Expenses of the Great and Good

For a long time I have maintained that what the MoD needs more than anything is financial credibility and it is for this reason alone that I think Phil Hammond will be seen as one of the best SoS Defence the UK has had for many years.

Helping build that credibility has been Bernard Gray, the Chief of Defence Material, who has bought a great deal of commercial experience to the MoD.

Building credibility is important, in fact it is vital, which makes this story quite depressing because it has the potential to put that credibility under threat, at the very least it is political naivety in gifting an easy victory to the opposition.

We are obviously, not all in this together.

This particular story is actually a few weeks old but still worth looking at

[browser-shot width=”600″ url=”http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2247293/Ministry-Defence-chief-Bernard-Gray-spends-23-000-hotel-stays-months-job.html”]

With a follow up today

[browser-shot width=”600″ url=”http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2530625/Ministry-Defence-boss-tasked-targeting-WASTE-claims-100-000-expenses-just-year.html”]

The source data comes from an official and regular release by the Government

Click here to read it in full for Q2, for example

But is this a non story, like so many similar ones about civil servants?

Normally, my first reaction is to yawn and carry on but this one has a bit more edge to it and worth looking at in a bit more details.

I do not for one second think there is anything wrong with staying overnight in London or Bristol, even though he lives only 60 miles away. It is not 60 miles by Concorde and productive time is an important consideration so the amount of journeys is neither here nor there.

However, it is the hotel list that is potentially the big issue here. In London there are thousands of hotels and choosing ones so close to the MoD is guaranteed to push the costs up.

The Daily Mail reports the Sofitel St James and Grange Holborn

It is not uncommon, even when centrally booking, hotels like this to cost in excess of £250 per night.

I have actually stayed in the Grange, its a nice hotel, I have also stayed further up Southampton Row in hotels at a cost of less than £100 that whilst not as salubrious aren’t bad either, more than good enough for a one or two night pit stop.

The Sofitel is only a third of a mile from the MoD, a nice and easy stroll to work in the morning, or a cheap taxi ride if it is raining! The Grange is just under a mile away.

Were these booking made at the last minute, maybe that would be a reasonable excuse for bursting the usual organisational limits but that would appear to not be the case given the numbers.

Even a casual Expedia search, not using the MoD’s travel booking provider to take advantage of corporate rates, throws up many hotels at around the hundred pounds mark.

So I am struggling with the concept of a civil servant, however senior, staying in top quality central London hotels when there are many alternatives that may well have halved the bill.

Ten thousand pounds is ten thousand pounds, not a large amount in the MoD’s budget but every little bit really does count.

Also, the use of an official car and driver seems anachronistic these days and not compatible with the extensive hotel stays.

Establishing and maintaining financial credibility is for every single person employed by the MoD, the rules are not just for the little people and Bernard Gray seems to have put that credibility under threat.

I am sure there are any number of reasons why we should all ignore this or write it off as just another civil servant bashing story but I am not so sure.

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December 29, 2013 9:25 pm

I worked at a quango for 6 months recently.
A big part of my role was checking expenses.

I checked 10% each month, I failed 90% of them, they went off to another department, who passed them.

Just, everything.
People claimed for a single hotel night on three consecutive expense claims, some enterprising souls added a fourth by paying for it on a procurement card in the first place.
Ten people would go out for lunch, and all claim for the full cost
People go out for lunch and claim TravSub, when they are at their home office

A 2 hour meeting and friday and a 30 minute none meeting (IE, no minutes available) on Monday used to justify a Hotel Thursday Night to Tuesday Morning, with some “entertaining” on Friday and Saturday, I eventualy clocked that the second person we were paying for was his mistress.

One ****er ordered a cake platter for his ten am team meeting every day.
We spent £300 per year per person at Pret a Manger….

Now, this wasnt MoD, who might all be angels, but there is a fucking huge cadre of hangers on within the quangocracy who exist to bleed the rest of dry.

I’m thinking a Marquise Cut by the way :)

Sir Humphrey
December 29, 2013 9:40 pm

TD – the point you raise is a good one. I’d look at it from the following perspective. The challenge facing MOD in running its procurement organisation split intentionally between two sites to meet political demands to get the civil service out of London, yet requiring its head to split his time between London and Bristol is a major expense. If you recruited a civil servant into this role, you could arguably have done so far more cheaply. But if the politicians want the ‘private sector wonderboy’ who they think can magically address all procurement woes, then you need to offer a package equivalent to that of industry – ultimately this is a 4*s job, and one that needs to be able to entice a very senior experienced person out of the private sector.
Given that Mr Grey is likely to have taken a very substantial pay cut to do the role (IIRC the highest paid person in the CS two years ago was earning around £170,000 – big for the public sector, small change for the level of role they’d have done if it were private sector), then he will probably have negotiated a contract which brought him certain ‘perks’ e.g. certain standard hotel and car/driver etc. This is fairly standard for many senior private sector posts, where first class rail travel etc are all part of the package. Given he is required to spend a reasonable amount of time in a hotel, I can understand the desire to do so in a decent one if he wants a reasonable quality of life out of work.

