'Like the last days of Rome, not a cost of living crisis': Labour slams government's 'lavish spending culture'

13 February 2023, 09:35

Labour's Angela Rayner has criticised the government's spending
Labour's Angela Rayner has criticised the government's spending. Picture: Getty

By Kit Heren

Labour has criticised a culture of "lavish spending" culture in Westminster, with newly released figures showing ministers and civil servants spending millions of pounds of taxpayers' money on hotels, restaurants and travel.

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Labour slammed several ministers including Rishi Sunak, Greg Hands and Cop26 chairman Alok Sharma for splashing out on expensive hotels while raising taxes for ordinary Brits.

The opposition also raised concern about officials' dining and alcohol purchases, including almost £345,000 by Foreign Office (FCDO) officials in 2021 on "restaurants and bars", entertainment and evidence of end-of-year spending sprees to use up budgets.

Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner said the investigation into the use of government procurement cards (GPCs) revealed a "scandalous catalogue of waste".

The party has compiled a dossier on the use of the cards which showed that across 2021 for 14 major Whitehall departments, a total of at least £145.5 million was spent using GPCs.

Nick Ferrari grills Minister Richard Holden on government spending

That figure was up from £84.9 million in 2010/11 in the equivalent departments, although around £20 million of the difference could be explained through inflation.

Shadow attorney general Emily Thornberry, who was behind many of the parliamentary questions used to uncover the details, said: "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."

In July 2021, the Treasury, then under Rishi Sunak, spent £3,217 on accommodation at the five-star Hotel Danieli in Venice, and £1,361 at the four-star Hotel Bonvecchiati, for the then chancellor and 11 other government representatives at a G20 meeting.

Tory party chairman Greg Hands stayed in a £318-a-night five-star hotel in Germany while he was energy minister in July 2022, while Alok Sharma's 66 trips as president of the Cop26 climate summit cost taxpayers £220,817 just for his own travel and hotels.

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The findings show Lord Grimstone, a former business and trade minister, and an aide stayed at the Ritz-Carlton in Jeddah in October 2021 while attending the Saudi Investment Initiative, at a cost of £3,041 for four nights' accommodation, or £760 per night.

Labour acknowledged that overseas travel is an essential part of the job for many ministers and officials and they should be able to stay in hotels where they can get a good night's sleep and be safe, but insisted the most cost-effective options should be chosen.

The opposition's investigation also uncovered evidence of large sums spent on domestic travel.

The Treasury hired a £3,600 chauffeur service for ministers and officials visiting Cop26 around the Finance Day addressed by then chancellor Mr Sunak on November 3 2021, claiming that no government cars were available.

Rishi Sunak
Rishi Sunak. Picture: Getty

Ms Rayner said: "As Conservative ministers once again reach into the pockets of taxpayers to dine out on five-star luxury lifestyle, families up and down the country are sick with anxiety about whether their pay cheque will cover the weekly shop.

"Britain is facing the worst cost-of-living crisis in decades and Rishi Sunak doesn't seem to have noticed.

"Far from actually governing, Conservative ministers are living the high life and treating taxpayers like a cash machine."

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The dossier on officials' spending showed:

  • In 2021, £3.3 million was spent at office supply firm Banner, £1.51 million with Amazon, almost £415,000 at Enterprise Rent-a-Car, almost £238,000 at Ikea, nearly £106,000 at John Lewis and more than £101,000 at Apple.
  • The biggest single supplier was BFS Group, provider of food to the Prison Service, with sales over £500 worth a total of £54.9 million.
  • On March 30, 2021, when Rishi Sunak was chancellor, the Treasury spent £3,393 buying 13 fine art photographs from The Tate Gallery to hang in the department's Horse Guards Road building, despite ministries having access to the Government Art Collection's pictures.
  • Foreign Office GPCs were used to buy £23,457 of duty-free supplies from Dubai-based International Diplomatic Supplies, thought to be for the use of UK embassies overseas, but in the first 10 months of 2022, that level of spending jumped more than four times higher, to £95,834.
  • Several departments appeared to be using GPCs to exhaust their budgets at the end of each financial year, including the Department of Health and Social Care spending £59,155 on items of stationery in March 2021, compared to just £1,470 in the whole of the rest of the year combined and the Treasury spending £90,596 on training courses in March 2021, compared to an average of £38,357 in the other 11 months of the year.
  • Then attorney general Suella Braverman and her Ukrainian counterpart visited fine dining Indian restaurant The Cinnamon Club in Westminster along with six others in May 2022 at a cost of £909 - just under £114 a head.
  • Between January 2021 and June 2022, the FCDO spent £36,293 on items of fine bone china from Royal Crown Derby and £15,943 on items from the Royal Collection online shop, presumably to give as presents to foreign counterparts.
  • From January 2021 to June 2022 the FCDO spent £11,853 at upmarket store Fortnum and Mason.

Ms Rayner added: "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.

"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.

"A Labour government will get tough on waste, with an Office of Value for Money upholding transparency and high standards for all public spending, including on government procurement cards."

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 putting in place controls.

"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."

Richard Holden, a minister in the Department for Transport, said there had been "major transparency reforms" introduced since 2012 on publishing GPCs data.

Speaking to LBC, Mr Holden said: "I'm can't justify... I'm not going to attempt to justify every individual piece of government spending on these cards."

Asked whether he was "comfortable" with the Treasury spending more than £3,000 on art work for the department, the Tory MP did not answer, instead telling how he chose to stay in a Premier Inn in Bury, Greater Manchester, during a recent visit and drove his team up from London.

He added: "It was £150 million this year (spent on GPCs), £1 billion in 2009, we've seen an 85% reduction on these cards."

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