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Volume 514: debated on Wednesday 21 July 2010

I have been asked to reply. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is visiting the United States for meetings with President Obama and briefings on Afghanistan.

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Marine Jonathan Crookes, from 40 Commando Royal Marines, and Senior Aircraftman Kinikki Griffiths, from the RAF Regiment, both of whom died on Friday; and to Sergeant David Monkhouse, from the Royal Dragoon Guards, and Staff Sergeant Brett Linley, from 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment, the Royal Logistic Corps, both of whom died on Saturday. They were, of course, men of great courage and selflessness who died in the service of our country, and their sacrifice will not be forgotten. I am sure that I speak on behalf of the whole House when I say that we also send our deepest condolences to their families and friends, whose own courage and dignity, like that of so many others who have lost loved ones in Afghanistan, are truly inspiring.

I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our deepest sympathy and condolences to the families and friends of our brave service personnel who have died in the course of their duties while in action in Afghanistan.

It is now a fortnight since the people of Gateshead were told of the axing of the Building Schools for the Future programme, which affects five local schools in the borough of Gateshead. This deeply concerns both communities, which have lost much needed investment, and Liberal Democrat councillors in some of those areas, who now fear losing their seats. Will the Deputy Prime Minister agree to meet the borough’s MPs to discuss a way forward for those schools, which have had much needed investment wrenched from their grasp by this Government’s action?

Of course I understand the hon. Gentleman’s concern about schooling in his constituency, but we should be under no illusions. The Building Schools for the Future programme would have had to be cut even if Labour were still in power. It was the Labour Government who cut capital investment by 50% but did not deign to tell people what that would mean. Building Schools for the Future was a programme that was not effectively run: it took three years after it had begun before the first brick was laid. Of course we will look at new ways of ensuring that capital investment continues to flow into existing schools and new schools—particularly primary schools, which were excluded from the Building Schools for the Future programme—and of course we will meet with him.

May I express my gratitude for the Prime Minister raising the case of my constituent Gary McKinnon with the US President? Give the mutual commitment to find a way through and seek an appropriate solution, are there now real grounds for optimism that there is light at the end of a tortuous tunnel for Gary McKinnon?

I have long been associated with this case, and I would like to pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all the work that he has done on behalf of Gary McKinnon. No one doubts the gravity of the offences that Gary McKinnon is alleged to have committed. That is beyond question; the simple question is whether he should, in the circumstances, be tried here or extradited to the United States. The Prime Minister and the President of the United States indicated yesterday that they have had a discussion about Gary McKinnon and that, notwithstanding the gravity of the alleged crimes, they hope to find a way forward.

I join the right hon. Gentleman in paying tribute to the British servicemen who have been killed in Afghanistan in recent days: Marine Jonathan Crookes, from 40 Commando Royal Marines, and Senior Aircraftman Kinikki Griffiths, from the RAF Regiment, who both died on Friday; and Sergeant David Monkhouse, from the Royal Dragoon Guards, and Staff Sergeant Brett Linley, from 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment, the Royal Logistic Corps, who both died on Saturday. These were very brave men who lost their lives in the service of their country—our country. We salute their courage, and we will always honour their memory and sacrifice, which they have made for us. I also join very much with the right hon. Gentleman in sending our deep condolences to the families, comrades and friends of these brave service personnel.

We welcome the Kabul conference, which the Foreign Secretary has attended, and hope that it does indeed lead to positive improvements in the lives of the people of Afghanistan. The Prime Minister has said that he wants to see United Kingdom combat troops withdrawn by 2014. Could I ask the Deputy Prime Minister whether that commitment is unconditional, or will it depend on the circumstances on the ground at the time?

First, I welcome the right hon. Gentleman to the Dispatch Box. I look forward to answering his questions. This is the first time a Liberal leader has been in this position since the 1920s. Given the right hon. Gentleman’s great longevity in politics, that was probably around the time he first joined a Labour shadow Cabinet.

As to the right hon. Gentleman’s question about our engagement in Afghanistan, the Prime Minister has been clear, and we have been clear as a coalition Government, that we do not wish to see British troops in a combat role in Afghanistan by 2015—not 2014, as the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) suggested. That is consistent, of course, with the timetable for the Afghan forces assuming responsibility for security by 2014, as agreed in the Kabul conference yesterday. No timetable can be chiselled in stone, but we are absolutely determined, given how long we have been in Afghanistan and given that we are six months into an 18-month military strategy and embarking on a new political strategy, to be out of a combat role by 2015.

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his welcome of my appearance, probably my one and only appearance, here in this capacity—[Hon. Members: “Ah!”] Well, there we are. I am also grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his answer, from which I take it that he was saying—in my view, wisely—that this commitment is indeed a conditional one.

