Ministers responding to the coronavirus pandemic have on 11 occasions ordered their departments to override formal objections from their most senior civil servant, a report by Whitehall’s spending watchdog has found.
In its first assessment of the government’s finances since responses began four months ago, the National Audit Office (NAO) disclosed that permanent secretaries challenged extraordinary spending pledges because they were conducted quickly and without the usual “value for money” checks.
Secretaries of state issued ministerial directions to force the spending pledges through and made themselves solely accountable for the decisions, auditors said. There have been only 75 such directions in the past 30 years, according to the Institute for Government.
“Ministerial directions have been sought and granted to exceed departmental expenditure limits authorised by parliament for 2019-20 to support urgent spend; and because it had not been possible for departments to carry out as full an appraisal of the value for money of some schemes as would usually be undertaken,” the report said.
A report released on Thursday found that the government had pledged more than £124bn in extra spending to tackle the virus and its economic consequences. A week ago, the Office for Budget Responsibility, the independent body responsible for forecasting the public finances, said the measures would total £123bn, up from £103bn in late April.
Auditors found that ministers made more than 500 announcements between 31 January and 4 May on its response to the pandemic. Of the £124.3bn of programmes, initiatives and spending commitments, £111.3bn was for grants and other payments, £5bn for loans, and £8bn for increases to benefits. The figure does not include the loss of receipts to the Treasury worth an estimated £4.4bn, most of which takes the form of deferred tax payments.
Among the spending commitments made by the government was £6.6bn for health and social care measures, which was dwarfed by a promise of £82.2bn for businesses. Another £19.5bn was pledged to support individuals through measures such as benefits, and £15.8bn for other public services.
Gareth Davies, head of the NAO, said: “The scale and nature of the Covid-19 pandemic and the government’s response is unprecedented in recent history. This report outlines the range of measures taken by government to date and where financial support has been targeted.
“It also forms the basis for a substantial programme of independent reports from the National Audit Office to parliament and the public on how the money has been spent and the lessons learned.”
In a separate development, figures released on Wednesday showed the number of people claiming unemployment benefit increased to 2.1 million in April. The rise of 856,500 claims in April reflected the impact of the first full month of lockdown, the Office for National Statistics said.