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Was MPs' £70k trip to New Zealand best way to tackle binge-drinking?

If ever there was a time for MPs to blow thousands on an intercontinental fact-finding junket of dubious necessity, last week may not have been it.

By Steve Nowottny

If ever there was a time for MPs to blow thousands on an intercontinental fact-finding junket of dubious necessity, last week may not have been it.

With MPs of all parties besieged with expenses accusations and the economy still in apparent freefall, the Commons Health Committee might have been well advised to keep their trip last week to research the impact of binge-drinking close to home.

After all, there's plenty of facts to be found on the topic of excessive alcohol consumption in the capital itself, and if they wanted to venture further afield, why not a student night in Bournemouth or a weekend in Manchester?

Instead, they chose, er, New Zealand. The Mail on Sunday reported yesterday that seven MPs and two Health Committee officials spent £70,000 of taxpayers' money flying 11,000 miles to Auckland – business class, natch – then staying in four-star and five-star hotels. And Labour MP Kevin Barron, the chair of the committee, came in for particular criticism, as he chose to stay on at the end of the trip for a holiday, albeit at his own expense.

Peter Bone MP, one of the three Tory committee members who decided not to go on the visit, told the Mail on Sunday: ‘I just don't think the cost of this can be justified. At a time of recession, we should be looking more carefully at these overseas visits.'

To be fair to the MPs who did go, they did have good reason for the trip. New Zealand was chosen because of the similarities between the way its health service is funded and the NHS, and the committee didn't just research binge-drinking – they also took evidence on patient safety and even the still-thorny issue of top-up fees.

But as with the GMC's recent trip to Cape Town (a relative snip at £43,000 for ten attendees), appearances matter. (Though not to Labour MP Jim Dowd, who told the Mail on Sunday ‘I'm not interested in whether you think it's a good case or not, to be quite frank').

And in the current economic environment, in the wake of an unsatisfactory pay award – and with a chronic shortage of specialist services for alcohol misuse – GPs could be forgiven for thinking the £70,000 might have been better spent.

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Under-fire Health Committee chair Kevin Barron MP, who stayed behind in New Zealand for a personal holiday Under-fire Health Committee chair Kevin Barron MP, who stayed behind for a personal holiday

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