Letter to the FCDO on Procurement Card Spending
Gillian Keegan MP
Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office
King Charles Street
London SW1A 2AH
22nd September 2022
Yesterday, I received several identical written answers from you in response to my recent parliamentary questions stating that: “The information requested in your 45 questions of 5 September regarding the FCDO’s published Government Procurement Card expenditure is not readily available and could only be obtained at disproportionate cost.”
I am uncertain whether you mean that answering each individual question would cost more than the £800 limit, or whether answering all of them would do so. If it is the latter, I must say this is the first time I have come across a department using the disproportionate cost exemption in that way, but I will pursue that matter separately in due course.
My purpose in writing to you today is to set out why I believe it is in the public interest for you to answer the questions I have raised, and to give you a second opportunity to do so by way of a ministerial letter, without the cost constraints that may arise in relation to answering Parliamentary Questions, or indeed Freedom of Information requests.
As of 31 March this year, 4,446 government procurement cards were in circulation to make purchases against the FCDO’s departmental budget, held both by individuals based in the UK, and at our posts around the world. In terms of the number of card-holders, and the value of purchases made on them, the FCDO is currently second only to the Ministry of Defence.
While the amount of FCDO expenditure using the cards has remained relatively stable in recent years (£24.01m in 2019, £23.37m in 2020, £23.42m in 2021), and apparently unaffected by the pandemic, there has been a notable change in that pattern in recent months.
Within the 11 months from September 2021 to the latest published data for July 2022, FCDO spending using government procurement cards rose 45 per cent compared to the previous 11 months, including a 40 per cent increase in spending by UK-based cardholders. At current monthly averages, annual expenditure for 2022 as a whole is on track to exceed £35 million.
While these are not huge sums in the context of the FCDO’s overall budget, I am sure you will agree that – especially during a cost of living crisis – taxpayers want to know that every pound of their money is being spent appropriately, and when there are indications of unusual or excessive spending in any corner of government, they will want to see proper checks in place.
The purpose of my questions was therefore to look primarily at UK-based expenditure, which is where I would expect the FCDO to apply its tightest controls, and specifically at a series of areas where spending seems to have risen sharply over the last 11 months of published data.
There will of course be perfectly appropriate reasons for the vast majority of the expenditure I have highlighted in my questions, and indeed it would be deeply worrying if there were not.
For example, gifts will have been bought for foreign visitors; equipment will have been bought for the FCDO gym; new uniforms will have been bought for custodians; and, as we can see from the supplies by Barrow, Hepburn & Gale, new red boxes will have been bought for ministers, albeit at a cost of £21,152 over the course of 8 months that seems somewhat high.
However, there are also numerous items and categories of spending that – on the surface – are not as easy to understand, and seem unusual in the context of previous FCDO spending: high-end private catering; wellness and beauty treatments; extensive supplies from UK wineries; large amounts of home furnishing; and even £1,841 of spending at the Norwich City club shop.
The key point is that – if there are proper assurance controls in place over the use of these cards – not only will there be entirely proper explanations for how and why each of these costs was incurred, but like any well-run business, those details should be ‘readily available’ at the touch of a button, and not cost a ‘disproportionate’ amount of time or money to retrieve.
And there is one further crucial reason why this matters, and the reason why I have been examining this entire area in my role as Shadow Attorney General, which is the risk of fraud against the public purse, and the quality of controls in place to prevent it.
I have so far received responses from nine departments – with others still to reply – detailing precisely the number and value of transactions that were fraudulently charged to their government procurement cards in the period 2019/20 to 2021/22. That includes the MOD, which – as noted above – has even bigger accounts to manage in this area than the FCDO.
The only minister besides yourself that has so far said that they are unable to answer the question because the data is not readily available and can only be retrieved at disproportionate cost is Rachel Maclean at the Ministry of Justice, a department whose financial accounting is a notorious shambles and from whom I would therefore expect little else.
But to receive that response from the Foreign Office is deeply worrying, and doubly so, given that – as per my Question UIN 47433 – I was able myself to identify at least one fraudulent transaction when looking at the last few months of UK-based spending on FCDO procurement cards, namely the payment of £3,513.33 to Sei Soccer.Com on 9 March 2022.
