Trips for ministers' wives cost pounds 11,000

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Taxpayers are footing the bill for ministers' wives who accompany their husbands on official trips abroad.

Ministers disclosed that more than pounds 11,000 has been spent in this way in the past year. The Home Secretary, Michael Howard, said two trips involving spouses of Home Office ministers cost pounds 8,317.

John Gummer, Secretary of State for the Environment, reported yesterday that his wife, Penelope, cost the public pounds 736.10 for a trip she took with her husband to Greece.

Ann Widdecombe, Minister of State at the Department of Employment, has disclosed that the sum of pounds 862.95 was spent on a trip by the partner of an employment minister.

In the last two cases, the occasion was an informal EC social affairs meeting held in Athens in March, to which the spouses of all EC ministers attending were officially invited by the Greek government.

Brian Mawhinney, the Secretary of State for Transport, revealed that a transport minister's spouse had gone abroad once at a cost of pounds 923.66.

For Social Security, the figure for one spouse's trip was pounds 538.48.

The admissions came in written replies to Commons questions from Brian Donohoe, Labour MP for Cunninghame South. Further replies show the ministries of Agriculture, Education, Health, National Heritage and the Welsh Office have incurred no such expenditure.

Nicholas Soames, minister of state at the Ministry of Defence, insisted the cost of five visits on which spouses had joined ministers from his department would have been either 'negligible or nil'.

Regulations on spouses' travel expenses are contained in paragraph 74 of Questions of Procedure for Ministers, the ministerial bible of behaviour.

This says the expenses of a minister's spouse, when accompanying the minister on official duties, 'may occasionally be paid from public funds, provided that it is clearly in the public interest that he or she should accompany the minister. In the case of official visits overseas, the Prime Minister's prior assent should be obtained on each occasion.'

Mr Donohoe questioned that bills should be met out of public money. 'It does look as though there's an encouragement for the spouses to go, at very excessive prices.'