Remember the old Red Rose tea commercial which ended with "Pity, only in Canada." Well it seems we might want to say, "Pity, only in the U.K."
Negative media stories over the use of cars and drivers by cabinet ministers are nothing new. These surface all the time as inevitably someone will abuse the privilege. Over the past month or so, the Harper government was left reeling over the expenses charged by former cabinet minister Bev Oda, including her use of a limousine to get around London, a city not known for rapid traffic movement in the best of times. As well, there were recent media stories around the costs of our cabinet minister's cars and drivers. Frankly, this is one area in which governments often get themselves into trouble.
Meanwhile, today's London Telegraphis reporting that British Prime Minister David Cameron has been looking ahead to see how he might avoid some potentially negative publicity that could arise once the London Olympic games get under way. Cameron's concern has been public reaction (in a time of restraint), to his cabinet ministers having their drivers and cars use special automobile lanes to whisk themselves to the front of the line ahead of the public who will be lined up waiting to get into the games.
Cameron's solution is to demand that his cabinet ministers essentially get in line like everyone else. Isn't that a novel idea? No more moving to the head of the line, just because you have a driver. Instead he is telling cabinet ministers to take the subway and bus just like everyone else. Imagine government elites rubbing shoulders with everyone else! Cameron is insisting that he will also take the subway to the games, no special privileges for him either. Of course this is the same prime minister who chose in 2010 to take a commercial flight from Britain to the United States rather than use a private government jet, he practices what he preaches.
Cabinet ministers in Canada enjoy their limousine perks and feel entitled to their entitlements when it comes to their use of one. But there are huge costs associated with them, including maintenance, driver's salaries, driver's overtime etc. The public and the prime minister should be asking if every cabinet minister needs his or her own driver and car. Do both the senior and junior minister in the same department need their own limo, especially if they are going to the same building? I would argue that junior ministers don't need one and that this is simply an extra expense that taxpayers shouldn't be paying for. Also, couldn't the drivers move staff back and forth between ministerial offices and the Hill saving on the cost of taxis?
Equally important, let us not forget the bureaucracy. While the media have focused almost exclusively on our politicians, deputy ministers also have a car and driver. Just check outside the Langevin building on the morning of the Deputy Minister's meeting to see the number of cars and drivers waiting for their civil servant bosses. Has anyone looked at their costs? Has anyone tallied up the number of cars and drivers set aside for the exclusive use of senior bureaucrats in departments, commissions and agencies? Has anyone looked at their driver's overtime? Seems to me that is worth a few ATIPs. If we hold our politicians to account for the cost of their car and driver why aren't we doing the same for our senior civil servants? Our politicians at least go back and forth between their offices and the Hill and they do attend off site official events, but civil servants requiring a car and driver equivalent to that of a minister?
Negative stories about the use of cars and drivers will always pop up. In this case Cameron is being proactive and he is setting a good example in a time of restraint. Not only that, but it won't hurt his ministers to mix with the voting public; at the very least they will get to travel like the rest of us.