From your answer to that question, as to all my other questions, I am led to believe that you cannot say whether that specific transaction was flagged as suspect, and whether the amount fraudulently charged to the FCDO budget was recovered, because that information is not ‘readily available’, and ‘could only be obtained at disproportionate cost’.
But that begs the crucial question: if the FCDO accounts team cannot readily give details of a transaction like this one, which I presume will have been very firmly on their radar, what confidence can we have that all the other transactions on FCDO procurement cards over this period have been subject to proper checks and controls?
I hope you will be able to provide that assurance by answering the questions in the attached annex, and avoid the need to extract these details through a laborious and expensive process of individual FOI requests. Thank you in advance for your assistance in that.
The Rt Hon Emily Thornberry MP
Shadow Attorney General
QUESTIONS ON FCDO USE OF GOVERNMENT-PROCUREMENT CARDS, SEPTEMBER 2021-JULY 2022
- Was the payment of £3,513.33 to Sei Soccer.Com on 9 Mar 2022 reported as a fraudulent transaction, and was the amount incorrectly paid out to that supplier recovered?
Beauty, Wellness and Fitness
- For what purpose were payments made to Finishing Touches of (a) £2,360 on 15 Nov 2021, and (b) 1,973.30 on 22 Mar 2022, and where in the UK is that ‘barber and beauty shop’ located.
- For what purpose were payments made to the official Norwich City Football Club online store of (a) 1,318 on 21 Oct 2021, and (b) 523.50 on 21 Mar 2022.
- For what purpose were payments made of (a) £1,008 to Everwell Chinese Medicine on 16 Jan 2022, (b) £925.50 to Be Mindfully on 9 Feb 2022, (c) £2,149.61 to Calm Over Chaos on 21 Mar 2022, and (d) £1,850 to Soul Sanctuary on 4 Jul 2022.
- What items were purchased from (a) Ram Rugby on 13 Mar, (b) Tribe Active on 27 Mar, (c) Bulldog Gear on 28 Mar, and (d) Fitness Superstore on 20 May, and for what purpose are they used by the department.
Accommodation and Refreshments
- What was the purpose of, location of, and guest list for the events for which Alison Price Catering was paid £1,593.36 on 24 Sep 2021, 1,720.44 on 21 Oct 2021, £1,089.36 on 1 Dec 2021, £4,164.84 on 23 Dec 2021, and £956.28 on 6 Jan 2022.
- What was the purpose of, location of, and guest list for the events for which (a) Ann Kristin Catering was paid £2,501.94 on 27 Sep and 3 Dec 2021, (b) Zafferano Catering was paid £7,294.48 on 6 Apr and 14 Jul 2022, (c) Seasoned Events were paid £5,401.20 between 10-14 Jun 2022, and (d) At Home Catering Ltd were paid £4,422.24 on 26 Jul 2022.
- What goods were purchased from (a) Stopham Vineyard on 16 Oct 2021, (b) Bluebird Vineyard on 13 Jan 2022, (c) Chapel Down Winery on 18 Jan 2022, and (d) Coates & Seely on 10 Feb 2022, and for what purpose were those purchases made.
- What goods were purchased from Ridgeview Estate Winery on (a) 25 Oct 2021, (b) 11 May 2022, (c) 1 Jun 2022, and (d) 17 Jul 2022, and for what purpose was each of those purchases made.
- For what purpose were payments made to Fortnum & Mason of (a) £1,527.45 on 15 Nov 2021, (b) £709.75 on 10 Jan 2022, (c) £3,679.58 on 16 Mar 2022, (d) £597.45 on 23 Mar 2022, (e) £1,541.10 on 6 Jun 2022, and (f) £1,500 on 28 Jun 2022.
- How many individuals, and in which positions, attended the restaurant meals held at (a) Light of India on 8 Dec 2021, (b) The Kennington Tandoori on 15 Feb 2022, (c) Mem Saab on 9 Mar 2022, and (d) The Cinnamon Club on 14 Mar 2022.
