Skip to main content


Volume 518: debated on Wednesday 10 November 2010

I have been asked to reply. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been leading a major Government and trade delegation to China, and is now travelling to Seoul for the G20 summit.

I am sure that the whole House will wish to join me in paying tribute to Senior Aircraftman Scott Hughes of 1 Squadron Royal Air Force Regiment, who died in Cyprus on Sunday while returning from operational service in Afghanistan. He was a professional and brave airman, and it is very sad that he died while returning home from a tour of duty. Our thoughts are with his family and loved ones.

This week, on the eve of Remembrance day, we especially remember all those who have given their lives in the service of our country, both in recent years and through previous generations. The sacrifices made by our servicemen and women for our peace and freedom must never be forgotten.

On a much happier note, let me, on behalf of the Government, extend our warmest congratulations and best wishes to the Leader of the Opposition and his partner, Justine, on the birth of their baby son. It is wonderful news and we really are thrilled for them.

A 12-year-old haemophiliac from Lindley in Huddersfield was injected with contaminated blood products, giving him HIV, hepatitis C and CJD. When will he and the 2,000 other survivors of this shocking scandal get fair compensation?

I know that my hon. Friend is a vigorous campaigner for all those whose lives have been so tragically affected by contaminated blood. It really is a dreadful catastrophe for all those affected. The Under-Secretary of State for Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), intends to report by the end of the year on the outcome of the current review to see what more can be done for those affected by contaminated blood. Tomorrow, Health Ministers will hold an open meeting in Westminster Hall at which hon. Members from all parts of the House and peers from the other place can raise their concerns.

I join the Deputy Prime Minister in paying tribute to Senior Aircraftman Scott Hughes of 1 Squadron Royal Air Force Regiment. We honour his memory and send condolences to his family. We will remember all our servicemen and women on Remembrance day. I should like to echo, too, the right hon. Gentleman’s best wishes to the Leader of the Opposition and Justine on the birth of their new baby.

In April, the Deputy Prime Minister said that it was his aim to end university tuition fees. Will he update the House on how his plan is progressing?

Of course I acknowledge that this is an extraordinarily difficult issue, and I have been entirely open about the fact that we have not been able to deliver the policy that we held in opposition. Because of the financial situation and because of the compromises of the coalition Government, we have had to put forward a different policy—[Interruption.]

None the less, we have stuck to our wider ambition to make sure that going to university is done in a progressive way, so that people who are currently discouraged from going to university—bright people from poor backgrounds, who are discouraged by the system that we inherited from the right hon. and learned Lady’s Government—are able to do so. That is why our policy is more progressive than hers.

Well, I am glad that the Deputy Prime Minister thinks it is so fair. I hope he will be going out and telling that to all the students and lecturers who are marching on Westminster today. In April he said that increasing tuition fees to £7,000 a year would be a “disaster”. What word would he use to describe fees of £9,000?

I think there is more consensus than the right hon. and learned Lady concedes on the simple principle that people who benefit from going to university should make a contribution to the cost of that university education. The question is: how do we do it? Do we do it fairly and in a progressive way? The proposals that we have put forward will mean that those who earn the least will pay much less than they do at the moment—while those who earn the most will pay over the odds to provide a subsidy to allow people from poor backgrounds to go to university—and will, for the first time, end the discrimination against the 40% of people in our universities who are part-time students, who were so shamefully treated by her Government.

None of us agrees with tuition fees of £9,000 a year. This is not about the deficit: the Chancellor said that the deficit would be dealt with by 2014, when the new system will hardly have begun. No, this is not about the deficit; this is about the Deputy Prime Minister going along with a Tory plan to shove the cost of higher education on to students and their families. We all know what it is like, Mr Speaker. You are at Freshers’ week. You meet up with a dodgy bloke and you do things that you regret. Is not the truth of it that the Deputy Prime Minister has been led astray by the Tories?

I know that the right hon. and learned Lady now thinks that she can reposition the Labour party as the champion of students, but let us remember the Labour party’s record: against tuition fees in 1997, but introduced them a few months later; against top-up fees in the manifesto in 2001, then introduced top-up fees. Then Labour set up the Browne review, which it is now trashing, and now the Labour party has a policy to tax graduates that half the Front-Bench team does not even believe in. Maybe she will go out to the students who are protesting outside now and explain what on earth her policy is.

