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Deputy Prime Minister

Volume 560: debated on Tuesday 26 March 2013

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—


1. When he expects that the report from the commission on the consequences of devolution for the House of Commons will be published. (149754)

With this, I will also answer Question 2. The McKay commission, which the Government established to consider how the House of Commons deals with legislation that affects only part of the UK, reported yesterday. We are grateful to the commission for its work. This is an important issue, which is why the Government asked the expert commission to look at it. The report presents a positive step forward, and we will give it very serious consideration before responding substantively.

I, too, thank the McKay commission for such an erudite report. The commission outlines a principle: that decisions at UK level with a separate and distinct effect for England should normally be taken only with the consent of a majority of MPs for constituencies in England. Will the Minister argue with her boss, who is a passionate believer in political and constitutional reform, to implement that sensible principle in the next Session?

I commend my hon. Friend for her work on this important matter—she has campaigned long and hard and taken the time to go into the detail. As I have said, the Government take the report extremely seriously. We believe it is a positive step forward, and I am happy to talk to all members of the Government about its merits and otherwise.

Does the Minister accept that constituents of mine who use the health service in England, work in the public sector in England and use public transport in England, but who are represented by me as a Welsh Member of Parliament, want a say on matters relating to England? Does she accept that there are problems, but not always solutions?

I ought to accept that the right hon. Gentleman wants to do a very good job for his constituents, which I am sure he does. However, I note that the McKay commission report refers to England matters and England and Wales matters. Those serious issues require extensive consideration.

13. Next September’s referendum will, I hope, deliver a substantial no vote against separation. May I suggest that that would be an ideal time to implement the McKay commission’s sensible proposals and evolve the devolution settlement into one that will be acceptable on both sides of the border? (149767)

I thank my hon. Friend for his contribution. I hear his view on the timing of what the Government must do next. We will take that decision seriously alongside the substantive issues in the report. I agree with him and many others that the people of Scotland should choose to stay in the UK next September, and am confident they will do so.

I wonder whether the resolving of the West Lothian question will help us to understand why the Liberal Democrats voted against air passenger duty in opposition, but voted for it while in government, as we saw last night.

I do not believe that even I could persuade the McKay commission to cover that level of detail. However, as I said in answer to the previous question, the people of the UK are stronger together than they are apart. I hope the hon. Gentleman transfers that message to his constituents.

Order. As I think the House knows, the hon. Gentleman was practising the shoehorning technique, which was as mischievous as it was just about orderly.

The biggest threat to the UK might be not the Scottish referendum next year, but the increasing sense in England that the current constitutional settlement is not a fair one. Does my hon. Friend agree that we already have two different classes of MPs, in the sense that Scottish and Welsh MPs have colleagues in the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly who perform some of the role that English MPs do?

The McKay commission report deals with some of the questions the hon. Gentleman raises. As I have said, they are serious questions, and it will take time to ensure that we respond appropriately. We will do just that.

Political and Constitutional Reform

5. What his plans are for constitutional and political reform for the remainder of the present Parliament. (149759)

The Government continue to work on political and constitutional reform, particularly devolving more powers from Whitehall to our cities and regions. Work also continues on the implementation of individual electoral registration and developing proposals on recall and lobbying reform.

As the hon. Gentleman may know, we are still reflecting on exactly how to proceed on lobbying, but we will do so. I cannot give him a precise date for when we will come forward with our proposals after the consultation, which provided a lot of feedback, but we will do so in due course.

The European convention on human rights offers basic human rights protections for 60 million people in this country and is critical to the devolution settlement. Will the Deputy Prime Minister therefore echo calls from the Opposition to resist the radical right behind him, and to keep the Human Rights Act and the United Kingdom as a proud signatory to the convention?

As the hon. Gentleman well knows, there is a difference of opinion among the coalition parties on the status of the Human Rights Act and the ECHR which it incorporates. I have always been very clear that I think that the rights and protections in the Act are very valuable for all British citizens, and I will continue to defend them.

The Deputy Prime Minister’s answer a moment ago included the words “cities” and “regions”. What is he doing about islands?

