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Deputy Prime Minister

Volume 575: debated on Tuesday 11 February 2014

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

Entrepreneurship

1. What steps the Government are taking with local enterprise partnerships to promote entrepreneurship in towns and communities across the UK. (902503)

Local enterprise partnerships, independently and through city deals, promote entrepreneurship in a variety of ways, including by providing help and advice to small businesses, premises for start-ups and access to venture capital funds. Next month, in my hon. Friend’s area, a small business support service will begin, bringing together the local enterprise partnership, the chambers of commerce, the Federation of Small Businesses, the Institute of Directors and the Engineering Employers Federation, to assist new and growing businesses in his area.

Successful entrepreneurs, particularly in local communities, are best placed to promote growth, jobs and prosperity. May I meet the Minister to discuss how we can work together to develop a national network of local enterprise funds to tap into communities’ sense of entrepreneurship?

I would be delighted to do that. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend’s efforts in Bedford, where I think he has brought investors together to fund start-ups and rapidly growing businesses. That is characteristic of many of the city deals that we have struck around the country. For example, in Nottingham, £40 million has been made available, jointly by the Government, Nottinghamshire county council and Nottingham city council, as well as local investors, to help invest in Nottingham businesses. I commend that to colleagues across the House.

The most consistent barrier to entrepreneurship in my constituency is the lack of available finance from banks. Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that today’s announcement by Barclays—of further bonus finance available to its staff—tells us that the Government do not get that it is necessary for them to pressure the banks to start lending in order to encourage entrepreneurship?

The hon. Gentleman knows that the funding for lending scheme, which the Government and the Bank of England have promoted, has explicitly concentrated on getting lending going to small businesses, but as my hon. Friend the Member for Bedford (Richard Fuller) said, bank lending is not the only source of finance needed. The venture capital funds established under our city deals are an important and welcome way in which small businesses can benefit from the finance they need to expand.

City Deals

We have now agreed 19 city deals, and although they are for the long term, those in the first wave are already making a significant difference. For example, in Birmingham, more than 2,000 new apprenticeships have been provided. In Newcastle, infrastructure works are nearly complete on the Science Central development on what was previously derelict land. In Manchester, work will shortly begin on the airport relief road, and Liverpool is hosting the international business festival in June and July, which I know the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Stephen Twigg) will be supporting and to which I will ensure all colleagues receive an invitation.

Will the Minister consider spreading the excellent city deal initiative to all parts of the country?

I can confirm that there is in fact a city deal covering my hon. Friend’s constituency, the Coventry and Warwickshire city deal, which is focused on making the most of the opportunities in the supply chain for advanced manufacturing. Furthermore, through the available local growth funds, the principle of city deals is being established across the whole of England, and I am looking forward to visiting each LEP to conduct negotiations.

Is the Minister’s long-term vision that the various city deals will in essence mesh together to become a city region deal and therefore be spread more comprehensively across the regions?

The hon. Lady, who takes a great interest in these matters, makes a good point. In the past few days, I have met in Birmingham all the LEPs and local authorities from across the west midlands area precisely to ensure that their individual city and growth deals reinforce each other, so that the west midlands’ strong advantages, especially in advanced manufacturing, can be combined.

What freedoms are granted to rural areas to match the Heseltine review and the city deals being given to urban areas?

My hon. Friend, speaking for the Isle of Wight, makes an important point. In our response to the Heseltine review, we have extended the principle of city deals to rural areas, including the Isle of Wight, so that the same financial flexibilities and powers will be available, as they have been to cities.

In towns such as Telford, the Government still own a large portion of land through the Homes and Communities Agency structure. Would the Minister be willing to meet councillors and officials from Telford and Wrekin council to consider how we could use that land in a city deal-type partnership to promote more growth and development?

I have already done that. I went to Telford last week to have precisely the conversations that the hon. Gentleman has in mind, and I was impressed with the conversations that took place. [Interruption.] He is quite right that he should have been informed. I hope he was, but if he was not, I apologise for the discourtesy. However, I met his council leader. I was impressed with the work going on there, and I look forward to a future visit, to which the hon. Gentleman will certainly be invited.

