m in 2016 to £15.4m in the following year.
The spending, which includes the MoJ’s arm's-length bodies, then doubled again to £35.6m in 2018, nearly five times the level it had been in 2016.
With £2.6m having been spent on consultants so far this year, the total bill adds up to £60.9m since the beginning of 2016.
The MoJ used eleven suppliers over the period in question, Argar said in his reply to the Dowd’s question.
Responding to a separate written question last week, Argar’s fellow MoJ minister Lucy Frazer said that consultancy spending by HM Courts and Tribunal Service rose from £3.1m in 2016-17 to £11.8m in 2017-18.
Argar informed Dowd that the projects in question could not be delivered with internal resources either due to their specialist nature or capacity issues within government.
A MoJ spokesperson said: “Consultants are engaged to deliver short-term work on projects where specialist skills required are not available within the organisation and where doing so ensures the best deal for taxpayers. By making use of consultants, the department can save on the salary, national insurance and pension costs associated with permanently employing individuals whose skills may not be needed after a set period.
“The increase in spending on consultants by the Ministry of Justice and its arm's-length bodies in recent years is largely a consequence of our modernisation of the courts system, bringing more and more services to the public using technology.”
The courts modernisation programme is designed to cut the need for physical hearings, thus enabling court space to be used more efficiently, by making greater use of digital and video technology.
The National Audit Office warned last May that the modernisation programme was behind schedule.
Commenting on the figures, Penelope Gibbs, director of the Transform Justice judicial reform campaign said: “The Ministry of Justice and HMCTS are spending significant sums on consultancies in a time of austerity.
“But information about the contracts is scarce. It would be great to understand more about who this money is going to, what they are contracted to do and how the work done is being monitored," she told CSW.
Dowd, who is number two in shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s Treasury team, has submitted questions to a string of government departments asking them to itemise consultancy spending over the past three years.
Food minister David Rutley said Defra's spending on consultants had increased from £2.8m in 2016-17 to £11.4m in 2017-18.
He said the increase reflected “the need to ensure the department draws on the best advice possible as we prepare to leave the EU”.
Department of Health and Social Care's consultancy bill meanwhile rose from £4.5m in 2016-17 to £12.4m in 2017/18, social care minister Caroline Dinenage said.
Dinenage said the increased spend had been driven by short-term programmes to develop and implement a new supply chain model to improve procurement efficiency and value for money in NHS services.
In contrast, the Department for Work and Pensions' consultancy spending fell from £36.1m in 2016/17 to £34.9m the following year, according to Justin Tomlinson, minister for disabled people. DWP had spent a further £25m on consultants in 2018/19 as of the end of February, he added.
The Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s consultancy bill also fell, from £22.9m in 2016-17 to £18.3m in 2017-18, digital minister Margot James said.
Attorney General Robert Buckland said his office has not hired any consultants since 2016, and Scotland secretary David Mundell said the same of the Scotland Office.
The Wales Office has spent just £17,400 on a single external consultant since 2016.
A spokesperson for the Management Consultancies Association said consultants have supported contingency planning as Brexit has created "an unprecedented workload for the UK government, with the need to set up and plan new systems to cover border control, trade, agricultural policy and immigration as well as many other complex policy areas".