I have always been clear that any reform is best achieved by consensus. Despite seven meetings, I am disappointed that, as on previous occasions, there has been no agreement between the three parties on beginning party funding reform.
The Deputy Prime Minister and colleagues have managed to get agreement across government to deal with third party big funding and agreement with the official Opposition to deal with the Leveson issues on regulating the press—it was difficult, but we got there. Will my right hon. Friend make a renewed effort to try to get a deal with the Labour and Conservative parties in time for the election to take some very big money out of party politics so that voters, not big funders, decide the outcome?
I would love to think that there might be a realistic prospect of that, but, frankly, I do not think that there is. We tested it to destruction in seven meetings that brought the three parties together over a prolonged period on the back of very strong recommendations from Sir Christopher Kelly and his Committee. Not to put it too delicately, the same old vested interests relating to donation caps on the one hand and the financial relationship between the Labour party and the trade unions on the other were, once again, not reconcilable. Until we get those two things aligned, a cross-party agreement on party funding is unlikely—but it will have to happen eventually; otherwise we will be afflicted by scandal after scandal and controversy after controversy.
If I understand it correctly, moves are afoot, although they are rather opaque to an outsider so far as the trade union funding link with the Labour party is concerned. More generally, transparency has to be a good thing when money is sloshing around the system and it could influence democratic electoral contests. To return to my earlier theme, this is what the transparency provisions on third party campaigning are all about—not to stop charities from doing their work or from campaigning, but simply to make them transparent in how the money is used, particularly where they choose to use money for explicitly political ends to engineer or influence a particular outcome in a constituency.
The problem with the Deputy Prime Minister’s position is that he was willing to rush out a Bill to capture what amounts to a small problem, which may well damage democracy, but he was not prepared to put the weight of his position behind actually achieving a solution on party funding.
Talk about pots and kettles! It is no secret that, in a sense, the Liberal Democrats are not rich enough to have quite the vested interests that are involved in all this. It has always been resistance from the two established, larger parties that has prevented a deal, and that is exactly what happened on this occasion. I do not think that we should beat about the bush.
As for the hon. Lady’s first point, I urge her not to be complacent about the trend towards the funnelling of increasingly large amounts of money into the political process by non-political parties. Look at what has happened in the United States. Do we really want to go in the direction of super-PACS or very well-funded groups trying to influence the political process? I do not think that that would be healthy for our democracy.
I, too, welcome the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) to his new position.
As the Deputy Prime Minister will know, Sir Christopher Kelly’s most recent report recommended a reduction in the cap on political parties’ general election expenditure from £19 million to £16 million, and before the last general election the Prime Minister said that it should be £15 million. Sir Christopher’s report also referred to the lobbying Bill, which will reduce what campaigning groups can spend by more than 70% although they spend a fraction of what is spent by political parties. What does the Deputy Prime Minister think the cap should be for political parties’ general election expenditure, and what does he think should be the maximum donation that an individual can make?
First, I do not think that it is possible to view one of those figures in isolation. It is not possible to consider the £19 million or the £15 million figure without trying to incorporate it in a cross-party consensus on political party funding, which has eluded us so far. As for individual donations to individual candidates, our Bill increases the limit from £500 to £700.
Secondly, charities and campaign organisations that are not seeking to influence the outcome of an electoral contest in a constituency can spend as much money as they like. They can spend millions and millions of pounds, unregulated, if they are not seeking to enter into the democratic process. If they do seek to enter into the democratic process, why are they not asked to fill in the same paperwork as political parties?
As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on a full range of Government policies and initiatives. Within Government, I take special responsibility for the Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.
When my right hon. Friend visited north-east Lincolnshire recently, he must have observed the tremendous investment that has been made in the offshore renewables sector which is helping to boost the local economy. However, much of north-east Lincolnshire in still in recession. Can my right hon. Friend assure my constituents that the Government will do all that they can to support the area during the present difficult times?
Having visited the area on numerous occasions, I am acutely aware of the importance of the new green offshore wind industry to the long-term economic prospects of my hon. Friend’s constituents and the region. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change is doing a huge amount in trying to secure, for instance, the long-awaited and much discussed investment from Siemens in the Hull area, which will transform the local economy, and I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that those endeavours will continue.
Will the Deputy Prime Minister acknowledge that his Government’s justification for the bedroom tax—that it will mean tenants moving to smaller homes—cannot work unless there are smaller homes for them to move to? What is his estimate of the percentage of tenants for whom there is no smaller home to go to?