Forgive my naivety, but I understood that city deals were a creation of the previous Government, and that, as suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr Turner), they channelled transport and economic development funds into cities and other urban areas and away from rural areas.

My hon. Friend is not right about that. City deals are not an invention of the last Government; they were minted by this Government. In fact, we are told, the Labour leader of Manchester city council, Sir Richard Leese, believes that

“there has been more progress towards the core cities taking control of their own destiny in three years of the coalition than during 13 years of Labour.”

Colombia

3. What discussions he had with human rights organisations, trade unions and opposition movements during his recent visit to Colombia; and if he will make a statement. (902505)

I met the deputy director of the national victims unit, Iris Marin, as well as representatives of displaced groups and other victims of the armed conflict who sit on the round table. I also met representatives of a number of non-governmental organisations who work on human rights issues, including members of a Colombian human rights lawyers’ collective and members of Peace Brigades International, a British NGO which is active in Colombia. In addition, of course, I discussed directly with President Santos the importance of protecting human rights defenders and trade unionists.

Last summer, the Deputy Prime Minister said:

“Britain must not step back from its historical commitment to human rights for the sake of commercial expediency.”

While he was in Colombia, an eight-month-old baby was shot dead as a result of indiscriminate army gunfire. Congressman Ivan Cepeda, Carlos Lozano and many others received appalling death threats, and the Colombian Defence Secretary continued to brand them as terrorists. Colombia’s human rights record is appalling. Why is the Deputy Prime Minister now turning a blind eye for the purpose of “commercial expediency”?

I do not agree with the characterisation of what we are trying to do in our relationship with Colombia. Colombia is a society traumatised by horrific violence, and, as the hon. Gentleman has said, there are still some instances of terrible abuses and violence. It seems to me that, in the long run, the only way in which the country can find its feet and have a proper, law-abiding system in which human rights are protected is through peace and non-violence throughout the country.

It is important for us to support the negotiations between President Santos and the FARC terrorist group so that we can try to establish peace for the people of Colombia. In the meantime, we are very unambiguous in what we say and do in supporting human rights activists in the country—including NGO activists—and, indeed, in supporting the Government of Colombia in ensuring that human rights are promoted.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister meet the all-party parliamentary group on human rights to discuss issues such as land rights, human rights and the health of the peace process, on which he will have been able to reflect during his visit?

Of course I am keen to look constantly at ways in which we can collectively reinforce our messages on human rights in troubled parts of the world such as Colombia, but we know from peace processes of our own that, in the long run, the best way of guaranteeing human rights and the rule of law is to entrench peace, and to ensure that violence subsides and is then stopped altogether. That is what we are doing in our work with President Santos’s Government. We are also ensuring that the free trade agreements into which the European Union has entered with Colombia contain very clear human rights provisions, to be enshrined in 54 specific measures that the Colombian Government need to introduce in order to protect human rights under the terms of the free trade agreement.

How much more authority and influence does the Deputy Prime Minister think that a future Deputy Prime Minister would have when raising the issue of human rights in a country that he or she visited if we had abolished our human rights legislation and replaced it with a diluted Bill of Rights, or had withdrawn from the European convention on human rights?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, that is one of the reasons why I am so staunchly opposed to diluting the human rights that British citizens enjoy under British and European law. It is very difficult to urge—as we do—the Governments of countries such as Colombia to aspire to the highest standards of human rights if we do not do so ourselves, as a country.

Cheshire East: Business Growth

4. What support the Government are giving to business growth opportunities in Cheshire East through the Cheshire and Warrington local enterprise partnership. (902506)

I look forward to meeting members of the Cheshire and Warrington local enterprise partnership to provide feedback on its proposed bid for access to the local growth fund. The sum of £2 billion has been taken from Whitehall Departments to fund local projects that can drive growth. I urge my hon. Friend, and all Members, to work with their local enterprise partnerships and help to shape their bids during the weeks ahead.

Does the Minister agree that, in a county such as Cheshire, one priority should be to support innovative approaches to strengthening our rural economy? An example is the Cheshire Fresh agricultural hub at Middlewich, which will provide up to 700 jobs and promote best practice, young enterprise, training, inward investment and food security.

