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Topical Questions

Volume 530: debated on Tuesday 5 July 2011

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

I do not think that it is an either/or choice. As the hon. Lady knows, there is a commitment in the coalition agreement to establish a commission to look into the West Lothian question, but I do not think that that precludes the Joint Committee looking at proposals for reform of the House of Lords at the same time.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister join me in expressing heartfelt concern for the horrendous ordeal of Milly Dowler’s family? There are now allegations that even as the police searched for Milly Dowler and as her parents waited and hoped, the News of the World was hacking into her phone. Today the Leader of the Opposition has called for a full public inquiry into illegality in the newspaper industry. Will the Deputy Prime Minister say that the Government will back that call?

I entirely agree with the right hon. and learned Lady, and I am sure that we both speak on behalf of the whole House and the rest of the country in saying that if the allegations are true such behaviour is simply beneath contempt. To hack into the phone of a missing child is grotesque, and the suggestion that that might have given false hope to Milly’s parents that she might have been alive only makes it all the more heart-rending. The absolute priority now is to get to the bottom of what actually happened—what is the truth—and that requires, above and beyond everything else, a police investigation that pursues the evidence ruthlessly, wherever it leads.

Of course, this time the police investigations must be thorough and rigorous, but there must also be a public inquiry. There has been widespread malpractice and criminality, and there is a stain on the whole system. We must protect people from this and clean up the British press. Is the Deputy Prime Minister going to act?

If there are wider issues that need to be looked at once the police investigation is complete, of course we can return to them. However, I am sure that the right hon. and learned Lady will agree that the key thing—this is what Milly Dowler’s family and families up and down the country want to know—is: who did what when, who knew what they were doing and who will be held to account? We will be able to get to the bottom of that only when the police ruthlessly pursue the evidence, wherever it leads.

T3. A constituent of mine who wishes to remain nameless has contacted me because she believes that a “YES! To Fairer Votes” preaddressed postal vote form was fraudulently completed on her behalf. Can my right hon. Friend tell me what action my constituent can take to establish who might have signed the form on her behalf and what measures we can introduce to prevent this from happening again in future? (63504)

If my hon. Friend has evidence from his constituent of criminal or fraudulent behaviour, it should of course be referred to the police. I suggest that should be done as quickly as possible.

T2. The NSPCC has announced the closure of ChildLine in Edinburgh, which will result in the loss of 14 staff and hundreds of volunteers. The thrust of the closure is to encourage children to use the internet, but there is concern that those who are most in need of ChildLine have the least access to the internet. Will the Deputy Prime Minister meet me, the NSPCC and the many hundreds of ChildLine volunteers in Edinburgh to see whether we can get this decision reversed? (63503)

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is right to raise his concerns about the effect of that closure, given that ChildLine exists precisely to help the most vulnerable children. I am more than happy to establish meetings for him, and I would also suggest that meetings take place in Edinburgh with the Scottish Government, whose responsibilities have a bearing on this issue—[Interruption.] They might be able to help.

T4. Is it not about time that we introduced a British Bill of Rights to address ludicrous cases such as that of the convicted foreign killer Mohammed Ibrahim, who is avoiding deportation by claiming the right to family life, even though he killed Amy Houston, thereby denying all her relatives the right to family life? (63505)

I hear my hon. Friend’s concern about these matters, and she is quite right to raise them. The Government have established a commission to look into the case for a British Bill of Rights that will incorporate and build on the existing rights that we already enjoy and extend them further where we can.

T6. The right to form coalitions is very much part of our constitution. In Sheffield recently, Lib Dem councillors have co-opted a United Kingdom Independence party candidate on to one of our local town councils in order to maintain their grip on power. Does not this show that the Lib Dems will do anything, and do deals with any party, to maintain their grip on power? (63507)

Order. First, the House must show some courtesy to the Deputy Prime Minister as he responds to questions. Secondly, I want to hear from Mr Gordon Henderson.

T5. Does my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister understand the resentment felt by many taxpayers in my constituency when they see their taxes being used to help to provide a range of free services in Scotland that are not enjoyed by the English? When will the Government take action to bring that unfair subsidy to an end? (63506)

One of the reasons we are transferring a great deal of new fiscal freedom to the Scottish Administration through the Scotland Bill is to ensure not only that the Scottish Government enjoy greater freedom to raise and spend money but that they are held to account for it. That is exactly what we are seeking to achieve in the Scotland Bill.

