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Volume 563: debated on Wednesday 15 May 2013

Order. The Deputy Prime Minister must be heard—from the start of the session to the end of the session.

I have been asked to reply. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is visiting the United States for meetings with President Obama, making the case for a transatlantic trade agreement between the United States and the European Union and chairing the high-level panel on development in New York today. This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others. In addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his answer. If Conservative Members of Parliament do not have to support the Government on Europe, why do Liberal Democrat MPs have to support the Government on tripling tuition fees, top-down reorganisation of the NHS, the bedroom tax and all the other wretched policies of this Government?

Liberal Democrats, and indeed Conservatives, are working together to clear up the mess left by the hon. Gentleman’s party. It is this Government who are delivering more apprenticeships than ever before, delivering a cap on social care costs, delivering a decent state pension for everybody and clearing up the mess in the banking system left by that man there—the right hon. Member for Morley and Outwood (Ed Balls)—and so many other people on the Labour Benches.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that the only party in this House offering an in/out referendum is the Conservative party?

I know the hon. Gentleman hates to be reminded of things that he and I have actually done together when we have been on the same side of the argument, but we spent 100 days in the early part of this Parliament passing legislation, opposed by the Labour party, that for the first time ever gives a guarantee in law about when a referendum on Europe will take place—when the rules next change or new things are asked of the United Kingdom within the European Union. The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues in the Conservative party are perfectly free for their own reasons to move the goalposts, but this legislation is in place and the people of Britain have a guarantee about when a referendum will take place, and that is what I suggest we should all go out and promote.[Official Report, 16 May 2013, Vol. 563, c. 7-8MC.]

I am sure that everyone is thrilled to see the Deputy Prime Minister and, of course, myself at the Dispatch Box today. This is meant to be Prime Minister’s questions, however, yet once again the Prime Minister is not here. Why is it that out of the last eight Wednesdays, the Prime Minister has answered questions in this House only once?

I think that the Prime Minister is unusually assiduous in coming to the House to make statements. I think that the leader who should be relieved that there is no Prime Minister’s Question Time today is the leader of the right hon. and learned Lady’s party. I am still reeling with dismay over the fact that recently, on Radio 4, he denied 10 times that borrowing would increase under Labour’s plans. Who said that there is not enough comedy on Radio 4?

We have all seen what the Prime Minister has been doing in America. He has been on a London bus in New York—something, incidentally, that we do not see him doing a great deal when he is here. He has also been busy explaining to President Obama the benefits of Britain’s membership of the European Union. Why is he able to do that in the White House, but not in this House?

To be fair to the Prime Minister—notwithstanding our other differences on this subject—I think that he has always made it clear that he believes in continued membership of the European Union, if it is a reformed European Union.

There is a fundamental debate that we need to have in this country about whether we are an open or a closed nation, and about whether or not we stand tall in our European neighbourhood. That debate will continue, and the Prime Minister will continue to make his views known.

It is indeed an important debate, and we have an important vote on an amendment to the Queen’s Speech tonight, but the Prime Minister is out of the country. Can the Deputy Prime Minister help the House? If the Prime Minister were here today, would he be voting for the Government or against the Government, or would he be showing true leadership and abstaining?

The right hon. and learned Lady has used three questions to point out that the Prime Minister is not here. That is a striking observation—a penetrating insight into the affairs of state today.

Just two years ago, the right hon. and learned Lady’s party rejected an opportunity to vote on legislation that Government Members pushed through, giving the British people, for the first time, a copper-bottomed legal guarantee in relation to when a referendum would take place. Our position is perfectly clear; hers is not.

This is an extraordinary situation. The Deputy Prime Minister has not told the House how the Prime Minister would have been voting if he were here. Is it that he does not know, is it because he does not want to tell the House, or is it because he thinks that the Prime Minister would probably have changed his mind by the time we would have been told?

While the Prime Minister is bogged down in confusion about Europe, people are suffering. Today’s figures show that unemployment is up. More people are out of work, and the number of people who have been out of work for more than two years is at its highest since 1997. So what is today’s excuse?

The right hon. and learned Lady has commented on today’s figures. Of course when anyone is without work it is an individual tragedy, and we must always work to bring unemployment down, but I think that she is giving the House a somewhat partial snapshot. Full-time unemployment is actually up by 10,000 this quarter, more people are employed in the private sector than ever before, employment has risen by 866,000 since the election, and the number of women employed is the highest that it has ever been. Is that not something that the right hon. and learned Lady should celebrate rather than denigrate?

