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Constitutional Reform

Volume 553: debated on Tuesday 20 November 2012

1. What the Government’s political and constitutional reform priorities are for the remainder of this Parliament. (128848)

The Government have already introduced fixed-term Parliaments, a significant constitutional change, and given people a say on the voting system for this House, as well as overseeing significant transfers of power to both Scotland and Wales. We also have radical measures in train to shift power from the centre to local decision makers, including the recently enacted Local Government Finance Act 2012 and the second wave of city deals, which will accelerate the pace of decentralisation as well as unlocking new and innovative ways to drive growth. Work also continues on party funding, recall and lobbying reform.

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that answer, but he has horse-traded with his coalition partner on Lords reform, electoral registration, our electoral system, and boundary changes. Does he not agree that the country deserves a better collection of policies than those that simply serve an individual party’s needs?

That is a slightly curious allegation coming from a member of a party that had a manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on the alternative vote yet barely lifted a finger to campaign for it when it was possible to do so, and that has had a manifesto commitment to an elected House of Lords for years but has done even less to make that a reality. Perhaps the hon. Lady should practise what she preaches.

Two weeks ago, the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), gave evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, and said that political and constitutional reforms were worth while only when there was a public appetite for them. Does the Deputy Prime Minister think there is a public appetite for any of the proposals he has just mentioned?

Clearly, the priority for all of us is to repair, rescue and reform the damaged British economy—the legacy left to us by Labour—but I have always been of the view that that does not mean that the Government cannot do more than two things at once. Those things could include mayoral elections, police and crime commissioner elections—which I know are close to the heart of the hon. Gentleman’s party—or other political reform enthusiasms shared by my party. Those are all things that we have tried to advance over the past two and a half years.

In the light of the Prime Minister’s visit to Northern Ireland today in advance of negotiations in Brussels and other possible announcements, and of the recent report on tax arrangements in Wales, will the Deputy Prime Minister tell us what discussions have taken place, or will take place, with the Northern Ireland Executive on the further devolution of powers to the Executive?

As the hon. Lady knows, the proposals in Wales have been put forward on the back of the report published by the Silk commission this week, which advocates further tax devolution to Wales. We have said that we will look closely at those proposals. She will also be well aware that there is a long-standing debate in Northern Ireland about the freedom to set corporation tax rates, which would involve an arrangement different from the one that we have now. We have undertaken to look at that very carefully indeed, and there has been a succession of discussions and ministerial meetings on the matter. We will arrive at a definitive conclusion soon enough.

One item on the Deputy Prime Minister’s list of priorities was party funding. Is it not crucial, in the light of the lessons that we can learn from the American presidential election, that the parties in this country should come together and agree on a sensible measure of party funding, so that we can have a balanced electoral system that means all the people getting involved in the elections?

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. I do not think that anybody, on either side of the House, would want to see our politics being hollowed out by big money as has clearly happened in the United States. That is why cross-party talks are going on at the moment, although agreement has not yet been reached. We are all familiar with the difficulties involved. It will require a bit of political will and a bit of political courage to reach cross-party agreement, but I hope that we will be able to do that as soon as possible.

I note the absence of the elections for police and crime commissioners from the Deputy Prime Minister’s list of his Government’s constitutional reforms. Those elections ended up costing £25 million more because he did not want them to be held on the same day as the May council elections next year. Will he admit that, in order to try to give the Lib Dems a better chance next May, he has wasted an extra £25 million of public money?

I know the right hon. and learned Lady is feeling sore that so many Labour has-been politicians did not get elected. [Interruption.] I know it was not a good day for Deputy Prime Ministers, past or present, and I admit that. Honestly, she knows as well as I do that there were a mayoral contest and Westminster by-elections as well as local by-elections all on the same day. Is she now going to start blaming the November weather for the poor showing of her party at the police and crime commissioner elections? That is beneath her.

I do not know why the right hon. Gentleman is drawing attention to last Thursday’s results because on the showing of his party in the Corby by-election, it will need more than a change of date to save his party’s fortunes. Will he not admit that no one wanted these police and crime commissioner elections, whatever the weather, that they were a complete shambles and that the money should have been spent on front-line policing instead?

If the right hon. and learned Lady dislikes the PCC elections so much, why did her party put up candidates across the country? [Interruption.] I hear “She had to” from a sedentary position, but no one forced her to put up as candidates the recycled Labour ex-Ministers who then failed to get elected. No one obliged her to do that. I really think the Labour party has to get out of this habit of criticising things that are quite close to its own proposals. As I understand it, the Labour party’s position is for directly elected members of the police authority—not a million miles away from the police and crime commissioners. As it happens, that was not my or my party’s policy, but it was a contest that we all entered in good faith. I am only sorry that it did not turn out as the right hon. and learned Lady had rather hoped.