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Topical Questions

Volume 578: debated on Tuesday 25 March 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.

When he was a senior tax civil servant, Mr Dave Hartnett met the head of Deloitte 48 times, including one meeting in which he reduced the tax liability of one of its clients from £6 billion to £1.25 billion. The Public Administration Committee issued a report about the revolving door and its dangers 20 months ago. Why have the Government not replied?

Of course the Government will reply to the report, but, much more importantly, in Budget after Budget and autumn statement after autumn statement, we have taken steps to close the huge loopholes in our tax system that we inherited from the Labour party. We have recouped billions of pounds into the Treasury’s coffers that otherwise would have gone walkabout because of such large-scale tax avoidance and, indeed, illegal tax evasion.

T3. Will the Deputy Prime Minister, in the interests of transparency and accountability, publish details of all the policy proposals that Liberal Democrat members of the quad have vetoed? (903250)

Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that new figures show that the Government’s trebling of tuition fees is on course to end up costing the taxpayer more than the system it replaced?

The new figures show that there are now more people at university than ever before; that a higher proportion of youngsters from disadvantaged families are at university than ever before; that there is a higher rate of participation in higher education by youngsters from black minority ethnic backgrounds than ever before; and that there is a higher rate of applications to go to university from our youngsters than ever before. Surely, rather than speculating on what people may or may not earn in 35 years, the Labour party should celebrate the fact that more people are going to university and that more people from disadvantaged backgrounds are going to university.

The Deputy Prime Minister’s bluster will not have disguised the fact that he has not answered the question. He said he had to back the Tories on tuition fees because it was too expensive not to. The truth is, as even the former departmental special adviser has now admitted, the Government “got its maths wrong”. There are now rumours that, to cover the costs of this incompetence, the Government could put up fees again. The Deputy Prime Minister said that he got it wrong on tuition fees in his last manifesto. Will he now confirm that the next Lib Dem manifesto will rule out any further tuition fee increase?

There is absolutely no need for a further increase. In fact, we announced at the end of last year that universities will be able to take an unlimited number of students. We are removing the cap on the number of British students going to British universities and there is no cap on the number of overseas students, so there is no need for an increase. The right hon. and learned Lady talks about the figures and the cost. What is the cost for individual students? Someone earning £24,000 was paying £67.50 per month under the fees system that her Government introduced. Under our system, they are paying not £67.50 per month, but £22.50 per month. Is that not the reason why, despite all the Labour party’s predictions that people would not apply to university, applications have gone up? Is that not the reason why, despite all the predictions by the right hon. and learned Lady and her colleagues that fewer people from disadvantaged families would go, the proportion has gone up? Those are the facts that really matter for students these days.

T7. The recently announced sale of AstraZeneca’s Alderley Park site to Manchester Science Parks is a vital step in creating a sustainable future for that site. Given that news, does my right hon. Friend agree that serious consideration should be given to the proposals for a science corridor from the Cheshire and Warrington local enterprise partnership and the neighbouring LEPs in their growth deal submissions? (903254)

I am delighted that AstraZeneca, with the support of the Alderley Park taskforce, has attracted a new owner that shares its vision for a sustainable, science-led future for the site. I know that Manchester Science Parks will continue to work with local partners to develop a clear vision for an exciting future at the site. It is very encouraging that the LEP is promoting the opportunities within the science corridor that stretches across Cheshire from Thornton in the west, through Warrington and on to Alderley Park and Jodrell Bank in the east. I very much look forward to receiving the proposal.

T2. Two weeks ago, the Deputy Prime Minister and his Liberal Democrat colleagues could have voted to retain the legal protection for successful hospitals that neighbour failing trusts placed into administration, but they did not. Instead, there was shameless posturing and then spineless behaviour when it came to the vote. What is his excuse this time? (903249)

We actually strengthened the provisions on local consultation. Given that the hon. Lady is so keen to reinvent history, how about this for a record? In Wales, which is run by Labour, the A and E targets were last met in 2009. It was her party that entered into a quarter of a billion pounds-worth of sweetheart deals with the private sector—something that we have outlawed in legislation.

