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Topical Questions

Volume 553: debated on Tuesday 20 November 2012

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

What are the Government doing to promote access to public office for people with mental health problems? With that in mind, will the Deputy Prime Minister join me and other Members in growing a moustache for Movember, which is not only raising funds for the prostate cancer charity, but raising important issues about men’s health, including mental illness?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, and I would be very happy to pay him to take his moustache off as soon as he wishes to do so. [Interruption.] Well, these are the times of austerity, so we will have to be modest.

On the first point, I think there has been a real sea change in how we debate and talk about mental health not only in society but, as we have movingly seen recently, in this House. The taboo has been broken and politicians now speak about mental health problems, which afflict one in four families in this country. That is a very healthy development, and we are seeking to reflect it in legislation by removing the bar on those with mental health problems being in office and remaining as Members of this House.

The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware that the House of Lords will tomorrow consider Government plans to allow Ministers the right to have civil actions against them held in secret, thus depriving claimants of the chance to see the evidence. Can he explain to the House why he and the Conservative party are right on this, and the Cross-Bencher Lord David Pannick QC, the Labour party, the Lib Dem peer and former Director of Public Prosecutions Lord Ken Macdonald, the Joint Committee on Human Rights, Liberty, Reprieve, Justice, the Lords Constitution Committee and other legal experts are so utterly wrong?

This is a very important issue and I am looking forward to the Labour party’s revealing what it believes on this, as on so many other issues. If the right hon. Gentleman’s characterisation of the Bill were accurate, I would agree with him. Of course I would; no one wants to see evidence and matters heard in open court decanted into closed material proceedings. Let me make it clear that the Government’s view—it is certainly mine, as I would find this unacceptable otherwise—is that the provision will apply only to those cases where at the moment the evidence is not heard at all. It is not a question of a choice, with evidence held in open court being moved into closed court, as nothing will be heard—[Interruption.] The judge decides on how the procedure is conducted.

The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned the Joint Committee on Human Rights, and I want to pick up on that if I may. As he knows very well, the Committee has tabled an extensive range of amendments to improve the Bill. I am very sympathetic to a lot of what the Committee says, and the Government are considering its amendments with an open and, in many respects, sympathetic mind. I hope that we will be able to amend the Bill to allay those concerns in line with many of the recommendations made by the Joint Committee on Human Rights.

T2. In the interests of fairness, my right hon. Friend is making the case for higher property taxes above a certain threshold. Will he also consider the issue of second, third and fourth homes that might fall below any such threshold? (128864)

On taxational levies on higher value properties, it is no secret that there is a difference of opinion in the coalition Government. There is no point in pretending otherwise. My view is that a police officer seeing 20% cuts in the policing budget, a teacher whose pay has been frozen or someone whose benefits are being reduced would find it very difficult to understand why we are not asking people in large multi-million pound homes to make an additional contribution as we have to tighten our belts further. I do not think that most ordinary people in this country think that it is fair that a family living in a family home, working hard to provide for themselves, has to pay the same council tax as an oligarch living in a £5 million mansion. That is why we will continue to make the case for a fairer approach to taxation. As we tighten our belts, and as I have said on numerous occasions, we should start at the top and work down, rather than the other way around.

T5. The Deputy Prime Minister will at least be pleased that last Thursday his party won the by-election in Wallsend, even though the turn-out was low. As the public largely boycotted the police and crime commissioner elections, which cost £100 million, does he think that it would have been better for his party’s fortunes if that money had been spent on the 3,000 front-line police he promised in his election manifesto? (128867)

I am grateful for a carbon-copy question of one asked earlier. I would suggest a little liaison—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady is waving a piece of paper provided to her by her Whips, but I suggest that she cross-checks against the questions asked by the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) from her Front Bench. As I said, there were PCC elections, a mayoral election, local by-elections and Westminster parliamentary by-elections. There will be more Westminster parliamentary by-elections in a couple of weeks’ time. Is she really suggesting that when the clocks change we should stop elections? I do not think that she is, and that would not be a realistic way of proceeding.

T3. The Deputy Prime Minister will know that we have dozens of different deposits for elections, ranging from £500 to £5,000. In this post-PCC world, would now not be a good time to review that, as some of them have not been looked at for about 30 years? (128865)

That is not something that we have considered, but I am more than happy to ask officials to provide information about whether there is something erratic or illogical about the levels of deposit in different electoral contests.