T9. The Deputy Prime Minister has said on many occasions that if the House of Lords was reformed, this House would retain its primacy over the other place. In an article last week in The Times, his predecessor as leader of the Lib Dems, Lord Ashdown, said that if the House of Lords was reformed, it would have the right of veto over the decision to go to war. Who is right: the Deputy Prime Minister or his predecessor? (63510)

The House of Lords will clearly enjoy greater democratic legitimacy if it is wholly or largely elected, but that does not call into question the primacy of this House. Bicameral chambers all round the world manage this relationship perfectly adequately, with two directly elected chambers that have a relationship of subservience between the one and the other. That is precisely what will continue under the reforms that we have proposed.

T7. Later this week, I shall attend a meeting of Waveney youth council in my constituency. Given the declining proportion of young people voting at recent elections, I would welcome an update to pass on to the youth council on the steps that my right hon. Friend is taking to ensure the early registration of young people and their active engagement in the political process. (63508)

We hope that the process of individual electoral registration that we are pressing ahead with, and particularly the practice of comparing existing databases with the electoral register, will enable us to identify voters, old and young, who should be on the register but are not.

The finest databases in the country are run by Experian. I recently had a meeting with it to discuss the 3.5 million people who are not on the electoral register. It informed me that not 3.5 million but 6.5 million people are not on the electoral register. What steps is the Deputy Prime Minister taking to use the private sector—companies such as Experian and others—to increase the number of registered voters?

It is precisely to get to the bottom of exactly how many people who are not on the register but should be that we commissioned detailed research from the Electoral Commission to establish the facts. As I said earlier, we are running these projects so that we can have access to other publicly available databases to make sure that they are consistent with the electoral register.

T8. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that by delivering 103,000 more adult apprentices than were promised by the previous Government, this Government are delivering on their promise to rebuild the economy? (63509)

Yes, and I would add that those 103,000 apprenticeships are twice the target number that had originally been set for this year. In total, we will deliver 250,000 more apprenticeships during this Parliament than Labour would have delivered if they had been in power. We believe that apprenticeships are a tried, tested and successful way of getting people from full-time education into full-time work. That is what we are absolutely dedicated to deliver.

The recent referendum showed an enormous majority of the British people in favour of first past the post for British elections. May I suggest to the Deputy Prime Minister that a return to first past the post for European elections would be equally popular and that the Government should legislate accordingly?

We have probably had enough referendums on electoral systems for one Parliament. I, for one, will not be rushing to return to that issue any time soon.

T10. Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell us what plans are in place to inform voters of the proposed changes to the House of Lords, particularly regarding an election in 2015—and how much will that cost? (63511)

The costs will, of course, be dependent on the final shape of the reforms—on exactly how large the House of Lords is and what proportion of its Members will be elected, and so forth. We have made suggestions on these issues, but we have been entirely open about wanting to listen to alternative suggestions with an open mind. That is why the Joint Committee process, which brings people together from both Houses to look at this in greater detail, is immensely important not only for improving the proposals but for giving the public a chance to scrutinise the proposals, as the hon. Gentleman suggests.

As police investigations into phone hacking have been going on for some considerable time, is there not now a strong case for having a public inquiry, as requested from the Front Bench by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), particularly in view of the latest information about the hacking of a murdered person’s phone. That is so disgraceful that a public inquiry is absolutely essential.

I totally understand the instinct for wanting something more to be done than the current police investigations. If we want the truth established, however, and if we want to turn allegations into facts and then to hold people to account and, where necessary and justified, to see prosecutions delivered, I strongly suggest to the hon. Gentleman that it is in his interest and that of all who want to see the truth properly exposed that we allow the police to get on with the investigation and ruthlessly pursue the facts and the evidence, wherever they might lead.

T11. With the whole country gripped by Southend mania, in the knowledge that it is the finest seaside resort with a pier in the world and entirely deserving of city status, will the Minister tell us when local residents in Southend can expect the crowning to take place? (63512)

I recognise the enthusiasm for the Southend bid, which I know is shared by many other Members who come from other places applying for city status. This will work its way through in the normal way, and I know that the hon. Gentleman will be waiting for the results with bated breath.

What comparison has been made between the system of individual electoral registration operating in Northern Ireland and the one that operates in the rest of the United Kingdom?

We have learned all the lessons about the flaws in the electoral register here. That is exactly what we are seeking to address, not least by looking at the experience in Northern Ireland and elsewhere.

T12. I wish to place on record my admiration for the ambition shown by the Deputy Prime Minister, but does he not agree that if he sticks to his present programme and allows the first elections to the House of Lords to be held in 2015, it is over-ambitious—even according to his own test—to hold them in the same month and year as the next rural district elections and the next general election? (63513)

“Ambition” was clearly intended as faint praise, and I will take it in that spirit. I think we have shown in past elections that the problems involved in the principle of combined elections can be overcome, as long as there is a clear distinction between the mandates for the bodies that are being elected on the same day.

