The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—
Lobbyists (Statutory Register)
I have corresponded with a number of ministerial colleagues with a view to running a consultation process and introducing legislation in the second Session as part of the Government’s commitment to transparency, which has already resulted in our publishing details of ministerial meetings, Government procurement and a number of other items of public interest.
I am sure many of us would welcome that legislation. As the House is periodically reminded, all sorts of people can seek to market their ability to lobby, and even secure access to, decision makers. A voluntary register will attract only agencies seeking to uphold higher standards of practice. Will the Minister assure us that his proposed register will be comprehensive and include all those seeking to ply this trade?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his question, and I can confirm that when we publish our consultation it will be clear that we intend these proposals to be comprehensive. We will consult on them widely, which will give all those with an interest in transparency the opportunity to comment on them. I hope that reassures my hon. Friend.
I do not expect the Minister to prejudge any report by the Cabinet Secretary on the Defence Secretary this week, but does he agree that the type of situation the Defence Secretary has found himself in with Mr Werritty would be exposed very clearly if there were a full, transparent register of lobbyists, and does he also agree that that should be compulsory and introduced as a matter of urgency?
The right hon. Gentleman said he was going to try not to prejudge that report, but it sounded very much like he did. The Secretary of State for Defence was in the Chamber for an hour yesterday afternoon and gave a very good account of himself. [Interruption.] Yes, he did; I was present for Defence questions and his statement, and he gave a very good account of himself. As the Prime Minister has said, he is doing an excellent job as Defence Secretary. The Prime Minister has set up a review by the Cabinet Secretary which will deal with any remaining questions, and the right hon. Gentleman rightly said that he does not want to prejudge that.
The European Court of Human Rights has granted an extension to the deadline for implementing prisoner voting rights that was set in the Greens and MT judgment against the UK. That is because the Court is considering an Italian prisoner voting rights case—Scoppola v. Italy. It is therefore right to consider the final Scoppola judgment and the wider legal context before setting out our next steps on prisoner voting. The Government will express their views on the principles raised in that case, and we will be arguing that it is for Parliament to decide the way forward on this issue.
The House has spoken overwhelmingly on one side of the argument on this issue: anyone serving a custodial sentence should not have a vote. I very much hope the Deputy Prime Minister will recognise this appropriately in any further dealings he has on the matter.
As I said to my hon. Friend, the first point of principle we are seeking to establish is precisely that it is this Parliament that should be able to determine matters such as this, and we will be arguing that in the Scoppola case that is before the Court now.
West Lothian Question
I refer my hon. Friends to the written ministerial statement I issued on 8 September. We plan to make further details, including the terms of reference and the time scale for the commission, available to the House in the very near future.
Does my hon. Friend accept that many people in England feel that at this time of economic difficulty fairness is more important than ever, and does he further accept that many hold the view that English-only issues should be more in the hands of English MPs and less in the hands of MPs representing devolved parts of the UK?
I very much agree. Many people who live in England express concern about this potential unfairness, which is why we are going to set up the commission to look carefully at how the procedures in this House can ensure that that situation is fairer as we pass legislation. I hope my hon. Friend will welcome that detailed announcement when it is made in due course.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important that the commission has enough time to report its findings and that Parliament has enough time to consider them before a referendum on Scottish independence, which the Scottish Government indicate will take place in 2014 or 2015?
I am confident that when my hon. Friend sees the terms of reference he will see that there will be time for the commission to examine this matter, make its proposals and enable there to be a full discussion with all the political parties in this House, and then for this House to take a decision on how it wants to move forward.
Does the Minister agree that the English are every bit as good as the French and the Germans, and can surely govern themselves without any help from the Scots? Surely the answer to the West Lothian question is very simple.
Because we have asymmetrical devolution in the United Kingdom, the application of law, as agreed by this Parliament, is different in different parts of the United Kingdom. Given that complexity, does the Minister believe it is possible to have different MPs voting on different pieces of legislation without creating total legislative confusion?
