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Deputy Prime Minister

Volume 556: debated on Tuesday 8 January 2013

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Member Recalls

Happy new year, Mr Speaker.

The Government published our proposals on the recall of MPs last year, and the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee then published its report in June last year. We submitted an interim response reaffirming our commitment to establishing a recall mechanism and are now taking the proper time to reflect on the Committee’s recommendations.

Happy new year, Mr Speaker. I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for that unvarnished answer. Given that one of the justifications for introducing recall is improved confidence in our democracy, what is his view of the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee’s statement:

“We are not convinced that the proposals will increase public confidence in politics”?

The Committee made a number of recommendations about our proposals, but equally it accepted that all parties had made a manifesto commitment to introduce some kind of recall mechanism and acknowledged, as I think everyone does, the difficulty in trying to define serious wrongdoing precisely and determine who should define it and who should set off a trigger for a recall by-election. It is precisely those kinds of difficult dilemmas that we are now trying to address, because we do not want to resile from the commitment to legislate to introduce some kind of recall mechanism.

Parliamentary Constituency Boundaries

The boundary commissions are continuing with the boundary review in accordance with the legislation that requires them to report before October 2013.

Yesterday’s coalition renewal document, “The Coalition: together in the national interest”, includes a vote on the boundary change proposals for constituencies. I know that the Minister is to answer, but I would like to know whether the Deputy Prime Minister will campaign for a no vote.

I think that the parties within the Government have made their positions clear on the matter. As the Prime Minister said yesterday, there will be a vote, it will take place, and I suppose that is that.

Does the Minister believe that it is right to redraw parliamentary boundaries on the basis of data from which millions of eligible voters are missing?

It is the Government’s intention to proceed with the individual electoral registration programme, which will increase and improve the accuracy of the registers we work with. It is really important that we all continue with the support that there is across the House for those proposals.

Can my hon. Friend guarantee that the next general election will be fought according to the new parliamentary boundaries recommended by the Electoral Commission, and that it will be fought with individual voter registration?

I think that the answer to my hon. Friend is best given within the point that there will be a vote on those proposals, as I think he knows. On individual electoral registration, I can confirm that the programme is proceeding as planned, and I am happy to give him further details on that.

If the Lib Dems are still voting against the recommended parliamentary boundary changes, should this House not have the earliest opportunity to vote on the issue, thereby possibly saving unnecessary public expenditure at a time when the public finances are limited, and when should such a vote take place?

Electoral Register

3. What steps the Government are taking to ensure that under-represented groups are included on the electoral register. (135549)

As I mentioned in my previous answer, it is important that we ensure that all those who should be are included on the electoral register, including the under-represented groups to which the hon. Lady’s question refers.

The Government, politicians, parties, electoral administrators and plenty of others have a role to play in encouraging people to register to vote. The Government are committed to doing all they can to maximise registration, including among under-registered groups. They are looking to modernise the system to make it as convenient as possible and are running various sets of data-related pilots to find out how we can best identify unregistered groups and add them to the register.

Does the Minister agree that the annual canvass is a really important part of ensuring that under-represented groups are on the register and that any attempts to water down the frequency of the canvass, or give powers to Ministers to abolish it altogether, should be avoided?

Our current plans for electoral registration do include the annual canvass, which will continue to be used for as long as it remains the best way to ensure that the register is as complete and accurate as possible.

Will the Minister clarify what penalty, if any, will be imposed on those who fail to return an individual electoral registration form?

There will be a set of penalties that relate to those actions. I will be happy to write to my hon. Friend so that he gets the fullest possible detail.

14. When does the Minister expect a national online electoral registration system to be in place? (135560)

Many Members take an interest in that issue. I do not have a specific date to give the hon. Gentleman. The Government are looking at the matter and I shall be happy to discuss it further with him.

We all want a register that is complete and accurate. The Electoral Commission’s recent damning report on the move to individual voter registration in Northern Ireland is extremely worrying, yet the Government have decided to speed up the implementation of individual voter registration and to remove the safeguards that Labour put in place.

