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Topical Questions

Volume 528: debated on Tuesday 24 May 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 this Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his answer. Now that the Deputy Prime Minister is even less popular than the Swiss entry in the recent Eurovision contest—at least they got 19 points—what immediate plans does he have to redeem himself in the public eye? Moreover, what principle or value is he not prepared to sell out over in his quest to cling to power?

Well read and well rehearsed! I will tell the hon. Gentleman one thing that I am not going to flinch from for one minute, and that is to clear up the mess left by Labour. Because of the sheer economic incompetence of the Labour party in government, this country, on the backs of our children and grandchildren, is borrowing £400 million a day. He might think that is okay; I do not.

T2. Can the Deputy Prime Minister give the House a timetable for his proposed reforms of the House of Lords? Will it be during the life of this Parliament, and how flexible are the proportions? Would he consider 30, 30 and 30? (56975)

The timetable is that the Joint Committee of both Houses first needs to complete its work, and we hope that it will do so in the early stages of next year, with a view to the Government then publishing a Bill in the second Session in order to see the first steps in a reformed House of Lords and the first elections taking place in 2015.

People are worried about the NHS being turned from a public service into a commercial market. Part 3 of the Health and Social Care Bill makes this about profits, not patients. The Deputy Prime Minister has reportedly told his Back Benchers that he is against that, so will he tell the House now that the Government will strike out of the Bill the whole of part 3? He has been talking tough in private, but will he say it here in public?

I can be very clear, and the Government as a whole can be very clear, that there will be no privatisation of the NHS. It will not be run for profit and it will not be fragmented; it will be free at the point of use based on need rather than the ability to pay—full stop.

The right hon. Gentleman ducked the question on part 3, did he not? It is clear that he will not stand up for the NHS against the Tories. There has been a pause in Parliament, but have not the Tories told him that on the ground they are forging ahead with this?

It was the right hon. and learned Lady’s party in government that rigged contracts with private sector providers, undermining the NHS and undermining NHS hospitals—a rigged contract with private sector providers to undermine the very ethos of the NHS. We are legislating to make sure that, once and for all, there is a level playing field in the NHS for everyone who is providing care to the British people.

T3. Just 30,000 of the 5.5 million British citizens living overseas are registered to vote. What plans do the Government have to make it easier for them to register and to lengthen the election timetable so that those who do register can vote by post? (56976)

I think there is a strong case for lengthening the election timetable to address that issue. We are looking at the matter in detail and will come forward with proposals as soon as we can.

T5. The Deputy Prime Minister has made it clear that he is prepared to see Liberal MPs and peers veto the Health and Social Care Bill. Given that, why did he sign the foreword to the health White Paper? (56978)

The principles of the White Paper were less bureaucracy, more patient-centred health, greater control for people who know patients best so that they can decide where money circulates in the system, greater accountability, and less centralisation. First, those are worthwhile reforms. Secondly, they build on many of the reforms that the Labour party introduced when in government. If the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues were more honest, they would back our attempt to listen to the British people and reform the NHS so that it is safeguarded for future generations.

Order. I am sure no one is suggesting that any right hon. or hon. Member would be dishonest in this Chamber. [Interruption.] Order. I take that as read.

T4. Did not the Government inherite an unreformed, unwieldy, unaccountable health service that was partly privatised, and are not these reforms necessary to secure the future of the health service for the next generation? (56977)

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. Opposition Members simply cannot get their heads around the fact that this Government are prepared to listen. We are prepared to listen to doctors, nurses, consultants and patients. What is more—this is something the Labour Government never did—when we think we can improve our proposals, we are prepared to do so.

T6. The Deputy Prime Minister has repeated ad nauseam that the commitment to reform the House of Lords was in all three parties’ manifestos. [Hon. Members: “It was.”] Of course it was. Does that not mean that the electorate did not have the choice to vote for somebody who did not want to reform the House of Lords? Is there not therefore a strong case for a referendum on this issue, which is much more important than AV? (56979)

A seriously surreal doctrine is emerging. The hon. Gentleman was unable to persuade his colleagues to exclude the issue from the manifesto, so he wants to circumvent the manifesto on which he stood at the last general election by way of a referendum.

T7. I know that the Deputy Prime Minister shares my view that the influence of lobbying can cause serious defamation to the democratic process. Will he update the House on the status of his register of lobbyists? (56980)

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), has announced in the House that we are consulting on that matter. We hope that the consultation will proceed during the summer to meet the objective in the coalition agreement of creating a register of lobbyists.

