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Topical Questions

Volume 517: debated on Tuesday 26 October 2010

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

Although I welcome the coalition’s commitment to introduce individual voter registration, many Members across the House remain concerned about on-demand postal and proxy votes, which we still feel are too open to abuse. Will my right hon. Friend undertake to look at the possibility of reintroducing restrictions to those entitled to register for postal votes?

I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that any incidence of fraud in our elections, particularly postal vote fraud—there seems, at least, unacceptable evidence that that has been happening around the country—needs to be dealt with. How we do that is quite complex, and the kind of controls we put in place are still under consideration. We will consider our options and take measures forward as soon as we can.

As Deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. Gentleman takes and shares ministerial responsibility for the Government’s spending decisions. Will he confirm that as a result of those spending decisions as many as 500,000 jobs will go in the private sector, in addition to the 490,000 that will be lost in the public sector?

I will confirm that all the statistics on possible job losses are derived from the independent Office for Budget Responsibility, which has said that at the end of the spending round there may be 490,000 fewer posts in the public sector. That is still 200,000 more than the number of people who were employed in the sector when the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) and Tony Blair took power in 1997. Separately, the Office for Budget Responsibility has predicted that more than 2 million jobs will be created in the private sector.

Surely the Deputy Prime Minister must recognise that, even before the cuts resulting from his spending decisions bite, it is hard for unemployed people when five of them are chasing every job vacancy. Why, then, are his Government planning to punish unemployed people who have been searching for a job for more than a year by cutting their housing benefit by 10%? That is a deeply unfair policy. Will the Deputy Prime Minister review it?

What we will seek to do in the coming months and years is increase the incentives to work. That is the centrepiece of our Government policies. That is why we have raised the income tax personal allowance, exempting nearly 900,000 people on low pay from income tax; that is why, over time, we will introduce a universal credit; and that is why we will implement the reform of our welfare system which, although much talked about in previous years, has never been put into practice.

T3. As chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on malaria and neglected tropical diseases, I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement during his recent visit to the United Nations that United Kingdom funds for malaria would increase to £500 million a year by 2014. Given that the Government rightly concentrate on outcomes rather than inputs, what outcomes does my right hon. Friend expect to result from the more than tripling of malaria funds by that date? (19227)

Like the hon. Gentleman, I think that it is witness to this country’s commitment to the poor in other parts of the world that, even in difficult times when we are having to make difficult savings elsewhere in public spending, we are honouring our commitment to the developing world to allocate 0.7% of national wealth to development aid from 2013.

The specific answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that the increase in spending to £500 million per year by 2014 will reduce the number of malaria deaths by at least 50% by 2015 in at least 10 high-burden countries.

T2. Will the Deputy Prime Minister now answer the question asked by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman)? He is about to cut the housing benefits of some of the poorest households in Britain by 10%. Why will he not reconsider, given that we are experiencing some of the most trying economic circumstances of the past 30 years? (19226)

As I said earlier, what we are trying to do in respect of housing, as in respect of all other areas of public spending in the welfare system, is increase the incentives to work. Something has gone seriously wrong with a housing benefit system that has more than doubled in recent years, from £10 billion to £21 billion, and has locked many people into long-term dependency. It has not created incentives to work, or incentives for house builders to build more affordable homes. We plan to increase capital investment in house building, reform housing benefit, and build up to 400,000 affordable homes over the coming decade.

T5. Given that several major public sector trade unions are threatening public action over some of the announcements in last week’s comprehensive spending review, and given continued attempts by unions to block some of the reforms that the coalition Government are trying to introduce, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time to reduce the trade unions’ irresponsible influence on British party politics, and to draw up proposals to reform trade union funding of political parties? (19229)

I imagine that the hon. Gentleman’s views would be particularly unpopular with the new leader of the Labour party, who secured his position only because of the block and duplicate votes of trade union members.

I hope that, in the coming weeks and months, we will not pitch the country into confrontation between the Government and the trade unions. I believe that—this, incidentally, has applied to local authorities up and down the country under the control of different political parties—there is a means by which we can work co-operatively with trade unions to make the savings that we need to make as a nation, and reduce to the bare minimum the number of job losses that might be incurred in the process.

T4. The Deputy Prime Minister need not be concerned that I am going to ask him for a meeting at the end of this question, as I am still waiting for a meeting that he agreed to hold with me during an answer at Prime Minister’s questions on 21 July—and, frankly, I am not holding my breath.In my constituency of Gateshead one of the greatest factors in continuing health inequalities and shorter life expectancy among some of the poorest communities is the prevalence of smoking. Does the Deputy Prime Minister at all regret promoting smoking by saying it would be his greatest single luxury if he were stranded on a desert island? (19228)

First, let me apologise if the hon. Gentleman had been waiting for a meeting; I am keen to ensure that one is fixed as soon as possible.

