While we’re distracted by Labour’s conference, Theresa May’s office quietly reveals it spent £43m – just on agency staff

Theresa May Conservative
Steve Topple

While all eyes were on the Labour Party conference, Theresa May’s Cabinet Office (CO) quietly published its accounts. And buried in the 114 pages was the fact that it spent a whopping £43.8m on agency staff in 2016/17.

But this was just the tip of a half a billion pound spending iceberg  with the CO blowing £8.86m on staff perks, and even giving [pdf, p89] former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg £114,982 from the public purse.

Non-jobbing

The CO says its role is to:

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Support the Prime Minister and ensure the effective running of government. We are also the corporate headquarters for government, in partnership with HM Treasury, and we take the lead in certain critical policy areas.

Its priorities are to:

  • Support the Prime Minister and Cabinet to deliver the government’s programme.
  • Drive efficiencies and reforms that will “make government work better”.
  • Create a more “united democracy”.
  • Strengthen and secure the UK at home and abroad.

And on Monday 25 September, the CO released accounts which showed that in 2016/17 it spent £558m on doing all this.

Excruciating figures

Some of the most notable spending compared to 2015/16 was:

  • £43.8m on agency staff, up 54%.
  • £2.47m on staff “termination benefits” when they left the CO, up 162%.
  • £8.86m on staff travel, food and “hospitality”, up 63%.
  • £196.8m on total staff costs, up 20%.
  • £50.2m on Police and Crime Commissioner elections.
  • £1.54m on Private Finance Initiative (PFI) contracts, up 387%.
  • £21.7m on renting buildings, up 38%.
  • Writing off £2.3m of “bad debt”, up 5,342%.

But the £43.8m spent on agency staff (7.8% of the CO’s entire budget) does not tell the whole story. Because another set of CO figures reveals that it only employed 299 agency, interim, or consultant staff in 2016/17. Meaning the average cost of one of these, including agency fees, was £146,488.

The CO spent, overall, £558.58m in 2016/17; down £1.24m or 0.22% on 2015/16. The spending increases listed above were mostly offset by savings from not having the cost of a general election, reductions in pension costs, and less being paid out for “professional services”.

But delve a little deeper into the figures and some of the CO spending is even more questionable.

Nudging paper

The full CO accounts reveal that it paid out [pdf, p89] £538,067 in total to all living former Prime Ministers as “public duty costs”. But this also included £114,982 to former Deputy PM Clegg; a 12.8% increase on his payment in 2015/16.

The CO has [pdf, p99] £210.6m worth of agreements with private contractors to pay out over the course of their durations. It also holds [pdf, p101] £64m of investments in six private companies that operate within the public sector/government. One of these is Behavioural Insights Ltd, also known as the controversial ‘Nudge Unit’. As writer Sue Jones noted in 2015, the Nudge Unit is:

aimed at ‘changing the behaviours’ of citizens perceived to ‘make the wrong choices’ – ultimately the presented political aim is to mend Britain’s supposedly ‘broken society’ and to restore a country that ‘lives within its means’, according to a narrow, elitist view, bringing about a neoliberal utopia built on ‘economic competitiveness’ in a ‘global race’.

The Canary approached the CO for comment on its accounts, but at the time of publication had not received a response.

May’s money for nothing

John Manzoni, Chief Executive of the Civil Service, said [pdf, p9] in his introduction to the CO accounts that:

This year the Cabinet Office celebrated 100 years… ensuring that government works efficiently and effectively for citizens across the UK.

Manzoni’s hopes of the CO “ensuring efficiency” are laughable, at best, when you have a government department that happily spends £43.8m on agency staff and nearly £9m on ‘perks’ for its employees.

But the CO’s seemingly frivolous spending should contrast with other government departments. Because during 2016/17, the DWP cut Personal Independence Payments (PIP) for 164,000 people living with mental health issues. It reduced their payments from the enhanced to the standard rate, saving it £27.45 per person, per week. So, this saved the DWP £234m, or 0.11% of the welfare budget.

Also, the NHS spends around 1.02% of its budget on agency staff, but is criticised for doing so. So, when the CO claims “efficiency” but sees fit to spend 7.8% of its budget on agency staff, yet the DWP cuts crucial support from some of the poorest in society to save it a mere 0.11%, we have a truly broken government.

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