I agree with my hon. Friend. I know that that project features in the draft proposals from her local enterprise partnership, and I hope that when she meets representatives of her LEP, she will encourage them to ensure that it has the priority that she rightly thinks should be attached to it.

Despite the fact that huge amounts of public money are being channelled through local enterprise partnerships, the Government have admitted that they carry out no formal assessment of their effectiveness. What is the Minister going to do to make these partnerships more accountable, so that the people in Warrington can get a better deal from the Cheshire and Warrington LEP?

The hon. Lady can play a role in that. She can hold her local enterprise partnership to account and scrutinise its proposals. Every LEP in England will be putting forward a bid for funds from the £2 billion that I have mentioned, and I have made it clear to them that they should consult and involve their Members of Parliament. I hope that she will take up that invitation.

Electoral Register

5. What steps the Government plan to take to improve the accuracy and completeness of the electoral register. (902507)

Individual electoral registration will help to enhance the accuracy of the register and, from June, applications will be verified against Government records. We will also use data matching to ensure the completeness of the register during the transition to the new system, by confirming the vast majority of electors. Moreover, five national organisations and every local authority in Great Britain will be sharing £4.2 million of funding aimed at maximising registration. The introduction of online registration will improve accessibility for groups such as overseas voters and home movers.

The Minister knows that there is widespread concern about the fall in the number of people on the electoral register as a result of individual electoral registration. Just how many people would have to disappear from the list before the Government pulled the plug on the project?

Everyone who has scrutinised this matter knows that every effort is being made to ensure a smooth transition. For example, the existing register will follow into the period of the next general election campaign. Through the funding that we have made available for the year ahead to every local authority in the country, including £26,000 for Greenwich, to promote people staying on the register, there is every opportunity to increase the level of registration. That is one of the features of the new exercise.

11. Does the Minister agree that we could improve the completeness of the register by replicating the Northern Ireland initiative of working with local authorities in schools to register young people in schools? (902514)

My hon. Friend makes a good point. That is one of the purposes of the funding that we have made available. I participated in a very good exercise organised by a group of young people called Bite the Ballot to encourage registration in my constituency. It was a great success. I can tell my hon. Friend that £48,000 has been provided to the electoral registration officer in Bradford precisely for that kind of activity.

Almost half of all 16 and 17-year-olds are missing from the electoral register. If they are not on the register, they cannot vote when they turn 18. What additional support is the Minister making available to help local authorities to get young people on to the register?

As I have just said, £4.2 million has been made available across the country, the majority of which has gone to the electoral registration officers in local authorities, who know their area best. They have been invited to concentrate on the areas of under-registration, which have historically included schools. There are good examples of lessons and materials that can be used in schools that have a demonstrated record of achievement in enthusing young people and getting them to register, and I hope that the hon. Lady will be able to do the same in Derbyshire.

The Minister is clearly doing a good job of ensuring that the register is accurate, but may I urge him to check that the people who turn up to vote are actually the people on the register?

My hon. Friend makes an important point about accuracy. The duties of electoral registration officers involve ensuring accuracy as well as completeness. The transition to individual electoral registration is precisely to ensure that the identity of people on the register can be confirmed, which does not happen at the moment. That will be a major step forward for the security of our electoral system.

In Northern Ireland, which has been mentioned, we have individual registration but big problems with registration remain, particularly among young people and in socially deprived areas. Does the Minister not agree that, as well as resources, we need a much more proactive, outgoing approach on the part of registration officers? I find that unless they are pushed they often sit back and do not take a proactive approach.

The lessons that were to be learned from the experience in Northern Ireland have been learned. For example, the canvass that was not followed in Northern Ireland will be followed here in this country. The right hon. Gentleman rightly says that there is a positive duty on electoral registration officers to ensure that the register is complete. I take that very seriously, and I know that they do.

A unique opportunity will arise to improve the scope, depth and accuracy of the electoral register in the next couple of years as our servicemen and women return from Afghanistan and Germany. What new initiative will the Government take to ensure that when these personnel are settled in their seven super-garrisons across Britain they will be almost 100% registered to vote?

