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Departmental Travel

Volume 457: debated on Wednesday 7 March 2007

All overseas and domestic travel will be accounted for in the usual way.

In the past six months, I have undertaken a number of overseas visits on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in addition to those already announced to the House. Among the most recent was a visit to Romania and Bulgaria in January, when I had meetings with the Prime Ministers and Presidents of both those countries following their accession to the European Union. We discussed key areas of co-operation, such as managed access to the labour market for different categories of workers in the European Union.

Last week, I met representatives of the World Health Organisation in Geneva to discuss the serious implications of climate change for public health. I had discussions with a number of UN agencies, including the International Labour Organisation, about people trafficking and the Government’s intention to sign the Council of Europe convention on action against trafficking in human beings.

The Deputy Prime Minister has been given a role in responding to climate change. He has given us a litany of the travel that he has undertaken in the past six months, yet he has not answered my question about the cost of that travel—it is a considerable cost to the public purse. Does he have any concerns about the environmental impact of such travel? While the Government have a carbon offsetting scheme, which is worthy in its own right, the cost of that is also borne by the British taxpayer.

The hon. Lady is making a point about the cost of travel, and she will get the figures for the year, which will be produced in the normal way. I have compared our travel costs with those of the previous Administration, as set out in a parliamentary reply. Between 1993 and 1996, the average Government expenditure on overseas travel was £6.6 million, while between 2003 and 2006—the last three years of this Government—the expenditure was more than £1 million a year less. We not only spend less, but we are more effective in international operations, especially on climate change.

Has the Deputy Prime Minister noticed that the list of ministerial responsibilities describes his own as:

“Oversight and co-ordination of Government policy across the full range of domestic … areas”?

Does he think that the Prime Minister allows him to wander around the world so as to fill up his day because he does not seem to have enough to do on domestic policy, which is, by definition, the job that he is appointed to do?

The job that I do is at the request of the Prime Minister, as was true of every Deputy Prime Minister, whether that was Mr. Heseltine acting at the request of Mr. Major, or me. The job is defined by the Prime Minister—that is what comes with the title of Deputy Prime Minister.

As for travelling abroad, what I am doing is relevant to the Cabinet Committees for which I have some responsibility. I mentioned human trafficking in reply to a question asked by the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). It was appropriate for me to have a meeting with the ILO and other UN bodies in Geneva to inform myself of the proper measures that the Government should be introducing so that we could implement them. It is relevant to travel to learn what other parties and Governments are doing right across a range of issues—climate change and others—so that we can give leadership, as we do, in all those areas.

What use do the Government make of video conferencing and other new technology to avoid the need for domestic and international travel for face-to-face meetings? What impact does that have on reducing the carbon emissions that contribute to climate change?

By definition, using the available technology leads to a reduction in carbon emissions. It might shock the House to know that I have it in my office. I use that technology from time to time, but there are times when face-to-face meetings are needed, which means travel. Indeed, I understand that the Leader of the Opposition has travelled to Europe to discuss climate change and other matters. In reality, although a lot of fuss is made about this, air travel is necessary in the global world.

How far do travel costs explain the extraordinary 30 per cent. inflationary increase in the Deputy Prime Minister’s supplementary estimate, taking it to £2.5 million? When public spending growth and increases in nurses’ pay are being kept below the rate of inflation, how can he justify that extravagance?

As I understand it, the hon. Gentleman’s profession is accountancy. If that is his reading of the figures, I would suspect most of his other arguments on the economy. In reality, as he must know if he has looked at the figures, there are no extra costs involved whatever. It is a transfer that, according to the auditor, needs to be made. Instead of other Departments paying, the figure is now attributed to my Department. Exactly the same money is used, in terms of total expenditure; it is just apportioned differently. I am amazed that he, as an accountant, did not know that simple fact.