In July 2010, I tabled a series of written questions to every Government department, asking how much they had spent on Government conferences since 1997. Most departments replied:
"This information is not held centrally and could be provided only at disproportionate cost."
In other words, their accounting processes are poor, and are not designed to promote cost control or transparency, for this kind of expenditure.
If the Minister and Permanent Secretary do not know centrally how much is being spent on conferences, how can they manage that cost?
Of those departments which did provide me with the data, some of the costs were astronomical.
- The Department for Work and Pensions spent £115 million on "management conferences" between 2000 and 2010.
- In the last six years, the Home Office managed to spend £43 million on "conference-related expenditure".
- The Department of Business, Innovation, and Skills, spent £28 million in just seven years.
Clearly there are two major problems.
1) Most Government departments apparently do not know what they spend on conferences.
2) If they DO know what they spend, the sums are astronomical
Yesterday, at the Public Administration Select Committee, I asked senior Mandarins Sir Gus O'Donnell and Ian Watmore whether or not such spending on 'conferences' could be justified.
I was astonished by what I was told. Whilst there was acknowledgement of the need to cut costs, Mr Watmore argued that the amount spent on management conferences by the Department of Work and Pensions (£115 million) in the last ten years, was a very small part of a huge administrative budget of that Department!
Sir Gus then made the case for the need for conferences and for people in Government to get together. He then made a parallel with the amount of conferences companies like Microsoft may hold.
I replied that at least Microsoft was not using taxpayers' money.
And we wonder why costs within Government are so difficult to control.