Soon after arriving in Downing Street, David Cameron singled out the cost of flowers and pot plants in Whitehall as proof of the need to root out waste in the public sector.
In his first appearance at Prime Minister’s Question Time following the election, he told MPs he was amazed to discover the flower bill at the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS).
His axe-wielding Communities Secretary, Eric Pickles, made the same headline-friendly point, announcing he was cancelling his department’s floristry bill and telling his civil servants to water their plants themselves.
The message has not filtered through to all of their Cabinet colleagues.
Despite all their warnings of tough days ahead as public spending is squeezed, the coalition Government has still paid more than £40,000 for plants and trees since taking office.
The bill, which showed four departments spending more than £5,000, emerged from a series of Commons answers.
The biggest spender on greenery is Andrew Lansley’s Department of Health, which is seeking efficiency savings of £20bn from the NHS over the next four years. It paid £12,383.30 between May 2010 and this March for plants and trees for its “core headquarters estate”.
It was followed by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which disclosed that it spent £8,975.24 with “our foliage suppliers” since the election. It added that it had scrapped its foliage contracts in September.
Although George Osborne is overseeing the austerity programme, the Treasury still managed to stump up £7,423 for “the provision and maintenance of indoor plants”.
Meanwhile, the Foreign Office spent £5,516 on plants, including £3,795 for “high-profile international events” at Lancaster House, the mansion used to stage conferences, mostly recently for last week’s emergency talks on Libya.
The Northern Ireland Office ran up a £4,120.47 bill, despite stressing that it uses plants grown at Hillsborough Castle, the Northern Ireland Secretary's official residence.
Despite Mr Cameron’s admonishment, the DCMS, which has just announced heavy cuts in subsidies for arts organisations, still spent £1,859.37 on foliage.
Luciana Berger, the Labour MP who obtained the figures, denounced the spending by the Department of Health.
“I’m not averse to people having pot plants in offices. People in the civil service should work in a nice environment, but you could go to Homebase and get plants for a few pounds,” she said.
“Andrew Lansley should put his money where his mouth is – he made a commitment to cut out waste and yet his department spent £12,000 on plants. It’s excessive.”
The Department of Health said it had “significantly” cut its monthly spending on plants and trees from £1,426.96 to £598.77 when its facilities management contract was switched to a new company.
Overall the answers showed expenditure of at least £40,334 by Whitehall since the election – and the actual total could be far higher.
Several departments have so far failed to answer or refused to give a detailed response.
The Cabinet Office, which oversees spending in Downing Street, merely said the cost of plants and trees formed part of a larger contract, adding that the amount spent on “soft landscaping” represented less than one per cent.
The Ministry of Defence said: “Expenditure on plants and trees across the defence estate is determined by business need and must be appropriate, cost effective and a proper charge to public funds.”
The Home Office simply said it spent a “limited amount”, while the Department for Work and Pensions said the answer could only be supplied at disproportionate cost.
The Scotland Office worked out it that it spent £37 and the Wales Office calculated its flower bill to be just £20.
Both the Ministry of Justice and the Department for Energy and Climate Change said they had spent nothing on plants.
Predictably Mr Pickles’s department gave the same answer. It said: “Following suggestions by staff in feedback on departmental cost savings, the plants will be looked after by departmental staff on a voluntary basis.”
There was more than a little irony to Whitehall’s £40,000 flower bill – it is the same amount that Mr Pickles berated the Audit Commission for spending on plants as he condemned its alleged culture of waste.