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Topical Questions

Volume 537: debated on Tuesday 20 December 2011

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

Over the years, we have introduced more than 1,000 tax reliefs, ranging from the vital to the obscure. Why is the Deputy Prime Minister so opposed to tax relief that supports marriage?

My own view is reflected in the coalition agreement, where this issue is among a number of others on which the coalition parties make an explicit agreement to disagree. That is because of a philosophical difference. I believe the state should be cautious about seeking to use the tax system to encourage people to take what, at the end of the day, are very private and emotional decisions about whether or not they should get married.

Mr Speaker:

“we must do everything we can to avoid a great big split in the European Union…That’s bad for jobs and growth in this country.”

That is what the Deputy Prime Minister said before the European summit. We now have a great split. Does he think the Prime Minister was right to put party interest before national interest?

I am not going to rake over the results of the summit. The crucial thing is what we do now as a country, and on that issue there is absolutely no difference between the Prime Minister and myself or the two coalition parties. We are totally committed to full engagement in the European Union. Why? Because, as some business leaders set out very clearly in a letter this morning in The Daily Telegraph, 3 million people’s jobs directly depend on our place in what remains the world’s largest borderless single market, in our European backyard.

The Deputy Prime Minister cannot answer a simple, straightforward question. I will give him a chance again: does he think the Prime Minister was right?

The Deputy Prime Minister has also said that the Prime Minister’s actions at the EU summit have left the UK in an “isolated position”. As you will be aware, Mr Speaker, the justification the Liberal Democrats give for propping up this Conservative-led Government is to act as a restraining influence. Well, they have failed on tuition fees, they have failed on legal aid, they have failed on the NHS, and now they have failed on Europe. Does the Deputy Prime Minister believe that the Prime Minister should re-enter negotiations and get a better deal for Britain? If he does, what is he doing about it?

The right hon. Gentleman refers to the reasons why this coalition Government were created—it was to clear up the mess that his party left behind. It is not easy, what we are doing, but it is right. At the beginning of this year, his party had nothing to say about the economy—[Interruption.]

At the beginning of this year, the right hon. Gentleman’s party had nothing to say about the economy. At least they are consistent: they are completing this year with still nothing to say about how to save our economy.

T2. Members on both sides of the House are very concerned about the implications for local communities and community cohesion of the initial proposals from the Boundary Commission. Although I recognise the importance of getting the numbers between constituencies relatively similar, community cohesion is also really important. Will the Deputy Prime Minister reserve the right not to support the Boundary Commission proposals if they are considered against community— (87267)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the whole system has been devised so that it is not in the gift of politicians, still less the Government, to draw lines on the map to decide where these new boundaries are set; that is for the independent boundary commissions. There is a process of consultation and appeal, which is now ongoing. But I am glad he recognises that the principle is a perfectly valid one: that people’s votes should be worth the same weight and esteem, wherever they live in this country.

T4. Wiltshire schools have long felt short-changed by funding allocations for education, so they will welcome the doubling of pupil premium moneys for our schools in Wiltshire to more than £5 million next year. Now that Labour councillors in Manchester have voted for the pupil premium to be scrapped, will the Deputy Prime Minister consider giving our schools next year some of the more than £80 million of pupil premium that their council has rejected? (87269)

The pupil premium, which by the end of this Parliament will be £2.5 billion of extra money to help schools that are educating children from the most challenging backgrounds, is a very powerful, progressive policy, and I am very proud that we have delivered it, as a coalition Government. We have been searching in vain for months to find out what the Labour party would actually cut in public expenditure. Now, we have the answer: Labour councillors want to cut the pupil premium that benefits some of the most deprived children in this country. That is progressive politics for you!

T3. Eighteen months ago, the Deputy Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary went together to Germany, and they were met by the right-wing Liberal Foreign Minister of Germany, Guido Westerwelle, who was quoted as saying that he was pleased to meet his “closest friends” and “fabulous partners”. The German Foreign Minister was in Britain this week. Did he meet the Deputy Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary together here, and did they discuss whether they are still the closest friends and partners? (87268)

The hon. Gentleman wants to know whether we met in the same room or not. Okay, we did not; we met separately. Hold the headlines, “Foreign Secretary and Deputy Prime Minister have separate meetings”. Honestly, he is really scraping the barrel. We all agreed, as I explained earlier to the over-excitable right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan), that it was very important that Germany and Britain should work together on deepening and widening the single market, and on promoting competitiveness and growth, upon which the jobs of millions of people depend in this country and elsewhere in Europe.