T8. Will the Deputy Prime Minister update the House on the discussions he has had with his Government and party colleagues on the circumstances in which parliamentarians should be above the rule of law? (56982)

I do not think that anyone should be above the rule of law. If we do not like the law in this place, we should act as legislators to change the law, not flout it.

T10. Given that the Deputy Prime Minister’s proposals for House of Lords reform were not met with total acclaim last week, will he reflect on the points that have been made last week and this week, and try to seek consensus on the issue? To invoke the Parliament Act would be a most unwise move. (56984)

I do not think that any proposal to reform the other place has been met with total acclaim for as long as the matter has been discussed, which is more than a century. That is the nature of the issue. There are strong feelings on all sides of the debate and, let us be frank, some strong vested interests who do not want to see any change. That is why we want to establish a Joint Committee of both Houses. I could not agree more with my hon. Friend that, where possible, we should proceed on a cross-party basis on something as significant as this.

T9. Under the Government’s proposals, Newcastle will have a mayor and a police commissioner imposed on it by London. Given that the people of Newcastle recently voted overwhelmingly for a Labour council to replace a Lib Dem one, does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that the democratic voice of the people of Newcastle is loudly against wasting money on such vanity projects? (56983)

I do not think there is anything wrong with asking people to vote for more representatives, particularly on issues as important as policing. The basic principle of enhancing and increasing accountability, and of enriching our democracy by giving people more opportunity to express their opinions at the ballot box, seems to me a good one.

T13. Given the announcement that Anglican bishops will remain in the newly reformed House of Lords, does the Deputy Prime Minister have any ideas about representation for other Christian groups, and indeed other faiths? (56987)

One of the options that we have set out in detail in the draft Bill is indeed continued representation, if on a much reduced numerical basis, of what is after all the established Church in England. That is clearly what distinguishes it from other faiths in England.

T11. During the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election earlier this year, the Deputy Prime Minister said about the newly opened Tesco in Greenfield that we needed to“keep our high streets diverse, and make sure that we support small shops as well as big ones”.Why, then, did his party vote against Labour’s new clause 29 to the Localism Bill, which would have required councils to include a retail diversity scheme in their local development framework? (56985)

We feel that the provisions in the Localism Bill, which give local communities an ability to express their views on what they want to happen in their neighbourhoods to an extent that did not exist for the 13 years under Labour, are sufficient to meet precisely the demand that the hon. Lady makes.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that any discussion of the West Lothian question, and therefore of the role of Scottish MPs in this place, would necessarily have to include the position of Welsh MPs and those from Northern Ireland, where there are also devolved forms of government?

That is one of the many questions that we are now considering in advance of making an announcement about the establishment of the commission to look into the West Lothian question, which we will do during the course of this year.

T12. The Deputy Prime Minister has just said that he is in favour of the public having more people to vote for. Has he read the Hansard proceedings of last week’s debate in Westminster Hall, in which Conservative, Labour and Plaid Cymru MPs criticised the fact that the relationship between Wales and Westminster was being put at risk by the cut in representation from 40 MPs to 30? Only Liberal Democrats seem willing to defend that policy. Is he ready to repent, or has he given up on Wales? (56986)

What I have not given up on is having a system of election that is fair. I do not think it is right or fair to have some Members of the House representing far, far fewer constituents than colleagues in other constituencies. The principle that all of us should represent roughly the same number of people seems to me a basic one.

What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to review the effectiveness of the current methods of electoral registration, and to assist all councils to maximise the number of people on the electoral register?

We are planning to legislate to introduce individual electoral registration, which of course is intended principally to deal with cases of electoral fraud. At the same time, we hope to pilot in the coming months new schemes to compare the electoral register with other publicly available databases, so that electoral registration officers can go out to communities in which they are active and ensure that if people are missing on one database, they can be included in the other.

T14. The Deputy Prime Minister told my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) that there would be no privatisation of the NHS. I will give him another chance. Will he oppose part 3 of the Health and Social Care Bill, or are his comments just meaningless words? (56988)

There is a world of difference between allowing patients greater choice and ensuring that there is diversity in how the best health care is provided to patients, and any sell-off of the NHS to bargain-basement bidders, which we have ruled out. There will be no privatisation of that kind whatever under this Government’s plans.

I wonder whether the Deputy Prime Minister has noticed that if proportional representation is used for a reformed House of Lords, the Liberal Democrats will almost always hold the balance of power in the other place. Does he intend to make being Deputy Prime Minister a job for life?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, in a House of Lords without any elections of any description whatever, no party has an overall majority in any event, so a balance of power in a reformed House of Lords is no different from the status quo.

