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Topical Questions

Volume 535: debated on Tuesday 15 November 2011

I am sorry, Mr Speaker. I enjoyed the last answer so much that I temporarily forgot where I was.

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

I am pleased to note that the Deputy Prime Minister remembers what his Department actually does.

One of the main topics of interest to people in my constituency is the commission that will consider the West Lothian question. Can the Deputy Prime Minister give us a firm timetable for consultation, and can he name all the parties that will be consulted, including the Labour party, the new Labour party leadership in Scotland and the trade unions, which are a fundamental part of the fabric of the Scottish people?

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), will give more details about the commission in a statement before Christmas.

T3. Will my right hon. Friend elaborate on the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harwich and North Essex (Mr Jenkin) about industrial tribunals? If there is to be any reform, will he give us a timetable, and may I respectfully ask whether I may help out, given my experience in this regard? (80672)

I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills is keen to proceed with the reforms that I mentioned earlier: the change in the timetable from one year to two, and the idea of protected conversations. I am sure that he would be delighted to benefit from my hon. Friend’s expertise.

T2. Does the Deputy Prime Minister support the many charities and advice agencies—including most recently Scope—his party conference resolution and his Justice spokesman by opposing the complete removal of welfare benefits and the majority of social welfare laws from the scope of legal aid, even when the problems involved are interrelated and complex? (80671)

If we consider the recent massive expansion in legal aid and the budget for it, and the types of dispute brought within its scope, I think any reasonable person would agree that it is worth trying to put the budget on a more sustainable footing and that where there are alternatives to court—such as tribunals, mediation and citizens advice bureaux—they should be explored first, rather than immediately decanting people and disputes into the court system.

T4. In Cumbria we are very proud of having close business and cultural ties with Scotland, but does my right hon. Friend share my concern that business confidence on both sides of the border is being badly affected by the uncertainty caused by the Scottish Government’s obsession with separatism? (80673)

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. At a time of huge economic uncertainties in Europe and the world that are, understandably, creating anxiety among many families in this country, the last thing families in Scotland need is this constant guessing game—the First Minister’s cat-and-mouse game on the future of the Scottish people. What people want is certainty, because certainty is what delivers prosperity, jobs and growth.

May I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his tribute to our colleague, Alan Keen? He was proud to represent a London constituency, but he never lost his fierce, passionate commitment to social justice, which he brought with him from his roots in the north. We will miss him greatly, and our sympathies are extended to Ann and his family.

May I ask the Deputy Prime Minister about the shocking increase in the number of young people out of work for more than six months? In London, the increase has been 93%, in Warrington there has been a 200% increase since May, and the situation is even worse in many places. Because of this Government’s actions, the economy is too weak, and the Deputy Prime Minister’s programmes to help the young unemployed are too small. Will he admit that he urgently needs to take further action to help the young unemployed?

I accept that we need to take more action; it would be a real dereliction of duty if we did not do more to try to make sure that young people are given a real pathway into training, further and higher education or the labour market. As the right hon. and learned Lady will know, youth unemployment has increased pretty remorselessly since 2004, so it increased during the second part of the Labour Government’s time in office. Indeed, it increased by about 40% under Labour. There are some very big structural problems in the labour market that we need to address. I am leading some work on that in government, and we hope to make announcements on it very shortly, before the autumn statement. The right hon. and learned Lady was right to raise this subject.

But long-term youth unemployment was going down, and, before the recession, was at its lowest level. As rising unemployment makes it harder to pay down the deficit, why have the Government cut work programmes by a third, and why are they closing jobcentres, including in my constituency of Camberwell? We expect it from the Tories—youth unemployment is a price worth paying—but how on earth can the Liberal Democrats be prepared to go along with this?

The right hon. and learned Lady should not be quite so pleased with herself. Under Labour the number of NEETs—young people not in education, employment or training—increased by 50%. Is that a record she is proud of? I think it is a good thing that we have delivered more apprenticeships than her Government ever did. We will deliver a quarter of a million more apprenticeships than were planned under Labour, and we are also creating a new network of university technical colleges to give young people the skills to get into work and rolling out a new Work programme aimed at supporting young people. As I acknowledged earlier, yes there is more work to do, and we must do more to support young people, particularly those aged about 18 or 19 who are making the difficult transition from full-time education to trying to find their feet on the first rung of the jobs ladder. We will do more—we need to do more—but the right hon. and learned Lady should not be quite so complacent about her Government’s record.

