UK Politics

Whitehall urged to tighten hospitality rules for officials

Fans gather at Wembley Stadium for last year's Championship play-off final Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The spending watchdog has questioned the relevance of officials attending football matches

Government departments have been urged to be "more stringent" over accepting corporate hospitality and gifts.

A National Audit Office review found officials were justified in accepting most offers but some were questionable in terms of relevance and frequency.

Tickets to sporting events, bottles of champagne and iPads accepted by senior officials may not have been consistent with official guidelines, it said.

The Cabinet Office said the clear principles in place were working well.

Under the guidelines, officials are only supposed to attend functions and accept gifts when they are in the interests of government, and the offer is proportionate without presenting any conflict of interest.

The spending watchdog examined how rules on acceptance and disclosure of corporate hospitality had worked across Whitehall between 2012 and 2015, focusing in particular on three departments: the Department for Business (BIS), HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and the Defence, Equipment and Support (DE&S) arm of the Ministry of Defence.

Lunches and dinners

It found that senior officials accepted gifts and hospitality on 3,413 occasions over the period, from nearly 1,500 different organisations. The Department for Business accounted for the most (718), while the Department for International Development (20) had the fewest instances.

While lunches and dinners accounted for more than 60% of hospitality, only 40 gifts were reported over the period.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Officials have to record when they are invited to drinks parties and other functions

In 2014-2015, the 200 most senior officials in Whitehall accepted an estimated £29,000 in overall hospitality, with BIS officials accounting for the most, an estimated £7,170. Over the same period, it is estimated that BIS officials as a whole accepted £35,000 worth of hospitality and gifts, compared with £100,000 at DE&S and £19,000 at HMRC.

The watchdog said most of these were routine sandwich lunches, dinners and drinks receptions which were "reasonable" for officials to attend and in line with government business.

But it said there were exceptions, with officials accepting tickets to football matches, including the FA Cup semi-final, tennis games at Wimbledon, movie premieres and pop concerts. In some cases, officials were also accompanied by their spouses or their children.

Gifts accepted that were deemed to be disproportionate, in terms of their value, included a hamper from Fortnum and Mason, a £300 painting and a £300 Mont Blanc pen, although the latter was surrendered to officials.

Some officials at DE&S were also deemed to have overstepped the mark in terms of the frequency with which they accepted hospitality from defence companies such as BAE Systems and Airbus Group.

Although there was no evidence of hospitality or gifts causing a conflict of interest, the watchdog said meetings with firms such as Deloitte or PwC, that provide services to government, risked a perception of conflict.

'Clear principles'

It also questioned the decision of officials to accept hospitality from the British Bankers Association when some of its members were subject to regulatory and criminal investigations.

"Public officials are sometimes offered gifts and hospitality by external stakeholders which it is reasonable for them to accept," said Amyas Morse, the NAO's director general. "This can however, undermine value for money or affect government's reputation.

"While most, but not all cases, declared by officials appear on the face of it to be justifiable in the normal course of business, we found some weakness in the oversight and control of gifts and hospitality. This needs to be addressed by the Cabinet Office and departments."

Details of hospitality and gifts accepted by senior civil servants were first made public in 2009. Departments are required to publish registers four times a year. Twelve out of 17 departments managed to meet this quarterly target between 2012 and 2015, the watchdog said.

The Cabinet Office, which drew up the official guidelines, welcomed the report, saying it "showed that the system is working well, with offers of hospitality being recorded and properly acted upon".

"Clear and well understood principles governing the acceptance of gifts and hospitality are in place for all civil servants," a spokeswoman said.

"This government is the most transparent ever and publishes an unprecedented range of information about gifts and hospitality received by ministers, special advisers and senior civil servants."

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