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. It is crucial that our armed forces serving the country overseas are part of the franchise. He will know that arrangements have been put in place to make sure that the need for registration—the renewal of registration —should happen only once every five years, rather than annually, to reflect the difficulties that are sometimes experienced in registering during active service.

I welcome the Minister’s praise for the excellent organisation Bite the Ballot, whose national voter registration day last week signed up thousands of young people. Another way in which we could engage more young people would be to allow 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds to have the vote. Will he join me in welcoming tomorrow’s lobby of Parliament by the Votes at 16 campaign?

I do welcome the lobby of Parliament; I met one of the young people in my constituency and he made a very articulate case for that measure. The debate is taking off. There is not agreement across the Government —across this House—that this change should take place, but I think it is very good that the debate is happening and that young people are engaged in it.

Topical Questions

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.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister update us on introducing legislation to implement the Silk commission recommendations, which have all-party support in the National Assembly for Wales but seem to lack wholehearted support from Her Majesty’s Opposition in Westminster?

I agree with my hon. Friend that Opposition Members have a very ambivalent attitude towards further devolution to Wales, but on the Government Benches we are unambiguous in our support for following up the Silk commission and translating it into legislation. That is why we published the draft Bill, which is subject to pre-legislative scrutiny by the Welsh Affairs Committee right now. I cannot pre-empt the Queen’s Speech, but I hope he will be in no doubt about our determination to translate the Silk report into action.

The whole House will be concerned about the impact of the severe floods on those living and working in the Somerset levels and in the Thames valley. It is hard to imagine the distress at seeing one’s home wrecked by flood water, but that is the situation facing so many families today. The armed forces, fire and rescue services, the police, local council workers and Environment Agency staff are all doing a heroic job in the stricken areas, often in difficult and dangerous conditions, and they deserve our respect and our thanks for that. Will the Deputy Prime Minister update the House on the response to the floods?

I strongly agree with the right hon. and learned Lady that we should all join together to pay tribute to everybody who is working so hard around the clock. I was in the Somerset levels on Sunday night and yesterday morning, and, in addition to the emergency services, all the people in the gold command, the local authorities and the volunteers, who have gone several days without sleeping properly, are helping their families, neighbours and friends. It really is an extremely impressive collective effort. The bad weather is still with us. The Met Office is keeping us updated, as she knows. We are holding a series of Cobra meetings on an ongoing basis to monitor the situation. We are working with local authorities, the Environment Agency and all the emergency services to put contingency measures in place where we think threats might arise and, of course, to do our best to deal with the rising water in all the places it has affected, particularly the Thames valley and the Somerset levels.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his response. The absolute priority for everyone now must be a total focus on working together to help people hit by the floods and those who are still threatened. People will still face huge challenges and great anxiety about the future even after the floodwater recedes. They will have to get their homes straight, their farms and businesses back on track and rebuild their livelihoods and communities. We all know how impossible it can be, even at the best of times, wrestling with compensation schemes and dealing with insurance companies. Will he assure the House that the Government are working on that now? Will they bring together the insurance companies and co-ordinate all the Government compensation processes so that once the water subsides and the TV cameras move on, people are not left in the lurch and get the ongoing help they need?

I strongly agree with the right hon. and learned Lady—I am sure that everyone does from all parts of the House—that that is precisely what we should be doing. She may know that we have already reached an agreement with the insurance industry on a long-term approach to insuring properties that are susceptible to flooding, and we can now move forward on that. She will know that we have increased the coverage under the Bellwin formula in terms of the money provided to councils that have had to spend more of their own resources to deal with this terrible emergency. Yes, of course we will need to work with the insurance industry, businesses, the farming community and local authorities to ensure that proper coverage and compensation is provided.

