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Topical Questions

Volume 570: debated on Tuesday 19 November 2013

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.

The Government have been rebuked by the UK Statistics Authority, the Office for Budget Responsibility and others for misleading statements by Ministers on welfare, economic, health and education policy. Given that this, unfortunately, slips between the ministerial and Members’ codes, what does the Deputy Prime Minister believe the punishment should be for Ministers who deliberately mislead the House and, more importantly, the public?

It is incumbent on everybody on both sides of the House to make sure that the statistics we use, much as we might challenge them, are based in objective fact. However, on the day that the Labour party is literally making it up about child care costs and has been shown overnight to be using misleading statistics, and on the day when it claims that it will pay for new child care policies with a bank bonus tax that it has already spent 10 times over, I suggest that the hon. Lady’s colleagues think more carefully about the statistics they use.

T2. Now that Labour’s disastrous social housing policy of selling and spending is over, will my right hon. Friend congratulate Stockport Homes on its work on rebuilding Stockport’s social housing stock, and will he have a word with the Chancellor to see whether Stockport can have greater financial flexibility to build more homes, which my constituents desperately need? (901119)

I certainly want to congratulate Stockport council on its very innovative scheme. I also want to pay tribute to my right hon. Friend who, in government, did a great deal to ensure that the £4 billion-plus that we are investing in affordable homes really translates into more affordable homes being built at a higher rate than was the case under the previous Administration.

My right hon. Friend will know that we, as the Liberal Democrat party within the coalition, think that there is a case for looking at greater flexibility in the headroom in housing revenue accounts, where those accounts are not fully used by councils, and we will continue to discuss that within the Government.

There is widespread recognition now about the importance of child care, but it needs to be high quality, accessible and affordable for working parents. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that since he became Deputy Prime Minister, the cost of child care has gone up five times faster than wages, and that for every week that he has been Deputy Prime Minister, three Sure Start children’s centres have closed?

On both counts wrong, and I strongly urge the right hon. and learned Lady not—[Interruption.] No, categorically wrong: 45 Sure Start centres have closed since 2010, which is 1.2% of all Sure Start centres. She must stop peddling these misleading statistics about the closure of Sure Start centres. She is also wrong about costs. In fact, the dataset used by Labour shows that child care costs increased by 46% between 2002 and 2010.

The right hon. Gentleman’s answer is not even consistent with the Government’s own figures on Sure Start children’s centres. More importantly, it is not consistent with the experience of people in their own communities and of hard-working parents who have seen not only children’s centres close, but those remaining having their hours cut, their staff cut and their services cut. Nobody is going to be impressed by his posing as the champion of child care. The truth is that after all the progress on child care when we were in government, working parents are now finding it even harder to get the child care they need.

There are more parents using Sure Start children’s centres than ever before. This Government are providing a new entitlement for two-year-olds from the poorest families, which did not happen under 13 years of Labour. I have to say that so many of these difficult decisions are related to the fact that Opposition Members crashed the economy in the first place, for which they have taken no responsibility. Even the mayor of Toronto is admitting past mistakes.

T4. The Cambridge area is a global success story. Our high-tech cluster alone has 57,000 direct jobs, generating revenues of £13 billion. The proposed Greater Cambridge city deal would enable us to build much-needed affordable housing and sustainable transport, so that we can continue that success to generate money for the Treasury. What progress is my right hon. Friend making in delivering the city deal? (901121)

I know that the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who has responsibility for constitutional affairs and city deals, met leaders from the council and those sponsoring the city deal just last week. As my hon. Friend will know, we are very enthusiastic about city deals generally. They are a very significant step in the further decentralisation of powers away from Whitehall to our communities. We very much hope to make progress on the Cambridge city deal and, indeed, on others as soon as we can.

T3. The Deputy Prime Minister will know the anger within the voluntary community and faith sector in the city that we both represent, and indeed across the whole country, about his enthusiastic support for the gagging provisions of the lobbying Bill that will do so much to undermine political accountability and transparency. He has been generously provided by 38 Degrees with a platform in the heart of his constituency on Friday to justify his position. Will he take it up on the offer? (901120)

I am unapologetically enthusiastic about a measure that will do a great deal to safeguard the integrity of the democratic process. All we are saying—one would have thought that the hon. Gentleman might support this—is that we do not want to go the way of the United States, where big money distorts and subverts the political process. Under our current rules, we would see big money spending more in constituencies than political parties can spend. Given that his party is run by the trade unions and big money outside political parties, he thinks that that is okay; millions of British voters do not.

