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Topical Questions

Volume 533: debated on Tuesday 11 October 2011

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.

T2. The Government propose individual voter registration, which I fully support, but will the Government at the same time review the use of postal votes?


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.

T8. The economic news from Europe is very troubling. Will the Deputy Prime Minister set out what he and his Government are doing to ensure that swift and decisive action is taken in relation to the eurozone crisis? (72876)

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.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister believe that the Supreme Court should continue to have a UK-wide role, even at a time when there are stronger devolved Administrations?

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.

Police commissioners’ pay is still to be finalised, but the key thing is that the elections, which will be held next autumn, will give people a real sense of accountability over policing in their local areas.

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.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister support the release of all unredacted and uncensored Government documents relating to the 1989 Hillsborough disaster?

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.

Given his earlier answers, what does the Deputy Prime Minister think the independent adviser on ministerial standards is for?

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.