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Royal Family and Ministerial Air Travel

Volume 448: debated on Thursday 29 June 2006

I am today announcing the Government's response to Sir Peter Gershon's independent review of Royal Family and Ministerial air travel.

Sir Peter's independent report highlights the need for significant improvements in the security, reliability and value for money of the current arrangements for Royal Family and Ministerial air travel. In particular, Sir Peter has concluded that:

Despite the dedication and commitment of RAF personnel, 32 (The Royal) Squadron is unable to meet the level of demand for VIP travel placed upon it by the Royal Family and Ministers. The range and capacity of the Squadron's aircraft are also insufficient to fully meet the requirement for VIP air travel. This is no criticism of the RAF, the primary role of 32 (The Royal) Squadron is operational and the new arrangements recommended by Sir Peter will enable them to focus entirely on defence needs.

The overall availability of 32 (The Royal) Squadron in recent years has been in the order of 60-70 per cent. and, owing to technical problems or operational priorities, around 10 per cent. of VIP bookings have been either declined or subsequently cancelled.

The resulting need to charter an aircraft, sometimes at short notice, has failed to deliver value for money and the charter market has not always been able to provide a suitable aircraft with appropriate livery. For instance, the Prime Minister recently arrived at an EU Council meeting onboard an aircraft with Austrian livery. There have also been instances where aircraft have been used which have been unable to reach a destination without an unplanned refuelling stop or where the age of the aircraft has contributed to a mechanical failure, as was the case when the Prime Minister's return flight from South Africa earlier this year aboard a 1970 DCS was dramatically aborted on take-off due to an engine problem.

The regular and growing use of chartered fixed wing aircraft has introduced undesirable security risks to members of the Royal Family and Government Ministers.

Sir Peter has recommended that the Government establish a new air service based on two dedicated, second hand, fixed-wing aircraft. He has made a compelling case for change and the Government accept his report in full.

With the agreement of the Palace, the Department for Transport will now be taking the project forward. This will lead to competitive proposals being sought from industry in the months ahead. It is anticipated that one of the aircraft included in the improved service will be a second hand airliner with the capacity to seat up to 70 passengers and the other a small second hand aircraft with the capacity to seat up to 15 passengers. Both aircraft will contain basic, fit-for-purpose interiors to allow the Royal Family and Government to undertake work while en-route and will contain secure communications, which will address the concerns raised in the Intelligence and Security Committee's 2002-03 Annual Report which commented that expenditure in this area is justified.

It is anticipated that the new service will commence between the end of 2007 and early 2008. The new arrangements will result in 32 (The Royal) Squadron aircraft no longer being used for routine non-defence related flights. The squadron will, however, continue to be used to transport VIPs into operational theatres where necessary and for the routine travel of senior defence personnel, including MOD Ministers.

Sir Peter has advised that the new arrangements will deliver a safe, reliable and secure air travel service to the Royal Family and Government and good value for money to the taxpayer. The new arrangements will not increase the planned levels of public expenditure as the estimated additional annual cost of £2.7 million will be met from a £1.5 million contribution from the Ministry of Defence, recognising 32 (The Royal) Squadron's greater future deployability, and the remaining £1.2 million will be absorbed by those using the new service.

Copies of Sir Peter's report have been placed in the Library and are available for Members in the Vote Office.