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Topical Questions

Volume 560: debated on Tuesday 26 March 2013

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.