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Volume 571: debated on Wednesday 4 December 2013

I have been asked to reply—[Interruption.] As I was saying, Mr Speaker, I have been asked to reply on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who has been visiting China.

I am sure the whole House will wish to join me in offering our condolences to the family and friends of those who were tragically killed following the helicopter crash in Glasgow on Friday evening. Our thoughts must also be with those who are injured at this difficult time. I visited the site yesterday and was able to see the recovery operation at first hand. On behalf of the whole House, I pay tribute to the outstanding response and bravery of all the emergency services involved in what were extremely demanding circumstances.

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.

May I associate myself with the comments made by the Deputy Prime Minister after the very tragic events in Glasgow?

Under the Government’s proposed new formula for allocating health funding, Sunderland is facing cuts of £42 million. Does the Deputy Prime Minister think it is right to divert NHS funding from areas with higher levels of need to areas with lower levels of need, and how does he think that will impact on the winter crisis?

As the hon. Lady knows, NHS England is now in a position to make some of those big judgments—[Interruption.] We are having questions on what money goes where in the NHS from the party that, if I understand it correctly, still does not agree with our protection of the NHS budget. We are putting £12.7 billion extra into the NHS. I would be interested to know whether the Labour party agrees with that.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister join me in congratulating the London borough of Havering, which has rehomed 1,000 previously overcrowded families into larger and more suitable accommodation as a result of the Government’s welfare policy?

I would certainly like to join my hon. Friend to congratulate the borough of Havering on the excellent work it has done. Overcrowding is a real problem, and hundreds of thousands of families are living in overcrowded properties in which children have no space to do their schoolwork. The fact that the Labour party has no answers to some of those fundamental problems that it created in the first place shows a bankruptcy of ideas.

I join the Deputy Prime Minister in conveying our deepest sympathy to the families of the nine people who lost their lives in the tragic accident in Glasgow, and in paying tribute to the brave work of the emergency services and the quite remarkable response of the people of Glasgow.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell the House whether, compared with last winter, this winter’s household energy bills will be lower or higher?

They would be higher if we had not taken the action that we have, and I would simply point out to the right hon. and learned Lady that her party’s economically illiterate policy is to impose—[Interruption.] In fact, her energy spokesperson said on television just two days ago, “Well, you can’t” control energy prices. So there we have it. The right hon. and learned Lady does not need me to point out that her policy is a con; her energy spokesman has done it for her.

Order. As always, we will get through, however long it takes. If Members can calm themselves sooner rather than later, so much the better.

The Deputy Prime Minister has ducked and he has dodged and he has not answered the question I have asked. The truth is that household energy bills are not going down; they are going up. As for the measures—the £50 they have talked about—they are not enough to stop bills rising, but can he tell us exactly how much of the £50 will come from the profits of the energy giants?

I know the right hon. and learned Lady’s piece of paper says I did not answer the question, but I did actually answer the question: bills will on average be £50 lower than they otherwise would be. That is pretty simple. We have done that by adjusting the policies, while adhering to our green commitments, where Government policy has an influence on people’s energy bills. Her party’s policy is pure fantasy—total and utter fantasy. We have got £50; she has a fantasy freeze.

The Deputy Prime Minister says he has answered the question, but he has not. He has not stood at this Dispatch Box and admitted that, as a result of his Government’s policies, energy bills are going up, not down. He has not admitted that. [Interruption.] He can, next time he answers. What he is trying to hide is that not one penny will come from the profits of the energy giants, who could well afford it. They are tiptoeing around the energy giants, allowing them to put up their bills. When it comes to standing up to the rich and powerful, this Government are weak, but when it comes to hitting the most vulnerable in our society, they have no qualms at all. Last week at the Dispatch Box the Prime Minister said that disabled people are exempt from the bedroom tax. That is not true. Will the Deputy Prime Minister apologise and put the record straight?

The right hon. and learned Lady talks about standing up to vested interests, in the week that we discover that the great courage of the Labour leadership to stand up to its trade union paymasters is—[Interruption.] Guess what? It is mañana, mañana, mañana; all too difficult, an absolute—[Interruption.]

Order. This House should be the bastion of free speech. Neither the Deputy Prime Minister nor the right hon. and learned Lady must be shouted down and we will keep going with this session for as long as it takes for proper order to be observed.

