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Topical Questions

Volume 514: debated on Tuesday 27 July 2010

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.