Call for transparency over mayor’s international travel arrangements

Trip by Sadiq Khan to the United States last year comes in for criticism after it emerged it was part paid for by commercial airline, reports Noah Vickers, Local Democracy Reporter

Sadiq Khan on his trip to the United States last year (credit GLA)
Sadiq Khan on his trip to the United States last year (credit GLA)

Concerns have been raised about a lack of transparency around international travel arrangements at City Hall.

Records kept of international trips by mayor Sadiq Khan and staff members at the Greater London Authority (GLA) have been criticised as being of “limited detail” and requiring “substantial improvement”.

The GLA’s oversight committee highlighted in a letter to City Hall’s chief officer Mary Harpley that they had concerns about a “partnership agreement” reached with United Airlines for Khan’s trip to the USA in May 2022. The trip was intended “to encourage tourism to London and showcase the capital to [American] businesses, investors, entrepreneurs and students”.

The agreement meant that the mayor and several of his senior staff had the cost of their flights covered by United Airlines, with only “taxes and fees” payable by the GLA. This included business class flights from London to New York, New York to San Francisco and Los Angeles to London, and economy class flights from San Francisco to Los Angeles.

The oversight committee, chaired by Conservative London Assembly member Emma Best, said City Hall should publish a copy of the agreement, but the mayor’s team has responded by saying it was not a “formal partnership”.

Best wrote in her letter to Harpley: “The mayor’s press release from May 2022 includes the following note to editors: ‘United Airlines is proud to be flying the mayor of London Sadiq Khan and his team on their trade mission to the United States. United Airlines is set to operate 22 flights per day from London Heathrow to the United States for summer 2022.’

“The mayor’s personal and official Twitter accounts also posted a photo with United Airlines staff advertising ’22 in 2022’, a reference to the number of daily flights United Airlines runs from Heathrow Airport to the USA.”

She added that while “there are obvious positive benefits of the GLA identifying opportunities to reduce the overall expenditure on business trips […] the committee is concerned that there is insufficient guidance to support the GLA in determining how such partnerships should influence business trip proposals”.

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In a formal recommendation to Harpley, she said City Hall should “provide explicit guidance on the interaction of external sponsors and business trips. This should include specific arrangements for the timely publication of details relating to such sponsorship and what sponsors receive in return.”

Best also said that the GLA’s records of domestic and international trips – such as the expense claimed as part of them – are kept in different places and presented in different ways.

“The current arrangements for collecting, analysing and publishing this data require substantial improvement”, she wrote, before recommending that City Hall publish this data in one place and in an accessible way.

She separately raised concerns about the GLA’s carbon offsetting processes, which are intended to reduce the environmental impact of domestic and international trips conducted by staff.

The committee was said by Best to be “concerned that carbon offsetting is not being applied to all GLA trips”, as some trips are paid for and booked by external organisations – and are not therefore handled by a company contracted by City Hall to book staff travel and offset emissions.

Approached for comment on the committee’s letter, a spokesperson for the mayor said: “Promoting London at home and abroad is a key part of the mayoralty and Sadiq makes no apologies for travelling to the US last year and saving taxpayers money on the flights.

“This visit was his first international mission since the start of the pandemic and an opportunity to encourage tourism to London and showcase the capital to businesses, investors, entrepreneurs and students in the world’s largest economy.

“In order to reduce the cost of the visit, City Hall secured an agreement for a group flight package with United Airlines, where only taxes and fees were payable. This one-off agreement did not result in a formal partnership between the GLA and United Airlines.”

The mayor travelled to New York more recently in September this year, where he met with senior business leaders and addressed a United Nations climate summit.

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