And, Mr Speaker, if I may say so, it should be the bastion of political parties free of vested interests, and it is high time that the Labour leadership does what it says and stands up to its trade union paymasters. The right hon. and learned Lady should stand up to her bosses first.

I suggest the Deputy Prime Minister leaves it to us to worry about our party members, especially as so many of them used to be his. Given that for over 90% of people hit by the bedroom tax, there just is not a smaller property for them to move to, what would he have them do?

Under the right hon. and learned Lady’s Government, for 13 years housing benefit to people in the private rented sector was provided only on the basis of the number of rooms needed. We are applying exactly that same rule, which they administered for 13 years, to those in the social rented sector. For the reasons we heard earlier, we have at the same time many, many thousands of families in overcrowded properties and 1.8 million households still on the housing waiting list. As with so many other things, we are sorting out the mess they left behind.

The right hon. Gentleman knows there is no comparison between what we did and what he is doing. Our change was for new claimants only. Their bedroom tax hits people who have lived in their property for years. They cannot afford the charges and they have nowhere to go.

The Deputy Prime Minister always says that the Liberal Democrats are making a difference in government. They certainly are: without the Liberal Democrats there would be no bedroom tax; without the Liberal Democrats there would be no trebling of tuition fees; and without the Liberal Democrats there would be no top-down reorganisation of the NHS. He says he is a brake on the Tories, but even I know the difference between the brake and the accelerator. Is he not the very best deputy a Conservative Prime Minister could ever wish for?

We have our differences on this side of the House, but the one thing that unites us is that we would not have gone on a prawn-cocktail charm offensive sucking up to the banks, which created the problem in the first place. We would not simply say to our children and grandchildren, “You can pay off this generation’s debts.” No one on this side of the House would have broken the British economy in the first place.

The right hon. Gentleman talks about the recovery: there might be a recovery for the rich, but for everyone else there is a cost of living crisis. He will not stand up to the powerful and he will not stand up for the weak, but when it comes to being a loyal deputy to a Tory Prime Minister he will go to any lengths, break any promises and sell out any principles. The truth is that if people want to freeze energy bills and scrap the bedroom tax, it is not going to be the Tories and it is never going to be the Liberal Democrats—it has got to be Labour.

They are not a Government in waiting; they are not even an Opposition in waiting. It is 18 months before the next general election and we still have no clue from those six questions what the Labour party would actually do. Well, we know a few things: an energy con that would see prices go up rather than down; no apology for crashing the economy in the first place; and a total failure to stand up to trade union bosses. If they cannot manage to come up with some sensible polices and they cannot manage their own party, why should anyone think that they can manage our country?

Q2. This weekend is small business Saturday and I will be supporting local firms in my constituency. Companies welcome the reduction in corporation tax and national insurance contributions that this Government introduced, but what more can be done to reduce business rates? (901404)

I suggest to my hon. Friend that he waits until the Chancellor makes his autumn statement. Small business Saturday is a brilliant event to encourage everyone to support small businesses in the UK. Of course, the previous Government planned to end more generous small business rate relief. We reversed that decision, saving small businesses on average £2,000—yet another example of this side of the House standing up for small businesses that were let down by that side of the House.

Q3. Tenants, councils, housing associations, welfare charities and disabled groups are against it. Liberal Democrat party policy is against it. Even Danny’s dad is against it. So why is the Deputy Prime Minister the last man standing in defending the bedroom tax, a policy as unpopular as Thatcher’s poll tax?


Of course I accept, as everyone does, that, in changing from one system to another, there are hard cases that need to be dealt with compassionately, and that is why we have trebled the discretionary housing payment—to allow local authorities to do that. Will the hon. Gentleman have a word, however, with his welfare spokesperson, who recently declared that the Labour party would be tougher on welfare than the coalition? Despite that, Labour has opposed £83 billion of welfare savings. Is it tough, or is it nothing?

