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Topical Questions

Volume 551: debated on Tuesday 16 October 2012

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

I am interested that the Deputy Prime Minister takes full responsibility. Given the waste of £12 million on the Boundary Commission review, which, from what the right hon. Gentleman has just said, will not go anywhere, and the £100 million wasted on the west coast rail franchise, is he proud of the Government’s record in wasting taxpayers’ money?

It seriously beggars belief that an Opposition Member, whose Government drove this country to the edge of bankruptcy, tries to make a point about value for money. The Government are repairing, rescuing and reforming the British economy because the hon. Lady’s party wasted such monumental amounts of money over 13 years.

T4. Will the Deputy Prime Minister join me in saluting the fact that we now have a million new jobs in the private sector, largely through entrepreneurial activity? Will he further join me in suggesting that we need a greater focus on developing a culture for entrepreneurial activity in this country, and will he consider coming to my constituency to support my festival for engineering and manufacturing, where that is being put into practice now? (122149)

I certainly agree that an entrepreneurial culture and a backing for engineering and manufacturing is crucial to the rebalancing of the woefully unbalanced economy that we inherited from the Labour party, which spent all its time on a prawn cocktail charm offensive in the City of London, letting the banks get away with blue murder. We have a manufacturing festival in Sheffield that is extremely successful and I am delighted to hear that there is one in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency as well.

May I associate the Opposition with the Deputy Prime Minister’s remarks about Sir Stuart Bell and Malcolm Wicks? I draw attention to Sir Stuart’s work on the House of Commons Commission, which was not often seen by Members but was very important for Members on both sides of the House. When Leader of the House, I saw at first hand the painstaking commitment and dedication with which he carried out that work over many years. We will miss that work.

I also endorse what the Deputy Prime Minister said about Malcolm Wicks. He made an extraordinary and unique contribution to British politics. I believe that he was no less than the father of British family policy. His work moved us beyond what were sometimes stale arguments for or against marriage into substantive policy discussions about balancing work, bringing up children and supporting carers. Members on both sides of the House recognise that we will miss them both greatly.

Nobody can be in any doubt about the utmost seriousness of the vile abuse perpetrated by Jimmy Savile. It has come to light that Jimmy Savile committed these crimes at the BBC and at other public institutions. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that we need one inquiry that looks into what happened in each of the institutions to see whether there were patterns of systemic failure and so that we get a coherent picture? Does he agree that any inquiry must be completely independent? That is the very least that Savile’s victims would expect if we are to get to the truth and learn the lessons. Will the Government now set up an independent inquiry?

I certainly accept that there might be a case for an inquiry and that, if one that is as broad as the right hon. and learned Lady suggests it should be were to be held, it should be independent and able to look at the full range of shocking revelations that have come to light. We are not ruling that out, but I think that the first priority must be to allow the police to conduct their work in relation to these deeply troubling and shocking revelations and allegations. Like her, I keep asking myself how on earth this was possible on this scale, over such a prolonged period of time and in so many different settings. In many ways it is the dark side of the cult of celebrity that might have intimidated people from speaking out earlier. Now that we know these things and they are coming to light, we should proceed in a way that is led by what the police find and keep an open mind on the issue of an inquiry.

The police are carrying out important investigations that obviously should not be impeded, but that does not mean that an independent inquiry should not be set up now. I ask the Deputy Prime Minister to reflect on that and think again, because revelations are coming forward daily and the victims of this abuse need to hear firmly that the truth will be discovered. I can assure him that we stand ready to discuss terms of reference to ensure that we have the full and thorough inquiry that is no less than what the victims deserve.

The right hon. and learned Lady says, reasonably enough, that there is no reason why we cannot establish an inquiry while the police are doing their work, but I think that the practical issue is the other way around: what kind of work could an inquiry do while the police are conducting their investigations? We should not imagine that an inquiry that cannot pursue certain avenues of investigation because the police are conducting their own investigations would necessarily be the best answer for the victims at this time. Let us at least agree that we must first do everything we can to ensure that proper answers are given to the victims. I am grateful to her for her signal that she is prepared to work together on a cross-party basis as we get to the bottom of what on earth happened.

