Perks for civil servants prompt inquiry: MP attacks spending on 'luxury' offices

THE NATIONAL Audit Office has been called in to examine allegations of profligate spending by civil servants who have been moved from London to Yorkshire, where they now occupy luxury offices equipped with a swimming pool, gymnasium and bar.

The allegations, made yesterday by Derek Fatchett, Labour MP for Leeds Central, also include the issuing of annual rail tickets costing more than pounds 30,000 and a special bus service costing pounds 52,000 a year to transport staff from Leeds station to their headquarters in Quarry House, a mile away.

The building contains a 25m swimming pool, a bar, squash courts, a sports hall with five-a-side football pitch, a gymnasium, and gardens with computer-controlled fountains.

Critics say that staff have had to be seduced into moving north and the perks on offer for the building's 2,000 civil servants have got out of hand.

Sir John Bourn, Comptroller and Auditor General of the National Audit Office, has been told that the Leeds headquarters, officially opened early this year at a cost of pounds 55.5m, has also led to 'extravagant expenditure'. The office block houses staff from the Department of Health and is the national headquarters of the Benefits Agency. It formed part of the Government's plans to decentralise civil service operations to the regions.

Mr Fatchett claimed that some senior civil servants have been allowed to commute from London and others have been allocated special return rail fares, as well as overnight accommodation when needed, in the Leeds Hilton. He said that although the move to Leeds was welcome, some pounds 12.9m was being spent on relocation.

He said: 'The reason I have taken the decision to refer this matter to the Audit Office is simply that I feel we are witnessing an obscene waste of taxpayers' money on perks and luxuries for top civil servants, and my contention is that spending on the project is now clearly out of control.

'The very obvious point is that at a time when these very safe civil servants are administering cuts in services, they seem to be doing rather well for themselves. I think those double standards are unacceptable. Those in top positions in public life should set an example and clearly this is not the case here.'

The arrival of 2,000 civil servants has been welcomed in the city, and Mr Fatchett said yesterday that he was not criticising the policy of moving staff to the regions. He felt, however, that there were many aspects of how staff were being treated that needed to be properly examined.

Dr Brian Mawhinney, Minister for Health, said that moving the NHS management executive to Yorkshire was a 'good deal' for the taxpayer and for Leeds. He said: 'I am surprised that Mr Fatchett objects to the creation of jobs in his constituency and the injection of the spending power of 2,000 civil servants into the Leeds economy.'

He said that moving to Leeds had enabled the department to rationalise its accommodation in London and reduce the number of buildings it occupied from 26 to six. He said the move was saving the department pounds 10m a year, and it was expected that the full cost of the transfer would be recovered by 2005.

The Benefits Agency issued a statement yesterday saying that its staff have to pay to use the leisure facilities at Quarry House, and discussions were taking place with Leeds City Council to allow community groups access to them.

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