I totally accept the premise, which is that a change from one system to another involves hard cases that need to be—[Interruption.] That is why we are providing hard cash for hard cases. We have trebled the discretionary housing payments that are available to local councils. I am not in any way seeking to ignore the fact that some individual cases really do need the flexibility and the money from local authorities to enable their circumstances to be dealt with.
Let me say this to the right hon. and learned Lady. If there is a principled objection to this change, I do not understand why, in all the years during which Labour was in government, exactly the same provisions existed for millions of people in the private rented sector.
This is the central issue in the Government’s justification for a policy that the Deputy Prime Minister has brought forward and voted for. He obviously does not want to admit that for 96% of tenants, there is no smaller home to go to. No wonder councils are saying that the discretionary housing fund is completely inadequate to help all the families who cannot move and are falling into arrears. Does he recognise that this is a cruel and unfair policy that he should not have voted for? He should repeal it now.
Of course I accept that for some households the change from one system to another creates real dilemmas that need to be addressed through the money that we are making available to local authorities. The right hon. and learned Lady cites a figure. To be honest, lots of wildly different figures have been cited about the policy’s impact. That is why we are commissioning independent research to understand its impact. I suspect that it varies enormously between one part of the country and another, and one local authority and another. That is why we are trebling the resources that we making available to local authorities.
T2. The Deputy Prime Minister has specific responsibility for implementing the programme for government and likes to take special ownership of the chapter on tax, a key aim of which is to help lower and middle-income earners. I have a Lib Dem briefing that states:“£50,000” is “a very large salary: these are not middle income earners.”It also says:“We are looking at how” they “could make a further contribution.”Why does he want to clobber the middle classes? (900484)
I do not, and as we made clear at the time the £50,000 figure does not represent any policy of my party. However, I will not be shy about parading the fact that it is because of Liberal Democrats in government that we are giving a huge tax cut to over 20 million basic rate taxpayers, a policy that I was warned by the hon. Gentleman’s party leader at the time of the last general election was not deliverable. It has been delivered because of Liberal Democrats in government.
T3. According to the Papworth Trust, nine out of 10 disabled people are having to cut back on food or heating because of the bedroom tax. The discretionary housing payments are derisory: they give £2.09 to disabled people, compared with the £14 that they are losing through the bedroom tax. How do the Government and the Deputy Prime Minister justify that? Is that the mark of a civilised society? Since it is not in the coalition agreement, will he call for it to be scrapped? (900485)
I read in the Sunday papers that the Labour party was going to get even tougher on welfare than the coalition, yet it has opposed £83 billion-worth of welfare savings. We have to bring the housing benefits bill down somehow. I assume that our rationale for the change is exactly the reason why, in government for 13 years, Labour maintained the same rules for households receiving housing benefit in the private rented sector.
Could the Deputy Prime Minister let us have the Government’s view on having televised party leader debates before the next general election? Will he ensure that the fourth party is allowed to take part in the debate so that he would be able to speak? [Interruption.]
It is the sting in the tail that I always love. The hon. Gentleman must rehearse his questions endlessly—but they are good; it was a good one today. As he knows, that is not a subject, thankfully perhaps, of Government policy. It is a subject for discussion between the broadcasters, who will have their own views, and the political parties. He should speak to his own party leader about his party’s view on these things. I think that the innovation of televised leader debates was a good one. Millions of people found it a good opportunity to see how the party leaders measured up against each other and I think that we should repeat them.
T5. I listened carefully to the Deputy Prime Minister’s answers about the bedroom tax. He kept referring to “some households”. However, does he agree with his own party that the bedroom tax discriminates against the most vulnerable in our society? Will he join his party in calling for the tax to be scrapped? (900487)
For exactly the same reason that the hon. Lady and her party maintained precisely the same policy in the private rented sector for 13 years. That spectacular act of inconsistency may seem normal to a party that is used to crashing the economy and then claiming that nothing was wrong, but I hope that she will agree that the benefits bill generally and the housing benefits bill in particular need to be brought under some semblance of control. We need to take difficult decisions. We need to provide hard cash, as we are, for hard cases. That is why we have trebled the discretionary housing payment.
That is one of the reasons why I so warmly welcome the appointment of the Minister of State, because he has demonstrated extraordinary personal commitment to this wider agenda of devolution and decentralisation. As my hon. Friend will know, we are examining the case for 20 more city deals, and we will then be seeking to roll out a much more extensive programme of decentralisation on the back of the Heseltine recommendations, which I hope will leave all of our country far more decentralised now than we found it back in 2010.