Q4. As you will know more than many, Mr Speaker, over the past three years, the leadership of HS2 has shown a lamentable failure to provide clear and consistent information to residents and businesses affected by phase 1 of its proposals. Today in my constituency, it is holding a roadshow to tell my constituents about phase 2 of its proposals. Will my right hon. Friend work with his colleagues in government to ensure that HS2 provides decent information and decent compensation to everyone affected as quickly as possible? (901406)

I know that the hon. Gentleman has strong views on this matter, not least because of how HS2 might affect his constituency, and of course I agree that not only should full compensation be available, as it will be, but that the right level of information should be provided. The phase 2 route consultation, which started in October, is due to end in January, and as part of that process, 36 information events will be held near the phase 2 route, including the one he alluded to in his constituency. Those are opportunities for people to make their views known. As he knows, however, I am a staunch supporter of HS2. It is an important part of the wider revamping and modernisation of our national infrastructure, about which the Chief Secretary to the Treasury will be speaking shortly.

Q5. There are more young people out of work in the black country than in any of the eight areas getting the Deputy Prime Minister’s youth unemployment fund, so will he extend that scheme to the black country, and if he is going to tell me that the city deal is the answer, will he call an urgent meeting to sort that out and get it under way much more quickly too? (901407)

I certainly understand the hon. Gentleman’s sense of urgency about getting these city deals and the second wave agreed, and we are working flat out to get that done. As hon. Members can imagine, there are lots of t’s to be crossed and i’s to be dotted, but we are determined to push through, both in his part of the country and elsewhere, the principle of ensuring that less power is hoarded in Whitehall and that more power, resources and freedom to use them are allocated to local communities, local enterprise partnerships and local authorities.

Given that Northumberland faces more and more onshore wind farm applications on sensitive sites, may I welcome any reduction in the incentive for onshore wind farms, within our total commitment to renewables, which will be maintained, and may I thank my right hon. Friend for his part in this?

As my right hon. Friend knows and as the Chief Secretary to the Treasury will confirm shortly in greater detail, we have adjusted the strike prices for onshore wind and to solar panel installations, because we believe it is now viable to do so, and made more attractive further investment in the offshore wind industry, in which we are already a world leader. We must maintain that leadership for the benefit not only of areas such as the north-east, but for the country, all of which would be blighted by an economically illiterate energy policy.

Q6. Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware that on average women working full time have seen their earnings fall by nearly £2,500 since the election, and does he think that the married man’s tax allowance is the best way to help women, who are paying the price for his Government? (901408)

The hon. Lady knows the respective views in the coalition on the so-called married tax break, but I would point out that it is this Government who have ended the injustice under Labour of women being short-changed in the pension system; it is this Government who are raising the point at which people pay income tax, which disproportionately benefits women and will leave 1.5 million of them £700 or more better off; and it is this Government who are finally providing the affordable child care places that were not provided in 13 years under Labour.

Q7. The rural equivalent of waiting for Godot is waiting for high-speed broadband, but we had the really good news in Somerset this week that 82% of premises in my constituency will be connected by the end of 2016. The sad fact, however, is that more than 8,000 properties in the so-called last 10% will not be connected. Will my right hon. Friend now commit to deploying the funds set aside to finish the job? We do not want complex bidding systems or match funding, which will not exist; we just want the job done. (901409)

We are investing, as my hon. Friend knows, over £33 million already in extending the coverage of superfast broadband in Devon and Somerset, as part of the current rural broadband programme, and roll-out is finally accelerating. More than 10,000 premises are expected to be covered by the project by the end of the year and 74,000 by next July. On his point about the so-called final 10%, we announced back in June a quarter of a billion pounds of new money to extend superfast broadband coverage further by 2017. I hear what he says, and the plans will be set out in further detail shortly.

Q8. Both Nissan and Hitachi are major investors in the north-east of England, and both have said that if the UK leaves the EU, it will damage future investment. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that the Conservative party’s hostility to Europe is bad for business and bad for British jobs? (901410)

I agree—and I am sure I speak on behalf of most people in all parts of the House—that it would be a spectacular act of economic suicide for the country to pull itself out of the world’s largest borderless single market. By some estimates, over 3 million jobs in this country are dependent, one way or another, on our membership of the European Union.

