MSPs fly out on £30,000 business-class 'jolly' – to talk about climate change

THE Scottish Parliament is to spend £30,000 of taxpayers' money sending six people on a week-long trip to North America to highlight the dangers of climate change.

• Picture: PA

At a time when Scotland faces spending cuts of up to 3 billion in its budget, the parliament will today send four MSPs and two officials on a trip to New York, Boston and Washington DC.

The business-class transatlantic flights are costing in excess of 10,000, while accommodation has been booked in some of the best hotels.

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The trip – described last night as an unnecessary, taxpayer-funded "jolly" – has been arranged as part of Tartan Week, even though the Scottish Government is already sending three ministers to take part in the celebrations in New York.

Critics said the decision to proceed showed bad judgment at a time when elected members should be setting an example on spending restraint.

The Holyrood delegation is led by Presiding Officer Alex Fergusson and includes Labour's Pauline McNeil, Jamie McGrigor of the Tories and the SNP's Gil Paterson. Each of the BA flights for the four MSPs and two officials cost 1,691.

During the trip, the MSPs will focus on the "three key areas" of "climate change, sustainable transport and opportunities around the green economy".

The 30,000 total cost includes hotel bills plus internal flights needed to take the party to events in Boston, Concord, Manchester and Washington DC. The Holyrood authorities were unable to tell The Scotsman in which hotels the MSPs and officials would be staying.

Environmentalists condemned the party for going business class at a time when Scotland is facing swingeing cuts in its budget.

Green MSP Robin Harper said: "For this cross-party Holyrood delegation to be jetting off on a jolly to multiple US cities in order to fact-find on issues relating to sustainability and the environment is ever so slightly ridiculous and largely unnecessary.

"It is particularly ironic that these members will travel by the least sustainable method of transport available, and will travel to a country that is addicted to an unsustainable car culture, in order to then supposedly learn lessons on tackling climate change and promoting sustainable travel."

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He added: "The members of the delegation should pause and consider how their going on this trip is going to make them look.

"At the very least, they should set an example to their American hosts by insisting on travelling by rail or bus for their inter-city trips within the US."

Matthew Sinclair, of the TaxPayers' Alliance, said: "Many ordinary families are going to struggle to fly anywhere, so it is absolutely outrageous that tens of thousands of pounds of their money is going to be spent.

"To fly business class across the Atlantic in order to talk about climate change and 'sustainable transport' is staggering hypocrisy. This trip by half a dozen officials and parliamentarians will create more emissions in a week than most Scottish families manage in a year."

Culture minister Fiona Hyslop, education secretary Mike Russell and enterprise minister Jim Mather are flying to New York to take part in Tartan Week. The Scottish Government has not yet released details of their travel costs.

The combined Scottish Government, VisitScotland and Scottish Development International budget for Scotland Week 2010 has been capped at 400,000.

The Scottish Parliament's travel policy is to authorise the use of business class travel for intercontinental flights with more than five hours' continuous flying.

The Holyrood authorities said the cheapest transatlantic flights available were secured online and that internal flights would be by economy class.

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The spokesman said: "The Scottish Parliament is acutely aware of the current economic climate and, with that in mind, our budget for Scotland Week has been held fixed at 30,000 for the third year in a row, representing a reduction in real terms.

"Despite the exchange rate being less favourable than in previous years, we are confident the final cost for the 2010 programme will be safely within budget."

A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: "The importance of the US and Canada to the Scottish economy is clear, particularly in the current economic climate. Ministers will undertake at least 20 face-to-face meetings with existing and potential investors in Scotland during Scotland Week.

"The focus of Scotland Week 2010 is on ministers, parliamentarians, SDI and VisitScotland working together to engage with business to highlight the underlying strength of Scotland's economy and showcase our great investment potential."

• THE Scottish Parliament is staying tight-lipped on the exact choice of hotel where the delegation will be staying on specially negotiated "government rates".

But during previous Tartan Week outings in New York, both Alex Salmond and Jack McConnell have stayed at the Algonquin, in the heart of Manhattan.

Known as "the writer's hotel", the Algonquin was the home of the Round Table, where Dorothy Parker held court. More recently the hotel has been redesigned and refurbished with luxury in mind. Its bar hit the headlines by offering the world's first $10,000 cocktail – a Martini on the Rock – with a single diamond nestling in the glass.

Located within walking distance of Times Square, Fifth Avenue and Central Park, the hotel, designated a New York City Historic landmark, is a perfect base for anyone wishing to take in all the action of Tartan Week.

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For non-government guests, a night at the Algonquin will set you back about $400.

Arrive in style before relaxing in decadent downtown Manhattan

PASSENGERS who travel with BA Club Class are greeted on board with a complimentary glass of champagne or Bucks Fizz. But the service begins before the flight – in the executive airport lounges reserved for high-paying customers. Here travellers can help themselves to free tea, coffee and snacks and take advantage of the free bar. If travelling from Heathrow Terminal Five, travellers can also take advantage of their time in the airport to take a shower or to book in for a manicure or massage at the exclusive Elemis spa.

Once on board the plane, BA Club Class passengers to New York can settle down for the seven-hour flight on extra large reclining seats which fold down completely into flat six-foot beds.

After the free champagne, Club Class customers are served a three-course meal – on real plates – with a far more extensive menu than the usual "chicken or fish" option offered in economy. Those lucky enough to fly Club Class are given a choice of starter, three or four choices of main dish, followed by sweets, coffee and chocolates.