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Ministerial Visits: Travel Costs

Volume 760: debated on Wednesday 18 March 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their estimate of the overall travel costs of ministerial visits within the United Kingdom during the first three months of 2015.

My Lords, visits are a key part of ministerial roles. The costs of ministerial visits within the UK are not held centrally and are a matter for individual departments.

I am grateful to the Minister for that. He says that ministerial visits are very important. Perhaps he can help me with one such visit, on 30 January, by Claire Perry, the Rail Minister, to Hastings to attend a rail summit, as they called it, to promote the extension of the high-speed Javelin service from Ashford to Hastings. Apparently a special train was put on from Ashford to pick up other PPCs along the route, which, in my estimate, probably cost £50,000. The whole event was covered in Conservative Party posters and I do not imagine that anybody who was not a member of the party was there. Can he explain whether it is part of the ministerial duty to go canvassing like this? If it was paid for by the Department for Transport in whole or part, how will the Conservative Party reimburse it?

My Lords, I am not, of course, aware of the incident to which the noble Lord refers. There are well established practices, which, as far as I am aware, have not changed under this Government, for dividing between ministerial roles and political activities that Ministers may undertake while visiting particular constituencies. Paragraph 10.14 of my 2010 copy of the Ministerial Code says:

“Where a visit is a mix of political and official engagements, it is important that the department and the Party each meet a proper proportion of the actual cost”.

Is it not the case, now that we have a fixed-term Parliament, that Ministers and departments know the date of the election? It is a piece of cake to fix all the ministerial visits to coincide with that timetable, which did not exist before the fixed-term Parliament legislation. I know from personal experience how the departments watched things as we got close to the end of a five-year Parliament, but in a four-year Parliament, when the date of the election was not known, those rules did not apply. So is it not the case that, with a fixed-term Parliament, it is easier to manipulate government visits for party-political purposes?

My Lords, I think ministerial visits that include some party-political role have taken place in all the years of any Parliament. Every time I drive past the Humber Bridge, I am reminded that previous Labour Governments have on occasions used quite substantial gifts of public expenditure to influence the outcome of elections in particular constituencies.

My Lords, is it not a fact that if this was a genuine Question, my noble friend’s department should have been informed of it so that he could give a proper Answer? This is just party-political.

My Lords, there are proprieties and the propriety and ethics team within the Cabinet Office monitors them. Labour Members of this House may be interested to know that there have been a number of complaints by Liberal Democrat MPs about Conservative Ministers visiting their constituencies without prior notice, and at least one from a Conservative MP about a Liberal Democrat Minister visiting her constituency. I am glad to see that some Conservatives are nervous about things like that.

My Lords, I want to talk about proprieties because we understand that the Lib Dem part of the coalition is to give its own separate response to the Budget—presumably, in effect, its manifesto. Can the Minister confirm to the House that no Civil Service time, resources or modelling have been employed to produce this party-political statement? Can he clarify whether the effect of this separate statement means that the Lib Dems do or do not support today’s Budget?

My Lords, the noble Baroness will be well aware that, in the run-up to an election, officials are prepared to give advice, including to members of opposition parties and the Opposition Front Bench, on preparation. This is not, in any sense, out of the ordinary.

Since the noble Lord, Lord Berkeley, has raised the subject, will my noble friend take the opportunity to deal with something much more important than a particular incident: ending the absurd restrictions that mean Ministers travelling by rail on official visits are expected not to travel first-class? First-class is intended for busy executives with a shortage of time to be able to work. I suggest that these rules do not add one iota to the public’s respect for politicians—probably the reverse.

My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy with the noble Lord’s question. I recall a ministerial meeting in the Foreign Office when we all discussed which was the cheapest cheap airline that we had travelled on. As I recall, David Lidington, who had travelled on Wizz Air, was the winner.

As this is the responsibility of the Cabinet Office, can the Minister update us on what is meant these days by “collective ministerial responsibility”, given that, as my noble friend Lady Hayter said, we hear that there are to be two separate Budget Statements this year? It seems to me and many others that, although there are fundamental irreconcilable differences between the two parties of the coalition, the Lib Dem members will not do the honest and genuine thing, which is to say that they cannot agree with this Government, resign from their portfolios and stop using ministerial cars, red boxes and so on.

My Lords, we are all well aware that the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, is deeply committed to the idea that a two-party system is the only way to have democratic government. I have just been reading the Spreckley report on the 1974-75 referendum and I simply remind him that the Labour Government suspended ministerial responsibility and collective responsibility because the Cabinet disagreed on it.

My Lords, the whole House will be well aware that a place called Pendle in the north of England is the most wonderful place in Britain. My noble friend the Minister will know that because Saltaire is not very far away. Will the Minister explain why, in recent months, there have been a reported 17 ministerial visits to Pendle? What wonderful gifts are going to come to Pendle as a result of these visits?

My Lords, I am sure that all Members of this House should be travelling from Pendle through Todmorden to Saltaire. I had occasion, early in this Parliament, to upbraid Vince Cable for visiting the headquarters of Pace Electronics in Salts Mill without informing me in advance. He replied, rather lamely, that he had come from Bradford and was not aware that Salts Mill was in Saltaire.