First, may I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position? We had a number of conversations on these constitutional matters during the progress of the two previous pieces of legislation, and I look forward to more such conversations. As he rightly says, this is a complicated matter—I sometimes have to stress that to colleagues in this House who think it is simple—which is exactly why we have said that the commission will consist of experts who understand how this place works and can balance those complexities while making sure that we end up with a solution that is fairer to England as well as to the other parts of the United Kingdom.
There has been a lot of misleading coverage recently about the effects of individual electoral registration, so may I take a minute to explain this? This Government will do everything they can to maintain the completeness of the electoral register. That includes phasing in the move to individual registration over two years, so that people on the register who do not apply under the new system do not lose their vote at the next general election. Every eligible elector will be asked in 2014 to register under the new system. That will include: personal invites to people on the register; inquiries to households where no one is registered or people have moved; reminder letters; and face-to-face doorstep canvassing. We are also testing data matching, to identify people missing from the register, and looking at how we can increase the choices that people have about how to register. I am looking forward to the conclusions of the pre-legislative scrutiny and of the consultation, which closes this Friday, but I do, however, have sympathy with the concerns expressed by the Electoral Commission and others about the opt-out proposal, and I am minded to change these provisions when we bring forward the final legislation.
I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that reply. It is important that we make sure that people who do not exist or who are not eligible to vote do not get on to the electoral register. Equally, it is important that those who are eligible to vote are registered. Will he please assure the House that this will happen?
That is precisely the purpose of individual electoral registration: it seeks to bear down on fraud in the system. Of course, the previous Government were committed to doing this in any event in a few years’ time but, as on so many matters now, they seem to shun any responsibility for their failure to act while they were in government. We are finally here to do the job that they failed to do.
We are bringing it forward in any event. Under the previous Government’s plans it would have been introduced only after the next general election, but we are bringing it forward in this Parliament. Of course, we are trying to get the balance right. We need to proceed with this thoroughly, which is why we are doing it carefully but in a way that means it is fully delivered by the end of this Parliament.
There will be no change at all to the civic duty—[Interruption.] I am quite honoured; that is the response that Opposition Members normally give to their former party leaders. If they listen to the answer, they might quieten down a bit. The civic duty remains exactly as it is. The proposal we have made is that the opt-out should be introduced. The Electoral Commission and others have raised concerns about the possible effect of such an opt-out and, as I confirmed in my earlier answer, I consider that concern sympathetically. That is the whole point of a consultation and we will wait to see the final outcome of the consultation, which ends at the end of this week, but I am minded to change the final legislation to reflect those concerns.
The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware that people on both sides of the House share concerns about the electoral register, and that is why before the last general election there was cross-party support for an agreed timetable to move towards individual voter registration. He refers to the Electoral Commission, which is concerned not simply about the opt-out but about the speeded-up timetable and the removal of the fines for failing to register that, in its words, will lead from a register of 92% to one of about 65% in many parts of the country, meaning that millions of voters will fall off the register. That will lead not only to the skewing of future boundary changes but to skewed jury panels. Will he do what we did and work with all parties and the Select Committee to try to reach a proper resolution for the biggest change in the way that people are registered since the introduction of the universal franchise?
I think the right hon. Gentleman is simply plain wrong about certain facts. For instance, the offence in law to sanction those who do not pass on information as part of the registration process as households will remain. There will be no change to that at all. The civic duty will remain, too. The only thing we are considering, as I said earlier, is what the possible effects of an opt-out would be. We proposed the opt-out for a very good reason of principle. Under the existing system, registration takes place per household. If, however, we make that a duty on individuals, the question becomes whether it is right or wrong to give an individual the right to opt out. We have proposed that the opt-out should exist for individuals but others have raised concerns about it. I have listened sympathetically to those concerns and I have already said that I am minded to change the provisions in the final legislation. That seems to me to be an example of a Government who are prepared to listen and to hold a sincere consultation process, which will come to an end at the end of this week.
