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Topical Questions

Volume 563: debated on Tuesday 4 June 2013

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

The proposed new Bill on lobbying tackles the low-hanging fruit—that is, the lobby companies that we know about. Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell us what it will do to record lobbying contact elsewhere, such as that which takes place on horseback in places like Oxfordshire?

We will come forward with our proposals shortly, but the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich North (Miss Smith), explained our intentions. Lobbying is a perfectly legitimate activity to allow people to explain to decision makers what the consequences of their decisions could be, and we should not malign a perfectly legitimate activity. It just needs to be made as transparent as possible, particularly when lobbying is aimed at those in government who are making important decisions that affect many people in this country.

T2. The Deputy Prime Minister has made it clear that he is passionate about devolution. Has he had a chance to read the recommendations in the report by his Department’s McKay commission, which address the offsetting consequences of devolution? In this Parliament in Westminster, a lot of legislation is England-only but can be voted on by MPs from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Has he had a chance to see those recommendations? (157209)

It is a very important, thorough and thoughtful report that comes up with some ingenious proposals for how the mechanics of this place could be reorganised to reflect votes that take place on issues that affect only English constituencies. Of course, it requires careful consideration and we are giving it that. It does not endorse some of the more radical proposals for an English Parliament and so on, but is all about the internal mechanics of this place and we will give it all due consideration.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that under his Government, patients in accident and emergency are having to wait longer than at any time for nine years?

Of course, I too saw the statistics from the King’s Fund and others this morning about accident and emergency waits. They are serious and we need to tackle them. More than 1 million more people are going to accident and emergency than was the case previously. That is for some long-term reasons, as the report acknowledges: an ageing society, the lack of proper co-ordination between social and health authorities and, of course, the disastrous consequences for out-of-hours care of the GP contract, which was so badly bungled by the Labour party. I am pleased to be able to tell the right hon. and learned Lady that the very latest statistic—this is a tribute to everyone working in accident and emergency in our NHS—shows that this is now the fifth consecutive week in which we have met the target of 95% of A and E patients being seen in less than four hours.

I think that answer is complacent. The truth is that there is a crisis in the national health service in the accident and emergency departments. The coalition has been in government for three years and this is happening on the Government’s watch and because of what they are doing: wasting billions of pounds on top-down reorganisation, axing thousands of nursing jobs and cutting social care. Is that not exactly what happened before to the NHS under the Tories? It is happening again, only this time the Lib Dems are helping the Tories to wreck the NHS.

The right hon. and learned Lady says that I am complacent, but we have a laboratory experiment of what happens to the NHS when Labour is in charge: let us look at what happened to the NHS and to A and E waiting times in Wales, where Labour is in charge. Let us not forget that in Labour-run Wales, the last time that A and E targets were met was in 2009. We have met them for the past five weeks.

T4. May I press the Deputy Prime Minister a little further on the McKay report? I believe that it is crucial that the Scottish people have a clear sense of direction as to where the Government will come out on these matters. The English people deserve a fairer settlement and the Scottish people deserve to know where we are going on this. (157211)

I hope I have made it clear that everybody, north or south of the border and in whatever part of the United Kingdom, should be in no doubt that this coalition Government will do whatever we can remorselessly to devolve power not only to Cardiff and Edinburgh, as we have done, or through discussions about further devolution in Northern Ireland, but within England. That is what the economic reforms I have talked about are all about.

T3. Delivering on what the coalition agreement says on Lords appointments will, I understand, require 200 additional peers in the House of Lords, at a cost of £26.2 million by the end of this Parliament. Is that a price worth paying for unpopular policies being railroaded through the other place? (157210)

The hon. Gentleman is getting a little carried away, as ever. Labour has a constant, rather unedifying record of stuffing the other place with Labour appointees. As I said, if only the hon. Gentleman had given us support for giving the British people a say in who should go to the House of Lords, we would not be stuck with this old-fashioned, archaic way of making appointments, which all party leaders are stuck with for the time being.

T5. The coalition was formed to deal with the disastrous economic legacy left to us by the last Government. Was the Deputy Prime Minister won over by the proposals made by the shadow Chancellor yesterday, which—as always from Labour—added up to only one thing: borrow, borrow, borrow? (157212)

Order. We will not bother with that one. The problem with it is that it was about the policy of the Opposition. Questions must be about the policy of the Government; that is the point of Question Time. The clue is in the title.

T6. The Government’s commission on social mobility has warned of rising child poverty, and has said that the Government are not doing enough. What is the Government’s response? (157213)

We are doing many things, but one of the principal objectives that we have been pursuing over the past three years is making sure that resources help children in the early years, when they make the biggest difference. That is why we are the first Government to deliver 15 hours of pre-school support to all three and four-year-olds; the first Government ever, as of this September, to deliver 15 hours of child care and pre-school support to two-year-old toddlers from the lowest-income families; and the first Government ever to introduce a pupil premium worth £2.5 billion of additional support to children from the lowest-income families. That is the way to break the generational transmission of deprivation and educational under-achievement that has blighted this country for too long.

T8. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that the political fee paid by trade union members should not automatically go to one party, and that trade union members should have the opportunity to decide for themselves which party that fee should go to? (157215)

The whole issue of opt-in and opt-out for trade union members and of donations from the trade union movement, which is now pretty well single-handedly bankrolling the Labour party, has of course come up in the cross-party talks on party funding, which unfortunately have proved somewhat elusive. One of the measures that we want to bring forward —it does not apply to trade unions alone—relates to the way in which a number of campaign groups, be they trade unions, animal welfare groups, tactical voting groups, rural campaign groups, religious groups or individuals, spend money to determine the outcome of campaigns in particular constituencies. At the last election, those major groups and individuals spent £3 million—a full 10% of what the major parties spent. We want to make sure that this increasingly important type of campaigning is fully transparent and is not allowed to distort the political process. That is what proposals that we will come forward with soon will do.

