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Topical Questions

Volume 548: debated on Tuesday 10 July 2012

As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on a full range of Government policy and initiatives. Within the Government, I take special responsibility for our programme of political and constitutional reform.

The Deputy Prime Minister often speaks of the importance of fairness in our society. There is a crisis meeting in London tomorrow of dairy farmers from across Britain about the reductions in prices imposed on them by processors. Will my right hon. Friend join me in condemning that outrageous behaviour?

Like many hon. Members on both sides of the House, I have met dairy farmers in my constituency who are distressed by the fluctuating prices in the milk and dairy market. As my hon. Friend knows, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is actively engaged, and it will look closely at the representations that will be made tomorrow.

How much has children’s participation in school sports fallen since the Deputy Prime Minister’s Government abolished the school sports partnership, which Labour introduced?

Because I am not a walking encyclopaedia. I do not have all these facts and figures. [Interruption.] Oh, I am sorry. Am I also guilty of not knowing every single departmental statistic? I am sure the hon. Lady would have had the figure at her fingertips if she were in my position. Honestly!

None the less, I hope that the right hon. and learned Lady will co-operate with the Government in a positive spirit as we enthuse many, many children to take up sports that they have not taken up before and as we move towards this historic occasion of the Olympics.

The truth is that the Deputy Prime Minister does not know, and neither do the Government, because they have made it their business not to know by abolishing the school sports survey. Like people up and down the country, we are concerned about this, and our freedom of information requests to local councils show that the amount of PE teacher time spent organising school sport has fallen by 60%. At a time when everyone wants more children involved in more sport, will he admit that what his Government have done is a travesty, and will he reinstate the school sports partnerships?

I certainly remember the travesty under the right hon. and learned Lady’s Government of the industrial-scale sell-off of school playing fields. She never listened to complaints from us when that was going on. I think she should celebrate the fact that in this year, the year of the Olympics, thousands upon thousands of children are taking up sports they have never done before as part of the school Olympics.

T3. I am sure that the Deputy Prime Minister will agree that for far too long there has been an emphasis in NHS mental health services on crisis management rather than on the prevention and the community support that patients require. Will he outline what steps the Government are taking to address this problem and properly to look after patients with mental health problems in the community? (115863)

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. I hope he has noticed that the operating framework recently published by the Department of Health for the NHS in England sets out priorities for the NHS that, for the first time, stipulate the expansion of access to psychological services as part of the overall commitment to the full roll-out of the improving access to psychological therapies programme by 2015. I know that the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Paul Burstow), has dedicated a lot of time to this. I say to Members on both sides of the House who spoke in that very moving debate recently on mental health that they played a remarkable role in breaking down some of the taboos by speaking about an issue that afflicts one in four people in his country and which has often been kept in the shadows, leaving people to suffer in silence. It is finally being talked about in a more grown-up and open way.

T2. The Deputy Prime Minister wants the House of Lords to be more accountable, yet his Government are giving new dictatorial powers to elected mayors to veto decisions made by elected councillors. Will he say where the accountability is there? (115862)

I do not think they would be dictatorial powers in the hands of someone who has been democratically elected, but perhaps the hon. Lady sees some consistency between that position and defending unelected Members of the other place. I do not.

T7. It is vital that the electoral roll is accurate, but young people are quite poor at getting their names on to it. What measures can the Deputy Prime Minister take to ensure that they are engaged in the democratic process and put their names forward to cast a vote? (115868)

Interestingly, registration rates among young people in Northern Ireland are now higher than they are here, so we have looked carefully at what has been done in Northern Ireland to reach out in different ways to young people in order to tell them how to register and, crucially, to ensure that they are informed at the right time, so that they go on to register and get their names on the electoral roll.

T4. When this place passes a Bill that changes the power of the ballot box, which, it is generally agreed, the House of Lords Reform Bill undoubtedly does, how can the Deputy Prime Minister justify the argument that people are not entitled to a referendum? (115864)

As I explained earlier, although House of Lords reform greatly exercises people here—people in Westminster get terribly hot under the collar—most people in the country at large think it a fairly common sense reform to introduce a slither of democracy to a legislative Chamber. It is not an issue on which the main parties, formally speaking, disagree, and a referendum would be very expensive and, as I said, cut across an all-important referendum on the future of the United Kingdom.

T10. There is a body of opinion in Scotland that says that the upcoming referendum should have a third option: devo-max. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that putting that option on the ballot paper in advance of detailed discussions with the UK Government would be misleading and wrong? (115871)

I disagree with people who want to turn the referendum on Scotland’s place in the United Kingdom into a sort of smorgasbord or multiple-choice exercise. That is playing cat and mouse with the Scottish voters. There should be a simple question —whether Scotland remains part of the United Kingdom: yes or no? In our view, that question, in plain, simple terms, should be put to the Scottish people as soon as possible.