Q9. The people of Cannock Chase welcome the Government’s brave decision to introduce a cap on benefits, but when their average earnings are £23,900 a year before tax and the cap is set at the equivalent of an annual salary of £35,000 a year, they understandably still feel that people can be better off on benefits than in work. Will my right hon. Friend look at lowering the overall benefits cap or regionalising it, so that it always pays to work, wherever someone lives? (901411)

We have not taken an approach of regionalising the benefit cap—I know that is advocated by the Opposition, although very few details have been provided by them so far. We have taken a national approach, and we have therefore set the cap at a national average of £26,000 after tax, or the equivalent of £35,000 before. The vast majority of people in our country think that is fair: that people should not be able to receive in benefits more than they would gain if they were in work earning £35,000 before tax. As on so many issues, I would be very interested to know whether the Opposition now support or do not support this highly popular measure.

Q10. The Government have today been pushed into action on business rates by Labour, but just as energy bills will still rise this winter, businesses rates too will still go up by an average of £250 next year? Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that nothing less than Labour’s plan to cut and then freeze business rates will do? (901412)

The only thing that this coalition Government have been “pushed into”—which is what the hon. Lady said—by Labour is rescuing the economy after the disastrous state that it was in. We had to pull the economy back from the brink because that is where Labour left it. We have had to do emergency surgery to the banks because Labour sucked up to the banks. We have had to fill the black hole in the public finances because Labour created it.

Q11. As you know, Mr Speaker, I am always anxious to be helpful, so in the spirit of friendly co-operation with our coalition partners, I have given advance notice of my question. Given that the Deputy Prime Minister is at the Dispatch Box today only because the Prime Minister is in China drumming up more orders for British business, can he please tell the House what the Common Market share of world trade was when the UK joined in 1973 and what the EU share of world trade is today? (901413)

The EU share of world trade today I think is around 20%. I would merely say to my hon. Friend—in an equally friendly spirit to that in which I know the question was intended—that the Prime Minister has actually been advocating a new EU-China trade deal, precisely because the European Union remains, notwithstanding all the other changes in the world, a very powerful trading bloc on the world scene.

Q12. Last week Goldman Sachs placed the value of Royal Mail shares at 610p each, but just two months ago it advised the Government that investors would walk away if they sold at over 330p. Does the Deputy Prime Minister believe that he has secured value for money for the taxpayer? (901414)

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has explained, this is yet another example of our doing something that was ducked by the Labour Government. The price at which we set the sale was recommended to us independently, and was at the highest point of the range that we were provided with by independent advisers.

Q13. Two weeks ago, Harrow council officers closed down an unlicensed house in multiple occupation. Eleven unrelated adults were living in a three-bedroom property, each paying £160 a week in rent to a rogue landlord. The council is now investigating a further 100 cases. Does my right hon. Friend not agree that it is time we criminalised rogue landlords to protect the vulnerable? (901415)

I am appalled to hear of yet another example of rogue landlords behaving unacceptably. As my hon. Friend knows, local authorities, including Harrow, have strong powers to tackle rogue landlords, and we expect them to make full use of those powers. Last October we announced a package to help hard-working tenants get a better deal when renting a home, including a commitment to look at property conditions in the private rented sector, and we will shortly announce which local authorities will receive a share in £3 million of funding to help them to tackle rogue and criminal landlords.

Q14. When the Deputy Prime Minister signed the coalition agreement, with its commitment to giving parents and pupils more power to choose good schools, did he ever imagine that it would lead to the current situation in which Conservative-controlled Hammersmith and Fulham council is threatening to close the successful and popular Sullivan primary school—which was rated “good” by Ofsted—in the face of overwhelming opposition from parents, governors, pupils and local residents, in order to hand the site over for a free school? (901416)

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education is present, and I am sure that he will want to write to the right hon. Gentleman about that specific case. However, one of the things that the Government have done is remove the dead hand of bureaucracy and centralisation from our school system, to ensure that teachers are freer to teach in the way that they judge best in the classroom and parents have a greater role—when they want it—in the running of our schools.

In the context of the question from the hon. Member for Bury North (Mr Nuttall)—who is, perhaps, not my hon. Friend on this issue—does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that on Europe, where the coalition is concerned, actions speak louder than words? Does he agree that the Chancellor’s decision some time ago to assist the Irish economy, the Foreign Secretary’s very responsible conduct of the internal European governmental review, and, indeed, the Prime Minister’s own statement in China just this week that if we get a referendum he wants to recommend that we stay in, provide a great boost of confidence for people like the Deputy Prime Minister and me who are down-the-line Liberal Democrat pro-Europeans?

