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Deputy Prime Minister

Volume 514: debated on Tuesday 27 July 2010

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Regional and Local Representatives

1. What discussions he has had with ministerial colleagues involving elected representatives at regional and local level in decision making by Government Departments. (11073)

The Government are committed to not just promising localism, but practising it. I and other Ministers have regular meetings with local authority colleagues, across a range of issues and at regular intervals, about the decisions that we are thinking of making. That is what greater transparency and devolution are all about.

The Deputy Prime Minister talks a good talk about devolution and localism, but that is about all he does. In fact, he and the Business Secretary acquiesced in the abolition of the regional development agencies. I have here a letter from him in which he acquiesced in the abolition of Government offices—one of the few areas in which local representatives can have an input.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister now give an undertaking to the House that he will intervene on his colleagues in the Government to make sure that the new regional growth fund decisions have a proper input from elected councils and local authorities, rather than—

I am interested that the hon. Gentleman should think that the abolition of the regional development agencies and Government offices is somehow a blow against localism. Our view is that the Government offices had become a representation of Whitehall in the regions, rather than a voice for the regions in Whitehall. Equally, some RDAs do a good job, but he knows as well as I do that many local communities do not identify with regional development agencies. That is why we were right to say that it was up to local communities to come together with the private sector and others to create local enterprise partnerships, which are genuinely representative of what local communities want.

Does my right hon. Friend recognise that the abolition of outposts of central Government in the regions is good news so long as the decisions that they previously took devolve locally and do not drift to the centre? Does he also recognise the importance that business in the north-east attaches to the creation of a new enterprise partnership that is able to do some of the things that the regional development agency used to do?

Yes, of course I recognise that it is very important that the manner in which the local enterprise partnerships are now established—not least in the north-east, which has a strong regional identity—should be shaped around the needs of the communities involved. We look forward to receiving proposals from the north-east for the local enterprise partnerships in the north-east.

May I just say that localism is not just about bureaucratic structures? It is about giving local authorities greater control over our health service and people a say over how policing is conducted in our local communities. It is about looking long term at how local authorities can have a greater say over money as well. That is real localism, not bureaucratic localism.

Boundary Changes

2. What assessment he has made of the effects on constituency cohesion of parliamentary constituency boundaries which do not follow existing administrative boundaries. (11074)

The Government believe that constituencies should be of more equal size, and that should be more important than administrative convenience for Members of Parliament. In any case, many constituencies cross local authority boundaries at the moment. For example, 19 of the 32 London borough boundaries are crossed by constituencies today.

Will the Minister or the Deputy Prime Minister explain to me their definition of the localism that means that local people in Newcastle will have no say locally in the boundaries imposed on them because there will be no opportunity for a local public inquiry?

Clearly, the hon. Lady has not read the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill, which we published last week. We are actually extending the consultation period for local people from one month to three months, to give local people, local organisations and political parties more opportunity to comment on the boundary commission proposals, not less.

In considering this matter, will the Minister bear in mind the fact that people have historic loyalties to the traditional counties of England, not to administrative regions? In particular, will the people of Somerset be allowed their historic county, not some monstrous, vague, administrative nonsense?

If he has looked at the Bill, my hon. Friend will know that the boundary commissions are able to take into account local ties, but only to the extent that we can still have equal-sized constituencies. They are able to look at those things, but we think that the principle of equal-sized seats is most important and should take priority.

Will the Minister confirm that under the Bill, local boundaries, including county boundaries, can be completely ignored and that the only boundaries required to be observed are the national boundaries? Will he also confirm that under the Bill the Boundary Commission will be required, by law, to begin the process of redrawing the boundaries for the whole of the United Kingdom in the Isle of Wight—to transfer 35,000 voters in that constituency across the Solent into Hampshire, and then to work up the United Kingdom in an equally arbitrary way, with no public inquiries?

I heard the Minister’s waffle about extra consultation, but that is no substitute whatever for independent public inquiries, which the Government are abolishing because they are scared of the results. How does what is in the Bill fit with any idea of the practice of localism and greater transparency that the Deputy Prime Minister has just promised?

There were so many questions in there that it is not clear which one to answer. First, we are not proposing to move anybody who currently lives on the Isle of Wight; I think that they will continue to live where they are. The right hon. Gentleman is talking nonsense. We do not lay down a prescriptive method for the boundary commissions to draw the boundaries; they are independent, and they will continue to draw the boundaries. Frankly, the hyperbole that he has come out with today and in his reasoned amendment to the Bill bears no relation to the proposals that we published last week.

