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Topical Questions

Volume 573: debated on Tuesday 7 January 2014

As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on the full range of Government policies and initiatives. [Hon. Members: “Oh no you don’t!”] Oh yes I do. I say to Opposition Members that the pantomime season is over. I take special responsibility for the Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.

A and E departments across the country are in crisis, despite the valiant efforts of NHS staff, including staff at Royal Oldham hospital in my area. The cuts to social care mean that there is often insufficient support in the community to allow patients to be discharged from hospital safely, and beds are blocked as a result. Why did the Deputy Prime Minister support his coalition partners in the £3 billion top-down reorganisation and the £1.8 million cuts to social care when these things were predicted?

I wish that the Labour party would stop talking down the NHS. The fact is that A and E is performing better than it did under Labour. We have 300 more A and E doctors than there were under Labour; 2,000 more patients are seen every day within the four-hour limit than when Labour was in control; 1.2 million more people are now using A and E; and there is a new £3.8 billion fund to promote the integration of social care and health care that the hon. Lady advocates. Is it not time to support, rather than denigrate, the NHS?

T3. I extend birthday greetings to the Deputy Prime Minister. Will he give a progress report on the triple lock for pensions—an ingredient in the coalition agreement that is 100% Liberal Democrat? (901820)

I thank my hon. Friend for the birthday greetings. On my birthday, I look forward to nothing more than coming to Deputy Prime Minister’s questions. He asks for a progress report on the triple lock. It is true that in the last election the triple lock was not in the Labour manifesto or the Conservative manifesto, but only in the Liberal Democrat manifesto. I am delighted that we have delivered it in coalition. It has led to the largest cash increase in the state pension ever. It is a great idea that has been delivered to the benefit of millions of pensioners across the country.

May I bring the Deputy Prime Minister back down to planet Earth? NHS England’s own figures show that almost 18,500 beds were unavailable over Christmas because patients spent the holidays in hospital, even though they were well enough to be discharged. Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware of that, and why does he think it was?

As I said earlier, given that we have more A and E doctors and thousands more patients being seen within a four-hour period than under the Labour Government, given that A and E NHS departments across the country are performing better than they did under Labour, and given that more than 1.2 million more people are using A and E departments, I think we should get behind the NHS, not constantly look for crises where they do not exist.

It would be nice if the Deputy Prime Minister answered a question or two once in a while. The real reason that thousands of people were stuck in hospital over Christmas is that cuts to elderly care make it harder to discharge patients back home. Those cuts also have a knock-on impact on A and E. Official figures show that over Christmas, 13 patients had to wait at least 12 hours on trolleys before being found beds. What message does the Deputy Prime Minister send to those families and patients?

For a party that allowed the scandal at Stafford hospital to take place on its watch, it is pretty rich to start complaining about hospital conditions. The failure of social care and health care to work together effectively and address the problem, to which the right hon. Gentleman rightly alludes, went unaddressed for 13 years. We have offered £3.8 billion to local authorities across the country, in an unprecedented attempt to integrate social care and health care. That is what we are doing and what Labour failed to do when it was in office.

T5. Irrespective of the outcome of the national debate on the level of net immigration, does the Deputy Prime Minister believe that sufficient support is given to those communities where there are disproportionately high levels of immigration, and in particular to the public services available in those areas? (901822)

That obviously touches on an issue of widespread public concern, and my hon. Friend will know that local public services are funded on a needs-based formula, which relates in large part to the number of people in a local area. The changes in population in a local area are reflected in the funding settlements for our schools and health system. To that extent, changes in local population are of course reflected in the funding provided to our local services. More generally, I think we all need to work together to ensure the public have confidence that we have a firm but fair immigration system that welcomes to this country people who want to contribute to the United Kingdom and play by the rules. We must, however, stamp out abuse and illegality, and ensure that in the European Union, for instance, the right to move to look for work is not synonymous—as it was in the past—with the right to claim benefits, no questions asked.

T6. Will the Deputy Prime Minister agree and support the placement of a limited number of the most vulnerable refugees from Syria in the UK? (901823)

We have already accepted a number of—[Interruption.] Yes we have. We have accepted, I think, about 1,500 asylum seekers—[Interruption.] Yes we have; that is a fact.

The hon. Gentleman keeps shaking his head, but it is a fact that we have accepted hundreds upon hundreds of individual asylum seekers from Syria, under our international asylum obligations. Of course we should do that.

The hon. Gentleman asked about asylum seekers from Syria, and I am giving him a fact that he does not seem to want to recognise. We have accepted hundreds of asylum seekers who have sought and been provided with refuge in this country under our international obligations. At the same time, I think Members from across the House should be proud of the fact that we, and the generosity of the British people, have led to more British assistance—£500 million of assistance—going to Jordan and other front-line states, and to those communities in the region that are dealing with this terrible humanitarian crisis.