The right hon. Gentleman told this House on 22 June that the Government had denied a loan to Sheffield Forgemasters because the owners

“did not want to dilute their own shareholding in the company.”—[Official Report, 22 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 148.]

But we now know that, in private, the right hon. Gentleman admitted to the chief executive of the company:

“You… made clear to me your own willingness to dilute your equity share”.

Yesterday, my right hon. Friend the shadow Business Secretary asked you about this, Mr Speaker, and you ruled that

“if a Minister makes a factual error in a statement to the House, it is preferable… that he or she should correct that error in the House.”—[Official Report, 20 July 2010; Vol. 514, c. 186.]

Will the right hon. Gentleman now correct that error?

First, lest there be any confusion on the vital issue of Afghanistan, which I hope will continue to enjoy cross-party support, let me be absolutely clear that we will see our troops withdrawn from a combat role in Afghanistan by 2015. We are determined to see that happen.

On Sheffield Forgemasters, the right hon. Gentleman knows that the problem was simply one of affordability. Lord Mandelson was writing out cheques to companies like Forgemasters, which he knew would bounce, all the while writing in his memoirs:

“We were deep in a pit of debt and still digging.”

That was what was wrong. It was wrong to pretend that there could be Government assistance for a great company like Sheffield Forgemasters when, as the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury said, there was “no money left”. [Interruption.]

I find it surprising that the Deputy Prime Minister, who has preached the importance of open, transparent and honest politics, cannot bring himself to correct the record of something that was plainly wrong. The explanation that he is now offering is not the one that he offered previously. That explanation was about the dilution of the company’s shareholding—the same explanation that the Prime Minister offered the House. The Prime Minister told the House on 7 July:

“The question is whether it is an appropriate use of taxpayers’ money to give it to a business that could raise that money by diluting its shareholding.”—[Official Report, 7 July 2010; Vol. 513, c. 369.]

Now that it is clear that the basis on which the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister made the decision to refuse the loan was simply wrong, will he reconsider that decision?

That was not a question—it was a sort of dissertation. [Interruption.] The right hon. Gentleman talks about openness and transparency. It would have been more transparent if Lord Mandelson and his Government had admitted that there was no money. [Interruption.] Hon. Members should not take it from me; the position was summed up rather well in Sheffield Forgemasters—[Interruption.]

Order. I must appeal for calm. I can see Members ranting at the tops of their voices at the Deputy Prime Minister. It is wrong, and it must stop. Whatever the feeling, it must stop. The public detest it and so do I.

If the right hon. Gentleman thinks that is a lot of noise, he should try it from the Bench I formerly occupied—it is even worse.

Let me cite what a worker on the shop floor of Sheffield Forgemasters said in Sheffield’s The Star only last week. He said that on a visit by Lord Mandelson to Sheffield Forgemasters:

“I asked Lord Mandelson, if the country was near to bankruptcy, where would the money come from? He turned away to speak to my gaffer. I asked again and he said very”—

Order. I am sorry to interrupt the Deputy Prime Minister, but that is very discursive and not relevant to the precise responsibility of a member of the Government. [Interruption.] Order. I do not require any guidance. We will leave it there.

Let us consider affordability—not the reason that the Deputy Prime Minister and the Prime Minister gave originally, but affordability. The Deputy Prime Minister says that he is concerned about affordability, but we are talking about a loan, not a grant, to help Sheffield Forgemasters build Britain’s future in low-carbon manufacturing. He is not prepared to make that loan, but why is he prepared to acquiesce in spending £550 million a year on so-called tax breaks for marriage—a policy that he described as “patronising drivel”?

The right hon. Gentleman is living in complete denial. When we came to government, we discovered that the structural deficit was £12 billion worse than he had led us to believe. His Government had announced £50 billion of cuts without having the decency to tell the British people what they would do about that. We now discover from Lord Mandelson’s infinitely helpful memoirs that the Chancellor had planned to increase VAT, lower tax for people on low pay and cut corporation tax. Does that sound familiar? Yes, it does. We had to do it; they did not have the courage to do it.

I note that the right hon. Gentleman did not say a word about his acquiescence in spending half a billion pounds a year on marriage tax breaks, which he has criticised. No wonder that his noble and new-found Friend Lord Ashcroft says today—[Interruption.]

Order. I want to hear what the noble Lord has been saying. Let us hear it. There is far too much noise.

Lord Ashcroft says today,

“even in the Liberal Democrat-held seats, less than a quarter of voters thought the Lib Dems were having a significant impact on the Government’s agenda.”

First, the Deputy Prime Minister blamed the cancellation of the loan on Sheffied Forgemasters’ unwillingness to dilute the shareholding, then he said that it was unaffordable. Last week he told the Yorkshire Post that the company did not need a loan after all. [Interruption.] I am not surprised that hon. Members are baying, because there has been one excuse after another. He said—[Interruption.]

