The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. David Jamieson): Since 1997, we have invested around £267 million in Highways Agency and local major road developments in the west midlands region.
Mr. Jamieson: By reducing congestion and improving junctions, we can do much to tackle pollution issues. In a constituency like my hon. Friend's, which is in close proximity to some major roads, pollution can be considerable, as can the effect it has on children. We are also taking action to encourage cleaner vehicles through fiscal measures and have taken action in Europe to reduce engine emissions. We have taken a number of measures nationally and we also encourage local authorities to take such matters seriously.
Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire) (Con): One of the roads that goes through the west midlands and the east midlands is the A50. When it was built it had a concrete surface. The Secretary of State said that that surface would be replaced. When will that happen?
Those things will happen in order of priority, as the hon. Gentleman knows. He has seen today that several of his hon. Friends have been calling for their roads to be dealt with. All I can say to him, yet again, is that these improvements are in the programme and we are dealing with them. This Government have a policy on quieter surfaces, which of course his party never had. I ask him and his constituents to reflect on whether the Conservatives, with the cuts that they intend, would ever get around to doing that work at all.
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Mr. Brian Jenkins (Tamworth) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend realise that one of the major transport schemes in the west midlands was not publicly funded at all? It was the privately funded Birmingham north relief road. Although that has been a tremendous success in moving traffic rapidly over 27 miles, that success has created problems. Will my hon. Friend take a look at the M42, especially the section between junctions 9 and 11 where the road goes from three lanes down to two? The additional traffic constantly causes problems and hampers development in my part of the world.
Mr. Jamieson: I am well aware of the benefits that the new M6 toll has brought to the area by cutting congestion, but I am also aware that further action needs to be taken on the M42. My hon. Friend is probably aware that a substantial amount of moneynearly £72 millionhas been spent on making improvements to the M42 over the last few years. We are mindful that further improvements will be needed in future for the throughput of traffic, north-south as well as east-west.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Alan Milburn): I hold a range of meetings, including meetings with Cabinet colleagues relating to my cross-Government role in the co-ordination of Government policy, my responsibilities for the work of the strategy unit and the policy directorate, my Duchy of Lancaster role and my membership of the Cabinet.
Mr. Mackay: As, like me, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster supports housing association tenants' right to buy and is opposed to their being discriminated against, how come he lost the argument with the Deputy Prime Minister over that? Was it because the Deputy Prime Minister described him to Labour Back Benchers as an over-promoted, popped-up Back Bencher?
That is fighting talk. I am extremely grateful for the right hon. Gentleman's supportindeed, in this job you take any support you can get. Our policy is perfectly sensible in at least three regards. First, it provides an opportunity for more first-time buyers to get on to the housing ladder, which must be right and proper. Secondly, it provides a new opportunity for housing association tenants, for the first time, to get a share in their own home. That, too, is a good thing, so that they get the chance of participating in home ownership. Thirdly, and most important, that policy is
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set against the background of increasing expenditure on housing. This country faces a shortage of houses both to rent and to buy. That is why our policy is right and why, frankly, I think the right hon. Gentleman's policy, which is about cutting housing investment, is wrong.
Mr. Milburn: I have frequent discussions with the Secretary of State for Wales and the First Minister in Wales on issues of policy co-ordination, within the devolved settlement, which is a strength not a weakness for the United Kingdom. I well remember the debates that took place before 1997 when there were those who argued that if we had devolution it would strengthen the hand of the separatists and weaken the United Kingdom. In fact, it has turned out to be the reverse: the separatists are weaker, the United Kingdom is stronger, and we draw on lessons that we learn from one another.
Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell) (LD): Given that the Minister opened his comments by outlining the range of meetings he undertakes in his duties as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, could he, in the interests of public accountability, outline and publish the number of hours that he has spent in those meetings in which the subjects of the manifesto or the general election have not come up?
Mr. Milburn: The hon. Gentleman is becoming slightly like a tired record, since this is the second or perhaps the third time that he has asked me about my meetings. I am delighted and flattered that he takes such an interest in my meetings, but it might be useful if he asked about a policy issue. Why does he not stand there and talk about cross-Government policiesperhaps on the economy, public services or council tax and local income taxas well as all the damage that Liberal policies would do to hard-working families in this country: policies on the economy and public spending that are unaffordable; policies that would cut public services; and policies that would send local income taxes through the roof?
David Winnick (Walsall, North) (Lab): A friendly question: is my right hon. Friend aware that, when it comes to policy co-ordination, many of us would be deeply opposed to the severely disabled being financially discriminated against and penalised in any review of incapacity benefit? I hope that he will bear that very much in mind.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his friendly question. As he knows, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will introduce his proposals on the reform of incapacity benefit in due course, but it must be right to ensure that people who are severely disabled are properly protected. Equally, it must be right that, when the 1 million people who are on incapacity benefit say themselves that they want the opportunity to work, our job in government is to provide those opportunities for them.
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Mr. Milburn: Remarkably, it does, because I wrote it earlier. Given my responsibilities for the work of the strategy unit and the policy directorate, I have many discussions with many different officials and advisers.
Mr. Prisk: I appreciate that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has been busy in his writing and reading lessons, and in his party political poster campaign, but has he found time in his discussions with Lord Birt to discuss the question of value for public money? If he has, can he tell us whyalthough they both advise the Prime Minister on policy, allegedlythe noble Lord works for free, yet the right hon. Gentleman charges taxpayers more than £130,000?
Mr. Milburn: I am very pleased that the hon. Gentleman raises the issue of value for money and how we spend the public's hard-earned taxes, but he might like to take a look at the Conservative party's policies on that issue. I understand that, at the same time, he proposes to cut taxes, raise spending, reduce borrowing and ensure debts are cancelled. Most people would assume that such figures simply do not add up. When he and his party play fast and loose with the public finances in that way, it returns us to only one thinghe knows what it is, and I know what it isboom and bust in the economy.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that friendly question, too. Lord Birt makes a range of useful
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policy suggestions. As the House is aware, he is an unpaid strategy adviser to the Prime Minister who advises on a range of subjects, and of course we take interest in the advice that he gives.
Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East) (Con): When the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster last met Lord Birt, did he discuss the decision to revive the Fagin smear initiated by the chairman of the Labour party last year? Given the outrage that that smear caused then, how could he have thought anything other than that what he was doing in reviving it in his poster advertisement was nothing more and nothing less than a calculated campaign of sly anti-Semitism?
Mr. Milburn: I very much regret the terms in which the hon. Gentleman put his question. I fully understand and respect the views of those who have concerns about any poster designs that have appeared on the Labour party website. However, let me make it absolutely clear that those poster designs were not in any way, shape or form anti-Semiticthey were anti-Tory. I give no apology at all for making it clear to the British public exactly what the Conservatives' plans would mean, exactly where they stand and exactly what they would do to the British economy by taking us back to sky-high interest rates, mass unemployment and instability in the economy, and most of all making £35 billion of cuts to public services. If the hon. Gentleman is so interested
Mr. Speaker: Order. I allowed the previous question to be put to give the Minister an opportunity to reply, but these are really matters for the Conservative and Labour parties outside the House. The Minister must answer questions about ministerial responsibility. On that happy note, we must move on.