I guess this argument comes down to the question, if you want the private sector expertise, are you willing to offer the sort of industry standard packages that come with the role? If the answer is no, then expect a certain type of applicant. If you want the best, then accept that this comes with a price. That is currently what the politicians seem to want, whether they continue to do so is open to debate. I’d also note that its entirely possible that given the frequency of stays, ‘special’ rates are available?

Given that Mr Gray is looking exposed politically over the DE&S saga, and if you allegedly believe some of the comments in some quarters of the net and Parliament, is allegedly not hugely popular with his own staff, one wonders whether there may be a gentle whiff of intrigue here?

Finally, to perhaps reassure that not all CS are living it up, I vividly recall recently having an argument escalated to 1* level about a bookIng I was making for 2 nights away. The rate cap for the area was £xx per night, and the hotel I wanted to stay at was £5 more expensive. The difference was that the first hotel didnt include breakfast (£10 per day), and the second one did. So in order to save the taxpayer money, I needed to get 1* authority and approval to book the second hotel. A good example of how desire to save money is often a false economy.

December 29, 2013 10:14 pm

@TD, my experience is that “executives” of a certain level get very different expenses policies to those at the coal face, something even more the case for governments and quangos. I’ve seen First Class travel everywhere for World Bank and IMF employees, 5 star hotels everywhere. Corporate flats are often “lent”…all within the stated policy. I’ll bet this is all within it too

December 29, 2013 10:33 pm

TD, there is also the assumption that it is a one night pit stop. Would the situation be different if he had to spend a month there? They just gave his overall spending, not the period of it, so there is also the possibility that he worked out of the hotel for a month or more. An approx. 25,000 pound bill at 250 pounds a night using the estimate you gave means that he worked out of there for almost a hundred days. 3 months. The report said 106 days so it’s pretty much an accurate ballpark.

I’m leaning more towards Sir H’s opinion of the issue, it’s intrigue by penny pinching, which is not really intrigue at all. No laws were broken, and the morality of the situation is a grey area especially if it was a contract by the MoD not frivolous charges by the employee and for all we know, the bigger hotels have better telecommunications facilities and handling. Do we know how the lower budget hotels would have handled, say a 2am call from the Prime Minister’s Office to inform the Chief of Defence Material that Country X has declared war on country Y and that the UK has decided to intervene? “Please hold while we put your call through” “Your call is important to us, please hold” “The person you have called is not answering, please press 1 to redial”.

It’s really a non-issue. If the MoD was so bothered by it, they can set up their own serviced apartments there or negotiate a group rate and house more people in that hotel as ad hoc MoD quarters.

December 29, 2013 11:50 pm

I have just done a serach on hotel costs for the two hotels in question. I must say the Grange Hotels look very ordinary. I think this is reflected in the price.

Grange Holborn Hotel
reduced from £322.80 to £167.28 per night Book now!!!

Sofitel St James
was £308.00 per night

Having spent a good chunk of my life travelling for work and staying in hotels I really think it depends whether you want the employee to get some work done in their own time. If you do then a comfortable and conducive set up is essential. The same applies with chauffeur travel and 1st class travel.

If we want this guy to be getting involved in lots of areas he needs to travel and will be very busy. It’s really immaterial the expenses cost, what is crucial is what he does with his time, and the value added. Having said that sensitivity to the cuts and the pressure on the MOD is vital.

I would expect the MOD to have a contract with a hotel so that billed price is at most 50% of standard rate. I think the PCT (NHS) I dealt with had a hotel rate of about 33% of published.

Bog trotter
Bog trotter
December 30, 2013 12:09 am

All very interesting, but the telling point will be how does this compare with his predecessors, who presumably had the same commitments and locations to balance, although they were military folk so different rates/arrangements would apply. Any ideas anyone?

December 30, 2013 12:17 am

I think the issue is more about the fact that he lives no more than an hour away from central London by train. Just get the fucking train like everyone else.

Sir Humphrey
December 30, 2013 12:27 am

Thats fine if you then accept that your very expensive asset is going to spend most of his day travelling and cant work discretely on very commercially sensitive matters. Do you want him traveling to / from work or do you want him working – at the 4* level, I know from experience that the day starts very early and finishes very late (0700-2300 days are very normal). Do you want to lose this flexibility to do meetings/dinners/receptions in order that he catches the train home?
Its about cash value versus work value – both are equally good answers in my book though :-)

December 30, 2013 12:50 am

@ Sir H,

What, two hours?

