Councils 'waste £150m a year paying bills twice'

Councils could save almost £150 million a year if they made sure they did not pay bills twice, Communities Secretary Eric Pickles claimed today.

Audits of two large councils uncovered over-payments to suppliers totalling more than £550,000, with invoices showing that some bills had been paid as many as three times. If repeated across England, the exercise could save an estimated £147 million.

In a speech in London, Mr Pickles said the over-payments betrayed a "lack of respect towards public money" and urged councils to keep tighter control on their purse strings.

A project carried out by Leeds City Council and credit experts Experian recovered £500,000 in over-payments, while a similar audit in the north London borough of Islington found that 10 suppliers had been paid twice and two three times, at a total cost to taxpayers of £55,000, he said.

Experian estimates that similar exercises could save councils across England up to £147 million.

Speaking at the headquarters of Tory-run Hammersmith and Fulham Council, Mr Pickles accused town hall bosses of "letting money slip through their fingers".

He said that new requirements for councils to publish any spending over £500 online would help stop duplicate payments.

Some might see the lost money as "small potatoes" in the context of the UK's multi-billion pound deficit, said Mr Pickles.

But he added: "Actually, £147 million would pay the wages of nearly 9,000 care workers.

"And more importantly, it betrays a particular attitude. A lack of respect towards public money.

"And at every level of government, that has got to change."

Emma Boon, campaign manager at the TaxPayers' Alliance pressure group, said: "Taxpayers will be angry that whilst necessary spending cuts are being made and taxes are rising, local councils have been paying for some things twice and throwing money down the drain.

"Simple checks and greater transparency can both help to prevent over-payments and duplicate payments. It is important that all local authorities start to show more respect for taxpayers' money, to deliver better value and reduce wasteful spending."