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Topical Questions

Volume 519: debated on Tuesday 30 November 2010

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

A man tours the country telling people that if they vote for him he will abolish tuition fees. When he has the power, he increases tuition fees. What is the best description of the integrity of such a man?

This must be the same integrity that led the Labour party to introduce fees having said that it would not in 1997 and to introduce top-up fees when it said that it would not in its 2001 manifesto. Labour commissioned the Browne review, which Labour Members are now busily trashing. The facts are—[Interruption.] I know that the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (John Mann) and his colleagues do not want to hear the facts of our policy, but the facts are that our proposal will remove any up-front fees whatsoever, including for the 40% of part-time students at our universities. The fact is that all graduates will pay less per month than they do under the scheme we inherited from Labour. The fact is that at least one in four of the lowest paid graduates will pay less in total than they do now. That is a progressive package; Labour’s was not.

T2. Does the Deputy Prime Minister feel that the integrity of voter registration would be aided if electoral registration officers could make inquiries about the validity of suspect applications? (27065)

Of course they have the power to do that now. Under the individual electoral registration scheme that we are seeking to introduce, we will ask voters to provide three proofs of identity and residence in order to verify the validity of their claims.

It is good to see the Deputy Prime Minister at the Dispatch Box. I hope that before the end of these questions he might actually answer one. I am trying to get to the bottom of his and the Government’s views on prisoners and voting. In an interview that he gave to The Guardian, when he had another job, he said he believed “the bulk of prisoners” should be given the vote. Is that his personal view or the Government’s view? Can he reassure those of us who are concerned about violent offenders and those who have committed sexual offences being given the right to vote that he can today rule that out?

As the right hon. Gentleman well knows, the Government inherited a situation in which a 2005 court ruling had shown our current arrangements to be illegal and to fall foul of court rulings. The previous Government looked at the options for moving into line with the court rulings and there have been a succession of court rulings since then, most recently last week. We will provide our final response on how to make sure that our practices are in line with those rulings in the very near future.

T3. What progress have the Government made on ensuring that the banks meet their obligation to pay their fair share of taxes? (27066)

A year ago, the previous Government announced that they would require—[Interruption.] It is worth listening to this as a contrast between inaction and action. They announced that they would require the banks to sign up to the code of practice on taxation. Last month, only four of the top 15 banks had signed up, which was in our view completely unacceptable. We want the banks to play not just by the letter of tax law but by its spirit. That is why the Chancellor instructed Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs in October to work with the banking sector to ensure that the remaining banks implemented the code by the end of this month, and I can today confirm that all the top 15 banks have now signed the code. That is an extra 11 banks in one month versus the four that signed previously. [Interruption.]

Order. First, I want to hear the answers. Secondly, the greater the noise, the longer the delay and the fewer Back Benchers will have a chance to be called. That would be a great pity.

I would be for a system that provided a fair settlement for students. As I said before, unlike the system that we inherited from the hon. Gentleman’s party, ours will remove all up-front fees paid by students and will only ask graduates—[Interruption.] I know that Opposition Members do not want to hear this because they do not want to talk about policy as they have a blank sheet for policy. We have a plan and they have a blank sheet—that speaks volumes.

T4. I welcome the Deputy Prime Minister’s consultation on the freedom Bill. Is he aware that terrorism convictions have plummeted by 91% in the past four years, and will he continue to support the repeal of control orders and the ban on intercept evidence so that we can prosecute more terrorists and defend our freedoms? (27067)

I strongly agree with the assumption and the assertion that the previous Government got the balance wrong between liberty and security. Indeed, I think that is now acknowledged even by that great liberal, the current Labour spokesperson on Home Affairs. That is why we are conducting a review of how the anti-terrorism powers introduced by the previous Government are operating so that we can tilt the balance definitively in favour of liberty.

If the Deputy Prime Minister is so confident on tuition fees, why does he not go to speak to the students who are demonstrating outside now? They would be very interested in his broken election promises.

I heard the hon. Gentleman’s leader on the radio the other day saying that he was tempted to speak to the students. When asked why he did not, he said that he had something in his diary—it must have been staring at a blank sheet, which takes an enormous amount of time, does it not?

T5. Could the Deputy Prime Minister update us on his plans for introducing a register of lobbyists? Does he expect the new chairman of Global Counsel, Lord Mandelson, to be on that register? (27068)

It must be a measure of Lord Mandelson’s confidence in the leadership of the Labour party that he has decided to set up on his own to lobby the Government directly himself. We are indeed moving ahead next year to set up a statutory register of lobbyists.

A few months ago, the Deputy Prime Minister said, in a personal statement, that he thought the Iraq war was illegal. On that basis, for the benefit of the House could he set out what he sees as the limits of collective responsibility?

