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Topical Questions

Volume 512: debated on Tuesday 22 June 2010

As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister in the oversight of the full range of Government policy and initiatives. I have taken particular responsibilities for co-ordinating the Government’s domestic policies through my chairmanship of the Cabinet Sub-Committee on home affairs. Within the Government, I am responsible for our ambitious programme of political and constitutional reform, supported in this House by my colleague the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper).

In view of the Deputy Prime Minister’s reference to a supporting role, may I quote him directly? He has said:

“We need to invest in the kind of things… which create jobs for our young people”


“help manufacturing”.

Do not last week’s cuts in support for young people and for Sheffield Forgemasters demonstrate that the Deputy Prime Minister is powerless within Government?

As a Sheffield MP, I suspect that I know Sheffield Forgemasters a lot better than the right hon. Gentleman does, and I will be meeting the chairman and chief executive again this Friday in Sheffield. [Interruption.] Let us be clear: this is an outstanding company—it is a great company. [Interruption.] No, the new owners have been quite open about why they sought a Government loan—because, as they have publicly stated, they felt the terms they were receiving from banks were not good enough and because they did not want to dilute their own shareholdings in the company. Do I think it is the role of Government to help out owners of companies who do not want to dilute their own shareholdings? No, I do not. Every Member of this House could identify companies that are struggling more than Sheffield Forgemasters and that would also like to receive a Government loan. To support manufacturing, we must support skills, we must invest in infrastructure and we must get the banks lending. That is what we will do; that is what Labour failed to do.

T2. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that as part of his broader constitutional package, there is an opportunity to codify and formalise the relationship between central and local government in order to promote and solidify the coalition Government’s localist agenda? (3368)

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. The push for greater decentralisation, after years and years of grotesque centralisation under a Labour Government, is one of the most important changes that this coalition Government will usher in in the years ahead.

Four days before the general election the right hon. Gentleman asked in an interview in The Independent newspaper:

“What is this big society?”,

and then said it is

“a well-oiled PR machine, but basically it’s disguising fake change. It’s hollow. There’s nothing in it.”

Does he still hold that view about a fundamental philosophy of the Conservative party?

I hold that view that it is important to give people back their liberty where it has been taken away from them, that it is important to give them back privacy where that has been taken away from them, and that it is important to give back power to communities where that has been taken away from them. That is the kind of liberal society I believe in.

T3. The Liberal Democrat election manifesto, “Change that works for you”, says:“The European Union has evolved significantly since the last public vote on membership over thirty years ago. Liberal Democrats therefore remain committed to an in/out referendum.”I do not know whether that works for you, Mr Speaker, but it certainly works for me. Is that what we are going to do? (3369)

Unlikely alliances abound, Mr Speaker. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. As he knows, the coalition agreement sets out very clearly that we will not agree to any further transfer of powers from this Parliament, and from London and Whitehall to Brussels and Strasbourg, and if there were any proposal to do so, we will introduce legislation this autumn—a referendum lock—that will guarantee that the British people finally have their say.

What message does the Deputy Prime Minister think it sends out about a new politics to redraw the electoral map on the basis of a register that excludes a third of all black people and half of all young people?

As I said, we are all concerned, on both sides of this House, that 3.5 million people are not on the electoral register. I say again, however, that if the right hon. Gentleman is so concerned now, why did he not voice his concerns when he was in government? His Government legislated to introduce individual electoral registration, but they did it at a very leisurely pace that will not actually lead to compulsory electoral registration during this Parliament. [Hon. Members: “Answer the question.”] I am. That is why we are looking at whether we can accelerate individual electoral registration.

T4. My right hon. Friend rightly wants new steps to ensure that lobbying is legitimate advocacy, not undue influencing. Will he please extend the scope of his review to deal with the revolving door between top officials in Whitehall and big corporations? Will he consider restrictions beyond those already in place to ensure that public procurement rip-offs cannot be brought through the revolving door? (3370)

We will bring forward proposals on lobbying. Lobbying is a legitimate activity as long as it is out in the open, and we will ensure that there is a statutory register of all lobbyists so that that is completely above board and entirely transparent. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has introduced a new code for Ministers and for special advisers which will make sure that the period of time between special advisers in particular leaving Government and then seeking employment in lobbying companies is significantly lengthened.

Is the 55% Dissolution trigger for this Parliament or for every Parliament? If it is for every Parliament, how does the Deputy Prime Minister intend to make it stick given that he cannot bind successor Parliaments?

It is an important constitutional change—I recognise that. We believe that it is right to separate the power to pass a motion of no confidence in a Government from the power to pass a motion of Dissolution. Let us be clear about why we are doing this. We are doing it because we want to introduce fixed-term Parliaments. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is the first Prime Minister to give up his power to dissolve Parliament. I should have thought that the right hon. Gentleman and all Members of the House would welcome that change. However, we all understand that the proposed 55% figure is controversial. It is up for discussion and scrutiny, and if the case is made that another figure might be better, of course we are open to those arguments.