Will my right hon. Friend reflect on the absence of 1.5 million people from the electoral register: those who are aged 16 and 17? When can we look forward to a time when those people, who can raise a family and get married, who can pay taxes and who can serve in our armed forces, can vote, too?
As my hon. Friend knows, I personally have a great deal of sympathy with that view, but it is not reflected in the coalition agreement or shared across government. Clearly, it is a debate that we will continue to have on both sides of the House.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. On the issue of compulsion, the Electoral Commission has already said that to move to individual electoral registration without compulsion will see the registers fall from more than 90%—this is what the Electoral Commission says, and the Deputy Prime Minister is nodding his head—to 65% coverage. Ethnic minorities, young people and the urban poor will be disfranchised. Apart from gerrymandering the constituency boundaries, fixing the election timetable and now letting millions of people fall off the register, what else is he doing to let the Tories stay in power for a generation?
Instead of lurching towards ludicrous conspiracy theories, the hon. Gentleman should look at the facts. The Electoral Commission did not say what he—[Interruption.] No, the Electoral Commission raised a specific concern about the opt-out. Its specific proposal was that the opt-out should be retained but should be made more difficult. We will now consider either the Electoral Commission’s variant or getting rid of the opt-out altogether. That is what I am saying, in a spirit of openness, that we are reflecting on, and that will be reflected in the final version of the legislation.
Size of the Executive
Last year the Deputy Prime Minister said that he wanted to reduce the size of the Government to 73. Actually, the payroll vote has gone up to 140 in this House, which is 43% of the way to a majority. Has he not increased the size of the payroll vote so that he can get through this House many of his broken promises?
The issue of principle is whether there is a link between the size of the Executive and the size of the legislature, and I think that there is. Clearly there is. The size of the legislature will be reduced from 2015, so clearly there is a question for the next Parliament, and indeed the next Government, about what the size of the Executive—
I have lost count of who is doing what in the shadow Administration, as my hon. Friend calls it, except for the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), who has an increasingly long list of responsibilities to her name. The serious point is the relationship between the legislature and the Executive of the day, and the point that I seek to make is that there is an absolute link in principle between the size of one and the other, and that is something that we will act on in the years ahead.
As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on a full range of Government policy and initiatives, and within Government I take special responsibility for this Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.
Given the Deputy Prime Minister’s role in using constitutional reform to restore trust in politics, is he satisfied that the Secretary of State for Defence made a full and frank declaration of interests in relation to his links to Adam Werritty and his security company?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence came before the House for an hour yesterday. He was open in acknowledging and apologising for what he concedes was a blurring of the professional, the political and the personal. Clearly, that raises serious issues, as he acknowledges, and those are now being examined by the most senior civil servant in government. Until we know what that report says, I suggest that it is unwise to prejudge exactly what happened.
I certainly think that, as a matter of principle, we should give enough resources to electoral officers to check, in theory, every single postal vote, because it is an area where there has been some concern about fraud in the past, and we are absolutely determined to make sure that those resources are available.
The Deputy Prime Minister has always lectured us on high standards in public office, but while the Defence Secretary, by his own admission, has fallen short of those standards, the Government have failed to refer him to the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests, Sir Philip Mawer. Does that not show that they are prepared to sacrifice high standards in public office to protect the Secretary of State?
I am sure that the right hon. and learned Lady would agree with me that it is also important to respect high standards of due process and fair play. The Cabinet Secretary is looking into this, as, by the way, requested by her and her party until they changed their tune just a day or two ago. He is now doing that work. He is doing that report, and until it has been delivered to the Prime Minister there is no point trying to provide a running commentary on a series of facts that are not yet revealed in that report.
No, that is not good enough. The ministerial code of conduct says:
“It is not the role of the Cabinet Secretary or other officials to enforce the Code.”
The Prime Minister has admitted that the Defence Secretary has made serious mistakes and there is clearly a need for investigation, not least into whether Mr Werritty profited by his association with the Secretary of State. Why are they blocking the proper investigation? This goes to the heart of trust in Government.
