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Ministers: Overseas Travel

Volume 818: debated on Tuesday 1 February 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what value for money criteria they use to determine the choice of overseas travel arrangements for ministers.

My Lords, foreign travel is a vital part of diplomacy. The work that Ministers do overseas ultimately delivers for the British people. We have three government planes for government business. They are used by the Prime Minister and Ministers for precisely this purpose. This is standard practice and in the national interest. Every government decision is based on “value for money” in accordance with the Ministerial Code, and the FCDO publishes the costs related to overseas ministerial travel as part of the quarterly transparency return.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that Answer and for quoting the Ministerial Code. I shall also quote from the code, at paragraph 10.2, which says in relation to overseas visits and their costs that

“Ministers will wish to be satisfied that their arrangements could be defended in public.”

The visit by the Foreign Secretary to Australia is reported to have cost half a million pounds, when there were plenty of scheduled flights. I understand that she would not want to be trussed up in economy, but she could go in business or first class. Is it really an expenditure that the Government can defend, to spend all this money—half a million—on one visit?

My Lords, I am not going to get into the figures; as I have already said, the Government are already very transparent on ministerial travel. There is a serious point to this: the Foreign Secretary is the lead diplomat for the United Kingdom. Travelling on commercial transport is often an option that she considers but, in the current environment, particularly when we have a crisis in Ukraine, as well as in terms of her receiving confidential briefings and being able to work directly with her team while travelling—and let us not forget also the security that accompanies her—it is quite right that a considered decision is taken at the appropriate time for each Minister. When compared to other countries, particularly those within the G7, this is very reflective of what our partners do.

My Lords, first, I question the amount that was mooted in the press. Notwithstanding that, to wet-lease a long-haul commercial aircraft such as an Airbus A330 would cost approximately £6,000 per nautical mile. In this case, the Voyager—the government aircraft—costs around two-thirds less. In addition, we fly the flag. Therefore, does my noble friend agree that, quite rightly, the Royal Family takes precedence but it also makes sense that the Prime Minister and senior Ministers and officials should take full advantage of these facilities in the interests of the United Kingdom?

I repeat, just in case noble Lords opposite did not hear, that I agree with my noble friend, who, thanks to her own experience in the European Parliament, has great insight into the value and importance of diplomacy at the highest level. This is a serious business. There are many noble Lords across your Lordships’ House who fully understand and comprehend the importance of ministerial travel, particularly, when it comes to senior members of the Government such as the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, the importance of both security and confidentiality in the meetings they conduct.

When so many people are having to resort to food banks and are terrified about the rise in the cost of living, did the Foreign Secretary not display a rather Marie Antoinette “let them eat cake” attitude?

My Lords, I know and work with the Foreign Secretary and frankly, that is not a suitable remark to make about the most senior diplomat in our country. She makes very considered decisions. We are going to have a Statement on Ukraine shortly: let us just reflect on that. There are many issues of international diplomatic importance—[Interruption.] The noble Baroness has asked me a question; she should do me the courtesy, at least, of listening to the response, even if she does not agree with it.

My Lords, there is another important issue here. There is the cost of this individual plane, but the Minister mentioned three planes. I have the Prime Minister’s letter here, and he talks about all government departments having an ambition on net zero. Just exactly how does the FCDO measure its ambitions on climate change when it has three planes sending a very small team across the world? No one disputes the need to travel, but surely the FCDO should take its climate-change ambitions seriously.

My Lords, I have listened very carefully and let us be quite clear: this is not an FCDO plane. It is leased, as my noble friend pointed out, through the Cabinet Office and it is open to all Ministers at senior levels to make a considered decision for their department. On the important point the noble Lord makes, every flight contributes to the UK’s emissions trading scheme, and we pay a voluntary carbon offset credit for each flight taken.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that not only do these planes uphold the dignity of the state, but they are no more than workplaces for Ministers and their staff to discuss and manage things diplomatically and securely on long journeys?

My Lords, my noble friend speaks with great insight about the serious decisions taken at the heart of government. Just for noble Lords’ interest, the Royal Air Force—as I said, this is government-wide, including planes provided for the Royal Family—has one A330, one commercially operated A321 and one BAE146. The United States has two VC-25s, eight C-32As and two C-40 Clippers. France—the list goes on. In the United Kingdom, the decisions taken on travel for every Minister of course take value for money into account. However, the Foreign Office, the Department for International Trade and a number of other departments undertake vital work internationally, and sometimes, as I have already said, when the Prime Minister or the Foreign Secretary travel, they not only travel with security but conduct business on those planes. This would not be possible on any commercial flight.

My Lords, do government planes carry chargeable payloads to offset costs, thereby giving extra value for money to the taxpayer, and if not, why not?

My Lords, I have already talked about the issue of the carbon footprint. In terms of the specifics, security assessments are taken. The schedules of these planes and flights can change very quickly. Indeed, when my right honourable friend was visiting Australia, she had to make adjustments to her schedule because of the crisis situation in Ukraine. These are not normal commercial flights; they have to adapt to ministerial needs and government priorities—and I know there are many noble Lords across this Chamber who know that.

My Lords, the emissions from this flight would have been 3,955 pounds of CO2. Does the Minister believe that that is good value for money in terms of Britain’s reputation? Would the best way of flying the flag not have been to have shown our environmental credentials and ensured that the Foreign Secretary flew in the most environmentally friendly way possible? Can the Minister assure us that the flights concerned were fully offset with tree planting, at the very least?

My Lords, as I have said, decisions are taken on ministerial travel and when they concern those in the most senior positions, that is done with due consideration to their direct responsibilities—that includes my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and others—while ensuring that there is value for money.

We are leaders when it comes to climate change—we are the COP president—as has been illustrated by the UK’s leadership on this agenda. On offshore wind, for example, we are world leaders. We continue to demonstrate real credentials and work with partners on this.

For the noble Baroness’s interest, as she has articulated Australia so specifically, the visit led to a number of important agreements with one of our key regional partners, including a cyber partnership and an agreement on closer UK-Australia co-operation on clean, honest and reliable infrastructure investment in the Indo-Pacific. The Foreign Secretary also signed a deal with South Australia to boost businesses, and she attended vital Australia-UK dialogues together with my right honourable friend the Defence Secretary. This is important diplomacy at an important time for this country, and I am sure many noble Lords support that.

My Lords, the reasons the Minister has given in justification—namely, security and the wish of Ministers to work while travelling—are surely applicable to all Ministers. Can we therefore expect more half-million-pound flights?

My Lords, it is not the wish of any Minister but a necessity. When we travel abroad—I have just returned this morning from abroad—we are working and reading on the plane. However, I am not at the most senior level of government. I am not the Foreign Secretary. The Foreign Secretary is responsible for many agencies’ work and has many papers to sign, as well as receiving confidential briefings. Therefore, a considered decision is taken. It is right that, particularly for the most senior people in government, decisions to travel are taken ensuring that security is kept in mind, but also that international affairs are the priority of the agenda.