T7. The Deputy Prime Minister and I agree that the integrity of voter registration is crucial, and he will know that I am interested in the issue. Will he change his mind and press for voter identification cards such as those used successfully in Northern Ireland? (901824)

I recognise that my hon. Friend has raised this issue on several occasions and he clearly feels strongly about it. We are confident that the measures being introduced through the individual voter registration system, originally planned by the Labour party and being delivered ahead of time by us, will stamp out the problems of fraud about which he is rightly so concerned.

T8. In response to the Chancellor’s statement yesterday about further welfare benefit cuts in years to come, the Deputy Prime Minister said that those would be cuts for cuts’ sake and would be Conservative cuts. Can he explain to people who live on welfare benefits why he keeps the Conservatives in office? (901825)

There is a really important debate emerging. We have to finish the job of fiscal consolidation, and there are at least two parties in the House which understand that—the two coalition parties. We understand that we have to fill the black hole in the public finances left by the Labour party, and that will require several further years of difficult choices. Then there is a debate about how we get to that objective and clearly there are differences there. In my party we feel that we should ask those with the broadest shoulders to continue to make an effort in the ongoing fiscal consolidation: my coalition partners do not. That is a legitimate debate, but what divides this side of the House from the other side is that at least we recognise that we have to clear up the mess left behind by the Labour Government.

T10. Does the Deputy Prime Minister believe that unrestricted immigration from the European Union is in Britain’s national interest? (901827)

Being part of the single market, on which more than 3 million jobs in this country depend, is absolutely necessary to our national self-interest. The CBI, no less, has said that it is worth about £3,000 per household in this country. Turning our back on the idea of the world’s largest borderless single market would be an act of monumental economic suicide and it is something that I would never support.

T9. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with the Business Secretary that the net migration target is not helpful and will not be met? (901826)

The Conservative party has a long-standing aspiration to reduce net immigration to tens of thousands rather than hundreds of thousands. The Business Secretary was entirely right to point out that the Government need to be open with the British people about those factors in the immigration system over which the Government have control and those over which they do not. He rightly pointed out that the number of British people leaving Britain to live elsewhere, or those Brits living elsewhere coming back, is something that no Government can necessarily control.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister inform the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills that there are no promises from the Government to cut the number of migrants coming into the UK from the European Union?

I may have misheard the question. We are clear as a Government, across the coalition, that what we are delivering is a reduction by a third in the levels of net immigration. I very much want to see this happen more quickly, with the reintroduction of the exit checks that have been removed in the past and, generally, a firm but fair approach towards immigration that says that those people who want to come here and play by the rules, pay their taxes and make a contribution to this country are welcome to do so.

T12. Last January I asked the Deputy Prime Minister if he was ashamed of the shocking rise in food banks under this Government. He has had a year to come up with a decent answer, because I did not get one back then. Does he agree that it is a scandal that more than half a million people are now using food banks and, more importantly, what does he intend to do about it? (901829)

The hon. Lady might have prefaced her question with the observation that food banks increased tenfold in the years in which Labour was in office, but—as with so much else—amnesia settles on the Opposition Benches and they entirely forget their responsibility for the problems we have and many of the errors that we are correcting in government. We should pay tribute to people who work in food banks and make sure that they help the most vulnerable in society, rather than constantly seeking to make opportunistic political points to their cost.

T13. At a meeting held last week between the chairman of the Humber local enterprise partnership and local MPs, the chairman briefed us on the successful conclusion and signing off of the Humber city deal. The meeting recognised that if the area is to meet its full economic potential, a number of major infrastructure projects will need to be carried forward. Can the Deputy Prime Minister give an assurance that the Government will work across Departments to ensure that that happens? (901830)

While my hon. Friend did not say so, I assume he is referring to the much- anticipated agreement on the Siemens investment in the area and other infrastructure projects. I can certainly reassure him that on the back of the Humber city deal, which was confirmed by the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) shortly before Christmas, we are working across all Departments to ensure that where there are steps that we can still take as a Government to ensure that these investment projects are finally given the go-ahead, that should be the case as quickly as possible.

T15. Given the geographical imbalance in the economy, does the Deputy Prime Minister share the analysis of the Business Secretary that the way forward for expansion of airport capacity is to make more use of provincial airports, such as Durham Tees Valley, rather than continuing to stretch capacity in the south-east? (901832)

I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman—I am sure everyone will—that we all need to work together to try to ensure that the profound geographical imbalances that have existed in the British economy for a long time are overcome. That can be done in any number of ways. Proper infrastructure investment is clearly needed, which is why, in my view, High Speed 2 will play such a galvanising role in healing the north-south divide. We need to liberate local areas, such as with the Tees Valley city deal, so that they can make their own economic fortunes rather than constantly being at the beck and call of decisions made in Whitehall; and we need to celebrate the fact that, unlike previous recoveries, we are seeing a broadly based recovery, not least in manufacturing in the north, as well as in the service sector heavily located in the south.

