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Deputy Prime Minister

Volume 521: debated on Tuesday 18 January 2011

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

House of Lords Reform

1. What process he plans to follow to develop and implement proposals for a wholly or mainly elected second Chamber. (33928)

I am chairing a cross-party Committee to look at all aspects of House of Lords reform. We plan to publish a draft Bill in the coming period for pre-legislative scrutiny by—we hope—a Joint Committee of both Houses. Then it will be for the Government to decide on the introduction of the Bill.

Given that an all-elected upper House would, in effect, double the number of MPs while resulting in hundreds of highly skilled and eminent men and women being thrown out, what effects does the Deputy Prime Minister think will be applied to the legislative process as a result of this brilliant idea? Will it lead to greater effectiveness, greater prestige or just more machine politics?

My own view, as someone who has always supported greater democracy in the other place and greater accountability to the British people, is that the legitimacy of the other place would be enhanced. There are plenty of other bicameral democracies around the world that have two elected Chambers of different size with different mandates, elected even by different systems, which work extremely well in striking the right balance between effectiveness and legitimacy.

Of course, it was the previous Labour Government who made sure that the large majority of hereditary peers were removed—nearly 700—from the House of Lords. Has the Deputy Prime Minister any words of congratulations for Members of the current House of Lords on the way in which they are defending democracy against gerrymandering?

If we needed any confirmation, this week of all weeks, that the Labour party’s commitment to cleaning up politics and political reform is a complete and utter farce—the leader of the Labour party who, sadly, is not in his place, was going around the television studios last weekend saying that he believed in new politics and that he wanted to reach out to Liberal Democrat voters—it is the dinosaurs in the Labour party in the House of Lords who are blocking people’s ability to have a say on the electoral system that they want. There cannot be meaningful political reform with such weak political leadership.

One hundred years after the temporary provisions of the Parliament Act 1911 were introduced, some of us are impatient for my right hon. Friend to succeed in achieving an elected second Chamber. Can he reassure me that the grandfathering of voting rights will not be offered to newly appointed peers under the present Government?

The specific reference to grandfathering in the coalition agreement applies to the staged way in which we want reform of the House of Lords implemented over time. We want to be clear about the end point, which is a fully reformed House of Lords, but the stages by which we get there should be subject to proper scrutiny and proper debate, and will be, not least in the Joint Committee, when we publish the draft Bill, which we will do fairly shortly.

The Deputy Prime Minister has got himself a reputation as an habitual breaker of promises. May I ask him a simple and straightforward question, to which I hope he will give a simple and straightforward answer? In his draft Bill on the House of Lords to be published shortly, will he keep his promise of a 100% elected second Chamber?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows—he is a member of the very Committee that I have been chairing—that issue is still under discussion. We will make our views clear, as he well knows, when we publish the draft Bill. He talks about promises. Is that the equivalent of the promise to hold a referendum on the alternative vote—a manifesto commitment made by his party, which is now being blocked by the Labour party in the other place?

Parliamentary Constituencies

2. When he expects his proposals for fewer and more equally sized constituencies to be implemented. (33929)

The Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill currently being considered, if somewhat stalled by the Labour party in another place, requires the boundary commissions to submit their reports before 1 October 2013. The Secretary of State or the Lord President is required to lay before Parliament an Order in Council to bring the commissions’ recommendations into effect.

The majority of this House will certainly condemn the delays not only in this Chamber but in the other place. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that demonstrates the Opposition’s contempt for equal-sized constituencies and equal votes for people throughout the country?

As I said earlier, the leader of the Labour party said this very weekend that he believed in new politics and political reform, yet he cannot control members of his own party in the House of Lords. Either he did not mean what he said at the weekend, or he is too weak to lead his own party. Either way, the Labour party cannot be relied upon to deliver political reform.

Many reform-minded Members of this House are getting fed up with the right hon. Gentleman’s attitude to electoral reform. He has broken so many promises in the coalition agreement, so why does he not separate the date of the referendum on the alternative vote from the gerrymandering that his Government are putting through?

We want to hold the referendum as soon as possible. We think that it is right to hold it when people are going to the ballot box anyway. That will save the taxpayer £30 million. We think that that is the right way to proceed. We on the Government Benches do not agree on the issue of AV, but at least we agree that the British people should have their say—something that the Labour party is now trying to block.

My constituency is one of the smallest English seats. If I adhered to the principle of naked self-interest, I would be supporting the status quo. Is it not right that we have equal-sized constituencies—equality for all voters so that each vote has equal value?

Of course it is. It has been a principle for political and democratic reformers of all parties for generations that all votes should be valued in the same way. It simply cannot be right, for instance, that right now Islington North has an electorate of just over 66,000, and yet 10 miles away in East Ham the figure is 87,000. Voters in a constituency just 10 miles away have less value attached to their votes than those up the road. That is wrong. That is what we are seeking to remedy. It is a simple principle: all votes should be worthy of the same value wherever they are found in the country.

