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Monday 21st January 2013 | 14:55
By David Singleton
Scottish Secretary Michael Moore has come under fire for providing a political adviser with a government payment card normally used exclusively by civil servants.
PoliticsHome can reveal that the Scotland Office has taken the unusual step of issuing a Government Procurement Card to a special adviser.
The Government Procurement Card is a payment card which individuals can use to purchase goods and services; the supplier is paid immediately and the balance is paid in full each month by the taxpayer.
The Cabinet Office has said that the cards should only be for permanent civil servants and other Government departments have declined to provide any such cards to special advisers.
Responding to the news, Public Accounts Committee chair Margaret Hodge told PoliticsHome today: “I don’t think any political appointee, minister or special adviser should be allowed to use the Government Procurement Card. It’s just plain wrong.”
Labour MP Jon Ashworth said: “It seems very peculiar that a special adviser in the Scottish Office has access to a Government Procurement Card and can presumably spend taxpayers’ money, while in other departments special advisers are prevented from having such cards. Clearly the Scottish Office have some questions to answer about what’s going on here.”
But a Scotland Office spokesman defended the arrangement.
He said: "The Scotland Office has offices in Whitehall and Edinburgh. In support of the Secretary of State, the special adviser's job means frequent travel between them and elsewhere as business dictates.
"The GPC card has been used infrequently, for work-incurred travel and accommodation costs only, and is fully and regularly audited by the Scotland Office."
Scotland Office Minister David Mundell admitted the arrangement in response to a Commons question from Mr Ashworth. He said: “The Scotland Office has seven Government Procurement Cards, six of which have been issued to staff and one to the special adviser.”
The actions of the Scottish Office contrast with those of other departments including the Wales Office and Northern Ireland Office who confirmed that they have issued cards - but not to special advisers.
The Cabinet Office, Treasury, Foreign Office, Department of Health, Department for Transport, Department for Education, Department for Work and Pensions, Department for Communities and Local Government, Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Justice also confirmed that no special advisers had been issued with cards.
Answering a Commons question earlier this month, DCLG minister Brandon Lewis said his department had made a concerted effort to reduce the use of the cards: “My department currently has 26 staff who have use of a Government Procurement Card. None are allocated to special advisers. By contrast, there were 210 card holders in May 2010.”
Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude said this month: “Since May 2010 we have… tightened the controls on the use of cards and implemented new cross-Whitehall standards, a taskforce to tackle fraud, and a group that monitors the spend and activity on cards..”
Government Procurement Cards were introduced in 1997 as a convenient and cost-effective way for government bodies to make low-value purchases, but concerns have since been raised about the scope for inappropriate use of the cards.
A 2012 report by the Public Accounts Committee stated: “There may be clear benefits to using the GPC, but departments must maintain strong controls over its use to reduce the risk of inappropriate use or fraud, and any subsequent reputational damage.”
The report also stated: “The Cabinet Office told us that contractors should not be given a card, but that they should be for permanent civil-servants, unless exceptional approval is received within a department.”
Giving evidence to the committee in 2012, Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary Ian Watmore said: “There are people who are direct payroll civil service—people like all three of us, probably—people who are pure contractors and then a very small number of shades-of-grey types, where people are fulﬁlling the role of civil service, but may be on a short-term or interim contract…. it case by case, but normally if you are trusting that person to be a civil servant in all normal understanding of what that word is, they would be entitled to a card.”
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