May I ask the Deputy Prime Minister what he thinks politics in this country should be about? I remind him that he argued with some passion for more equal constituencies and fairer boundaries on their own merits. Is politics about arguing for what one believes in on a point of principle, or is it about getting what one can out of a particular situation for one’s own political advantage, in which case why should we ever believe anything he says?

I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman has yet got his head around the politics of coalition. [Interruption.] He raises these questions month in, month out. His party did not win the general election; that is fact 1. Neither did my party; that is fact 2. Fact 3 is that we need to compromise for the benefit of the country as a whole; and when we compromise we enshrine that in a coalition agreement, which is like a deal. When one party does not abide by a certain part of that deal, it is perfectly legitimate for the other party to say that it will amend the terms of that deal. That is the meaning of coalition politics.

T2. The Deputy Prime Minister, not for the first time, disappointed many people this week by refusing to support calls for the editor of The Sun to take the long overdue step of dropping page 3, saying that it would be illiberal to do so. Does his version of liberalism really prevent him from taking a public stand against the objectification of women? Whose interests is he most interested in protecting? (122146)

Not for the first time, the hon. Lady has entirely twisted what I said. I said—I would be interested to know whether she agrees with this—that it would be wholly illiberal and wrong for this House to seek to compel any editor to determine the content of their newspapers. If that is the kind of authoritarian nonsense she believes in, then I am perfectly content to say that we entirely disagree.

T13. In addressing concerns over the operation of the European arrest warrant, does my right hon. Friend agree with our police that we must not throw out the baby with the bathwater and that rather than scrapping the arrest warrant we should be reforming it? (122159)

I think that there is widespread agreement in all parts of the House that the European arrest warrant is not perfect in its operation. There is clearly a legitimate concern about its disproportionate application to what are essentially judicially frivolous cases, and that is why it needs reform. The disagreement is between those who argue that we should reform it while remaining a full signatory to it, which is the Government’s current position, and those who feel that we should abdicate from it altogether. The reason I am strongly opposed to the latter position is that criminals do not recognise borders. Paedophiles, murderers and terrorists need to be chased across borders. It is not about whether one is pro or anti-European or likes or loathes Brussels; it is about whether one is for or against going after nasty, wicked people. That is why I support continuing to be a full signatory to the European arrest warrant while, of course, continuing to argue for its reform.

T3. As the man with his finger on the pulse of the nation, can the Deputy Prime Minister tell the House the level of the new CIL tax—community infrastructure levy—that is currently being introduced in his own Sheffield city region? (122148)

In his answer to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), the Deputy Prime Minister spoke about the north-east local enterprise partnership. Will he confirm that he is aware that there is more than one LEP in the north-east, and that the Tees Valley LEP, which is doing a great job of working with businesses, the Government and the regional growth fund to deliver employment, growth and investment in the south of the region, will have a place at the table when discussing the north of the country?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that everybody who has a stake in the future success and prosperity of the north-east economy should have a voice in the important discussions that are taking place. As he will know better than I do, one of the great strengths of One North East was that it spoke for the region as a whole. One of the strengths of LEPs is where they work most effectively together on behalf of a region as a whole.

T5. Six months ago the Deputy Prime Minister described the new energy tariff agreement as a “landmark deal” for UK consumers, but now Which? has found that there are still over 230 tariffs in existence and that three out of four consumers are paying the highest possible tariff. When are the Government going to act to end this rip-off of 5 million consumers by the big six energy companies? (122150)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have announced new arrangements that will compel the big six utility companies to provide information to consumers about which tariff is best for them. That has not yet come fully into effect, but it will be a huge change. He is quite right: there is still far too much confusion and too much information, with too many contradictory messages being given to households and consumers about their energy bills and the tariffs available to them. This will, I hope, make a dramatic difference, because it means that in clear, simple terms people will be informed of the cheapest tariff that suits them best.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is very important that we tackle the threat to our economy and our society of climate change and that the messages given out by Ministers on both sides of the coalition are consistently and strongly pro-green, pro-green energy and pro-green manufacturing in order to give green business the confidence to invest?

