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Topical Questions

Volume 542: debated on Tuesday 20 March 2012

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

There are reports in the media today of plans to publish tax statements, which will give people a detailed breakdown of how the Government spend their money. I welcome that proposal, which treats people with much more respect and makes government more open. The reports suggest that the scheme may start in 2014. As it is such a good idea, can it be brought forward to 2013?

I, too, think it is an excellent idea. It will provide citizens of this country with far greater transparency on how the money that they provide to those of us in government is spent. That goes to the heart of greater accountability in government. It will empower citizens to know where their money is spent. I am sure that the Chancellor will consider any opportunity to bring this good initiative forward, where it is feasible.

Last November, when talking about the top rate of tax on income over £150,000, the Deputy Prime Minister said:

“I do not believe that the priority…is to give a tax cut to a tiny, tiny number of people who are much, much better off than anyone else.”

If the Chancellor announces any cut in the top rate of tax, Opposition Members will vote against it: will he?

The right hon. and learned Lady will have to wait until the Chancellor announces his Budget tomorrow. The priority for me and for the whole coalition Government is to provide real help to people on middle and low incomes, who have faced higher prices and great difficulties because of the economic implosion that she and her colleagues presided over in government. Whatever changes there are to this bit of the tax system or that bit of the tax system, Government Members believe that the wealthy should pay more, because the broadest shoulders should bear the heaviest burden.

We will see about that. Next month, low-income families will be hit by a massive cut to their tax credits, which the Lib Dems voted for. It is now clear that they will go along with a cut in the top rate of tax. I suppose that we should not be surprised after what they have done on VAT, the police and tuition fees. By signing up to cutting the top rate of tax, the Deputy Prime Minister is giving thousands of pounds to the very rich, while cutting tax credits for people who are struggling to make ends meet. Surely, even by Lib Dem standards, that is a step too far.

Next month, this Government will take more than 1 million people on low pay out of paying income tax altogether. Next month, we will deliver the largest cash increase in the state pension ever. There will be no more of Labour’s 75p pension insults. Next month, thousands of children from disadvantaged backgrounds will receive an uplift in the pupil premium to give them the head start in life that they never got under Labour. That is a record that I am proud of.

T2. The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware that many small businesses are struggling to gain access to credit, which is why I am delighted that the national loan guarantee scheme was introduced today. However, what can the Deputy Prime Minister do to ensure that small businesses with a turnover of less than £5 million can access the scheme? (100638)

The banks that are participating in the NLGS—the announcement on that has now been made—must use all their branches, and all their contacts with small and micro businesses in each area where they have branches, to make this new credit-easing facility available to the largest number of small businesses, for whom it has been very difficult to access credit on reasonable terms in recent times.

T3. Deputy Prime Minister, in 2008, when you used to visit Liverpool, you categorically said:“Will I ever join a Conservative Government? No. I will never allow the Liberal Democrats to be a mere annex to another party’s agenda.”What do you regret the most: your betrayal on the 3,000 extra police you promised, your broken tuition fees pledge, your party’s support for the destruction of the NHS, or becoming a Tory? (100639)

I am proud of the fact that we have stepped up to the plate to clean up the mess the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Steve Rotheram) and his party colleagues left behind after 13 years in office. It is convenient for him to airbrush out of history the fact that when his party was in government it went on bended knee to Rupert Murdoch, yet now it will not even talk to his newspapers. It also let the banks get away with blue murder, but it now wants to tax them to the hilt. The country will not forget the mess it left the rest of us to clear up.

T6. I recently visited the Yorkshire College of Beauty Therapy, alas not for treatment—I feared there would not be enough time for that—but to see how successful its apprenticeship scheme has been. Members on both sides of the House are concerned about youth unemployment, so what are the Government doing to encourage employers to take on more young apprentices? (100642)

In the earlier list of proud achievements that I gave, I forgot to mention the fact that we are delivering more apprenticeships than have ever been delivered in recent times in this country. We are delivering 250,000 more apprenticeships during this Parliament than would have been delivered by a Labour Administration. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the whole apprenticeship programme depends very heavily on companies and employers participating in the scheme and giving young people the opportunity to take up apprenticeship places. That is why in the youth contract, which will start in a matter of weeks, we are providing a £1,500 incentive to employers to take on young apprentices.

T4. On the emerging proposals for the reform of party finance, does the Deputy Prime Minister favour a £10,000 cap on contributions from wealthy donors, as proposed by the Committee on Standards in Public Life, or no cap at all, as proposed by the Prime Minister? (100640)

I strongly support a cap. We need to put a limit on the arms race in party funding. That, of course, must include a cap on donations. There is a range of opinions on where that cap should lie, and I think it should lie as low as possible. This issue is best addressed on a cross-party basis, which is why I hope the cross-party talks I have called for will now proceed in earnest.

