Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 140 - 159)



  140. I do not want to be facetious but leaves usually stops trains.
  (Sir Richard Mottram) It slows them down.
  (Sir Michael Peat) We have not been prone to that so far.

  141. You are very lucky. Would it not be possible to use more scheduled trains then?
  (Sir Michael Peat) As the report says, we used the scheduled train service on 60 occasions already, which out of a total of 484 journeys is quite a high percentage as it is. We only used the train last year 17 times. As we have already discussed, this is the issue. Despite the fact that we have reduced the annual cost of the train by £1.3 million, you are absolutely right that the train is expensive and therefore because it is expensive what happens is that the Royal Family do not use it very often and they do not use it unless they can really avoid it. That of course pushed up the cost of the train even more. This is the issue the Chairman referred to to begin with, that we need to think very carefully about after the Golden Jubilee.

  142. Reading the report, I can understand that when the Royal Family travel they do need to be accompanied by certain members of staff, but I was rather intrigued to see in paragraph 3.2 that it said experts and specialists such as doctors, hairdressers, artists are invited by members of the Royal Family. Why do you need an artist along? He is not sitting there drawing, is he?
  (Sir Michael Peat) He is. On four occasions during the last four years, the Prince of Wales has taken an artist with him on an overseas trip. He believes quite strongly that that is a contribution he is making to British art. It is very much welcomed. He always takes a young and up and coming artist who has not necessarily got an established reputation. He put on at his own expense a couple of years ago an exhibition of the works of art that these young artists have produced.

  143. Who pays for them to go on the trip?
  (Sir Michael Peat) It does not actually cost anything. They never go unless there is a spare seat on the aircraft. If it cost anything, they would not go. If an aircraft has 20 seats the party is not always 20. Generally it might be 18 or 19 and if there is a spare seat—

  144. This is amazing economics, saying that it does not actually cost anything. Presumably if they were charged, it would bring the cost down.
  (Sir Michael Peat) If a young artist were charged, the man or woman would not go at all.

  145. Or a hairdresser.
  (Sir Michael Peat) I do not want to get into details but it is only really the Queen who takes a hairdresser and very occasionally other female members of the Royal Family very, very occasionally. The Queen does have to appear on a state visit overseas at a number of official functions throughout the day.

  146. Does the Department validate these particular people?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) Yes, we do. We agree with the Royal Household the basis on which they are going to operate the guidelines. From the point of view of the Department, we are perfectly happy with what is stated here.

  147. Could I move on to the total party size and looking at Appendix 2? There were rather big parties on certain of the trips? I noticed one in particular which was the Prince of Wales's trip to Trinidad and Tobago. The total party size was 48, but if you look at the little note at the bottom, note 4, it says that in that party there were 18 members of the Household and 30 journalists. Somewhere in the report I read that in that particular year, which was 2000-01, the amount of income you got from the journalists was £2,000.
  (Sir Michael Peat) No, if you look along to the right the figure is £60,000. The year is 1999-2000.

  148. From that particular trip you got £60,000 from the journalists.
  (Sir Michael Peat) Yes; it is just there at the end of the line.

  149. I was reading that in that particular year only £2,000 was taken and I could not understand how 30 journalists got to Trinidad and Tobago. Journalists get enough perks as it is without getting free trips to Trinidad and Tobago for £2,000. In Appendix 2 as well, can you explain why there are so many on these trips at the expense of the taxpayer?
  (Sir Michael Peat) As I went through earlier, it depends on the sort of trip. The Queen is accompanied by a private secretary, by police, by domestic staff responsible for returned hospitality, probably by a Foreign Office Minister and some people from his or her department. Numbers do build up a little.

  150. It seemed to me that the request for payment was very lackadaisical and the equivalent costs requested were very lackadaisical. For example, when you wanted to find out what the cost was you phoned up British Airways and asked what the cost was for a trip. It was not written down, the bills were not sent to the journalists or whoever was travelling and the money was not received. That seems a very lackadaisical way of going about things.
  (Sir Michael Peat) The NAO did raise two points. It was not that the requests for payment were lackadaisical, we actually put the requests in but we had difficulty getting the details of the amounts to be charged from various people, all the subsistence claims, things like landing fees which we charge on. Then we had difficulty with some people paying. We have now speeded it up and it is better than it was. On the issue of not keeping the documents, what used to happen was when we were re-charging journalists, we charged them roughly along the lines of airline tickets. We used to ring up the airlines and ask how much they charged for Business Class from Trinidad to London or wherever we were going and we did not write down what they said. We do now write it down so we have a record.

