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Topical Questions

Volume 521: debated on Tuesday 18 January 2011

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.