The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—
House of Lords Reform
One of the many things that would be included in a package of reform of the other place would be precisely an ironing out of some of those anomalies, so that those who had broken the law, who would not normally be entitled to continue to serve in this House, would not be able to do so in the other, reformed House either.
The Deputy Prime Minister rightly said in his new year message that Britain faced great challenges in 2012 if it was to avoid some of the economic problems of our European neighbours. How, then, can the Government justify consuming so much parliamentary time to push forward House of Lords reform at the expense of more pressing legislation?
I would caution my hon. Friend a little on this point. After all, we are going to invest a considerable amount of time on individual electoral registration, as we have in this Session on the plans for boundary changes—things about which he and his colleagues on the Government Benches feel equally strongly. I think it is perfectly possible to do more than one thing at once in government.
When the Deputy Prime Minister talks to the bishops and the archbishops about their futures, will he gently remind them that the overwhelming majority in Parliament, in the country and in the Church of England want women to be able to become bishops, and that it might not be in the interests of the House of bishops to try to amend or water down the current measure before Synod this week?
I welcome the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr Davey) to his place as the new Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. As a fellow south Londoner, I wish him well in his new job.
Since May 2010, 117 unelected peers have been appointed to the House of Lords, at an additional cost to the taxpayer of £63 million during the course of this Parliament. We know that a new House of Lords reform Bill will be the centrepiece of the Queen’s Speech. The Deputy Prime Minister believes that all parliamentarians should be democratically elected and he also believes in cutting public expenditure. Will he therefore confirm that as long as his proposals on Lords reform are in train, there will be no more peers appointed to the House of Lords?
No, clearly—[Interruption.] We have been open in the coalition agreement that, pending wholesale reform of the other place, we will continue to make appointments to the House of Lords in the time-honoured fashion in proportion to the share of the vote won by the parties at the last general election. As with so many issues where the Labour party has become terrifically pious in opposition, this is not something to which the right hon. Gentleman’s party adhered when in government.
The Government are committed to limiting donations and reforming party funding. This is best achieved, as far as possible, by consensus. To this end, I will write to the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition later this week, asking them to nominate representatives to take part in preliminary cross-party discussions.
Last year, when Christopher Kelly’s committee published a report containing its ideas for a package of reforms of party funding, all parties made clear that it was inconceivable that any of us would advocate an increase in overall state funding at this time. I will therefore stipulate in my letter to the leaders of the other main parties that such an increase is not on the agenda for now. However, that does not mean we could not make progress on many other areas of party funding reform on what I hope would be a cross-party basis.
11. As Members know, if one of our constituents buys a car in all good faith and it subsequently turns out to have been stolen, he or she must hand it back. Will the Deputy Prime Minister’s examination of political funding explain why his party is insisting on holding on to the £2.5 million that it was given by the convicted criminal Michael Brown? Will the right hon. Gentleman give it back, or, at the very least, spare us the usual sanctimonious holier-than-thou sermon? [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] (93691)
They liked that one.
As we have explained before, the Electoral Commission has made crystal clear that, given the knowledge and information available to the Liberal Democrat party at the time—well before my time as leader—the money was received in entirely good faith.
I certainly think that there would be a significant reputational risk if that party were to table amendments and ask parliamentary questions written for it by that donor, as we learnt had been done last year. If that were the practice in any other party, members of the party concerned would be crying foul.
Individual Voter Registration
We will indeed be publishing an implementation timeline with our response to the Select Committee’s report. In it, we will consider implementing individual registration from the point of view of the elector, the administrators and the Government.
The truth is that this is one of the most anti-democratic Governments of modern Britain. They are having the longest parliamentary term in the world outside Rwanda, and their rushed plans for voter registration now threaten to disfranchise Britain. As well as committing himself to publishing an implementation plan, will the Deputy Prime Minister commit himself to a phased introduction of voter registration, an end to the opt-out clause, and a full household canvass in 2014?
I do not think that the hon. Gentleman received the memo from his Front Benchers, who took a much more sensible position during the debate the other day. The right hon. Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan) said:
“I welcome the process that the Government have adopted and how they are acting on this matter. We have had a draft Bill and a White Paper with pre-legislative scrutiny, and the Deputy Prime Minister has said twice on the Floor of the House that the Government are willing to listen to concerns”.—[Official Report, 16 January 2012; Vol. 538, c. 475.]
I think that the hon. Gentleman ought to check what his party’s position is.
I have been in touch with my hon. Friend and neighbour about the case of my constituent Mr Brian Hudson following his removal from the electoral register in Weymouth and Portland borough council simply because he had a second home. He had been on the list for three years. Does my hon. Friend think it right that anyone can be arbitrarily removed from an electoral register on the grounds that he does not have a “proper” second home?