We see complete complacency while things are getting worse. The fact is that even those who are in work are worse off. Wages are falling behind prices, and figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies show that as a result of all the Deputy Prime Minister’s changes, families on lower and middle incomes are worse off. Will he own up to that? Will he admit it?

Complacency? This from a party that crashed the British economy, went on a prawn cocktail charm offensive—sucking up to the banks—which led to the disaster in the banking system in the first place, and operated a tax system under which a cleaner would pay more tax on his or her wages than a hedge fund manager would on his or her shares?

Under this Government, the richest are paying more in taxes every year than they did under Labour. Under this Government, 24 million basic rate taxpayers will be £700 better off next year than they were under Labour. Under this Government, as of next April, nearly 3 million people on low pay will be taken out of income tax altogether. How about that for a record to be proud of?

So the right hon. Gentleman votes for a tax cut for millionaires and then comes to the House and says the rich will be paying more. Three years into this coalition Government everyone knows that the country faces big problems, and what do we have? We have a Prime Minister who is not just indecisive, not just weak, but fast becoming a laughing stock.

The right hon. and learned Lady mentions—as Labour party Members often do—the upper rate of income tax. Under us, it is 45p.

Hang on; my hon. Friend is a great enthusiast. What was the rate under Labour? What was it for 13 years? Was it 50p? No. Was it 45p? No. The Labour rate was 40p, which is 5p lower. They let the richest in this country off the hook; we didn’t.

Given the Liberal Democrats’ commitment to a European Union referendum, will my right hon. Friend see fit to help facilitate Government time for a private Member’s Bill on the subject, should that become available?

As my hon. Friend knows, my party has always believed there should be a referendum on Europe when the rules change and when new things are being asked of the United Kingdom within the European Union. That is what we had in our last manifesto, and that is what we have now acted on in government by passing legislation, together in the coalition, just two years ago giving an absolute legal guarantee in legislation for the first time ever that when the rules change, there will be a referendum. By the way, I think it is a question of when, not if, because the rules are bound to change. I would just simply suggest that we should stick to what we have done as a Government in giving that guarantee to the British people, rather than constantly shift the goalposts.

Q2. Perhaps the Deputy Prime Minister shares my dismay at allegations of price fixing in the oil market. If so, will he explain why he has consistently opposed Opposition amendments for proper regulation of oil and commodity prices by the Financial Conduct Authority? Will he now accept that he was wrong, accept the amendments from this side of the House, and get petrol and diesel prices at the pump reduced? (154914)

That is yet another example of astonishing amnesia. What happened for 13 years? Did the hon. Gentleman or any Labour Front-Bench Members do anything? The investigation into alleged price rigging—and, by the way, it is very important that the oil companies concerned should of course co-operate with a European Union institution that is doing very good work on behalf of British consumers—stretches right back to the years when Labour was in power. What on earth did it do? Once again, it was asleep at the wheel.

I am sure the Deputy Prime Minister shares the widespread revulsion at the perpetrators of the crimes against the young and vulnerable girls in Oxford. Does he agree that we now look to the courts to impose the severest possible penalties against these evil men, so that those poor girls can get the justice they were denied by the police and the local authority?

I am sure my hon. Friend speaks on behalf of everybody in this House, not only about the sense of revulsion at these truly evil acts, but about the fact that we should pay tribute to the courage of these young women. The innocence of their childhoods was so horridly destroyed by this evil gang, and we must all pay tribute to the courage it must have taken for them to come forward and give evidence. I certainly agree with my hon. Friend that lessons should be learned particularly about how the police forces and social services work together, and that these people should be handed down the severest possible sentences in response to this reprehensible crime.

Q3. The Deputy Prime Minister talks about the individual tragedy of unemployment, but a year ago this Government made thousands of Remploy disabled workers unemployed, and 69% of them are still unemployed. They wanted to work, but it is costing the Government more to keep them on the dole. Does that not show that the Government are not just heartless, but utterly incompetent? (154915)

As I hope the hon. Gentleman knows, the approach we have taken to Remploy was in response to independent recommendations made by senior figures active in the area of disability and the rights of those with disabilities. The recommendation that came through was very clear: that it is simply not right to say to people with disabilities that somehow they should be hidden away and put in a separate silo, and we should do what we can to give them support to be part of the mainstream labour market along with everybody else. That is why we have not in any way cut the support for those workers in Remploy factories as they make the transition from those factories into the world of mainstream work.

