Perhaps because I started my working life in the Treasury, I take a rather puritanical view about the way civil servants should spend the public’s money.
So I am with Tim in being outraged by this report that DTI officials apparently used public money to pay for expensive hotels, BMW hire cars, and cocktails. (I say ‘apparently’ because I know that these press reports rarely turn out to be completely accurate).
In my view, civil servants should never charge alcohol to expenses, should use the cheapest hotels in which they can efficiently stay and work, and should, where possible, travel by public transport rather than taxi or hire cars.
I have had to travel quite a bit at the taxpayers’ expense, and in my experience, government departments have strict rules. For example, civil servants are not allowed to use Air Miles earned on official journeys for private travel; and we had to stay at pre-determined hotels selected for their value for money.
Sometimes appearances can be deceptive. For example, my department negotiated a sweetheart deal with a particular airline, using bulk buying power to get business class flights at economy rates – which may have given the impression to an outsider that the travellers were lording it at public expense when the deal was in fact rather good for the taxpayer (as well as benefiting the civil servants). And civil servants often stay in well known business hotel chains at government rates which mean that the room rates they pay are no more expensive than a mid-priced hotel which would be less convenient and provides fewer facilities.
So I don’t know if the DTI officials are guilty as charged, but if they are, I hope they will be properly reprimanded. The fact that this is in the newspapers confirms that it is the exception rather than the rule for British public servants to behave this way, and I hope it stays that way.
If there is one thing that annoys me as much as public servants spending my money wastefully, it is private firms spending my money wastefully. All those expensive hotels and business class sections on planes were not built for people spending their own money, you know. They were built for business travellers spending your money. It all comes out of your pocket in the form of higher prices, lower returns on your investments, or lower wages. And the waste of your money by private sector firms is, in total, much higher than the waste of your money by your government.
Right wing trolls across the nation are reaching for their keyboards with their free hand to remind me that the difference is that you have a choice about which private company you buy from, invest in or work for, but government extracts its money from you by force. But the difference in choice is not in fact very great. For a start, you do not have that much choice about private sector firms to buy from or invest in – it is in practice very hard to find one that does not overpay its executives or allow them to waste your money on expensive flights and hotels. Second, you do have a choice about government – if you don’t like the one you have got, you can vote to choose another. The difference in choice, to the extent there is one, is one of degree. And much, much more of your money goes on private sector waste than it does on public sector waste.
That is not intended to justify abuses of taxpayers’ money by public servants or anyone else. But as the only member of the Senior Civil Service with a blog (as far as I know), when Tim expresses scepticism that all civil servants are "Simply selfless devotees of the common good", I feel compelled to say that I am similarly unconvinced that those to whom we hand our money in a free market are any less inclined to waste it.