T10. In the borough of Wigan over 100 tenants have moved into the private rented sector since April, where rents are between £700 and £1,200 higher than council rents. Can the Deputy Prime Minister confirm therefore that, rather than falling, the housing benefit bill is likely to rise as a result of the bedroom tax? (900492)
I hope the hon. Lady will accept that there is an underlying problem. We have lots of people on the social rented sector waiting list. There are 1.8 million households on the waiting list and about 1.5 million bedrooms in the social rented sector are not being used. We need somehow to make sure that those people who do not have homes are better matched with available homes. At the same time we have many families living in very overcrowded conditions. Those are the problems: those are the imbalances of the system that we are trying to straighten out. I accept that that leads to some hard cases. They need to be treated fairly and compassionately.
My view is that an island such as ours has a huge commercial opportunity, particularly with the capacity for offshore wind that we have as a country. It might sound odd to say that there is a commercial opportunity in the face of such a grave threat as climate change, but there is a commercial opportunity if we can show that we have the technologies, the science, the companies and the strategies to adapt to these new environmental realities. I think that that would be a great opportunity to create jobs for many thousands of people throughout the country.
T11. My right hon. Friend the leader of the Labour party has stated strong support for lowering the voting age and giving a voice to our 16 and 17-year-olds. Their futures are decided by many of the decisions that are taken in this House. The Deputy Prime Minister said he supports this position, but three years after taking up his post no action has been taken. When can Britain’s young people expect him to live up to his commitments? (900493)
Government Members have always been very open about the fact that there is disagreement between the two coalition parties. I strongly believe that the voting age should be brought down to 16. I do not see why 17-years-olds are not able to vote when they have so many other roles and responsibilities in British society. It is not something we have included in the coalition agreement, but my views on the matter have not changed.
T8. “Drekly” is a Cornish expression that means doing something maybe some time in the future, possibly never. Can my right hon. Friend assure me that in terms of devolving greater powers to the people of Cornwall, drekly is not an answer he will ever give from the Dispatch Box? (900490)
Since I only just heard that term I doubt very much I would use it at the Dispatch Box, and it is absolutely not our intention to delay further progress on devolving powers and decentralising control over how money is raised and spent across all parts of the United Kingdom, including Cornwall. We are doing that in the steps I described earlier: a first wave of city deals, a second wave of city deals, and then implementing the recommendations of the Heseltine review.
T12. A number of countries have abolished the second Chambers of their Parliaments, and Ireland has just decided to follow suit. About half of all Labour Back Benchers in a recent previous Parliament voted for a unicameral Parliament. Will the Deputy Prime Minister now accept that that is one reasonable option for reform of the House of Lords? (900494)
Notwithstanding my frustration that we did not manage to introduce even a smidgeon of democracy into the other place, I am not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater and say that therefore we should scrap the place altogether. I remain of the view that there are virtues in having a tension—a balance—between two Chambers. That is the virtue of bicameral systems all over the democratic world. I just have this old-fashioned view that it is best done when both Chambers are elected by the people they purport to represent.
T9. In his keynote speech to the National House-Building Council on 22 November last year, the Deputy Prime Minister highlighted the 5,500 unit housing development to the east of Kettering as a major project that needed infrastructure support, but since then its £30 million bid to the regional growth fund for a related junction improvement has been turned down. Will he agree to meet a delegation from Kettering to discuss how, across government, heads could be knocked together to ensure that local people get the infrastructure they need to cope with all these extra houses? (900491)
I can certainly ensure that officials who run the bidding process in the regional growth fund are able to meet those who put together the application in Kettering. As my hon. Friend knows, this is, thankfully, not something that politicians decide; it is decided on an objective basis and a panel, chaired by Lord Heseltine, filters and assesses the bids before they come before Ministers. More generally, I know that colleagues in the Department for Communities and Local Government would be more than happy to meet him and his colleagues from Kettering to look at making sure that the infrastructure is indeed available to the local community.
T14. Is the desperate scarcity of one-bedroom and two-bedroom properties for rent in Ogmore, coupled with the growth in the number of abandoned three-bedroom houses and added to the rise in debt arrears of every housing authority, which prevents them from making the necessary refurbishments, an intended consequence of his policies on benefits and the bedroom tax? (900496)
The whole system is not working as it should—[Interruption.] The whole system we inherited from the hon. Gentleman’s Government was one where we had 1.8 million people on the housing waiting list, hundreds of thousands of families living in overcrowded accommodation and other people receiving housing benefit for more bedrooms than they actually needed. That is the system we are trying to sort out. There are many features to this, which is why we decided that, in exactly the same way as his Government supported the rules in the private rented sector, we would apply the same rules in the social rented sector.