As the Deputy Prime Minister’s right hon. Friend the Business Secretary felt that there were clear grounds for a full referral of the BSkyB takeover to the competition authorities on the basis of plurality, will he tell the Prime Minister, in the light of the latest shocking developments, that it would be totally unacceptable to wave through that takeover, and that he should put a stop to the dirty deal being hatched by the Culture Secretary with News Corp?

The right hon. Gentleman will know, as he has followed events very closely, that the competition aspect was determined by the European Commission. It cleared the transaction on competition grounds. The decision will be made by the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, acting in a quasi-judicial manner. He will not consult me, the Prime Minister or any other member of the Government while reaching his decision, and he is meticulously following the advice supplied to him by Ofcom and other regulators.

The coalition agreement committed the Government to setting up a fund to support people with disabilities who wish to stand for election—a move that was also recommended by the cross-party Speaker’s Conference. Following the conclusion of the Government’s consultation on the matter, will the Deputy Prime Minister update the House on the progress being made towards that goal?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has taken a great interest in this matter and has been remorseless in asking the Government when they will deliver on their commitments. We are determined to do so. As my hon. Friend said, the consultation ended recently, and we are keen to make progress as soon as we can.

In a leaked letter, Nico Heslop wrote:

“we are worried about the impact…to build social housing for families”

to rent, and added:

“23,000 could be lost…disproportionately impacting on families and…children.”

Why was that information not shared with Parliament? What else is the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government holding back, and why should anyone ever again believe anything that this Government say about housing and benefits?

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the manifesto on which he fought the election last year advocated a housing benefit cap. I assume that, like us, he advocated the cap because it is fair to those who do not receive benefits that those who do receive them cannot do so to the tune that would require someone in work to earn £35,000 or more. It is a fair proposal. Notwithstanding the contents of that leaked letter—which, in any case, was written six months ago; things have moved on since then—we have made it clear that when people, especially large families, need help they will be given that help, and that we will introduce transitional arrangements to provide it.

On 5 April the Deputy Prime Minister said there was “a need to ensure” that reform of the other place did not “overlap” with the establishment of the West Lothian commission. Given that reform of the other place may take some time, can the Deputy Prime Minister reassure us that the West Lothian commission will be in place by the time of the Report stage and Third Reading of my private Member’s Bill on 9 September?

I can confirm that the commission that will look into the West Lothian question will be established this year.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport that the “fit and proper persons” test is irrelevant in the case of the merger between BSkyB and News International?

As I said earlier, the Culture Secretary is acting in a quasi-judicial role, he is doing so in line with advice that he has received from Ofcom and the Office of Fair Trading, and he is reflecting the legal position as it currently is. The hon. Lady may shake her head and wish that the law were different; she may wish that competition provisions could somehow be applied here, although the European Commission cleared the transaction on in competition grounds—but that is the legal position as we currently find it.

Sex discrimination and religious discrimination should have no place in our society, so I am pleased that the Government are bringing forward measures to reform the succession to the Crown. However, the discussions with other Commonwealth Governments do seem to be dragging on for a long time. What is my right hon. Friend doing to ensure that those discussions come to a speedy and successful conclusion?

As my hon. Friend knows, both the Prime Minister and I have made it clear that we think there is a strong case for looking at the rules of the succession, as they clearly need updating in this day and age, but it is not quite as simple as that, because this is subject to consultation with all Commonwealth Governments. Discussions at official level are taking place between this Government and Commonwealth Governments. I acknowledge that that is not a very rapid process, but it is right that we should deal with this sensitive topic as collaboratively as possible with other Commonwealth Governments.

At the recent British-Irish Council, which I understand the Deputy Prime Minister chaired, was there any discussion of the economic impact of different levels of aviation taxes, given that for a long-haul flight from the UK that is currently levied at £85 a head, whereas from Ireland the tax is just €3?

I am aware that the Treasury is undertaking a consultation on that subject, but it did not come up in discussions at the British-Irish Council.

Pursuant to the answer that the Deputy Prime Minister has just given to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr Reid), does the Deputy Prime Minister not understand that his constant answer that negotiations with Commonwealth countries about reforming the Act of Settlement are ongoing sounds rather like an excuse for inaction, given that no Commonwealth country has shown anything but respect, reverence and adoration for our female monarch for the past half century?

We cannot just do something about it. [Hon. Members: “He didn’t!”] No, the hon. Gentleman did not, for 13 years.

I totally accept—I have spoken publicly about this—that it seems a little anachronistic that we have rules of succession that appear to discriminate against women, and that clearly should be looked at, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Epping Forest (Mrs Laing) rightly pointed out, this affects many other Governments as well, and it would be wrong of us to act in haste when we need to act in a way that is open and following discussions—not negotiations, but discussions—between ourselves and other Commonwealth Governments.