The Minister has obviously not read his own Bill. If community cohesion is good enough for separate seats on the outer isles of Scotland and for the invention of an entirely artificial rule to protect the seat of a former leader of the Liberal Democrats, why is it not good enough for the rest of the United Kingdom?

The right hon. Gentleman knows that there are two exceptions, which are the two Scottish seats that have unique geography. There is not an exception for the seat of the former leader of the Liberal Democrats; it is simply a rule to prevent the Boundary Commission from drawing an extraordinarily large seat, and his boundaries are able to be redrawn in the same way as anybody’s else’s. All this bluster simply highlights the fact that Labour Members do not believe in seats of equal size and votes counting equally across the whole of the United Kingdom.

Voter Registration

3. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the system of voter registration in Great Britain. (11075)

The Electoral Commission reports that the completeness of Great Britain’s electoral registers remains broadly similar to the levels achieved in comparative countries. The Government want to improve the accuracy of the register by speeding up the introduction of individual electoral registration in Great Britain. We are also considering giving electoral registration officers the capacity to compare the data on their electoral registers with other, readily available, public data to identify individuals who may not be registered.

Over the past 13 years, there was much talk by the last rotten Labour Government about sorting out the shambles of electoral registration. What plans do the new Government have to speed up the process of introducing individual registration?

I agree with my hon. Friend that far too little progress was made by the previous Government in dealing with this issue. We will accelerate the process of individual electoral registration, and we will make announcements about that shortly. Our whole approach to this is governed by two principles: first, to bear down on fraud in the system, of which individual electoral registration is a key component; and secondly, further to improve the completeness of the register itself. If Members in all parts of the House have particular ideas about how the annual canvass can be improved, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), who is responsible for constitutional reform, will be keen to hear their views. That is why we are having the pilot scheme this autumn to allow electoral registration officers to compare the register with other databases, go to the homes of people who are not on the electoral register and ensure that they get on to the electoral register.

Perhaps the Deputy Prime Minister would turn his mind to the reality of what is about to happen with the boundary changes that we have been discussing. Is it not a fact that this is a straight gerrymander, and that if he meant what he said, he would delay the boundary changes until there was a full 100% compulsory register based on the reality of where people actually live so that we do not end up with the distortion of taking away seats in inner-city areas?

The right hon. Gentleman talks about straight facts; here are some straight facts. Last December, Islington North’s electorate was 66,472. Just 10 miles away, East Ham’s electorate was 87,809. It cannot be right to have constituencies in which the worth of people’s votes is so very different from place to place. Fairness is a simple principle that should operate in our democracy. He should also be aware that 218 of the existing constituencies are already within 5% either side of the 76,000 threshold that will operate when the boundary review is conducted. In other words, more than a third of Members here are already in line with the new rules. What on earth is wrong with fairer votes across the whole of the country?

Would it be possible to go to those who have great details, such as credit agencies and mobile phone operators, and within data protection law use their private information to help to ensure that the canvass is complete?

We certainly want to see what we can do in the pilot schemes that will start this autumn to compare the electoral register database with other readily available databases, public and private, obviously entirely in keeping with data protection rules. The sole objective will be to allow electoral registration officers to go to people’s homes and say, “We’ve seen by comparing these databases that you’re not on the electoral register. That’s why we would like you to come on to the electoral register.” Let us remember that Opposition Members, who are making a great deal of noise about this now, did nothing to improve the electoral register for 13 years.

AV Referendum (Scotland)

4. What recent discussions he has had with the Scottish Executive on preparations for the proposed referendum on the alternative vote system. (11077)

It was right and important that Parliament was the first to know about proposals for a referendum on the alternative vote. The Bill will be debated in Parliament, and we will listen also to views from all the devolved Administrations. I have written to the First Minister in Edinburgh to explain the reasons behind our proposed timetable for the referendum.

The Deputy Prime Minister must understand the level of anger in Scotland on this issue, and the fact that there was no consultation with the Scottish Parliament before the decision was made has increased that anger. Did he ever consult the Scottish Parliament before making it, and will he now discuss it with it?

As I said, I thought it right that this Parliament was the first to know about such a major issue. I simply do not understand why it is considered in any way a detraction from the Holyrood elections next May in Scotland that, at the same time, people across the United Kingdom should be asked to reply to a simple yes/no question on whether they want the alternative vote. It is disrespectful to the voters and people of Scotland to suggest that somehow they are incapable of making two decisions at once.