Q4. Does not the Deputy Prime Minister recall that at the election he promised to go for an in/out referendum? That has not taken place yet. Does he understand that residents of the Isle of Wight, and many from elsewhere, would feel betrayed if the Liberal Democrats did not now support an amendment regretting that a referendum is not included in the Gracious Speech? (154916)

As my hon. Friend knows, our commitment was for a referendum when there is a fundamental change in the relationship—[Interruption.] Read our manifesto—I have. I helped to write it, and I can guarantee that that is what it says, and we have acted on that. I have an old-fashioned view—[Interruption.]

Order. I do not think the Deputy Prime Minister particularly minds being shouted at, but I do not want him to be shouted at excessively. The House should hear his answer, and certainly the people of the Isle of Wight should hear his answer.

That is very kind of you, Mr Speaker, thank you.

I have an old-fashioned view that when a Government put forward a Queen’s Speech that has a lot of good things in it—a cap on social care costs, a decent single-tier pension for everybody and a cut in national insurance contributions for employers to create jobs—we on this side of the House should go out and promote it and not spend days bemoaning what is not in it.

The police in Northern Ireland have stated that if the National Crime Agency is unable to operate fully in Northern Ireland it will have a detrimental impact on their ability to keep the people of Northern Ireland safe and to combat serious and organised crime. Surely no political party in Northern Ireland has a right to gamble with the safety of the people of Northern Ireland, so what do the Government propose to do to ensure that no one is able to hold the people of Northern Ireland to ransom and make Northern Ireland an easy target for international crime?

I am sure everyone shares my instinct that, as with all sensitive issues in Northern Ireland, the more we can talk across parties and across traditional divides and hostilities, the more we promote the prosperity and security of the people of Northern Ireland and of the people of the United Kingdom as a whole.

Q5. This Government have helped motorists in my constituency by cutting fuel duty by 13p on the mainland and 18p on the island, compared with Labour’s disastrous plans. Now that the European authorities are investigating the oil companies, will the Government ensure that oil companies here obey the rules and end any price fixing that might be going on? It is important that the Government’s good policy on fuel duty means that the benefit ends up in the pockets of the motorists, not the oil companies. (154918)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for reminding the House that the price of fuel on the forecourt would be 13p higher under the plans embarked on by the Labour party—[Interruption.] Labour Members hate to hear this and to be reminded of it, but I am afraid it is true—the price would be 13p higher, which would be a crippling additional cost of living for millions of people in this country. I agree with him that the large oil companies now under investigation for these allegations should, of course, fully co-operate with the European Commission.

May I put a question to the Deputy Prime Minister that might go against the grain for me? I have been vociferous in my support for the Remploy organisation. Unfortunately, the Remploy factory in my constituency is earmarked for closure, and members of the work force received letters in March advising them to seek alternative employment. Some of them have done so successfully, but on Monday they were given an interview and told that they would not be allowed to leave their employment with Remploy and, if they insisted on doing so, they would not receive the severance package offered to every other member of the work force. Will the Deputy Prime Minister look into this?

Of course—I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions will look into the specific issues that the hon. Gentleman raises. As I said in response to the earlier question, the thinking behind this is of course to ensure that those who work in Remploy factories find gainful employment in mainstream work. That is the recommendation that came not from the Government but from independent observers; they said this is the best way to ensure that we do not ghettoise those with disabilities in the labour market, and that is what we will continue to work towards.

Q6. Millions of people are struggling with their electricity bills and our electricity infrastructure is creaking. We have a solution in Wigton, where we are developing a smart grid that will make our electricity more reliable and more affordable. Will the Deputy Prime Minister commit to visiting Wigton and make the bold investment to roll a true smart grid out across the country? (154919)

I would like to convey my congratulations to the hon. Gentleman and to all those in Wigton who have launched this smart energy pilot project. I am delighted to hear that it has elicited so much enthusiasm from the local community. It is, as he says, the first step towards creating a smart energy community. I know that officials from the Department of Energy and Climate Change have met the pilot’s network provider to discuss its benefits, and if it works it is exactly the kind of thing that we should seek to extend to other parts of the country.

Q7. Replying to earlier questions, the Deputy Prime Minister blamed everybody but himself and his Government for the fixing of fuel prices. I am old enough to remember the Prices Commission, which ensured that the price of petrol and other commodities was the same across the whole land. Asda is able to do that, but the oil companies are price fixing in my constituency and elsewhere. Also, this Government have introduced an increase in the VAT on fuel. What is he going to do about all that? (154920)

As I said, we have scrapped the fuel price hikes that were planned and decided upon by the previous Government, but of course allegations of price manipulation are incredibly serious. I am pleased that the European Commission is taking the matter so seriously and it is very important for us and for our constituents, for whom petrol, diesel and fuel prices are an incredibly important part of the weekly and monthly household budget, that those companies now engage seriously in looking at the allegations put to them by the European Commission.

