Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200 - 216)



  200. That is good because I am going to Japan next month leading a delegation. I shall certainly speak to the Foreign Office and indicate to them what you believe. I shall have a word with them because we are meeting the Japanese Prime Minister and others.
  (Sir Michael Peat) They of course will form their view as to whether your trip is an important matter of national prestige.

  201. They have assured me it is. I shall tell them what you said. May I turn to the third page of the list of trips? The cost of positioning of the RAF flights. I am not quite clear why you meet these in this way. Presumably you could fly anywhere as a training mission. You could fly anywhere at all and say you will not charge the cost of that but just put it down to training. Is that not a scam as well?
  (Mr McEwen) No, I do not think so. If the Royal Family require an aircraft to be in a particular place, then there is a cost to the Ministry of Defence in getting it to that particular place, so why should it not be charged? It does not necessarily represent training value.

  202. Let me get this clear. If somebody in the Royal Family wants to fly from A to B, you quote a cost for that, for the sake of argument £10,000 for that flight, yet it costs you £50,000 to get the plane there and then bring the plane back at the end. Does it not seem reasonable that that £50,000 be included within the cost of the overall journey?
  (Mr McEwen) It all depends. It depends on whether the cost of positioning could be seen to provide a reasonable training value or not. In this particular case which you have mentioned, the visit of the Duke of York, part of the costs of positioning were seen as providing good training value so we did not charge him. It is not always—

  203. Is there anywhere in the world where flying a plane would not provide some degree of training?
  (Mr McEwen) Some degree of training.

  204. So there is nowhere you could not justify if you wanted to as having a training element in it. You will understand why I may be a trifle suspicious that this is really an outrageous example of creative accountancy.
  (Mr McEwen) Are you trying to say that we should have been charging because we did not?

  205. Yes. It costs a huge amount of money to fly a plane to pick somebody up and then fly then somewhere and then you have to fly the plane back again and that you only charge them for the bit in the middle does not seem to me to be a reasonable system of accounting.
  (Mr McEwen) Normally the Royal Household is charged the positioning costs before and afterwards. It was not on this occasion. I do not know the details of this particular flight but on this occasion the positioning costs were clearly seen to represent proper training value.
  (Sir Richard Mottram) There are allocated hours for air crew training. It may be that these were part of the allocated hours for air crew training.

  206. So if we can find somewhere where you are going as part of the allocated training then that would not be charged at all. I am the secretary of the parliamentary rugby team and we are hoping to go out to New Zealand next year. I think flying to New Zealand would represent an incredibly valuable training opportunity. If you have seats on that plane, then I would be more than happy to provide people to go in it and that would provide training opportunities for your stewards as well because they would be able to serve us food and drink on the trip and in return I think we could probably find a place for you in the team.
  (Mr McEwen) The 146 would not exactly be ideal for getting to New Zealand. It would take about four days.

  207. We are not in a hurry. If you are taking us there as a training opportunity and looking after us as we land in the various places, that is another training opportunity.
  (Mr McEwen) There are specific types of training which have to be undertaken by the squadron each year in a specific way and there is a budget for it. If some of that can be accomplished within the positioning, then fine.

  208. Let me get this clear. New Zealand does not represent a training opportunity but you finished this journey off in the Turks and Caicos Islands, is that right? Bringing the plane back from there was a training opportunity but bringing it back from New Zealand would not be. Can you clarify that bit for me?
  (Mr McEwen) In that year there was a requirement for a certain amount of training and this particular visit at the time it took place and its nature fell within the training hours allocated, so we were able to do it. You would have to look at the individual circumstances of a particular flight.

  209. Indeed we would. Do I take it then that all the time there are RAF planes flying all over the place representing valuable training opportunities, if we were aware that these were going we could come along and ask for a lift? If it is in the interests of the government and so on you would be happy to do that? Could I suggest to you that Japan certainly would be an interesting one because we are possibly going to play football there during the summer and the parliamentary team is also going to Paris to play on the morning of the England/France game? The royal train cannot go through the tunnel so we must have the royal flight. We shall be going to Ireland next year as well. If you cannot play, then we can find a place for one of your staff. I think you can understand that I am somewhat cynical about the creative accountancy of this. Can we just clarify whether or not this service has ever to date operated at capacity? Is it right that you have always had slack?
  (Mr McEwen) No, the aircraft are normally used to their full planned flying hours each year.

  210. Yes, but you make some up because you have valuable training opportunities.
  (Mr McEwen) No, the training is defined.
  (Sir Richard Mottram) The training is defined, it is a defined requirement for air crews.

  211. This is helpful. You said earlier on that you have surplus capacity which you are able to let other people use.
  (Mr McEwen) Yes.

  212. In a crisis it would be used to full capacity. I am asking whether it has ever actually been used at full capacity in a crisis?
  (Mr McEwen) Not in a crisis it has not been, because we have not had a major crisis in that sense. We have not gone to war.
  (Sir Richard Mottram) We have not gone to war in that way.

  213. Do you have surplus capacity in all bits of the RAF?
  (Mr McEwen) The RAF, like all the armed forces, is configured to defend the United Kingdom and to be able to operate in a crisis, in a war. In peacetime it is preparing for war.

  Mr Davidson: I have a number of people I should quite like bombed which would represent a valuable training opportunity if that were suitable to you.


  214. Thank you for that. There is an important point which arose earlier from Mr Williams' questioning when he was particularly pressing you on the private use. It is always possible to justify the use of this squadron on the grounds that it is there anyway and therefore you are offsetting some of the cost if you use it. I am sure you would not say for a moment that that justifies in itself the private use by members of the Royal Family of this asset.
  (Sir Michael Peat) Do you mean at all, or at a certain price?

  215. You cannot use the argument that because the planes are there anyway it is cheaper to use them rather than go by scheduled flight, particularly when you are talking about private use.
  (Sir Michael Peat) No, it is not a question of it being cheaper. The key issue on which we were focusing and which Mr Williams raised was whether the taxpayer was subsidising private use by members of the Royal Family. The answer to that is no. The Ministry of Defence are charging the rates recommended in paragraph 3.13 of the NAO's report and that is at no cost to the taxpayer. The secondary question I think Mr Rendel raised is whether it would be a good idea if the taxpayer made a profit out of the Queen's very occasional use of 32 Squadron for private purposes—three times this year, once last year. The taxpayer could well make a profit of a few hundred pounds if the Ministry of Defence wanted to do so. It is not the basis recommended by the NAO and I have to say for me it is not a big issue. It is not used a lot for private use. If it is too expensive, it will not be used, we shall go to charter and it is really a pricing issue for the Ministry of Defence. We are talking about hundreds of pounds.

  216. Thank you very much Sir Michael, Sir Richard and Mr McEwen. Despite the small sums of money involved there is a great deal of public interest. May I thank you, Sir Michael, if this is going to be your last visit?
  (Sir Michael Peat) I think it happily is perhaps.

  Chairman: Thank you for all you have done and for answering our questions so fully and so courteously. We are very grateful. The session is closed.

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