All this is happening at a time when local authorities are having to make record cuts, including to the amount that they can devote to electoral registration. Given the criticism levelled by the Electoral Commission’s report, what extra are the Government considering to avoid a repeat in the rest of the UK of the experiences in Northern Ireland, which could see millions of eligible voters dumped off the electoral register?

I think the right hon. Gentleman is misrepresenting some of what the report says. The evidence from the report is that continuous registration is working for the majority of the population in Northern Ireland. The report notes that many of the key lessons from the experience in Northern Ireland have already been addressed by the proposals. It also states:

“The findings from this research do not undermine the principle of individual electoral registration or mean that the introduction of this system in Great Britain will necessarily lead to similar declines in accuracy and completeness.”

Commission on Devolution in Wales

On 19 November, the Commission on Devolution in Wales delivered a thorough and clear analysis of the options for fiscal devolution in Wales. The Government welcome publication of the Commission’s report and will respond formally in due course.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer, and I welcome his welcome for the work of the Silk commission. We have an opportunity to enable our Assembly to be truly accountable—not just for the money that it spends by way of the block grant, but for the money that it raises through taxes, through a partial devolution of income tax. Surely that would be an important facet of a strengthened and accountable National Assembly. Will my right hon. Friend guarantee that part 1 of the Silk recommendations will be enacted in legislation during this Parliament?

I can certainly confirm that we will respond in full well before part 2 of the Silk commission proceedings is concluded. We aim to provide our full response to part 1, about the fiscal aspects of further devolution to Wales, by spring this year.

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend’s praise for the report, which is thorough and thoughtful. It is radical; it suggests devolving up to about a quarter of total money spent in Wales to the Welsh Assembly itself. It actually goes further in important respects, notably on varying income tax rates, than the Calman-like process on which it was modelled.

The Silk commission recommended that the National Assembly for Wales should become more financially accountable through being given responsibility for raising tax. Does my right hon. Friend believe that this can happen only after a referendum takes place to secure the support of the Welsh people, even if a firm commitment is made in the manifesto of the party or parties that form the next Government?

As my hon. Friend knows, the Silk commission has on it representatives of all four parties in the Assembly, and it was a unanimously supported recommendation that the change in income tax recommended in part 1 should be implemented only once a referendum had taken place. Obviously, we will look at this very closely. We are acutely aware that it represents a cross-party approach within Wales itself.

Have the Deputy Prime Minister and the Government considered a floor to the Barnett formula to ensure that Wales does not lose out?

As the hon. Gentleman may know, back in October the Chief Secretary to the Treasury made it clear that we would work with the Welsh Administration to look at the convergence or, as is the case at the moment, divergence of funding in Wales and elsewhere in the United Kingdom. We have also made it clear that while there is a legitimate debate around the future of the Barnett formula, our priority remains the stabilisation of the public finances.

Given the need for change, supported by all parties on the Silk commission, and the Deputy Prime Minister’s enthusiasm, together with that of his party, will he make every effort to ensure that part 1 of Silk is legislated on during this Parliament?

As I said, we all need to take a careful look at part 1 and take a collective decision within the coalition Government on how we respond to it. As Ministers in all parts of the coalition have said, it is an extremely thorough and thoughtful piece of work representing a cross-party approach in Wales, and we will respond to it with similar seriousness before the spring of this year.

Has my right hon. Friend given any consideration to communities that straddle the Anglo-Welsh border—for instance, the Chester economic sub-region, including north Wales and Chester—and the impact that this will have on people who live and work on both sides of the border?

My hon. Friend has identified one of the issues that makes some of the tax recommendations in part 1 of the Silk commission slightly more complicated in certain respects than the devolved tax arrangements in Scotland, principally because the border area between England and Wales is more populous than the border areas between Scotland and England. That is one of the things that we are seeking to address right now in our internal deliberations.

In the very slim mid- term review, a commitment is given to the Government’s responding to the Silk commission, as the Deputy Prime Minister has confirmed this morning. Will he give a commitment that there will be no unilateral reduction in the block grant to Wales?