- How many individuals, and in which positions, attended the gatherings held at (a) The House of Lords on 11 Jan 2022, (b) The Clarence Whitehall on 18 Mar 2022, (c) The Corinthia Hotel on 21 Mar 2022, (d) Stanley’s Chelsea on 28 Jun 2022, and (e) The Waterfront Brasserie on 26 Jul 2022.
- For what purpose were payments made to Hop Shop Ltd of (a) £678 on 12 Jan 2022, and (b) £2,564 on 24 Mar 2022.
- For what purpose was £15,655 spent on products from International Diplomatic Supplies in the last week of Mar 2022, and what was the inventory of duty-free products purchased in that week.
- For what purpose were payments made of: (a) £5,619.90 to Ashridge on 17 Jun 2022, (b) £53,445.56 to Camm & Hooper Ltd on 27 Jun 2022, and (c) £6,568 to Puckrup Hall on 20 Jul 2022.
- To which hotel in the UK was £633.85 paid for accommodation on 26 Jul 2022, and who used that accommodation.
Furniture and Decoration
- What goods were purchased from (a) Deirdre Dyson Carpets on 7 Oct 2021, (b) Solomiya and (c) Olivias on 7th Jan 2022, (d) Linwood Fabric on 10 Jan 2022, (e) Weaver Green on 21 Jan 2022, (f) Osborne & Little on 27 Jan 2022, (g) Clare Gaudion Ltd on 8 Feb 2022, (h) Soho Home on 7 Mar 2022 (i) Amara Living on 8 Mar 2022, (j) Marc Wood Studio and (k) West Elm on 23 Mar 2022, and (l) Bed Guru Ltd on 28 Mar 2022, and for what purpose was each of those purchases made.
- For what purpose were payments made of (a) £3,812.95 to The White Company from 20 Oct-11 Nov 2021, (b) £18,218.36 to Wayfair Stores from 14 Nov 2021-25 Mar 2022, (c) £8,190.06 to Chelsom Ltd from 4-11 Jan 2022, (d) £9,988 to the Cotswold Company from 11 Jan-1 Mar 2022, (e) £ 10,721.29 to Ferguson’s Linen from 20 Jan-29 Mar 2022, (f) £12,559 to Heal’s from 14-23 Mar 2022, (g) £2,171.3 to Simba Sleep from 18-21 Mar 2022, and (h) £9,935 to Ercol Furniture from 23-25 Mar 2022.
- What was the purpose of the floral items purchased from (a) Mary Jane Vaughan Design on 20 Dec 2021 and 21 Jul 2022, and (b) Pulbrook & Gould on 20 Dec 2021 and 7 Apr 2022.
- For what purpose were payments made to (a) Aimie Machado between 8 Sep 2021 – 16 May 2022, (b) Kate Lennard between 5 Mar – 6 Apr 2022, and (c) Albino.R.Branc between 1 Jun – 15 Jul 2022.
- What items were purchased from (a) Firmin & Sons on 4 Oct 2021 and 11 Jan 2022, (b) JK Clothing on 17 Nov 2021, (c) Joke.co.uk on 13 Dec 2021, (d) Trekitt.co.uk on 19 Jan 2022, and (e) TW Kempton on 13 Mar 2022, and for what purpose was each of those purchases made.
- What items were bought from Barrow Hepburn & Gale on (a) 11 Oct 2021, (b) 26 Nov 2021, (c) 10 Jan 2022, (d) 25 Jan 2022, (e) 28 Mar 2022, and (f) 17 May 2022, and is each of those items still in use by the department.
- What services were purchased from (a) Alberto Rubino on 26 Oct 2021, (b) Eimear Wilson on 25 Nov 2021, (c) Sharon Steel on 23 Feb 2022, (d) Lara Heller on 17 Mar 2022, (e) Raphaelle Moore on 29 Mar 2022, and (f) Make Up By Nani on 6 Jun 2022.
