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Deputy Prime Minister

Volume 563: debated on Tuesday 4 June 2013

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Topical Questions

Why do the Government move at the speed of a striking cobra in further impoverishing the already poor with the bedroom tax, and why, in the case of reforming the parasitic incubus on the body politic of lobbying, do they move at the speed of an arthritic sloth?

On both counts, of course, we at least have moved, unlike the Labour Government, who for 13 years ducked any meaningful reform of the welfare system, which in our view should be guided by the simple principle of making sure that work always pays. We also want to make sure that the details of the provisions that we are going to introduce to govern the influence in the political process of non-political and third parties are properly crafted, and we will publish them very shortly.

What is a lobbyist? WRAP—Wight Residents against Asphalt Plant—is a group of constituents who are against an asphalt plant on the River Medina. Are they lobbyists and would they be required to register?

I stress again that we should not regard the word “lobbyist” as a bad term. It is a perfectly legitimate activity but, as the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith) explained earlier, the focus of our attention will be on third party lobbyists who, on a commercial basis, provide lobbying services to an array of different clients.

The Deputy Prime Minister said several times earlier that all he is prepared to do now on Lords reform is housekeeping measures. When did the scale of his ambition as the greatest constitutional reformer since 1832 reduce to the level of housekeeping?

It was when the hon. Gentleman’s party abandoned its historical commitment to giving the people a say. It used to be the people’s party and now it is the party of privilege all over again.

The Liberal Democrats used to be the party of minority but, thanks to the courageous leadership of the Deputy Prime Minister, he has just answered questions from the Dispatch Box in parts 1 and 2 of Question Time, with five or six Liberal Democrat Ministers sitting alongside him. Can I say how many Conservative Members want him to continue as Lib Dem leader and Deputy Prime Minister?

I am so stunned by that; I am still trying to work out the barbed comment or intent that must be buried within it. I will take it at face value and thank the hon. Gentleman for what I will take on this occasion to be a compliment.

The Government have said that they will increase social mobility by ensuring that children are given

“a healthy start in life”,

by

“improving the child maintenance system”

and by

“making the higher education system more…diverse.”

Does the Deputy Prime Minister believe that the best way of doing that is closing down Sure Start centres, introducing charges for using the Child Support Agency, and trebling university tuition fees?

As I hope the hon. Gentleman recognises, the latest figures—the situation is evolving—suggest that more youngsters from the most disadvantaged backgrounds are going to university than ever before, notwithstanding the controversial changes. I am very proud of the fact that we are the first Government to introduce 15 hours of free pre-school support for all three and four-year-olds; to give two-year-old toddlers from the lowest-income families 15 hours of pre-school support; and to introduce the £2.5 billion pupil premium.

Improving social mobility starts with the early years and attainment at school. However, will the Government fully consider the role of developing strength of character and resilience in young people and their potential role in reversing the woeful social mobility of recent decades?

I pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman, who is passionate about this issue. I read with great interest the papers from the conference on character he hosted back in February. It is a slightly amorphous term, but none the less an important one to grapple with as a factor in determining how well children do, and particularly in determining how well they do in, as it were, escaping the circumstances of their birth and realising their aspirations. I hope that a number of the early years policies I have alluded to, and reforms in the welfare and tax system that ensure that work always pays and that people in low-income work retain more of the money they earn, will help to boost social mobility in the long run.

To prevent postal and proxy vote fraud, what discussions has the Minister had with the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Electoral Commission in Northern Ireland to learn from the steps that the Assembly has taken to stop such fraud?

I would be happy to have further discussions with the hon. Gentleman on those matters. I can confirm that the electoral registration transformation programme seeks to work with all appropriate bodies throughout the system to combat fraud. He makes an important point on the integrity of the electoral system. We are committed to combating fraud and the perception of fraud wherever it arises.

Will the Minister agree to consider the huge fees, often of up to £20,000, paid to returning officers, who are generally highly paid chief executives of councils? That is a huge amount of money and the Government are looking to save money. I believe that that should be part of political reform.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question—I know he has probed that issue many times before. Returning officers are entitled by statute to recover expenses incurred, as set out in the order made for each poll. As my hon. Friend will know, through the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013, we have put in place a facility whereby some or all of the fee payable can be withheld in the event of unsatisfactory performance. I am sure he, like the Government, will want to see that new system bed in, after which we ought to return to the issue.