Members of staff in the House of Commons are braced for a public backlash after Freedom of Information requests revealed they purchased thousands of items “not obviously related to work” on taxpayer funded credit cards.
Commons officials used government procurement cards to fund nearly 4000 purchases including a £3,700 stay in the luxury hotel Claridges, a £450 wine bill from Majestic and an £885 food mixer, the Daily Mail has reported. Other expenditures included theatre tickets, French lessons and a trip to the Cotswold Water Park.
The year’s bill for the cards was £1.5 million, with most of the money going on appropriate purchases, but there are concerns that secrecy and poor auditing are concealing a far higher figure.
The government currently runs up a bill of around £1 billion a year on £140,000 different procurement cards with 230 of these used in the Commons.
Procurement cards with bills of under £1,000 a month are not routinely audited, raising fears that this expenses abuse may be widespread.
A Commons spokesman defended their use, telling the Daily Mail: “The use of the cards reduces the House’s processing costs and enables suppliers to be paid more quickly, delivering savings”.
Downing St has stated that as of September all purchases over £500 will be publicly declared and published. However this is unlikely to quell anxieties over abuse as many of the items purchased by the Commons, such as French lessons, wine and theatre tickets, were under £500.
Meanwhile, the Daily Express reports that Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell has become embroiled in the saga after reportedly moving to block the publication of expenditure details. The Cabinet has denied this.
In 2009, after years of perseverance, Heather Brooke used the Freedom of Information Act to reveal that scores of MPs were making false expenses claims. The requests led to reform of the Houses of Parliament, six ministerial resignations and the imprisonment of four MPs under section 17 of the Theft Act (Fraudulent Accounting).