'Air-Miles Margaret' faces criticism for private flights

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The Environment Secretary was criticised by environmentalists for choosing private jets of the Royal Squadron over Eurostar trains and scheduled flights for 18 trips to Brussels, Berlin, Luxembourg and other European cities.

Lists of ministerial trips released by Downing Street yesterday also showed Tony Blair's Royal Squadron flights for his Egyptian holiday at Christmas cost the taxpayer £28,683, even though the Blairs paid for their travel costs at commercial rates.

Mr Blair's 21 overseas trips over the past financial year cost a total of £809,152, using a mixture of planes from the Royal Squadron or charter aircraft.

The figures show Ms Beckett was one of the Government's most frequent flyers, using 32 Squadron - the Queen's Flight - for 18 of her 26 foreign trips during the past financial year. She only used scheduled flights for six journeys.

Her record contrasts with John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, who used scheduled flights for all but one of his foreign visits, and Patricia Hewitt, who as Secretary of State for Trade and Industry used scheduled flights for all of her 11 trips.

Liberal Democrats dubbed Ms Beckett "Air- Miles Margaret". They said Ms Beckett's flying blighted her record of trying to curb the pace of climate change, estimating that her year's travelling was responsible for pumping 31 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Norman Baker, the party's environment spokesman, said: "She seems to be racking up carbon emissions as if there was no tomorrow, which there might not be. It is a pity that the good work Ms Beckett is doing to argue the case for action to halt climate change is being undermined by her own travel arrangements. I have always found the Eurostar is a very good service. It's a pity she does not feel able to set an example."

Greenpeace said the flights were "ludicrous" when Brussels was easily reached by train. Anne Callaghan, a climate campaigner with the pressure group, said: "In the case of Brussels there is a very good service called Eurostar. It should be possible to schedule meetings so people can catch the train there and back. We have to live in the real world and unless we cut back on aviation we will be facing real problems."

The Tories also went on the attack yesterday. Chris Grayling, the shadow Leader of the Commons, said: "Taxpayers will be angry to see ministers spending thousands of pounds using the Queen's Flight and RAF planes for short-haul business trips to Europe.

"They should be using scheduled flights or Eurostar like the rest of us. I have written to the Cabinet Office asking for clear guidelines on when ministers can or cannot use the Queen's Flight or other RAF planes. We must put a stop to this waste of public money."

A spokeswoman for Ms Beckett said "there's often not much choice" in using RAF flights because European meetings ended at unpredictable times, often after Eurostar services had finished. She said that the emissions created by ministerial travel would be offset by planting trees and funding low carbon projects from next year.

High-flyer

* 9-11 May 2004. Kerry; £3,884

* 14-16 May. Waterford; £1,580

* 24 May. Brussels; £1,580

* 2-4 June. Bonn; £3,697

* 21 June. Luxembourg; £1,645

* 16-18 July. Maastricht; £2,764

* 5 Sept. Hague; £2,699

* 13-14 Oct. Brussels and Luxembourg; £2,608

* 18 Oct. Luxembourg; £2,040

* 3 Nov. Berlin; £2,370

* 22 Nov. Brussels; £1,185

* 23 Nov. Vienna; £3,160

* 24 Jan 2005. Brussels; £1,975

* 28 Feb. Brussels; £1,711

* 10 Mar. Brussels; £1,580

* 14 Mar. Brussels; £1,514

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