Environment: Whitehall car budget equals spending on pollution

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The Independent Online
Britain spends almost as much on chauffeur-driven government cars as it does on monitoring air pollution, figures have revealed. Now ministers are facing calls to get on their bikes.

As world leaders deliberate in Kyoto on how best to tackle global warming, Norman Baker, the Liberal Democrat MP for Lewes, has a small suggestion to make on how the Mother of Parliaments can help.

Part of the Government's pounds 4.1m budget for ministerial limousines could be put to better use, he says. The move might even ease the need to spend pounds 4.6m every year on checking the quality of the air we breathe. "Are the Government contributing to the problem or to the solution? Clearly they are still pursuing their own car economy," he says.

Mr Baker received the figures for 1996-97 in answer to parliamentary questions, though the Government Car and Despatch Agency preferred to set out its spending in a private letter rather than a public written answer.

Although the answers refer to spending under the last government, there is no big reason to believe spending on ministerial cars has been cut under Labour: in fact two Tory ministers, Sir George Young and David Willetts, rode bicycles. So far no Labour ministers have come out as cyclists, although there are moves to incorporate a cycling allowance into MPs' salaries.

The biggest-spending department last year was the Northern Ireland Office, which used pounds 318,344 of the taxpayers' money on ferrying its top people around. Next came the Department of Trade and Industry, with pounds 312,312, while third on the list of big spenders was the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, which spent pounds 283,972. The Department Transport, Environment and the Regions was fourth on pounds 272,844.

The gold star for environmental correctness went to the Ministry of Defence, which scraped by on just pounds 47,268, far less than much smaller departments such as the Attorney General's office, which spent pounds 90,584, and the government chief whips, who spent pounds 96,356. The Prime Minister's Office came in eighth with pounds 240,188.

An official at the Department of Transport, Environment and the Regions said that John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister, had been known to travel by Tube.

"If he's got visits to various places he will go by train. We do have an integrated transport policy," she said.

Others said it was easier to be green in opposition than it was in government. "It's somewhat hard to carry red boxes around on the back of a bicycle," one official said.