Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Just Answer The Bleedin' Question!

The modest HQ of DCMS

Back in March we blogged the National Audit Office probe into the extraordinary sums the Department of Culture Media and Sport sees fit to spend on housing its bureaucrats (see here). They and their various offshoots shell out £43m pa of our money on plush office space, including an extraordinary £20,929 pa per person for their headquarters' staff.

On Monday, the Public Accounts Committee grilled top DCMS mandarins on the report, and just WTF they think they've been playing at (transcript here). The excellent Greg Clark homed in on perhaps the most outrageous case, the Football Licensing Authority (and yes, quite why the taxpayer should fund a quango serving a multi-million pound entertainment industry like footie is beyond anyone, but let's park that for the moment).

Clark quizzed Jonathan Stephens, DCMS Permanent Secretary and principal departmental accounting officer (ie supposedly accountable to us for the responsible use of our money). And it's worth quoting at length both because it gives a good feel for the kind of stonewalling the PAC routinely faces, and also because it's Greg's PAC swansong (he's just been deservedly promoted to a shadow ministerial post).

Q68 Greg Clark: Mr. Stephens, why does the Football Licensing Authority, which employs six staff, need an office costing £180,000 a year?

Mr. Stephens: That certainly is an outlier. I understand that it has, for a small number of staff, comparatively large meeting and conference facilities used for meetings. A number of other staff of the Football Licensing Authority work from home.

Q69 Greg Clark: There are six inspectors who occasionally use it for meetings. Is it acceptable, in your view, that an organisation employing six people and six peripatetic inspectors needs an office costing £180,000 a year?

Mr. Stephens: If there is scope for significant savings-

Greg Clark: Do you think it is justified?

Mr. Stephens: It is easy to look at accommodation costs, but, as the report brings out, to realise savings within those costs is a very different matter.

Q70 Greg Clark: That was not the question, Mr. Stephens... Do you think that that represents value for money?

Mr. Stephens: Well, I am-and I am responsible for value for money across the whole of the DCMS's spend.

Greg Clark: But specifically, does that offer value for money?

Mr. Stephens: Realising savings depends on when-

Greg Clark: I have not mentioned savings, Mr. Stephens.

Mr. Stephens: I am very happy to look at that.

Greg Clark: I do not want you to look at it; I want you, as accounting officer, to tell me whether £180,000 a year in rent for the Football Licensing Authority represents value for money. You are the accounting officer; I assume you have a view on it.

Mr. Stephens: Well-

Greg Clark: Yes or no? Is it value for money?

Mr. Stephens: Let me explain the background. The cost is particularly high because the staff complement has recently fallen from nine to six.

Greg Clark: From nine to six!

Mr. Stephens: That is a reduction of one third in the complement. The accommodation includes a large meeting room that is used regularly by the board, the inspectors, football authorities and so on.

Q72 Greg Clark: Are not meeting rooms available in most offices?

Mr. Stephens: It is a matter of proportion to the staff employed.

Q73 Greg Clark: We are not getting anywhere on this. It is a simple question: does it offer value for money? As accounting officer, will you tell the Committee whether it does: yes or no?

Mr. Stephens: I am satisfied that the Football Licensing Authority is currently discharging its responsibilities properly and is giving value for money.

Greg Clark: So you are unable to say, as accounting officer for an organisation under your command-

Mr. Stephens: That does not mean that there is not scope for improvements going forward. As a new accounting officer I am keen to use this report to secure improvements in value for money.

Q74 Greg Clark: As you are new to the post, there is all the more reason for you to be able to answer straightforwardly. You did not negotiate the lease, I am sure. Does it not therefore strike you-with a fresh pair of eyes-as it strikes me and perhaps other Committee members, that £180,000 for an organisation that has six people working in it is excessive, and is a waste of money?

Mr. Stephens: It is an outlier.

Greg Clark: And it is the outlier that I am asking about. Surely if it is an outlier you are able to express an opinion about it.... We are time-limited, so let me ask you another question: can you tell me where the office is?

Mr. Stephens: No, I do not know, I am afraid.

Chairman: There must be somebody behind who does.

Mr. Stephens: We can certainly write to you to let you know.

Chairman: Come on, tell us. You have all these civil servants there, tell us where the office is.

Q76 Greg Clark: Can I tell you where it is? It is in Cavendish Square, W1. Can you explain why the Football Licensing Authority, which, as far as I understand, licenses football stands and stadiums for health and safety compliance, needs to be in one of the most prestigious and expensive locations in London?

Mr. Stephens: I cannot tell you the basis for the original decision.


What should we conclude? Clearly, the DCMS and its organs are spending money like... well, like it's not their own. And that the man at the top has virtually no idea what's going on (the FLA case was obviously going to come up at PAC - see previous blog).

And that for senior mandarins like Mr Stephens, nothing's changed since Sir Humphreys' day- the name of the game when appearing before Select Committes is to get through without actually saying anything.

And short of bringing back the rack, there's really very little we can do about that.

Other that is, than holding up offenders to the contempt and derision they deserve, and redoubling our efforts to get them out of our lives.

PS Just thank goodness DCMS isn't in charge of anything Really Big and Expensive, like say staging the 2012 Olympics. OH. MY. GOD.

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