The mere fact that the answer mentioned cities and regions does not mean that we are not also concerned about islands. I very much hope that by the end of this Parliament we will see a discernable shift of power and decision-making authority from Whitehall to all parts of the United Kingdom, whether islands, counties, cities or regions.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that decentralising power to local communities is not only good for our democracy and political system, but provides an opportunity to unlock economic growth locally across the country?

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend. Not only has political power been centralised for far too long, but so has the way in which we run our economy. The Labour Government over-relied on one sector—financial services—in 1 square mile of the City of London, ignoring the needs and economic potential of 100,000 square miles across the country. We must devolve political decision making and ensure that our economy is also more decentralised.

The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware that the document “The Coalition: our programme for government” states:

“We will fund 200 all-postal primaries over this Parliament”.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister inform the House of the progress on this promise and whether any pressure has been brought to bear on him by the Prime Minister, who may regret having primaries to select some of his Members of Parliament, bearing in mind how independently minded some of them have been recently?

We will make an announcement on that component of the constitutional and political reform programme in the coalition agreement in due course. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, it was slightly in abeyance as long as the debate about the boundary changes was still a live issue. As that has now been settled for the time being—if not satisfactorily in everyone’s opinion—we will of course return to the issue of all-postal primaries and make our views clear.

House of Lords

As stated in the programme for government, appointments will be made to the House of Lords with the objective of creating a second Chamber that reflects the share of the vote secured by the political parties at the last general election.

The coalition Government have created 43 peers a year on average, more than the five previous Prime Ministers. The average will go up to 60 a year if the Minister’s direction of travel is followed. Does she see this as a badge of honour?

What I see is an avoidance of the reality of what happened after 2010, which was that the list of appointments contained the picks of the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) and Labour became the largest party in the Lords despite having lost the general election.

If the intention of House of Lords reform was to cut the number of Lords, is it not strange that we intend to increase the number instead of reducing it by half?

It is important to use facts in this debate. It might be of help to note that there has been a net increase of only 23 in the number of peers eligible to sit and vote in the other place since Tony Blair left office in 2007.

As part of the pre-legislative consultation on the draft Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, consideration has been given to the elimination of dual mandates not only between the House of Commons and the Northern Ireland Assembly, but between the House of Lords and the Assembly. What is the Minister’s view?

In September 2010, the Deputy Prime Minister said that the Government wanted to reduce the cost of politics. To date, 128 new peers have been appointed at a cost of £131,000 each per year, with more planned. Why are the Government no longer concerned about reducing the cost of politics?

The hon. Gentleman’s party refused to allow the timetable that would have allowed the Government to plan to instil greater legitimacy and constrain the size of the House of Lords. I think that answers his question.

Voter Registration

6. What steps the Government plan to take to improve registration levels when individual voter registration is introduced. (149760)

It seems that some would like to promote me, which is no doubt a question for a commission to look into.

The Government are committed to doing all they can to maximise registration. We have published detailed research, which has informed our plans to use data matching, targeted engagement with under-registered groups and new technology to modernise the system to make it as convenient as possible for people to register to vote.

I am sure the Minister is aware that, in principle, I am a supporter of individual voter registration, but I am concerned about the current low levels of voter registration. Will she therefore give an assurance that the steps taken with regard to data matching will ensure that there is no fall in the level of registration? Hopefully there will be an increase, but what will she do if it does not work out that way?

I share the hon. Gentleman’s concerns to see the greatest possible levels of both accuracy and completeness in the electoral registers, and I look forward to working with him and others to do that. Solving the problem of under-registration is not the responsibility of the Government alone; it is the responsibility of all politicians and many people across the community to work together to drive up rates. As I hinted in my previous answer, we are taking a number of measures as part of the individual electoral registration programme including: data matching, phasing in the transition over two years, a carry-forward to allow some of those not individually registered to vote in the next general election, a write-out to all the electorate in 2014, a publicity campaign and doorstep canvassing as at present.