T7. Mr Speaker, I know that you know about the 10th “Audit of Political Engagement” report, just published by the Hansard Society. Is the Deputy Prime Minister conscious of and worried about the steep decline in political participation, particularly in the last three years, under this coalition Government? This is the first time that the percentage of people who are certain to vote has gone below 50%; it is now 43%. For young people between 18 and 25, it has fallen to just 12%. What will he do about that? (157214)

The first thing that I would like to do is try to persuade the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues to join me in reforming our clapped-out political system. If his party had supported democracy for the House of Lords, would clean up party funding, and had given wholehearted support to electoral reform, perhaps he would have a leg to stand on when it came to greater political participation.

T10. Six hundred Afghan interpreters have put themselves at serious personal risk by having loyally supported British security services in Afghanistan. They could be in even greater danger once our services leave. Will my right hon. Friend back the campaign led by our noble Friend Lord Ashdown to ensure that we honour the Afghan interpreters and offer them and their families secure refuge in this country? (157217)

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend, and I am sure that he speaks for many Members across the House. We do, of course, have a moral duty—a duty of care—to those who have risked life and limb for British servicemen and women on the front line in Afghanistan. We will make an announcement later today on those being made redundant as part of our ongoing draw-down. In short, we will offer a very generous package of support for those who wish to stay in Afghanistan and are able to do so. We will also make sure that those who have been on the front line, have served for 12 months and are now being made redundant have the opportunity to resettle in this country, as well as those who are being intimidated, when resettlement is the only option to guarantee their safety. We owe that to them, and we will do it.

T9. Given the parlous state of the Lib Dems, will the Deputy Prime Minister give hope to his party by announcing the date of his resignation, or hope to the country by announcing the date on which he will dissolve the coalition? (157216)

T11. Per pupil funding for schools in Herefordshire has long been among the lowest in the country, although it has risen, I am pleased to say, since 2010. Does my right hon. Friend share my view that the pupil premium should be targeted on a wider range of deprivation than just free school meals? (157218)

I am delighted that my hon. Friend is as keen an advocate as I am of the pupil premium, which will pay long-term dividends in enhancing social mobility and greater fairness in this country. We consulted widely on what criteria we would use for the allocation of the money, and although no criterion is perfect, the only available one that is workable for teachers and head teachers and recognisable to parents—this is the response we got overwhelmingly from schools throughout the country—is free school meals. That includes not just those who receive free school meals now, but those who have received free school meals in the previous six years.

T13. How many more peers does the Deputy Prime Minister expect to be appointed by the time of the 2015 general election? (157220)

We will make those announcements—of course, this involves all political leaders—in due course. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will be the first to know.

T12. The International Development Committee, of which I am a member, says in a report today that smallholder farmers have a vital role to play in global food security. Will the UK Government champion their vital role as food producers, job creators and protectors of the environment? (157219)

Absolutely; the hon. Gentleman makes an important point that it is the smallholding farmers who in many ways are the backbone of the rural economies in which they operate and very much hold the keys to the future prosperity of the countries in which they are located. At the Rio summit last year we made a significant announcement of additional DFID funding for smallholding farmers, and I know that the projects included under that programme are already proving to be a terrific success.

Unlike the Labour Government, who were always in a minority in the other place, the current Government have a de facto majority of 68, yet have still managed to suffer 71 defeats, and counting. Is that an illustration of how bad coalition policy is, or is it merely another example of why the Deputy Prime Minister needs to stuff the other place with ever more peers?

I will send to the hon. Gentleman the figures for the stuffing that took place under the Labour Government. I repeat that if he wants to join me in advocating lasting, meaningful, democratic reform of the House of Lords, why on earth did he not support it when he had a chance?

The crisis in emergency medicine recruitment and retention reveals failures in work force planning and training dating back many years, but will my right hon. Friend insist now that the Department of Health look at issues such as pay and overseas recruitment in an attempt to tackle the crisis and prevent pre-emptive measures such as the downgrade of accident and emergency services in Cheltenham?

I certainly pay tribute to my hon. Friend for representing his constituents as fiercely as he does on issues such as the A and E department in his local area. This Government will put an extra £12.7 billion into the health service by 2015—a policy of extra resources for the NHS rejected by the Labour party. That includes an increase of 6,000 in doctor numbers, and waiting times and infection rates on the whole are at record low levels. Yes, of course there are issues that need to be dealt with at a local level, but on the whole that is a record of which we can be proud.

Will the Government confirm that when they introduce their Bill on lobbying they will ban Members of the House of Lords from being lobbyists and lobbyists from holding passes to either House?

Some of these matters are for the House authorities and the other place rather than for Government legislation, but we are working flat out to cross the t’s and dot the i’s on this package of legislation, dealing, as I say, with the influence of non-political parties with regard to lobbying and support for campaigns at a constituency level. We will publish those proposals shortly.

Under the Deputy Prime Minister’s version of recall, an MP could refuse to come to Parliament, could refuse to hold any kind of surgery or see constituents, could switch parties at a moment’s notice, and could even go on a two-year holiday without notice, and would still fail to qualify under his proposals. How will that empower voters?

The hon. Gentleman and I have spoken, and I know that he and the hon. Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell) feel strongly that we should move towards an unqualified Californian approach —a model that is not without its problems given some of the political practices in California. We are trying to strike a balance, and that will be reflected in our final proposals, to give voters and the public a back-stop reassurance that if someone commits serious wrongdoing and they are not held to account, they can be held to account by the public. Equally, we should not introduce a proposal that in effect would become a kangaroo court and a free-for all for everyone simply to take political pot shots at each other.