Politics: How Labour takes advantage of a privileged position

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The Independent Online
Tony Blair's government makes more use of Heathrow's VIP facilities than its Tory predecessor did, it emerged last night. The cost of suites for British and foreign dignitaries amounted to pounds 1.6m in the seven months from May. Fran Abrams, Political Correspondent, reports on suspicions that new Labour may have been too free with its privileges.

Robin Cook used them, famously, to tell his wife that their marriage was over after learning that a tabloid newspaper was about to reveal he was having an affair, but most passengers have time for no more than a quick coffee before boarding their flights.

Labour seems to have need of the five VIP suites - one in each terminal and a separate one for Royalty and other dignitaries with their own planes - more than the previous Tory administration.

They were used 8,400 times between 1 May and 30 November this year at an average cost per visit of pounds 191. That adds up to around 40 uses a day - a 10 per cent increase on the same period last year when the facilities were used 7,636 times.

The busiest month was September, when the facilities were hired a total of 1,391 times at a total cost of pounds 266,411, according to a parliamentary answer from the Foreign Office minister Derek Fatchett.

The facilities are hired by the Government from Heathrow, and are run for it by airport staff. They allow VIP passengers to avoid queuing for check-in desks, passport control and customs. Instead officials come to them to check their bags.

Gary Streeter, a Conservative frontbench spokesman on foreign and commonwealth affairs, said his party suspected that Labour had been too free with such facilities.

"New Labour has been very casual about spending taxpayers' money on its own creature comforts and here is one example of that. Particularly, I think the Foreign Secretary has used these facilities for himself and other members of his entourage," he said.

The Conservatives plan to continue to table parliamentary questions to find out how much the Government has been spending on this and other types of hospitality. If they feel that liberties have been taken, they plan to make more formal complaints.

Although a Heathrow spokeswoman said the VIP lounges were definitely not "a luxury service", a Foreign and Commonwealth Office spokesman said they did often afford the facilities for two ministers to meet for a chat. The suites were "extensive" and allowed dignitaries the use of private rooms so they need not be disturbed.

Junior ministers did not usually use them; the facilities were for visiting Royals, heads of state, Tony Blair and cabinet ministers, heads of defence services, ambassadors and high commissioners and the heads of international organisations. "They ensure the smooth and dignified procession through the airport and are a mark of respect to the status of the VIP," he said.

The Heathrow spokeswoman said most people did not spend much time in the VIP suites. But when, for example, President Clinton arrived with two Boeing 747s full of his entourage, they allowed their bags and passports to be processed efficiently.