YOU'VE BEEN QUANGO'D ..FOR pounds 20M; How unelected agencies blow your money.
AN incredible pounds 20million of taxpayers' money was blown by the UK's quangos on wining and dining VIP clients, a Mirror investigation has found. In the middle of the worst recession in five decades, 142 agencies threw nearly 4,000 parties, dinners and receptions - all of them paid for by us.
One organisation took 30 guests to see Dr Whostar David Tennant in Shakespeare's Hamlet - at a cost of pounds 76 per person. And another paid for 10 VIPs to watch a rugby international at a massive cost of nearly pounds 700 a head.
Today, in the first part of our major investigation, the Daily Mirror lifts the lid on how quangos are spending your cash.
Latest figures show there are nearly 800 quangos - agencies, commissions, councils and advisory panels set up by Government to measure, regulate or advise - which eat up around pounds 64billion of public funds per year.
Our survey of 292 of them under the Freedom of Information Act revealed at least pounds 20,345,000 was spent hosting VIP events, conferences and award ceremonies in the 12 months to April 2009.
That money could have paid for the training of 1,200 nurses, put 900 extra police officers on the streets or bought over 1.4 million courses of Tamiflu. Of course, MPs were the focus of some of the "entertainment".
At least nine organisations threw lavish bashes at last year's party conferences, including the South West Regional Development Agency, which spent pounds 20,775 on a reception for Liberal Democrat MPs in Bournemouth.
The organisation, which aims to unlock the region's business potential, even hired celebrity chef Jamie Oliver's Fifteen restaurant in Cornwall to do the catering at a cost of pounds 7,000 - and spent pounds 1,000 on drinks.
The event was held in September - but those Lib Dems must have thought it was Christmas.
There was a similar story over at independent rail consumer watchdog Passenger Focus, whose motto is "putting passengers first".
However, it was our MPs who were first - to the free buffet - when the organisation hosted events at all three party conferences last year.
It coughed up pounds 36,503 of our money but Passenger Focus' chief executive Anthony Smith said it was all worth it.
He told the Mirror: "We are a relatively small organisation trying to influence the people who make decisions to make decisions in favour of the passenger.
"For a small organisation to be influential you have to look bigger than you are. Political parties are very important - therefore, on behalf of passengers, we think it is worth making that investment to show we have a voice and a certain weight behind what we are saying."
They don't come much weightier than William Shakespeare - and in January the regional development agency Advantage West Midlands treated 30 VIPs to the RSC's performance of David Tennant's Hamlet.
It was held many miles away from the We s t Midlands - in the heart of London, to be precise - and cost the taxpayer pounds 2,304. The agency provided an interesting explanation to justify the event.
It said the trip was used to launch a national marketing campaign and "the rationale for the location and event was to utilise a high-profile performance by a regional cultural provider".
Some organisations like to throw a taxpayer-funded party when the boss quits. The Heritage Lottery Fund spent pounds 9,525 of our money on a bash for stakeholders at the National Gallery last September - just to mark a change in chairmanship.
The quango even hired a Royal Academy string quartet at a cost pounds 647, and spent pounds 5,608 on catering, including pounds 570 on booze. A spokesman for the HLF said: "It was a one-off event to mark the end of seven years of dedicated work for the Fund by our former chair and a chance to introduce our new chair to the many organisations and customers we work with."
Meanwhile, the UK Atomic Energy Authority - which is responsible for decommissioning nuclear reactors and has nothing to do with sport at all - splashed out pounds 6,900 on a VIP box for just 10 people at the England v Scotland rugby international at Twickenham in March. The quango also hosted two tables at the British Nuclear Energy Society dinner in the Nine Kings Suite at the Royal Lancaster Hotel on London's Hyde Park at a cost of pounds 3,500. Guests dined in style on aubergine caviar, honey-lacquered duck and iced guava and chilli charlotte. When we gave the UKAEA an opportunity to justify the expense, they said: "We won't be adding anything to the information we've provided."
Further afield, two quangos held court at the MIPIM international property fair in sunkissed Cannes in March.
The London Development Agency spent pounds 44,201 on an evening reception, where 320 guests downed pounds 8,887 worth of "free" drinks.
Also there was The Homes and Communities Agency, which spent pounds 55,298 of our cash on a dinner, reception, breakfast meeting and seminars. The HCA also spent pounds 31,701 on transport and accommodation for seven staff who attended the three-day event - six travelled by plane and one by Eurostar.
Delegates kicked off the event with a lavish cocktail party on the lawn of the famous Carlton Hotel, the French Riviera's most glamorous location. It's a tough job but some quango has to do it.
The HCA's chief executive Sir Bob Kerslake explained: "Most of the money was spent on events we held at the conference and only a small number of staff from the HCA attended. The HCA is a new agency and needed to establish itself with the property industry."
Schools inspector Ofsted could teach us all a lesson or two about generous hospitality - it spent pounds 208,222 in March on five "celebration events" for schools, colleges and other organisations it rated as "outstanding".
one at London's Guildhall where 299 headteachers attended, and another at Cutler's Hall in Sheffield, attended by 218 heads, which included a champagne lunch with Ofsted's chief inspector Christine Gilbert. For both events a total of pounds 6,257 of alcohol was consumed.
For the other three events for childcare provider s , colleges and so c i a l care providers, held at the QEII conference centre, Trinity House and Tower Hotel in London, pounds 2,944 was spent on alcoholic drinks.
All attendees were also given a free ceramic mug to take home with them. But who were the real mugs?
An Ofsted spokesman said: "These events celebrated the achievements of over 1,000 individuals and organisations who are providing outstanding care and education to children, young people and learners across England, often in difficult circumstances. Ofsted is proud that we put the effort in to recognising those individuals who are making such a difference to learners' and young people's lives."
Shocked by our investigation, Ben Farrugia, Policy Analyst at the TaxPayers' Alliance, said: "Any quango worth its salt doesn't need to spend money 'entertaining'. String quartets and expensive wine are anything but a priority, especially at a time when public finances are in such a terrible state.
"A new chairman should be walking around introducing themselves in the office, not having a party thrown in their honour.
"But it's the lavish receptions at the party conferences that really represent a criminal use of taxpayers' money - all it boils down to is a bald effort to buy political support from MPs.
"Such practices should be banned outright, but they represent just the tip of the 'quango entertaining' iceberg."
WHAT IS A QUANGO?
They are "quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations". Because they are supposed to operate at "arm's length" from Government, they do not have to seek parliament's approval for what they do or how they spend their money. And because they are unelected we cannot vote them out if they misuse public money.
Cash spent by quangos on entertaining MPs at all three party conferences.
pounds 64 billion
Annual cost of the nearly 800 agencies, commissions, councils and advisory panels.
Quango heads are paid more than the Prime Minister, while four highest earners each received more than pounds 500,000 a year
new nurses, or 900 extra police officers could be paid for by the quangos' entertainment budget.
GLAM LOCATION Carlton Hotel on the Cannes seafront DRAMA Dr Who star David Tennant played Hamlet in the RSC production LOVELY JUBBLY Jamie Oliver's restaurant did catering for SWRDA party RUGBY England celebrate in the Six Nations
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|Publication:||The Mirror (London, England)|
|Date:||Jul 27, 2009|
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