I think we have done better than that. As the hon. Gentleman knows, back in October the Chief Secretary to the Treasury made it clear that we would work with the Administration in Cardiff before each public spending review to monitor the convergence or divergence between the funding settlements in both places. This commitment has not been made by previous Governments here in Westminster. That is a demonstration of our willingness to respond to some of the concerns about the future funding arrangements within the United Kingdom, particularly as they affect Wales.

Local and Central Government Powers

The Government are clear that we must disperse power in our society. That is why we have initiated a historic shift away from Westminster to put our counties, cities, towns, villages, neighbourhoods and citizens in control of their own affairs. I look forward to seeing the final report on the relationship between local and central Government from the hon. Gentleman’s Select Committee inquiry as we continue the process of reform.

The Deputy Prime Minister will know that three out of the four nations within the United Kingdom now enjoy some form of devolution; the one that does not enjoy any devolution, effectively protected by statute, is England. Will he engage with local government at the right moment to discuss how devolution can be made effective through local government, and will he also engage with the Select Committee, which is due to report on this very matter at the end of this month?

I certainly stand shoulder to shoulder with the hon. Gentleman on his long-standing critique of the over-centralisation of power in Westminster and Whitehall. I know that he has welcomed some of the initiatives that we have taken. They do not provide all the answers, but they are significant steps in the right direction. The retention of 50% of business rates by local authorities is probably the biggest act of fiscal decentralisation in England for several years. The city deals, in my view, are a radical template of a wholesale transfer of responsibilities, ranging from transport and capital investment to skills and training, to local authorities. The question that the hon. Gentleman’s Committee is posing is whether that can be done in a more systematic, neat and formalised way, and I am certainly open to look at any suggestions in that respect. It is the tradition in this country to do things in a slightly more informal and uneven way, but his Committee’s report will be taken very seriously by us in government.

Can my right hon. Friend set out what powers have been devolved from central Government to the big society?

As my hon. Friend knows, whether it is in planning, control over business rates, significant powers over skills, transport and capital investment in our cities or in the enactment of a general power of competence—whereby we recognise in law for the first time the general power of competence for local authorities—I believe that, in all of those areas, as well as, of course, the new referendum powers available to local neighbourhoods and local authorities, we have made a significant step towards creating a more decentralised nation.

Topical Questions

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

Yesterday the Government, in their mid-term review, reaffirmed their commitment to the principles of a cap and reform of means-testing to end the care lottery in this country. Will the Deputy Prime Minister now go further than just considering principles and commit this Government to introducing legislation, through the draft Care and Support Bill, during the life of this Parliament to give effect to that cap and give people the peace of mind they deserve?

I can confirm that in the coming weeks we will publish our detailed response, which will address the issue of how to avoid individuals and households having to face catastrophic costs in funding their care. We have said all along that we believe in the principles and the basic model set out by Andrew Dilnot. Of course there is an issue about how to pay for this in the future, but as my right hon. Friend has rightly identified, the first step is to enshrine that approach in legislation, which we will seek to do during this Parliament.

If the Deputy Prime Minister votes for the Welfare Benefits Up-rating Bill tonight, he will be voting to make millions of low-income families worse off. Will he confirm that two thirds of the people who will be hit by the Bill are not lying in bed with the curtains drawn—which, anyway, is no way to speak about unemployed people—but are actually in work?

It is obvious that a measure that deals with both out-of-work benefits and tax credits affects people both in and out of work. The challenge for the right hon. and learned Lady and her colleagues is to explain to this House and the British public, first, why she could support a 1% limit on the pay increases for doctors, nurses and teachers in the public sector, but not take exactly the same approach in this area, and secondly, where she is going to find the £5 billion that this measure will save over the next three years. Would she take it from the NHS? I know that Labour’s health spokesperson thinks that increasing spending on the NHS is irresponsible. We do not. Would she take it from schools? Would she take it from social care? Those are the kinds of answers that this House deserves from the Labour party before the vote takes place tonight.