The first point is this: has the Secretary of State apologised and admitted that something was amiss. Yes, he has. Secondly, has the Prime Minister made it clear that this is something he takes very seriously? Yes, he has. Thirdly, is it being properly investigated? Yes, it is. [Interruption.] The right hon. and learned Lady now says no, but until quite recently this was precisely what she was urging the Government to do. Rather than constantly chopping and changing who does the investigation and produces the report, let us allow the Cabinet Secretary to do the work he has been asked to do so that the full facts can be made available to the Prime Minister and decisions can then be made.
T4. According to the Local Government Association, only 31% of local councillors are women, and in my local authority Hastings borough council—sadly Labour-run—that number is 22%. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that we as politicians must do all we can locally to ensure that as many women as possible put themselves forward as councillors so that local politicians do not also remain pale and male? (72872)
Yes, I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. One of the ways we can do that, of course, is by seeking to set an example in this place. I freely admit that that is not something my party has been particularly successful in. It is one of the things I will be seeking to change as quickly as possible.
T3. Given the open warfare we saw at the Conservative party conference between Front-Bench spokespeople about the Human Rights Act, will the Deputy Prime Minister use his position to explain the benefits of the legislation and put right misinformation? (72871)
As the hon. Lady knows, the Human Rights Act simply translates into domestic law a convention to which—I think everyone agrees—we will always remain signatories, so in a sense it prevents British citizens seeking justice in European courts when it can be delivered in British courts. As she knows, the coalition Government, as set out in the coalition agreement, are committed to setting up a commission, which we have established, to look at the case for creating a British Bill of Rights that will build on and incorporate all existing rights and responsibilities.
T5. How will the Government ensure that the views of local residents are heard loud and clear when local authorities seek planning permission for authorised Gypsy and Traveller sites, as is currently happening in Crewe in my constituency? (72873)
As I hope my hon. Friend is aware, the Localism Bill gives a raft of new rights to local communities and local people to make their views known on a whole range of issues, from local planning decisions to increases in council tax. In my view the Bill represents one of the biggest transfers of power not only from Westminster to the town hall, but onward from the town hall to all the local communities we represent.
T7. The Deputy Prime Minister has conceded that the Defence Secretary’s conduct fell below the standards expected, so why is he still resisting putting the case to the independent adviser on Ministers’ interests, which would allow due process so that the matter could be properly examined? (72875)
As I explained earlier, we have asked the Cabinet Secretary, in a way that is wholly familiar and traditional and, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, was done countless times by previous Governments, and as has been demanded by his party, to look into this, complete an investigation and produce a report, which is exactly what he is now doing.
T6. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that prolonged uncertainty over the referendum on Scottish independence risks undermining investor confidence in the Scottish economy? (72874)
I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. As long as the First Minister plays cat and mouse—I probably should not mention cats—with the Scottish people, it is extremely confusing for people, very unsettling for the business community and I do not think that it does the Scottish economy any good. He believes in independence. I think he should have the courage of his convictions by coming forward and putting that proposition before the Scottish people: does he want to yank Scotland out of the United Kingdom, yes or no? Instead, he now seems to be presenting a series of increasingly confusing multiple-choice questions to the Scottish people. He should have the courage of his convictions and ask the Scottish people as quickly as possible whether they believe in full independence, yes or no?
As the hon. Lady knows, the electoral register currently has about 92% coverage, and we are doing everything we can, through data matching, the transitional arrangements I have described and some of the debates we have had here on whether or not to have opt-outs, to ensure that that level does not decrease significantly. It is a high level of registration compared with similar exercises in other parts of the democratic world and I hope that we keep those high standards.