T6. I am concerned about the possible role that the EU foreign service had in recently deposing the elected Heads of two sovereign Governments. Can the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that he has sought assurances that EU officials based in this country do not abuse their positions here? (80675)

I do not think that there is any remote possibility of a coup being engineered from the European Commission office just around the corner. The whole world is looking at what is happening in Italy and Greece with growing alarm, and only Labour Members take it as a role model for their own behaviour. There is a big dividing line in British politics now between those on the Government Benches who believe that Governments should be in charge of their own economic destiny and those on the Opposition Benches who think that bond traders should be in charge of the economy.

T5. We are just two weeks away from world AIDS day, in this the 30th year of the HIV epidemic. We now have scientific evidence to show that new HIV treatments are 96% effective at preventing the spread of HIV. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that the Prime Minister should support the United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and make the HIV generation a priority for the British Government in order to maintain our commitments to the millennium development goals? (80674)

As the hon. Lady may know, that is already one of the key priorities in our aid budget and programme. As she will also know, that budget is increasing substantially, even though we have such huge pressures on the public purse elsewhere, in order to meet the UN target of 0.7%. I know that a great deal of discussion is going on with the American Administration and others who are trying to work collectively. I am more than happy to look into the details of her question if she feels that there is more we should do on this front.

T7. I strongly support the principle of fairness in constituency size, which is behind the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011, but does the Deputy Prime Minister recognise that the Boundary Commission’s proposal to relocate Gloucester’s entire city centre into the Forest of Dean constituency seriously damages the link between the Member of Parliament and the city, and the accountability of the MP for Gloucester’s regeneration? Does he agree that the Boundary Commission could split a ward? Will he confirm that that is in order? (80677)

I feel in a slightly invidious position having to answer that question while the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) is sitting next to me, because I know that he has an adjacent constituency. As my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) knows, this is simply not a matter for Ministers. We have legislated—[Interruption.] I know that the idea of an independent Boundary Commission is alien to the Labour party, but that is what is going to happen.

T8. When a warning about the penalty was included on a letter to constituents of my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of Clwyd (Chris Ruane) in Rhyl West, the poorest ward in Wales, voter registration in that ward increased by 40%. If the Deputy Prime Minister really is a democrat, will he consider that startling statistic and make sure that there is not only a civic duty but a requirement for people to register to vote? (80678)

Only the hon. Gentleman thinks that you are a democrat by criminalising lots of people. Only the Labour party thinks that the solution to everything is to put more crimes on to the statute book. As I explained to him, the civic duty remains. It is not an offence at the moment not to register; it is an offence not to provide information where requested to do so.

Order. The House must come to order. Members must not keep shouting at the Deputy Prime Minister simply because they do not like what he is saying. It is called democratic exchange, and the hon. Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) should be used to it.

T10. The Deputy Prime Minister will be well aware that Cornwall is a distinctive region within the UK, with its own unique language and history, and that it has modest ambitions for devolution, not to cut itself off, but to cut itself into the celebration of diversity. Will he meet a delegation from Cornwall so that we can explore how Cornwall can help the Government to make better and more efficient decisions there? (80681)

I would be more than happy to meet a delegation such as my hon. Friend suggests. As he knows, this Government are pursuing a radical agenda of devolution, not just to the devolved Administrations within the UK, but to the regions and communities within England.

T9. As a result of his Government’s economic policies, youth unemployment in Nottingham is back up to the level it reached the last time the Tories were in power. The Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire chamber of commerce is calling on Ministers to reprioritise their spending plans to promote growth, investment and exports. The Deputy Prime Minister would not listen to our concerns on police cuts. Is he going to listen to our concerns on growth and jobs? (80680)

As I have said, I accept that we need to do more. I do not believe that the generation born in the boom should suffer most in the bust, but I remind the hon. Lady that this is quite a complex issue. Youth unemployment has been increasing steadily since 2004; it increased by 40% during the Labour Government’s time in office. I am leading some work on this in Government and I hope to make an announcement soon, particularly in relation to youngsters who are trying to make the transition from education into work. If she has any ideas on this I am very keen to listen to her.

