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Topical Questions

Volume 558: debated on Tuesday 12 February 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 the Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.

I am obliged to the Deputy Prime Minister. I read his speech last week about rewarding work. Three days before he made it, The Independent reported that

“the Government’s figures revealed that child poverty would increase by 200,000 as a result of the”

1% cap on benefit rises. The Liberal Democrat Minister of State at the Department for Work and Pensions, the hon. Member for Thornbury and Yate (Steve Webb), confirmed in a parliamentary answer that “around 50%” of those 200,000

“will be in families with at least one person in employment.”—[Official Report, 30 January 2013; Vol. 557, c. 858W.]

What are the Government going to do to make sure that work is a pathway out of poverty?

The main thing is to make sure that work always pays. That is why we are introducing much-needed reforms, which were ducked by the previous Administration, to the benefits system. We have introduced universal credit, which means that even if someone works for only a few hours a week, it always pays to do so. In that way, we get rid of some of the disincentives to work, such as the 16-hour rule in the benefits system, at the same time making sure that when someone works, even on low pay, they keep more of their money. On this side of the House, we are immensely proud that, as of April, because of the lifting of the point at which income tax is paid, we will be taking 2 million people on low pay out of paying any income tax at all.

T2. We heard earlier that the Deputy Prime Minister is a passionate supporter of devolution and localism. If the West Lothian commission, which reports in the near future, recommends that the House should consider English-only legislation with English-only votes, will he back it? (142527)

I am not going to start declaring how we will respond to a report that has not yet concluded, but of course we will look at the recommendations of the McKay commission with an open mind. As my hon. Friend will know, the essay question, as it were, that has been set for the McKay commission is how to reflect the long-standing, perennial problem of the West Lothian question here in the workings of the House. We look forward to seeing what recommendations the commission delivers.

The bedroom tax is going to hit people all around the country. It is bad enough in my borough of Southwark, but even worse in the Deputy Prime Minister’s city of Sheffield, where 5,027 people will be hit. This is not a policy to tackle under-occupation because these people cannot move, and they have no choice but to pay. That is why it is called the bedroom tax. People only get housing benefit if they are on a low income. Will he admit to the House that this is deeply unfair and will make people on low incomes worse off?

The problem that the right hon. and learned Lady cannot duck is that 1.8 million households are waiting to get on to social housing provision and 1 million bedrooms are standing empty. It does not make sense to have a benefits system that continues to support this mismatch between people needing places to live and empty bedrooms, and that is what we are trying to address. As with so many things in the reform of welfare, why were there no reforms of any meaningful description under Labour yet now Labour Members baulk at every single tough decision that we must take?

This policy will not address the problem of under-occupation unless there are places for people to move to. It is the saving of public money by making people on low incomes worse off. Is not what the Deputy Prime Minister just said exactly the same as what the Tory Prime Minister said from that Dispatch Box last week? They might be two separate parties, but for the families they are penalising with the bedroom tax, they are exactly the same.

The right hon. and learned Lady referred to what is going on in Sheffield. In Sheffield, a Labour council is shamefully cutting people’s libraries while paying half a million pounds to employ trade union officials in the town hall and £2 million to refurbish its meeting rooms. What does that tell us about Labour priorities?

T4. The Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent city deal is expected to create 31,000 jobs over 10 years. Does my right hon. Friend agree that this represents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to bring growth to my constituents and those across Staffordshire and Stoke-on-Trent? (142529)

As my hon. Friend will know, we are in the final stages of announcing the next wave of city deals. I very much agree with him. The city deals that we have already signed and launched are proving to be very valuable for the creation of jobs and prosperity in our local areas. In Sheffield alone, the scheme is worth about half a billion pounds to the people of the city. That represents a fantastic boost for job creation in communities up and down the country.

T3. I have been interested to see local Liberal Democrats in Newcastle campaigning to save public services put at risk by the Government’s disproportionate and unfair funding settlement for Newcastle city council. Will the Deputy Prime Minister therefore confirm that his party will be voting against the local government settlement Bill tomorrow? Otherwise his party and councillors will end up looking extremely opportunistic. (142528)

They are Labour cuts in Newcastle, which if I read the newspapers this morning, I see that the right hon. and learned Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman) is intervening to stop in a shameless act of political opportunism and cynicism. The Labour party in Newcastle is closing every single arts and cultural institution, which other non-Labour councils are not doing, and simply pointing the finger of blame at the coalition Government. When is the Labour party going to start taking responsibility for the mess that it created in the first place?

T6. Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell me why he thinks that a vote in Wrexham is worth more than a vote in Redditch? (142531)

I do not. That is why we have not repealed the legislation on boundaries. For all the reasons that the hon. Lady is familiar with, we will not be proceeding with that change during the course of this Parliament.

