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Topical Questions

Volume 540: debated on Tuesday 7 February 2012

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.

T5. My right hon. Friend and I stood for election on a key manifesto commitment to lift the income tax thresholds —[Interruption.] (93701)

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)

As the Health Secretary has explained many times, the central purpose of the Bill is to ensure that those who know patients best, the GPs, surgeons, nurses and clinicians, have a greater say—[Interruption.]

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.

T12. How will the Deputy Prime Minister assess the value for money of the constitutional changes he is putting forward? Will he put a more detailed note in the Library setting out how that will be assessed? (93708)

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)

The hon. Lady is following her instructions dutifully, and I congratulate her on doing so. I think that she is referring to—[Interruption.]

Order. The House must calm itself. I am worried about the shadow Justice Secretary. I have a concern about his long-term health and well-being, and I am not sure that he is safeguarding it.

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.

T11. About 300 job losses have been announced today at Lloyds TSB in Scunthorpe. What can the Deputy Prime Minister do to ensure that the high pay of bank bosses is not paid for by the jobs of hard-working bank staff? (93707)

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.

I call Zac Goldsmith—[Interruption.] Order. The House must calm down. Let us hear Mr Goldsmith.

The proposals for a register of lobbyists will require lobby groups to list their members, but when those groups meet Ministers, will they be required to list on whose behalf they are meeting them?

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.