Govt dismisses GSD ‘smokescreen’ on MPs travel costs, welcomes commitment to reduce costs
The Gibraltar Government on Thursday dismissed the GSD’s rebuttal in the row over MPs travel expenses as “a smokescreen”, even as it welcomed the Opposition’s commitment to reduce travel costs where possible.
The political exchanges began earlier this week after GSD MP Roy Clinton expressed concern that he had been booked Club class to fly to a conference of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association in Belfast.
Mr Clinton wrote to the government and said that against the backdrop of Covid-19 and the shortfall in government revenue, MPs should set an example and fly economy.
The government had replied that CPA travel was booked through the Gibraltar branch, not by the government, and that Mr Clinton should have raised his concerns privately and simply sought to change his ticket.
To highlight the point, it said a minister travelling on the same trip had requested a ticket change to fly economy.
Mr Clinton hit back and said the government he had not chosen to fly Club class but had been handed the ticket by parliamentary staff.
He said the government had in effect admitted it had failed to address the issue of CPA travel costs, which are paid from the Gibraltar Parliament’s budget.
He added that both he and fellow GSD MP Elliott Phillips would pay to the government travel agent the difference in price between the Club and Economy tickets.
For the government, the GSD MP had “embarrassingly put his foot in it” by raising the issue publicly, even though the CPA system of paying for travel had existed for decades.
“It is a sorry state of affairs that the Opposition should permit Mr Clinton to make an issue in public of what is essentially an administrative matter that could have been easily resolved within the Gibraltar Branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association,” No.6 Convent Place said.
“Indeed, one minister did precisely that and made alternative travel arrangements to fly to Belfast on a low-cost airline for one third of the price of Mr Clinton’s own tickets.”
“Therefore Mr Clinton’s transparent and feeble attempts to get out of the mess that he has created for himself and for his colleagues will fool no-one.”
The government said that by raising the issue publicly, Mr Clinton had “ridden roughshod over the traditional unity” that has existed between the Government and Opposition on matters involving the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.
“He is singlehandedly responsible for creating division and disunity in a forum where there has always been cooperation and unity between Parliamentary colleagues from both sides of the House,” No.6 said.
“His failure to raise any concerns in private formally to the Executive Committee of the Gibraltar Branch suggests that Mr Clinton is only concerned about himself and in cheap publicity stunts of this nature, with no real understanding or knowledge of the bigger picture.”
No.6 said the policy of the Government was separate and independent from the policy of the Parliament and of the Gibraltar Branch of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.
It accused Mr Clinton of confusing the two through “an infantile understanding of politics”, adding the government published all costs of ministerial travel on its website “unlike the previous GSD administration”.
The Government’s policy is that ministers and officials can travel on business class on short-haul routes when bookings are made at short notice and there is no other option, or when they need to work on the plane with colleagues often with sensitive documents and papers.
When he criticised the government, Mr Clinton had cited the travel costs of Dr Joseph Garcia, the Deputy Chief Minister., during 2018 and 2019.
But the government said that travel fell within the exemption, adding Dr Garcia, along with the Chief Minister, had travelled extensively while conducting negotiations for the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.
That work involved the lobbying of different countries, institutions and organisations in different places, and often included both Brexit and non-Brexit related work.
“The travel simply reflects the intensity of the schedule and the volume of work involved,” No.6 said.
“Indeed, Dr Garcia’s own travel costs for 2018 are spread over 17 different journeys and some forty different flights, including long-haul travel outside of Europe.”
One of those journeys, No.6 said by way of example, involved flying from Gibraltar to London for meetings, then from there to New York to address the Fourth Committee of the United Nations, then back to London and from there on to Brussels to join the Chief Minister in the actual Brexit negotiations.
The government said the policy on first class travel for short haul flights had been in place for some time and, despite the sometimes terse exchanges over the past week, welcomed the focus on reducing travel costs for MPs.
“Whilst it is not surprising that Mr Clinton has jumped to the defensive after the insincerity of his arguments were clearly exposed, the Government is delighted that he and his colleagues have agreed to pay the difference in costs for their overpriced short haul flights,” said Chief Minister Fabian Picardo.
“I look forward to the GSD joining the Government’s already established practices of reducing travel costs to the taxpayer as far as reasonably possible in future.”