The law makes clear that it is a question of where people reside, not necessarily a question of where they simply own property. It is up to the electoral registration officer to make a judgment about whether people actually reside in an area. If my hon. Friend’s constituent thinks that he has been hard done by, he should go back to the ERO with some evidence about his residence, and take the matter from there. There is an established independent appeals mechanism.
The Government have said that they accept that registering to vote is a civic duty. They have also indicated that they do not believe that the threat of a criminal conviction is appropriate when an individual fails to complete a registration form. In line with those positions, will they now commit themselves to a system of civil penalties in cases in which a person has been wilfully unco-operative with an electoral registration officer?
We are going to consider that, as the hon. Gentleman will know from the debates that we have had. We have made clear that we do not think criminalising millions of people is very sensible, and I am glad that he welcomes that view. We will think about civil penalties, which have been recommended by the administrators in the Electoral Commission, and will say more when we respond to the Select Committee shortly.
West Lothian Question
The independent commission that we have set up will be able to take evidence from anybody who wants to give it, within its terms of reference. I am therefore sure it will be willing to take evidence from Members of the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales, but that is a matter for the commission.
I am not sure that those two matters are connected at all. The commission’s terms of reference are specifically to consider the effects and consequences for the House of Commons of the devolution arrangements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The hon. Lady will know that we have appointed experts to the commission. They will come back to the Government with their recommendations, and I have committed then to talk to all parties in this House about how we might proceed further.
Will the commission be able to consider what is really the Berwick-upon-Tweed question: how has it come about over so many years that Scotland seems to have had more money for schools and roads, and a great deal of say in the affairs of England?
Specifically, we have made it clear that the commission will not be able to look at the financial questions. The Government have committed to resolving them, but we have made it clear that the deficit must be dealt with first, and then those other matters will be taken forward by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor.
In order to deliver a more complete and accurate electoral register, we will introduce our proposals for individual registration, the principle of which is supported on both sides of the House. We have published our proposals for pre-legislative scrutiny and we will respond to the Select Committee shortly. I hope my hon. Friend will welcome these changes.
I welcome the Government’s initiative on individual voter registration, especially the provision to deny the postal vote to people who are unable to provide national insurance details. Does my hon. Friend agree that we might expand that principle by considering the option of requiring individual voter ID from people voting at polling stations?
The Government do not have any plans to introduce a requirement for voters to present ID when they vote. We think the current arrangements get the balance right between accessibility and security. We keep these matters under review, however. My hon. Friend will know that there is such a requirement in Northern Ireland, which has a different history in this regard, but it is not in the Government’s plans at present.
The number of unregistered voters increased from 6 million in December 2010 to 8.5 million in April 2011, so there has been a huge 2.5 million extra unregistered voters in the space of four months. Will that devastatingly high figure increase still further as a consequence of the rapid introduction of individual electoral registration?
The hon. Gentleman should acknowledge that the research that the Electoral Commission carried out—and which was funded and conducted at the initiative of the Government so that we could see the state of the existing registers—should shake any Members who had a sense of complacency, and who thought the existing system was perfect, out of that complacency. These findings show that there is an urgent need to move to a more accurate and complete system. If the hon. Gentleman waits for the response that we will give to the Select Committee report, he will learn that we have acknowledged some of those concerns, and I think he will be pleasantly surprised by our response.
13. Following the data-matching pilots, what assurances can the Minister give that information and data held by the Department for Work and Pensions will be compatible with the current systems used by electoral registration officers throughout the country? (93694)
I thank my hon. Friend for her question. The initial response to the data-matching pilots has been very positive. The Electoral Commission will publish its own independent assessment in March, and we will be saying a little more about that in our response to the Select Committee. Data matching opens up ways of ensuring that the register is more complete and accurate and requires voters to do less work.
Will the Minister assure me that he and his colleagues will carefully examine the implementation of the individual electoral registration which has already taken place in Northern Ireland, that any lessons will be learned and that any necessary changes will be made to enhance the situation?
I can absolutely give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. We have already set out some of the lessons we have learned, such as on implementing a carry-forward from the beginning. I have visited Northern Ireland, talked to the chief electoral officer there, looked at some of the very exciting outreach work that people there are doing to get younger voters registered and talked to people about how data matching works. We have learned lessons already and we will continue to work with people in Northern Ireland.
West Lothian Question
Treasury figures show that every English household pays £420 in tax to subsidise Scottish services, which means that Harlow families from my constituency are sending £16 million a year to Scotland. Is it not time to redress the balance and have English votes for English laws?
