PM's use of RAF jet for Egypt holiday to be investigated

The Prime Minister's use of an RAF-operated passenger jet to take his family on holiday will be investigated as part of a review of air travel by ministers and members of the Royal Family at the taxpayers' expense.

Sir Peter Gershon, who recently reviewed Whitehall waste for the Chancellor, is investigating whether taxpayers get value for money from the ageing Queen's Flight aircraft run by the RAF 32 Squadron.

Downing Street has defended Tony Blair's use of a BAe "whisper jet" for his holiday in Egypt, insisting he had official meetings in Sharm el Sheikh during his 10-day stay. The year before, the Blairs flew to the resort on a Thomas Cook charter flight, but Downing Street said the security risk had increased.

Sir Peter has been told to take into account the increasing security risks, which could tip the balance in favour of keeping an RAF fleet of planes for the Royal Family and ministers.

The RAF's 32 Squadron has two BAE 146 four-engine planes, capable of carrying up to 26 passengers and five HS 125 twin-engine planes for five passengers.

The Royal Family's financial report last year hinted at increasing frustration over the growing demands on the planes by ministers. The planes are also becoming increasingly unreliable, which has led to more private jets being chartered by the Queen and senior members of her family for state business.

Mr Blair ran up the biggest government bills for foreign travel, totalling £916,100 for 20 trips on RAF or charter flights, and never used scheduled services. The trip to Washington and the Far East during which David Kelly, the government weapons expert, was found dead in Oxfordshire, took up the bulk of the costs, at £315,150 for Mr Blair and 28 officials.

The most frequent flyer in the Government was Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, who ran up bills of more than £746,947 in the year to March, 2004. He used some scheduled flights, including Concorde, but used the Queen's Flight or private charter on 43 out of 47 trips.

Geoff Hoon, the Defence Secretary, came third with bills of £126,786. Mr Hoon used the Queen's Flight on 13 out of 20 occasions, including trips to Iraq, Brussels, Denmark and Hungary. The Defence Secretary used ordinary scheduled flights, but hardly at bucket-shop prices. A return flight to the US cost the taxpayer £6,671.

The Defence Secretary could argue that security was an important issue in his use of RAF flights. However, Sir Peter may be surprised to discover that Margaret Beckett, the Environment Secretary, also called on the Queen's Flight for trips to agriculture council meetings in Luxembourg, Brussels and Italy. Her total bills amounted to £119,279 and included a flight by scheduled airline to New Zealand.

Sir Peter will want to know why she called on the Queen's Flight or used charter flights for herself and a handful of officials on 16 out of 24 occasions, including a trip to Kiev.

The Chancellor also invariably uses the RAF fleet to attend European finance ministers' meetings in Brussels. Britain's European partners have noticed that Gordon Brown likes to avoid having to stay overnight in Brussels.

In the year to March 2004, the Chancellor ran up bills of £25,967 on official flights. This excluded flights paid for by the International Monetary Fund.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, logged £43,595 at the taxpayers' expense but most of those were on scheduled flights, and included trips on behalf of the Prime Minister to the US. He used the Queen's Flight only once, to go to Spain for a peace march last March.

The Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, clocked up £26,804, including a trip to Sydney in November 2003, for the Rugby World Cup final. All her flights were on scheduled airlines.

Sir Peter also may reopen the row over the use of helicopters to fly the Duke of York to events which coincided with golf tournaments. Ian Davidson, a Labour member of the public accounts committee, has asked the public spending watchdog, the National Audit Office, to investigate reports that Prince Andrew spent £325,000 on air travel last year.

The cost of flights for the Royal Family rose from £2,996,000 to £3,623,000. Most of that went on helicopters. The Queen's accounts conceal the true cost of air travel abroad, critics say. The accounts show that the Queen is increasingly using scheduled flights to travel abroad but is using the Queen's Flight when she arrives at her foreign destination. The cost of flying a small passenger jet out to meet her is charged to the defence budget and is, it is claimed, written off by the MoD as a training flight.

FREQUENT FLIERS

Overseas flight costs, including private charter and RAF aircraft, for the top five ministers in the 2003-2004 financial year

1 £916,000: Tony Blair, Prime Minister

2 £746,984: Jack Straw, Foreign Secretary

3 £142,638: Clare Short until May 2003, Hilary Benn, International Development Secretary since May 2003,

4 £126,806: Geoff Hoon, Defence Secretary

5 £119,279: Margaret Beckett, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Genevieve Roberts

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