The Tory government has been accused of overseeing “a scandalous catalogue of waste”, as thousands of purchases made using taxpayer-funded debit cards over the past two years are revealed.
Excessive spending exposed in the Labour dossier includes the use of five-star hotels, expensive restaurants, luxury furnishings, high-priced away days and the purchase of alcohol on government procurement cards (GPCs).
Among the more eye-opening, the Treasury – then under Rishi Sunak – spent £3,217 on rooms at the five-star Hotel Danieli in Venice for the-then chancellor and 11 other officials for a G20 meeting in 2021.
The same year, Mr Sunak’s Treasury bought 13 fine art photographs from The Tate Gallery at a cost of £3,393 – despite having the government’s existing art collection to choose from.
The Foreign Office spent £7,218 on a reception for then-foreign secretary Liz Truss against the backdrop of a Sydney Harbour amusement park in early 2022, and wrongly declared thousands of pounds worth of alcohol as “computer equipment”.
Ms Truss and her entourage also spent £1,443 on lunch and dinner at two restaurants in Jakarta in November 2021, while on an official visit to Indonesia.
The details were uncovered through Labour analysis of both official government data and a series of parliamentary questions, with Sir Keir Starmer’s party set to publish the full dossier on Monday.
Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader said: “Whether as chancellor or prime minister, Rishi Sunak has failed to rein in the culture of lavish spending across Whitehall on his watch.”
She added: “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.”
The rules on government procurement cards were heavily relaxed at the start of the Covid pandemic, allowing cardholders to spend up to £20,000 per transaction and £100,000 per month.
Some 14 departments splashed out at least £145.5m on the special procurement cards in 2021 – up from £84.9m in 2010-11, according to Labour.
As well as the increase in “extravagant” spending, the opposition highlighted the “lax controls” over how debit cards are being used and sometimes inaccurate declarations on what exactly the money is being spent on.
Labour found false descriptions of spending – including Foreign Office data that recorded the purchase of thousands of pounds worth of English sparkling wine under headings such as “computer equipment” and “industrial supplies”.
Foreign Office officials used the cards to spend a mammoth £344,803 on alcohol in 2021 – including £23,457 on duty-free spirits and wine in 2021 for UK embassies. The figure leapt more than four times higher, to £95,834, from January to October 2022.
The cards were also used by various departments for gifts and hospitality to treat foreign visitors – including £15,943 of items from the Royal Collection’s online shop and £11,853 from Fortnum & Mason.
Spending on training and away days is also sure to raise eyebrows, with the Department for Transport (DfT) paying £5,388 for a session on animal archetypes which asked officials: “Do you hoot? Growl? Or wave your feathers?”
Emily Thornberry, Labour’s shadow attorney general, accused the government of “shameless waste and flagrant excess”. She added: “If you went by the government spending revealed in this report, you would think we were in the last days of Rome – not the worst cost of living crisis for decades.”
The special debit cards had also been used to fund five-star hotels for ministers “living the high life” on overseas trips, according to Labour.
Tory party chairman Greg Hands stayed in a £318-a-night five-star hotel in Germany while energy minister in July 2022, while Alok Sharma’s 66 trips as president of the Cop26 summit cost £220,817 just for his own travel and hotels.
The investigation also uncovered large sums spent on domestic travel. The Treasury hired a £3,600 chauffeur service for ministers and officials visiting Cop26 in Glasgow on the finance day, addressed by then-chancellor Mr Sunak, claiming that no government cars were available.
Responding to the Labour dossier, a senior Conservative source said Labour had “forgotten that they introduced these ‘civil servant credit cards’ in 1997”, adding: “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 source claimed that the Tories had “swiftly stopped their absurd profligacy, cutting the number of cards, introducing a requirement for spending to be publicly declared and putting in place controls”.
They added: “Typically, Labour’s ‘big idea’ is to spend millions of taxpayer cash to establish yet another quango, stuff it with thousands of bureaucrats and give them gold-plated pensions.”
Ms Rayner said a Labour government would “get tough on waste”, with a proposed office to uphold transparency and high standards for all public spending – including on government procurement cards.