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Topical Questions

Volume 575: debated on Tuesday 11 February 2014

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.