The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence has responded to accusations in the Daily Mail that officials have used credit cards on luxury hotels and champagne bars.
The cost watchdog is the subject of a report from the newspaper which states that it has "racked up" £115,000 on taxpayer-funded credit cards in the past two and a half years, including £5,000 on luxury hotels. The Mail goes on to list some of the "splurges" which include £3,800 on camcorders, £620 on furniture and gardenware and £3,346 at Searcy’s, a chain of champagne bars in London.
The newspaper says that NICE chief executive Sir Andrew Dillon had £29,000 of expenses in the past year, including £19,000 on rail travel, £5,500 for flights and £2,000 on hotels. It also includes a comment from Conservative MP Charlotte Leslie, who sits on parliament's health select committee, who says: "I am sure that there are some things in there which are necessary but what is appalling is that they are masking the unnecessary in with the necessary. On no conceivable planet is expenditure at a champagne bar in any way appropriate."
A statement on NICE's website this morning quotes Sir Andrew as saying that the agency "has not spent money in champagne bars and the hotels used outside the UK were selected on the basis of the business requirements of the work involved".
He goes on to say that "the small number of official credit cards used by senior members of staff at NICE are used exclusively for business purposes and are subject to strict guidelines. Expenditure is checked and approved and is subject to internal and external audit".
Sir Andrew adds that "our travel, expenses and hospitality policies are set at levels which are consistent with other public bodies and along with the details of the expenditure, are open to public scrutiny. We provide appropriate access to the expenditure incurred, via our website and in response to requests". Accompanying the statement is a list of corporate card transactions from July 2011 to November 2013.
UPDATE: After its initial response, NICE went on to clarify that £3,346 was indeed paid to Searcy's, but noted that the latter also manages room hire at the Royal College of GPs and Commonwealth club where NICE has held meetings and that is what the money was spent on.
NICE notes that the Mail requested a comment "without making any of its specific allegations clear". The agency asked for more information about what they would like a comment on and whether or not there were any allegations "but the Mail immediately went to print, wrongly accusing NICE of refusing to comment".
Sir Andrew has written to the Mail stating that contrary to the paper's front page on January 10, "NICE doesn't spend public money in champagne bars [and] had you asked and given us the time to respond, we could have made that clear."
He goes on to say that "you have a right, you might say a duty to examine how public bodies spend their money. But if you're going to do it, you should do so with due care and attention. You haven't done so in this case and as a consequence you've both misled the public and damaged our reputation".