As a result of the Deputy Prime Minister’s plans, English students will pay among the highest fees of any public university system in the industrialised world, and why? It is not to give universities more funds, but to replace the cuts that he is making to university teaching. Can he tell the House what the percentage cut to the university teaching grant is?

I can certainly confirm that the right hon. and learned Lady and her party also had plans to make massive cuts in the budget of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which would have affected higher education. Here are a few facts. Every single graduate under our scheme will pay less per month than they do under the scheme that we inherited from Labour. The bottom 25% of earners will pay much less in their contributions to their university education than they do at the moment. Part-time students will pay no up-front fees, and not a single student will pay a penny of up-front fees whatsoever. It is a fair and progressive solution to a very difficult problem.

It looks as though the right hon. Gentleman has been taking lessons from the Prime Minister on how not to answer the question. I asked him about the cut in the teaching grant. The truth is that it is a staggering 80%––80%. No wonder he is ducking the question. The real reason he is hiking up fees is that he is pulling the plug on public funding, and dumping the cost on to students. Is that not why he is betraying his promise on tuition fees?

The graduate tax that the right hon. and learned Lady advocates would be more unfair and would allow higher earners to opt out of the system altogether. We all agree—she agrees—across the House that graduates should make some contribution for the benefit of going to university. The question is, how? We have a progressive plan; she has no plan whatsoever.

But during the election, the right hon. Gentleman hawked himself around university campuses pledging to vote against tuition fees. By the time Freshers’ week was over, he had broken his promise. Every single Liberal Democrat MP signed the pledge not to put up tuition fees; every single one of them is about to break that promise. He must honour his promise to students and their families throughout the country. Will he think again?

It is quite something to take lectures from the right hon. and learned Lady about party management after the mutiny in the parliamentary Labour party on Monday—[Interruption.] Labour Members are cheering her now, but they certainly were not at the mutiny on Monday night. The truth is that before the election we did not know the unholy mess that would be left to us by her party. On this issue, as on so many, the two parties on this side of the House have come together to create a solution for the future. The two parties on this side of the House have one policy; the Labour party has two policies.

In the international dialogue about democracy that we are witnessing, what would my right hon. Friend say to those who welcomed the elections in Burma, which were nothing more than an utter sham?

I strongly agree that those elections were a complete and utter sham. Their conclusion was already decided well before they took place, with reserved seats for the military, and reserved seats for parties that were put up by the military. They are simply swapping their military uniforms for civilian clothing, but keeping their iron dictatorial grip on the people of Burma. Aung San Suu Kyi should be released when her house arrest comes up for review in the coming days, and real democracy should finally be introduced in Burma.

Q2. Given that we all know how important consistency is to the Deputy Prime Minister, will he explain to the House why his Chief Secretary to the Treasury is pictured on the Liberal Democrat website leading the campaign against selling off forestry in Scotland, at the same time as he is proposing that in England? (22885)

The poor Chief Secretary to the Treasury is picked on all the time—first for being ginger. Did the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) make an impact assessment of her outrageously discriminatory remarks?––[Interruption.]

Order. First, the Deputy Prime Minister must be heard. Secondly, the public thoroughly disapprove of this level of destructive barracking from wherever in the House it comes: note that, and learn from it.

I was simply making the point that any form of discrimination against rodents or ginger-headed folk is wrong.

As the hon. Member for Rutherglen and Hamilton West (Tom Greatrex) knows, on forestry issues, as on many others, there is a devolved division of responsibility. He should know that better than anyone else.

Q3. Will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether the Prime Minister received the “people’s port” community mutual’s bid for the port of Dover? Will he allow a community right to buy, or will it be another British icon sold overseas, as the previous Labour Government planned? (22886)

Of course I am pleased, as no doubt everyone is, that there is such a strong community interest in the future of the port of Dover. Campaigners have received stellar backing, and I wish their campaign all the very best of luck. As my hon. Friend knows, the port’s assets are owned by Dover harbour board, not by the Government. The Minister of State, Department for Transport, my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mrs Villiers) is considering proposals for a scheme that would allow the board to sell the port, so it would be inappropriate for me to comment further on that decision.