I am sure that my hon. Friend will want to take the opportunity to make his views known to the commission. As my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary has just explained, the commission is of course focused on procedures in this House, as they are affected by the process of devolution. I am not sure whether the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon) will be directly relevant to the commission’s central terms of reference.
The recent debate on Scottish independence has shown that, unfortunately, a significant proportion of English people believe that Britain would be better off without Scotland, so may I press the Deputy Prime Minister a little further on English votes for English laws? Does he think that such a change will help to restore English faith in the Union?
That is why I believe that the commission is important; if we can get the balance right in this House, such that the changes brought about by devolution are properly reflected in our procedures here—in how matters are dealt with and votes are cast—that will, I hope, address some of the concerns raised by my hon. Friend’s constituents. It will also allow us all to make the argument that the vast majority of us in the House believe that Scotland is stronger as a strong part of a strong United Kingdom.
Given that all successful constitutional change in this country post war has taken place on the basis of cross-party consensus, does the Deputy Prime Minister not consider it a serious error not to have sought cross-party meetings or discussions in order to obtain agreement on the terms of reference for the inquiry?
Needless to say, once the commission, which is entirely independent of any party and of the Government, produces its report, we will be keen to enter into cross-party discussions. But at the moment we do not know what the commission is recommending, and it is very difficult to have a proper cross-party discussion without knowing what the recommendations will be.
If the English regions can give evidence to the commission, what will be the appropriate body to do so from Yorkshire and Humber, which has a larger population than Scotland, as we no longer have a regional development agency and we have nothing that represents or gives focus to any strategic thinking for our region?
For a start, it would be a good thing if Members of Parliament from Yorkshire and Humber—I am a Yorkshire MP—were to give evidence where we have strong views on how the procedures of this House should be changed to reflect devolution. The commission has been established and its membership has been selected precisely to reflect the expertise we need on how this House works and how its procedures might need to be reformed.
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.
The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware of increasing calls to change the law on the close of polls and that in Scotland it has indeed been changed. Although I welcome operational changes, does he accept that it is important that there can be circumstances where a lot of people turn up to vote towards the end of the poll and that to guarantee their right to cast their vote the law should now be changed?
The hon. Lady has raised this issue before and I understand that she feels strongly about it, but much of the evidence suggests that with proper organisation and administration the problems should not have arisen in the first place. She knows as well as I do the areas in Sheffield where a number of people, particularly young people, were disfranchised and were not able to vote, which was an absolute scandal. However, I think we need to be a little cautious about immediately resorting to the statute book to fix a problem that could be fixed by improved organisation and better performance from electoral officers.
T3. May I congratulate the Deputy Prime Minister on the excellent and distinguished wise men and one wise woman he has appointed to the West Lothian commission? Will he extend the terms of reference so that they will look at the potential consequences of devo-max on this Parliament? (93699)
The commission is to focus on the procedures and practices of this House as they are affected by devolution as we know it right now. The case for further devolution to Scotland, which I happen to believe in as the leader of a party that believes in home rule, can be made but not until we know whether Scotland is going to be part of the United Kingdom in the first place. That can and should be resolved only by a decisive, clear, fair and legally binding vote in a referendum.
There is widespread concern that the NHS Bill lifts the cap for private patients from what is now typically 2% to up to 50%. That means half of all NHS beds and services being given over to private patients and half of all NHS doctors and nurses caring for private patients, which means that NHS patients will be put to the back of the queue. Will the right hon. Gentleman oppose raising the cap?
It is important that the right hon. and learned Lady does not provide a misrepresentation of the current situation. She will know that some London hospitals, such as the Royal Marsden, have a cap of around 30%, which is not nearly as low as she implies. We are saying that no NHS hospital should be able to earn 50% or more of its income through private practice—it should be less than half—and that every penny and every pound raised should be ploughed back into improving services for NHS patients. The alternative is to condemn a number of hospitals into outright financial crisis. How would that benefit families or the thousands of NHS patients who would otherwise have benefited from the extra income coming into the NHS?
It is clear that yet again the Deputy Prime Minister is simply going along with the Tories. Giving half the NHS to private patients is not reforming the NHS—it is destroying it. Is not this an abject betrayal of everything the Lib Dems claim they ever stood for? Will he now drop the Bill?
What would be an abject betrayal of the NHS would be our condemning hospitals to possible closure because we were preventing them from raising money for the benefit of NHS patients. We are not—I repeat, not—suggesting that any NHS hospital should be able to earn private income as half or more of its total income. What is wrong with allowing hospitals that already do private work doing so in a manner that can only benefit NHS patients?