T14. With regard to the Heseltine report, does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that local leaders are best placed to understand the opportunities and obstacles to growth in their communities, whether that be in my part of West Yorkshire, or in relation to the Leeds city region local enterprise partnership, the Huddersfield “The Place to Make it” campaign or even the Calderdale and Kirklees Manufacturing Alliance? (901831)

I strongly agree. I think the fundamental insight from Lord Heseltine was one that we have ignored at our peril as a country for far too long: we have relied on a culture of government that has always assumed that Whitehall knows best. Whitehall does not always know best—I have certainly learned that after four years in Whitehall. The more we can allow local business leaders and local politicians to come up with locally innovative solutions, the better for our country in the long run.

When the Deputy Prime Minister kicked off this session, he said he supported the Government’s policies. I have to tell him, looking around the Chamber, that I do not think the leading Members of the Tory party are supporting him. They have not turned up. Three Tories have not even asked their questions. The only one who has been here all the time, the Chief Whip, is not a proper member of the Cabinet. Why can the Deputy Prime Minister not read the signs? The Government are disintegrating before our eyes. Why does he not do the decent thing and pack it in and let us have an early election?

I might ask: where is the hon. Gentleman’s deputy leader? I ask him to stop insulting the Chief Whip, who I consider to be a fully fledged member—[Interruption.] Stop denigrating the Government Chief Whip—very unfair on him indeed. Far from this Government disintegrating, we have continued steadfastly to clear up the mess left by the party of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner), to fill the black hole in our public finances, to give tax cuts to millions of people on low and middle incomes, to introduce the pupil premium, to increase apprenticeships on a scale never seen before, and finally to put this country economically back on the straight and narrow.

Yesterday, Robert Chote, the director of the independent Office for Budget Responsibility, said:

“Not very much has actually come from a reduction in social security spending as a share of national income.”

In the light of that, would the Deputy Prime Minister care to apologise to the Chancellor of the Exchequer for criticising the Chancellor’s excellent speech on welfare yesterday?

No, I will not do that because there is a sincerely held difference of view. I believe that if we are to complete the job of further fiscal consolidation we need to do what pretty well every mainstream economist in the world advocates, which is a mix of, yes, public spending restraint, welfare savings and fair taxes on those with the broadest shoulders. If the Conservative party chooses to do it all through further sacrifices by the working-age poor who are dependent on welfare, that is its choice. It is not a choice that my party has signed up to.

Given that this Government have been waging war on the poorest and most vulnerable in our society, how much more is the Deputy Prime Minister willing to put up with? Is it what he came into politics for?

For an hon. Member who has been here so long, the hon. Gentleman’s questions are truly infantile. The most regressive thing to do is to shrug one’s shoulders, like the Labour party does, and say, “We can’t be bothered to fill the black hole we have left in the public finances. We’ll let our children and grandchildren do it.” There is nothing more infantile than doing what the Labour party is doing—going around pointing at things that are expensive, but never actually spelling out how much its own policies would cost.

There is much in this country that is archaic and out of date. For example, section 3 of the Treason Felony Act 1848 makes it an offence even to imagine—[Interruption.]

The Act makes it an offence even to imagine this country being a republic or to “overawe” Parliament. Will my right hon. Friend have a look at whether such archaic legislation can be repealed?

I will, of course, look into these provisions, following my hon. Friend’s entreaty, but I do not want him to hold his breath, thinking that in the latter stage of this Parliament our absolute priority will be the reform of the 1848 Act.

Was the Deputy Prime Minister consulted on, and did he approve of, the Prime Minister’s plan to create 117 new peers, at a cost of £18 million, and how does that square with the Government’s promise to cut the cost of politics? Was it only elected politics they had in mind?

The Labour party stuffed the House of Lords year after year. More than that, we debated hour after hour how we could take all party leaders out of the equation and bring the British public into it by introducing a smidgeon of democracy in the House of Lords, and what did the Labour party do? Having lectured people for decades about the need to reform the bastion of privilege and patronage, when it had the chance to reform the House of Lords, it voted against it.

Returning from planet Bolsover, devolution has been one of the successes of the coalition Government, and the city deal for Newcastle and the north-east local enterprise partnership are two of the finest successes in the north-east, but will the Deputy Prime Minister go one step further and consider expanding the city deal to a rural deal so that the most sparsely populated counties, such as mine in Northumberland, get the same opportunities as cities?

I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments and I strongly agree with him. At the end of this Parliament, we will have left England in particular significantly more devolved in how money and powers are allocated than it has been for a very long time. For instance, the devolution of business rates, which is often unremarked upon, is probably the greatest act of fiscal devolution for a very long time. I strongly agree that devolution should be not just an urban phenomenon, and at the heart of the local growth deals lies exactly the promise that city deals in urban areas will be extended to rural areas too.