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Government: Dual Ministerial Roles

Volume 697: debated on Monday 10 December 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Why they did not answer Lord Tebbit’s Written Question (HL5443) concerning the apportionment of the time of Mr Des Browne MP between his duties as Secretary of State for Defence and Secretary of State for Scotland, tabled on 9 October and due for answer on 23 October, before Prorogation on 30 October; and why they have not written to him on this matter.

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence and I apologise that a holding response to the Question, tabled on 9 October, was not sent to the noble Lord. The Defence Secretary has now written to him to explain the situation.

My Lords, I should thank the noble Baroness for that reply, and extend to her my sympathy for having to answer two Questions running from totally indefensible grounds.

Two matters arise. First, why did it take more than seven weeks—from 9 October to 30 November—for the Secretary of State for Scotland to tell me that he could not tell me how much time he spent on each of his two jobs? Why did he tell a different story to a newspaper reporter of the Mail on Sunday on 23 November? Secondly, could the Minister confirm that Mr Browne is a lawyer? Can she say whether he found difficulty as a lawyer in apportioning the time that he spent on the affairs of his various clients, and that therefore he never billed them at all?

My Lords, I shall steer well clear of legal matters that certainly has been predate the time during which my right honourable friend was Secretary of State. I take the noble Lord’s comments about sympathy for me in the way in which they were intended.

In fact, the letter that my right honourable friend sent to the noble Lord explains the delay. In it, he said:

“If it is any consolation, I and my officials have been exploring further whether a sensible factual answer could be provided to your question, and I have concluded that it is impossible”.

The Secretary of State went on to say that he would be happy to meet the noble Lord to explain that. Perhaps I should point out that whether my right honourable friend is meeting the noble Lord or working on other matters, he is the Secretary of State 24 hours a day, seven days a week, every day of the year.

My Lords, I do not doubt that Mr Des Browne, the Secretary of State for Defence, is both hard-working and extremely conscientious, but this is not a matter of clearing one’s in-tray or managing one’s diary. We are at war, and this is about leadership. Does the Minister accept that the perception of our soldiers, sailors and airmen—I meet many of our servicemen and servicewomen—is that their commitment, which sadly sometimes involves the ultimate sacrifice, is not matched by this Government in a number of ways, not least by their extraordinary unwillingness to have a full-time Secretary of State at these times of high levels of war fighting?

My Lords, if the role of the Secretary of State for Defence was simply to clear his in-tray, I suspect that a figure could be put on the number of hours he spends doing that, but it is clearly much more than that. There is never a day, an hour or any time when the Secretary of State is not fully conscious of his very significant responsibilities. At the moment, my right honourable friend is in Afghanistan visiting the troops there yet again. I think that this is his fifth visit to Afghanistan. He has made seven visits to Iraq, which makes his visits at least once every two months into theatre. That commitment is extremely high and shows how seriously he takes his responsibilities. I also reject the idea that he has not delivered in other ways through welfare packages and compensation for those with multiple injuries, and in tackling some of the legacy problems that have been around for many years involving such issues as housing and accommodation generally. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State has a record of which he can be proud, which shows his full commitment to the responsibilities that he holds.

My Lords, as the Secretary of State for Defence has on several occasions said publicly that the job for Scotland does not take up much time, would it not be appropriate if someone else did that job?

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, is an expert on having two jobs? In the 1980s, he was not only Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster but chairman of the Conservative Party. He managed to fall out with the then Prime Minister. Could my noble friend ascertain from him which job caused the difficulty at that time?

As for the words from the Cross Benches, will my noble friend accept from me as a former corporal in the Royal Engineers in the 1960s that most of us did not give a bugger who the Secretary of State was?

My Lords, as a new Minister, I am not sure how far I should follow the suggestions of my noble friend. I am aware that the noble Lord had more than one job and that he was not unique in that. I am also aware that my noble friend is very talented and often gets straight to the point on many issues. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State made it clear that in all his visits—as I said, he is a regular visitor to the Armed Forces—no one has raised the issue of his Scottish role. His record and the reaction from the ground stand him in good stead. It is acknowledged that he is generally serious in his responsibilities and does a good job.