- For what goods or services were payments made (a) to The Knot 36 on 27 Oct 2021, (b) to Rev LB International between 25 Nov 2021 and 17 Mar 2022, (c) to Boss Media Ltd from 18-22 Feb 2022, (d) Event Prop Hire Ltd on 28 Mar 2022, and (e) Miko1031 on 5 and 27 July 2022, and for what purpose those purchases were made.
- For what purpose were payments made of (a) £ 2657.86 to Workwear Express between 26 Nov 2021-19 Jan 2022, (b) £5,356.93 to Sports Direct between 17 Dec 2021-19 Jan 2022, and (c) £1,124.28 to Charles Tyrwhitt between 24-30 Mar 2022.
- What items were purchased from (a) Tomodaji Leather on 8 Dec 2021, (b) Bolsons Ltd on 16 Feb 2022, (c) Fattorini Local on 2 Mar, 11 May and 17 May 2022, (d) Shake Swirl on 26 May, 7 Jun and 26 Jul 2022, and (e) GoFlyKite on 10 Jun 2022, and for what purpose were those items purchased.
- What items were purchased from (a) Coptrz Ltd on 15 Feb 2022, (b) Earle International on 23 Mar 2022, and (c) UK Tactical on 6 Jun, 13 Jun and 27 Jul 2022, and for what purpose was each of those purchases made.
- What VIP services were purchased at Heathrow Airport on 23-24 Mar 2022, and who benefited from these services.
- What items were purchased from (a) Coronation Promotions on 5 May 2022, (b) Gear4Music on 25 May 2022, (c) Feel Unique on 7 Jul 2022, and (d) ID&C UK on 19 Jul 2022, and for what purpose was each of those purchases made.
- For what services were payments made to A Head Space Ltd of £4,036.08 on 18 May 2022 and £4,798.63 on 27 Jun 2022.
- For what purpose were payments made of (a) £2,468.60 to LizardKen on 7 Jun 2022, (b) £2,960.25 to Catechumoon on 16 Jun 2022, (c) £6,941.43 to Entourage on 17 Jun 2022, and (d) £2,973.80 to CAGuitarLes on 27 Jun 2022.
Travelling parties for ministerial trips
- How many individuals, and in which positions, attended the restaurant meals held at (a) The Bar Room, New York City on 21 Sep 2021 and (b) Smith & Wollensky, New York City on 22 Sep 2021.
- For what purpose were payments made in Mexico of (a) £761.80 to Ingredienta on 23 Sep 2021, and (b) £1,385.97 to British Airways on 24 Sep 2021, in Saudi Arabia of (c) £821.23 to Abdullah Bin Taleb Co. on 17 Oct 2021, and (d) £1,378.06 to Food Equipment Supplying Co. on 21 Oct 2021, and in Malaysia of (e) £1,179.74 to Ali Health Sdn Bhd on 7 Nov 2021.
- How many individuals, and in which positions, attended the gatherings held in Indonesia on 11 Nov 2021 at (a) Hutan Kota by Plataran, (b) Kaum, and (c) Bhumi, and what refreshments were purchased at each venue.
- For what purpose were payments made in Australia and New Zealand of (a) £4,735.70 to Luna Park Sydney on 18 Jan 2022, (b) £699.18 to Captain Cook Cruises on 19 Jan 2022, (c) £1,218.05 to Chemist Warehouse on 19 Jan 2022, (d) £1,783.48 to Event Hire Services on 20 Jan 2022, and (e) £1,351.26 to SEC IAQ Women’s Ready to Wear Stores on 25 Jan 2022.
- What was the purpose of, location of, and guest list for the event for which Milly Sabina Melanowski Catering was paid £2,606.33 in Poland on 4 Apr 2022.
- For what purpose were payments made in Germany of (a) £5,307.68 to Interplan Congress Management on 16 May, (b) £1,631.20 to Saturn Electronics on 18 May, and (c) £576.64 to Metro Stores on 18 May 2022.
- What VIP services were purchased at Munich Airport on 28 Jun 2022, and which individuals benefited from these services.
- How many individuals, and in which positions, attended the restaurant meal held at La Penela, Madrid on 28 Jun 2022.