While many people dream of a company car and driver, former MP Chris Mullin found it difficult to get rid of his ministerial vehicle. Here, he reflects on how his comic battle inspired David Cameron to cut government cars and encourage ministers onto public transport.
Although I cannot claim to have had much influence on the last government, I do appear to have had some influence on the new one.
David Cameron remarked to me some months ago that, having read my account of the struggle to shake off a ministerial car, recounted in my diaries View From the Foothills, he was proposing to limit the supply of ministerial limos. And sure enough, he has delivered.
MULLIN'S DIARY, 29 JULY 1999
I am entitled to a car and a driver. Entirely pointless since the 159 and 3 buses will continue to run past my door, even though I am a minister. Jessica [my private secretary], who cycles in from Brixton, was sympathetic but explained that the situation is a little more complicated than I might suppose. For a start, red boxes cannot be transported by public transport.
She also explained that the funding of the government car pool is geared to encourage maximum use of the car. The drivers are on a low basic wage and are heavily dependent on overtime. So, if I accept a driver, he will be hanging around all day doing nothing and hating me for not giving him enough to do.
It was announced this week that only a handful of senior ministers who require a car for security reasons will in future be entitled to one as of right. The rest will have to make do with access to the government car pool as the need arises. Generally, however, they will be expected to make do with public transport.
The saving to the public purse will not be enormous - a mere £2.8m - but the decision to reduce by a third the cost of the government car service sends an important signal. Namely, that there is a connection between words and action.
One of the perennial embarrassments of being, as I was, a minister in the environment department was that every time a colleague talked of the need to tempt the great British public out of their cars and on to public transport, cameras would appear at the rear entrance filming ministers climbing into their official cars. John Prescott's Jaguar was a particular favourite with mischief-making journalists.
Crazy though it may seem in these days of climate change and political correctness, but the Government Car Service is - or was until recently - devoted to maximising use of the car. Drivers are paid a low basic wage and, therefore, heavily reliant on overtime. They are happy to be kept hanging around at all hours of the day and night. At any given time, Speaker's Court in the House of Commons is packed with ministerial limos, often with engines running, and drivers awaiting the pleasure of their ministerial masters.
John Prescott earned the nickname Two Jags for obvious reasons
Ministers, too, are complicit, often for the best of motives. They quickly form personal friendships with their drivers and are happy to devise unnecessary journeys in order to boost the driver's income. It is not uncommon for ministers in far flung constituencies, served by perfectly good train services, to insist on being driven weekly to and from London merely to create work for the driver.
The drivers, too, are not above making unnecessary journeys. I was horrified one summer when a government car, containing not one but two drivers from the pool appeared at my office in Sunderland - a round trip of 580 miles - merely to hand over a few boxes of not very important papers which could just as easily have been delivered by Royal Mail. What's more they were proposing to come back and collect the boxes a few days later - until I got on the phone and put a stop to the escapade.
When I became a minister in July 1999 I was determined from the outset to manage without an official car. Mine was a Nissan Primera - only the top two or three people get Jags, armoured for security - but today a hybrid Prius is standard issue.
The type of car Mullin tried to refuse
As I recounted in my diaries, shaking off the Government Car Service was quite a struggle. At that time, the only other minister to do so was Charles Clarke, then at the Department of Education - and he only managed to break free by saying that he needed to walk for health reasons. Later, we were joined by Ross Cranston, the Solicitor General, and latterly by defence minister Kevan Jones.
In November 1999, the Cabinet Office announced a review of the Government Car Service. I duly penned a note to my colleague, the minister in charge of the review, advocating a system similar to that now being introduced.
In due course, I went to see him, but it soon became apparent that he was rather attached to his car and that no significant change was likely. So it proved. It was not until last year, with the introduction of the EU's Working Time Directive - making it impossible for drivers to work 15-hour days - that change was at last contemplated.
Of course, it is not only ministers who are entitled to official cars. Senior civil servants and goodness knows how many generals, admirals and air marshals in the cash-strapped Ministry of Defence are also ferried about by the Government Car Service. In my experience, they are likely to cling to the perks of office rather more tenaciously than most ministers.
It also remains to be seen how the proposed reforms will work in practice. My guess is that they will meet with considerable resistance. It can only be a question of time before someone leaves official papers on a train and I predict this will be used as an excuse to try and re-open the entire issue.
Political will is going to be needed to make the reforms stick.
Chris Mullin was MP for Sunderland South from 1987 to 2010. The first volume of his diaries, A View from the Foothills, was published last year.
Below is a selection of your comments.
What a refreshingly interesting and honest article. Lets not belittle the "mere £2.8m" saving though - imagine how much more could be saved if we had the same eye for detail on stationery, printing and consumables and consultancy fees.
It's not only the government that need to rely less on their cars - I used to work in TV and was granted a car for the most ridiculous reasons... even when I was only a runner. I lost count the number of times I was picked up from my flat in a car simply so I would be on time for a day in the studio.
Surprisingly perhaps, when I worked at Shell Centre in the 1980s it was not the perk of a company car that turned the high fliers on, but the chance to eat in the "Senior Mess" away from the junior riff raff (Shell had at least five different sorts of dining in those days).
