'Minister for air miles' clocks up over 100 tons of emissions
Thursday 13 April 2006
The Environment Secretary Margaret Beckett has cemented her reputation as "the minister for air miles" by flying more than 100,000 miles and helping to create more than 100 tons of harmful carbon emissions.
Mrs Beckett, Britain's international ambassador on green issues, was last night facing fresh questions about her personal commitment to tackling climate change after an analysis showed that she had taken 134 flights on ministerial business between 2002 and March 2005, clocking up 102,673 miles and 191.08 tons in CO2 emissions.
The latest figures produced from a careful study of all flights by Mrs Beckett include long-haul flights on scheduled airline services, not included in the list of trips she made using the Queen's Flight, which caused an outcry yesterday. She has used the Queen's Flight for short hops from London to East Midlands airport, near her constituency, and also for one-day return trips to Brussels for EU ministerial meetings.
Tony Blair was also embroiled in a fresh row after it emerged he used a helicopter from RAF's 32 Squadron, which provides the Queen's Flight, to fly to the Rover car plant in the West Midlands when it was threatened with closure. He used the helicopter 10 days after calling the general election after Chinese bidders pulled out from a take-over deal, resulting in 5,000 workers being made redundant.
Mr Blair announced £150m in aid for the jobless workers in a move which was later seen as an attempt to limit the damage before polling day on two local Labour marginal seats. Mr Blair was joined by Gordon Brown, the Chancellor, and they both flew back to London in the helicopter.
Sir Peter Gershon, the Downing Street efficiency adviser, was expected to deliver his report next week - three months late - on the use of the Queen's Flight but delayed it to obtain more detail. Some MPs believe the release of the controversial figures was timed to encourage public support for the purchase of a plane dedicated to ministerial travel, dubbed Blair Force One.
A Cabinet Office spokesman said: "Sir Peter has advised that there are a number of issues that would benefit from further investigation before he reports.
However, The Independent learnt last night that the Chancellor had told Mr Blair the Treasury would not provide the money for a prime ministerial jet. Mr Brown is also likely to put a red line through any purchase of a plane, when he takes over from Mr Blair.
"We don't think the sums add up," said one senior ally of the Chancellor. "The RAF has to take most of the running costs on the defence budget. On top of that, you would have to pay £30m or thereabouts in capital costs for a new plane. Our position, regardless of the cost in carbon emissions, is that if No 10 and the Foreign Office or the MoD wants to buy a dedicated plane, they will have to find the money from their own resources up to 2008."
Elliot Morley, the junior environment minister, urged Easter holidaymakers to donate to a voluntary fund to offset carbon emissions on their trips to the sun this weekend, but Mrs Beckett was facing a charge of hypocrisy at home.
During the three years to March 2005, Mrs Beckett took the Royal flight 27 times to travel between destinations within the UK. The trips included three helicopter flights in June 2003 between London, Northolt and Leamington Spa.
The majority of her flights were made to European capitals, notably Brussels and Luxembourg, aboard the eight-seater BAe 125. However, she flew the 100-seat BAe146 14 times. Long- haul flights were taken aboard scheduled airliners, which added considerably to the Environment Secretary's carbon toll and accumulation of air miles in 2004.
Among these were an official visit to China in June 2004, a four-day conference in India to discuss energy efficiency in October and a trip to a conference in Argentina in December. A voluntary carbon-offsetting "tax" is being paid into a fund for the developing world for Mrs Beckett's trip to Canada last year for a climate change summit.
Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat environment spokesman, said: "The Government has failed completely to tackle the problem of aviation pollution. Not only it is wasting taxpayers' money taking expensive and unnecessary flights, but is also failing to make them carbon neutral, as I have done.
"In addition to failing to reduce its own carbon footprint, the Government has done nothing to tackle aviation emissions more generally. The Government should start by scrapping Air Passenger Duty (APD) and replacing it with an emissions charge on each aircraft taking off."
Chris Grayling, the shadow Transport Secretary, said: "Unless ministers are on very urgent business or there is a good reason for using the Queen's Flight, there's no excuse for them to use private jets for short- haul trips. I find it particularly alarming that they are claiming it is cheaper to catch a plane to Brussels rather than take the Eurostar. I simply don't believe that is the case. The Government needs to publish the real cost to the taxpayer of these flights.''
Defending Mrs Beckett's use of the Queen's Flight, A Defra spokesperson said: "The Secretary of State's use of RAF aircraft for flights is governed by time and cost considerations, as well as the ministerial code of conduct.
"A full RAF flight costs less per person than if the Secretary of State and accompanying officials flew by commercial airline. The EU councils that the Secretary of State takes part in - Environment and Agriculture and Fisheries - meet in total at least 16 times a year and often end at unpredictable hours in the middle of the night when there is no alternative transport available. Returning to the UK immediately allows attendance at high-level meetings early next morning and represents savings on hotel accommodation and other subsistence for the Secretary of State and the other ministers and officials who travel with her. All such flights require the approval of the department's Permanent Secretary."
The types of aircraft used on official journeys
Medium-sized commercial jet. Very quiet, so used for night flights into small urban airports
Length: 28.5 metres
Wingspan: 26.3 metres
Maximum take-off weight: 42,200kg
Top speed: 345mph (555kmph)
Range: 1,290 miles
Operating height: 31,200ft
Small, versatile helicopter. Used corporately and also in military and rescue roles
Length: 13 metres (main rotor to tail rotor)
Rotor diameter: 10.7 metres
Maximum takeoff weight: 2,250kg
Top speed: 180mph (287kmph)
Range: 300 miles
Operating height: 20,333ft
The world's bestselling midsize corporate jet. Also used as a military navigation trainer
Length: 15.6 metres
Wingspan: 16.6 metres
Maximum take-off weight: 12,700kg
Top speed: 514mph
Range: 2,522 miles
Operating height: 41,000ft
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