Govt and GSD clash over MPs travel costs
The Gibraltar Government and the GSD clashed on Tuesday over the cost of flights to a meeting of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association [CPA] in Belfast.
The issue was first raised by the GSD’s Roy Clinton, who expressed surprise he had been booked to fly Club class on British Airways and said MPs should lead by example and find cheaper alternatives at a time when Gibraltar was projecting losses in public revenue of £1m a week.
The government responded by saying the flights to Belfast had been booked by the Gibraltar branch of the CPA and that Mr Clinton’s fare was nearly three times the price of the ticket for a minister also attending the event.
No.6 Convent Place said too that ministers already flew economy for short haul trips unless circumstances prevented it.
For the GSD’s Mr Clinton, the issue was clear cut.
“If there is one matter that both sides of the House agreed on at the last Budget debate was that ‘every penny counts’,” Mr Clinton said.
“I would thus expect that an exercise would have been undertaken to identify all areas in which it was possible to achieve simple economies.”
“I was thus surprised to find as a Parliamentary delegate to the forthcoming CPA BIMR Branch conference to be held in Belfast later this month that delegates have been booked on Club class tickets with British Airways.”
“Whereas I cannot comment on past practice for CPA travel, I would have thought that as we face a loss of £1 million a week this financial year such short-haul flights should be booked as economy tickets.”
“I thus ask that all the Club class tickets for Parliamentary delegates be refunded and reissued as economy.”
“The Government should of course extend this to include all ministerial travel, which is where the big expense is incurred, during this period of financial crisis.”
“Members of Parliament need to set an example on how to achieve economies at this time of difficulty in our public finances.”
But No.6 Convent Place hit back and accused Mr Clinton of trying to generate “artificial controversy” instead of raising the matter through the proper channels of the CPA.
No.6 said ministers already travelled in economy class when on official business unless this was unavoidable – for example if flights were booked at short notice - adding that travel to the Belfast conference had been arranged by the local CPA branch from the Gibraltar Parliament’s budget, not by the government.
Not only that, it said that while Mr Clinton was flying to Belfast via London at a cost of £1,100, a minister attending the same conference was travelling on a low cost carrier at a cost of £384.
The government said Mr Clinton should have raised the matter with the Gibraltar CPA Branch in order to change the policy, and also checked and changed his own travel arrangements in order to reduce the cost.
“I am surprised that Mr Clinton did not know that we already cancelled the GSD practice of a free-for-all on Business Class flights on short-haul travel,” said Chief Minnister Fabian Picardo.
“We did it some time back.”
“I travel Business Class on such short routes when available only if I am working and it is necessary. Very often I travel on low cost carrier flights which do not offer Business Class.”
The previous GSD practice of Club Class travel has in fact only continued on flights to events organised by the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which Opposition members have taken full advantage of for many years.”
“I agree that we should not continue that practice and that the CPA practice should fall in line with the GSLP Liberal government practice.”
“This change should not be just for now, but for good as there is no reason in my view for Opposition members to travel Business Class on short-haul flights as they are not undertaking work for the tax payer on the flights.”
“For that reason, I intend to raise the matter with the Gibraltar Branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association so that the Gibraltar Parliament makes different arrangements going forward for all MPs, and for good, not just for now.”
“I am sure that Mr Clinton will want to support this move in relation to the CPA arrangements that he and his colleagues have enjoyed in Club Class so far.”
The GSD had argued that cutting back on travel costs “could potentially save hundreds of thousands of pounds” and should be adopted as a practice until the public finances were in better shape.
But the government noted that ministers and officials had hardly travelled in the past 18 months “for very obvious reasons”, and that Mr Clinton’s concerns were “largely academic”.
It added that all short-haul travel by ministers and officials was already booked in economy other than when no other fare was available because the flight was being booked at short notice, or to allow working on government business on a flight.
No.6 said Mr Clinton’s way of raising the issue was “regrettable” and that for decades, Gibraltar’s parliamentarians had “scrupulously avoided embroiling the CPA” in any area of local controversy, even where strongly held views had been held in private.