Philip Connolly, Hatfield
Here in Sri Lanka we have ministers and deputy ministers numbering nearly 80 out of 225 member parliament and each minister enjoys a motorcade of five on average (maybe a little less) and armed guards and vehicles for wives for shopping, kids for schooling and so on. On top of that each MP in given a duty-free car (duty here is 200% for a normal citizen).
Tharaka, Colombo, Sri Lanka
I work for the MoD and it pains me to see staff cars sitting outside buildings for hours at a time with their engines running so they can be ready to leave, or so the driver can be warm or the car can be warm for the so-called important person. Staff like myself on low salaries and whose jobs are at risk have to watch this waste of public money while at the same time being told our future payrises will be almost nothing because they come from the public purse.
Joanne, Wiltshire, UK
When my father was a senior civil servant he was entitled to a car, but being based in Wales he generally only requested one when in London. I recall one occasion when I cadged a lift and we arrived in Whitehall just as the road was closed for a state function (the first wedding of Princess Anne). The police waved the car through, and the assembled crowds started cheering and waving flags, no doubt thinking we were minor Royals or foreign dignitaries. The etiquette of the situation was unclear, but I decided that a "Royal Wave" and a smile was appropriate.
Megan, Cheshire, UK
My dad had a staff car when commanding RAF Catterick, and we boys used to stand in line at the garden gate to salute him as he was driven off each morning. When he was posted to RAF Brampton they gave him a bicycle.
Nicholas Riall, Neath
I used to work for LUL (London Underground). When I first went for an interview I was told that I should live in London for public transport, or a car so that I could get in to work. When I started my job I was told that there were staff taxis. With regular "booked" staff taxis and specially ordered ones for different places, you soon see that a lot of money is being spent to get people to and from work. I saw at least one member of staff being given a specially ordered taxi, and getting paid overtime until they phoned up to say they were at home - at normal peak time - for a journey of about five miles. So you can see that it isn't only ministers and top civil servants that have access to cars. All of this comes out of our pockets, and on public transport not only are you paying taxes for this, but also in your fares.
M Dowden, London
Talk about penny wise, pound foolish. The loss of sensitive data on tubes and buses will become a weekly event. The savings, such as they are, will come from making drivers redundant. The savings will be cancelled out by everyone who loses a car claiming for rail fares (first class, of course). And who can forget the pointlessness of David Cameron cycling to work while his papers were chauffeured behind him in a limo?
This is all ridiculous. These people are trying to run our country and we make them take the Tube? I would rather they were getting on with fixing the economy than trying to catch a bus or waiting forever on a train station platform. There is a time and a place for egalitarianism and this is not it. This is actually detrimental to the common good. Cameron should be in a Jag because it is his responsibility to remain safe and work efficiently - same for all ministers.
Damian Piesse, Brighton
I doff my cap to the new government for doing this. It might be only a token gesture, but it sends the right message, i.e. that ministers represent us and therefore should live their lives like us. Who knows, over time it might lead to better public transport.
John, Newcastle upon Tyne
I've known civil servants use official cars to go half a mile to Sheffield station (which is about four times further by car and takes twice as long). Some disabled or more elderly people or people with genuinely heavy bags probably do need this service, but the cost is increased massively by the "look how important I am" group who give civil servants a bad name.
Ron Kelly, Sheffield
If a minister wants to opt out, fair enough. But like some have said, I want value for money from the minister. The cost of their travel will drop on public transport, but I will not get the savings back, as they will be massively less productive spending time faffing about on public transport.
I'd try to refuse a Nissan Primera too, if I was him. On the bright side, if they're forced to use public transport everywhere, they might realise how rubbish it is outside of London.
I was aghast to see Theresa May waft away from Downing Street, freshly minted as Home Secretary, in the back of a new Jaguar XJ. The fresh Government had only been in place 24 hours and already there was a fleet of luxury cars - all now to be refused, I take it. Which would be a shame in a way, as Jaguar need the orders and the publicity can only help. It's all very well making cuts, but we must manufacture, or die.
Julian Moseley, London UK
I find this a waste of ministers' time. The country complains that they get paid too much, claim too much, don't work hard enough but then we take away somewhere where they can actually work while travelling. OK, I can see why we might insist on car pooling for civil servants but for our ministers? I feel the same about civil servants and ministers travelling in second class on the train. Surely first class is quieter and easier to work in. If a minister is travelling for a number of hours, I want them to have the optimum conditions to work in. I work in the private sector and expect that, so why should someone with a much more important job than mine be given less?
I've long had the opinion that public transport would be immeasurably improved by FORCING our political leaders to use it, and would cheerfully volunteer to be any minister's "Official Drover" and herd them onto overfull/dirty/late trains and buses until they got together the will to sort them out.
I am really glad to see the big names travelling in local transport and giving a clear message to others.
I heartily agree with ditching ministerial cars. However, may I suggest some mini-buses to take small groups of people to satellite areas, esp late at night. This may aid with an wet weather and carrying heavy papers. To avoid losing papers, information should be electronic and kept inside close pockets.
Jaime Hepburn, Truro I agree with Jamie - a "school" ministerial bus, collecting people along the way and dropping them off at work. Either that or car pooling. Better for the planet, they can work in relative peace, saves money & some ministers might actually meet and talk to each other.
Anita, Orpington, UK