Government departments, including HMRC, need to improve their rules about staff receiving gifts and hospitality, the National Audit Office (NAO) has said.
Rules and processes on gifts and hospitality could be more stringent, the NAO said in a report. “Policies and practices fell short of good practice in some respects.”
The NAO also reviewed the gift and hospitality guidance and the gift and hospitality registers in three departments: The Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS), HMRC and Defence, Equipment and Support (DE&S), a bespoke trading entity within the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
The report found there are some weaknesses in controls over gifts and hospitality. Departments should use a risk-based and proportionate approach, but the NAO found weaknesses in some areas, for example locating gift and hospitality registers and management oversight of trends and local practices across departmental groups.
Some departments are not meeting the transparency requirements. The Cabinet Office requires departments to report the hospitality accepted by board members and directors-generals and above (senior officials) each quarter. Twelve out of 17 departments, including BIS and HMRC, have published this information for every quarter from April 2012 to March 2015.
The NAO estimated that senior officials in 17 departments accepted some £29,000 of gifts and hospitality in 2014-15.
Senior officials accepted gifts and hospitality 3,413 times between 2012-13 and 2014-15. The total number of reported cases of senior officials accepting gifts and hospitality ranged from 718 times in BIS to 20 times in DFID. Levels of hospitality are likely to reflect different rules and reporting requirements as well the different roles of departments.
Officials accepted hospitality from many organisations and individuals. Senior officials in the 17 departments reported accepting hospitality (most often dinner) from some 1,495 different organisations (or individuals) between 2012-13 and 2014‑15. Frequent acceptance of hospitality from particular organisations is not necessarily wrong, but it does need to be in the proportion to the business relationship, the NAO said.
While most cases of gifts and hospitality appear to be reasonable, the NAO found some examples where acceptance may not have been consistent with the Cabinet Office principles, for example − tickets to professional sports and cultural events, sometimes accompanied by a spouse and/or children; bottles of Champagne; and iPads.
“Public officials are sometimes offered gifts and hospitality by external stakeholders which it is reasonable for them to accept,” said Amyas Morse, head of the NAO. “This can, however, present a risk of actual or perceived conflicts of interest, and undermine value for money or affect government’s reputation.
“While most, but not all, cases declared by officials appear on the face of it to be justifiable in the normal course of business, we found some weaknesses in the oversight and control of gifts and hospitality. This needs to be addressed by the Cabinet Office and departments.”
The report examined the rules and guidance for central government officials and published transparency data on the gifts and hospitality received by departmental board members, directors-general and senior military officers between April 2012 and March 2015.