T3. I know the Deputy Prime Minister respects the Court in Strasbourg, but I also know that he respects the courts and judges in this country. Therefore does he agree with Lord Justice Laws who recently said that treating Strasbourg decisions as authoritative represents a wrong turning in British law? (90252)

It is absolutely essential that we as a country always abide by the law and by our international legal commitments. The hon. Gentleman will know that an independent commission looked into the case for a UK Bill of Rights, of which he is a great advocate, and provided its final report in December 2012. It concluded that this was not the right time to change the legal framework that governs the application of human rights in this country and the translation of the European convention, not least because of the knock-on effect on the devolved judicial systems within the United Kingdom.

T2. The Deputy Prime Minister will know that local authorities with the highest levels of deprivation are facing unprecedented cuts. Will he assure the House that the cost of securing individual voter registration will not be at the cost of council services aimed at supporting the poorest and most vulnerable in our society and will be fully met by central Government? (902519)

Those parts of the country where we have the highest number of under-registered populations, such as student areas, will receive more resources to do what is clearly a more resource-intensive job than in other areas. That will be reflected in the way in which the individual electoral registration system is funded.

T4. Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the target set by Worcestershire local enterprise partnership of creating 10,000 new apprenticeships by 2016? Those are real jobs and real training for local people. (902523)

I will certainly join her in celebrating the work of Worcestershire LEP, and indeed the LEPs, businesses and local authorities up and down the country that are expanding apprenticeships. As my hon. Friend knows, notwithstanding all the very difficult costs and savings we have had to make in this coalition Government to clear up the mess we inherited from the Labour party, we have none the less increased the number of apprenticeships across the country to unprecedented levels. We will roll out 250,000 more apprenticeships during this Parliament than were planned by the Labour party when it was in office.

T5. Speaking of messes, the Deputy Prime Minister went on LBC to defend the handling of the Royal Mail sale by saying that the Business Secretary is not a share price expert. Will he now concede to this House that Royal Mail was sold off too cheaply? (902524)

The point I was making then, and that my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary has also made, is that the price was set following independent advice provided to him and to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. I do not think that anybody here should be seeking to second guess the advice that was received. I hope the hon. Gentleman will join me in hoping that Royal Mail will continue to be a successful company, providing universal coverage of postal deliveries across the country.

T6. Last Friday, I held an export fair with UK Trade & Investment at Sci-Tech’s enterprise zone in my constituency to encourage business and entrepreneurs to look at expanding into the export trade. Will my right hon. Friend set out what steps the Government have taken to encourage small and medium-sized enterprises to work with local enterprise partnerships, enterprise zones and UKTI to promote growth and entrepreneurship? (902525)

I certainly want to welcome what the hon. Gentleman is doing with his local LEP and others. He is right that there are dangers in too much duplication—too many Government and non-governmental bodies, quangos and other arm’s length bodies all aiming at the same objective. That is why the Government have encouraged local authorities and LEPs to work together to create growth hubs in which there is a single port of call for businesses that want to access the assistance they need to improve exports for businesses in the local area.

T7. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that London and the south-east are increasingly powerful compared with regional cities? Does he agree with Boris Johnson’s campaign, which would allow London to retain an even greater share of taxes down in London and the south? (902526)

I certainly agree with the characterisation that over-centralisation, both economically and politically, is a problem that has blighted our country for a very, very long time, which is why I would highlight the importance of city deals—the most radical cutting of the purse strings that have controlled the way in which cities in the north of England and elsewhere behave by the Treasury. It is a radical step in decentralisation, as is the localising of business rates and the investment in HS2 to make sure that the north prospers in future just as much as the south.

T8. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the electoral conduct report by the all-party group against anti-Semitism has provided useful recommendations on how we can conduct our election campaigns vigorously, but without grossly discriminatory campaigning? Will he agree to meet a deputation from that panel to discuss its recommendations? (902527)

I certainly thank my right hon. Friend and the hon. Member for North East Derbyshire (Natascha Engel), the Chair of the Backbench Business Committee, and others for their report, which is extremely good. We have looked closely at the recommendations, and I wrote to the Chair recently with my views both as a party leader and on behalf of the Government on how we can respond to them. Quite a lot of the recommendations, funnily enough, are enshrined in the Transparency of Lobbying, Non-party Campaigning and Trade Union Administration Act 2014, especially on non-party campaigning. A number of other recommendations can be dealt with only with proper cross-party consensus, with political parties taking action as political parties, and I very much hope that we will all do that.

