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Whitehall spending: Information overload

Mark Easton | 13:15 UK time, Friday, 19 November 2010

"Come on. Unleash hell!" The foul-mouthed political schemer Malcolm Tucker from TV satire The Thick of It once responded to a crisis by demanding that officials release huge amounts of government data. "Stats. Percentages. International comparisons. Information. E-mail them... wads of information."

Too much information

When a helpful source in the Cabinet Office forwarded me the enormous files of data on Whitehall spending publicly released today, I stared at page after page of numbers and realised what is meant by the phrase "information overload".

How the solitary look-outs in David Cameron's "army of armchair auditors" are supposed to spot waste and to replace the professional quango scrutineers currently awaiting their P45s is a very real question.

Nearly 200,000 lines of data listing the details behind £80 billion of government expenditure is both intriguing and daunting. But to even begin to make any sense of it, I needed expert help.

With just a few days before today's publication, savvy colleagues worked day and night cleaning, sorting and crunching the data - the kind of effort unavailable to most households. Indeed, my rather outdated spreadsheet software was simply not powerful enough to open the Whitehall master file we built to get an overview of state spending.

Once the initial work had been done, I dived into the figures to see what pearls lay hidden in the dark mud of government spending.

I think it is interesting to note that Prince Charles received two payments from the government this summer - one for £667,000 covered the rent for Dartmoor prison and the other for £677,000 was from the Army, presumably so they can drive their tanks on his land in Cornwall.

Is that good value? Could a better deal be negotiated? Is it right that a Colonel-in-Chief and Royal Colonel of many Army regiments should expect such payment?

The data poses more questions than answers.

I can now tell you that the Treasury and the tax office between them paid £123,000 for copies of the Financial Times this summer. Sounds a lot of pink. But is it money well spent?

The Government Equalities Office spent £4,846 bringing a Swedish radical feminist over for a conference. The government car service received payments totalling £1.5m in the first five months of the coalition including £123,000 from the Department of energy and Climate Change for "Ministerial support". JobCentre Plus spends more than £200,000 a month on hotels. Should I be shocked?

Among the smaller items I spotted were:
  • £1,265.22 to diamond dealers De Beers
  • £650 to chic handbag designer Lulu Guinness
  • £1,500 to Estelle Earpiercing for "scheme management"
  • £1,000 to a company which makes jewel-encrusted dog collars

The last one seemed so bizarre I tracked the firm down to its headquarters in the Netherlands. The money apparently was from the Department for Business, a grant to help Diamond Dogs sell their wares in New York. If the trip drummed up lots of new orders for their Koh-i-noor pet accessories, it might have been a very sensible investment. The company pays tax in Britain, after all.

Not everything is transparent in the files. The Department for Business spent a total of £241,000 on dozens of items including hotels and air-fares but described only as "personal expense, name withheld".

I spotted a number of payments from the Ministry of Justice to eight individuals who turned out to be the victims of miscarriages of justice. In total the payments came to £2.2m: no small change and, I would have thought, just the kind of detail required to hold the executive to account.

Among the recipients were Paul Henderson, former Managing Director of the arms supplier Matrix Churchill which was caught up in the arms-to-Iraq scandal of the mid-1990s that engulfed John Major's government. He received £583,810 in June this year.

Another of the eight was also linked to the arms-to-Iraq affair. Paul Grecian, former head of the military supplier Ordtec, received a payment of £627,734 in June this year.

I rang the MoJ for an explanation only to be told that they have withdrawn this section from the online data drop. But having been supplied with this information by the government, I can reveal the names of the other recipients of MoJ cash this summer.

Terence Pinfold, now 77 years old, is a convicted robber who subsequently spent years in prison for "procuring a murder". It later emerged he had been stitched up for that crime and this summer Justice Secretary Ken Clarke sent him a cheque for £328,327. Amanda Jenkinson, a former nurse from Nottinghamshire, was wrongly convicted of causing GBH with intent by interfering with a patient's ventilator in 1993. She has just received a cheque for £400,000. Joseph Kassar was wrongly convicted of smuggling hundreds of kilos of cocaine into Britain in 1992, drugs hidden inside lead ingots. He has now received compensation worth £100,000. In other miscarriage payments, Sean Hodgson received £100,000; Hussain Shah received £100,000; Christopher Finch received £25,000.

The fact that this detail has now been withdrawn from the online data illustrates the limits and complexity of the transparency idea.

The Ministry of Defence rang the BBC to say that within the pre-released files sent to journalists and developers was a line about payments relating to Libya that we should ignore. There will no doubt be many more howls of anguish from officials as people scour the numbers.

What will happen now? Francis Maude has admitted that "the data is not as good as it should or will be", hinting that we will get even more detail and context. Equally, there will be voices suggesting the whole idea is far too dangerous and should be scaled back.

The real danger, I think, is that people mistake transparency for accountability.


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