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Despite Prescott's bluster his misuse of a Government credit card shows him unfit for office

When he was a Cabinet Minister Lord Prescott showed the most disgraceful self indulgence in using a Government credit card for his personal benefit. Due to transparency rules brought in by the new Government this spending has come to light. Rather than have the decency to apologise and reimburse the taxpayer Lord Prescott has made the false claim that the items were cloned and that he was victim of some kind of conspiracy.

At least Lord Prescott seems to have persuaded The Guardian. Most absurd is the claim that he has been exonerated by Sir Jeremy Heywood, the head of the Cabinet Office. Oh really? Then why doesn't Lord Prescott publish the letter or authorise Sir Jeremy to do so? It seems odd to block publication of a letter about transparency.

Where I think Lord Prescott has a valid point is that we should also be able to see the spending on Government procurement cards from other departments. Again the information should be released as far back as records are kept. Why, for example, is the Education Secretary Michael Gove protecting his predecessor Ed Balls? Let's see what restaurants Mr Balls went to at our expense between 2007 and 2010 when he was Secretary of State for Children, Families and Schools.

What about Ed Miliband's spending of taxpayer's money for personal use during his time as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change from 2008-10? If he has nothing to hide in the way of Lord Prescott style extravagance then doubtless he would welcome publication. Or what about David Miliband's spending at the Foreign Office?

Lord Prescott is right to demand equal treatment. But that should be achieved not by secrecy for his spending but transparency for all.

New DCLG Minister Brandon Lewis has written the following letter:

Dear Lord Prescott,

Wasteful spending on Government Procurement Cards

Your comments on Government Procurement Cards in The Observer and The Guardian in recent weeks have been brought to my attention. In this context, I thought it may be useful to put some observations on the public record.

The sunlight of transparency

As you will know, Government Procurement Cards are corporate charge cards, and are commonly issued by Visa or Amex, branded with a government logo. Sir Philip Green’s report into government efficiency in October 2010 slammed insufficient monitoring and poor spending controls on such cards.

Under the Coalition, the Department for Communities and Local Government has been at the forefront of the transparency agenda and publishing open data on spending online. This has included publishing historic data, to helpful identify wasteful spending and to place current spending patterns in context.

Consequently, we have published data for all departmental charge card spending from 2004 (the furthest back that records are practically held) to 2011.2 We will continue to publish our data moving forward.

Combined with introducing tougher spending controls on card holders, this new transparency regime has helped the Department reduce our card spending by over three-quarters, from £321,076 a year in 2009-10, to just £70,835 in 2011-12.3

Historic data

Such transparency has exposed significant waste and poor decision making across the Department – including spending on your Ministerial visits.

Your associated transactions have included expenditure £456 for a ‘research visit’ to Star City Casino in Australia4, £495 on Doyles Seafood Quay restaurant in Sydney Harbour and £75 on visiting Sydney Aquarium. I appreciate that you may have had spare time during your visit to Australia, but you have consistently failed to provide any explanation of why this expenditure could not have been funded from your own  pocket, given your sizeable public sector salary at the time.

You have previously suggested that these transactions were a consequence of credit card fraud. As my Ministerial colleague, Baroness Hanham, has stated to you in answers to your Parliamentary questions, these were actually genuine card transactions – albeit a highly dubious use of taxpayers’ money.

Across the 4,800 departmental transactions in 2004-06, there were just seven card transactions which were cloned – as Baroness Hanham told you. These were subsequently refunded by the card company and there is no suggestion that there was any criminal fraud by civil servants. The latter point (the fact that civil servants were not disciplined for the seven criminal/cloned transactions) was a fact that the Cabinet Secretary, Gus O’Donnell, subsequently corrected in his letter to you last November.

The background to that correction was made clear to you by Government Minister, Lord Wallace, in answer to one of your recent Parliamentary Questions.9 I understand the current Cabinet Secretary has also written back to you on this point, but you have not chosen to place this letter in the public domain.