I know that the Deputy Prime Minister gets in a terrible lather whenever anybody has the effrontery to contradict him, but may I suggest to him that he could perfectly easily have his referendum on the day that he wants it by splitting the Bill? It is perfectly straightforward. He said that the main reason for cutting the number of MPs is to save money. How does he reconcile that with the fact that it is costing £12.3 million extra every year for the 117 extra peers he has appointed, that it is costing £11.2 million extra for bringing the boundary review forward, and that he is to double the cost of the boundary commissions by making them every five years rather than every eight?

Cutting the number of MPs will save about £12 million every year, and holding the referendum on the same day as other elections saves us about £30 million. I do not understand why the hon. Gentleman wants to incur greater costs for the taxpayer—

It is the choice of the coalition Government to say that we want to reform politics not in a piecemeal fashion, but in a meaningful way. To introduce both the right for people to have a say over the electoral system and to ensure that constituencies are of roughly the same size seems a perfectly sensible way to proceed. That is what we will do, and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman should be whipping up the dinosaurs in the Labour party in the other place to stop us from doing so.

Act of Settlement

I am no monarchist, but does the hon. Gentleman agree with me that, if we must have a monarchy, women should have equality with men in succession?

Ministers have already accepted that the provision in the Act of Settlement might well be discriminatory, and I have already confirmed at the Dispatch Box when responding to a previous debate, not that we are doing nothing, but that discussions are under way with other countries of which Her Majesty is Queen. She is not just our Queen, but Queen of 15 other realms, and those matters have to be taken forward together in a careful and considered way. It is not as straightforward as the hon. Gentleman would like to pretend it is.

I welcome that response. As the Minister knows, my ten-minute rule Bill on that subject is to be introduced at 3.30 pm today. Will he confirm whether I could perhaps have that response in writing before the Bill is introduced?

I look forward to the right hon. Gentleman’s speech introducing his Bill. Discussions are under way, as has been confirmed in this House and in the other place. He knows that the Statute of Westminster states that those matters must be amended in all the other realms of which Her Majesty is Queen, and it takes only a moment’s thought to see that that is not as straightforward a process as some who would wish to move more quickly might think.

Register of Lobbyists

My hon. Friend should know that the Government plan to carry out a wide-ranging consultation later this year and then to bring forward legislation in the second Session of this Parliament.

Does the Minister agree that for the statutory register to be effective and fit for purpose, it must be robustly transparent?

I do, and that is a very important point. Lobbying is a perfectly reputable industry for making sure that the voices of charities and businesses are heard, but it should be transparent so that people know who is talking to those in Parliament. That is what the Government intend to do—mainly to clean up the dreadful behaviour that we saw last year, which has resulted in some former Members having their passes removed.

The purpose of lobbying is to give further advantages to the already advantaged. Is the Minister not concerned that already lobbying has taken place between his Department and BSkyB which might have the most damaging consequences for the people of this country? Should not these reforms be brought in quickly by the Tory-Lib Dem junta?

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s characterisation that all lobbying is to benefit the advantaged. Members are lobbied all the time by charitable organisations, charities and, as I found in my previous role in opposition, those who campaign on behalf of disabled people, for example. It is important, however, that such lobbying is transparent and that people know who is talking to Members of Parliament and members of the Government. That is exactly what our statutory register will achieve.

I applaud the Minister’s efforts, but will he consider proposals to shut the revolving door between big Departments and big business contractors, which leaves taxpayers ripped off and democracy diminished?

Processes are already in place to vet what Ministers and former Ministers do after they leave both ministerial office and this House. My hon. Friend makes a good point, and those matters are being looked into and kept under review. I am sure that he will continue pressing that point in his usual vigorous way.

Topical Questions

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

Mindful of the difficulties that the right hon. Gentleman’s rushed proposals for the AV referendum, muddled with the equally rushed boundary changes, are having in the other place, what persuaded him to insist on an electoral system that was not in his manifesto, while abandoning promises that were in his manifesto, such as votes at 16, the 3,000 more police officers and the scrapping of tuition fees?

I would have hoped that the hon. Lady would welcome and support the proposal to hold a referendum on the alternative vote system, not least for the reason that it was in her party’s manifesto at the last general election.

The hon. Gentleman keeps saying “Split the Bill” from a sedentary position. We believe it is right to proceed together on reforming—[Interruption.] No—[Interruption.]

Order. I apologise for interrupting the Deputy Prime Minister. Let me say to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and other Members that it is not too much for the Chair to ask that Members treat the Deputy Prime Minister with courtesy, whatever they think of him or his policies.

