Parliament: EXPENSES: Backbenchers query `high-life'

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The Independent Online
MINISTERS WERE warned yesterday that their own backbenchers were "not very happy" about suggestions they were "living the high life" at taxpayers' expense.

The outburst by Dennis Skinner, the MP for Bolsover, during Question Time followed several reports that Jack Cunningham, the cabinet enforcer, and other ministers had taken the Concorde to ministerial meeting although cheaper flights would have been available. There have also been allegations of ministers staying in luxury hotels and dining out.

"Some of us on this side of the House are not very happy about the way in which people want to live the high life, fly Concorde and the rest of it," Mr Skinner said.

He drew laughter from MPs when he added: "With the Tories we can't get it right. Thirty years ago they criticised us for not taking the Concorde."

But Alan Milburn, the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, insisted that strict ministerial codes were being observed when travel arrangements were made.

The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman also tried to quell the row, saying the cost for overseas trips had fallen under this Government. Despite ministers' increased responsibilities during Britain's presidency of the European Union and its chairmanship of G8 and Commonwealth Summit, the cost for travel was between pounds 5m and pounds 6m in its first year in power, whereas it had been between pounds 6m and pounds 8m during the last Tory government.

He said the cost for the current year was expected to be pounds 4m. "William Hague, when a social security minister, ran up a bill of pounds 7,000 during a trip to the US," he added.

The spokesman indicated that the Government would in future refuse to answer questions about travel arrangements because it wasted valuable time. "This is something we are not going to play along with."

Francis Maude, the shadow Chancellor, said it was an "outrage to treat such information as a state secret". Tory sources indicated they would be writing to the National Audit Office to ask for an inquiry.