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Topical Questions

Volume 524: debated on Tuesday 1 March 2011

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

We have heard that while the Prime Minister was touring the middle east, the Deputy Prime Minister was skiing in the Alps. Does that suggest that the Prime Minister prefers to have the Foreign Secretary in charge, rather than leave the Deputy Prime Minister running the shop?

As for the events of last week, I am sure everyone will agree that we should all pay tribute to the extraordinary courage and professionalism of the armed services personnel who did so much—last week, again this weekend and ongoing now—to secure the safe return of British citizens from Libya, which was the first priority of the Government throughout last week. In the end, I spent just short of two days—two working days—away last week, but as soon as it became obvious that I was needed here, I returned.

T3. Can my right hon. Friend please tell me what steps he is taking to restore the public’s faith in politics, and in their Members of Parliament? (42444)

Our whole constitutional reform programme is directed towards restoring the public’s faith in politics, and in their MPs. That is why we have legislated to give people a choice in the electoral system for the House of Commons. We have also legislated to introduce more evenly sized constituencies so that people feel they are equally represented in the House of Commons. As was discussed earlier, we will introduce a recall mechanism so that when an MP is found to have committed serious wrongdoing, a by-election can be held. We will introduce a statutory register of lobbyists, and our plans for fixed-term Parliaments will mean that Prime Ministers can no longer manipulate the timing of general elections for their own party’s advantage. Finally, our plans for a wholly or mainly elected second Chamber will mean that the people, not the Prime Minister, will have a role in determining how our legislatures work.

I welcome the Deputy Prime Minister back to the Dispatch Box. At least today it has not slipped his mind that he is Deputy Prime Minister. May I follow up on the question asked by the hon. Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom)? The Deputy Prime Minister talked about how the Lib Dems represent trust in politics—a politics that keeps its promises. Will he remind the House what he promised at the general election about police numbers?

As the right hon. and learned Lady knows very well, this Government have the unenviable, difficult task of clearing up the unholy mess that she left. I know that she and her colleagues want to live in complete denial, but because of the mistakes and economic incompetence of the Labour Government, we are spending £120 million, every single day of every single week, simply to pay off the interest on her debts. That is why, as the outgoing Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury said, “There’s no money left.” Unfortunately, when there is no money left, we must make savings across the public services.

But that has not stopped the Government spending £100 million on elected police commissioners, and the Deputy Prime Minister has not answered the question; perhaps it has slipped his memory again. May I remind him? He promised 3,000 more police, and he has voted for 10,000 fewer police. Is the problem not just his forgetting that he is Deputy Prime Minister, but that he has forgotten every promise he ever made? Is he aware that his complete betrayal on tuition fees, VAT, the NHS and the police has led to a new word in the English language: if someone has been the victim of a total sell-out, we say that they have been “clegged”? Is he proud of that?

What an extraordinarily laboured question! The right hon. and learned Lady may have forgotten that her party promised an emergency Budget some time soon, and £14 billion of cuts starting in a few weeks. She complains about the difficult decisions that we are having to take, yet I have not heard her and her colleagues make a single suggestion about how to fill the enormous black hole in the public finances that they left to us to sort out.

T5. Will my right hon. Friend agree to consider extending the terms of the Protection of Freedoms Bill to give stronger powers to the Information Commissioner to fine internet companies who misuse people’s personal data? Does he not agree that we need an internet Bill of Rights to stop the advance of the privatised surveillance society? (42446)

This is a very important issue. As it happens, since April last year the Information Commissioner has had the power to impose a penalty of up to half a million pounds for serious breaches of the Data Protection Act, and that applies to internet companies who misuse personal data. The commissioner can also serve information notices and enforcement notices, apply for warrants, pursue prosecutions and accept undertakings. As my hon. Friend may know, the commissioner has issued a code of practice for collecting personal information online. Finally, he might be interested to know that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills are working on updating the relevant regulations and are considering extending the powers of the Information Commissioner and the sanctions available when privacy is breached.

T2. Will the Deputy Prime Minister give the House his definition of front-line policing? If he cannot, does he understand that the House will have great difficulty in believing that he can protect essential services? (42443)

Actually, I think that one of the problems in policing, as is widely recognised, has been that there are not enough police officers out on the front line, on the beat, in our communities. By some estimates, only 11% of police officers are out and about in our communities at any one time. Yes, we are having to deal with financial pressures because of the reasons that I explained earlier, but at the same time we must reform policing to minimise the amount of time that police officers allocate to work in the back office, and to ensure that they are free to be out on the streets, which is where we want them, for as much time as possible.

T7. In a sample of more than 80 immigration cases coming through my constituency, more than 15% of those involved were found to be on the electoral roll when they had no entitlement to be there. Does the Deputy Prime Minister not agree that urgent, immediate steps are needed to introduce positive voter identification? (42448)

I strongly agree that we must introduce measures to tackle electoral fraud. As my hon. Friend may know, we have announced that we will legislate to speed up the introduction of individual electoral registration to before the next general election, in 2014. Under that new scheme each person will have to register individually, whereas the current system is registration by household, and they will be asked to provide personal identifiers, including their national insurance number, to enable registration officers to verify the identity of a person before they are added to the register. That should tackle fraudulent or inaccurate register entries, which my hon. Friend rightly highlights.