T4. Will my right hon. Friend give heart to the Protect Stapeley campaign in my constituency, which is rightly campaigning against a plan for 1,500 homes, largely on green-belt land, without any obvious concern for the unacceptable pressure it will put on local services and infrastructure? (93700)
I am sure that my hon. Friend is working tirelessly as he always does for his constituents on what sounds like quite a controversial planning application in his area. I cannot comment on the specific application but, as he will know, the draft national planning guidance is very clear that we will always continue to cherish and protect the green belt and that any incursions on it can take place only for very exceptional and special reasons.
T2. I understand that at this morning’s Cabinet meeting the Culture Secretary gave the Deputy Prime Minister for Dickens day a copy of “Oliver Twist”. Did his Tory Cabinet colleagues then burst into a chorus of, “Consider yourself one of us”? (93698)
T7. This May, 11 English cities, including Sheffield, will be holding mayoral referendums. There is considerable evidence that elected city mayors lead to better local leadership and wider political participation, so will the Deputy Prime Minister join me in urging people to vote yes? (93703)
It would be wrong to start taking sides on referendums that are taking place across the country in different cities. The key thing is to make sure that the referendums are held in a way that allows the debate to be played out. I suspect some areas will opt for mayors and others will not; that is the great virtue of all this—it will be entirely dependent on people’s decisions in each local area.
T8. The right hon. Gentleman has said:“For too long, internships have been the almost exclusive preserve of the sharp-elbowed and the well-connected.” Twenty-five per cent. of the internships currently advertised on the Government’s graduate talent pool website are for unpaid vacancies. What practical steps are the Government taking to provide more paid internships so that people from poorer backgrounds can get those opportunities? (93704)
As the right hon. Lady knows, we have made considerable progress on the internships that operate in Whitehall. When we entered government just over 18 months ago, I was astonished by quite how informal and laid-back the procedures were. We have now put them on a much more open and meritocratic basis, but of course I will look into the cases the right hon. Lady has drawn to my attention.
I am sorry the party that introduced fees feels the need to shout about it.
We stood on a commitment to lift the income tax threshold to £10,000 and that has started to happen, but we need to go further and faster so that we can help more people across the country. What discussions has my right hon. Friend had with the Conservatives in the Government to try to take that forward?
We included in the coalition agreement our commitment to raising the income tax allowance as the No. 1 priority in our tax reforms for a very good reason: it is an extremely effective way of making the tax system more progressive. Let us remember that we inherited a tax system from Labour that scandalously imposed heavier tax on the wages of a cleaner than on the earnings of a banker. That is why we have increased capital gains tax by a full 10% and why this April, for the first time, we shall be taking more than 1 million people on low incomes out of paying any income tax altogether. I want to go further and faster and that is exactly the kind of thing we shall be debating in the weeks and months ahead.
T9. The Royal College of General Practitioners has condemned the health Bill and the Prime Minister is widely reported as suggesting an unpleasant end for the Health Secretary. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with his Cabinet colleagues about that unpleasant end? (93705)
Order. First of all, Members should not shout their heads off at the Deputy Prime Minister; it is deeply discourteous. Secondly, I say to the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) that if he had yelled like that when practising in the law courts, the judge would have kicked him out. We cannot have it.
It would be so much easier to take the Labour party members seriously on the NHS if they committed to actually spending more money on it. They will not. In their manifesto at the last election, they said they believed in “bold reform” of the NHS, yet they will not tell us what that is. It was under the Labour Government that £250 million of taxpayers’ money was wasted on rigged private sector contracts which never ever delivered a single thing for a single NHS patient. It is this Government who are making it illegal to provide the sweetheart deals for the private sector that occurred under Labour.
Clearly, we strive at all times to deliver value for money for the taxpayer. For instance, the proposals to reform the House of Lords are based on a radical reduction in the size of the House of Lords, which over a period of time will of course represent significant savings.
T10. I am sure that the Deputy Prime Minister was rather disappointed to be described yesterday as the Government’s whipping boy by one of his high-profile celebrity backers. One way in which he could cast off that awful image is by demanding that his Tory masters drop this disastrous and unwanted Health and Social Care Bill. Will he do so, and does he actually think that the Health Secretary is doing a good job? (93706)
I think that the hon. Lady was referring to Harry Potter. I suppose that the Labour party and Harry Potter have something in common—they both believe in magic. How else can we explain the Labour party’s economic policies and its complete, collective amnesia about its responsibility for failing to run the national health service effectively so that, as in so many other areas, we have to clear up the mess that it left behind?