T7. In the context of House of Lords reform, will the Deputy Prime Minister say whether consideration has been given to a form of representation for British overseas territories in a revised second Chamber? (87272)

This is not something that has been looked at as closely as my hon. Friend would perhaps wish. We have set out our ideas in the White Paper. As I said earlier, they are now being subject to scrutiny by the Joint Committee, and the Government will make their final views known shortly thereafter.

T5. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that any future referendum held in the United Kingdom or in any part of it should be carried out under the supervision of the Electoral Commission? If so, what is he going to do to ensure that? (87270)

Clearly, any referendum needs to be held in a way that enjoys public trust and is fair and objective, on whatever subject and in whatever part of the United Kingdom.

T11. Will the Deputy Prime Minister join me in welcoming the agreement between the Government and the trade unions on public sector pensions? It shows that the Government have been prepared to listen and negotiate successfully with trade unions to get a deal that is fair for everyone? (87278)

My right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury will be giving a statement on this matter immediately after Question Time. I am very pleased that a heads of agreement has been reached between the Government and trade unions under all four schemes, not only because it ensures the Government’s objective of putting public sector pensions on to a financially sustainable footing, but, much more importantly, because it means that millions of people working in the public services, whether in our schools, in our hospitals or in local government, will now be assured, at a time of great uncertainty, that they will have among the very best pensions in this country for years and years to come.

T6. I want to ask the Deputy Prime Minister about his new year’s resolutions. The Leader of the House has reminded all Ministers of the following:“When Parliament is in session the most important announcements of Government policy should be made, in the first instance, to Parliament.”—[Official Report, 5 December 2011; Vol. 537, c. 73.]Given that, and given that the Deputy Prime Minister is one of the worst offenders, will he make it his new year’s resolution to behave himself in future? (87271)

I do not need a new year’s resolution to be reminded that it is important to behave oneself at all times.

T12. Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that if charities are to be covered by the register of lobbyists, their donors will be properly protected, because many give anonymously for very good reason? (87279)

As the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr Harper) explained earlier, the consultation will be published in the new year. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire (Simon Hart) will find satisfactory answers to his questions in the course of that consultation.

T8. Returning to the issue of electoral registration, does the Deputy Prime Minister believe that the proportion of the population registered to vote will be as high or higher at the end of the individual registration process as it is now? (87274)

Of course we will work very hard to make sure that that is the case. The hon. Lady will know—this is a source of concern for everybody—that, because of research that the Government commissioned from the Electoral Commission, the latest statistics show that about 85% to 87% of people were registered on the electoral register as of last December, which compares with about 93% to 95% 10 years earlier, in 2000. So something went dramatically wrong in the last decade when her party was in government; more and more people fell off the register. Our register is now roughly at the same level of completeness as that in Northern Ireland, which is why we must all work together to make sure that we get the details on individual electoral registration right.

I wish the Deputy Prime Minister a merry Christmas, but if the Prime Minister was killed in a terrorist attack, who would take charge of the Government? Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that it would not be him, as he leads a party that has less support than the UK Independence party?

I receive the hon. Gentleman’s season’s greetings in the spirit in which they were intended. As he knows, appropriate arrangements would be made in that very unfortunate event. I must say, however, that his morbid fascination with the premature death of his own party leader is a subject not for me, but for the Chief Whip.

T9. Senior high school pupils have just three and a half weeks remaining to submit their applications for university. Does the Deputy Prime Minister think that applications will rise or decrease, given his broken promise on introducing £9,000 tuition fees? What impact does he think that will have on social mobility? (87276)

What I, of course, hope is that as people focus on the reality and substance of the new system rather than the misleading polemic about it, they will come to appreciate that at the moment thousands of students on part-time courses, under the system introduced by the hon. Gentleman’s Government, pay fees as students whereas under the new system no student will pay a penny of fees at all while they are studying at university. The method of repayment, which is in effect a form of time-limited graduate tax, is more progressive, not less, than the more regressive system that it seeks to replace.

According to The Mail on Sunday, MPs are on day five of our holiday. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that the statutory register of lobbyists ought to include a strict overview of a very shadowy organisation that puts itself forward as the TaxPayers Alliance?

My experience is that one should not believe much that one reads in the Daily Mail and The Mail on Sunday. The key point is that the consultation on the register of lobbyists will be issued in the new year, and will seek to define what we mean by lobbyists and the rules that will then be applied evenly to all kinds of lobbyists.

