Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Civil servants being given time off for shopping trips and cake-baking competitions

By Jason Lewis
Last updated at 5:54 PM on 08th November 2009

Government officials are being given time off for Christmas shopping trips, days at the races, and to compete in Whitehall jam-making and cake-baking competitions – all subsidised by the taxpayer.

The events are being offered by the Civil Service Sports Council with the help of a £1.4million-a-year grant from Government funds.

The organisation is also investing millions of pounds building luxury health clubs on former civil service sports grounds – only to charge the public up to £70 a month for membership.

Bags of work: Staff from HMRC's Worthing office on a shopping trip to Southampton

Bags of work: Staff from HMRC's Worthing office on a shopping trip to Southampton

Last week, the CSSC, whose vice-president is Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell, Britain’s most senior mandarin, offered members the chance to enter an angling competition, go for a day out at the races or see a West End show.

Many of the events took place during the working day, with the CSSC encouraging managers to give civil servants ‘time off for sports days, and national and regional activity’.

The CSSC, which was set up in the Twenties, provides gyms for staff inside Whitehall departments and facilities across the country, charging civil servants just £3.25 a month to join.

On Friday, it helped to organise a craft show at the Department for Business’s gym in Whitehall, which included baking, jam-making, and knitting and painting competitions.

Staff from Peter Mandelson’s department along with those from Ed Miliband’s Department of Energy and Climate Change were given ‘the time off they will require to attend the show as an official duty’.

Competitors from regional government offices were also able to claim a refund on their travel costs from Whitehall funds.

The competition was open to staff from the Home Office, the Department for Transport and the Communities and Local Government Department.

Other events last week saw staff from HM Revenue & Customs’ Worthing office take time out for a shopping trip to Southampton.

Staff were charged £5 for the coach trip, which collected them from the HMRC office at 8am. After lunch in a pizza restaurant, they returned late that afternoon clutching bags from Ikea, Primark, and Marks & Spencer. Some purchases appeared to be so heavy that they required two people to carry them.

'Special leave' to take part in events

Meanwhile, civil servants based near Heathrow went on a discounted trip to see the hit musical Jersey Boys in the West End. Members paid £15 despite the cheapest seats costing £20 and most between £32 and £60.

And a trip to a Sheffield dog track for Leeds-based civil servants cost members £9 with ‘prices including the coach trip, entry, food, free pint or glass of wine and a bet’. Owlerton Greyhound Stadium charges £15 a head for group tickets.

A Cabinet Office spokesman confirmed that staff could get ‘special leave’ to take part in events but insisted the decision was ‘left to the discretion of departments and managers’.

‘The health and well being of staff is an important issue for all employers,’ he added. ‘The Civil Service is no exception.’ But he admitted the Government grant to the CSSC was ‘under review’. The Mail on Sunday understands one of the reasons for this is the commercial activities of the CSSC.

Over the past few years, the organisation has closed a number of its sports grounds and, in partnership with a venture capital firm, has built five luxury health clubs and a series of five-a-side football centres on former civil service facilities.

The decision was taken by the CSSC board, which is made up of serving and retired civil servants, without the approval of Ministers. The health clubs are open to the public and charge members between £30 and £70 a month for use of facilities including swimming pools, spas and gyms.

The commercial arm, which includes five Roko health clubs, had a turnover of £13.4million last year. It borrowed £30million to set the clubs up and is running at a £4million loss.

Last night, Marian Holmes, CSSC chief executive, denied that taxpayers’ cash was being invested in the scheme.

And she added: ‘Some of our activities are during the working week. Time off is a matter for individual departments and individual managers.

‘There is nothing wrong with staff taking a day off together. This sort of activity does wonders for staff morale and helps them work more efficiently and effectively together.’

A spokesman for the Department for Business said staff who attended the craft fair had done so ‘during their lunch break’.