As my hon. Friend will know, the coalition agreement commits this Government—across all parties—to be the greenest Government ever. We have achieved many radical new things, such as the carbon budget, the carbon floor price, the green investment bank and the green deal, which will be the first of its kind anywhere in Europe and will be unveiled in the next few months. I say to my hon. Friend that this is not just about whether we think it is right for the environment, but about what is right for our economy. The green sector employs close to 1 million people, was growing at about 4% or 5% last year and is one of the few sectors that runs a trade surplus. That is why he is right that we should be working consistently to deliver more investment and more jobs for the people of Britain.

T6. Is it not an affront to the Deputy Prime Minister’s party that the Tories are trying to buy Lib Dem support for boundary changes by offering financial enticements? Given his record on constitutional reform, does he agree that the only way to ensure that those proposals never see the light of day would be for him to give them his full backing? (122151)

The hon. Gentleman probably writes his questions before he comes into the Chamber, but he will have heard me answer that question on three occasions over the past half an hour.

Given the problems with the reform agenda so far, and given the fact that recall represents an opportunity for some real, meaningful change that voters will notice, many people are concerned that the assurances being given at the moment are vague at best. Will the Deputy Prime Minister give us a crystal-clear timeline and will he draw inspiration, as he rewrites it, from my private Member’s Bill, the Recall of Elected Representatives Bill?

The hon. Gentleman and I have spoken and I pay tribute to him for his dogged sincerity and commitment to a radical, California-style model of recall. We have looked at it and, as he knows—we have discussed it—we have concerns about the danger of such a model of recall becoming a kangaroo-court process. There need to be some checks and balances. We recently received the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s report, which makes certain observations and, indeed, strong criticisms of our approach, and we are considering our response.

T7. The Deputy Prime Minister has said that he will not support the implementation of the boundary proposals. Will he clarify whether that means he will vote against them or abstain? (122152)

In light of my right hon. Friend’s answer that he will vote against any boundary changes, will he confirm that he will, therefore, allow Government Ministers to vote against Government policy?

As I have said, it is an excellent tribute to both sides of the coalition that, notwithstanding huge pressures to do otherwise, we have religiously stuck to the commitments that we made together to the British people in the coalition agreement. On this particular occasion, for reasons I will not rehearse now, one party in the coalition felt unable to deliver one very important part of the constitutional reform agenda—House of Lords reform—so, reasonably enough, the other part of the coalition has reacted accordingly on the issue of boundaries. Those are circumscribed circumstances which will not and do not prevent the coalition Government from working very effectively on a broad waterfront of other issues, the most important of which, of course, is cleaning up the economic mess left by that lot on the Opposition Benches.

T8. I welcome the commission that has been set up on the north-east economy, because we need all the help we can get at the moment. Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for Stockton South (James Wharton), does the Deputy Prime Minister understand that the commission must report to both local enterprise partnerships, and was it not a mistake by the Government to split our region into two? (122153)

I do not think that it was a mistake for the Government to replace the layer of regional development agencies, many of which were disconnected from the communities, cities and towns that they sought to represent. I am sure that the hon. Lady, who is fair-minded, will accept that RDAs were too often distant from the businesses and people that they sought to represent. I know that there was a lot of backing in the north-east for One North East, and that is why it is very important that all the LEPs in the north-east continue to work together to promote a cohesive approach to economic development that represents the whole of the north-east region.

One concern among voters is the alleged irregularities in postal voting, which have increased over the past few years. What changes does the Deputy Prime Minister propose to ensure that our elections are free and fair?

