Education officials spent £10m on first-class fares
Monday 16 November 2009
Education officials have run up a £10m bill for the taxpayer from first-class rail travel over the last three years. Civil servants bought an estimated 60,000 first-class tickets between 2006 and 2009. The scale of the spending – equivalent to just over 300 teachers' salaries or four new primary schools – provoked anger among opposition MPs and parents' leaders.
The bill was accumulated by the Department for Children, Schools and Families (DCSF), headed by Ed Balls, and by its predecessor, the Department for Education and Skills.
Parliamentary answers disclose that it spent £3.8m on first-class tickets in 2006-07, followed by £3.1m in 2007-08 and £3.2m in 2008-09.
Diana Johnson, a schools minister, said that senior staff were entitled to travel first-class and were advised "if they need to work on the train then there may be occasions when first class travel will be less busy and noisy than standard class".
But David Laws, the Liberal Democrat education spokesman, said: "Ed Balls has warned he will slash the schools budget and lay off headteachers to do so, yet he is wasting millions on allowing his department's bureaucrats to travel first-class.
"This money should be making a real difference in our schools. Ed Balls needs to get a grip on his department."
Margaret Morrissey of the parents' pressure group Parents Outloud said: "I know there are reasons why civil servants would have to travel – but why would they need to go first-class? It's absolutely ridiculous.
"If they spend so much time on the train, that may be the reason why they take so much time to answer a query. It can take two months to get an acknowledgement for a letter and another two months for a reply."
One of the reasons for the high cost is said to be because its offices are spread around the country with staff in Darlington, Runcorn and Sheffield often being called to London for meetings.
John Dunford, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, which represents secondary headteachers, said: "Surely they could do a lot more of their business by telephone conferencing?"
A DCSF spokesman said the department saved cash, and created jobs, by having several locations outside London. "This multi-site operation does present some logistical challenges, meaning staff occasionally have to travel down to London and back from the regional offices.
"However, every effort is made to ensure that meetings can be done via video phone where possible to save time and money. Most journeys are in standard class."
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