T5. The last census confirmed that there is a serious shortfall between Nottingham’s adult population and the number of people on the electoral register. I hope that the Deputy Prime Minister agrees that this is not only a democratic deficit but a serious threat to council finances on top of his Government’s disproportionate cuts. Will he take urgent steps to address the problem of under-registration? (142530)

Yes. I hope that the hon. Lady is aware of the number of initiatives we have undertaken to provide information and, obviously, to design the move towards individual voter registration in a way that we hope will sustain the electoral register to the highest extent possible. It is worth recalling that the reason why we are moving to individual voter registration is partly to make sure that the register is accurate and as complete as possible, but also to bear down on the unacceptable levels of fraud in the register in the past.

T7. Medway council in my constituency has expressed an interest in the city deals initiative. Will the Deputy Prime Minister meet me and representatives from Medway and north Kent to discuss how the area could benefit from the city deals initiative? (142532)

I would certainly be more than happy to make sure that a meeting is arranged with the cities Minister, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark). I am delighted that there is growing demand for the principal city deals to be spread across the country. I see the early city deals, which we have already entered into with the eight largest cities in the country outside the south-east, as trailblazers for a wider programme of decentralisation across the country.

T9. In the light of the current horsemeat scandal, what advice would the Deputy Prime Minister give to consumers and Liberal Democrat voters who think they are buying one thing but end up with something completely different? (142534)

The hon. Lady may ask that question, but millions of people in this country heard her party claim that they were going to end boom and bust and saw her shadow Chancellor, the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls), go on a prawn cocktail charm offensive to suck up to the banks which created the problem in the first place. Perhaps she should account for that.

T8. May I encourage the Deputy Prime Minister to say more about the benefits of the Government’s new social care policy and its advantages for a constituency such as mine in Southport or, to use another random example, Eastleigh? (142533)

The benefits of the social care reforms that we announced yesterday are universal. They mean that, for the first time, everybody will have the peace of mind that they will not need to sell their property to deal with the catastrophic costs that can be faced when encountering very high social care costs. We are dramatically increasing, precisely in line with Andrew Dilnot’s recommendations, the means-test threshold so that many more people will be given assistance in the first place. Crucially, if the insurance industry now responds to the incentives built into our proposal to cap the number of costs that can be incurred, we hope that no one will have to make any payments for their social care, because their needs will be covered by insurance policies taken out in the future.

On social mobility, which barrier does the Deputy Prime Minister believe to be the most difficult for my constituents to overcome? Is it kicking people out of their homes as a consequence of the bedroom tax? Is it axing Sure Start, scrapping the education maintenance allowance or trebling tuition fees? Or is it simply his party propping up a Tory Government?

The hon. Gentleman always reads out his questions beautifully; I am sure it took some time to get that one right. [Interruption.] A little spontaneity from the hon. Gentleman would not go amiss from time to time. It is the Government parties that are repairing the banks that went belly up because of the irresponsibility of his party; it is the Government parties that ended the disgrace of the tax system under Labour, which meant that a cleaner paid more on their wages than their hedge-fund-manager boss paid on their shares; and it is the Government parties that are ensuring that someone on the minimum wage in Liverpool and elsewhere will pay the half the income tax that they paid under Labour.

T10. Does the Deputy Prime Minister regret telling Chatham House in November that there was “absolutely no prospect of securing a real-terms cut in the EU budget”?Does he now believe, in fact, that the Prime Minister is on a bit of a roll and may also be successful in achieving the real repatriation and renegotiation of powers from the European Union that will give Britain a better deal? (142535)

The lesson of the highly successful summit last week is that it is important to set out a tough but realisable negotiating position, as we did across the coalition—I spent months making the case for the tough approach that we took with politicians around the European Union—and then to reach out to create alliances with other countries, including the Dutch, the Swedes, the Danes and, crucially, the Germans, and then to win the argument. If we want to reform Europe, we have to get stuck in and win the argument, not simply withdraw to the margins and hope that it will be won by default.

Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware that one of his ministerial colleagues in the House of Lords has told the other place that her Ministry is no longer collecting regional data and that that will be a pattern across the country? Is that not a terrible blow in terms of how we treat our regions? Is it not time for a rethink about the regions of our country, which are steadily losing their power and influence? When people come to London, they see that all the power and influence has shifted down here.

Bluntly, ever since the referendum in the north-east failed, the experiment of moving towards a new form of regional governance has been ill-fated. The concept of regional governance did not connect with people’s loyalties locally or at county level. Through the city deals process, we are trying to create economic units that mean something to people and make economic sense. In the wake of the move away from regional governance, I hope that a much more meaningful form of decentralisation will take root.

