Privatisation will keep us warm at night

With the British government massively cutting public spending, expect reliance on the private sector to grow. And little accountability. Just how both sides want it:

The scale of the country’s reliance on private companies to power the state is revealed today as the government takes the historic step of publishing its accounts for the first time.

The disclosure of the majority of payments made by government departments over the first five months after the election reveals Whitehall’s struggle to wean itself off high-cost contracts – and a burgeoning industry emerging around the coalition’s reforms.

It also reveals the lingering waste in the government machine, with civil servants sent on chocolate-themed awaydays, training for civil servants in how to have “difficult conversations”, and nightclubs rented for official meetings. Downing Street spent …£55,000 renovating David Cameron’s offices after his election.

The data includes 194,000 individual payments made by every government department between May and September this year. It shows everything from the student loan bill to the Whitehall phone bill, giving an extraordinary insight into the government’s books. Eton was paid …£40,000 of taxpayers’ money to work with state schools, …£1.17m went on in-cell TV for prisoners who have earned the privilege, and …£6.6m on free coal for ex-miners.

Publication of spending data was at the heart of the coalition’s promise to make government more transparent but today is the first time it has released figures relating to its own period in government. Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, said publication would force civil servants to re-evaluate their spending and encourage companies to undercut their rivals to reduce costs further.

But as the files were made available to journalists last night the government was feeling the first glimpse of the reality of its transparency project, with some officials unable to explain items of spending, the Ministry of Defence forced to redact entries to protect national security, and a furious spat between the government and Labour over who was to blame for individual items of spending.

“A lot of this stuff we inherited and had to continue,” a Downing Street source said. “The government needs to start taking responsibility for itself,” a senior Labour source responded.

Maude, writing for the Guardian’s Comment is Free, says: “When you are forced to account for the money you spend, you spend it more wisely. This government should be held to account for every penny it spends and I believe that with the weight of public interest on their shoulders, greater transparency will drive departments to make the right decisions about how they spend taxpayer’s money.”

Key revelations from the spending data released include:

”¢ The scale of the payments to the biggest private suppliers dwarfs the budgets for some government departments. Capita, the single largest outsourcing firm working for the government, received …£3.3bn over the period – including the processing and payment of teachers’ pensions – more than the Department of Energy and Climate Change receives in a year.

Ӣ ɣ1.43bn was spent on PFI projects for schools and ɣ1.25bn on other PFI deals.

Ӣ The challenge facing the government as it attempts to renegotiate its colossal IT bill is laid bare. It paid ɣ271m to one firm alone, Aspire, which oversees the IT system for Revenue & Customs.

Text and images ©2024 Antony Loewenstein. All rights reserved.

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