Has the Deputy Prime Minister seen the comments of the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Chancellor, who said on Monday that

“Nick Clegg complains quite often that Danny Alexander has gone native in the Treasury. I think there is some truth in the fact that he has gone native in the Treasury.”

He said:

“The relationship between George and Danny Alexander is very, very good.”

The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware of Stockholm syndrome, in which captives increasingly empathise with their captives. What is he going to do to de-programme “the Treasury one”?

I have just seen those quotes from the hon. Member for Reading East (Mr Wilson)—I am not sure if he is in the Chamber—who claims that he is extremely close to the Chancellor, knows his mind and that he is his “wingman”. He is as good a wing man as Icarus was in flying off on his own wings, judging by his comments. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury is doing an outstanding job on behalf of the Government and the Liberal Democrats. Only last week he said that further cuts for the wealthiest in society would happen over his dead body. That and so many other examples show that his Liberal Democrat heart is exactly where it should be.

T10. Does the Deputy Prime Minister share my concern that 75% of the British people tell pollsters that they think that human rights are a charter for criminals and the undeserving? Is it not time that we introduced a British Bill of Rights with constitutional reform that gives the final say back to the Supreme Court? (902529)

As I said earlier, when this was looked at very carefully by a number of eminent experts they concluded in December 2012 that it would not be right to undo or unwind a lot of the protections that we all enjoy under existing human rights law, and that a British Bill of Rights would run the risk of unpicking many of the protections enjoyed across the United Kingdom, given the fact that we have a fairly devolved legal system. More generally, of course, this sometimes poses difficult problems for the House and we have to wrestle with difficult issues, but it is worth reminding people that these are human rights for British citizens, and are already enshrined in British law.

T12. When the Deputy Prime Minister was getting close to President Santos, did he mention the names Huber Ballesteros, Francisco Toloza, David Ravelo, and did he inquire when those political prisoners might be released from incarceration in Colombian prisons? (902531)

As I said to the hon. Gentleman in answer to an earlier question, of course I discussed the need to improve human rights in Colombia. As he knows, President Santos is committed to embarking on a new human rights initiative during the course of this year. I urge the hon. Gentleman to ask the simple question: if we want to protect human rights abroad as much as we do here—I think we share that view—surely one of the best ways to do that is to work hard with other Governments, including President Santos’s Government, to create peace. If there is constant violence, it is very difficult to protect human rights.

T11. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that the Coventry and Warwickshire city deal initiative could see tens of millions of pounds invested locally, which would build on the recent successes that we have seen in the automotive supply chain industry and manufacturing industry, creating jobs and boosting investment? (902530)

I congratulate my hon. Friend on the excellent support that he has given to the Coventry and Warwickshire city deal, which we were able finally to conclude. It is as a result of that deal and other initiatives that we will be able to support more than 15,000 new jobs by 2025 and unlock £91 million of public and private sector investment—yet another example of economic decentralisation that will help to create jobs throughout the country.

In order to serve on a jury, one needs to be on the electoral register. Are the Government increasing the maximum age for jurors from 70 to 75 to make up the numbers of all those young people who will no longer be eligible to serve?

The ambition is to increase the number of young people who are registered. A number of Members have already mentioned the work of Bite the Ballot and other organisations that are campaigning hard to do that. If we get individual voter registration right, as I hope we will—which was first proposed by the Labour Government, not the coalition Government—levels of registration in under-registered populations should increase rather than decrease.

T13. As I am sure my right hon. Friend knows, last Wednesday was Bite the Ballot national voter registration day, designed to engage with the 4 million young people who are missing from our register. What actions will he take to engage those people and get them registered, such as perhaps emulating the schools initiative in Northern Ireland? (902532)

As was said earlier, we announced last week that five national organisations and every local authority in Great Britain will be sharing £4.2 million-worth of new resources to maximise registration. As my hon. Friend mentioned schools, it is worth remembering that next September a new citizenship programme will be taught that stipulates that pupils in schools should learn about parliamentary democracy and citizenship more widely. That is another opportunity to raise the profile of the importance of getting young people registered on the electoral roll.