As I said before, collective responsibility operates, but this is also a coalition Government, whereby two parties with different views, different traditions and different perspectives have come together to govern in the national interest. That is why we are keen, on both sides of the coalition Government, to stick scrupulously to the open, public coalition agreement that we entered into with each other.

T6. Given that the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority is one of the Deputy Prime Minister’s policy responsibilities, what action will he take to ensure that IPSA stops spending hundreds of thousands of taxpayers’ pounds on its own public relations and its ever-expanding bureaucracy? (27069)

I of course acknowledge that there is a great deal of unease on both sides of the House about how IPSA is operating in practice, which is why it is right that its working practices should be reviewed and, where possible, strengthened and improved. However, the fundamental principle that the administration of our expenses, pay and so on is independent remains exactly right in the wake of the terrible damage done to the House by the expenses scandals in the last Parliament.

On Lords reform, does the Deputy Prime Minister think it right that those who give large donations to political parties find their way to the House of Lords?

I think we need reform of the funding arrangements for political parties, and we are keen to work on a cross-party basis with all parties in the House to restore public confidence in the way political parties are funded, while at the same time proceeding with reform of the other place, as I described earlier, by publishing a Bill on House of Lords reform early in the new year.

T7. The Deputy Prime Minister will recall that last month I asked him about electoral registration fraud in Tower Hamlets. Will he agree to have a look at postal voter fraud, too? In Halifax in May, an astonishing 763 postal votes failed to match voter registration records. Does he agree that evidence is building of systematic electoral fraud in this country, which needs to be investigated? (27070)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, electoral registration officers already have the power to look into allegations of abuse, which are in some cases, as he has highlighted, very serious indeed, and where necessary and justified, refer them to the police. That is exactly what I would expect should happen.

I can tell the House what it is above and beyond everything else. It is a contrast with the big state. That was the governing ethos of the previous Government: every problem, every dilemma and every question, it was felt by the previous Government, should be sorted out by officials in Whitehall and politicians in Westminster. We believe—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Gentleman asked the Deputy Prime Minister a question. Members must have the courtesy to listen to the reply.

Mr Speaker, they are enjoying asking their questions so much that they are not bothering to listen to the answer.

We believe in empowering individuals, communities and families to be able to do what they think is right to improve their lives in the way they think is best.

T8. On 26 October, the Deputy Prime Minister said that it was the Government’s“intention to set up a commission on the long-standing knotty problem of the West Lothian question by the end of the year.”—[Official Report, 26 October 2010; Vol. 517, c. 154.]Today—St Andrew’s day—can the Deputy Prime Minister update the House on the establishment of the commission, its make-up and its precise terms of reference? (27071)

As my hon. Friend knows, reference is made in the coalition agreement to the issue and to the commission that we want to set up to look into it. I am glad to confirm that the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), who is the Minister with responsibility for constitutional affairs, will be making a detailed announcement on the establishment of that commission before Christmas.

To prevent the voting problems that occurred in Sheffield and other places, the Electoral Commission recommended changes to administration, which I know the Deputy Prime Minister supports and which I support. The commission also recommended a change in the law. The right hon. Gentleman has stated that he does not believe the law should be changed. Can he tell us on what basis he made that decision and who he has consulted on it?

The hon. Lady has raised this matter before and it is indeed a serious issue. It is a question of trying to match the solution to the problem. Much of the evidence appears to suggest that the real problems were to do with the organisation by certain returning officers and the resources allocated to specific polling stations, not least the one that she and I know well in Ranmoor in Sheffield, where there were particularly long queues. I am open-minded about this but, in my view, simply changing the law without changing the resources provided to those polling stations will not improve the performance of the individual polling stations.

T10. What reassurances can the Deputy Prime Minister give to Shepshed town council and many other constituents that they will have the opportunity to give their views on proposed new constituency boundaries before those are finalised? (27073)

As my hon. Friend may know, we are tripling the period during which members of the public can provide written submissions as the boundary review is proceeding—up to 12 weeks. If the Boundary Commission comes up with a revised proposal, that trigger starts again and there is a further 12-week period, so in theory there is a six-month period during which members of the public can make their views known. That is a much better system than the party political rigged appeals that prevailed under the Opposition.

The Deputy Prime Minister has said that electoral registration officers and others can bring to book and to criminal court those who are charged with electoral fraud. Is he aware that a major barrier to doing that is the cost, and that the Labour party has just had to pay a £200,000 bill for the work it did to expose Conservative council candidates who fraudulently stole a seat in Slough two years ago?

I am afraid I cannot refer to the specific case. The hon. Lady makes her point of principle about the costs, which are important in themselves. Without knowing the details, I cannot comment on the costs of that case, but the ability of electoral registration officers to refer issues to the police and to allow the police and prosecuting authorities to take matters forward must always be protected.