Order. Members are beside themselves. I am quite worried about their health. They really do need to calm down. [Interruption.] Order. Let me simply say to the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) that I want some time to be left for Back Benchers.

The Deputy Prime Minister said to the Yorkshire Post:

“Forgemasters can find the money for expansion elsewhere”.

Now that we know that it cannot find the money—as it said yesterday—has not the whole edifice of the Deputy Prime Minister’s argument been demolished? Why on earth will he not reconsider this ludicrous decision?

Thank heavens this is the last occasion on which the right hon. Gentleman will be at the Dispatch Box in this capacity. It seems to me that he needs to go away and practise a bit more.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about impact. Let me just ask him this. Why did his Government do nothing to sort out the banks which were not prepared to offer a decent loan to Forgemasters at reasonable rates? We imposed the levy; his Government did not. Why did pensioners have to wait until this coalition Government came to power for the restoration of the earnings link, which he failed to restore for 13 years? Why did his party scrap the 10p tax rate, whereas we have taken 800,000 people on low pay out of the tax system altogether? That is more progress in 10 weeks than he managed in 13 years.

Order. I think that the right hon. Gentleman has had his allotted span. [Hon. Members: “No.”] I apologise. It felt like it. I call Jack Straw.

With apologies to the hon. Member for Devizes (Claire Perry), Mr Speaker.

Just over a month before the election, the Deputy Prime Minister warned about the dangers of policies of the kind that he is now following. He said:

“just imagine the reaction of my constituents in South West Sheffield.”

People like that are going to ask, “Who are these people who are telling us that they are suddenly going to take our jobs away? Who are these people?” Well, now we know who these people are. Are they not the Liberal Democrats—the people who are giving power to the Conservatives without any influence over the policies that they used to oppose?

The right hon. Gentleman may bellow as much as he likes. I am happy to account for everything that we are doing in this coalition Government—a coalition Government who have brought together two parties, working in the national interest, to sort out the mess that he left behind. We may have to wait for his memoirs, but perhaps one day he will account for his role in the most disastrous decision of all: the illegal invasion of Iraq.

Order. The House really must start to behave itself. We have made slow progress—[Interruption.] Order. That progress must get faster from now on, with short questions and short answers. I call Claire Perry.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. Third time lucky.

Can the Deputy Prime Minister tell us what the coalition Government have done in 10 short weeks to preserve the civil liberties of the British people—liberties that have been so cruelly eroded by the Labour party over the past 13 years?

I agree with my hon. Friend. The authoritarian record of the Labour Government is one of the most dismal records in modern British history, featuring the illegal invasion of Iraq, the turning of our prisons into overcrowded colleges of crime, the decimation of our civil liberties, the invasion of our privacy, and the roll-out of a surveillance state without any checks or balances; and look at what we have managed—

Order. I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was going to talk about what the present Government had done, not what the last Government had done; and he is now coming to an end, I am sure.

This Government have scrapped ID cards, they will table a freedom Bill, and they have launched a counter-terrorism review to create the right balance between security and liberty.

Q2. Does the Deputy Prime Minister recall the comments of the Prime Minister on the road to the election, when he stated openly and clearly that the north-east would be hit hard? Does that mean that the hard-working people in my constituency and others, the disabled people, the young and the old must suffer as a consequence of these Budget cuts, or should they just accept the fact that they will be part of this wonderful new big society? (9849)

The hon. Gentleman is, of course, right that some regions and parts of the country are more vulnerable than others, and the north-east is an obvious example. It is a region where there has been a heavy dependence—arguably an over-reliance—on public sector jobs. One way or another, that was going to have to come to an end whoever was in government, because of the irresponsible overspending by the Labour Government. We are now putting measures in place, including the national insurance breaks for companies setting up in regions such as the north-east and the regional growth fund under which £1 billion is being precisely directed at helping those regions, to make sure that they are not disproportionately hit by the difficult fiscal contraction that we now have to introduce as a national duty because of the mess bequeathed to us by the Labour Government.

Q3. More than 250,000 older people live in sheltered retirement accommodation. Like many, two constituents of mine purchased their leases on the promise of full-time, in-house warden support at no charge. In the case of my constituents, that service has been whittled down to an off-site, visiting-by-appointment, chargeable service. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a shameful way to treat older people, and will he support my campaign to raise awareness of the legal redress that older people can have to secure their rights? (9850)

I am grateful for that question from my hon. Friend. She is well known for her outstanding record as a champion for older people prior to coming to the House, and I am sure all Members on both sides of the House share her concern that all older people, regardless of whether they live in their own homes, sheltered accommodation or residential care homes, can live in those settings with real dignity. That is one reason why we have just announced that there will be an independent commission to consider how we can ensure affordable and sustainable funding for care and support for all adults in England, and I hope my hon. Friend will be able to make her views and expertise available to that commission.