T13. My right hon. Friend will be aware of the excellent Speaker’s parliamentary placement scheme run by the Social Mobility Foundation and supported by many across this House. I will shortly be welcoming a new member of staff through that programme. Will he join me in welcoming its success in getting more people from a diverse range of backgrounds into politics and advancing the cause of social mobility? (900495)
I strongly endorse what my hon. Friend said. The scheme is excellent and it is part of a creeping culture change, whereby everyone is realising, in the private sector, the public sector, Parliament and Whitehall, that work experience places and internships should, wherever possible, be based on what people know rather than who they know. That is reflected in this truly excellent scheme.
T15. The Deputy Prime Minister recently warned the United Nations that it was in danger of becoming a “relic of a different time” and that the Security Council should be reformed. Does he believe that the reform should also include limiting the veto? (900497)
The primary focus of reform of the UN Security Council, which is an anachronism—it is based on an international pecking order that has changed out of all recognition since it was formed—needs to be on the composition of its permanent members, rather than on their respective voting rights. That remains the focus of this Government; we seek to champion the case of other nations—Germany, a member from Africa and one from other hemispheres—to be represented at the top table of the United Nations.
Is the Deputy Prime Minister in any way uneasy about the manner in which large cash donors to some political parties still find their way into the House of Lords—a situation that would disgrace any banana republic?
I do not think that it is wrong by definition to say that someone who is committed to or has supported a political party should somehow be barred for life from showing their support by serving that party in the House of Lords. In general terms, not only should we reform the House of Lords and make it not a plaything for party leaders but something for the British people, but we should take big money out of British politics more generally.
I know that the Minister of State is deep in discussions on the Norwich city deal this very week. I hope that will lead to a successful conclusion soon enough. The first wave of city deals—I have seen this for myself in Sheffield—shows that the devolution in powers over skills from Whitehall to the town hall and the local enterprise partnerships is providing a fantastic boost to the provision of skills, particularly for young people who are seeking to get into work.
I think the hon. Gentleman is referring to the study from the university of York that was published recently. The details of that study show that it is based on partial information. We simply do not know yet whether the impact or the purported savings are as big or small as the university of York study has implied, but we need to ensure that they are considered independently and objectively so that we can all agree on the basic facts, whatever our disagreements about the policy.
Given the Deputy Prime Minister’s welcome recent criticisms of The Guardian newspaper and its potential breaches of the Official Secrets Act and the Terrorism Acts, will he encourage the Cabinet Office to take a tougher line than hitherto as matters proceed over the month ahead?
My view is that as a matter of course any publication of technical details that are, frankly, not of a great deal of interest to the non-technical reader of our newspapers but might be of huge interest to people who want to do this country harm are not a good thing. Having said that, however, I think that there is an entirely legitimate debate about whether the laws we have in place were properly framed for the power of the technologies available to our agencies and to those who wish to harm us and about whether our oversight arrangements for the work of the agencies are as strong, transparent and credible as they need to be.
Every right hon. and hon. Member has been elected on a constituency basis; nobody has been elected on a national basis. Would it not revitalise democracy if we changed the balance of allowed funding in general elections from a national level to a constituency level and got away from these pseudo-presidential elections?
The recommendations of Sir Christopher Kelly’s committee on party funding reform, particularly with their strict limits on donation caps, would have an analogous effect as they would significantly decrease the ability of large individual donations to be siphoned directly to national parties. As I said before, however, the cross-party consensus necessary to underpin any party funding reform has eluded us once again.
I understand the impatience for progress on the adoption of the Silk recommendations. As my hon. Friend knows, we have done some work latterly on the implications of devolution of aspects of the system of stamp duty. I am a huge supporter of the thinking behind the Silk commission, I am acutely aware that it is supported by all parties in Wales and I hope that we will be able to make progress on it without further delay.
Has the Deputy Prime Minister seen the recent research that shows that the High Speed 2 rail line, rather than bringing strength and resurrecting the cities of the midlands and the north, will mean that more power will be sucked back to London and the south-east?
I find such research utterly specious. I wish the Labour party would decide whether it is for or against HS2. It is betraying the north of England and the great cities of the north by being so equivocal about HS2. In my view that is the most important infrastructure projects for this country’s future and it will play a crucial role in healing the long, long divide that has existed between the north and the south of our country.