December 30, 2013 12:53 am

Wasn’t there a case a few years back about an MoD employee leaving some confidential documents on the train by mistake? A case not to have your key employees travel in public transport. There was even a cloak and dagger case long time back during the cold war when someone was assassinated in a train, stabbed by a poison tipped umbrella in the calf IIRC. Public transport use by key personnel is a sensitive issue.

TD, maybe. Never stayed in either so can’t say for sure. Missed the linked dataset part, I’ll go take a look, thanks.

December 30, 2013 10:04 am

Bernard Gray lives close to Newbury, Berkshire, which is an easy commute up to London by train or car, especially if one has a driver. Bear in mind that MOD has clamped down in the extreme on civil servants’ expenses and many have been refused refunds on their own money, which they have legitimately spent, even when it has been been pre-authorised. I guess under the current regime the rules only apply to the ‘little people’.

December 30, 2013 11:23 am

I have to say that I am with the good Sir Humphrey on this one (which is doubtless a great relief to him).

If you want to get the best out of people and get the most out of their time then you must give them decent conditions of work and that applies to when they are travelling as well as when they are at their base office. That applies to the “little people” as much as it does to the big boys.

When I went to the Home Office in the early 1990s, after a particularly grizzly 21 hour day which included a total of six hours standing on trains to and from Birmingham, I negotiated a deal with my boss which allowed me to travel first-class on the trains and business-class (or first if no business was available) on aeroplanes. When abroad I always stayed at the “marker” hotel but claimed the daily rate from the middle column. In return I worked all the hours I needed to in order to get the job done, which led to some spectacularly long days. The costs might have been higher than they otherwise would but my department got a much better result.

From Fatman says above about the current civil service attitude to expenses, I think the MoD is being foolish and its actions will be counter-productive. Treat people shabbily and they will play strictly by the rules and that never ends up being to the employers’ business benefit.

As an aside, what Mr TrT describes in his post above has nothing to do with legitimate reclaiming of necessary expenses. What he is talking about is fraud. He was working for an organisation whose staff consisted substantially of criminals.

December 30, 2013 12:44 pm

Last year 20-30 RFA officers (around 5% of total) were suspended at the same time for up to three months whilst allegations of expenses fraud were investigated. Disciplinary outcomes were at most minor, in most cases nil. The main alleged infraction in all cases: renting accommodation with cooking facilities whilst standing by a ship in refit. Cooking facilities are specifically forbidden in the expenses rules.

1) There was no allegation of actual loss to the public purse, rather a technical breach of nonsensical rules.

2) 25 officers x 3 months wages = c. £250,000 lost on salaries paid for no work done whilst on suspension.

The RFA is an obscure corner of the MoD, with many of its own rules, but I have to wonder how widespread this kind of nonsense is, or is it something peculiar to our own dysfunctional little part of the organisation?

December 30, 2013 12:59 pm

Would it not be cheaper to pay for membership of a London Gentleman’s club for the few nobs who are often in London.

If I recall – this used to be common practice (not for plebs like me though!)

or why can Civil servants in MOD not be accommodated in Officer’s messes.

I always let admin staff book me accommodation then I could always say not me Gov!

What would be really interesting is to know comparative costs of DFID personnel abroad with service personnel on similar duties.

December 30, 2013 1:20 pm

I always let admin staff book me accommodation then I could always say not me Gov!

It generally happens that way, although it seems to depend on unit to unit. Some had a travel cell to book it (but would never pay for it wierdly), and you weren’t allowed to DIY. Others let you get on with it.

December 30, 2013 1:37 pm

“or why can Civil servants in MOD not be accommodated in Officer’s messes.”

Because the standard of accommodation and food is pretty poor? Certainly my civilian experience of RN officers messes has not been good. The standard of accommodation I experienced was well below that of even a budget hotel (Premier Inn/Travelodge/etc.). The food wasn’t up to much either, but see other topic on Daily Messing Rate.

Or has Collingrad improved dramatically over the last couple of years?

December 30, 2013 1:41 pm

“Would it not be cheaper to pay for membership of a London Gentleman’s club for the few nobs who are often in London.”

Whenever I stay in London I put up at the Union Jack Club and have done so for more years than I care to remember. I understand that they now allow officers & ex-officers in, not as full members, you understand, and not at the lowest room-rate, but they can take a room there. For a big cheese temporary member I think its about £60 a night. The accommodation is clean, decent with a writing table for working in the evening and its no longer compulsory to share the ablutions (they have also taken down the notices requesting guests not to smoke in bed or piss in the sink). It is smack in the middle of Town and the food is pretty good too.

I’d hate to see the Club turn into an officers’ mess but anyone who wants to be more up market can pay the difference out of their own pocket and go to the In and Out or The Army and Navy (Crabs and Cavalry/Guards types have their own establishments in Picadilly, of course). For Civil Servants; well, they have their own facility just off Whitehall though frankly, the Union Jack is better in terms of accommodation, food and company.