The main change, other than some important rule changes to the administration of the postal voting system, which the hon. Gentleman will know about, is the introduction of individual voter registration. That is the biggest single weapon that we have against the worrying instances of widespread electoral fraud in parts of the country. That is why I hope that, instead of constantly complaining about our attempts to stamp out electoral fraud, the Labour party will support them.

T10. The early intervention grant is used by local authorities to fund programmes that have the potential to transform the long-term life chances of deprived children. We discovered recently that hundreds of millions of pounds of that money will be diverted to fund the provision of nursery places for two-year-olds. We cannot tackle child poverty and improve social mobility by taking money from one set of essential services to pay for another. What steps does the Deputy Prime Minister propose to take to protect this specific pot of funding? (122155)

I recognise the hon. Gentleman’s legitimate concern about an important area of Government policy, but he is just plain wrong when he says that money is being taken away from the EIG. We made it clear that some of the money under the EIG umbrella was dedicated to the two-year-olds offer. As he knows, that is a new offer of 15 hours’ pre-school support for two-year-olds from the most deprived families in this country. It is a radical and progressive step towards greater social mobility and early intervention. We have retained the total amount of money for early intervention, but allowed the EIG to be used in a more flexible way. I ask him not to be preoccupied with which pot the money is in, but to focus on the fact that we will do big progressive things with exactly the same amount of money.

Specialist manufacturing is a huge growth opportunity for the economy. Surgical Innovations in my constituency is a great example of that. It is receiving £4.91 million from the regional growth fund. Will my right hon. Friend say when we can expect the next round to be announced, so that we can hear more good news stories like that?

We will make the impending announcement on the third round of the regional growth fund in the coming days. Although there have been criticisms about the pace of the disbursement of the money under rounds 1 and 2, my hon. Friend will be delighted to know that 60% of the projects from the total envelope of £2.5 billion are up and running, creating thousands upon thousands of jobs directly and tens of thousands of jobs indirectly, and enhancing private sector as well as public sector investment in our economy.

T11. Does the Deputy Prime Minister believe that abusing police officers at the gates of Downing street and calling them “f***ing plebs” would constitute serious wrongdoing for the purposes of recall? What representations has he made to the Prime Minister on this issue? (122157)

My right hon. Friend the Chief Whip has made it clear that he acknowledges that what he did was wrong, he has apologised to the police officer in question, and the police officer has accepted his apology.

I know a thing or two about apologies, musical and otherwise, and I think that when someone is big enough to say that they made—[Interruption.]

Order. It is not a criminal offence to shout at the Deputy Prime Minister, but it is notably discourteous. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) is used to practising in the courts as a barrister. He is a senior and sober fellow, and should behave accordingly.

My right hon. Friend the Chief Whip has made it clear that he acknowledges that what he did was wrong, he has apologised, and the police officer in question has accepted that apology. I hope that we can move on from there.

My right hon. Friend is right to say, as he has many times, that one of the great achievements of the coalition has been to come together in the national interest. Will he not, therefore, reconsider the fact that reducing the number of Members of Parliament and equalising the number of electors in each seat is clearly in the national interest?

As I sought to explain, the legislation on the boundary reviews remains on the statute book and there is no question of our seeking to repeal it. To that extent, we are honouring the coalition agreement commitment to introduce legislation to hold boundary reviews and reduce the number of MPs in this House. However, for all the reasons that I have explained, the legislation will not be introduced in effect before the next general election.

T12. Earlier, the Deputy Prime Minister was asked about the economy, and he stated that he effectively had to enter into coalition to rescue the economy. Would that argument not be stronger but for the fact that none of the predictions about growth has actually happened over the past two and a half years? (122158)

The hon. Lady may lightly dismiss the fact that the Government have created 1 million new jobs in the private sector. She may lightly dismiss the fact that we have some of the lowest interest rates in the developed world, saving ordinary households thousands and thousands of pounds. She may lightly dismiss the fact that the bond markets are not on our necks as they are in so many other over-indebted countries. Those are huge achievements which were not made any easier by the Labour party’s lamentable economic record in government.