Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Saturday 21 March 2015

Putting the Danegeld on plastic

It's four years since I wrote this on the subject of taxpayer-funded Council credit cards, following hot on the heels of the MPs expenses scandal:
Councillors up and down the land have been hitching a ride on the gravy train – and the gravy in question is rich, meaty and laced with truffle-oil. Luxury hotels, lavish meals and gifts from high-end retailers abound, along with tables at award ceremonies and champagne receptions.
Now it seems there is yet another tranche of spending to investigate at the next level down. The Bristol Post has obtained a breakdown of the City Council's expenditure on payment cards for the past year and it makes very interesting reading indeed (there's a list at the end of the article).

These cards are issued to, among others, senior managers, head teachers and 'managers of residential care homes and social workers who need to supply goods to vulnerable people'. That being so, one would expect to find purchases of food, clothing and basic furniture to cover emergencies and there are, indeed, substantial payments to Ikea and Asda (£10,000 and £32,400 respectively).

Likewise, shoes, haircuts, cinema outings and inexpensive restaurant meals for youngsters in Council care are not unreasonable expenses - although £3,266 does seem rather a lot for cinema tickets and eyebrows might be raised at 'multiple trips to Rileys [sic] Snooker Club for pupils at the St Matthias Pupil Referral Unit'.

Some of the payments, however, are rather more baffling: a staggering £686 on 'iTunes downloads', for example, and '£44 in what appears to be a tattoo parlour', not to mention...
....a one-off £189.50 payment to Gay Times magazine. The council insisted this figure was incorrect, and it actually spent £33 on a subscription to Diva magazine, a lesbian magazine, for its library service.
I should have thought that, in this day and age, you could be a lesbian on the internet for nothing. Certainly the only people I've ever seen reading magazines and newspapers in my local library are elderly gentlemen in flat caps who are not, I assume, 'Diva' magazine's target audience.

Most contentious of all are bills for £100 at Ralph Lauren in Spain and £170 for a pair of Ugg boots. Mention of these items brought the Council to the comment section to explain:
 - We've tracked down some more detail: the Ralph Lauren purchase wasn't from Barcelona, it's from their UK website which is billed via Barcelona, and was to buy Christmas presents for children in a residential home. The Ugg boots were another online purchase; to replace a stolen pair which a child in a residential home had got for Christmas.
Now I know that children in care are probably having a rough time and, in modern parlance, may need to enhance their self-esteem, but Ralph Lauren? A quick visit to the website in question reveals that the cheapest child's accessory - a branded baseball cap - will set you back £20. Is it really sensible to endorse and indulge (at public expense) an appetite for designer labels among children who, a few years hence, will struggle if they have not mastered the sensible management of a limited budget?

I'm not, of course, advocating Dickensian levels of oppression and uniformity, but surely you don't have to desire the return of the workhouse to suggest that gifts should be of a less overpriced and superficial nature (though perhaps the impressive £37,800 - over £3,000 per month - spent on Amazon included books and educational toys; we can but hope!). Some of the comments on the article, however, suggest a very different point of view:
 - As I understand it a number of these items were bought for looked after children and the boots to replace some for a child whose boots were stolen. Nothing like making a scandal out of the needs of vulnerable people. The journalist should apologise and give the days salary to charity! 
 - I can't believe that people on here begrudge a Christmas present for someone in a childrens home and to replace some stolen Ugg boots for a child in a childrens home.
Try as I might, I can't quite square designer clothing and £170 Ugg boots with 'the needs of vulnerable people'. While it is reasonable that children in care should receive gifts where culturally appropriate, I would never buy Ralph Lauren branded goods for my own children and I have every sympathy with taxpayers objecting to such wanton extravagance being exercised on their behalf.

As for the stolen boots, there are not enough details to make a judgement, but was it really necessary to replace them (assuming that the originals were indeed the genuine article - '99% of all Uggs on ebay are fakes') with something expensive enough to be a liability in a communal setting? Unless council staff were directly to blame for the loss, there is surely no obligation on the taxpayer to do so.

All in all, it looks rather like someone here is playing Fairy Godmother at other people's expense and enjoying a nice warm glow of generosity while the public foots the bill.

An explanation of sorts is, perhaps, to be found in this, from the same author as the second comment quoted above:
There are families around Bristol that have caused trouble. Property has been damaged, anti social behaviour has caused problems and this has perpetuated over time. 
Now lets look at the costs. Council repairing property, council sending officers to sort out anti social behaviour, legal costs with bringing asbos, legal costs when pursuing broken asbos, court costs, prison costs and all of the officer costs to do the above, plus the police costs and the unquantifiable cost of the effect on neighbours and the local community. 
So now lets look at the programme. It's a high touch programme where council officers help these families change behaviour through the provision of support. The programme has been massively successful and all of the behaviour and costs that I listed above have been dramatically reduced. So the public sector has found a far cheaper way of dealing with problem families.
Revealing, I think you'll agree. It will be interesting to have a look at Bristol's crime figures in a few years' time to see how effective this strategy has proved - particularly if this exposure means the supply of Council-funded goodies dries up.


  1. I had one of these cards for years and as far as I could see most people used them sparingly. There were automatic blocks on some kinds of expenditure, but it was rather crude.

    However I knew a chap who processed the payments and he saw many abuses. Petty stuff in the main, but it mounts up.

    Even so, it was far simpler than keeping receipts and submitting claims. Cheap admin and flexibility may offset some petty abuses.

  2. I agree, it's certainly a practical solution and, given the fallibility of the welfare state, it is essential that someone should be equipped to purchase necessary items at once for people in crisis.

    The danger is when a minority of those wielding this power loses a sense of proportion and starts to confuse wants with needs.

    According to the Deputy Mayor,
    "What you see is a council running its business, supporting vulnerable people and helping those who don't always enjoy the same advantages as others."

    It's a laudable aim, but what some of them, at least, seem to be doing is encouraging a lifestyle and spending patterns well beyond the unassisted means of the recipients - and, in some cases, beyond the spending power of ordinary families.

    It's horribly reminiscent of the allegations that Kids Company were handing out cash to children on a regular basis in a bid to prevent them resorting to crime.


  3. Rushing this Sunday. Shall get back with a longer comment. Shall link for now.

  4. This household still keeps manual accounts. Having just had a long fight over payments in not appearing it is worth it. Card and computer based accounting hands power over to corporations who these days cannot be trusted.

  5. This household still keeps manual accounts. Having just had a long fight over payments in not appearing it is worth it. Card and computer based accounting hands power over to corporations who these days cannot be trusted.

  6. a one-off £189.50 payment to Gay Times magazine

    Can't wait to subscribe. Also appreciate the necessity for Demetrius to post twice.

  7. Sorry the comment gremlins got you, Demetrius. I'm with you on avoiding computer banking but our days are numbered; the banks/government/media are applying pressure on all fronts to force us into a cashless society.

    JH, at that price, one would hope there is an abundance of fabulous freebies included.

    If that was the actual figure, it sounds like payment for an advert or announcement rather than a subscription - just the sort of thing a council might do to show its 'right-on' credentials.

  8. "far simpler than keeping receipts"

    Probably. But in any well-run business you will have to keep receipts anyway, to back up and justify your spending - not to mention it's the only way the firm will be able to claim the VAT back.

    What always staggers me about these kind of abuses is, how do these people EVER think they will not get caught? I suppose the depressing truth is that the public sector is so bumblingly inefficient and wasteful that they can, in fact, go for years without getting caught, so they gradually start trying on all sorts of more and more outrageous things. Depressing, but I guess it's what we all knew all along.


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