Even the right hon. Gentleman should be able to work out that 1% if someone is earning more than £100,000 a year is a great deal more than 1% if someone is struggling on a low income. His Government are failing on the economy—that is why they are borrowing £212 billion more than they had planned.

On fairness, will the right hon. Gentleman admit that tonight’s vote will mean that, while someone earning more than £1 million a year will be better off by £2,000 a week because of their tax cut, a working couple on tax credit will be worse off because their increase of 38p a week will be wiped out by inflation? The Government have failed on compassion as well as on competence, so why will he not vote with us against the Bill tonight?

The biggest tax measure, which will benefit more than 20 million basic rate taxpayers, is about to take place in April. A two-earner household on the basic rate of tax will be £1,200 better off because we are increasing the tax allowance by the largest amount ever. I would have thought that the right hon. and learned Lady would welcome that. It means that someone on the minimum pay will have had their income tax slashed by half.

On the upper rate of tax, the right hon. and learned Lady’s party makes great play of the 50p rate. It is worth putting it on the record that the 50p upper rate of tax existed for only 36 days of the 13 years that her Government were in office. I know that they had a deathbed conversion to the 50p rate, but they pretend that they were believers all along. Actually, the upper rate of tax under Labour was 40p. Under this Government, it will be 45p. Justify that!

T5. Like many hon. Members, I read the mid-term review with great interest. Much of it is welcome, but I was concerned by the line on page 32 that states that“provision is made for Liberal Democrat MPs to abstain on proposals to introduce transferable tax allowances for married couples.” Why will the Deputy Prime Minister not support that common-sense proposal, which would help hard-working families across the country? (135567)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, that is a carbon copy of the wording in the coalition agreement. My party has always taken this stance because I have always struggled to explain to people why someone who happens not to be married should pay more tax than someone who happens to be married. If such a measure were put before the House, it would be very difficult to explain to people why those who are not married should be stung with higher tax. That does not seem to me to be right.

T2. When the Deputy Prime Minister entered the coalition, did he foresee that at the halfway stage there would be a sixfold increase in the number of people using food banks, there would be predictions that half a million more children would be living in absolute poverty by the end of the Parliament and that he would champion legislation described by the Child Poverty Action Group as “poverty-producing”, as he will later today? Is he not thoroughly ashamed of his record? (135564)

I am proud that this coalition Government have come together to clear up the monumental mess left by the hon. Lady’s party. After all, it was her shadow Chancellor who went on the prawn cocktail charm offensive in the City of London to suck up to the banks, which created the problems in the first place. It was the Labour Government who presided over the shocking tax system in which a hedge fund manager paid less tax on their shares than their cleaner paid on their wages. It is this coalition Government who have ended that scandal.

T6. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on bringing forward legislation on the succession to the Crown. However, does he think that it is necessary to push it through in one day as if it was emergency terrorism legislation, when Parliament has a job to do to ensure that it is correctly drafted and that any concerns or unforeseen difficulties are addressed properly? (135568)

Making a small, concise amendment to an Act that has been on the statute book since 1701 is hardly acting hastily.

I am being corrected by the historians on the Opposition Benches. None the less, this is something that has been on the statute book for more than 300 years. Let us remember that this is a very specific act of discrimination against one faith only. The heir to the throne may marry someone of any religion outside the Church of England—Muslim, Hindu and so on—but uniquely not a Catholic under the terms of the Act of 1700 or 1701. This is a precise change and it is being co-ordinated precisely with all the other realms that have to make the identical change in their legislation.

T3. The last former East Midlands MEP, who had a radio show, soon disappeared into political oblivion. When will the Deputy Prime Minister give the voters of Sheffield, Hallam the opportunity to vote on recalling him? (135565)

It is always a pleasure to answer the hon. Gentleman’s somewhat incoherent but none the less punchy questions. I do not want to disappoint him, but I am afraid there are not millions of people hanging on his every word spoken in the Chamber. I think that as politicians, we should go out to be where people are rather than expect them to come where the politicians are. I make no apology for making myself available to members of the public on the radio or in town and village halls up and down the country, as I do every week.

