Today Communities Secretary Eric Pickles trumpeted his department’s publication of all supply contracts above £500 as proof of the government’s new transparency. Rightly so.
He called for an army of “armchair auditors” to scrutinise what the department was spending money on. Fair enough – although a glance at the list shows how unrevealing it is, given that it doesn’t give any detail on what each payment was for.
And given the absence of any clarity, the press have settled for reporting the blatantly flagged expenditure of £1,600 on massages for staff and £539 on an away day at Blackpool pleasure beach.
Local government minister Bob Neill – yes, that Bob Neill – weighed in gleefully: “It seems, quite literally, the government offices for the regions were taking the taxpayer for a ride.
“They were living it up at the taxpayers’ expense whilst thousands of households were struggling to make ends meet.
“Splashing out six-figure sums on pollsters appears to be another one of Labour’s vanity projects. It’s unforgivable that a culture of excess was allowed to flourish for so long.”
But given the £314m that the department spent in total on supplies and procurement in 2009/10, a couple of thousand quid on dubious perks – even the “six-figure sums” on pollsters – is a drop in the ocean.
Any serious analysis of the data is difficult as very little detail is provided on what each contract was actually for. The government has indicated that future data releases will be more detailed, but not many conclusions can actually be drawn from today’s figures.
But that won’t stop people trying, of course.
The swivel-eyed right-wing brigadiers have been out in force on the messageboards this afternoon in all their spEak You’re bRanes pomp.
“Labour through and through. Councillors spend thousands on ‘jolly boys’ outings, alternative medicine and focus and diversity groups, while MP’s line themselves up for huge salary increases, gold-plated pension pots and fraudulent expenses claims. They treated the British public with complete and utter contempt,” said ‘The Doctor, The Tardis, somewhere in the Medusa Cascade, BRIGHTON’ in one of the highest rated comments on the Daily Mail’s ever reliable messageboard.
Inevitably there will be some dubious purchases among the thousands of supply contracts signed by the department. Highly paid executives no doubt enjoyed perks for themselves, hired expensive consultants and ran pricey advertising campaigns as New Labour tried to get the public sector to ape the private sector. But as a proportion of the total?
The lack of detail makes it hard to calculate how much of the department’s purchasing can be put down to ‘waste’. So let’s make this easy for the swivel-eyed Right. Let’s just assume whole swathes of spending were all wasteful, regardless of the detail. Let’s tar all purchases with the same brush and see how much it comes to.
And so, here we have A Thousand Cuts’ Ultimate Right-Wing Nutjobs’ Guide to Outrageous Government Waste:
- Strategic consultancy – “No idea wot that is but it sounds like crap” – £27,709,553.15
- PR and marketing – “I don’t even know what that department does. Why is it spending money on advertising?” – £13,554,732.80
- IT consultancy – “When my computer breaks down I get my son to fix it. I’m sure little Johnny would be happy to do it for the government in return for the odd Mars Bar” – £4,669,922.44
- Property services/estates consultancy – “I hate estate agents their like Nazis” – £2,844,325.12
- Events and hospitality – “What kind of events? The Nuremberg Rally? looolll more Nazis” – £1,343,832.10
- Events organisation – “Cum to think of it I quite like Nazis. Rule Britannia” – £1,268,834.07
- Finance consultancy – “Paying people to check on money wots the point in that?” – £868,292.28
- Rail – “Here we go first class trains. Why can’t they just use a car like the rest of us?” – £558,388.85
- Vehicle hire – “Wot I’m having to pay for them to use a car? ANGRY” – £383,006.67
- Marketing and comms consultancy – “Jeez more advertising” – £354,053.78
- Staff childcare – “This is what happens when you hire women they should stay at home and look after their kids the lazy bints” – £332,957.78
- Staff subscriptions – “Subscribe to what? They can get Nuts online no need to buy it!” – £281,876.98
- Taxi – “I had one of these civil servants in the back of my cab the other day bloody disgrace them spending all our money on taxis” – £250,526.78
- Staff medical care – “Bloody parasites spending my money. I’d rather they just died” – £193,108.77
- HR consultancy – “I mean what is HR anyway?” – £109,851.10
- Interpretation and translation services – “IMMIGRANTS BLEEEAAAARGGHHH!!!” – £49,369.73
- Staff health and safety – “IT’S NOT HEALTH, IT’S ELF muppets cant even spell loolll” – £13,850.82
- Clothing – Ok, so I don’t get that one either – £771.51
All outrageous, diabolical, ZaNuLaBliar waste. Every last penny. And what does it all come to?
£54,408,973.99. Out of £314m. That’s under 17.5 percent.
So, even if every single transport cost, every single hired consultant, each and every magazine subscription, taxi hire and advertising campaign was a waste of money, even if we accept the anti-health and safety propaganda of the Right, even if we dismiss medical care and childcare – even allowing all that, we’ve still got under 17.5 percent of the total. If even half this money is valid expenditure, that leaves us on less than 10 percent.
And unless the Right wants to start picking apart contracts for electricity and office equipment, the rest of the £314m is money you’d largely expect to be spent.
That 17.5 percent is a problem. Partly, of course, because it’s wildly excessive – dubious contracts will only make up a fraction of that total. And given that the percentage of departmental staffing costs for things like consultancy and transport will be minute – the whole point of buying in services is because you don’t have that capacity with your own staff – the percentage of total departmental expenditure that can be attributed to dubious supply deals will likely be in the low single figures.
And with the government planning to reduce departmental spending by about 25 percent, it’ll be far more than the odd trip to Blackpool Tower that gets cut. The level of government waste, even when massively and consciously over-estimated, comes in well below the level of cuts Eric Pickles is preparing to implement.
In fact, the largest single area of expenditure within the Communities Department is ‘Managed/outsourced services’, which cost £55m last year. If that counts as ‘waste’ – and we have no way of knowing whether it does or doesn’t – the Conservatives might want to think twice about their plans to outsource a vast array of public services at national and local level.
And that £54m – in fact, the entire £314m – is utterly dwarfed by some real public spending stinkers. Common Agricultural Policy – £3bn. Privatised rail subsidies – £820m. Service costs on Ministry of Defence PFI deals – £2bn. Mention these and the government goes strangely quiet.
Pickles can crow about £539 on a trip to the seaside – rather less than his own dubious expenses claims – but only through grand distortion and deception can today’s figures and sensational headlines justify the savage departmental cuts to come.
In fact, if we can draw one solid conclusion from today’s news, it’s that a huge number and range of private sector companies gain some level of profit from public sector contracts.
The government has done the right thing in publishing this data. Just don’t expect it to draw the right conclusions.
PS: It’s worth clarifying that the head massages and Blackpool trip were purchased by one of the department’s quangos, rather than the department itself, so those costs don’t feature in the £314m central department spending I’ve referred to above. But the point remains the same.
PPS: I will actually be joining the army of armchair auditors with a truckload of FOI requests regarding some of the contracts that have been agreed, so we can hopefully get a better idea of what’s been spent and why. More when the responses come through.