Q4. AgustaWestland is an excellent company providing skilled manufacturing jobs in Yeovil. Sheffield Forgemasters is also an excellent company, providing skilled manufacturing jobs in Yorkshire. Why did the Government decide to support one and not the other? (22887)

Of course I agree with the hon. Lady that both are outstanding companies. The difference is that the announcement of the decision to provide a loan to Sheffield Forgemasters was made 11 days before the general election, when there was no money in this year’s budget to make that promise. It was a promise made by the previous Labour Government knowing that the cheque would bounce. We have made a decision on Westland in the light of our difficult, controversial decisions to bring sense to the public finances. That is the difference.

Q5. The Deputy Prime Minister might be aware that, in response to the comprehensive spending review, the three most senior officers of Pendle borough council have announced a wage cut of 27%. In contrast, the chief constable of Lancashire police, Steve Finnigan, has started a 90-day consultation on making all Lancashire’s police community support officers redundant. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the chief constable should think again and that he should support our PCSOs—[Interruption.] (22888)

Of course I welcome the decision by Pendle borough council and its executive directors to reduce the council’s wage bill. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has called on all local authority chief executives earning £200,000 a year to take a 10% pay cut, and those on £150,000 to take a 5% cut. They need to make sacrifices, just as everyone else is. On policing, of course I understand everyone’s attachment to PCSOs, but it would be a flagrant breach of the traditions of policing in this country if we were to start second-guessing chief constables. I think we all want more visible policing; it cannot be right that the system we inherited from Labour means that only 11% of police officers are ever seen on our streets at any one time. That is wrong and it must change.

Q6. Tens of thousands of students have gathered outside this place today to oppose the right hon. Gentleman’s shameful policy of tripling student debt. He received a request to address the crowd, but as yet no response has been received. May I give him the opportunity to give that response now? (22889)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I meet student leaders and representatives of the National Union of Students all the time. I hope that, when he joins the demonstrators, the first thing he will do is explain what on earth his party’s policy is. We have a policy; he has no policy and no plan, and is giving no hope to future generations of students.

Q7. My right hon. Friend might be aware of the great work being done by the East of England Energy Group, and by the borough councils, the county council and local small companies in Norfolk to ensure that Great Yarmouth and East Anglia benefit from economic growth and regeneration through the energy markets. Will he and the Government support our work to ensure that East Anglia gets a fair and even chance to bid for the opportunities that these new markets can provide? (22890)

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend that renewable energy is one of the great industries of the future, and we are doing everything we can to support those areas that want to exploit the opportunities. We have committed £1.4 billion to a regional growth fund, and we are establishing a green investment bank with the explicit aim of creating further investment opportunities in green infrastructure in areas where private sector investment is currently constrained. I am delighted to hear about the way in which councils, businesses and the not-for-profit sector in Norfolk are working so effectively together.

In answer to a question that I asked last week, the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning indicated that the major reason for his proposals on fees was to change the way in which higher education was funded, and to shift the burden from the state to the student. How does the Deputy Prime Minister square that with his party’s view that the proposals are a deficit reduction measure only, and that they could be changed in the future?

As I said earlier, I think every Member agrees that the funding for universities should be a mixture of direct support from the state and contributions made by—[Interruption.] As soon as we came into government, we looked exhaustively at the option of a graduate tax, which was proposed by some Labour Members and by the National Union of Students, but we discovered that that would be much more unfair and would allow particularly high earners to opt out of the system altogether, compared to the progressive system of graduate contributions that we are proposing now.

Q8. Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs has a business payment support service, which has helped many businesses in my constituency that have met short-term problems to achieve a delayed payment of taxes—sometimes the taxman can help, apparently. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this is a valuable service and that HMRC, alongside every other part of Government, should provide as much flexibility and support as possible for business, if we are get out of the recession left to us by the previous Government? (22891)

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. I think that HMRC’s business payment support service is indeed, as he says, a very valuable and important service, and it remains in place. By the end of September this year, 371,200 arrangements had been granted, worth £6.38 billion. That is extraordinarily valuable to small and medium-sized enterprises, which are indeed struggling and deserve all the support they require to power us out of this difficult economic environment.