Notwithstanding the fact that my new and best right hon. Friend would, I am sure, now deprecate the fact that if we had had the alternative vote in 1997 the Conservative party would have been reduced to a pathetic rump of 65 MPs, does he not think that precisely because AV is not proportional, it raises complicated questions? It is extraordinarily dangerous, therefore, to have the referendum on the same day as other elections, namely the Scottish elections. We need a proper debate on the issue.

About 84% of voters in England will be voting, or eligible to vote, next May. In Scotland and Wales everybody will be entitled to vote. About 39 million people will be invited to vote next May, and it seems to me that instead of asking people constantly to go back to polling booths to cast separate votes, it is perfectly right to invite them to have their say on a simple yes/no issue on the same day, at, by the way, a lower cost to the Exchequer—it will save about £17 million.

Topical Questions

As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister in the full range of Government policy and initiatives. Within Government I take direct responsibility for this Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.

May I ask the Deputy Prime Minister about his responsibilities as regards the great repeal Bill, and whether it may be brought forward in the next Session?

As my hon. Friend may know, our priority in the autumn is the freedom Bill, and that will be the principal legislative vehicle to repeal and pare back many of the incursions that have occurred into our privacy, civil liberties and great tradition of freedom, which were so roundly abused by the previous Government.

On the assumption that the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister are not holidaying together in Montana, will the Deputy Prime Minister say if and when he will be in charge of the country when the Prime Minister is away on holiday?

As already announced by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, the Prime Minister will take his vacation in the second half of August. He will remain Prime Minister and in overall charge of the Government, of course, but I will of course be available to hold the fort.

T2. What measures is the Deputy Prime Minister taking to tackle postal voting fraud, which particularly affected me during the last general election? (11083)

In 2006, new measures were introduced by the previous Government—measures that the Liberal Democrats supported—to improve the personal identifiers required in the administration of postal votes. We want to build on that work and are reflecting further on the matter. We welcome views from either side of the House on how we can further strengthen measures to deal with fraud. As I said earlier, one of the fundamental principles that guides all our work on such matters is ensuring that everybody who can, and is entitled, to vote is on the register, so that they do vote, and ensuring that fraud is tackled wherever it arises.

T3. On 22 June, the Deputy Prime Minister told the House that the decision not to proceed with the loan to Sheffield Forgemasters was a consequence of the reluctance of the shareholders to dilute their shareholding. Today, a written statement from the Business Secretary clarifies that it was an issue of affordability. The Government have announced a £1 billion regional growth fund. Were the company to make a fresh application, will the Deputy Prime Minister give an undertaking to the House that it will be considered as a matter of priority, and will he support it as a Sheffield Member of Parliament? (11084)

In the written statement to which the hon. Gentleman alludes, the Business Secretary concludes:

“We have made clear that we stand ready to work closely with the company as it pursues its ambitions and we are willing to look carefully at all proposals, as we would for any project”

from any other company

“when the future availability of public funds becomes clearer after the completion of the spending review.”

The hon. Gentleman will know that the issue was the lack of affordability in this year’s current Budget, because we discovered when we came into government that the previous Government had promised £9 billion more than departmental budgets. That was wrong. That is why it was wrong for Government Ministers at the time to write out cheques that they knew would bounce.

T6. I welcome the Government’s plans for fewer and more equal-sized constituencies. However, I notice that we are proposing to reduce the number of MPs only to 600. Was a greater reduction considered, and if so, why was it rejected? (11087)

In considering how to reduce the cost of politics and the size of the House, which is far larger than the vast majority of equivalent Chambers in mature democracies around the world, we had to balance two things. As I said, we had to balance reducing the cost—50 fewer MPs means a saving of about £12 million per year—against the ability of hon. Members on both sides of the House to serve their constituencies and constituents. That is why we arrived at the cut of around 7.6% in the total number, to 600 MPs.

In his statement on 5 July, the Deputy Prime Minister said he wanted to empower local people, but the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill specifically excludes the right of the Boundary Commission to hold local public inquiries. How is that empowering local people to have understandable, local boundaries that respect acknowledged local communities?

As the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), said earlier, we are extending the period of consultation on proposals for the independent boundary commissions from one month to three—[Interruption.] I hear a lot of chuntering from Opposition Members, but I ask them again to consider this question: what is wrong with trying to create greater fairness and equality in the conduct of our democracy? They seem to think that the measure is somehow targeted at them, but I remind them that the problem of gaps in the electoral register occurs not just in inner-city areas, but in coastal constituencies, where there is a pattern of under-registration, and in constituencies—

The hon. Lady screams from a sedentary position to ask what we are doing about it, but what did she do about it for 13 years?