Aside from active-duty stations, the DfID will, I suspect, follow the FCO and expect their members to put up at the “marker” hotels and be given the standard daily rate, as do the Home Office and the MoD. I don’t know how they do it now, but there used to a big red book in which was listed just about every city in the World with the details of the marker hotel and the daily rate payable for three grades of staff (oiks, senior oiks and panjandrums).

December 30, 2013 2:50 pm

Jesus Christ, when did an hour long train ride in each direction suddenly become the parting of the red fucking sea? Funnily enough there are lots and lots of people, many of whom that work long hours and in very important positions within their companies, that somehow manage to cope with organising their day to include a little bit of travel on the train. And not everyone has the luxury of living so close to their place of work, but still manage to pull it off. Perhaps Sir Gray could hire one of them to work as his assistant and organise his time a little better.

Sir Humphrey
December 30, 2013 5:07 pm

Why would I as a civil servant want to stay in an officers mess? Its a deeply unwelcoming place to civil servants, due to its arcane rules, appalling level of transit accommodation (usually worst rooms put by for those only there for the night), and a sense that civil servants are scum. I have been spectacularly badly treated in an officers mess. and blamed for every woe going in the modern MOD.

Its a home for the military, its their play area and that is important. When I go home at night, I do not want to put on jacket and tie to get a cup of tea!

So, no I don’t think the CS should be forced to go into a military mess, its putting together two very different cultures and the outcome will be painful for both sides.

Red Trousers
Red Trousers
December 30, 2013 5:39 pm

@HL and others,

Sounds like Obblocks to me, this Bernard Gray expenses lark. For a start, senior people shouldn’t claim expenses. It’s what the big boy salary is for. Anyone on over £100k doesn’t have expenses paid in my company, at least in the UK. The Admin girls book flights and pre-pay hotels.

The Cavalry Club is ludicrous for business. I’m a member, but only on a personal basis. I don’t charge overnight stays there to business. I live only about 90 minutes from town whether by car, train or motorbike, and I don’t see anything wrong in commuting, even for the fastidious like Bernard Gray. Man up and take the 0714 like the rest of is, I’d say.

December 30, 2013 6:00 pm

It depends on the hours he works. When the place I worked at previously was short staffed for a period of time, I had to chuck in a lot of OT. The 2 hour journey to and from work really got me fuming because it ate into my sleep time. Every minute spent stuck on the train was a minute I could have spent catching up on my sleep.

dave haine
dave haine
December 30, 2013 8:51 pm

What happened to the serviced apartments that the government used to maintain in the capital?

Red Trousers
Red Trousers
December 30, 2013 9:01 pm

“Man up and take the 0714”

… There’s always the 0654,and the 0614, or even the 0554 for those with a worthwhile career. (Great North Line. From somewhere sensible in Cambridgeshire. Other commuter routes are available.)

Never met a proper employer who wanted to pay you for staying in bed, nor one I wanted to work for who didn’t challenge you to achieve worthwhile results.

December 30, 2013 9:28 pm

“What happened to the serviced apartments that the government used to maintain in the capital?”

The revenue decided they were a taxable benefit. For some reason they became unpopular after that.

Things might have changed since because when my big boss at the HO got the tax bill for his flat and his chauffeur driven Jag you could hear his screaming in the gardens of Lambeth Palace (which are one of the great secrets of London, by the way. How ++Canterbury has got away with not opening them to the public is a mystery – probably because Labour MPs are too ignorant of history to know they exist).

Red Trousers
Red Trousers
December 31, 2013 8:33 am

@HL, re serviced apartments,

Years ago as a single Captain posted to Edinburgh I had the virtually sole use of an Army-owned 5 bedroom flat in Ramsay
Garden that opened directly onto the Esplanade in front of the Castle (only because I had a dog that the rules of Historic Scotland said was not allowed in the Castle itself, so I could not live in the Mess in the Castle).

For a month a year the flat was the C3 / Ops Room for the Tattoo, but for the rest of the time was mine alone. During my second year the Council Tax bill (or was it the Poll Tax?) dropped onto the doormat. F me it was pricey, but not my problem as I merely passed it on to the Garrison Paymaster.

I used to dine in the Castle Mess, in Mess Kit. Could bring any number of guests if I wanted. Combo of dining in the Mess in Scarlets and tight trews and spurs, and a beautiful flat was utterly shag-tastic.

What’s the benefit in kind for that? Christ, I was a lucky boy.

December 31, 2013 6:00 pm

“As an aside, what Mr TrT describes in his post above has nothing to do with legitimate reclaiming of necessary expenses. What he is talking about is fraud. He was working for an organisation whose staff consisted substantially of criminals.”

And its own minister….