Carry on booking ministers on Concorde, mandarins told

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MINISTERS WILL be told to carry on using Concorde in spite of the extra cost to the taxpayer, providing the trips are approved by their senior civil servants.

Downing Street yesterday denied reports that ministers were being ordered to stop using expensive flights as part of a Treasury crackdown on high- living expenses.

"Ministers will be allowed to travel by whatever appropriate means. That is a decision for the permanent secretary, not the minister himself," said a Number Ten spokesman. It came after reports that another government minister, Geoff Hoon, minister of state in the Lord Chancellor's office, had used Concorde for a pounds 7,000 transatlantic flight. Earlier it was disclosed by civil servants that Concorde had been used by the Cabinet minister Jack Cunningham and Frank Dobson, the Health Secretary, for flights to the United States.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, who has resorted to the bus to escape criticism about using his ministerial car, defended the use of private jets, or Concorde when necessary to make important engagements.

"I'm not going to apologise if I have to use an RAF jet to go to Omagh or things like that. That's the nature of the job," he said on GMTV's Sunday Programme. He added: "We're not free to do exactly as we like. We have to discuss with the civil servants - there are rules about this - but I can see that the press got obsessed with this kind of prattle."

Mr Prescott said Mr Cunningham had helped to get rid of the export ban on beef while the Tories had helped to create the BSE crisis, which cost Britain pounds 4bn. "We should keep our eye on the main ball."

Calling on Tony Blair to "clamp down on ministerial extravagance", the Tories said the Prime Minister had promised that his ministers were not in office for the trappings of office. "Expensive flights, de luxe hotels, questionable trips and extravagant entertaining all confirm a casual disregard for the taxpayers' money which should be unacceptable," said Liam Fox, MP for Woodspring.

Ministers are likely to be wary of taking Concorde flights after the protests, however. Alan Milburn, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, will this week remind all departments that he is seeking a cut of ten per cent in their running costs. It is part of a general drive to reduce the costs of Whitehall but it will put a squeeze on the budgets for overseas travel.

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