CONSERVATIVE
New Forest East

CABINET OFFICE – MILBURN'S SINECURE – 16 November 2004

[Mr Bill Wiggin: To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster how many hours on average he has spent per week on his responsibilities for the Policy Directorate.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr Alan Milburn): In my role as a Cabinet Minister, I divide my time between my various duties. I am responsible to Her Majesty the Queen on Duchy business. As a member of the Cabinet, I sit on 17 Cabinet Committees. [Hon. Members: "Oh!"] I will list them if hon. Members are interested.

As Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, I have a cross-Government role in the co-ordination of Government policy. I therefore have a wide range of official meetings, including meetings with Cabinet colleagues. In addition to that, I am responsible for the work of the Strategy Unit and, of course, the Policy Directorate inside No. 10 Downing Street.

Mr Wiggin: The Minister will be aware that everybody believes that his role is to organise the Labour party's general election campaign. Perhaps he should have another chance at answering my question and tell me how many hours he actually does.

Mr Milburn: As the hon. Gentleman is well aware, it has not been unusual either in this Government or in previous Conservative Governments for the holder of this office, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, on some occasions to have other ministerial responsibilities. Some have had ministerial responsibilities other than Duchy business and some have not. In some cases they have combined Duchy business with political business. That is not unusual.

If the hon. Gentleman had listened to the answer that I gave earlier, he would understand what my range of governmental responsibilities are. I suspect that he did not listen to what I had to say because he was too busy reading the briefing that he has received from the hon. Member for New Forest, East (Dr Lewis), who sits on the Opposition Front Bench. He has a copy of that briefing and so have I. It reads: "Dear colleagues", and it is signed "Yours ever, Julian". It says:

"Thank you to the 30 colleagues who responded positively to my e-mail about putting down an OPQ to Milburn for answer on Tuesday, 16 November at 12:20."

I like a man who is punctual.

"There is a real" –

Mr Speaker: Order. The Chancellor of the Duchy has made the point. ... ]

Dr Julian Lewis: I am delighted that the Chancellor of the Duchy has concluded his sixth minute at the Dispatch Box since his appointment in September. With such a record, it is hardly surprising that the Deputy Prime Minister got him mixed up with the right hon. Member for Tyneside, North (Mr. Byers), and not in very complimentary terms either.

Is the Chancellor aware that ministerial guidelines state that answers to questions from parliamentarians should be as full as possible unless it is not in the public interest to reveal the details? Why has the right hon. Gentleman consistently pursued a policy of evasion when asked how he spends his time, how he is having his engagements organised and how much his office costs? Is it because the list is so lengthy or is it because it is so short.

[Mr Speaker: Order. We have only a few minutes left.

Mr Milburn: It has never been standard practice to release detailed information about Ministers' diaries, as the hon. Gentleman knows full well. It is true that he has asked me many questions since I came to office – I think that he has asked 35 since 11 October, 16 of which relate to my responsibilities. I noted the absence, however, of questions on the lips of his constituents about crime, jobs, health, education, child care and pensions. Frankly, the reason why he does not ask about those issues is that he, just like the Conservative Party in general, has precisely nothing to say about them.]

[For coverage of this exchange in Alan Milburn's local newspaper, the Northern Echo, click here.]