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Friday, 10 June 2011

£1bn scandal of Gold Card on the taxpayer: Civil servants ordered to come clean amid accusations of massive new expenses abuse

Local Government Minister Grant Shapps has called for all expenses to be made available online

Local Government Minister Grant Shapps has called for all expenses to be made available online

Ministers are on a collision course with top mandarins over an extraordinary demand for them to publish their credit-card statements – to prove they have not been abusing their expenses.

The row erupted after the Government discovered that civil servants have been using official cards to pay for fast-food meals, drinks in the pub and even shopping trips to Tesco, with all bills sent straight to the taxpayer.

More than 140,000 ‘procurement cards’ – credit cards embossed with the words HM Government – have been handed out to staff, who are using them to spend more than £1 billion of public money every year.

Ministers were horrified to discover that the perk, dubbed by critics as ‘a Gold Card on the taxpayer’, was being widely abused because bills of less than £1,000 a month are not routinely audited.

Now Local Government Minister Grant Shapps has sent a shiver through Whitehall by calling for every card statement, past and present, to be made available online.

The mandarins fear that if they comply it could lead to the Civil Service’s equivalent of the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009, with thousands of bogus claims being exposed.

Mr Shapps said the move would expose the ‘culture of waste’ which was allowed to develop under Labour and ‘shatter the credibility’ of party leader Ed Miliband.
But it has caused fury in the Civil Service. A Cabinet Office source said: ‘Most of the permanent secretaries [the most senior civil servants in each department] are against it.

‘It would be extremely expensive and time-consuming to organise and it would cause pandemonium.’

An attempt to force the Cabinet Office to produce a list of officials who have been caught using the card to pay for personal items – such as supermarket shopping trips or karaoke bars – has already been rebuffed, The Mail on Sunday understands.

Out of the cards in circulation, 71,000 are used in Central London, with the remaining 69,000 issued by councils and quangos.

Revealed: Some of the money spent by Nottingham City council - which ran up a bill of £3.5million on its procurement cards in the 2009-10 financial year

Revealed: Some of the money spent by Nottingham City council - which ran up a bill of £3.5million on its procurement cards in the 2009-10 financial year
The cards were first introduced in 1997, the year Tony Blair entered Downing Street.

They were designed to be used as a convenient way to pay for low-value work expenses such as travel tickets and office supplies, with all bills settled directly by departmental finance departments, and were initially supplied by Visa. Other companies, including American Express, now also supply them.

The scandal first came to light after Local Government Secretary Eric Pickles asked councils to publish the details of all their spending over £500 as part of a ‘transparency drive’.

Labour-run Nottingham City council refused to co-operate – so Mr Pickles secured the detail through a Freedom of Information (FOI) request.

It led to the disclosure that Nottingham had run up a bill of £3.5 million on its procurement cards in the 2009-10 financial year alone, including:
  • £7,011 at a local wine shop
  • £958 on Aeroflot flights
  • £80 at Alton Towers
  • £69 on Domino’s Pizza
  • £63 on gift websites
  • £50 at a local pub
Mr Pickles is now putting pressure on other councils by making further FOI requests for the details of all procurement card expenditure.

Read the rest of the article

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