T5. You were elected on the promise to scrap tuition fees, yet you trebled them, to such an extent that there is now a 12% reduction in the north-east in university applications. How can we trust you on anything, let alone House of Lords reform? (115865)

First, I have not broken any pledge. Secondly, I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not inclined to distrust me, but I will assume that his question was directed at the Deputy Prime Minister.

First, I have never hidden the fact that, as leader of a party that has 8% of MPs in this Chamber, I cannot deliver—much to my regret: not enough people voted for us at the last general election—every single line, and every crossed t and dotted i of our manifesto. That is the nature of plural compromise politics, and it is something that some of us are grown up enough to acknowledge.

On the all-important issue of the number of applications to university in the recent UCAS figures, which have been published overnight, the proportion of English school leavers applying to university is, in fact, the second highest on record. The percentage of 18-year-olds from disadvantaged areas applying to university is, according to the figures we have seen overnight, higher than at any time under the Labour Government.

The Deputy Prime Minister believes that we need 360 new elected politicians in Parliament. If I may be so bold as to paraphrase a well-respected former Prime Minister, Sir John Major, does this current Deputy Prime Minister agree that if the answer is more party-selected elected politicians, we are obviously asking the wrong question?

The impression that is sometimes given of the House of Lords—where it is seen through a sepia-tinted filter and everyone there is a dispassionate observer of the scene, unsullied by politics entirely—unfortunately does not quite conform to the truth. More than 70% of the Members of the House of Lords are there because of decisions taken by people such as me, not the British people. The largest number of people who are in the House of Lords through their former vocation are retired MPs, so we can take a choice: either we give the British people a say in who is there or we simply turn it increasingly into a retirement home for ex-MPs.

T6. When will the Government report on their Trident alternatives review, and will the Deputy Prime Minister commit to publishing the findings, which has not been the case with the Trident so-called value-for-money review? (115866)

The review on the alternatives to a like-for-like replacement of the Trident system is ongoing, according to the stipulation in the coalition agreement. My hon. Friend the Minister for Defence is heavily involved with it, and I am sure he will come to this House and seek to make a statement when the work is complete.

With the successful launch of the “Better Together” campaign, we now have campaigns in place for both sides of the argument on the future of Scotland. Has my right hon. Friend had a rational or sensible explanation from the Government of Scotland of why they want to deny the people of Scotland an early say in our future?

Bluntly, no—perhaps we will get an explanation in this place. I do not think the uncertainty of this endless boxing and coxing, and playing cat and mouse with the Scottish people on the part of the Scottish Government, does Scotland any good. It is damaging to investment. Indeed, a number of investors in Scotland and business groups have been saying that the uncertainty is bad for the Scottish economy, at a time when we are clearly facing economic difficulties in the United Kingdom as a whole. I therefore agree with my hon. Friend that it is time that we got on and simply put a simple, single question to the Scottish people, so that they can decide what their future is: in the United Kingdom or not.

T9. If the Deputy Prime Minister gets another mauling in the House today, will he finally change his mind about giving proper scrutiny to the House of Lords Reform Bill in this House, and if not, what will it take? (115870)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the previous Labour Government introduced countless constitutional Bills that touched on our constitutional future in relation to the European Union, all of which were timetabled. We have been asking those on the Opposition Front Bench over and over again how many days the Opposition would like on the timetable but, still, answer comes there none.

Yesterday, the Deputy Prime Minister did an able job in defending himself against all the protests coming from behind him. Has he noticed that a silent protest is taking place today, in that Conservative Ministers have not come to support him on the Front Bench? There are 10 Ministers here who are not Whips, and only three of them are not Liberal Democrats.

The hon. Gentleman made a similar head count yesterday. His forensic fascinations, first with the early death of the Prime Minister and now with exactly who is on the Front Bench, continue to fascinate me. I am waiting with bated breath to see what his next rather peculiar fascination will be.

T11. Will the Deputy Prime Minister extend his commendable enthusiasm to trusting the people and extending democracy by giving our people a right that is enjoyed in almost every other free country in the world—that is, will he allow them to vote on whether Charles, William or A. N. Other should be our next Head of State? (115872)

I am struggling enough simply to make the case for what I see as the plain vanilla, common-sense proposition that the people in the other place who make the laws of the land should be elected by those who have to obey the laws of the land. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman’s proposition, but let us focus on the argument on the other place right now, as it has not yet been fully won.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that the Government’s apprenticeship programme, which offers a brilliant alternative to the strictures of academia for many people, could provide a fantastic boost for social mobility in Britain?