The Minister for Universities and Science has made it clear that all public funding will be withdrawn from non-STEM subjects in universities. Last Wednesday, the Minister for Further Education, Skills and Lifelong Learning told a Westminster Hall debate:

“We will continue to support the arts through the subsidy for teaching in universities.”—[Official Report, 3 November 2010; Vol. 517, c. 315WH.]

Who is right?

The statement we made was very clear. I hope the hon. Gentleman will accept that the model of mixed financing for our universities—partly from the Government and partly from graduates, who, as he knows, stand to benefit on average from tens of thousands in extra earnings because they have a university degree—is one that we are preserving and building on in a progressive manner.

Q9. In Gosport, our Sure Start centres provide valuable support to some of our most vulnerable people, which proves that even the Labour party can get something right. I welcome the Government’s continued support for Sure Start, but will the Deputy Prime Minister please reassure me that the programme will be refocused so that those in the greatest need get the greatest support? (22892)

I strongly agree. Sure Start children’s centres play a vital role in helping families and giving them the help when they need it through early intervention. That is why we announced in the spending review that Sure Start funding will be maintained in cash terms. As for how that funding is allocated to reflect deprivation, which was the hon. Lady’s question, the money is already weighted so that local authority areas with higher levels of disadvantage get more funding than others and, of course, local authorities have a high degree of flexibility and latitude themselves—and we do not propose to change that system at all.

May I bring the right hon. Gentleman back to higher education? He says that higher education should be paid partly by the individual and partly by the state, but the confusion that the people of Islington will have is that the right hon. Gentleman was not saying that in April, so when did he change his mind? In the best possible scenario, if we had a fantastic economy and no debt at all, would he still believe that higher education should be paid partly by the student and partly by the state?

I find it extraordinary that the hon. Lady can piously ask questions about changing one’s mind on this issue, when her party said no to fees in 1997, and introduced them; said no to top-up fees in the manifesto of 2001, and introduced them; said yes to the Browne review, but now says no to it; says yes to some graduate taxes, but no to others. Labour Members should make up their minds.

Q10. As the coalition continues to stabilise our economy, will the Deputy Prime Minister assure my constituents that providing long-term relief and support for small and medium-sized businesses remains high on the Government’s priority list? (22893)

Yes, absolutely, as I said in answer to the earlier question. Over the past six months, we have taken a number of steps to help small and medium-sized enterprises: reducing the small profits rate of corporation tax from 21% to 20% from April next year; introducing new rules whereby for any new regulation, another one must be scrapped; the new enterprise capital fund of £37.5 million to provide additional equity finance; and of course the enterprise finance guarantee fund, which will be increased by £200 million. That is real support for the wealth creators of the future.

Q11. On 6 May, hundreds of the Deputy Prime Minister’s constituents and hundreds of mine in Sheffield were denied the right to vote because of current legislation. Why has the Deputy Prime Minister not taken the opportunity of legislation before Parliament to change the law, so that in future all those in the polling station at close of poll are allowed to vote? (22894)

I am acutely aware of the problem. I visited polling stations several times on that day, and saw the huge queues of people, many of whom were denied their democratic right to exercise a vote. The question is: what do we do about it? I happen to think that, in this instance, simply passing a law will not deal with the problem, which was a lack of resources and poor organisation by the returning officer, who acknowledged as much, as the hon. Lady knows, in Sheffield. That is what we need to address; we should not always simply reach for the statute book.

The partnership between schools and universities in the provision of teacher education is absolutely critical, and at the moment it works terribly well. The university of Cumbria is Europe’s largest provider of newly qualified teachers. Will the Deputy Prime Minister assure me that universities such as mine, which provide teacher education, will continue to have a leading role in the training of our teachers of the future?

Of course we must support all those institutions that produce the great teachers of the future. We must have great teachers who can also lift the aspirations of children in this country and particularly of bright young people from poor backgrounds who at the moment feel completely intimidated from going to university. I hope such teachers will explain to those young people that under the new scheme that we have proposed, they have a real route to live out their hopes and dreams at our great universities in the future.