T5. Does the Deputy Prime Minister not find it astonishing that some Members of this House do not believe that every vote should have equal value? People in Harlow and the villages hope that their say at the ballot box will one day have as much weight as everyone else’s, with fairer and more equal-sized constituencies. (3371)

I agree with my hon. Friend. We have a general problem. The Labour party has leapt from being in government, where it created endless problems, to coming into opposition and airbrushing those problems from the record altogether. Labour Members used to talk about fairness, reform and constitutional change. They now talk about manufacturing, but manufacturing declined three times faster under Labour than it did under previous Conservative Administrations.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell the House what the average size of a public sector pension in the civil service is as we speak, so that we can understand what he means by “gold-plated”?

That is a matter for the Budget. As the Chancellor of the Exchequer has already announced, a former Secretary of State for Defence will be providing a review of public sector pensions. I think it is right to look at the fundamental balance between pension entitlements in the private sector, which have been cut back and have changed very dramatically—many people in the private sector, too, have been working shorter hours and taking, in effect, pay cuts—and the pension entitlements due to those in the public sector. It is the fair thing to do to look at pensions in the round. That is what this Government will do and what the hon. Lady’s Government failed to do for more than a decade.

T6. The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware that every time we change the voting system, such as the introduction of proportional representation to European Parliament elections, the turnout goes down. That is probably one of the biggest challenges he faces. What solution can we find to ensure that turnout remains high when we introduce new electoral systems? (3372)

I am not sure whether there is such an intimate link between electoral systems and turnout. Turnout seems to me to be dependent on whether the contest is close and whether there are issues being debated in the election contest that engage people. That is something that those on both sides of the House should always strive to do at election time.

T7. I have heard the Deputy Prime Minister say that he is concerned that 3.5 million people are missing from the register, including groups such as those with learning disabilities, but I have not heard what he is going to do about it, apart from individual registration, which might make the problem worse. What is he going to do to ensure that those numbers go up on the electoral register? (3373)

It is clearly a complex problem or, I assume, the hon. Lady and her Government would have done something about it in the past 13 years. I think that individual electoral registration is the absolute key, but as we said in the debate here on another occasion, it is crucial to make sure that individual electoral registration is properly resourced and is conducted with care. If it is done too quickly and is not resourced properly, she is right that there is a risk of making the problem worse. That is something that we must avoid at all costs.

T8. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s review of the workings of the upper House. Does he agree that perhaps the time has come to consider the fact that the hereditary principle is wrong on principle? (3374)

T9. May I draw the Deputy Prime Minister’s attention to the “Crimewatch” most wanted list? Second on the list is one Michael Brown, wanted for defrauding £8 million from former Manchester United chairman Martin Edwards. He also donated £2 million in cash to the Lib Dems in 2005. Does the Deputy Prime Minister have any information about his whereabouts and if so will he call the City of London police or Crimestoppers in confidence on 0800 555 111? (3375)

No, interestingly enough I do not have any information on his whereabouts. If I did, I should of course be sure to pass it on. It is clear—[Interruption.]

Order. This is very discourteous to the Deputy Prime Minister and I do not think that the public like it. Above all, I want to hear the answer from the Deputy Prime Minister.

Talk about the great disappeared—where is the former Prime Minister and where are all the leadership candidates? The contest for the Labour party leadership increasingly resembles a political version of “Big Brother”. They are just talking to themselves. The rest of the country lost interest ages ago and just wants it to finish.

T10. Once claiming to be the political arm of the British people, now Labour are the defenders of rotten boroughs and pocket boroughs under trade union sponsorship. Will the Deputy Prime Minister bring forward a great reform Bill so that we can have a people’s Parliament fit for the new millennium? (3376)

I certainly agree with the zeal with which my hon. Friend wishes us to pursue political and constitutional reform. It remains extraordinary that a party that used to call itself progressive and a party of reform failed to do anything fundamentally to reform our politics. We will now do it because the Labour Government failed to do so.

The right hon. Gentleman made reference to the leisurely time scale for the introduction of individual registration, but it was a long time scale to ensure that the missing 3.5 million people were back on the register before the introduction of individual registration. If he is to speed up one—the introduction of individual registration—will he speed up the other and get those 3.5 million people back on the register?

As I said, we need to proceed with care and make sure that the system is properly resourced. As the hon. Gentleman rightly said, the present timetable is for voluntary individual registration to continue until, I think, 2015 before a compulsory phase is introduced. We are actively looking at whether that is feasible and justifiable and whether we can resource an acceleration of the timetable. We have not yet decided on that.

The unfinished business of devolution is the situation England finds itself in. Will my right hon. Friend tell us what plans the coalition Government have to address that?

We will be establishing a commission—[Hon. Members: “Ooh!”] Does the jeer indicate impatience for action? Is that right—we want a bit of action? Well, that’s what we saw over the last decade and a bit.

We will be establishing a commission to examine the West Lothian question.