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. The apprenticeship programme is one of the things that Government Members should be proudest of. We are expanding opportunities for young people through increased apprenticeships on a scale never before seen in the post-war period, and we will be delivering 250,000 more apprenticeships than were planned by Labour. My hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that, for those who do not think that an academic qualification at university is the best route when they leave school or college, apprenticeships are a great tried and tested way of giving them the opportunities that have been denied to them for so long.

T12. Wrexham Remploy workers, whom the Deputy Prime Minister refused to meet in April this year, have been told at the final hour that their jobs have been taken away from them. Will he now meet those people whom he wants to put on the dole even though a private investment company has offered to keep them in work? The Government, and the Deputy Prime Minister, have refused to let that happen. (115873)

As the hon. Gentleman might know, the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Maria Miller), will be making a statement on this matter straight after Deputy Prime Minister’s questions. He will also know that the recommendations on the reform of the Remploy factories across the country—

Perhaps he could just listen to the answer. Those recommendations were made not by Ministers or politicians; they were made by a number of authoritative figures who decided that segregation in the—

Order. The Deputy Prime Minister is contending with a great deal, about which I am sure he makes no complaint. I know that the hon. Member for Wrexham (Ian Lucas) wants an answer—that message is clear—but he must not keep ranting from a sedentary position. It is not statesmanlike, and ordinarily, I expect him to be statesmanlike.

Liz Sayce, the expert in question, said that the practice of effectively segregating people in one part of the labour market, away from everyone else, was not a sensible way of protecting their interests in the 21st century.

Many of my constituents have written to me to express their support for House of Lords reform, but many have also taken the opportunity to remind me of our need to reduce the cost of politics. Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell us whether the reforms will significantly increase the cost of politics?

T13. In May, the Deputy Prime Minister obliged my Newcastle constituents to vote on mayors. In May last year, he obliged them to vote on the alternative vote system. In November, which is not usually a warm month in Newcastle, he is going to force them to vote on police commissioners. Why, then, will he not give them the right to vote on the most wide-ranging constitutional change that he is proposing? (115874)

I have sought to answer this question as best I can a number of times before. The hon. Lady cites police and crime commissioners, and she is right: the people will be able to elect them. I ask her quite simply: why is it okay to elect police and crime commissioners, but not to elect the people who shape the laws over which those police and crime commissioners have to preside?

Will my right hon. Friend join me in observing that there are four times as many members of the House of Lords over 90 as there are those under 40, and reflect on the fact that this rather implies that this Parliament as a whole does not represent younger people in particular? What measures can the Government take to involve younger people more in our democracy? In particular, will he look again at giving votes to 16 and 17-year-olds?

As my hon. Friend knows, I am very sympathetic to that cause, but it does not constitute part of the coalition agreement. As I have been saying exhaustively over the last 24 hours, it is important for all Members, particularly those of the two coalition parties, to fulfil the spirit and letter of that coalition agreement. On the issue of the interesting demographic profile of the House of Lords, it is not just one of age; it is also very striking that close to half the people in the House of Lords come from London and the south-east. What does that say about the geographical representativeness of one of our legislative Chambers? One of the great virtues of our reforms is that it will guarantee places to people from all the regions and nations of the United Kingdom.

I very much hope it will be won, as I think it would be inconsistent—this appears to be the position of the hon. Gentleman’s party—to vote in favour of the principle of reform but to deny this House the ability to deliver reform. That, in my view, would be a synthetic, skin-deep and cynical commitment to reform.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that the main dog’s breakfast around here is the financial inheritance left us by the Labour party? Is he as proud as I am of the fact that we have cut its deficit by a quarter since the election?

I strongly agree. During the heated exchanges on House of Lords reform, I think we forget that the central purpose of this Government is indeed to rescue, repair and reform the British economy, which has been so severely damaged by the Labour party.

The Deputy Prime Minister has said that the present House of Lords is a “flawed” institution. Having listened to the debate thus far, does he agree that many Members believe that the reforms he proposes could lead to a flawed institution?

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman’s work in the Joint Committee. One thing I heard yesterday was a number of Members making allegations that the Bill has been a rushed or botched job, and that we have somehow invented it out of thin blue air. As distinguished Opposition Members rightly pointed out, this blueprint for reform owes as much, if not more, to the work of the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr Straw) and to Robin Cook’s commission on the future of House of Lords. In many respects, it is a carbon copy of the proposals for reform stretching back to 2008 and many years before that. Before we vote this evening, it is important to remember that this is not something simply invented by this coalition Government; it is very much something that draws on the inspiration and wisdom of many people and reformers who have gone before us.