Government ministers have been accused of “holding little respect for public money” after a Labour Party report found that millions had been spent on restaurant and bar tabs, duty free alcohol, and other luxury items.
The Foreign Office was one of the biggest spenders - with £344,803 spent on restaurants and bars in 2021, while former Prime Minister Liz Truss was Foreign Secretary. Meanwhile, on a July 2021 trip to Venice for the G20 Summit, Rishi Sunak’s Treasury spent £3,217 at five-star Hotel Danieli and £1,361 at four-star Hotel Bonvecchiati, despite official guidelines stating that ministers are supposed to stay in the most cost-effective accommodation. Some ministers were only there for one night.
Amazon was the biggest recipient of spending, raking in £1.5 million from government cards. Elsewhere, £237,638 was spent at Ikea, £105,832 at John Lewis, £101,467 at Apple, and £11,853 on gifts from Fortnum and Mason - all at the expense of the taxpayer.
The spending patterns were revealed after Labour conducted an investigation into ‘government procurement cards’, which are essentially Whitehall credit cards used by departments to buy goods and services. These are supposed to be regular work expenses, but according to Labour, the cards are used with “little control, scrutiny or oversight”.
Deputy Leader Angela Rayner described what was shown in the dossier as a “scandalous catalogue of waste”, while, on the website compiling the information, the party wrote: “Buried beneath the tens of thousands of normal purchases, there is extensive evidence of misreporting, waste and excess.”
But the Conservative Party has pointed out that Labour introduced the ‘civil servant credit cards’ in 1997, claiming that, by 2010, the party was “spending almost £1 billion of taxpayers’ money on everything from dinners at Mr Chu’s Chinese restaurant to luxury five-star hotels.”
So, what are government procurement cards, what has the government spent the taxpayer’s money on, and what have Labour and the Conservatives said? Here’s everything you need to know about the latest political scandal - including why Labour has changed its username and profile picture on Twitter.
What are government procurement cards?
According to the government’s website, government procurement cards, or GPCs, are “branded purchasing cards, not credit cards”, which are “provided through a framework agreement between government procurement services and six card issuers.” Rules for GPCs were relaxed during the pandemic, meaning card holders can now spend £20,000 in a single transaction and £100,000 a month.
The cards then are essentially Whitehall’s version of contactless debit cards, and are funded by taxpayers. They are supposed to be used for regular workplace expenses, or in the government’s words, “low risk, low value purchases” from “small and medium sized enterprises”, but the Labour Party’s report has unveiled a higher level of spending than necessary.
What has the taxpayer’s money been spent on?
Labour’s dossier shows that in 2021, across 14 major Whitehall departments, a total of at least £145.5 million was spent using GPCs. This is up from £84.9 million in 2010/2011. Some of the rises will be due to inflation, but the 71.38% rise in ten years can not all be explained away in this manner.
Examples of the spending revealed includes:
- £3,240 on access to Heathrow’s VIP lounge
- £7,218 on a reception at an amusement park in Sydney
- £3,393 on 13 fine art photographs
- £114,400 on communication workshops from the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art
- £11,853 on gifts from Fortnum and Mason
- £15,943 at the Royal Collection online shop
Which departments spent the most?
According to Labour’s analysis of government spending, the Ministry of Justice was the biggest spender - comprising £84.86 million of spending in 2021. The Foreign Office came next at £34.35 million, followed by Defra at £8.66 million and Department for Work and Pensions at £8.60 million.
At the bottom of the list, spending less than half a million, were the Department for Health and Social Care, Department for International Trade and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. The Levelling Up Department was the lowest spender, expensing £0.06 million on GPCs.
Which MPs spent the most?
Alok Sharma is the minister with the highest expenditure. He mainly racked up bills from overseas trips for talks about climate change, as President of COP26.
However, these included some luxury hotels - such as five-star Tianjin Binhai One Hotel which cost £9,238 for him and 10 aides (£420 per person per night) in September 2021. He also spent £4,233 on a stay at the five-star Four Seasons in Seoul, South Korea, from 4 - 8 November, 2021.
Another example would be former investment minister Lord Grimstone, who stayed with a secretary at Saudi Arabia’s Riyadh Ritz Carlton, one of the world’s poshest hotels, in 2021. Two nights were complimentary but the third, plus all three nights for his aide, were paid for on a GPC - costing £3,041 or £760 a night.
What has happened to Labour’s Twitter?
Labour has changed the name on its press account to The GPC files, to draw attention to its report. It has also changed its profile picture to the image it is using to represent GPCs. The party’s official account, @UKLabour, has remained the same.
What has the Labour Party said about government spending?
Deputy Leader Rayner has accused government ministers of “living the high life and treating taxpayers like a cash machine”. She described the spending as a “scandalous catalogue of waste”, commenting: “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.”
On its new website, the party added that while “these may be called Government Procurement Cards, too many in government have forgotten that it is the public footing the bill.” They continued: “That would be irresponsible at the best of times, but during the worst cost of living crisis for decades, it is simply unforgivable.
Labour has also claimed that misleading descriptions are being used on some of the spending. For instance, it said that a purchase of sparkling wine was classed as “computer equipment”, luxury lighting was described as “computer software”, and a stay at a five-star hotel in Bahrain was listed under “accounting, auditing and bookkeeping services”.
What has the government said?
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.”
Meanwhile, Transport Minister Richard Holden has accused Labour of wasting civil servants’ time on information already in the public domain. He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “In the big picture, what we’ve seen since 2010, is an 85 per cent reduction in this. All of this data is publicly available online, it has been since 2012 — something which didn’t happen under the last Labour government.
“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.”