I have here a leaflet issued by the Liberal Democrats at the time of the passage of the Lisbon treaty. On the front page is a man posing as one Nick Clegg, who says:

“It’s time for a real referendum on Europe”—

an in/out referendum, not a referendum on a treaty change. Was that man an impostor or just a hypocrite?

That man, whom I believe to be me, was stating something then that my party has restated ever since: that we should have a referendum on Europe when the rules change. We said that— [Interruption.] We said that at the time—[Interruption] We said that at the time of the Lisbon treaty and we said it in our manifesto. We even legislated on it, and we will say it again. [Interruption.]

Order. Mr Gray, I was thinking of calling you to ask a question, but if you continue to misbehave, I might not.

Q8. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with me, the late Baroness Thatcher, senior Government members on the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee, the Liberal Democrat manifesto, the Minister in charge of the Royal Mail and his own Government, and does he still agree with himself, that the privatisation of the Royal Mail is a step too far? (154921)

We should welcome the innovative way in which we are seeking to give workers in Royal Mail a stake in the company. The hon. Gentleman’s party used to believed in worker ownership, but as on so many other issues it is still a blank sheet of paper when it comes to public policy of any significance. The Government are moving forward; the Opposition are standing still.

I have to tell my friend that I cannot support the decision of the Prime Minister to go to the Commonwealth Heads of Government conference in Sri Lanka because of the human rights record of the Sri Lankan Government. What can the Deputy Prime Minister tell us about how we can respond to that terrible regime’s record? What can we do to make sure that in future the Commonwealth does not just say it believes in human rights, but does something about it?

We are all aware that the decision that the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary will attend the upcoming Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka is controversial, especially in the light of the despicable human rights violations during the recent civil war. But I assure my right hon. Friend that the Government condemn those violations, the way in which political trials, regular assaults on legal professionals and suppression of press freedom continue, and the fact that too many recommendations of the lessons learnt and reconciliation commission have not been implemented. If such violations continue, and if the Sri Lankan Government continue to ignore their international commitments in the lead up to the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting, of course there will be consequences.

Q9. When the Deputy Prime Minister spoke about youth unemployment in 2011, he said that “the coalition won’t sit on our hands and let a generation fall behind.” Now that we know that long-term youth unemployment has trebled under this Government, why is he sitting on his hands and refusing to match Labour’s jobs guarantee? Is it because he has no influence in government or because he does not care? (154922)

On the day in which youth unemployment declined, in view of the fact that youth unemployment went up remorselessly year after year after year in the latter half of the Labour Administration, and given that this Government are introducing a £1 billion Youth Contract, which gives everyone between the ages of 18 and 24 who has been out of work for a certain period the opportunity to take up an apprenticeship, subsidised work or a place on work experience, it is pretty rich for the hon. Lady to lecture us about the problems of youth unemployment.

Has the Deputy Prime Minister had time to reflect on this week’s analysis of Yorkshire’s top 150 companies by the accountancy firm BDO, which shows that in the last year businesses in Yorkshire have seen an increase in revenues of £5 billion, that investment is up 20%, that exports to emerging markets are up 50%, and that 10,000 new jobs have been created?

As an MP for a great Yorkshire city, I of course want to join my hon. Friend in celebrating the great achievements of businesses in Yorkshire, particularly the rebirth of so many great manufacturing companies. I am immensely proud that this Government have been backing manufacturing, after years of neglect under Labour.

Q10. The Government’s much trumpeted Mesothelioma Bill was introduced last week, but only those diagnosed after 25 July 2012 will be compensated. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that it is wrong and unfair that the leeches in the insurance industry who are bankrolling the Tory party are getting away with millions and millions, when working class people who have been negligently poisoned by their employers are getting away with nothing? (154923)

What does the hon. Gentleman think happened for 13 years under Labour? I am hugely sympathetic, as I am sure everybody is, to the plight of people who are unable to trace a liable employer or insurer against whom they can bring a claim. We announced our intention to bring forward legislation to introduce the scheme on 25 July 2012, and it is from that date that people have a reasonable expectation that if they are diagnosed with asbestos-related cancer and they meet the eligibility criteria they will receive a payment. But because we have also decided to pay dependants of people who have died from that cancer, the scheme will not be able to pay dependants of every person who has died, and that is why we have taken the approach we have.