T4. Before the election the Deputy Prime Minister said that providing more police was “the only way to create safer streets.” Now the Minister for Policing and Criminal Justice says that there is no link between crime and police numbers. Which is it? (42445)

As I explained in answer to an earlier question, of course we want the police officers who are available to be out on the streets as much as possible. It is true that this is partly a question of resources—[Interruption.] Nothing is possible when there is no money. It was the outgoing Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury who said, “There’s no money left.” Those were not our words; they were his words.

We cannot provide for our schools, hospitals and police forces unless we have money. Because of the mistakes made by the hon. Lady’s party, we are pouring £120 million down the drain every single day simply to pay off the interest on her party’s debts. That is the problem that we face. At the same time, we need to reform policing to ensure that police officers can spend as much time as possible out on the beat rather than behind their desks.

T8. In both Nantwich and Crewe, and in the surrounding rural areas, many people feel strongly that the current planning system is not on their side, particularly when it comes to wind turbines, mobile phone masts and overdevelopment. Can my right hon. Friend tell me what the Government are doing to improve the situation? (42449)

The basic principle is that we want people to feel that they have a stake in the planning system rather than feeling that things are being done to them. That is why, in the Localism Bill and in further measures that we wish to take, we are introducing new powers enabling local communities and neighbourhoods to determine for themselves what kind of decisions they want to be pursued in their areas, if necessary by triggering local referendums. For too long planning has been obscure, difficult to understand, very technocratic and highly over-centralised, and that is what we will be trying to change in the coming years.

T6. The first Deputy Prime Minister in British history to fail to turn up for work when the Prime Minister has gone abroad for a week! I think what I want to ask is, “What is the point of Nick Clegg?” (42447)

That was another much-rehearsed question. [Interruption.] I merely sigh at the laborious way in which these questions have been rehearsed and over-rehearsed.

The Prime Minister was away on an official trip. The fact that the Prime Minister is away on an official trip does not mean that he is not the Prime Minister any more. When the chief executive of a company goes on a business trip, he is still the chief executive. When the manager of a football club attends an away game, he is still the manager. As I sought to explain earlier, last week I was away for just under two working days, and I returned as soon as it became clear that I was needed back here.

T9. The pilot for the public reading stage of the Protection of Freedoms Bill is an innovative way of opening up the legislative process to the public. In that context, can my right hon. Friend update the House on progress on the delivery of a mechanism allowing formal parliamentary debate of petitions bearing at least 100,000 signatures? (42450)

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is working on a proposal to deliver precisely what my hon. Friend has described: the ability of people who petition the House to ensure that their demands are heard on the Floor of the House of Commons. That is one of a number of innovations that will open up the way in which we scrutinise legislation and allow the public, as well as ourselves, to have a say in how we do it.

How will the boundary reviews take the 2011 census into account, given that the preliminary results will not be available until the middle of next year?

As the hon. Lady may know, we are basing the boundary reviews on the electoral register rather than the census. That has been standard practice for a long time, and we do not intend to change it.

What action can the Deputy Prime Minister take to ensure that local authorities make every effort to ensure that young people find their way on to the electoral roll?

It is a vital issue of concern for all Members on both sides of the House that those who are not registered should be registered. One step that we will soon be piloting is to allow electoral registration officers to compare their databases with other publicly available databases, so that they can literally go from door to door and say, “You’re on this database, but you’re not on that one,” and thereby encourage people to register. Drawing international comparisons, our registration rates of just over 90% are pretty respectable, but of course we want to continue to do whatever we can to raise that standard even further.

Birmingham city council will today vote through the biggest local government cuts in history, with cuts of £212 million for next year. Two weeks ago the council’s deputy leader, Liberal Democrat Councillor Paul Tilsley, wrote to The Times protesting against the cuts, but 24 hours later he signed the budget. As the Deputy Prime Minister believes in restoring faith in politics, how would he describe the actions of Councillor Tilsley, or is he too on a slippery slope?

All local authorities of whatever political persuasion are clearly facing a very tough local government finance settlement, and we have never hidden the fact that it is extremely difficult. I think there is a great deal of discretion in how local councils can respond to those same pressures, however. For example, I am very struck by the fact that in Sheffield, the city where I am an MP, the Liberal Democrat council has kept every library and swimming pool open and has not made any major cuts to adult social services, and only 270 people will be laid off next year, whereas across the Pennines in Labour-controlled Manchester, 2,500 people have been laid off and almost everything has been closed across the whole city. In Birmingham, as in all great cities, difficult decisions are being made, and I trust that they are being made in a way that safeguards the services for the most vulnerable in that city.

I too welcome the excellent innovation of a public reading stage for the Protection of Freedoms Bill, to involve the public in the law-making process. Can the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that the Government intend ultimately to extend that process of public engagement to all Bills? Will they also consider improving it even further—for example, by putting a Bill’s explanatory notes on the consultation website and considering the public’s suggestions at Committee stage?

As my hon. Friend may know, using the Protection of Freedoms Bill as the first pilot for providing the public with a public reading stage is precisely that: a pilot. We must learn the lessons from that, and see whether a public reading stage sufficiently engages people and makes the whole legislative process accessible to the public. If it does prove to be successful, and if we can make all the technical adjustments that might be needed work, then yes of course, in principle we would like to see this extended to all other pieces of legislation and draft Bills.