  151. That is the reason why I thought it was so lackadaisical.
  (Sir Michael Peat) Yes. It is a very minor area but we strive for perfection.

  152. Do you get the money now?
  (Sir Michael Peat) We get all the money back in the end and we get it back faster now.

Mr Osborne

  153. May I begin by saying that I think this is a very good report from your point of view and you have made very good progress and you should be congratulated on that. From my own point of view, I do not think there is anything intrinsically wrong with the head of state or the head of government, the Prime Minister, flying around with a bit of dignity. However, I do not think it should rest on a fiction. I am a bit concerned that 32 Squadron is the fiction, that it exists basically for the Prime Minister, the Queen and so on. The Ministry of Defence says of course it is really there to provide communications and logistical support for military operations. Is there really a military function for these planes which is being fulfilled and would the squadron need to exist if the Prime Minister and the Queen were not using it?
  (Mr McEwen) Oh, yes. You will recall that the Strategic Defence Review back in 1998 redefined the commitments and tasks which the armed forces have to be configured for. Following that, in 1999, there was a review to see, given the definition of these tasks and commitments, what the operational requirement was for communications flying. Clearly in a crisis you do need to take senior commanders around, to take headquarters elements around, there may be a need to take urgent small items of high value freight where it would not be cost effective to use or divert a larger transport aircraft. All that sort of communications flying is absolutely essential in operations. Indeed both aircraft have been used in operations which armed forces have been involved in over the past few years. The review looked at the requirement for a crisis, the need for operational communications flying and that is why 32 Squadron is set up as it is.

  154. Since it provides communications and logistical support for military operations, and I have never had the privilege of flying inside one of 32 Squadron's planes, could you describe what it looks like inside? Is it full of high-tech equipment?
  (Mr McEwen) They are basically passenger jets. That is what they are there for. They are there to take people around.

  155. This is probably outside the scope of this inquiry but is any check done on the use of these planes by the Ministry of Defence? Whereas Ministers and the Royal Family have to justify the way they use this plane, I remember from the report that there is no internal accounting procedure within the Ministry of Defence for the use of these planes by generals.
  (Mr McEwen) Oh, yes. There is a very close scrutiny of all usage of these planes within the Ministry of Defence as for other government departments.

  156. It says the Ministry's own use of the squadron's aircraft is not re-charged within the Ministry.
  (Mr McEwen) No, it is not re-charged because that would just be moving money around within the same department, which would be a bureaucratic exercise. What is done is that senior officials, military commanders, can only use these aircraft in set circumstances where it is justifiable and cost-effective for them to use these aircraft rather than make the journey in some other way. That is all scrutinised by the communications fleet tasking agency, which has the general role of allocating these aircraft to various users.

  157. Has there ever been an occasion that you are aware of when the Royal Family or the Prime Minister of whoever have wanted to use one of the planes but they have not been available because they were being used for communications and logistical support for military operations?
  (Mr McEwen) There have certainly been occasions when people have been unable to use them. The Royal Family have the highest priority and given that they only use it for eight per cent of the total flying, it is unlikely that we would be in a position where the Royal Family had to be told they could not use the aircraft, unless we had a major crisis. There are certainly occasions where other users of the aircraft are told they cannot have it because it is required for operational purposes.

  158. So as head of the armed services the Queen can pull rank on anyone else.
  (Mr McEwen) Indeed; yes.

  159. How does royal travel compare to senior ministerial travel? When the Prime Minister goes abroad on a big visit such as when he went to South America recently, how would he travel? Would he take a similar sized party? How would that be charged and so on?
  (Sir Richard Mottram) It is not something for me, but as someone who has worked a lot with Ministers in the past, if the Prime Minister were going on a significant overseas visit, he would take staff with him and then to the extent that there is capacity on the aeroplane he would probably offer that to journalists, so they would fill the capacity up with journalists. For instance, if it is a European summit, the Prime Minister's party would be considerable because he would take officials from a number of departments and he would probably travel with Foreign Office people.

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