It is always a joy to hear the mischievous wit and wisdom of my right hon. Friend. As he knows, we are as one on the European issue. Of course we need to reform the European Union—we need to strip away bureaucracy when that can be done, and to make the EU more transparent and efficient—but we also need to continue to exercise British leadership in the European Union club of which we have been a member for so many years.

Q15. Figures from the national health service show that 600,000 more people used accident and emergency departments last winter, an increase of 11% since 2010, and it looks as though the situation is set to get much worse this winter. Why? (901417)

I do not think that it is very helpful to the millions of people who work in the NHS to talk down their admirable efforts to ensure—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman really should stop talking down the NHS. He should also agree with us that it needs more money rather than less. He may be interested to know that while the right hon. Member for Leigh (Andy Burnham) was Secretary of State for Health, the average time for which people waited to be attended to in accident and emergency wards was 77 minutes. We have cut that in half, to 33 minutes.

Last week the National Crime Agency arrested six individuals following allegations of match-fixing in the English Football League. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that every possible measure is being taken by the Football Association, the Gambling Commission and the NCA to uphold the integrity of English football?

Absolutely; I am sure that the hon. Gentleman speaks on behalf of everyone in the House, and certainly of all football fans, when he says that it is important to get to the bottom of this. By the way, this is a rather good example of the excellent early work of the National Crime Agency. It was established precisely to look into these complex cases, and it will work across jurisdictions and with different agencies to ensure that any suspicion or hint of corruption in the great game is removed.

The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware of the case that I am about to raise; it is an urgent matter that I would like him to address. A young constituent of mine fled a violent and abusive relationship in Italy and brought her three and a half-year-old son with her. She is now in Wales, and the High Court has since ruled under The Hague convention that she has to return to Italy on Monday. Will the Deputy Prime Minister use his best endeavours to ensure that the Italian authorities realise that arresting her would be unfair and disproportionate, and that it would be little short of abominable to take that young boy into a care centre pending the outcome of the proceedings?

I am aware of the right hon. Gentleman’s interest in this matter. It is a desperately sad case and on a human level I would love to be able to pronounce on it, but as he knows, Ministers cannot comment on or intervene in cases that are or have been before the courts, whether in this country or abroad. However, I am sure that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will be able to provide consular assistance to the mother as she pursues her case in Italy, including providing details of English-speaking local lawyers and seeking updates from the local court about progress in the case.

It might surprise the Deputy Prime Minister to learn that the Liberals have a reputation for advocating an EU in/out referendum at elections but not following that through when here in this place. Will he now put that right by encouraging his Liberal colleagues in the House of Lords to support our European Union (Referendum) Bill?

The hon. Gentleman and I joined forces in the Lobby in July 2011 to legislate for a referendum lock which, for the first time, guarantees in law that there will be a referendum if the rules of the European Union change or if there is a proposal for a transfer of sovereignty from this place to the European Union. That is the position my party believes in, and that is our guarantee in law to the British people: that a referendum will take place when circumstances determine that it should. I understand that his party is now having a debate that is changing that position, but my party will stick to what we legislated for in the summer of 2011.

My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Ann McKechin) wanted to know whether the British taxpayer had got value for money in the sale of Royal Mail. Yes or no?

Our judgment is yes. Easy though it might be to make snapshot judgments about the value of the company according to the price on the markets on any given day, we are determined to take a long-term view on this issue, as on so many others, and not to score short-term political points.

Hasn’t the acting Prime Minister been outstanding today? Anyone listening on the radio would have thought it was my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr Cameron) at the Dispatch Box. I think that the right hon. Gentleman is turning into a Tory, and I would like to test that theory. New clause 1 of the Immigration Bill has been signed by 60 coalition MPs calling for the transitional arrangements for Bulgaria and Romania to be continued. Does he agree with that?

I am glad that the hon. Gentleman has not raised his morbid obsession with the early demise of the Prime Minister, which I know is the subject of his private Member’s Bill. I also want to thank him for his very mixed, double-edged compliment. On the question of the Bill, he will know that the Prime Minister and I, and the whole Government, made a series of announcements last week. We are tightening up the access to benefits for migrants who come to this country from other parts of the European Union. I believe that we should protect and defend the principle of the freedom of movement, but the freedom of movement to seek work is not the same as the freedom to claim. That is the distinction that this Government are now making.