Such process points should not be used as smoke and mirrors to hide the fact that you have personally benefited from questionable (but not criminal) card spending at taxpayers’ expense whilst a Minister of the Crown.

One of your excuses for such spending has been that you did not personally hold a card in your name. However, as you should know, such cards have been held by Private Secretaries in the Civil Service to use when accompanying Ministers. Whilst most of the physical invoices or credit card receipts for these transactions are no longer held (although the electronic transaction data is), a few are – such as for one of your dinners at Mr Chu’s China Palace in Hull. The documentation clearly shows how the card transaction for your dinner was signed off by your Private Secretary, who held the card on Ministers’ behalf.

Foreign excursions

These are not the only transactions. Published Government Procurement Card data for the ‘Deputy Prime Minister’s Office’ (your department of 18 people after the ‘Office of the Deputy Minister’ was re-branded as DCLG, but which was administered by DCLG) is also revealing.

This spending data includes restaurants such as Tamarind Springs, Ampang (£173); Jackson Hole, New York (£58), Restoran Seri Angkasa, Kuala Lumpur (£114); McCormick & Schmick, Providence (£106); Queue due Cheval, Montreal (£190) and Fat Tuesdays, Ottawa (£106) to name but a few. Again, there is no suggestion that any of these items were cloned transactions, not least since these foreign card transactions directly correspond with the timing and location of foreign trips that you registered

Since the cloned transaction excuse has been wearing a bit thin, I note that you have subsequently alleged that Parliamentary Questions asking about your ‘DPMO’ spending were fraudulently laid. Again, this has been denied by the MPs in question but also by the House of Commons Table Office (who did concede the name of a MP was incorrectly entered – but this was a mistake by the officials in the Table Office and subsequently corrected13). Indeed, as a backbench MP, I myself have previously asked questions on the topic of Government Procurement Cards because I wanted to scrutinise waste by the last government.

Culture of waste

You have asserted that it is unfair that your own spending is being picked on, and not that of other Labour Ministers. Certainly, I would note that you are not alone.

Even the so-called spending watchdogs were at it. The Audit Commission spent £11,390 over two years on Government Procurement Cards on fine dining at some of the most expensive restaurants in London, including L’Escargot, Coq d’Argent, Cinnamon Club, Smollensky’s and Brassiere Blanc.16 This included the Audit Commission wining and dining their fellow watchdog, the National Audit Office, at the likes of Qurinale, Ebury Wine Bar, Wiltons and the Footstool.

Labour Ministers and their officials wined and dined at some of the finest restaurants in the country using the Government Procurement Card at taxpayers’ expense, including Boisdale, Somerset House, the National Gallery, the Wolseley and the Cinnamon Club. Your casino visit to Star City in Australia was not the only one – as a Minister, Angela Smith also managed to attend Sky City casino in New Zealand. 

But the fact is that such spending is in the public domain: it shows that there was a culture of waste across Whitehall under Labour, which is now being exposed across the board – not just your associated spending.

Electoral scrutiny

In your assorted letters, you have claimed there is a wider conspiracy linked to your return to the world of elected politics in November’s Police Commissioner elections.

As Grant Shapps, then a DCLG Minister, replied in The Observer in July:

 “John Prescott's claim of a government conspiracy to stop his candidacy for police commissioner is wide of the mark. In reality, as part of the government's transparency agenda, my department has published data on spending on government credit cards from 2004 to the current administration. Such openness has exposed serious waste and inefficiency...

“Given that Lord Prescott is running for election and wishes to oversee million- pound police force budgets in Humberside, it is quite right that he is held to account about his failure to protect the public purse when he last held elected office.”

I think this makes the key point. This spending is an entirely valid area for public, press and Parliamentary scrutiny.

I am sure that such public spending will rise up the political agenda in the months ahead of November’s and May’s local elections. The public sector’s use of taxpayer-funded charge cards should be part of that debate. I look forward to engaging with you on these points, and I am placing a copy of this letter in the public domain

Yours sincerely,

Brandon Lewis MP
Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Department for Communities and
Local Government
House of Commons


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