The Brentwood Gazette has been investigating some of the spending items from Essex County Council's procurement card. The council has got through over £5 million of Council Taxpayers' money over the past two years, on what is effectively a corporate credit card. 757 of the council's 41,000 staff can make payments in this way.
The Gazette reports:
Council employees used public money to buy fast food, groceries, flowers, CDs, cinema and theatre tickets, cosmetics, clothing and alcohol between December 2009 and April 2, 2012.
The taxpayer also footed the bill for county court fines or fees, historic weapons, confectionery, dry cleaning, shoe repairs, hotel accommodation, theatre trips, ten-pin bowling and visits to bars and nightclubs.
In one case, an employee even dipped into the public purse to the tune of £13.03 to pay for access to Instant Messaging Virtual Universe, an online social game which bills itself as "the world's largest 3D chat and dress-up community".
Some of these payments may be justified. The council claims that some items are for Looked After Children in their Children's Homes. They argue that the card reduces transaction costs for small items. But their claims of a "robust policy relating to spend on p-cards," sounds like a stretch. The council has form on this.
The justification for these cards – that they are an easy way to spend other people's money – is also the problem with them. It may be that councils should cease having the cards and that staff should be obliged to pay for small items themselves and claim back the cost where spending is justified.
But when these cards are being used, all the amounts spent should be published – not just items over £500 – with an indication of what the item is for. This should be online – it shouldn't be necessary to put in a Freedom of Information request, or to visit the council to go through their accounts.
Making spending by procurement card available to be seen online is what the Department for Communities and Local Government already do. It may not be a coincidence that transparency has coincided with a sharp reduction in spending on the cards.