Spending on government-issued “credit cards” has risen 70% since 2010, when the Conservatives first warned they were generating “hideous waste”, according to a Labour analysis of civil service spending.
Civil servants at 14 of the 15 main government departments spent nearly £150m on government procurement cards (GPCs) in 2021, the figures show, a steep rise since 2010-11, when David Cameron warned about the lax rules and oversight governing their use.
Eye-catching amounts billed to the taxpayer-funded cards included Liz Truss and her top officials spending nearly £1,500 on lunch and dinner at two of Jakarta’s most exclusive restaurants, and Rishi Sunak’s Treasury department spending more than £3,000 on photographs to hang on the walls when he was chancellor and £4,500 on hotel rooms in Venice.
The figures emerged from a months-long investigation by Labour, which submitted more than 300 freedom of information requests and parliamentary questions to uncover the information, and is due to launch a website dedicated to tracking GPC spending on Monday. The information uncovered shows a pattern of using the cards for lavish entertainment, expensive gifts for foreign dignitaries and luxury hotel stays.
Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, 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 Labour would set up a new regulator called the Office of Value for Money to help monitor civil service spending more carefully.
A Conservative source pointed out that Labour brought in the cards in 1997 and that the Tories had cut the number of cards in use across the civil service, if not the overall levels of spending. They dismissed the idea of a new regulator as “yet another quango”.
The figures show that spending on GPCs by officials at 14 of the main 15 central government departments has risen from £85m in 2010-11 to £146m in 2021. The Ministry of Defence is one of the heaviest users of the cards, but was excluded from the analysis because its data contained errors and apparent double counting.
One of the departments that relies on its cards most heavily is the Foreign Office, partly because diplomats often use them to pay for throwing parties and entertaining foreign dignitaries.
A Foreign Office source said: “No country, and actually no government of whatever party, has said or thinks that serious diplomacy is free. When we return the often generous hospitality received from others, or offer it to them, it is done to enhance and promote British interests.”
But the information also shows that officials occasionally spend lavishly even when no foreign dignitaries are in attendance.
The spending by Truss in Indonesia took place during a visit to Jakarta on Remembrance Day 2021, for example, but parliamentary answers to questions submitted by Labour reveal that she did not have time to visit the Jakarta war cemetery, where 690 Britons are buried.
David Rutley, the Foreign Office minister, said: “Participants at both [meals] included the former foreign secretary and delegation, our ambassador to Indonesia and other British embassy officials.”
Earlier that year, Truss used a VIP suite at Heathrow while returning from Mexico on her first trip as foreign secretary, allowing her to bypass the normal check-in, security and passport procedures. The suite also provides access to food designed by a Michelin-starred chef, the use of a personal shopper and a chauffered car between the plane and the airport.
The Foreign Office later settled the £3,240 bill using a government card. Rutley said in a parliamentary answer: “VIP services are booked to provide swift and secure airport arrival and departure arrangements. We are committed to using public money responsibly and receive a reduced rate for these services.”
In September 2021, the Mirror recently revealed, Boris Johnson also used a GPC to pay for a £4,445 dinner in New York for himself and 24 of his staff.
The Treasury has also spent heavily at times. In March 2021, for example, when the prime minister, Rishi Sunak, was chancellor, the department spent £3,393 buying 13 photographs from the Tate to hang in its Whitehall building, despite already having access to the government art collection.
Sunak was also highlighted for staying in the five-star Hotel Danieli in Venice when attending the G20 meeting of finance ministers in July 2021 at a cost of more than £4,500 for him and his aides.
The information uncovered by Labour also shows systemic problems which are not connected to any particular department or minister.
There are several occasions where items had been accounted for wrongly, such as when more than £1,000 worth of plane tickets in the Maldives was logged as “computer equipment and services”.
And there are examples of departments apparently scrambling to max out the cards as the end of the financial year approaches. In March 2021, for example, Sunak’s Treasury spent more than £25,000 on IT and office equipment – more than double any other month of the year. That included spending more than £5,000 on a paper shredder and nearly £11,000 on video and photo equipment.