The areas where the electoral roll is most inaccurate in Chester are those with large student populations. Some students register in Chester where they are at university, some register at home, some register at both and some register at none at all. Has the Minister given any consideration to the registration of students under individual voter registration?

My hon. Friend raises an important point. As I mentioned in my previous answer, we all wish to see the greatest possible level of registration across all groups in society. We are running data matching scheme pilots aimed specifically at students and young people who are about to obtain the franchise. I look forward to his help on that in his university area, and that of other Members.

Working-class areas across the United Kingdom are quite often the areas where voter registration is lowest. Will the Minister ensure that they are targeted by both the Electoral Commission and the Electoral Office for Northern Ireland to ensure maximum registration in those areas?

I can reassure the House that we are working with both the Electoral Commission, and, of course, electoral registration offices and administrators in all parts of the United Kingdom, to make the programme a success. In response to the hon. Gentleman’s particular concern about people in both his constituency and others, we expect EROs of particular local authorities to know their areas best and to work with us.

I share the concerns of the hon. Member for City of Chester (Stephen Mosley) about student registration, which is a big issue in my constituency. I heard what the hon. Lady said. Will she be working with universities, colleges and student unions to ensure a strong campaign to get every student registered?

We are already doing that. Work has been undertaken with the National Union of Students. I welcome the hon. Gentleman’s enthusiasm for that campaign. I also note that one of the points of the programme is to encourage individual registration, and I hope that many students—highly educated as they are, after all—would recognise the benefits of doing so.

Will the Minister update us on the administrative need to provide one’s national insurance number on registration and say whether she has modelled the impact of this on take-up?

I certainly can confirm that the national insurance number will be used in registration. It is an important part of the process and one of the primary identifiers that we will be using. There will be others, as part of the exceptions process, which will perhaps be important to the people the hon. Lady may be concerned about. I would be happy to provide her with more detail as she requires.

It seems to me that every time someone comes into contact with their local council, makes a benefit application, buys a house or rents a property, someone should ask them, “Are you on the electoral register?” What can the Minister do to encourage Government agencies, local government agencies and private companies to ask that question?

My hon. Friend underlines the point I was making earlier, which is that there is a responsibility across society to encourage people to take part in politics by registering to vote. I am sure he will be working with a range of groups in his constituency to do that. I can also confirm that the programme is using extensive data matching to ensure that records can be shared where appropriate, certainly between public sector bodies, to do the best job we can.

Topical Questions

I am grateful for the welcome from the Opposition Benches.

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

Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that we need to rebuild confidence in our failing immigration system by tackling abuses and also bearing down on the legacy of incompetence?

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend that, having not only crashed the economy, Labour also left an immigration system in chaos, in which the public had absolutely no confidence whatever. Just as we are repairing, reforming and rebuilding our economy, we are having to do the same to the immigration system, which Labour left in such a lamentable mess. I agree with him that unless the public have confidence that the immigration system is competently administered, it is difficult to persuade people that we should remain the open, generous-hearted country that we are.

In last week’s Budget it was announced that there would be a Government-backed mortgage scheme for homes up to a value of £600,000. Will the Deputy Prime Minister make it absolutely clear that it will not be available for people buying a second home?

As the Chancellor made very clear, that is absolutely not the intention of the scheme. The intention of the scheme is to allow people to buy new homes, but as the right hon. and learned Lady very well knows, this is a complex area. There are anomalies that we need to address. For instance, we would need to ensure that the rules allow divorced couples to access the system just as much as anybody else. The Treasury is working on the details of the scheme to ensure that it does exactly what it is intended to do.

It is not a question of complexity or detail: the Treasury is very familiar with the notion of sole or main residence. The Deputy Prime Minister has not answered the question. It is not about the intention; it is a question of whether the Government are ruling that out. Let me ask him about something else—not a detail, but something fundamental—and see whether he can be clearer about that. Will he make it clear that the Government have ruled out making this Government-backed mortgage help available to people who are not domiciled in this country?

