The Cabinet Office could spend upwards of £60m extending a lease on the government’s second ministerial plane while departments are told to find "efficiencies" in their budgets.
Up to £62m of funding has been green-lit to extend the government’s lease of the so-called “Brexit jet” until 2027, despite criticism of ministers' use of the aircraft over commercial flights, transparency documents show.
The government signed a two-year lease on the plane, a Titan Airways Airbus A321 with the tail number G-GBNI, in January 2021. The contract had the option for three annual extensions, to a total value of £75m.
The Cabinet Office has not confirmed how much has been spent so far in the first two years of the contract, saying only that current spending is "significantly lower than" the £75m total. However, if two-fifths of that figure is spent in the first two years of the contract, the latest extension – which spans March 2023 to March 2027 – could see the government spend close to £100m on the ministerial plane over six years through its contract with Corporate Travel Management.
The decision to lease a second plane was criticised last year, as senior ministers and the Royal Family already have the use of a repurposed military aircraft called the VIP RAF Voyager. Owned and operated by the Royal Airforce, the Voyager – which was controversially repainted with the union flag as part of a £900,000 refurbishment – is the prime minister's primary aircraft.
A recent batch of transparency documents revealed the funds to extend the lease on the second plane were approved in May while ministers were hammering home the need for restraint in public spending. In March, then-government efficiency minister Jacob Rees-Mogg urged departments to cut costs, saying “taxpayers have the right to expect every penny of their money to be justified before it’s spent”.
Reports last week suggested Truss’s government is planning to take a “hybrid” cost-cutting approach combining efficiency savings and job cuts – following a warning from foreign secretary James Cleverly that his department would have to deliver its work “on a tighter budget” because “money’s tight right across government”.
They added that the Airbus costs less to run than the RAF Voyager for short and medium-haul travel and offers value for money compared to the ad-hoc hire of private planes. The department maintains that the Voyager's primary function is to refuel military flights mid-air.
However, the government has long maintained that commercial flights are the “preferred option” for ministers, with a spokesperson saying last year that costs are “taken into account in all travel decisions”.
'Money wasted on vanity and comfort'
In recent days, Liz Truss’s use of government planes has come under scrutiny. Over the weekend, the Guardian reported that in her last six months as foreign secretary – her last post before becoming prime minister last month – Truss racked up a travel bill of nearly £2m.
The £1.8m expenditure far outstripped the amount spent by her predecessor on the job, Dominic Raab, who spent £67,000 on trips abroad in the six months before the Covid pandemic.
Around a quarter of Truss’s £1.8m outlay went on a trip to Australia using the RAF Voyager plane in January.
The then-foreign secretary told reporters at the time that her use of "the government plane" enabled her to have private conversations about security matters on the flight, and to "do the work overseas which is ultimately delivering for the British people".
In response, Labour deputy leader Angela Rayner accused ministers of wasting money on “vanity and comfort” during a cost-of-living crisis.
The £62m for the lease extension, which includes operational costs such as fuel, represents a maximum spend and could be lower over the course of the contract, a spokesperson said.