The Prime Minister, the Chancellor, I and others are of course in constant contact with Governments elsewhere—in the eurozone and, indeed, in other parts of the European Union. We have been quite clear that it is not our role to seek somehow to dictate what should happen, other than to say that the solution needs to be developed urgently; to be comprehensive and decisive; to deal with the Greek situation decisively; to create the means by which contagion can be stopped spreading from Greece to elsewhere in the eurozone; and to create binding rules so that fiscal disciplines in the eurozone are respected and banks are recapitalised. Further, and something on which Britain could really lead, we should work as 27, not as a fractured European Union, in order to increase competitiveness and to further liberalisation within the single market, because that is the way we will increase the European Union’s welfare in the future.
The country watched in amazement yesterday afternoon and evening as, one by one, apologists for the Secretary of State for Defence explained that the ministerial code was not written in stone. Indeed, it is not; it is written in black and white, so why are the coalition Government trying to rewrite at least the spirit of the ministerial code, if not the letter?
We are not. We are very clear that the ministerial code—[Interruption.] I am very clear, of course, that everybody in this Government should abide by the very highest available standards and by the ministerial code, both the spirit and the letter, and that is exactly what the Cabinet Secretary has been asked to look into and to adjudicate on in his report.
T9. In view of the continued pressures on small businesses in terms of securing bank lending, will the Deputy Prime Minister join me in urging that any reform of banking structure produces bankers in the sector who fully understand the needs, requirements and priorities of small businesses? (72877)
I strongly agree. The relationship between our banks and small and medium-sized businesses is possibly the most important issue for the country’s long-term prosperity, and one of the many virtues of the Vickers report, which, we have been very clear, in principle we are going to implement, is precisely that it will create a firewall in the banking system, so that there is a real vocation in the banking industry to support traditional customers, such as small and medium-sized businesses, in a way that has slightly withered on the vine in recent years.
Yes. I think that, in keeping with all judicial systems in all countries that have a high degree of devolution, as we do, it is right that at the apex of the judicial system there should be a highest court, a supreme court, which is able to oversee the jurisdiction of all nations of the United Kingdom.
T10. Will my right hon. Friend assure me that, given the really difficult economic situation that the Government inherited and the really difficult economic situation that we are grappling with at home and abroad, those in the public sector and, particularly, the private sector who have had high or obscene salaries and bonuses will be dealt with so that, in the days ahead, those with the broadest shoulders bear the burden of getting us out of this mess and those with the lowest incomes are best protected? (72878)
I certainly agree with my right hon. Friend that all executives and shareholders in the private sector have to bear in mind the fact that they have a wider social responsibility. They are not somehow exempt from social norms, and, at a time when millions and millions of people on low and ordinary incomes are really feeling the strain, it is right that they should exercise some restraint in how they remunerate themselves. It is also why it is so important that we do exactly what this Government are doing, which is to give tax breaks first to those on low and medium incomes, and not to rush to do so for those on the highest incomes.
Will the Deputy Prime Minister indicate what discussions have been held with the authorities in Northern Ireland, where there actually now is individual voter registration? If such discussions have been held, what lessons have been learned?
I understand that there have been numerous discussions at an official level precisely to learn the lessons of how individual voter registration has been introduced in Northern Ireland. We are seeking to reflect those lessons in the final legislation, which we will bring forward fairly shortly.
T11. I welcome my right hon. Friend’s commitment to individual voter registration. What assurances can he give the House that the change will not have a negative impact on the enrolment of students in halls of residence? Traditionally, university landlords have auto-enrolled all residents. (72879)
One of the virtues of individual voter registration—the reason, I assume, why the previous Government were keen to introduce it as well—is precisely that there will be an individual responsibility on voters in the future, including students, to make sure that they are properly registered. As long as we make sure that there is still, as I said there will be, face-to-face household canvassing, there is no reason why this experiment and this introduction of individual voter registration should not lead to an increase in the registration of students.
T12. Will the Deputy Prime Minister assure my constituents that their representations, particularly from Hempstead and Wigmore, will be fully considered by the Boundary Commission for England and that real consideration will be given to preserving community ties? (72880)
As my hon. Friend will know from the legislation, the boundary commissions will be listening to all representations. They have a fair amount of latitude under the legislation to listen to representations, including those that relate to community links in each and every area.