As the right hon. and learned Lady knows, the reason we have developed Help to Buy—which has two components: Government equity in new build construction and mortgage assistance —is of course not to subsidise people who have no stake in this country, nor is its intention to provide subsidies for people buying second homes. It is there to restore confidence in the housing market as a whole and ensure that the construction industry is given a significant boost, so that we employ more people and give people the opportunity to own their own homes.

Bob Blackman. Not here. It looks as if the hon. Gentleman is quickly getting to his seat without further delay. Hurry up. Mr Bob Blackman.

T2. Thank you, Mr Speaker. My apologies; I was held up on London transport. With the local elections coming in May, will my right hon. Friend comment on the initiatives he is taking to combat postal vote fraud and impersonation at polling stations? (149770)

As I hope my hon. Friend will know, the principal intention of the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, which we are seeking to implement as quickly as we can, is precisely to deal with the high levels of fraud in certain parts of the country, which most people of all parties felt was unacceptable.

That is not something that the coalition is going to deliver. I am personally persuaded of the case for lowering the voting age, but it was not included in the coalition agreement, so it is not something that the coalition Government will deliver during this Parliament.

Mike Freer. He is definitely not here; perhaps he is stuck on London transport as well, who knows?

T7. Will the Deputy Prime Minister join me and the all-party group on North Korea in welcoming last week’s historic resolution by the UN Human Rights Council to establish a commission of inquiry to investigate the grave violations of human rights in North Korea? I thank our Government for their vital work on this subject, and I ask the Deputy Prime Minister to thank those many civil rights organisations, such as Christian Solidarity Worldwide, that have campaigned on this issue for many years. (149776)

I certainly join my hon. Friend in applauding the fact that the UN resolution was passed. As she knows, the Foreign Secretary and the Foreign Office have been working tirelessly on this issue. My hon. Friend has been an outspoken observer and critic of the behaviour of the North Korean regime, which continues to imperil peace and stability both in the region and globally. It is an issue that this Government and Governments across the world take very seriously indeed.

T4. Local authorities are being forced to cut back the money they spend on electoral registration. Is the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith) concerned about that and, if so, what does she intend to do about it? (149772)

I would be happy to send the hon. Lady the figures, but I think it is simply not the case that local authorities have been forced to cut back on the resources they provide to electoral registration officers. Local authorities are, as we know, under financial pressure generally, and about a quarter of all public expenditure is passed through local councils, which is twice the amount of money we spend on defence. Given that the Labour party left us with no money, I am afraid that savings need to be made.

T11. Under what circumstances would the Deputy Prime Minister resign as joint chairman of the coalition Sub-Committee? (149780)

T5. Perhaps I can think of one. Ministers have said that the second set of NHS privatisation regulations due to come into effect on 1 April will not force clinical commissioning groups to put health services out to competitive tender—in spite of legal analysis showing that they are just as bad as the first such regulations. Since the warnings about the Health and Social Care Bill have turned out to be true, if NHS services are privatised, will the Deputy Prime Minister resign? (149773)

This is typical scaremongering from the Labour party. It was the hon. Lady’s party that wasted £250 million of taxpayers’ money subsidising the private sector in a deliberate act to undermine the NHS. It is the Government who have made it illegal, directly in the Health and Social Care Act 2012, to have competition based on price rather than on quality. The hon. Lady would know, if she looked in detail at the new regulations—the so-called section 75 regulations—that they make it quite clear that clinical commissioning groups are not forced to open services to competition unless they think it is clinically justified in the interests of patients to do so.

I advise my right hon. Friend that a popular way of devolving power away from Westminster and Whitehall would be to abolish Essex county council and replace it with unitary authorities.

We do not presently have any plans to do what my hon. Friend recommends, and which he has recommended consistently over a long period. I hope that he acknowledges, however, that we have already launched eight city deals to give new powers to the eight largest cities outside London and the south-east. That will be followed this year by 20 further city deals, which are still to be concluded, and a massive devolution of financial power to local councils so that they retain business rates, starting next month.