T7. What reaction has the Deputy Prime Minister had from the Secretary of State for Scotland on his reported plans to evict the Scotland Office from Dover house, and why would the Deputy Prime Minister’s small Department apparently want to move there? (128869)

T4. There is much discussion about constitutional reform, especially in Scotland and Wales. However, there is little discussion of arrangements in England, particularly with regard to local government. Lord Heseltine’s recent report recommends that we should move away from two-tier local government to unitary authorities, which would be hugely welcome in Cumbria. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with Lord Heseltine’s recommendation? (128866)

As it happens, I agree with much of what Michael Heseltine set out in his report. Not only do we have a highly over-centralised political system in this country, but we have an economy that has over-relied on the City of London and the south-east, whereas we need to spread prosperity. He is very supportive not only of the regional growth fund and the localisation of business rates, but crucially and perhaps most radically of all, of the new city deals that we are entering into. I do not agree with him, as it happens, on the one point that my hon. Friend raises—moving all of local government on to a unitary basis, but I am well aware that that divides opinion across all parties.

T8. Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware that figures from Gingerbread and the Library of the House show that 115,000 lone parents in work and on tax credits in Scotland will be worse off working full time than part time when the universal credit is introduced next April and housing and child care costs are taken into account? Would this not completely undermine the Government’s promise to make work pay, and what is the Deputy Prime Minister going to do about it? (128870)

First, we are going to improve the provision of child care, which is why as of April next year this is the first Government ever who will provide 15 hours of free child care and pre-school support to the children from the poorest families in the country. Secondly, we are raising the point at which people pay income tax, taking 2 million people on low pay out of income tax. Rather than brandishing figures, the hon. Gentleman should wait and see the details of how the universal credit will work, because the interaction between the universal credit and those tax changes will be some of the most progressive changes that have been introduced by any Government in living memory in order to make sure that work pays.

T6. Yesterday the Silk commission recommended that tax-raising —tax-varying—powers be granted to the National Assembly for Wales, a big decision requiring the approval of the people of Wales. If the party or parties which form the next Government have clearly and openly included this as manifesto commitments, will a referendum be needed? (128868)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Silk commission is divided into two parts. The first report, provided just this week, advocated a substantial change in the fiscal arrangements and the fiscal powers enjoyed by the Administration in Cardiff, analogous to what happened under the Calman process but in some important respects, particularly on income tax, going even further than the Calman design in Scotland. That will then be supplemented by a second report on the wider constitutional future of Wales. Only at that point will we be able to decide exactly how all those proposed changes will be adopted and possibly sanctioned by the people of Wales.

T12. Talking to people last Thursday, I found that few supported the introduction of police and crime commissioners, and even fewer understood why they might be necessary. Does the Deputy Prime Minister accept that he totally failed to make his case to the electorate? Will he now answer the question that has been asked twice already—would not the money have been better spent on more police officers or the building of affordable houses to kick-start the economy? (128874)

Surely the people who failed to make the case were all those Labour has-been politicians who did not get elected. I am still mystified. Even by Labour’s modern, contorted standards—let me get this right: the hon. Lady does not like police and crime commissioners, but she likes them enough to have Labour candidates. Then, when they do not win, she says that Labour never agreed with the introduction of PCCs in the first place. Who is she kidding?

T10. Many of my constituents think it is somewhat unwise for a Member of Parliament to disappear off to the jungle for a number of weeks. Will my right hon. Friend share his views on whether it is wise or not and, if he thinks it is a wise decision, whether he would disappear off on a reality television show, and which one he would choose to go on?


I have been invited to go to New Zealand and it has been suggested that membership of the Liberal Democrats should be made illegal; I am not going to supplement all of that by commenting on where I end up in a reality TV show. Of course I think it is unwise. Whatever party we come from, we are all elected to do a job for our constituents. That is what people rightly expect of us, and it is no wonder that people have been so unhappy about the decision of one Member of this House to eat insects in the jungle instead.

T13. It was claimed last week that one of the reasons why we had police and crime commissioner elections was that police authorities had no democratic legitimacy—indeed the Conservative party chairman said that PCCs are 5 million times more legitimate than police authorities were. If that is the case, what legitimacy is held by Ministers of State who have no direct democratic input from this country but who are, in fact, appointed in a way that is much less transparent than appointments to police authorities? Where is the legitimacy for any Minister of State? (128875)

If I understand it correctly, the Labour party’s position is that there should be direct elections to police authorities, so it agrees that there should be a change in the arrangements to give the public a greater democratic say in how policing is organised in their local area. The policy happens to be one that was not advocated by my party, but it was, rightly and understandably, in the coalition agreement, having been brought in by the Conservatives, so it is right that we should deliver it. I remain nonplussed that the hon. Gentleman is now so critical of the policy when the posts were so ferociously contested by numerous—failed, as it turns out—Labour politicians last week.