The Deputy Prime Minister promised this week that there will be no politicisation of Ofsted, so will he take this opportunity to restore some of the public confidence that has been lost in recent days and give the House an assurance that the major Conservative party donor, Theodore Agnew, will not be appointed as chair of Ofsted, which the Education Secretary is reportedly trying to achieve?

I can certainly reassure the hon. Lady and the House that any appointments to Ofsted, or indeed any other important public bodies, will conform to the code for the appointment to public bodies, and that the panel that is being established to put forward candidates for that new Ofsted position will be entirely independent and will be asked to propose candidates based only on merit. There will be no political interference in the creation of the short-list of candidates whatsoever.

Last week, I visited Wellfield school in my constituency, an excellent junior school that fully supports the Government’s plans for free school meals. Its problem is that it does not have a facility within the school to provide those meals. It has spoken to the county council and the diocese, but it is getting nowhere with them. Will my right hon. Friend meet me, or ask his Education Secretary to meet me, to try to resolve the problem before the plans are introduced in September?

I will certainly ask a Minister in the Department for Education to meet my hon. Friend to discuss that. As he knows, we have set aside £1 billion in revenue funding to deliver that next September so that all young children in the first three years of primary school get a healthy meal at lunch time, which raises educational standards and helps close the attainment gap, as study after study have shown. In addition—this addresses his point—we have set aside £150 million in capital investment to improve kitchen and dining facilities for schools that do not have them and nearly £10 million to fund an implementation support service. I think that will be a great progressive step towards helping children who do not get a healthy meal get one and to help their education.

People from ethnic minority backgrounds are as likely to vote as the population as a whole if they are registered, but registration rates are much lower among certain ethnic minority communities. Can the Deputy Prime Minister say what is being done specifically to encourage people from ethnic minority backgrounds to vote, particularly under individual voter registration?

Yes, I can. The £4.5 million that I mentioned earlier was allocated only a few days ago to all local authorities and to a number of organisations. Their work will be tested against the objective of helping black and minority ethnic groups, students and others who are under-represented on the register be more fully represented on it. That is what that money and that work is for, and I hope that it will be successful.

What specific measures, rather than general ones, have been put in place to make it easier, quicker and cheaper to remove people from the electoral register who legally should not be on it?

I think that awareness of the integrity of the register has increased significantly. The work that I have already alluded to, and indeed the introduction of individual voter registration, is all about improving the integrity of the register to ensure that those who should not be on it are not on it. Ultimately, that is what individual voter registration is all about—bearing down on fraud and improving the integrity of the register.

In Scotland, 16 and 17-year-olds are about to vote for the first time this year. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that there is inconsistency in the voting age across the UK and, if so, what does he intend to do to address it?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I am an advocate of votes at 16. People can do all sorts of things at age 16 or 17, such as paying taxes and serving in the armed forces, but they cannot vote. That is why my party will remain a staunch advocate of votes at 16. As my hon. Friend said earlier, we have not agreed that across the coalition, but I hope that it will happen eventually.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister believe that the level of immigration into this country is too high, too low or about right?

I do not think that there is a magical number. I think that the key to encouraging public confidence in the immigration system is ensuring that it is tough where it needs to be—stamping out abuse, cutting out the loopholes, ensuring that illegal immigration is diminishing and counting people in as well as out, which is why I am so keen to reintroduce the exit checks that previous Governments removed—but at the same time remaining open for business, because we are nothing as an economy if we are not open to the rest of the world.

The Deputy Prime Minister’s rhetoric on electoral registration might carry a bit more weight if his own local council followed his advice. Is he aware that in Stockport, in the wards that I represent, electoral registration is 20% below the level in the Tameside wards? What is he going to do to ensure that Liberal Democrat Stockport gets its act together?

I can see how angry the hon. Gentleman is about that—[Interruption.] As he should be, as Opposition Front Benchers say portentously from a sedentary position. He should welcome the £4.5 million that we recently allocated to the five organisations working nationally and to all local authorities precisely to address the issue he highlights.