You might not have heard of Government Procurement Cards (GPCs) but they’re all the rage today.
Labour’s newly published ‘GPC Files’ – which sounds very much like a weird Twitter conspiracy theory – purport to reveal a ‘scandalous catalogue of waste’, redolent of ‘the last days of Rome’. According to Angela Rayner, Tory ministers have been ‘living the high life and treating taxpayers like a cash machine’.
Not only do the headline figures sound striking – a 70% rise in the last decade! – but there are some daft items of individual spending set out in the report: the Treasury spending £3,393 on ‘fine art photographs’, the Ministry of Justice splashing £4,019 on branded USB cables and (my personal favourite) £1,903 on a ‘Hot Pink Photo Booth’ for a Foreign Office reception in Washington DC.
There are also some perfectly legitimate concerns about departments cramming spending into March (before the end of the financial year) and the way some spending has been obviously mis-reported. One department listed a stay at a Bahraini hotel as ‘accounting, auditing and bookkeeping services’, another classified a case of wine as ‘computer equipment’.
But even taking those concerns into account, the overall impression conveyed by Labour frontbenchers is not so much misleading as blatantly false.
For starters, calling the report the ‘GPC Files’ suggests some kind of undercover sleuthing, rather than simply trawling through long, pretty mundane lists of spending, many of which are already publicly available – indeed, publicly available because the Conservatives themselves changed the rules to make things more transparent.
The cultural connotations of credit card spending – frivolous, ad hoc, often irresponsible – are also totally at odds with what GPCs actually are, which is a sensible way for the civil service to pay for stuff in a timely manner. As the former Lib Dem special adviser Polly Mackenzie notes, card payment is simply more efficient than raising a purchase order, having a supplier invoice and, eventually, getting paid.
What about that 70% rise in spending though? That sounds pretty open-and-shut, doesn’t it?
Well, it’s the difference between the £145.5m spent using GPCs in 2021, compared to £84.9m in 2010-11. So, it looks like spending has rocketed by over £60m. Except, the figure comes with three absolutely whopping caveats (see page 5 of the report here).
The Ministry of Defence isn’t included in the spending figures. Given that the MoD accounted for over 73% of GPC spending in 2010-11, this seems a pretty important omission if you’re making a claim about overall GPC spending.
The figures Labour is relying on ‘may or may not include VAT’. Well, what’s 20% between friends?
The pandemic and inflation in the last few years have pushed spending up (not to mention inflation in the preceding eight years).
Add those caveats together and what we have is not a story of ‘scandalous waste’ but of lopsided, partial and totally inconclusive figures being used as a scaffold for a political message that Labour had clearly already settled on before they even looked into the figures.
Equally annoying is the way Labour have gone after individual ministers for their apparently ‘lavish’ approach to foreign trips. Are we really supposed to be appalled that as Chancellor Rishi Sunak stayed in a five-star hotel inside the secure zone for a G20 summit? This is one of the most senior ministers of one of the world’s biggest economies – is he meant to stay at a Premier Inn during a major international summit? (No criticism of Premier Inn or their excellent breakfast buffet intended…)
In any case, there is clearly a world of difference between departments frittering away money on non-essentials, or over-spending on certain items (A Bad Thing) and senior ministers being put up in good quality, secure accommodation at big events (A Totally Normal Thing). The absurdity of this kind of nitpicking was laid bare when Angela Rayner was asked this morning whether future Labour ministers might use five-star hotels for work purposes. Her reply? ‘In principle if it is required as part of their job and their security, absolutely.’
But what’s really grating isn’t just the completely cavalier attitude to statistics or the misleading headlines it’s generated, but the way this report feeds into some of the worst tendencies in British politics.
First is the impulse to begrudge those in high office anything that smacks remotely of luxury, even if it’s simply part of their ministerial role. As Henry Hill noted on CapX recently, there’s a good reason ministers get private travel and high end accommodation – so they are able to focus as fully as possible on their actual jobs, not faff about with security or logistics. By the same token, carping about the Foreign Office spending £23,457 on alcohol, across its hundreds of embassies, is the epitome of penny wise, pound foolish.
Related to that carping is the fantasy that if only we clamp down on perks for politicians and civil servants, we’d be able to spend loads more on public services, state pensions or whatever. You might call this ‘bin the biscuit budget, save Our NHS’ tendency. Sure, we could slash the FCDO hospitality budget, but it would probably fund the NHS for all of two minutes – and all while making us look like skinflints to our international partners.
Most damaging of all is the pervasive idea that politicians and their officials live some kind of fantasy lifestyle divorced from their constituents’ concerns – an idea which Rayner and co have added to this morning with their overblown rhetoric about ministers living the high life while taxpayers suffer.
The irony is that this probably won’t even help Labour. A lack of trust in politics and politicians cuts across party lines, and the opposition are kidding themselves if they think they’ll be immune from exactly this kind of attack if they get into government. Indeed, Rayner has discovered this today with journalists asking about her own decision to expense £249 worth of Apple AirPod headphones. Personally, I don’t have the slightest problem with a Shadow Minister expensing some audio equipment, but those in taxpayer-funded glass houses…
It’s a bit rich too, for Labour to now preach about taxpayer value when Rayner, Emily Thornberry and Keir Starmer all campaigned for Jeremy Corbyn to become Prime Minister on one of the most fiscally incontinent manifestos in British history. £58bn for the WASPI women? Sure! £7.4bn on scrapping tuition fees? Why not! How about that nationalised broadband almost no one actually needs? Go for it!
What’s also frustrating is there is no end of properly scandalous mis-spending and waste of public money we could be talking about: from government procurement (particularly during the pandemic), to the ballooning HS2 budget, to subsidising wealthy households’ energy bills, the state fritters away billions of taxpayers’ money with relatively little fanfare.
That’s the kind of egregious waste we should be focused on, rather than wasting everyone’s time on a confected ‘scandal’ that is nothing of the sort.
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