T11. May I relay to the Deputy Prime Minister the frustration, concern and anger of my constituents in Kettering that he is acting against the national interests by using his position to block the repatriation of powers from Europe and by preventing the scrapping of the Human Rights Act? (80682)

No Front Bencher in the coalition is talking about the unilateral repatriation of powers from the European Union. Why? Because it simply is not possible—it does not work like that. We have to seek agreement with 26 other countries to get that repatriation. The idea that one could simply get on to the Eurostar, go over to Brussels and come back with a bag load of powers simply is not feasible. Yes, let us examine the balance of powers, as we committed to do in the coalition agreement. I am a pro-European, but I believe in reforming the European Union. I do not believe the status quo is right, but I also believe that we need to act smart and move sensibly.

Last year, the Deputy Prime Minister, speaking in a professional capacity, set out how he would end child detention by May. It is now November. Does he still believe this practice is immoral and does he still plan to keep his promise? If so, will he tell the House when?

Compared with the previous Government’s record of thousands of young people being detained—yes, immorally—behind bars when they were entirely innocent, the new arrangements are a complete, humane, liberal revolution, of which I am very proud indeed.

T13. Currently, the new electoral register is published on 1 December each year. Will there be any change to this system in 2012 to allow the most up-to-date information possible to be available for the police commissioner elections due to be held on 15 November? (80684)

My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan) mentioned the issue of Rhyl West. I put down a parliamentary question asking the Minister to look at the specifics of that case. To go from 2,500 to 3,500 registered voters in one year in the poorest ward in Wales, which has 900 houses in multiple occupation, is a fantastic achievement. If the Minister is serious about registration, he needs to look at best practice, so will he look at the issue of Rhyl West?

The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper), and I are more than happy to look at that example. The Select Committee on Political and Constitutional Reform has recommended that a new offence should be created and of course we will look at that—it is always right to look at suggestions from such a distinguished Committee. Under the current offences, only 144 people were prosecuted out of the millions of people on the electoral register last year. That suggests that some of the other things we are doing, such as data matching and making sure that everybody is approached in 2014 to get them on to the register, might be a higher priority than once again creating more new criminal offences on the statute book.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that he has the opportunity in this Parliament to continue the work that was started a century ago by his predecessor, Asquith, and reform the House of Lords? Does he agree that the absolute bare minimum of progress would be the removal of the remaining hereditary peers and the Church of England bishops?

As my hon. Friend knows, our proposals are now subject to extensive scrutiny in a Committee that I hope will report in the early months of next year. I have always believed, as do many hon. Members on both sides of the House, that those who make the laws of the land should in some way or another be accountable to those who have to obey the laws of the land. That founding democratic principle, which is respected in legislatures all around the democratic world, is one that I should like to see installed in the other place as well.

Now that the Deputy Prime Minister has displayed a high state of excitement about party political donations, will he do the decent thing as leader of the Liberal Democrats and instruct them to surrender their ill-gotten gains of more than £2 million from that jailbird Michael Brown?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, that matter was independently examined; the Liberal Democrat party was entirely within its rights, and it was entirely reasonable, to accept the money at the time, even though, of course, we would not have done so if we had known then what we subsequently knew. Given that his colleagues on the Front Bench are tabling amendments and deciding how to vote according to what their paymasters in the trade unions say, we need to know whether he and other Labour MPs are voting for what they think is right, or what they think is right for the trade unions.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) is duly flattered, but it is no part of his responsibility in the House to answer questions, or at least not at this mid-point in his parliamentary career.

I do not think that there is the remotest possibility that this country will join the euro while I am in government.

There are concerns that the net effect of the Government’s changes will be under-registration in England and Wales. Has the Deputy Prime Minister appraised the impact of that on the distribution of seats to the territorial boundary commissions under the Sainte-Laguë formula?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I do not agree that moving to individual elector registration in the way we are—in the way advocated by the previous Government, too—will necessarily lead to the outcome he suggests. That is why we are putting so much time into data matching, making sure that there is a period of grace so that people can re-register on the other side of an election, and ensuring that people go from home to home to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to be individually registered.

The Deputy Prime Minister told the House that he is responsible for constitutional and political reform. If the ambitious programme that he has set himself proves too ambitious, will he allow a little bit of slippage in reform of the Lords and the equalisation of boundaries?

It is important to be clear about our ambitions, and we have been, right from the outset, when the coalition Government were formed. We have five years to deliver the changes. Yes, they are major changes, but as we saw with the reforms to the Act of Settlement, even the most intractable issues that people believe are not susceptible to reform can be reformed if there is sufficient debate, and sufficient consensus in all parts of the House that reform is desirable. Most people believe, for instance, that reform of the House of Lords is long overdue; it is 100 years since it was first debated.