Hideous £5bn government waste: including £6m on useless earplugs

Sarah Coles
London city stock
London city stock

At a time when all the talk in government is of cuts and saving money, the incredible scale of Whitehall's waste has been revealed.

Government departments have apparently poured £5.1 billion down the drain as the result of mistakes, write-offs and compensation.

A Taxpayers' Alliance report revealed some incredible mistakes - such as £6 million spent on earplugs for the Ministry of Defence that had to be ditched because they didn't work.

Is the report fair?

The report brings together what the pressure group considers to be all the avoidable wasted expenses, but there are some things in the report that are debatable. The Department of Health, for example, was said to have wasted £761 million - including £49 million to exchange Tamiflu vaccines which were ordered just in case there was an avian flu epidemic, and went out of date. That was just part of the £255 million worth of vaccines that went out of date and had to be thrown away. However, it's only fair to point out that all of these need to be in place just in case they are needed - and many have a short shelf life - so in many cases a certain quantity of vaccines will always be written off.

Likewise the Department of Health spent £28.5 million to make staff redundant during the reorganisation of the health service. Again, it's debatable whether this was pure waste, because assuming those staff were not needed, the government will save money over time, despite the initial redundancy costs.

There are other costs, which are arguably better as losses to the government than anyone else. These include £51 million on low-cost funeral expenses that couldn't be recovered from the estates of the person who had died. You have to ask who we would rather have paid for this. Likewise there was £1.4 million written off because receipts for items bought by claimants for job interviews were incomplete. It's questionable whether we would rather those individuals who were doing their best to find work should be penalised for poor administration.

There are also other costs that are hard to class as 'avoidable', like when the Highways Agency wrote off £636,000 it spent clearing up a diesel spillage on the A1, after being unable to track down who did it and unable to claim on their insurance. Then there's the helicopter gearbox which cost £483,000 to fix, and because it was broken as the result of an accident, the money is classed as a waste.

Outrageous waste

However, there were other payments listed in the report that are hard to put down to anything other than incompetence - including £1.2 million lost to the Department for Education because a school made a payment to the wrong account; the £11 million lost by the Department for Work and Pension because it overpaid work programme providers; and the £1.74 million spent by the Home Office on scheduled flights that it later cancelled. Amongst the £3.1 billion that the Ministry of Defence wasted was £4 million on the early withdrawal of the Sea King helicopters, and £7.2 on a mobile mine detection system that didn't work.

Jonathan Isaby, Chief Executive of the TaxPayers' Alliance, said: "While in some cases closing a programme or getting out of a rental agreement early may make long-term sense, many of these losses are simply ludicrous and will seriously damage the trust taxpayers have in Whitehall civil servants. It is clear there remains far too much waste in the system. With an ever-growing debt burden, we must make government more efficient and ensure taxpayers are getting real value for money."

Certainly at a time when the debate is raging over government cuts, and the impact on front line services, it's horrifying to know that the same government departments are throwing our money down the drain on such an enormous scale.

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