T12. The Tees valley is already an industrial powerhouse. What progress has my right hon. Friend made in delivering a city deal for the Tees valley? (901130)

Again, a meeting was held last week about the Tees valley city deal. As my hon. Friend knows, we are considering having up to 20 city deals if we can cross all the t’s and dot all the i’s. There is a willingness across the coalition Government to ensure that when local areas, local authorities and local enterprise partnerships say to us that they would like to draw down powers that are hoarded in Whitehall, our answer is yes, unless there are clear reasons why it should not happen. That is the thinking that will inform our approach to the Tees valley city deal.

T5. The social mobility and child poverty commission has stated that“fiscal consolidation has been regressive”.Will the Deputy Prime Minister therefore accept its recommendation that the 2013 Budget funding for child care should be reallocated from higher-rate taxpayers to those on universal credit or, since universal credit seems to be over the horizon, to those on tax credits? (901122)

The hon. Lady will know that as we introduce universal credit and sweep aside the pernicious old rules, such as the 16-hour rule, that prevented people from accessing help with their child care costs, we are ensuring that there is support for those on universal credit to cover the vast bulk of their child care costs. We have made a number of announcements about that.

Even though we have had to make dramatic savings over the past few years, we should be judged by our actions. We have put more money into the universal provision of 15 hours’ pre-school support for all three and four-year-olds, more money into provision for two-year-olds from the most deprived backgrounds and more money into the education of children from the most deprived backgrounds through the pupil premium. Alan Milburn’s report shows that, particularly through the effective use of the pupil premium, we are finally starting to close the attainment gap that has blighted our society for far too long.

T13. My right hon. Friend knows well that Cornwall is up for devolution as a rural pilot under the city deals scheme. However, the speed across Departments is variable. Will he meet me and other stakeholders in Cornwall to accelerate the progress towards the ambition that Cornwall clearly has? (901131)

The Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), who is dealing with the city deals, tells me that he will be meeting all Cornish MPs, including my hon. Friend, to discuss the matter. I know that there is frustration about it in Cornwall, as well as great enthusiasm for a greater devolution of powers, which I admire and pay tribute to. As my hon. Friend knows, we provided city deals for the eight largest cities in the country first and are now looking at the next rung of the ladder, which involves a further 20 city deals. We will of course look at whether we can spread the approach to other parts of the country subsequently.

The UK Youth Parliament voted for it, the Labour party has put it in its general election manifesto and the Liberal Democrats have always supported it. When will the Deputy Prime Minister bring forward proposals to lower the voting age to 16?

I have always been very open about this matter. It is something that I believe in and that my party believes in, but it is not agreed on across the coalition. That is the nature of coalition government. My coalition partners are perfectly entitled to have a different view on when people should be entitled to vote. I will continue to argue for my point of view.

The Silk commission has received ample testimony on a pattern of unfairness from the Welsh Government, including in the treatment of English NHS patients, the use of the ambulance service and the sharing of water and other resources. Will the Deputy Prime Minister reassure the House that he will do everything possible to ensure that those anomalies are resolved?

The anomaly, as my hon. Friend politely puts it, is the lamentable record on the NHS of the Labour Administration in Wales. He refers to the Silk commission, which was a bold step towards the further devolution of powers from Whitehall to Cardiff. The Prime Minister and I were in Wales the week before last to announce that process and it has been universally welcomed by all parties in Wales. That comes in the context of the debate about the future of the United Kingdom and Scotland’s place within it. The Silk commission has shown in practice that we do not need to pull the United Kingdom apart to have a greater devolution of powers to its constituent parts.

T7. Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the abundance of riches today. What is the Deputy Prime Minister doing in his co-ordinating role across Government to ensure that there are social value clauses in central and local government procurement? Social value clauses can help with apprenticeships, training and the building of local supply chains. I ask him to take the lead in Cabinet and ensure that social value is one of the most important aims in the procurement of every Department. (901124)

The right hon. Lady asks a specific question about a social value clause, and if she does not mind I will get back to her on that having consulted the Cabinet Office. More generally, she referred to apprenticeships of which, as she knows, I am as much a fan as she. Apprentices are now being taken on in 200,000 workplaces in the country, and I do not see why we should not be able to double that in a relatively short period of time, to give more young people a greater opportunity to take up apprenticeships and move into meaningful work.

The coalition Government have been extraordinarily successful. Has the Deputy Prime Minister enjoyed his role, and would he like to continue as Deputy Prime Minister after the next election, and continue to enjoy support from MPs such as myself?

Whether he is moustachioed or otherwise, I always enjoy the hon. Gentleman’s questions, although I usually wait for a sting in the tail, which did not quite come this week as it did last time. I am always grateful for his support in whatever qualified form it is provided.