T7. Does my right hon. Friend have any plans if the referendum on AV is successful and the voting system is changed for parliamentary elections to reform the voting system for local government elections? (11088)

There is of course a legitimate debate to be held about the voting systems for local government, but we have already embarked on a fairly rich menu of political and constitutional reforms, and we have no plans at present to make changes to the electoral arrangements for local government.

I am happy to confirm that what I said last week at Prime Minister’s questions about the legality of the war was a personal opinion—[Interruption.] Labour Members may laugh, but I welcome the fact that they are asking questions about that disastrous decision now. It would have been handy if they had asked those questions when it was first taken.

T8. The coalition Government are committed to equal-sized constituencies for Westminster elections. In my constituency, we have discrepancies in local government wards of nearly 20%. Does the Deputy Prime Minister support the principle of equal-sized wards for local elections, and what action will he take to ensure that that happens? (11089)

As I said in an earlier reply, there are of course legitimate questions about how elections are conducted for local councils. It is not something that we have plans at present to embark on, simply because we have a heavy agenda of constitutional and political reforms that we are seeking to progress. Therefore at present we do not have plans to revisit the issue that my hon. Friend raises.

T9. The Deputy Prime Minister has announced that the consultations for the new constituency boundaries will be minimal and not involve communities. How does he reconcile that minimal consultation with the Prime Minister’s pronouncements about the big society, community engagement and power passing from the centre to communities, giving them the right to make representations about how they are represented? (11090)

It seems to me that extending the period during which representations can be made from one month to three months is not minimising people’s ability to make their views known: it is doing exactly the reverse.

A vital part of rebuilding trust in our political system is giving constituents the power to call a by-election if their MP has been found guilty of wrongdoing. I am delighted that the right of recall is in the coalition agreement, but can my right hon. Friend tell us when he will bring forward legislation to implement this?

My hon. Friend is right. By the time the election was called, I think that all parties had a manifesto commitment to introduce a power of recall, whereby if it were proved that a Member of Parliament was guilty of serious wrongdoing, his or her constituents would not have to wait until the next general election to cast judgment on the fitness of that individual to continue to represent them, but would be able to trigger a process of recall by a petition from 10% of constituents. We intend to bring forward that proposal in legislation next year, and I hope that it will enjoy cross-party support.

My constituent Karen Taylor received a letter from the Deputy Prime Minister on 21 June saying that we can cut public spending in a way that is fair and responsible and asking her to provide ideas about getting more for less, not to hold back, to be innovative, radical and challenge the ways things are done. I know that my constituent has replied to you, indicating that she wants you to invest more in public services, to pull the economy out of recession and stop the use of consultants. How do you intend to reply?

I certainly agree with the last suggestion—that there was a bonanza of consultants in the programmes conducted by the last Government. One consultant was even made a millionaire from the fees alone in the Building Schools for the Future programme. So of course we need fewer consultants. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have entered government having to deal with a very difficult situation. The last Government announced £50 billion of cuts, but had not bothered to tell people what they meant in practice, so we are having to do the work for them. The structural deficit is £12 billion higher than we were told by the previous Government. These are difficult decisions. However, I hope the hon. Gentleman will agree that what we have said in the Budget on increasing the allowance—the point at which people start paying income tax—on the extra, including up to £2 billion over the coming years in child tax credits, on the guarantee that pensions will be increased by 2.5% above inflation—

T10. [11091] Just this morning, the Deputy Prime Minister sent us all a very helpful letter about the forthcoming Bill on the alternative vote system and so on. In it, he wrote: “The Government also believes it is important to give people a choice over their electoral system.”Given that, why will the forthcoming referendum offer only a choice between first past the post and AV, which he himself described as a pathetic excuse for a voting system? Why will it not also offer the single transferable vote?

Let me remind my hon. Friend that, during the general election, there was a party, the Labour party, that wanted to press ahead with the alternative vote and another party, the Liberal Democrats, that believed in a more proportional voting system. As is the nature of a coalition agreement, we reached a compromise—[Interruption.] Opposition Members talk about pluralism and choice in politics, but only if it is on the basis of things that they want, not what anybody else wants.

One hundred and fifty Labour MPs voted against the Iraq war. How many of the Deputy Prime Minister’s new bedfellows did?

I am not a walking encyclopaedia of how people voted, but of course I pay tribute to the small number of Labour MPs who did stick to their consciences and asked difficult questions. However, what I find astonishing is that now Labour Members seem to be exercised about the matter despite having not raised the alarm when they should have done—when the decision was taken in the first place.