I find it extraordinary that, as I said, just a few days ago the leader of the Labour party said that he believed in new politics, but he is now using the oldest tricks in the book in the other place simply to stop the British people having their say. That is the worst kind of old politics I can imagine.

T2. If the Deputy Prime Minister is to save the taxpayer money by holding the fairer votes referendum on the same date as other elections in other parts of the country, how much longer can the board games in the other House continue? (33939)

As I reminded the House earlier, holding the referendum on the same day that people have an opportunity to vote anyway saves the taxpayer a considerable amount of money—£30 million. If we are to have a referendum on such an important issue, it is right in principle and in practice to do so on an occasion when people are invited to vote in any event.

T8. May I ask the Deputy Prime Minister about the referendum on the alternative vote taking place on the same day as the Scottish parliamentary elections? In Scotland, the Electoral Commission says that it does not have the resources to hold both votes on the same day. Will he agree to meet the electoral commissioner in Scotland? (33946)

My team and I are more than happy to meet the Electoral Commission with regard to Scotland. We have always maintained that the two votes are very different in nature. There are, of course, practical issues with the administration of the vote, which we are addressing. However, a vote for a devolved Parliament or Assembly and a vote on a referendum of this nature can easily be separated in the minds of voters.

T3. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that to restore trust in politics it is essential that we reduce the cost of politics in Westminster, especially at a time when so many people are struggling with increasing costs? (33940)

Absolutely; that is why I marvel at the Labour party’s objection to saving £12 million every year by reducing the size of this place from 650 seats to 600. That is a modest cut of 7.6% which will bring the size of this Chamber into line with Parliaments in many other mature democracies. It is resisted only by Labour Members.

May I ask the Deputy Prime Minister about his Government’s actions on the national health service? By unleashing the biggest ever reorganisation at the very time when the NHS faces a real-terms cut in its budget, he is posing a huge threat to our national health service. How on earth can he justify that?

The only party in this House that wants to cut the NHS budget is the Labour party. The coalition Government have increased spending on the NHS. We recognise that if we want to preserve the very best of the NHS, it needs to be reformed in the years ahead. Crucially, we need a people’s NHS—[Interruption.] We need an NHS that is there to serve patients, and is not a plaything of unaccountable bureaucracies. That is why we are reducing the layers of unaccountable administration in the NHS and ensuring that the people who know patients best—the GPs—have more say in how the system works.

Yes, it is the people’s NHS, and the Deputy Prime Minister has no mandate for the changes. Even after the general election, the coalition agreement said that there would be no “top-down reorganisation”. This is a smash and grab on the NHS. Will he make the Government think again?

As it happens, in opposition we continually made the case against an over-centralised NHS that was not responsive enough to the needs of communities and patients, and insufficiently accountable to them. That is why we are giving more power, not less, to local authorities, particularly in the area of public health, and why we are giving more financial authority to GPs, rather than less, because they know patients best—[Interruption.] Hon. Members say “The private sector”, but it was the Labour party that rigged the market through the introduction of independent treatment centres to force private sector providers in the NHS. Through the reforms, we will ensure that there is a level playing field, on which public, voluntary and private providers can compete.

T4. Does the Deputy Prime Minister share my belief that the will of this House to equalise constituency boundaries and reduce the number of MPs should not be frustrated by the grotesque spectacle of former Labour Members, who have been rejected by the electorate, leading a filibuster in the other House? (33941)

It is indeed a spectacle to see on the television that former Members of this House who were virtually monosyllabic here have become so very loquacious in the other place, particularly late at night, to block a simple measure that was one of the great campaigning themes of the Chartists in the century before last—namely that all votes should be of the same value and that all constituencies should be roughly the same size. I think that everyone in the country would agree with that principle, except for Opposition Members.

A few minutes ago, the Deputy Prime Minister said that the proposed cut in the number of seats in the House of Commons was a modest 7.5%. How would he describe the 25% cut that will happen in Wales?

It is all based on the simple principle that each constituency should represent, give or take a margin, roughly the same number of members of the public—voters—across the country. I do not think that even the hon. Gentleman would claim that Wales should somehow be exempt from that simple democratic principle.

We have already taken a number of measures. For instance, just this April, 23 million basic-rate taxpayers will get £200 in their pockets, because we have dramatically increased the personal allowance, so that people who work hard, play by the rules and want to do best for themselves and their families get more money back. We have invested significant additional money in early years and pre-school support, with 15 hours’ free pre-school support for all three and four-year-olds, and a new entitlement for the most disadvantaged children at the age of two. We are delivering the pupil premium, which by the end of this Parliament will mean a full £2.5 billion of extra money targeted at the most disadvantaged children, who were let down by the school system that we inherited from the previous Government.

