Wales politics

Welsh government: Armchair auditors called to arms

Where does your money go? logo

The behind-the-scenes horse trading is well under way to secure a majority for the Welsh government's draft budget, all £14.5bn or so of it.

There may be some fairly minor adjustments between departments - a little more here, a little less there.

But at the moment, the opposition politicians paid to scrutinise the Welsh government's budget plans are dealing with top line figures - measured in the millions, tens of millions, hundreds of millions or even billions.

Within that, but not detailed in the budget, there are thousands upon thousands of individual spending items, of course. Until now, they've been accessible only to the Welsh government's internal bean counters.

In April, though, the Welsh government decided to start releasing details of every item of expenditure over £25,000 on its website.

So far, five months' worth have been published. The aim is to allow taxpayers to see exactly where their money is going.

So how easy is it? We decided to find out for a series of items called Where Does Your Money Go?

The first thing that hits you is the sheer size of each spreadsheet.

Curious citizens

Taken together, the five months worth cover spending of more than £5.8bn across more than 11,200 individual expenditure lines.

The second thing that becomes clear is the relative lack of detail attached to each item of spending.

Yes, you can find out that £150,000 went to X organisation on such and such a date, and £250,000 went to Y - but there's nothing to tell you what that money was spent on or what it was for.

You can find which section of the government paid it - but not, in many cases, even which department. I'm assured that element will change in the near future, incidentally.

To be fair to the government, it would hardly be possible to employ another army of people to draft and insert individual explanations and justifications for any curious citizens interested in a couple of the thousands of lines of spending.

And there are some potentially curious things in there when, you look closely. Payments to the Catholic Archdiocese of Cardiff for nearly £2m in the space of a couple of months. What looks like a direct debit of £294,000 a month to Barclays Bank (Citilink) Bute Avenue, and so on.

We as journalists, of course, have the advantage of the ever-helpful Welsh government press officers.

Value for money

And it's through them that I can tell you that the payments to the archdiocese of Cardiff were for the "Voluntary aided capital repair and maintenance programme also including the new VA school build at Archbishop McGrath, Bridgend" and the Barclays direct debit "relates to the PFI contract for the construction of the public highway at Callaghan Square/Lloyd George Avenue. This PFI is a legacy liability from Cardiff Bay Development Corporation".

So now we know, at least for these two. There's no question that ministers are releasing far more detail than ever before about their spending.

But what the finance committee scrutinising the budget want are these kind of figures in advance - before they are spent, rather than after.

A member told me despairingly of being confronted in one document with a single budget line of £5bn. Do I think this is value for money he asked rhetorically. Erm - maybe?

No government is going to put every pound it spends up for discussion beforehand, and neither should they. And so this post hoc scrutiny is probably the best those committee members are going to get.

The question, I suppose, is this: how many citizens of Wales will have the time, or the inclination to sit down and plough through many thousands of lines of government expenditure?

Armchair auditors, if you're out there, to arms!

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