T8. Given the huge distortions in the current parliamentary boundaries, does the Deputy Prime Minister really believe that by reviewing boundaries only every eight to 12 years we will have a fair and unbiased electoral voting system? (135571)

As I have said before, my own view, in light of the events that have disrupted the package of political reforms to which the coalition Government had committed in the coalition agreement, is that we should delay the implementation of the next set of boundary reviews by a full parliamentary cycle.

T7. Support through the tax system for families in Scotland with their child care bills amounted to a miserable 1p a day in the past year, and the Resolution Foundation says that half the benefit of the Deputy Prime Minister’s current voucher plan for child care goes to people in the top fifth of the income bracket. Is he not going to have to do a lot more than his complete absence of plans yesterday to prevent the second half of the coalition from being as big a disaster for families’ child care costs as the first half? (135570)

I am slightly surprised that the hon. Gentleman is commenting in detail on plans that have not been published yet. We have not yet finalised the details of our new investment in support for families facing high child care costs, but we will do so in the weeks to come. I point out to him, though, that it is this Government who have introduced 15 hours of free pre-school and child care support for every three and four-year-old in this country, which no Government have done before. It is also this Government who, from this April, for the first time ever, will be providing 15 hours of free pre-school and child care support to two-year-olds from the most disadvantaged families in this country. Government Members are proud of that.

Why is the fact that an Act has been in existence for more than 300 years an argument for amending it, together with the Bill of Rights and the Act of Union with Scotland, in a single day? I would have thought the argument was very much in the opposite direction.

As I sought to explain to my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) earlier, we are removing one specific, highly discriminatory provision from the law, on the faith of people whom heirs to the throne may marry. That discriminatory provision was introduced in the early years of the 18th century in response to the activities of Louis XIV of France, and I simply do not think it is necessary now in 21st century Britain.

T10. The Deputy Prime Minister is starting to have the same trait as the Prime Minister of not answering questions. May I try again? Is it not the case that after the vote this evening, 3,900 people in my constituency who claim in-work benefits and do the right thing will be worse off while millionaires get a tax cut of £2,000 a week? (135573)

As I said before, the Labour rate for top taxpayers was 40p, so the hon. Gentleman needs to justify his support for 13 years for a lower rate applied to millionaires than will be introduced—[Interruption.] I know Opposition Members do not like it, and they are shrieking at the top of their voices, but the record shows that for the whole time of the Labour Government, apart from 30 days towards the end, the upper rate was 40p. We are introducing an upper rate of 45p. That is the first point.

The second point is that I hope the hon. Gentleman would celebrate with his constituents the fact that as of April this year, every single basic rate taxpayer in his constituency will be £600 better off because of the changes in the income tax allowance that we have introduced since the general election.

T9. There is no doubt that the Government have to make some tough decisions, but what comment would my right hon. Friend make on the overall impact of Government policies on social mobility? (135572)

One thing we have learned is that if we could shift social mobility by pouring billions of pounds into the tax credit system—the Labour party’s approach—that would have worked a long time ago. In fact, despite a huge transfer of money through the tax credit system, social mobility barely budged during 13 years of Labour government. That is why we are investing more in early years initiatives and providing more child care support, and why we are giving more support to two, three and four-year-olds and—most importantly—providing £2.5 billion through the pupil premium to help the education of the most disadvantaged children in the country. We believe that that is the way to promote social mobility over time.

T13. The Labour-controlled Welsh Assembly is not implementing tuition fees, and Liberal Democrat Assembly Members support that. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with his Liberal colleagues in Wales? (135576)

We have a devolved approach to higher education in both Wales and Scotland. Under the new system introduced in England—unlike that over which the right hon. Gentleman presided during Labour’s time in office—students will not pay any up-front fees at all. That includes thousands of part-time students who for the first time do not need to pay any up-front fees. Because of the way we are introducing what is, in effect, a time-limited graduate tax, all graduates will pay out less from their bank account every week and month—even if for longer—than they did under the system introduced by Labour.