T10. We understand that the Deputy Prime Minister has been given responsibility by the Prime Minister for rebuilding bridges with our European partners. Will he tell the House how he intends to go about fulfilling that responsibility? (87277)

I can tell the hon. Gentleman one way in which I think it is incredibly important that we as a country should show leadership. On 27 January, there will be a European Union summit of all European Union countries aimed precisely at, in my view, the most important issue of all, which is how we boost competitiveness and growth within the eurozone and across the European continent. We, as a coalition Government, will come to that summit with some bold ideas about how we can increase growth, increase competitiveness and increase employment across the European Union and—yes—we will stay until the end.

In September last year, the right hon. Gentleman told the House:

“We promised a new politics. Today is the day we must begin to deliver on that promise…We must put people back in charge.”—[Official Report, 6 September 2010; Vol. 515, c. 44.]

Why was that true for the doomed referendum on the alternative vote but not for the public’s view on Britain’s relationship with the EU?

As he knows, we have legislated to make it quite clear—the Foreign Secretary has pioneered and led on this legislation—that if there were to be a major transfer of power from this House to Brussels and from the UK to the EU, there should absolutely be a referendum. We are the first Government to have guaranteed to the British people that if we give up more power to the EU, they will have their say. I do not think we could be more crystal clear than that.

The Deputy Prime Minister said earlier that there was no criminal sanction on individuals if they failed to register to vote. The only reason that is so is that the obligation rests on the householder, on whom there is a criminal sanction. Does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that as we move towards individual registration, Ministers must reconsider the proposal to allow opting out without any criminal sanction whatsoever?

I made it clear to the House on a previous occasion that we accept the arguments against providing an opt-out, and we will reflect that in the final legislation. On the quite tangled issue of what is, and what is not, an offence, the right hon. Gentleman is quite right that at the moment the offence applies not to registration, but to the provision of information on behalf of a household—in other words, to the obligation to provide information about other people in the household. It is not an offence at the moment not to register. He makes a valid point that is a valid subject for debate, and it was raised by the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee: under individual electoral registration, the obligation clearly falls more squarely on the individual, rather than on the so-called head of the household. We think that we need to proceed very carefully when it comes to creating new offences in this area, but we are, of course, prepared to listen, and will continue to do so.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister welcome the remarks made by our fellow member of the European Liberal Democrats, Herr Westerwelle, who said that Britain would still be welcome at the very heart of European economic decision making, and that some of the concerns that we raised at the Brussels summit could still be addressed?

I strongly agree that the decisions taken at last week’s summit were, at the end of the day, all about the fiscal and budgetary rules that accompany a country’s membership of a currency union, but that does not, and will not, exclude our country from having the ability to continue not only to participate in, but to play a leading role in shaping policy and debates on the wider economic reform of the European Union as a whole. That is what we intend to show in the weeks and months ahead.

What will the Deputy Prime Minister say over the Christmas period—I hope that he has a very good Christmas—about the many people in our country who are unemployed? A million young people, and many thousands of young graduates, are unemployed. What new thing can he whisper into the Prime Minister’s ear so that we get this sorted?

First, I hope that people will be increasingly informed about the details of the youth contract, which will start in April next year—a new billion-pound programme that will provide 250,000 work experience places to any 18 to 24-year-olds who want to take part in a work placement scheme. It will also provide a new subsidy, worth about half the basic wage, to thousands of young people who are seeking employment. The key thing is that from April next year, under the youth contract, every single 18 to 24-year-old who cannot find work will have the opportunity to earn or learn.

May I return the Deputy Prime Minister to the issue of Lords reform? Like him, I support a 100% elected House. Often, when I read the deliberations of the Joint Committee on House of Lords Reform, I am concerned that there is a very negative view coming forward from a variety of Members. Does he have any view on the fact that a consensus is perhaps emerging, which might speed the passage of legislation?

I cannot find my notes on the latest social attitudes survey, which was published recently, but in it, public opinion was very clear: only 6% of the members of the British public surveyed supported the status quo—an unelected House of Lords. The vast majority wanted the House of Lords to be fully elected, partially elected, or even abolished. As for those who say that the issue is a minority distraction, I totally accept that there are many more important things weighing on people’s minds at the moment—not least jobs, unemployment, and growth in our economy, which remains our absolute priority—but the vast majority of people, when they stop and think about it, want a reformed House of Lords.