T8. It is not only unfair but poor value for money for disabled people in specially adapted homes to be hit by the pernicious bedroom tax. Will the Deputy Prime Minister commit the Government to look again at making it mandatory to exempt disabled people from that disgraceful tax? (149777)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, the spare room subsidy is not available to thousands upon thousands of families who receive housing benefit in the private rented sector but it is available to families who receive the benefit in the social sector. Therefore, we are trying to ensure that the two systems are fair. A total of 1.8 million households are on the social housing waiting list, yet taxpayers are subsidising 1 million bedrooms that are not being used. That is what we are trying to sort out, but I accept what he says: there will be difficult cases that we need to be able to address adequately. That is why we have provided millions of pounds extra to the discretionary housing payment pot, which now totals £150 million, and made a number of other changes. During the implementation of the policy, we will look at those cases and take further measures where we think they are justified.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister share my concern that three quarters of Britons regard human rights as a charter for criminals and the undeserving? Does he agree that there is time to reform and modernise human rights in this country?

I certainly agree that there is a chronic need to reform the way in which the European Court of Human Rights processes cases. It takes too long. Not enough people in the Court in Strasbourg are equipped to deal with cases expeditiously. That is why the former Secretary of State for Justice was right to get an agreement with all signatories to the Court to ensure, under the Brighton agenda, that the Court’s procedures are reformed. That is the kind of sensible reform we can all agree on.

T9. My constituent’s adult son has spina bifida. He keeps his wheelchairs in his spare box room and will lose £14 a week as a result of the bedroom tax. Is that in accordance with Liberal Democrat principles? (149778)

As I say, we have made a number of changes already to the detail of the spare room subsidy. We have provided a considerable amount of extra money for discretionary housing payments. Councils, including the council of the hon. Gentleman’s constituent, have discretion to use that money and to change the way the policy is adapted in practice. However, we will, of course, look at these difficult cases, work with councils and, if we need to, further adapt the way in which the policy is implemented.

I thoroughly welcome what my right hon. Friend said about city deals. Will he take note of the governance model for Greater Manchester, and does he recognise the value of a system that does not have a big mayoral figure?

I do not know which big mayoral figure my right hon. Friend might be thinking of, but I agree with him about the model of co-operation between local authorities of different political persuasions in Greater Manchester, which operates under the city deal system. Greater Manchester is pioneering the earn-back system, where Greater Manchester will be able to keep more revenue for infrastructure investment in the local area to the benefit of the people in Greater Manchester. That may prove to be a model that others seek to emulate elsewhere.

T10. The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware that independent researchers have concluded that the Budget and recent welfare reforms will substantially increase child poverty and material deprivation among children. Is he proud of that? (149779)

As the hon. Lady will know, we have set out some ideas on child poverty. In addition to the existing poverty targets, which we are duty-bound to seek to meet, we have tried to ensure that the factors that hold back children from fulfilling their potential—whether it is poor housing or poor education—are addressed through measures such as the pupil premium; there is £2.5 billion of extra money to help the most deprived children in school. In addition, as of this September, the Government are making 15 hours of free pre-school support available to two-year-olds from the most deprived families, something that her Government never delivered.

The Deputy Prime Minister said that he wants to see cross-party consensus on solutions to the airport capacity issue, so can he explain why he and his party have welcomed the re-inclusion of Heathrow into the Davies commission, given that his party had already ruled it out for ever? Surely that means he risks wasting an awful lot of money and everyone’s time.

My hon. Friend rightly says that I and my party are not persuaded at all of the case for Heathrow expansion, but equally we should not seek, and no party on either side of the House should seek, to tie the hands of the independent commission looking at this issue in the round. We will await with interest, as I guess everybody will, the results of the interim report of Howard Davies’s commission and its final report after the next general election.