T11. Does the Deputy Prime Minister share my concern, as vice-chair of the North Korea all-party parliamentary group, at today’s news of another nuclear test by that country? What steps will the Government take to condemn that test and to prevent further tests? Equally importantly, what will the Government do to make the Government of North Korea focus on addressing the appalling human rights abuses in that country and the suffering that has been endured by its people for far too long? (142536)

I am sure that everybody on both sides of the House would agree with the hon. Lady’s sentiment. The Foreign Secretary has already spoken out in reaction to the tests that took place in North Korea. They not only threaten peace and stability on the Korean peninsula and internationally, but are in direct violation of three UN Security Council resolutions. In accordance with one of those resolutions, we are consulting urgently with other members of the Security Council to determine what robust action we will take in response.

Since 2010, this Government have created 43 peers per year on average. That is more on average than under any of the last five Prime Ministers. Why?

As I have said, if one looks across the years, under the last Labour Government more than 170 Labour peers were created, which is just under half of the total. We have been very clear that our preference is a smaller and more legitimate House of Lords. That has not come about, so we will make appointments to the House of Lords in line with the terms of the coalition agreement.

T12. I listened with interest to my right hon. Friend’s answer to the deputy leader of the Labour party. I wondered what he would say to my constituent, Glen, who is paraplegic and lives in a specially converted bungalow with two bedrooms, one of which is used by a carer whom he needs occasionally. He has received a letter from Swale borough council advising him that his rent is to rise by £14 a week because he has too many bedrooms. (142537)

Of course I accept, as does everyone, that there are cases that must be dealt with sensitively. That is why we have set aside £50 million of discretionary funding, which local authorities are entirely free to use as they see fit to deal with the difficult cases that may arise. I very much hope that action will be taken to address the anxieties of the constituent to whom my hon. Friend referred.

There is a rumour that the Deputy Prime Minister let slip to the Liaison Committee last week his support for having a 2030 decarbonisation target in the Energy Bill. Will he therefore be so kind as to encourage his party to support the cross-party amendments tabled by the hon. Member for South Suffolk (Mr Yeo) and myself to ensure that precisely what he wants is put in place as quickly as possible?

I have never made a secret of that being my first preference and neither has the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change. However, others took the contrary view that there should be no decarbonisation target whatever. Very openly, we have compromised such that we will set the decarbonisation target in 2016—the first year of the fifth carbon budget. In the meantime, we will take powers in legislation to set that decarbonisation target. That is the agreement that we have reached in government, we have been open about how we arrived at that position, and that is the position that we will stick to.

T14. If we are to see real decentralisation and power transferred to local government, does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that structures need to change, and that part of the structural change should be fewer councillors and fewer councils? (142539)

The key thing is that councillors and all elected representatives should at all times seek to work hard for their constituents. I am not entirely persuaded that there is a magic number of councillors; it is essential that we provide more local accountability for more powers flowing down from Whitehall to our local authorities and communities.

Some 660,000 vulnerable people will be affected by the introduction of the bedroom tax. Two thirds of those people are disabled. A lot of them will be booted out of their homes as a result of the introduction of the tax. Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm personally whether or not he supports this pernicious tax against those less well off in society?

It is entirely legitimate to have disagreements on the measure, but to claim that 660,000 will be booted out of their homes—that is simply not true—is outrageous Labour scaremongering. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there are a number of ways in which to address the additional £14 for those who encounter it—a £50 million discretionary fund is being made available to local authorities. Why should his constituents who receive housing benefit for use in the private rented sector have to cut their cloth to suit their means according to the amount of space they have available in their homes while those same rules do not apply to those who receive housing benefit in social housing?

Will my right hon. Friend take action against those MPs who use the conflict in Israel to make inflammatory statements about Jews, and does he not realise that his party is getting a reputation—sadly—among some of its senior members for being hostile to Jewish people?

I am unambiguous in my condemnation of anyone, from whatever party, including my own, who uses insensitive, intemperate, provocative and offensive language to describe that long-running conflict. People have strong feelings on one side or the other, but everybody is duty bound to choose their words carefully and tread carefully when entering into that heated debate.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister answer the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Wansbeck (Ian Lavery)? Some 660,000 people will be affected financially by the changes, two thirds of whom are disabled. What does the Deputy Prime Minister think of that?

I have sought to provide an answer—[Interruption.] No. I have sought to provide an answer first on how people respond. That will depend partly on their specific family circumstances; on their working circumstances and whether they can or cannot increase the amount of hours they work to make up the £14; on whether they have taken people in to live in the spare bedroom to make up the difference that way; and on the use by local authorities of the £50 million discretionary fund that we have made available. I am not at all seeking to pretend that there will not be difficult cases that everyone will struggle with, but there is an underlying problem and we must confront it. Lots of people are waiting to get into social housing, and yet 1 million empty bedrooms are subsidised by housing benefit. We have to deal with that mismatch one way or another.