T11. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with the Prime Minister, the House of Commons and the majority of the British public that prisoners should not get the right to vote, and will he oppose the will of the European Court of Human Rights on this matter? (128873)

As the hon. Lady well knows, this is a vexed subject. We have the Court ruling that, in its view, the blanket rule is not consistent with the law, and it set a deadline. The House has made its contrasting views very well known, and I know that the Secretary of State for Justice is to set out the next steps on the whole issue very shortly.

T14. I know the Deputy Prime Minister is an avid reader of the ConservativeHome website, written as it is by his coalition partners. In a recent article about the Boundary Commission review, and with particular reference to his party, it said:“the next election is our best opportunity in a generation to significantly cut their numbers. While they are down…we shouldn’t show mercy. We must finish them off.”Given those views from his coalition partners, can the Deputy Prime Minister tell the House that his party’s Commons votes cannot be bought for some sort of short-term deal on state funding? (128877)

The hon. Lady does not normally welcome my views on most issues, but I will do as she asks. My view is that because of the failure to deliver the wider package of constitutional reform we entered into, it is entirely reasonable—a deal being a deal—that other parts of the package are not proceeded with. That is why my party wants the implementation of boundary changes to be delayed beyond the next general election, and that is how we will vote when the opportunity arises.

What progress has the Deputy Prime Minister made on additional support for disabled people to achieve elected office, and might that be in place by the 2015 general election?

I know that a great deal of work has been done across party boundaries to make sure that people with disabilities have greater access to this place. In July, we launched the access to elected office strategy, with the aim of doing just that; a new £2.6 million fund will help disabled candidates to meet the additional costs they face; we have three paid internships for disabled people on the Speaker’s parliamentary placement scheme; and there is new guidance for political parties on making reasonable adjustments to meet the needs of disabled members and candidates.

While the Deputy Prime Minister continues to discuss getting additional support for disabled people to achieve public office, which is an important matter, will he also ensure that impediments are removed from polling stations where disabled people wish to exercise their right to vote?

The hon. Gentleman is quite right to point out that local authorities and returning officers have an obligation to ensure unimpeded access for all voters so that everyone, regardless of their circumstances, can exercise their right to a democratic vote.

We now elect police commissioners, yet up and down the country, including in my constituency and in the Yorkshire dales and the Lake district, we have national park authorities, which, in effect, perform the function of a local council but are totally unelected by, and unaccountable to, the people they serve. Is it not time the Government looked at making our national park authorities democratically elected, too?

I, too, have a significant chunk of a national park in my constituency and know that this issue divides opinion among those who are familiar with our great national parks. I have a lot of sympathy with my hon. Friend’s view that it would be a good thing if local people’s preferences were reflected more fully in the way national parks are governed, and I know that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is actively looking at the issue.

In view of the miserable turnout at last Thursday’s elections for police and crime commissioners, will the Deputy Prime Minister and other members of his Government give a cast-iron guarantee that never again will they bleat about the turnout at trade union elections, which on average is more than double what we saw last Thursday?

The big difference is that police and crime commissioners do not write parliamentary questions for Government Members, which is what the trade union bosses do for Opposition Members, spoon-feeding them questions while funding 90% of all the Labour party’s financial needs. Police and crime commissioners do not fund either the Conservative or the Liberal Democrat parties. That is quite a difference.

It is not just national park authorities that are unaccountable; many quangos up and down the country make decisions that affect many of our constituents. Does the Deputy Prime Minister have any plans to ensure that more of those decisions are made by elected representatives, rather than unaccountable bodies?

I think that the general principle that there should be greater legitimacy when people take decisions in the name of the public and which affect the public is an important one, and it is not one that found a great deal of favour across both sides of this House when we debated it as it applied to the House of Lords. We have made considerable efforts to streamline some of the extraordinary blizzard of unaccountable quangos that developed under Labour. I know that various Ministers have made considerable efforts in their Departments to reduce the number of quangos and introduce greater legitimacy in public decision making.

The Deputy Prime Minister has taken an admirable position in relation to the Leveson inquiry. Would it not be in the interests of transparency for all the e-mails between Rebekah Brooks and Andy Coulson, while he was working at No. 10 Downing street and corresponding about the future of the licence fee and many other issues, to be in the public domain before the inquiry publishes its findings?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Prime Minister has made it quite clear that he has provided all the e-mails and information required of him by the Leveson inquiry. On the inquiry generally, the hon. Gentleman also knows that my view has been for some time, given that we established the inquiry, which the previous Government did not do, that if the recommendations are workable and proportionate, we should proceed and seek to implement them.