You will know what hundreds and thousands are; those tiny multi-coloured sweets used to decorate cakes and ice cream, vanilla in particular. We are talking at a much higher level here, and in pounds sterling rather than kiddies’ confectionary. It is estimated that trillions of pounds of money that used to be in Russia has found its way to the UK. As regards money that was already here, last week it was confirmed that £8.7 billion of the £12.1 billion spent on securing personal protection equipment (PPE) for medical staff during the covid pandemic has been written off. It’s gone, it’s not coming back, and there’s nothing to show for it. (Well, unless you count the approximate £4 billion represented by defective, “not suitable” or past-its-sell-by-date equipment that is probably languishing in some warehouse.)
We will begin in the former Soviet Union. The image featured on the home page is of St Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square, Moscow. The money of many of the oligarchs who are close to President Putin, and who therefore are very powerful, perhaps rests closer to Westminster Abbey. The Sunday Times recently put it like this: “Russia is one of the least equal countries on earth. The top 0.0001% of adults owns more wealth than the bottom 99.8%. That’s 500 people with more wealth than 114.6 million of their fellow citizens. They are Putin’s electorate – the people he cares about.”
There is a reason why England’s capital city is called ‘Londongrad.’ The Centre for American Progress recent published an analysis of the phenomenon which said: “Uprooting Kremlin-linked oligarchs will be a challenge given the close ties between Russian money and the UK’s ruling Conservative Party, the press and its real estate and financial industry.” A Tory peer, Lord Agnew, resigned last month over the government’s “foolish decision…to kill off the prospect of an economic crime bill”. Private Eye reported that 26 shell companies, many Russian-related, have latterly been set up at addresses in the salubrious Eaton Square townhouses of Belgravia. There’s no one at home. In reality they are mere forwarding addresses for dodgy businesses.
Lord Agnew also made plain his displeasure at government waste, as typified by those multiple PPE procurement cock-ups. To deal with the pandemic, the government launched the £47 billion Bounce Back Loan Scheme in April 2020. Tendering his resignation “with immediate effect”, Lord Agnew spoke of “schoolboy errors” and suggested that the Treasury appears “to have no knowledge or little interest in the consequence of fraud to our economy or our society”. (That’s rather taking the gloss off Rishi Sunak!) He said the estimate was that more than a quarter of the money that had been handed out as loans was in respect of fraudulent claims.
Back to those horrendous figures regarding the PPE, The Times pointed out that the “wasted money is more than the entire Ministry of Justice Budget [not a great look in a week when it was estimated the average delay in bringing a rape trial to court had now passed 1,000 days]; about 7% of NHS running costs; or enough to build more than dozen new hospitals”.
We could probably have figured this out anyway but the proverb ‘waste not, want not’ seems to have no current relevance in Whitehall.