The Government is still spending thousands of pounds a year on driving only ministerial briefcases around Whitehall in chauffeur-driven splendour despite a promise to get rid of ‘red boxes’ in the digital era.
A Freedom of Information request submitted by HuffPost UK has revealed £44,010 was lavished last year on ferrying documents - and no passengers - between government departments and a minister’s home, just under £3,000 more than the previous year.
In the six years since the then coalition Government promised a crackdown on wasteful spending, almost £400,000 has been spent on the practice.
Labour criticised “another broken promise” as the FOI response also revealed papers were driven around 540 times during 2016/17, or more than 4,000 times since the pledge.
But the Department for Transport pointed to how the annual cost and number of trips have been slashed by half since 2011.
So-called “despatch box movements” have long been part of Westminster culture, but ministers have been at pains to stress how they want to do things differently with the help of new technology.
The die was cast before David Cameron entered office in 2009, pledging to end “politicians swanning around in chauffeur-driven cars like they’re the royal family”.
In 2011, Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister in charge of civil service reform, said the Government was moving towards paperless working, and suggested the need for hard copies rather than email was an “alibi”.
Two years ago, he signalled ministerial boxes were doomed and state-of-the-art smartphones would do the heavy lifting instead.
But the latest figures suggest the habit is hard to break.
The grand total could, however, be much higher. The figures released by the DfT only relate to bookings made directly to the Government Car Service (GCS).
Ministers also have access to 20 pool cars that are stationed at the various departments dotted around Westminster, and they theoretically could be used for “despatch box movements”. The DfT does not hold data to confirm whether this is the case or not.
Underlining how ministerial cars are deployed to drive paper around, the Guardian reported last year how when Iain Duncan Smith dramatically resigned from David Cameron’s Cabinet over disability cuts a car travelled between his Buckinghamshire home and Downing Street carrying his letter of resignation.
At the time, HuffPost UK requested from the Department for Work and Pensions details of how much it cost to drive the missive to the capital, but the department responded that individual journeys were not costed.
Luke Pollard, MP for Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, told HuffPost UK: “This is yet another example of a Tory broken promise.
“They said they’d clamp down on wasteful spending, but the cost to the taxpayer of ferrying ministers’ red boxes round in air-conditioned luxury cars has increased; indicative of Tory failure at a time when families across the country are struggling to make ends meet.”
Secretaries of State and junior ministers all have “boxes” filled with civil service briefing papers and documents.
Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine, wife of Environment Secretary Michael Gove, once revealed how papers are shipped around in “air-conditioned splendour”: “My husband is free to travel home by Tube, taxi, bicycle or carrier pigeon, but the (box) must arrive in air-conditioned splendour, snug and secure in the back of a locked car.”
A DfT spokesperson said: “We are committed to ensuring the Government Car Service provides value for money for the taxpayer and have cut the costs of transporting dispatch boxes by over half from £110, 865 in 2011/12 to £44,001 in 2016/17.
“There are occasions when the government car service is appropriate to move minister’s boxes in a secure manner for official business. All usage is governed by the Ministerial Code.”