The Deputy Prime Minister is a great democrat as well as a Liberal, and I salute him for that. Will he therefore stand by the precise wording in this very fetching Liberal Democrat leaflet that I happened to find on my desk this morning, which says:

“Only a real referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU will let the people decide our country’s future.”

Will he now stand by that solemn pledge to the people of Britain and join us in the Lobby tonight?

I fully stand behind the position that I took then and my party has taken ever since, that when there is a change in the rules and new things are asked of the United Kingdom within the European Union, there should and there will be a referendum. Not only that, we have done better since we issued that leaflet in 2008: we legislated to guarantee that to the British people for the first time in primary legislation just two years ago. We spent 100 days debating that in this House at the time. If my hon. Friend wants to reinvent it all over again and keep picking away at the issue, what will he give up from a fairly crowded Queen’s Speech? Will he tell his constituents that we will not put a cap on social care costs; we will not deliver a single tier pension; we will not pass legislation to have a national insurance contribution cut for employers? I think that we should stick to the priorities of the British people, which are growth and jobs.[Official Report, 16 May 2013, Vol. 563, c. 8MC.]

Q11. Three of my young constituents, Emma Carson, Emma Magowan and Sophie Ebbinghaus, recently presented me with posters they had made supporting the IF campaign. They asked me to tell the Prime Minister of their concerns for boys and girls growing up without enough food to survive. Unfortunately, he is not here, but what assurances can the Deputy Prime Minister give them that the forthcoming G8 summit in Northern Ireland will deliver real action to ensure that there really is enough food for everyone? (154924)

Like the hon. Lady and many Members on both sides of the House, I am a huge supporter of the IF campaign, and I attended its launch here in Westminster, as did many hon. Members. Of course it is a total scandal that in 2013 nearly 1 billion people globally are hungry or malnourished. I am delighted about the co-operation between all the different campaign groups in the IF campaign and the Government in pushing forward a radical agenda, which has never really been tried before, in the G8, under our presidency, to ensure tax fairness and proper transparency in the way primary resources are exploited in the developing world and the way trade works for the poorest around the planet. That is why we will work hand in hand with the IF campaign during our G8 presidency.

Q12. In 2008 the Independent Reconfiguration Panel made a series of recommendations in response to an attempt by my local NHS trust to downgrade maternity services at Eastbourne district general hospital. The IRP recommendations were, in my view and those of eminent local clinicians, never properly introduced, which has now led to safety issues that, perversely, have enabled the trust to implement the service changes that were originally rejected by the IRP. Will the Deputy Prime Minister look at addressing that anomaly and ensure that hospitals implement IRP recommendations robustly and that that is audited, including at Eastbourne district general hospital? (154925)

Order. There is probably scope for an Adjournment debate on the back of that, so let us have a brief answer.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all his work on behalf of his local community in relation to his local hospital. My understanding is that the changes to maternity services at Hastings hospital are temporary and that, of course, no permanent changes will be made without full public consultation. He makes an important point about the role of the Independent Reconfiguration Panel and I will ask the Secretary of State for Health to discuss the matter further with him.

In answer to the question the right hon. Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes) asked on Sri Lanka, the Deputy Prime Minister gave a long list of atrocities committed by the Sri Lankan Government. Why, then, are his Government going to the Commonwealth Heads of Government summit in Sri Lanka, why are they announcing that six months ahead of time, and why do they want to see an alleged war criminal as Chair of the Commonwealth?

I think that we all accept the controversy and unease about this matter, but by attending the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in Sri Lanka we will be using the opportunity to cast a spotlight on the unacceptable abuses there. As I said earlier, of course there will be consequences if the conduct of the Sri Lankan authorities does not change. The Commonwealth matters to us all, and it is based on a number of values. Where I accept the hon. Lady’s implicit criticism is in relation to this point: all Commonwealth Governments should do more to not only talk about those values, but ensure that they are properly monitored and enforced.

Q13. The Special Olympics movement showcases the abilities and achievements of learning-disabled athletes around the world while delivering positive inclusion, education and health outcomes. The British Special Olympic games will take place this summer in Bath. Will the Deputy Prime Minister assure me that the Government are doing all they can to spread the legacy from last year’s Olympics across all disability sports, including the Special Olympic games? (154926)

Yes, I can give my hon. Friend that assurance. As he knows, last summer my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister appointed Lord Coe to be his legacy ambassador. A Paralympics legacy advisory group has also been established. I know that Lord Coe’s team is meeting Special Olympics GB shortly to discuss potential links between the London 2012 legacy and the national games to be held in Bath later this summer.