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The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): We announced in December 2004 a programme of major transport schemes that we propose to take forward in the east of England. They include road improvement schemes that will benefit East Anglia.
I welcome my hon. Friend to his new role. I am not sure whether he has ventured down the highways and byways of East Anglia, but if he has, he will have entered a different world of narrow and winding single carriageway roads on which one travels at the speed of the slowest vehicle, which is usually a tractor. Those roads could be improved through local transport plans, so will he confirm that each local
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authority should determine its priority for those capital schemes and that, provided that they cross a basic cost-benefit threshold, the Department for Transport will respect the priorities when local authorities submit their plans?
Dr. Ladyman: Of course. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind words and would be pleased to join him on a drive through those quaint roads. I can confirm that local transport plans give local authorities the opportunity to prioritise schemes, as long as they offer appropriate value for money. Subject, of course, to total fundingwe must not forget thatwe will not interfere with those prioritisations.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Cabinet Office (Mr. Jim Murphy): The Government remain committed to increasing diversity in public appointments. The Cabinet Office is working to encourage applications for appointments from all sections of society.
Keith Vaz: I welcome the Minister's commitment to the diversity agenda, but it is a fact that the number of women and ethnic minority people who serve on quangos is still woefully inadequate. I realise that the Government are committed to action plans, but is it not the case that, after eight years, we need fewer action plans and more action, less consultation and more decisions? Will he give the House an assurance that he and his Department take this issue very seriously so that the public appointments that we make really look like the rest of Britain?
Mr. Murphy: I pay tribute to my hon. Friend who, both today and over the years, has dedicated much energy and political time to this important issue. He is right to acknowledge the progress that has been made in recent years, but he is also right to demand that more be done. We are not complacent and a series of new initiatives aims to ensure that bodies that serve the public more accurately represent society as a whole, as he said. If he or any other hon. Member has specific ideas about what more can be done, my Cabinet Office team and I would be delighted to hear them.
Mr. Kevan Jones (North Durham)
(Lab): One of the Government's big mistakes was setting up the NHS Appointments Commission, which arrogantly fails to consult local people on appointments and, more worrying for hon. Members, treats Members of Parliament with contempt. What can my hon. Friend do to increase the representation of ethnic minorities and
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women in NHS public appointments and to make sure that the commission is accountable to local people so that its appointments represent a cross-section of society? Certainly in the north-east, the commission is failing woefully in that aim.
Mr. Murphy: My hon. Friend will accept that I cannot comment on the specific case that he raised, but he can rest assured that we are committed to the goal of ensuring greater diversity and accountability and to narrowing the distance between public bodies and the public whom they serve. If my hon. Friend has specific details about the accusations and allegations that he made, I would be delighted to hear from him.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. John Hutton): The Cabinet Office oversees the work of the Central Office of Information, so I have regular discussions on its activities with officials and others.
Bob Spink: Will the Minister address the issue constructively if he possibly can? Reducing Government advertising expenditure to 1997 levels in real terms would save about £200 million next year. The public want that money to be spent responsibly, not irresponsibly wasted on Government advertising.
Mr. Hutton: I shall try to respond to serious suggestions. Sadly, I am not sure that what the hon. Gentleman said constitutes a serious proposition. The Central Office of Information spent about £167 million last year on media. If we were to reduce that spending by £200 million there would be nothing whatsoever to spend on our campaigns to help people give up smoking and to recruit more soldiers, sailors and Air Force personnel to the armed forces. We would not spend anything on campaigns against drink-driving or a range of other campaigns that I would expect right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House to regard as sensible and constructive. I am afraid that, on this very rare occasion, the hon. Gentleman has not come up with anything sensible for me to consider.
Mr. Sadiq Khan (Tooting) (Lab): In May this year, there were 3,390 pensioners in Tooting receiving the benefit of pension credit. We are concerned that there may be many thousands more not receiving that benefit. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government have a duty to provide information to the public and ensure that more pensioners, in particular, get what they are entitled to? Is that not an argument for more to be spent on advertising and making sure that all our citizens know what they are entitled to?
I am not sure that we will be spending any more, in that sense, but I agree with my hon. Friend's central point, particularly in the light of the argument that we had last week. Most Labour Members regard it as an important responsibility that we encourage people to take up benefits to which they are
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entitled. With reference to his example of tax credits, I should have thought that hon. Members on both sides of the House would understand the need for expenditure in that area and not take the advice of the hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink).
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome) (LD): One Department that uses a substantial amount of advertising is the Home Department, often for very good reasons. If, heaven forfend, the House passes the Identity Cards Bill, will there not be a requirement, especially in the absence of compulsion, to advise an awful lot of people why they might need a card to tell who they are, what distant city they might have to go to in order to have their measurements taken and how much it will cost? Has any estimate been made of the advertising implications of the Bill? Why is that not included in the regulatory impact assessment?
Mr. Hutton: Certainly, the Cabinet Office has not done that and, ultimately, those are matters for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to consider. The role and function of the Central Office of Information is to provide sensible information at value-for-money prices about a range of programmes and policies that are relevant to taxpayers and the community at large, and we will continue to do that.
The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. John Hutton): Lord Birt is the Prime Minister's unpaid strategy adviser. He provides the Prime Minister and other Cabinet Ministers with advice on a wide range of issues. He is also a member of the Cabinet Office strategy board and the civil service reform programme board.
Norman Baker: I thank the Minister for that content-free answer. We will rely on the Kremlinologists to find out what Lord Birt is actually doing. Given that he has a major and disproportionate influence on the Prime Minister, despite the fact that all he has ever done is nearly wreck the BBC, is it not about time we found out what he was doing? Is it not time he was accountable to the House? Will the Minister start by publishing his work programme?
If the hon. Gentleman thinks my answer was content-free, he should have seen the first one that I was given to read out. He has taken a close interest in what Lord Birt does in Government and asked for Lord Birt to be accountable to the House. We need a sense of proportion in all this. Lord Birt is the Prime Minister's unpaid strategy adviser. The Prime Minister is entitled to receive advice on that basis from whomsoever he chooses. That is a matter for the Prime Minister, not the hon. Gentleman, who of course is president of the obsessive conspiracy theorists club.
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Mr. Hutton: No. The hon. Gentleman asked about Lord Birt's office, which is at No. 10. Very recently, Lord Birt's ceiling fell in at his office at No. 10, which will probably help him in his blue-skies thinking.
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