Labour and Tories trade blows over government ‘debit card waste’

Labour has claimed it has unearthed evidence of a “scandalous catalogue of waste” by UK government departments involving the use of taxpayer-funded debit cards, including erroneous descriptions of spending, lavish gifts and end-of-year spending sprees.

The party claimed that spending on “government procurement cards” has risen sharply and that in individual cases there has been misreporting of what public money has been used for.

It said the Foreign Office wrongly recorded the purchase of thousands of pounds worth of English sparkling wine under headings such as “computer equipment”, “industrial supplies” and “consulting and management”.

But the government replied that it was the last Labour administration that introduced the cards in 1997 and by the end of Gordon Brown’s time in office, spending on them had hit almost £1bn.

Labour hopes that a data dump on Monday morning, which it has dubbed “the GPC files”, will reopen questions of financial profligacy or worse over handling of public money by the Conservative government.

Angela Rayner, deputy Labour leader, said: “[Prime minister] Rishi Sunak has failed to rein in the culture of lavish spending across Whitehall on his watch.”

But the analysis of spending data by most Whitehall departments is unlikely to generate anything like the public uproar that accompanied the release of details of MPs’ expenses.

Some claims of “lavish” spending — for example the £4,500 spent on accommodation for Sunak, when he was chancellor, and his aides at the G20 Venice meeting of finance ministers in July 2021 — may not seem particularly excessive to some in the corporate world.

Labour has gathered data for the last full year available, 2021, and said the only department not included was the Ministry of Defence, whose published data was “neither reliable nor comprehensive enough”.

It found that in 2021 the 14 departments examined spent a total of at least £145mn using GPCs, an increase of 71 per cent for the same departments over the past decade.

However, Labour’s base year for this calculation is the first year of David Cameron’s Conservative-led coalition government, not the final year of Brown’s administration. A Labour source insisted comparable detailed figures were not available before 2010-11.

Labour says it found £343,803 of card expenditure by Foreign Office staff in 2021 under the category “restaurants and bars” and £7,218 spent on a reception for then foreign secretary Liz Truss against the backdrop of Sydney Harbour.

The party also claims the cards were used to book five-star hotels and to use up departmental budgets at the end of a financial year.

Labour hopes to fuel a sense that the government has been cavalier with public money, particularly following the controversy over the handling of procurement during the Covid-19 pandemic.

But the Conservatives pointed out that the government procurement card was introduced in 1997 by the Labour administration of Tony Blair and was once much more widely used across the public sector.

“The Conservatives stopped their absurd profligacy, cutting the number of cards, introducing a requirement for spending to be publicly declared and putting in place controls,” a Tory source said.

Labour said it would set up an “Office for Value for Money” to uphold transparency and high standards in public spending. The Conservatives said it would cost millions to run and would be “yet another quango”.

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