If, as the Deputy Prime Minister told us last week, the main role of a reformed House of Lords will be as a revising Chamber, why does he propose that people should be appointed under prime ministerial patronage as Ministers and Members of that House? Would it not be better if nobody could sit as a Minister in that House? Would not that properly differentiate the role of this Chamber from that one?

We looked at this very carefully and proposed, on balance, that a very small number of appointees should be Lords only for the time that they hold ministerial office. We need to ensure that Ministers are held to account in either this Chamber or the other place. We therefore felt it right to suggest that the Prime Minister retains a prerogative for a very small number of positions, so that for the limited time that those appointees are Ministers, they are accountable to the reformed House of Lords.

The Deputy Prime Minister has been a good supporter of my constituent, Gary McKinnon, and his case. He will recall that when the Prime Minister visited America, President Obama said that because of the unsurpassed special relationship between our countries, an appropriate solution would be found. Will the Deputy Prime Minister ensure that the case of Gary McKinnon is raised during the President’s visit, and does he agree that the appropriate solution is to stop that extradition to the US?

I cannot anticipate exactly what will be said in those meetings, but I am sure the hon. Gentleman, and everybody who has followed the case with great interest over a long period, welcome the fact that the Home Secretary has made it quite clear that she is available to listen to new representations from Gary McKinnon, his family and his solicitors; that she will judge that new information against the impact on his human rights; and that she will make up her mind in a quasi-judicial form as soon as possible.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister explain how a second Chamber elected under a different voting system, some of whose Members could be elected for 15 years, and almost certainly on a different manifesto altogether, would improve the legislative process?

I always thought that the Labour party was against bastions of privilege and patronage. I thought that one of the founding principles of the so-called progressive party was that it believed that the British people should be in charge, not politicians in Westminster. Labour Members seem to be turning their backs, yet again, on one of their many long-standing traditions.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister think that the proposed new House of Lords will cost more or less than the existing one?

We want to reduce the number of people in the reformed House of Lords very dramatically—the draft Bill and White Paper that we published last week suggests 300 Members. Exactly what the cost will be depends, of course, on the proportions of elected and non-elected Members, so it is quite difficult to come up with precise estimates at this stage.

Good businesses in all our constituencies are being denied bank lending, and new data show that bank lending to small businesses is £2 billion short of the Government’s targets. When will the Government show some backbone and take robust action on the banks?

That comes from a party that let the banks run completely amok, and a party that landed us with that problem in the first place! However, I totally agree with the hon. Lady on the Merlin agreement, which the Government have signed with the banks—it commits the banks to lending targets to businesses generally, and to small and medium-sized enterprises specifically. The agreement is in its very early days, but we have made it unambiguously clear to the banks that they must honour its terms. If they fail to do so, we will not be bound by our side of it either.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that many of us who have to support his and the Government’s measures night after night cannot understand why, when the country is in such crisis, he is prepared to invoke the Parliament Act and gridlock essential legislation in the other place? Will he invoke the Tory principle of gradualism, ditch those radical proposals and come back with something much more modest?

I do not know what could be more gradualist than a proposal that would start in 2015 and not be complete until 2025. Many of the options for transition that we set out in the White Paper could not reasonably be accused of going too fast. We totally accept that a change on this scale, given that it has been discussed for more than 100 years, needs to be done carefully and incrementally.

At the beginning of Question Time, the Deputy Prime Minister said that he was against “privatisation”. Half an hour later he said that he was against “privatisation of that kind”. A week used to be a long time in politics, but he has reduced it to half an hour.

I said there would be no privatisation of the NHS, and that is what I meant. There will be no privatisation of the NHS.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister reassure my constituents that the Government will resist any siren calls to water down the Equality Act as part of the red tape challenge?

I can certainly confirm that, as far as I am concerned, there will be no move to dilute incredibly important protections to enshrine and bolster equality in this country under the guise of dealing with unnecessary or intrusive regulation.

If the Deputy Prime Minister is in listening mode, from where is he hearing a vote or voice calling for a House of Commons diminished in power and influence?

I ask the hon. Gentleman, as I ask all his Opposition colleagues: what is wrong with the basic democratic principle that those who create the laws of the land should be accountable to the millions of people who have to abide by the laws of the land? It used to be called democracy. It used to be something the Labour party believed in. I do not know why it is turning its back yet again on a progressive step towards further reform.