A furious war of words has broken out between the Taxpayer’s Alliance and the government over claims that members of the British Council have wasted millions of British public money, racking up huge credit card bills on luxury hotels and lavish restaurants.
The Taxpayers' Alliance (TPA) - who campaign for lower taxes – obtained details of the British Council’s credit card spending after submitting a Freedom of Information (FOI) request, and they say the findings trigger calls for better transparency in Quango spending.
The FOI revealed that between 2009 and 2011 the British Council, an organisation that specialises in international cultural relations, spent £2million on hotels and £400,000 eating out at restaurants.
A total of £6.7 million was spent on the British Council’s credit cards, with bookings on behalf of the British Council being made at some of the world’s finest hotels, including Caesar Park in Rio and the Park Hyatt in Dubai. During the same period the Council also spent £1,052,206 on flights.
Two credit card bills came to £1,376 in New Delhi at the Imperial Hotel’s restaurant the Spice Route, an establishment that is world renowned for its outstanding wine list.
Other spending included £1,056 on a Spa-Salon in Russia, £142 on a haircut and £80 on a tour of the Thames. The credit card was also used for cinema trips, iTunes purchases and at the Body Shop.
The Director of the TPA, Matthew Sinclair, said: “Taxpayers will be worried that they are being asked to support British Council bureaucrats living the high life abroad while they have to tighten their belts at home.
“They [British Council staff] need to explain many of the items bought with their credit cards which look extravagant, like the huge amounts spent at upmarket hotels.”
But a spokesperson for the British Council argued: “Our work in English teaching, education and arts builds valuable relationships for the UK in 110 countries around the world, so it naturally involves international travel and hosting senior visitors. We have clear policies about corporate card use and do not tolerate their misuse.”
The Foreign Office leapt to defend the British Council, saying: “The majority of the British Council’s income and expenditure comes from their commercial and full-cost recovery (FCR) activities, such as English Language Training, exam services and projects on behalf of other organisations.
“The Grant-in-Aid (GiA) only makes up about 26% of the British Council’s income.”
This has been rebutted by the TPA, with Matthew Sinclair responding: “The Taxpayers’ Alliance has made all of the information provided to us by the British Council available for the public to see how their money has been spent. If that isn’t clear enough for even the Foreign Office to work out where the cash has originally come from, then that won’t inspire much confidence in their financial controls.
“Money is money and if they waste less of it then the grant-in-aid from taxpayers may well be able to fall and we can get better value. And bureaucrats shouldn’t be exploiting deals with the private sector or other public bodies to enjoy luxury treatment.”
Alan Gemmell, director of the British Council in Mexico, told Huffpost UK that while it was difficult to quantify which spending was publicly funded, the spending came with the territory:
"The main focus of the organisation is making connections and making Britain attractive to the rest of the world," he said.
"That often means taking people from Britain to other parts of the world. Much of this spending will be linked to that. It's what a global organisation needs to do. These people will be important people meeting other important people. We have cut costs, most people travel economy or premium economy which has been a big reduction in the spend."
The FOI request by the TPA has thrown up some concerns about the transparency of the British Council’s funding, with some MPs privately concerned that a valuable projection of UK soft power could be undermined by a lack of accountability.
Veteran Labour MP Ronnie Campbell told HuffPostUK: “It’s like all these things - the embassies are the same, they overspend. They have to fall in line like everyone else. They need to look at their balance sheets closely the same as everyone else. Them hay days where you could spend what you like are over and as with MPs expenses it was the MPs that took the brunt but everyone else was doing it.”
“There needs to be more transparency the MPs had to take it on the nose and they have to be very transparent now. The British Council and the embassies should be the same. It is British taxpayers money and the same that applies to us [the MPs] applies to them [the British Council].”
The British Council has come under fire in the past for spending more than £300,000 of public money on expensive US court battles.
But the sometimes risky and sensitive nature of its work was thrown into sharp relief in August 2011 when ten people were killed after a suicide bomber and gunman attacked the British Council compound in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.