I was not in any way seeking to promote smoking. It is a very bad habit, and I would never advocate it to anybody else.

T8. The coalition programme for government calls for a commission to be established to look into the West Lothian question. Please will the Deputy Prime Minister update the House on the establishment of that commission? (19232)

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, who has responsibility for constitutional affairs, will lead on that and he will announce our intention to set up a commission on the long-standing knotty problem of the West Lothian question by the end of the year.

T6. What support are local authorities such as Calderdale in my constituency being given to ensure that as many people as possible are on the electoral register? (19230)

The principal innovation we are seeking to introduce is to allow electoral registration officers to compare their databases of who is and is not on the register with other publicly available databases. We are piloting that in a number of areas, and we hope it will enable officers to see who is not on the electoral register but is on other databases so that they can then, possibly literally, go and knock on their door and say, “You’re on one database but not the other; have you thought of getting on to the electoral register?” I know there has been a lot of polemic around this issue, but I hope we will be able to work on a cross-party basis. Many Members will know from their own areas of the best innovations in getting people on to the register. I am actively looking at ways in which we can create a cross-party forum where we can compare best practice to get more and still more people on to the register.

T9. Does my right hon. Friend agree that having an open and frank discussion about the British voting system as part of the alternative vote referendum is an excellent way to help re-establish faith and trust in British politics? (19233)

I certainly hope so. It will be the first nationwide referendum we have had since the early 1970s, and we should be open about the fact that, including in this Government, we do not agree on the best outcome. However, we all agree that it should be for the people to choose. That is why I urge those Members who are dragging their feet somewhat in allowing the proposed legislation to pass its various stages in this House and the other place to realise that we should try not only to subject it to the necessary scrutiny, but above all allow the people outside this House to have their say and so help restore some public trust in what we do.

T7. We have heard what the right hon. Gentleman has to say about the local housing allowance and how it affects people, but what has he got to say to the 49,000 people who will be made homeless thanks to what he is about to do? Will he say sorry? (19231)

By allowing rents for new tenants, but not existing tenants, to be set closer to market rates—and by the way, rents for existing—[Interruption.] Rents for existing tenants went up by about 15% under the Labour Government. We are saying that we need to give registered social landlords an incentive to build new affordable homes—the building of which was at lamentably low levels under the previous Government—while all the time, of course, compensating those tenants through the housing benefit system. As I said earlier, we also think it is right for the Government to say that there needs to be some kind of limit for those people who are on housing benefit, and it seems fair for that limit to be set roughly at the level at which people who are going out to work would be looking for rented property in the private sector.

T10. The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware of Labour’s catastrophic defeat in Tower Hamlets last week at the hands of the Ken Livingstone-backed independent candidate, but will he examine the issue of electoral fraud, because serious allegations of it were made at the local elections in May and again last week? Some 18 postal votes came from one four-bedroom house and eight postal votes came from a maisonette above a shop, and more than 5,000 new names were added to the roll just before the deadline. Will— (19234)

Where there are incidents and allegations of serious electoral fraud they need to be reported to the police. These are very serious matters; these are potentially criminal offences, and they need to be investigated by the police. So if there is evidence, it needs to be passed to the police as soon as possible.

During the election campaign, the Deputy Prime Minister said:

“We will resist, vote against, campaign against, any lifting of that cap”

on tuition fees. Will he take this opportunity to apologise to the hundreds of thousands of students and families whom he has betrayed since becoming a Tory?

Of course I regret—who would not regret?—making a promise and signing a pledge, as happened in this case, that we have now found that we are unable to keep. Of course I wish that the proposal for a graduate tax put forward now by the hon. Gentleman’s leader, which comes from a party that introduced tuition fees having previously said that it would not do so, would work and that it was an alternative that we could implement. We looked at it very carefully—it has also been proposed by the National Union of Students—but it is not workable and it is not fair. What we will be doing shortly, when we come forward with our response to the Browne report, is install new measures that will ensure that the way in which students go to university is fairer and less punitive on those who are disadvantaged than the system that we inherited from the Labour party.

An important part of political reform is changing the way we do politics—for example, to make it more accessible to under-represented groups such as parents of young children. It is surely ridiculous that in this House one can take a sword into the Lobby but not a newborn child. Will the Deputy Prime Minister ensure that the recommendations on that and other issues in the Speaker’s Conference report are acted on, and acted on swiftly?

I certainly agree that we should be acting on the—broadly speaking—excellent recommendations from the Speaker’s Conference. As for my hon. Friend’s proposal of allowing babies and young children into the Chamber or the Lobby, I cannot readily see a Government position or an amendment to the coalition agreement on that; it will be a matter for the House. However, I certainly agree—I say this with some feeling, as a father of three young children—that it is very difficult for mothers and fathers to combine having young children with life in politics, not least because of the idiosyncratic way in which we organise ourselves in this House. We need to provide all the support we can to allow parents to be good parents, but good MPs as well.