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.

Editors Note: In Pakistan, every previous government made tall claims to move into smaller and lesser cars but on the quiet every government went overboard. When a country has a huge army of ministers like 200+ and every member of the Parliament given some job that carries huge perks how can we have austerity at home. Besides the Ministers, there is a long list of Advisors, Special Advisors all with Ministerial portfolio. Every such person has a pool of half a dozen or more cars at his disposal where the families of such elephants use these fleet with a ruthless heart.

The two Omars that we have had in the Muslim history were known for their piety and honesty. Omar bin Abdul Aziz would have two lamps, one at the state expense and the other from his pocket. If he would be attending to official work, he would light the official lamp, for his private business, he would extinguish the official lamp and light his private lamp.

In the history of Pakistan, three personalities can be quoted who never took a penny from the treasury for their personal needs. Never allowed their families to reside in official residences, never let their children use the official cars. The three names are Mr. M A Jinnah, the founding father and the two Governors of West Pakistan, Mian Aminuddin and Malik Amir Muhammad Khan.

It is also recommended the Mullin’s Diary be a compulsory read for all the public office holders in Pakistan.

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.

  Why Pak-India Dialogue Fails?
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.

Yes, minister

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.

There is no need for 171 of these cars to be on hand for every government minister, whip – and indeed, myself. In these economic times, when everyone is making their own sacrifice, this number cannot be justified. So the Conservatives will cut the budget for official government cars by a third

David Cameron, in a speech last September

Hypocrisy claim over Cameron bike

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.

Courtesy BBC News

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