One of the most important things is to intervene as early as possible. I pay tribute to some distinguished members of the Opposition who have provided important thinking on early intervention. That is one reason why, under this Government, hundreds and thousands of two-year-olds from deprived families will receive, for the first time ever, free pre-school support. Every single three and four-year-old from every family in this country will receive 15 hours of free pre-school support, and then they will benefit from the pupil premium: £2.5 billion of extra money targeted specifically on helping children at school. The evidence is clear: if we want youngsters to do well as they grow up, we have to help them in those crucial, early, formative years.
The announcement from Lloyds will be of immense concern to the employees involved, and it is important that Jobcentre Plus and other resources are made available to react in those areas that are affected. Of course there is huge concern in all parts of the House and across the country about bonuses, particularly in our state-owned banks. Again, it would be much easier to take the hon. Gentleman’s party seriously if it had taken action on bank bonuses and not let them rip in the first place over the past 13 years.
T14. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that there is a moral and ethical case for going faster and further in raising the income tax threshold to £10,000 in the next Budget, mainly because that will help the least well-off who, unlike the wealthy who can save, have to spend every single penny that they earn on their keep because they must? (93710)
The simple principle of saying that millions of people, particularly those on average incomes and on low and middle incomes, should be able to retain more of the money that they earn is a very good one. It has not only a moral dimension but an economic logic, too, because with more money kept in their own pockets, hopefully that in turn will encourage many, many consumers to go out and shop and help move the wheels of the British economy.
Further to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Salford and Eccles (Hazel Blears), will the Deputy Prime Minister explain why, despite his pledge to widen access to internships, publicly funded museums and galleries took on close to 800 unpaid interns in the past two years?
As the hon. Lady knows, the role of internships, which used to be informal—people did not really think that it mattered very much—has become much more important over the past five to 10 years. It has become a stepping stone for people’s subsequent success in finding real work, so it is right that she and others devote more attention to it. I was not aware of the figures that she has cited for unpaid internships in the museum sector which, as much as any other walk of life, must reflect hard on whether internships are being made fairly available to as many young people as possible.
With regard to House of Lords reform, the Deputy Prime Minister said that it was a matter of principle that people who are unelected should not be able to set the laws of this country. Does that mean that he now believes that unelected and unaccountable European Commissioners should not have any role in initiating legislation that impacts on this country?
The hon. Gentleman is nothing if not skilled in crowbarring the European Commission into almost any topic, and I congratulate him on doing so again. I do not think that the parallel is an exact one, because the European Commission can only propose legislation; adopting it, thankfully, is the role of elected Members of the European Parliament and elected Ministers in the Council of Ministers.
The Deputy Prime Minister is on television almost every week talking about the influence of the Liberal Democrats within this coalition. I have an idea for him: why does he not do something useful for a change by having the guts to tell the Prime Minister to drop the dastardly Bill to privatise the health service and get in line with all those royal colleges and the British people who are calling for the same thing?
It is truly ironic that the hon. Gentleman gets on his high horse once again to talk about the private sector in the NHS when it was his Labour Government—I am not sure whether he had disowned them—who crowbarred into the NHS sweetheart deals with the private sector that were deliberately designed to undermine the publicly owned parts. Some £250 million of taxpayers’ money was wasted by his colleagues in government on private sector contracts that delivered nothing. It is this coalition Government—two parties coming together—who are making privatisation by the back door illegal.
As my hon. Friend will know, we are running a consultation on exactly those kinds of questions—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) says that it does not do that, but those are exactly the kinds of questions on which people can provide their views, and we will of course listen to all the views expressed.
Given that satisfaction with the health service rose from 34% in 1997 to 70% in 2010, will the Deputy Prime Minister withdraw his comment that there was a mess to be cleared up and change his advice to the Prime Minister by encouraging him to drop the Health and Social Care Bill?
I was pointing out that the Labour party’s position now, if I understand it correctly, is to remove the freedom of hospitals to be financially viable, thus condemning them to having to make £20 billion of savings. Guess who announced those huge savings that need to be made in the NHS? The Labour Government. The Labour party has no plans for how hospitals should make those savings and still will make no commitment to providing real-terms increases for the NHS of the sort we are making. I do not think we need to take any lessons on the NHS from the Labour party.
I welcome the idea of a statutory register of lobbyists, but will the Deputy Prime Minister ensure that the definition of lobbyist will not deter charities or businesses wishing to invest in an area from being able to approach their MP frankly and openly?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is very important that we get the balance right so that we can ensure that there is more transparency in the way lobbying is conducted, but in such a way that does not discourage people, organisations or charities from doing what they naturally want to do, which is to approach their MP and make their case. That is why we have crafted the consultation in exactly the terms we have.