Indeed. The Deputy Prime Minister said:

“I am a revolutionary but I am also a pragmatist”.

When he suddenly agreed to raise VAT, was he being a revolutionary pragmatist or a pragmatic revolutionary?

No one on the Government Benches took lightly the decision to raise VAT, but did we know before we went into government that the structural deficit was £12 billion higher? Did we know that the Labour Government had announced £50 billion of cuts but not told people what that actually meant in practice? Could anyone have predicted the economic firestorm in Europe? Perhaps the hon. Gentleman can tell me why the former Chancellor advocated an increase in VAT but was blocked by the then Prime Minister. The former Chancellor knew it was the right thing to do; the rest of his party stopped him.

Q4. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that in addition to dealing with the worst fiscal position in peacetime history, the new coalition Government should seek to arrest the decline in social mobility, and thereby reduce the gap between rich and poor? (9851)

My hon. Friend is right to say that as well as having to deal with a fiscal crisis—which has been handed over to us by the Labour party—we are faced also with a social crisis: social mobility has gone down; inequality has gone up; the gap between rich and poor has increased; and child poverty has increased by 100,000 since 2004 alone. That is why we have taken 800,000 people out of paying tax altogether. That is why we are going to deliver a pupil premium for children from poor backgrounds wherever they live in this country. That is why we have restored the triple guarantee to pensioners. That is why we have taken measures to make Britain fairer which were not taken by Opposition Members.

Q5. My constituent, Charlie Donegan, suffers from long-term mental health problems, septicaemia, pneumonia and methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, and is a wheelchair user as a result. He receives the mobility and care components of disability living allowance at the higher rate. Can the Deputy Prime Minister explain to my constituent and to thousands of other worried members of the public like him, who rely on DLA for some small improvement to the quality of their lives, why he is now to face a medical test for a benefit that is intended to meet his non-medical needs? (9852)

This is not about taking away universal benefits; this is about making sure that those who receive DLA, such as the hon. Lady’s constituent, do so because of real need. That is why it has been proposed by Members from all parties for many, many years that one way to proceed is to have a simple medical test. I meet constituents; I meet people who say that rather than running the gamut of the vast bureaucracy that has now attached itself to DLA, they themselves would prefer a simple medical test to know whether they continue to be entitled to receive that benefit, yes or no.

Q6. As part of the political and constitutional reform process, will the Deputy Prime Minister undertake to give due consideration to the loyal subjects of Her Majesty’s overseas territories and Crown dependencies, who currently have no representation and no voice in the constitution of this country? (9853)

They are extremely well represented by my hon. Friend, who I know is a passionate advocate of our relationship with overseas territories and, of course, Crown dependencies. We will continue to work with him and others in this House to make sure that the citizens of the overseas territories are served by their own legislatures, with champions here in this House and in government, and of course we will work with the Governments of the Crown dependencies to help them develop their own wider ambitions. This applies to the Falklands or Gibraltar, although I have to confess that Gibraltar is a sensitive topic in the Clegg household.

If the intercity express programme survives the comprehensive spending review, Hitachi will build the rolling stock in my constituency, at Newton Aycliffe, creating 800 direct jobs and thousands of jobs in the supply chain. This will be the biggest investment in the north-east of England since Nissan. Will the Deputy Prime Minister ask the Transport Minister to meet me and a delegation of north-eastern business leaders and trade unionists, so that we can explain how important this project is to the region?

Of course that will be considered, as with everything else, in the comprehensive spending round. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the previous Government cut capital investment by 50%. We are determined to maintain investment in our infrastructure—in our transport infrastructure and in our built infrastructure—is maintained, so that we do not repeat the recessions of the past and cut deep into infrastructure, which is so important to the long-term economic future of this country.

Q7. May I first congratulate my right hon. Friend on being the first Liberal to answer questions to the Prime Minister since Lloyd George? In that too-long gap, many illiberal things have happened in this country, not least under the previous Government. One of the worst has been the detention of children for immigration purposes. There are words about that in the coalition agreement and there has been a review, but what concrete action will actually be taken to end this scandal? (9854)

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend that it was simply a moral outrage that last year the Labour Government imprisoned, behind bars, 1,000 children who were innocent of any wrongdoing whatsoever. This coalition Government, like so many other things, will once again restore a sense of decency and liberty to the way in which we conduct ourselves. That is why I can confirm that the Government will make an announcement shortly about how we will deliver on our pledge to end child detention and to close the Yarl’s Wood detention centre for good.