T11. I welcome the second wave of city deals for the next 20 largest cities, but what about smaller cities such as Carlisle? Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that they too will have the opportunity to reach a deal with the Government to have increased powers devolved to them? (135574)

As my hon. Friend will know, the first wave of city deals applied to the eight biggest cities. We then invited 20 cities and communities to submit bids for the next wave, on which we hope to decide in the coming months. I very much hope that the city deals will not be just a one-off experiment in devolution but that they will act as a template for further devolution across the country.

The coalition agreement states that the Government will introduce

“extra support for people with disabilities who want to become MPs, councillors or other elected officials.”

Will the Deputy Prime Minister update the House on progress with that?

As the hon. Lady may know, there is a £2.6 million access to elected office fund, and the wider access to elected office strategy was launched in July last year to deliver on the coalition agreement commitment to provide extra support to tackle the obstacles she mentions. The fund will be open for applications until the end of March 2014, and so far there have been 11 applications, including from independent candidates.

Can the Deputy Prime Minister assure the House that the Succession to the Crown Bill will give the public confidence that the relationship between Church and state will be unaltered, even if a future monarch should marry a Roman Catholic and the ensuing child is a Catholic?

I can give the hon. Gentleman complete reassurance that the provisions in the Bill will not in any way alter the status of the established Church in this country and the monarch as head of that Church. We have had monarchs who have married Catholics. I think Queen Anne of Denmark was married to James I of Scotland—I may be corrected by our historian, the hon. Member for Rhondda (Chris Bryant), from a sedentary position. There is absolutely nothing in the provisions that will alter the status of the Church in the way feared by the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner).

The coalition agreement commits the Government to the appointment of new peers to create a second Chamber that is more reflective of votes cast at the 2010 general election. Is the Deputy Prime Minister seriously saying that he will appoint 24 new UKIP Members of the House of Lords and 16 new peers to represent the British National party, or is it more about stuffing the other place full of Tory and Lib Dem cronies?

With respect, I think the hon. Gentleman has grasped the wrong end of the stick. The coalition agreement says that the appointments we make to an unreformed House of Lords—pending the long-awaited, and now even more long-awaited reform of the other place—will be made according to the proportion of votes won by parties at the last general election. That is precisely what we intend to do.

I wish the Deputy Prime Minister a happy new year. Was one of his new year resolutions to decide that, if he thinks a policy is right, it should be rushed through in a day? Will he answer properly a question he has been asked before? Why will the succession Bill be rushed through in a day under emergency legislation procedures? Those procedures should be used only for emergency legislation, which the succession Bill is not.

I wish the hon. Gentleman a happy new year too—and Mrs Bone. It is important to stress that the Bill is not a capricious legislative initiative on behalf of the Government. It was solemnly agreed at the Commonwealth summit in Perth by all the Commonwealth realms. It has also been subject to extensive discussion between officials in the Cabinet Office and the royal household, and between Governments and officials of this country and of the Commonwealth realms. We have said that we will take the lead in setting out the legislative provisions for the other Commonwealth realms. The legislative change is very precise, which is why we are keen to proceed as quickly as possible.

Perhaps the Deputy Prime Minister would like to take this opportunity to enhance his concern for people in difficulties. More than 60,000 people have signed a petition asking that the Government carry out a proper cumulative impact assessment of the changes to disability benefits. Will he ensure that that happens?

I am curious to know whether the hon. Lady believes that those impact assessments were delivered in full under the Labour Government—I do not recall them. She will know that we are on the verge of introducing a very significant change in the way in which disability benefits are administered in the years ahead, from the disability living allowance system to the personal independence payment system. That change will mean that many who have received disability benefits for years when there has been no check on whether they need it will finally, for the first time, be asked to be subject to certain objective tests. The change will also mean that people who do not currently receive benefits or support for their disabilities will receive it for the first time. We have been transparent in setting out our proposals.