Q12. Yesterday, the National Housing Federation reported that a first-time buyer in London needs a salary of almost £100,000 to buy an average-priced property. In the light of that, will the Deputy Prime Minister tell me how many low-cost homes will not be built in the capital as a result of his Government’s decision to cut the affordable housing budget by 63%? (22895)

What I do know, of course, is that we inherited a situation in which fewer—[Interruption.] They do not like to hear it, but they have to—it is the truth. Fewer and fewer affordable homes were built, and more and more people and families ended up on the waiting list for affordable homes. We have a plan finally to put that right, and to increase the construction of new affordable homes at a rate that the Labour party never achieved.

Successful counter-insurgency operations in the past, such as in Malaya, suggest that not one of the preconditions for success—control of borders, good troop density levels, a credible Government, and support of the majority of the population—exists in Afghanistan. Does this not beg for a more realistic assessment of the situation?

We have sought to introduce a strong element of realism, not only in the extra resources and support that are required for our troops in Afghanistan, but in the recognition—I think this is the implication of the question—that there is not a military solution to the conflict in Afghanistan. There must be a marriage of a military strategy, which applies pressure on insurgents who want to disrupt the peaceful co-existence of communities and people in Afghanistan, with a political process of reintegration and reconciliation, so that we can leave Afghanistan—

Order. May I ask the Deputy Prime Minister to face the House? Otherwise, it is difficult for him to be fully heard. [Interruption.] Order. I want to hear the Deputy Prime Minister.

I was always taught to address the person who had asked me the question, Mr Speaker. So let me say, addressing my hon. Friend, that we need to marry a political strategy with a military strategy. Only by balancing the two will we be able to leave Afghanistan with our heads held high, knowing that we have done the difficult job that we were asked to do there.

Q13. Apart from the promise to give rapists, murderers and paedophiles the vote, what pre-election promises has the Deputy Prime Minister kept? (22896)

I am not sure whether that was a question or merely a line that the hon. Gentleman has rehearsed over and over again over the past few days. As for the issue of prisoner voting rights, in 2005, as he knows, there was a court judgment on which the last Labour Government consulted repeatedly. At some point, regrettably, we need to bring our law into line with the court judgments, and that is what we will now seek to do.

Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware that, according to a report on Radio 5 Live this morning, after the changes in tuition fees graduates earning £25,000 a year will have to pay back only £30 a month?

Opposition Members simply refuse to acknowledge that the 25% of lowest graduate earners will pay much less than they do now. That seems to me to be a strong indication of the progressive nature of our proposals.

Q14. Business to be dealt with later today includes the Equitable Life (Payments) Bill. Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware of the anger and frustration felt by many thousands of Equitable Life policyholders, will he address that, and will today’s business—with, hopefully, his support and that of Members in all parts of the House—reach a more satisfactory conclusion for those policyholders? (22897)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, under the last Government there was no prospect of any compensation for Equitable Life policyholders. He will also know that the compensation package that we announced in the comprehensive spending review is far in excess of the compensation levels recommended by the independent review. Of course the situation is difficult, and we would always like to provide more compensation, but the compensation that we are providing is much, much more than many people expected.

The Times Educational Supplement recently published a feature article stating how effective the pupil premium would be. Does the Deputy Prime Minister share my frustration at the fact that the Labour party appears to be more interested in scoring partisan points than in supporting the coalition Government’s serious attempts—

I think that the pupil premium is a significant policy. It puts an end to the system that we inherited from Labour, which meant that if you were a poor child at school in one part of the country a lot of extra money would be allocated to your education, whereas that would not happen if you were a poor child in another part of the country. The pupil premium is attached to children from poor backgrounds wherever they live, to lift their sense of aspiration and to improve the one-to-one tuition support that they need if they are to have the fair chance in life that all children deserve in our country.

Q15. Up to 100,000 tenants are paying rent to more than 44,000 private landlords who are being investigated for non-payment of tax on rental income, and 53% of those tenants are receiving housing benefit. What are the Government doing to clamp down on private landlords who fiddle the tax and housing benefit system? (22898)

I strongly agree that we should come down very hard on those unscrupulous landlords, who are profiteering from the housing benefit system that was so poorly administered by the previous Government. As the hon. Gentleman will know, rents in the private sector have declined by about 5% over the last year, while rents that depend on housing allowance have increased by 3%. That is why we need to bring some sense and proportion to the way in which we administer housing benefit, which has more than doubled over the past few years.