Blair runs up £1.2m bill using Queen's Flight

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and ministerial colleagues were last night accused of using private jets in the Queen's Flight like a private taxi service.

The Prime Minister took trips costing more than £1.2m over four years from 2002 on RAF jets allocated to the Royal Family and Government VIPs, including flights from London to Teesside near his own Sedgefield constituency and for holidays abroad.

Downing Street defended his readiness to use jets, even though CO2 emissions from their engines are recognised as one of the greatest contributors to global warming. No 10 said the Prime Minister needed to use the jets for security reasons.

In spite of the efforts of the Government to present a green image to the public, Freedom of Information data released last night showed that the Prime Minister and his ministers resort to jet travel for the shortest hops to Europe or even to drop by their homes.

The Prime Minister has ordered a review of the Queen's Flight by Downing Street's efficiency adviser, Sir Peter Gershon. That could lead to the purchase of a plane for Mr Blair's use, which Mr Brown resists.

The Prime Minister used a BAe 70-seater 146 jet from the Queen's Flight for a trip to Italy and Egypt over New Year last year at a total cost of £30,800. Downing Street said that the Blairs paid the equivalent of commercial fares toward the public cost of the flight. The shadow Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, said: "I think most people will be astonished at the way ministers seem to be using the Queen's Flight as a private taxi service."

He said ministers, including Mr Brown, used the jets for short hops to Brussels. Margaret Beckett, the Food and Rural Affairs Secretary, had been using it "to drop by her home in the East Midlands and the Prime Minister has been taking it on holiday with him".

He added: "Of course ministers will always need to use official aircraft on occasions but these figures create the sense that the system is being abused."

The details were posted on the Ministry of Defence website unannounced yesterday. Some of the figures were released last year in the accounts of the royal household, but the data released under the FOI rules was more comprehensive. It showed that Margaret Beckett, the Food and Rural Affairs Secretary made trips to East Midlands airport, serving her Derby South seat, costing £1,973. A train to Derby would take less than two hours.The Chancellor, who is known for refusing to spend a night if he can avoid it, has frequently called on the Queen's Flight service to get him in and out of Brussels in a day.

Mr Brown used the jets 11 times for European economic meetings almost every month in 2002. The following year, he also made 11 flights to European meetings, including Brussels in March at a cost of £1,048 and again in May at a cost of £1,227. There were nine flights to European meetings in 2004 attended by the Chancellor, including an overnight stop in Rome which cost £10,643 in flight costs.

Officials for Mrs Beckett said she often needed to get to meetings early in the morning in Europe, when it was difficult to take public transport. But the Opposition parties said she could have used the Eurostar train service more often to get to Brussels.

The Prime Minister's short hops by plane included the use of a BAe 146 jet from the Queen's Flight from London to Sheffield for a one-day visit to the city in February 2003 at a cost of £2,098, and a smaller 7-seat BAe 125 for a one-day return trip to Madrid at a cost of £3,026.

High fliers

Tony Blair: Uses the Queen's Flight up to 60 times a year

Royal flight bill since 1997: £1.2 million for 677 trips including family holiday to Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt (cost to taxpayer - £31,000);

Holiday to Italy in August 1997 (£17,000);

Holiday to France, August 1998 (£18,000);

Holiday to Italy, August 2000 (£16,000);

Combined holiday to Italy and trip to Athens Olympics, August 2004: £18,000;

More than 30 flights to Teesside airport (to visit Sedgefield constituency) from London: £35,000

Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Jack Straw: Has used the flight 27-32 times a year

Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Margaret Beckett: has used the Queen's Flight 18 times (2004)

Chancellor of the Exchequer, Gordon Brown: uses the flight 9-12 times a year

The Queen: uses her flight 7-8 times a year