Yes, I very much do. It is very important that we get to see all the relevant papers. I pay tribute to the former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, who did a great deal in the first place to create the panel that will receive these papers. The only point that I would make, however, is that it seems to me that we should allow the families, who are still grieving their losses from that terrible tragedy, to look at those papers first before they are fully published by the panel.
T13. Sixteen-year-olds are not allowed to buy alcohol, not allowed to buy cigarettes, not allowed to join the Army without parental permission, not allowed to serve on the front line even if they have that permission and not allowed to get married without parental permission. Why are all those who wish to lower the voting age from 18 to 16 putting about these spurious myths? (72882)
This issue clearly divides opinion—within parties, I suspect, as well as across them. I am personally persuaded that, in this day and age, if an 18-year-old can vote there is no reason in principle why a 16-year-old cannot. My hon. Friend has marshalled some of the arguments and examples about why he would argue the counter-case. The issue is not in the coalition agreement; it is not a Government policy as such, and no doubt we will continue to debate it.
The adviser’s duties are clearly set out. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept that asking the most senior civil servant in Whitehall to conduct a thorough investigation and produce a report is something that his previous Government did on numerous occasions and is entirely in keeping with a proper response to the very serious concerns that have been raised.
T14. My right hon. Friend has spoken about the need for infrastructure investment for economic growth. What is he doing to support investment in green infrastructure and the infrastructure needed to support the high-tech industry? (72883)
We are doing a number of things. We have retained the previous Government’s capital spending plans; in fact, capital spending will go up slightly by the end of this Parliament. We have done much more than that. We have also introduced innovative ways in which we can marry public and private capital to invest in our transport, energy and communications infrastructures—notably the green investment bank, the first of its kind anywhere in the world. That will use £3 billion of public money to leverage in about £15 billion of private investment in the green technologies that are absolutely crucial to our economic future.
Does the Deputy Prime Minister understand the concern of many Liberal Democrat Members in the House of Lords and elsewhere who remain dissatisfied with the Health and Social Care Bill? Why is this measure going through when there is so much concern, certainly among the public, as well as among his own colleagues in the House of Lords?
We will see how my colleagues in the other place vote. In fact, the more people have looked at the Bill, the more reassured they are that its purposes are fully in line with many of the reforms to the health service that the previous Government introduced, with less centralisation, less bureaucracy, more control by clinicians and GPs, and a more patient-centred health service, all the while enshrining and protecting the founding principles of the NHS—free at the point of use, and based on need, not on the ability to pay. The hon. Gentleman may feel that the NHS is in no need of reform at all; anyone who knows anything about the NHS and realises that it faces increasing costs accepts that it must be reformed, but of course reformed in the right way.
Those of us who favour reform of the upper House are concerned that there should be no slippage to the timetable. Will Ministers confirm that the Joint Committee on the Draft House of Lords Reform Bill will indeed report by the end of February?
I am absolutely delighted to see that I have an ally on this issue on the Government Benches, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will communicate his enthusiasm for reform of the other place to all those on the Benches behind and on either side of him. The Committee has indeed been asked to report by the end of February next year; that will allow us then to present the legislation in a timely way. I very much hope that the Committee will be able to meet that timeline.
Further to Question 7, is the Deputy Prime Minister seriously arguing that the removal of compulsion to register will increase the number of voters in Britain? We all know that he is not the sharpest tool in the box, but that is a pretty bizarre conclusion.
I do not know how many times I need to say this: there is no removal of compulsion. The offence regarding whether households give information on registration remains on the statute book and will not change. The only concern that has been raised—I know that the hon. Gentleman and all his colleagues have chosen to misinterpret this utterly—was about the proposed opt-out. The Electoral Commission raised concerns about that, not about compulsion. I have been very open in saying that we have listened to those concerns, we are sympathetic to those concerns, and we will reflect them in the final legislation. He may choose, if he wishes, to grab the wrong end of the stick time and time again; we are trying to do the right thing.