Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)

WEDNESDAY 16 JANUARY 2002

SIR RICHARD MOTTRAM KCB, SIR MICHAEL PEAT KCVO AND MR IAN MCEWEN

  120. It only takes three hours to get there. You do not need an overnight stop. That is probably why Ministers do not use it to travel up to the North East.
  (Sir Michael Peat) Absolutely, but if you are travelling up in the morning it is quite a long time to get to an engagement at 9.30 in the morning.

  121. The train leaves at six o'clock from King's Cross.
  (Sir Michael Peat) Then you have to do various things beforehand. If the Queen at the age of 75 is doing a long day's engagement and meeting thousands of people in Newcastle or somewhere, it is a bit unreasonable to expect her to leave at six o'clock in the morning.

  122. I was not suggesting that. I was suggesting that when you said Ministers were not using it, it was quite acceptable for a Minister to leave at six o'clock in the morning.
  (Sir Michael Peat) Yes, I do not know why Ministers do not use it. We wish they would.
  (Sir Richard Mottram) Because they do not get up at six o'clock.

  123. Nick seemed to think that this was a bit of a waste of time and it may well be in terms of the amount of money which we are looking at. Since we started in 1997 to look at royal expenditure on the palaces and on travel, how much has been saved in that time approximately?
  (Sir John Bourn) I could not say. I can come back with a figure for that. It covers a variety of activities. I would say that the attention and focus which has come from the Committee's interest in this subject has been very valuable.
  (Mr Burr) Table 5 on page 14 of the report says £19.4 million in 1997-98 and £8.6 million in 1999-2000.

  Mr Steinberg: So the fact is that the cost in 1997-98 was £17.2 million and it is now down to £5.4 million, so that is quite a considerable saving. I would not mind that in my bank account.

  Mr Gibb: If the same time had been devoted to the billions we would have made substantial savings in the time of this Committee.

  124. We spend a lot of time on the billions. Before my father died he used to say if you look after the halfpennies the pounds look after themselves. I was interested in Figure 7 because it is talking again about chartered flights. I notice that in 1999-2000 the cost of chartered flights was something like £1.144 million and scheduled flights was £304,000 which is considerably less by using the scheduled flights. The number of miles travelled by scheduled flights was actually more. The obvious question to me seems to be why do you not use more scheduled flights?
  (Sir Michael Peat) We have been using more scheduled flights.

  125. The question is why you have not been using more.
  (Sir Michael Peat) It just depends whether the scheduled flight fits the particular requirements of the engagement. Before every single journey we have what we call an options form and we look at a variety of options and we choose the best option. If scheduled flights are the best option that is the one we choose, bearing in mind that value for money is needless to say one of our primary criteria. As you kindly said, we reduced the cost by 70 per cent.

  126. If we look at paragraph 2.22 , we can see why these flights are so expensive, can we not? We are told that the specification required is exacting and includes a requirement to reconfigure the passenger cabin and to provide a back-up aircraft and standby crew. Could you explain that fully to us? What does reconfigure the cabin mean?
  (Sir Michael Peat) The standby crew only happens at take-off. When the Queen is going, possibly with the Foreign Secretary, on an important overseas state visit it is preferable for her to turn up on time. So what happens is that if there is a mechanical problem with the aircraft when it leaves Heathrow—and these mechanical problems generally come to light when the flight begins—there is another aircraft there on standby so everything can be switched across to the other aircraft.

  127. In other words there are always two aircraft.
  (Sir Michael Peat) No, not for the flight. The other aircraft only has to be there—

  128. There are physically two aircraft there when she turns up.
  (Sir Michael Peat) For a period of one and a half hours. This is not a huge element of the cost. Once it is proven that the actual aircraft works, the standby aircraft is released. It is not as though the standby aircraft flies along behind or anything.

  129. I quite appreciate that. That still means an aircraft is standing by with a full crew. I would have thought that must be quite expensive even if it is just for an hour and a half. What is meant by reconfiguring the cabin?
  (Sir Michael Peat) If it is a long overnight flight, a divan bed will be put in the aircraft just for the Queen, not for anyone else. Everyone else sits in the normal seats. If it is a long flight and the Queen is flying to Korea or South Africa overnight and then she is being met by the other head of state, the approach that has been taken is that she should be given a chance to have a sleep overnight lying down. Again, it is not a huge expense.

  130. A camp bed is put in, is it?
  (Sir Michael Peat) Yes, a camp bed.

  131. How much does it usually cost to put a camp bed in?
  (Sir Michael Peat) As we said in the last annual report, this is one of the issues we are looking at and we are going through all these issues with the airlines at the moment. I do not think it costs a huge amount to put a camp bed in.

  132. Are these specifications only needed on certain flights and not every charter flight?
  (Sir Michael Peat) It is only when the Queen goes. On most charter flights they do not have them at all; they just walk on. The specification is only there and the standby aircraft is only there if it is a major overseas state visit. The divan bed is only put on the aircraft for the Queen if it is an overnight flight. Most of them are not overnight flights and if it is not an overnight flight Her Majesty sits in a normal seat like everyone else does.

  133. It is rather comfortable to travel First Class on British Airways. I have very rarely done it.
  (Sir Michael Peat) I have to take your word for it.

  134. I have not done it very often.
  (Sir Michael Peat) I have never done it, so I shall take your word for it.

  135. I think I have done it once. It was very comfortable. I must say I did not really need a camp bed.
  (Sir Michael Peat) And indeed that is what the Queen does. She was due to go to Australia and New Zealand in the First Class compartment of a scheduled aircraft, but it was cancelled.

  136. May I go back to part of the argument you had with Mr Williams when you were engaged in the debate in terms of the variable costs and you were saying that if it was not a variable cost you would go to the private sector? Are you saying that if fixed cost travel was required, you would then get it more cheaply in the private sector, bearing in mind that there would have to be a standby aeroplane, bearing in mind that there would have to be a reconfiguration of the cabin, etcetera.
  (Sir Michael Peat) They are all private sector anyhow. We cannot use 32 Squadron for large overseas flights. They are all private sector. The private sector/public sector choice only comes into play for shorter European/UK flights, not for the large overseas ones.

  137. Without all the reconfiguration, etcetera, are you still saying that for a short flight, where it could be the RAF, to go to the private sector would be cheaper?
  (Sir Michael Peat) Yes and you can look at the figures. That is why the Royal Household used to take 759 hours from 32 Squadron. Before the change in the pricing we were due to buy 105 hours from 32 Squadron in the current year and a lot of that flying has gone to the private sector.

  138. I can see the advantages of travelling in the royal train with this huge feasting which is done on it and a whole carriage kept for the food.
  (Sir Michael Peat) You might be a little disappointed, I am afraid.

  139. It seems very attractive to me. Have you travelled on Virgin recently? It does appear to be an expensive mode of travel. It is quite clear from the report that the costs have been considerably reduced. It does seem that members have cottoned onto the fact that it is very, very expensive. With the introduction of what appears to be a very much improved helicopter service, why do you need the royal train at all, apart from the fact that you keep saying it needs to be there to have meetings and to arrive early in the morning or late at night and they can sleep and get to the middle of the town? I would have thought a helicopter negates all that. You can fly up in a helicopter, get there, land virtually where you want to.
  (Sir Michael Peat) Not in the middle of a town. The one you forgot which I mentioned was the disruption by weather and helicopters are very prone to disruption by weather. They are difficult to land at night in a number of places, which means early in the morning as well, during a lot of the winter. You kindly mentioned the rest of the train's advantages.


 
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