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Topical Questions

Volume 556: debated on Tuesday 8 January 2013

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.