T7. Being stalked must be a terrible experience, and it is calculated that there are about 120,000 such cases each year. I am delighted that the Government are going to make it a criminal offence. The people of Broxtowe—and no doubt those throughout the rest of the country —want to know when legislation will be introduced. (100643)

We will, of course, look for the earliest possible opportunity, to ensure—[Interruption.] The Deputy Leader of the House reminds me that that happened yesterday, so the offence is being put on to the statute book as quickly as possible, precisely because, as my hon. Friend says, it is incredibly unsettling for victims of stalking, and it is high time it was made a criminal offence.

T5. Last year the NewsThump website awarded the Deputy Prime Minister the parliamentary April fools’ day prize for convincing a number of MPs that he intended to keep one of his pre-election promises. With April fools’ day 2012 fast approaching, will he confirm that he is a contender again, with the claim that tomorrow’s Budget will help those who are struggling? (100641)

My own view is that the tax proposal that I have championed for many years—that everyone who earns in this country should earn the first £10,000 entirely free of income tax—is one of the most radical tax policies to have been promoted in British politics for many, many years and would make a dramatic difference for people on middle and low incomes, who were abandoned by the Labour party and its punitive approach to tax. As I have said, from next month, with the steps that we have already announced, we will already be taking more than 1 million people on low pay out of paying any income tax whatever.

T9. In 2010-11 the average public spending purse per person in Wales was £9,947, and for the west midlands it was only £8,679. In the light of the fact that Welsh MPs can vote on matters that affect my constituents, how can I justify that discrepancy to the people of Redditch? (100645)

I know that this is a sensitive issue, but I do not think that at a time like this, when we are seeking to fill the black hole in the public finances, reopening the mind-numbingly complex issue of the Barnett formula should be our No. 1 priority. That does not mean that we cannot make progress on how fiscal devolution could proceed in the United Kingdom, which is why the Silk commission has been established to look, for instance, at the new fiscal powers that could possibly be devolved to Wales in the future.

T8. This Government put back Labour’s universal broadband pledge by three years, with the result that we now have more than 2 million people without access to decent broadband. Now, the Deputy Prime Minister has decided that for the police commissioner elections, people will need decent broadband to know who to vote for. How can he possibly justify turning the digital divide that he created into a democratic deficit? (100644)

As the hon. Lady knows, the Government have committed hundreds of millions of pounds to investment in superfast broadband. She also knows that the Chancellor is due to make an announcement tomorrow on the 10 cities that will receive further support for improved broadband speeds, which of course are important not just for democratic participation but for a range of services that we want our citizens to be able to access.

T10. Has my right hon. Friend assessed the possibility that Orkney and Shetland could opt to remain part of the United Kingdom if the rest of Scotland voted for a separation? (100646)

That would be a popular proposal in the Liberal Democrat Whips Office, but I fervently hope that the issue will never arise, because I very much hope that the Scottish people will agree with the biggest body of opinion here and elsewhere, which is that we are stronger, safer and more prosperous as a United Kingdom.

T11. Last week the Deputy Prime Minister told the House that it was possible for a Government to do more than one thing at once. That was in relation to House of Lords reform. Does he agree, then, that it is possible to retain the 50p tax rate and introduce a tougher tax avoidance regime at the same time? (100647)

As I said, for me, the principles are very clear. First, the priority should be providing tax relief to people on middle and low incomes at a time when many people are feeling the pinch and struggling to make ends meet. Secondly, we should ensure that there is a progressive shift in the tax system, so that there is less tax on work, effort and enterprise, and more tax on wealth and the wealthy.

T15. I welcome the Deputy Prime Minister’s commitment to attend the Rio+20 conference on sustainable development later this year. Will he inform the House on which priorities he personally intends to lead during those vital discussions on the future well-being of our planet? (100651)

It is very important that this country continues to take a lead in the international discussions, not only so that we can confront together the overarching threat of climate change, which is such a potent threat to everybody across the globe, but so that we can work together to compare notes on how we can green our economies, which will be the specific focus of the Rio+20 summit. I think everybody now agrees that sustainable prosperous growth in the future has to be green as well.

T12. The president of the Liberal Democrats has said that in his opinion, the Health and Social Care Bill has gone from being “appalling” to being “pointless” over the past 12 months. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that over the same period, the Liberal Democrats have gone from being pointless to being appalling? (100648)

The only thing that is appalling is the Christmas cracker lines that Opposition Members dutifully read out. I really hope the hon. Lady will do a little better next time.

The Government are confronting a dilemma in our health care system that every Government in every developed economy and society must face. We have an increasing and ageing population, with an increasingly large number of people with long-term chronic conditions, who spend much more time in hospital than has ever been the case. That is why it is right to give people such as doctors and nurses, who know patients best, greater authority regarding how our health care system works. That remains the key reform in the Bill.

