FIRE service credit cards have been used to settle individual hotel bills in Kuwait running to nearly £17,000, a Yorkshire Post investigation has discovered.
It can also be revealed that credit cards have been used by one Yorkshire fire service to withdraw £2,210 in cash and by another to pay for nearly £5,000 worth of takeaway food during strikes last year.
The spending - described as “eye-watering” by one commentator - has raised questions about usage of the cards which were initially introduced into the public sector as a convenient and less bureaucratic way of buying low value goods and services.
The most striking expenditure was run-up by South Yorkshire Fire Service who on three separate visits to Kuwait, over a seven-week period, spent £45,902.46 at the upmarket Marina Hotel in Kuwait City - all paid for on a corporate credit card.
One of the bills amounted to £16,830.96 while others ran to £12,586.28, £9,437.31 and £7,047.91. The service initially indicated the spending was for a profit-making training contract linked to a newly-created trading arm but then back-tracked and said the work in the Middle East was done on a break-even basis only.
South Yorkshire also spent £4,900 at an array of restaurants and fast-food outlets to provide food for temporary staff drafted in to cover strikes. Full-time firefighters have to pay for their own food at work but during the strikes credit cards were used by senior managers to settle bills of up to nearly £150 at local curry houses, the likes of McDonalds, Dominos, KFC and even a local pub.
The revelations brought an angry response from the Fire Brigades Union who questioned why a fire service struggling to cope with millions of pounds of cuts could spend tens of thousands on a hotel in Kuwait and takeaway food.
West Yorkshire Fire Service used what it termed as an ‘emergency credit card’ to withdraw £2,210 in cash when fire crews were working on major incidents outside the area last year.
The service said the money was withdrawn in case retailers didn’t accept credit cards but records showed the same cards were frequently used on the same day to settle bills running to hundreds of pounds at restaurants, coffee shops and service stations.
West Yorkshire was alone among regional services to record cash being withdrawn on credit cards and crews from South Yorkshire, North Yorkshire and Humberside all attended the same major incidents without access to cash on a credit card.
Humberside’s credit card statements showed payments on candelabras, a luxury four-star hotel near Buckingham Palace, a local restaurant bill topping £200 and a £115 Indian takeaway bill which was for temporary staff drafted in to cover a strike.
Details of the spending was obtained from Freedom of Information requests to the four Yorkshire fire services. North Yorkshire recorded relatively low usage of credit cards.
The cards have become increasingly commonplace in the public sector with the aim of cutting costs through stripping out the need for bureaucratic procurement processes.
But they are typically seen as being intended for low level spending rather than settling bills than run into thousands of pounds that are likely to still require different quotes to be obtained to ensure value for money.
Taxpayers Alliance chief executive, Jonathan Isaby, said: “These procurement cards were supposed to be used to get sidestep costly bureaucracy on low-level purchases, but the huge amount of taxpayers’ money being spent on them raises serious questions indeed.
“Taxpayers deserve answers. Spending on these procurement cards has to be subject to the same scrutiny as any other, and they can’t be used to facilitate a return to the bad old days of massive expenses being run up on the taxpayers’ tab. The sheer size of these bills is eye-watering.
“Of course, quite apart from how the spending was put through the books, taxpayers will be furious that their money is putting up bosses in luxury hotels and for slap-up dinners that most people couldn’t dream of affording.”