The decision by the Communities and Local Government Secretary, Eric Pickles, to "lead the charge", as he put it, and publish all spending over £500 incurred by his department under the last government is a welcome step forward for openness. But it is also a canny bid to divert public attention away from the pain his department is planning to inflict on us and towards the pleasures taken at public expense by his predecessors.
With memories of moats and duck houses still fresh, any minister worth his salt would relish the chance to strip his opponents of the cloak of secrecy and expose their publicly-funded outings to Blackpool Pleasure Beach and the Attenborough Nature Centre. And while the embarrassment caused by the expenses scandal was shared out between the principal parties, the minister's coalition colleagues can relax in the certainty that the only people writhing in shame this time around will be their opponents.
Yet there is a danger that public interest in the nitty-gritty of what went on at the department under Labour will be fixated on those items which can be most readily converted into headlines. And while this will enable the Government to make political capital at Labour's expense, it runs the risk of being both superficial and grossly unfair. The work civil servants do is often very boring. They gain scant respect from the people they serve, yet for them to work well and efficiently they need to be happy and harmonious. As any office worker might attest, that can only happen if the grind of toil is punctuated by opportunities to relax together.
The department's events and hospitality budget accounted for a mere £1.3m, less than 0.5 per cent of the total; it is unlikely that a blanket ban on trips to Blackpool and state-funded back massages would save much money – but they would almost certainly result in a more miserable, meaner-spirited bureaucracy, glad to take any opportunity to vent its resentment on the public. By deriding "a culture of excess" in the department, Mr Pickles risks breeding petty-mindedness and paranoia which could come back to haunt him.
Public attention needs to focus instead on the huge sums the department spent on PR and marketing – £13.5m – and the £111m-plus that went on consultancy and outsourcing. This is where there genuinely was excess under Labour, and by enabling voters to analyse it for themselves in great detail, and debate what was useful and what was pointless, Mr Pickles has struck an important blow for open government.Reuse content