Going back, if I may, to the topical issue of House of Lords reform, may I check with the Deputy Prime Minister whether he believes a 15-year senator who is unable to stand for re-election is more or less accountable than a current Member of the other place?

The key ambition of that reform is to ensure that the House of Lords is more legitimate. The simple principle that those who make the laws of the land should be elected by the people who have to obey the laws of the land is not an unfamiliar one across the democratic world. Of course, there is a legitimate debate on the length of the mandate for elected Members of the House of Lords, but the reason why we have opted for non-renewable terms—as in previous proposals, by the way—is precisely to enshrine the contrast between this Chamber and a reformed House of Lords.

T13. Many will echo the Deputy Prime Minister’s earlier statement on House of Lords of reform—“Let’s get on with it.” After 100 years of waiting for reform, and after it was in all three party manifestos—although people would not know that from listening to some Members on the Government Benches—when will we have a Bill before the House? Sooner or later? (100649)

The Joint Committee that is examining our draft Bill is in the final stages of completing its work, and I hope it will publish its report shortly. The Government will then move as soon as we can to present a final draft Bill to the House.

It has taken 100 years to get Lords reform. It is an important matter and the Deputy Prime Minister is a great democrat. Will he give the House the assurance that this legislation for constitutional change will not be timetabled, but will go through the House at the appropriate pace?

It is a relief to be asked a question by my hon. Friend that is, for once, not related to the demise of his party leader. My hon. Friend is quite right to say that the Bill, given its importance, should be given adequate time. That is precisely what we will provide for it.

T14. The Deputy Prime Minister is clearly at the heart of Government. Has he seen a copy of the legal advice on whether competition law applies to the Health and Social Care Bill, and the transition risk register, and will he publish it? (100650)

The reasons why we are withholding publication of the risk register are precisely the same as the reasons why the Labour Government withheld their consent for publication on three occasions—[Hon. Members: “Have you seen it?”] Yes, I have seen the risk register. As the hon. Lady knows, it is a very important tool to allow civil servants to give frank and fearless advice to Ministers. As champions of freedom of information such as The Guardian and The Independent have said, publishing the register would inhibit civil servants from providing such frank and fearless advice to Ministers in future.

Yesterday the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs published a report recommending the devolution of the Crown Estate, sea bed and foreshore rights in Scotland to local communities as far as possible. That would be a massive transfer of power from Whitehall to communities in the highlands and islands, exactly in line with the big society agenda. I hope that the Government support the recommendation.

I understand that those proposals were published just yesterday, so the Government have not had a great deal of time to consider them, but we will do so carefully.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell the House, and my constituents, what the Government will do to help hard-pressed, hard-working, ordinary people throughout the United Kingdom facing exorbitant rises in fuel prices?

My own view is that the best way to help many, many families and the more than 20 million basic rate taxpayers in this country is to let them keep more of the money they earn. That is why the centrepiece tax policy in the coalition agreement is to lift the point at which people pay income tax to £10,000, so that everybody in the country receives a sizeable tax cut—because they will keep more of the money they earn.

Will my right hon. Friend tell the House what progress he and the cities Minister—the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark)—have made in negotiating the city deals with the eight largest cities outside London?

My right hon. Friend and I have made significant progress on those city deals, and I am pleased to announce this afternoon that the negotiation with Greater Manchester has now been concluded. This deal is a huge step forward in our devolution-rebalancing agenda, and signals the Government’s genuine commitment to unlocking the great potential of our cities. It will enable Greater Manchester to shape its own future, including through an innovative approach to economic investment—the so-called “earn back” model—that has the potential to transform how cities are incentivised to drive growth. According to people in Manchester, this deal will create 6,000 new apprenticeships, strengthen Greater Manchester’s business growth hub, creating 3,800 new jobs, and commit us to a package of transport measures. Good news for Manchester.

May I remind the Deputy Prime Minister that it was in fact a Labour Government who removed the large majority of hereditary peers from the House of Lords? Is it not quite obvious that there will be no progress on House of Lords reform, given the intense hostility from Conservative Members sitting behind him, unless the Parliament Act is used? I previously challenged him to a bet that there would not be such a change in this Parliament. Is he willing to take that bet?

My job is to deliver House of Lords reform, and to do so in as consensual a manner as possible. After all, all three main parties in the House committed themselves, in their manifestos, to reforming the House of Lords. Some say that this should not be a priority. I care about many things a whole lot more—such as a fairer tax system, the pupil premium and apprenticeships for young people. People defending the status quo should not elevate this issue to a status that it does not deserve. It has been debated for 100 years. Now let us get on with it.

Order. As usual, demand has exceeded supply. I apologise to colleagues who could not be accommodated, but we must now move on.