T8. Sure Start is such a great idea that it will not go away, despite the coalition’s efforts. What will the Deputy Prime Minister say to all those children across the country who are denied a place as a result of cutbacks to fund tax cuts for millionaires? (901125)

As I have said, in the final financial year of this Parliament the amount of money we have provided is actually going up from £2.3 billion to £2.5 billion, and more parents are accessing children’s centres than ever before. There has been a closure of 1.2% of children’s centres across the country, but at the same time we have provided hundreds of millions of pounds of extra support to help small children before they even go to school, providing for the first time ever a universal entitlement of 15 hours of pre-school support to all three and four-year-olds, and 15 hours of pre-school support to two-year-olds from the poorest families in this country. I hoped the hon. Gentleman would have welcomed that.

Both the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister have articulated their vision for the Humber region, but much will depend on the emerging city deal. Are Ministers satisfied with their progress on that?

I am reliably informed that the city deal was the subject of another meeting last week. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the city deals, including that in the Humber area, are reaching a critical phase and we are examining the details on a line-by-line basis. As I said, we are keen to land those city deals—or as many as we can—as rapidly as possibly in the weeks and months to come.

T9. Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm whether he believes that his party’s support for the dreaded bedroom tax is in the best traditions of liberalism in this country? (901126)

I compliment the hon. Gentleman on his exotic commitment to Movember.

On the bedroom tax, as the hon. Gentleman knows, of course there are hard cases that deserve hard cash to ensure that people are dealt with flexibly and compassionately. That is why we have trebled the amount of discretionary housing payments available to £180 million. The principle that someone receives housing benefit in the social rented sector for the number of bedrooms and amount of space they need—just as they would in the private rented sector—was supported by the previous Government, and is supported by this one as well.

Will my right hon. Friend explain why it is a higher priority to provide a free school meal to a six-year-old from an affluent family than to a 12-year-old living in childhood poverty?

With respect, my right hon. Friend fundamentally misunderstands the progressive nature of extending free school meals to the first three years of children at primary school. The evidence from pilots in Durham, Newham and elsewhere—I strongly urge him to visit some of those pilots—suggests that it helps many thousands of children who are in poverty but do not receive free school meals. Having children share a healthy, hot lunch every day together has a dramatic effect in closing the attainment gap in education between wealthier and not so wealthy children.

T10. The Deputy Prime Minister has made great play of the Government’s offer for disadvantaged two-year-olds, but one in three councils do not have enough places, and local childminders tell me that the subsidy is not enough to pay the cost. When will he realise that proclamations from the Dispatch Box do not deliver policies for parents on the ground? (901128)

I will send the hon. Lady the figures, but my memory is that we are already on track to deliver more of the places for that first instalment for the 20% of the poorest families with two-year-old toddlers than we had originally planned. I think we are already on track to provide 92,000 places and to deliver 100% of those, but I will provide her with that information in writing if she wishes.

Carlisle is a considerable distance from London and is close to Scotland, which has extensive devolution. In my view, many local decisions should be made locally and not by central Government. What plans does the Deputy Prime Minister have to devolve power and resources to Carlisle?

As my hon. Friend will know, we made an announcement some months ago on the back of the recommendations from Lord Heseltine to establish local growth deals that will be accessible to all parts of the country to do exactly what my hon. Friend describes—to allow local areas, which can often make far better decisions about skills, training, transport and business investment, to take those decisions with greater freedom and greater resources available to them.

T11. Some of the top universities are lobbying for an increase in the cap on tuition fees to £16,000 a year. Will the Deputy Prime Minister give an assurance —one of his firm pledges—that while the Liberal Democrats are in government he will not allow that to happen? (901129)

I know that the hon. Lady’s party advocated no upper limit to fees, because it was the Labour Government who commissioned the Lord Brown review—never mind £9,000, it said there should be no upper limit. We have no plans to change the upper limit at the present time.

May I press the Deputy Prime Minister on the answer I got from the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark)? What precisely are the Government planning to do to make it easier, cheaper and quicker to remove from the electoral register those who put themselves on it either inadvertently or illegally?

The whole design of individual voter registration—which, let us remember, was first mooted and launched by the previous Government—was precisely to stamp out levels of fraud and wrongdoing on the electoral register. Our view is that as we move towards individual voter registration on the timetable that we have set out—doing so carefully and providing a great deal of information to those who might otherwise not be aware that they need to make the change and comparing different datasets to make sure that those who are legitimately on the electoral register and are on other databases are transferred automatically—we will be able to weed out fraudulent entries on the electoral register within two or three years.

Since the Deputy Prime Minister took over his important office, has the cost of the Deputy Prime Minister’s office increased or decreased, and by how much?

I urge the hon. Gentleman to look at all the detailed figures that we published in October. Unlike any previous Administration, we said exactly how many special advisers there are and what their costs are. Of course a number of special advisers attached to my office support various Departments across Whitehall—something that is necessary in a coalition Government.