The system by which we elect parliamentarians is enormously important. We should have a proper debate and discussion in this country. If the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill is not passed through the Houses of Parliament, how does the Deputy Prime Minister plan to allow for a full 10 weeks of campaigning, as recommended by the Electoral Commission?

It will be passed; we are determined that it shall be passed. It cannot be right that the Opposition, having failed to make their case in this place, are now using the lowest forms of foot-dragging in the other place to prevent this Government from proceeding with the political reforms that the hon. Lady’s party used to believe in.

T6. Section 141 of the Mental Health Act 1983 means that any Member of this House who is in receipt of long-term mental health care forfeits his seat. We know that, nationwide, one in five people suffers from a mental health condition. No doubt the same figure applies in this House, yet no Member has ever spoken at length about their mental health conditions. What plans does the Deputy Prime Minister have to follow the recommendation of last year’s Speaker’s Conference to repeal section 141 of the 1983 Act? (33943)

As we can hear from the reaction on both sides of the House, my hon. Friend has highlighted a very important issue, concerning a provision that the Speaker’s Conference rightly identified should be repealed. It is simply not right that under section 141 of the Mental Health Act MPs lose their seats if they are detained in hospital under the Act for more than six months. We will shortly come forward with announcements to repeal section 141.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister intend to propose Elwyn Watkins, his twice-failed candidate in Oldham East and Saddleworth, for the House of Lords?

T7. The Deputy Prime Minister’s proposed recall mechanism will apply only to MPs, and its use will be possible only with the permission of a narrow, parliamentary committee. Will he consider expanding the mechanism, to include other elected representatives, and revising it, so that recall decisions lie with constituents, not parliamentary committees? (33944)

The coalition agreement stipulates that we want to introduce a recall mechanism, as exists in parts of north America and elsewhere, for those parliamentarians who have committed wrongdoing. It is important that it should not be a completely arbitrary mechanism; it should be shown that serious wrongdoing has been committed. We have recently seen various serving or former MPs in court, with one having been convicted and been handed down a prison sentence, and the public have been reminded that they do not want to be left powerless when they see such wrongdoing occurring. They do not want to wait until the next general election to have their say; they want to be able to force a by-election themselves. We will come forward with the detail of our ideas on how to do that shortly. I hear what my hon. Friend says about wanting the mechanism to be extended to other bodies immediately, but I hope that when he sees our proposals, he will recognise that we are taking a significant step in favour of giving people that recall power.

Last week the Deputy Prime Minister spoke of “alarm clock Britain”. Given the collapse of Liberal Democrat support in the opinion polls and the complete rejection of the Liberal Democrats in Oldham East and Saddleworth, will he heed the wake-up call before his MPs and party are forced to face electoral oblivion?

I heard the same predictions before the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election—that we would disappear without trace into complete oblivion—but our share of the vote went up. Honestly, the utter—[Interruption.]

Order. I wish to hear the Deputy Prime Minister. I would happily hear him for longer if there were more time, but there is not.

It went up because many people in Oldham East and Saddleworth and elsewhere recognise that we are doing a very difficult job in difficult circumstances. Why? Because we inherited the most unholy mess from the previous Labour Government, who have now forced us—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Glasgow Central (Anas Sarwar) might just want to listen. We are spending £120 million every single day simply to pay off the interest on the debt caused by his party when it was in government. That is enough to build a primary school every single hour. What waste. What a terrible legacy.

T9. What plans does my right hon. Friend have to review, amend or repeal sections 3 to 18 of the Digital Economy Act 2010, which was rushed through so awfully by the last Government? (33947)

This Government do not believe that people should be able to share content unlawfully, but we are disappointed that the industry has not made faster progress towards adapting its business models to meet consumer demand. I agree with my hon. Friend that there are legitimate concerns about the workability of some aspects of the Digital Economy Act. The Government are looking actively at those questions now, and we will make an announcement in due course.

May I suggest to the Deputy Prime Minister that the reputation of this House is being maligned during the debate on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill? That is because Front-Bench spokespersons for the coalition have continually said that we are not interested in the Bill in this place, and that we could have debated the amendments that the Lords are debating at the moment. That is simply untrue. I was one of 20 Members who was standing during the debate in Committee on the Welsh constituency boundaries, and we were not called to speak. So it is simply not true to say that people in this House are not interested in the excellent discussion that is taking place up the corridor.

I wonder whether the right hon. Lady would characterise the debate taking place in the other place as “excellent” if she were to have a look at the foot-dragging that is now taking place on the Labour Benches there. I am sorry if she was not called to speak during the debate on the Bill when it passed through this place, but, as she knows, there were eight full days of debate on the Bill, which was subject to the fullest possible scrutiny.