T13. Given the Deputy Prime Minister’s feeble response to the question from the shadow Deputy Prime Minister, in which he gave no safeguards that people, including people from abroad, will not be able to buy second homes with the mortgage subsidy, can he deal with two other problems? First, all the analysts say that this measure will create a housing bubble and inflate house prices. Secondly, it will trap many people who would not otherwise get on to the housing market in sub-prime mortgages that they cannot afford in the long run. (149783)

One would have thought that a party that crashed the economy, sucked up to the banks and let them get away with blue murder, and presided over a massive housing boom and bust would have a hint, a note of contrition in its questions about the housing market. Why does the hon. Gentleman want to deprive his constituents of the ability to get their feet on the first rung of the property ladder? Why does he want to deprive young families who want to have a home they can call their own of the ability to do so? Instead of constantly carping about our attempts to fix the mess he and his colleagues left behind, perhaps for once he should come up with some ideas of his own.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that the measures in the coalition’s Budget for small and medium-sized businesses, including introducing the business bank, changes to national insurance and the industrial strategy, all add up to a massive confidence boost for the small business sector? That is great news for our economy, and we should be right behind those measures.

I agree with my hon. Friend. Of course, we all know that times are very difficult and that the British economy is taking time to heal. That is why it is a great tribute to the Chancellor and his team that in the Budget we have none the less found measures that will take 2 million people on low pay out of paying income tax altogether, that will give small employers and businesses around the country £2,000 off to allow them to employ more people, and that included £1 billion extra for the aerospace industry. It means that people will not face the higher petrol and fuel prices they would have faced under Labour, and it has got rid of the beer escalator and made sure that we ease the squeeze on household budgets.

Given that the Deputy Prime Minister has changed his mind on cash bonds for some visitors coming to the UK—a very different policy from the one he advocated in his Opposition days—could he put in the Library a list of the items he believed in and argued for before the election, but which he no longer believes in and, indeed, has totally changed his position on?

What I would put in the Library, if the hon. Gentleman wishes, is the fact that the last Labour Government removed exit controls on our borders, so they had no idea who was leaving this country and who was coming in. The reason why we can pilot the so-called security bonds for people coming here on temporary visas is that, unlike his Government, we are reinstalling the exit checks that we have been campaigning—as Liberal Democrats and now in government—to reinstall for many years.

Business growth in Basildon and Thurrock, supported by Essex county council, is three times higher than the regional average. Does my right hon. Friend therefore agree that the recently introduced employment allowance will encourage those new businesses to take on their first, or an additional, employee, thus supporting both businesses and those seeking work?

I agree with my hon. Friend. This new employer’s allowance is a very exciting way of encouraging small and medium-sized businesses, which are the backbone of the British economy, to take on more people. When it comes into effect it will mean that a small employer will be able to employ someone on up to about £22,000 without paying any national insurance whatsoever.

Did the Deputy Prime Minister have any hand in the air-sea rescue helicopter service being sold off or given to a Texan company rather than to the British Navy and Air Force? Is he responsible for that? Does he approve of it, as it seems a rather strange decision?

I do if the service is better and if the Department for Transport, which has run this tender, is clearly persuaded that this is the best way to ensure the safety and security of the British people in the future and to do so at the best value for taxpayers’ money. Those are precisely the criteria on which everyone—any reasonable person—would judge this decision.

Cornwall may not look like a city but, as my right hon. Friend knows, it has both the ambition and the building blocks to negotiate a deal with the Government on devolved powers. Will he ensure that those ambitions can be fast-tracked to reality?

My hon. Friend has been a tireless campaigner, with his Cornish colleagues, for emulating the idea of a city deal but adapting it for the needs of Cornwall, now and in the future. I applaud him for that, and I will make sure that he and his colleagues can meet the Minister for cities and decentralisation, to make the case directly for a bespoke deal for Cornwall at some point in the future.

Is there any chance that the announcements made about the housing package in last week’s Budget could create a housing bubble here in the UK and risk repeating the mistakes of the United States sub-prime market?

The key way to make sure that there is no repeat of the disastrous mismanagement of the housing market that we saw under the previous Government is to ensure that more homes are built. That is why one significant component of the Help to Buy announcement that the Chancellor made last week is precisely that Government equity being put towards the construction of new homes should lead to extra construction activity and a further supply of housing. The Budget also included an announcement of a further 15,000 social homes being built, in addition to the several thousand more that are already in the pipeline.