T9. In January, the Deputy Prime Minister addressed a conference on mental health. There are concerns in my constituency that patients are having to travel long distances to get a bed. One patient in Medway was transferred 350 miles to Carlisle. What are the Government doing to ensure that patients get help and support within the community? (903256)

I strongly share the hon. Gentleman’s concern. It is unacceptable for any patient to be transferred such a long distance to receive proper care in the mental health system. As he will know, and as I announced in January in respect of our action plan on mental health, we are the first Government to put mental health and physical health on the same footing in the mandate for the NHS. It is now up to clinical commissioning groups and other commissioners within the devolved structures in the NHS to reflect that parity of emphasis on mental health and physical health in their commissioning decisions. Until that happens, I worry that some patients will fall between the gaps. That is why I am keen that commissioners should act on the mandate that we have given them.

T4. The Deputy Prime Minister actively campaigned on the campuses of both the universities in my constituency on his solemn pledge to oppose any increase in tuition fees. He has apologised for making that pledge. Now that the system is transparently broken, will he realise that his real mistake was to break it? (903251)

The system of the hon. Gentleman’s party meant that thousands of part-time students paid up-front fees. We ended those. His party’s system meant that people paid more out of their bank accounts every week and every month repaying Labour fees than they are paying under the current system. Under his party’s system, a smaller proportion of people from disadvantaged backgrounds went to university. Instead of constantly denigrating the fact that under this Government more youngsters are going to university than ever before, he should be celebrating it.

T12. Dorset is obviously not a core city, but it does have significant pockets of deprivation. How will the Deputy Prime Minister ensure that there is a growth deal that builds on the opportunities of our air and sea ports, and the high potential for growth and job creation in a number of spheres? (903260)

I urge my hon. Friend and everybody in the private or public sector who is concerned about the economic future of Dorset to work together to assemble the best possible proposal for the new local growth deals which we stand ready to receive in the coming days. We will look at it as quickly as possible and will hopefully make a positive announcement in the summer for the economic future of Dorset.

T5. Last week’s Budget confirmed that this Government are to go ahead with a £600 million raid on the incomes of the working poor over the next three years by freezing the work allowance on universal credit. Is it not the case that what this Government give with one hand in the personal tax allowance, they will take away with the other under universal credit? (903252)

I remind the hon. Gentleman that it was his party’s monumental mismanagement of the economy that cost every household in this country over £3,000. I read last week that a former Labour adviser said—this is extraordinary—that

“you cannot trust people to spend their own money sensibly”.

I have got news for him: people do not want to trust Labour with their money.

I, too, welcome the news about the Siemens investment in Hull and congratulate the Government on their efforts in achieving that, particularly the Minister with responsibility for cities, the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), for his work on the city deal. Will the Government give an assurance that they will now work hard to conclude the Able development on the south bank?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, I have visited the site with him. It is very important that the Siemens deal, which has finally been confirmed, is not the end of the story and acts as a catalyst for wider regeneration, particularly in the green and renewable technology fields in the whole Humber area.

T6. Given the Deputy Prime Minister’s keen interest in child care, will he commit to immediate help for low-paid families by increasing the percentage cover to 80% now, not waiting for the roll-out of universal credit, especially as that roll-out for families is disappearing over the event horizon? (903253)

The hon. Lady is pushing for an increase to 80% of all child care costs. We have gone much better than that: we have said 85% of all child care costs will be covered for those receiving universal credit. As she will also know, we are the first Government to deliver 15 hours of pre-school support to all three and four-year-olds; we are the first Government ever to deliver 15 hours of free pre-school support to two-year-olds from the poorest families; and we are the first Government ever to announce tax-free child care entitlements, which will be available to everyone with children up to the age of 12 as of next year. Those are huge changes. Yes, let’s all go further, but I hope she will agree that those are big, bold, progressive changes.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in sending our best wishes and congratulations to the same-sex couples across our country who, for the first time, will get married this Saturday?

I do so strongly. I join my hon. Friend in recognising the joy of many same-sex couples who will finally be able to marry under British law this weekend. It is a great, great moment. It is a day that they will always remember, and I hope it is a day that the nation will never forget. It is a great step forward for us all.

T8. The Deputy Prime Minister promised to make mental health a priority for this Government, but on their watch mental health spending has been cut in real terms, hundreds of mental health beds have been lost, and services are now under such pressure that the police are having to legally section people with mental health problems just so that they can get a bed. Can the Deputy Prime Minister tell us what happened to the promise? (903255)

As I said earlier, we have moved to provide a legal recognition of the status of mental health, which has for far too long been overlooked in the NHS as greater emphasis has been placed on physical health issues. In the mandate given to the NHS, they are now on an equal footing, but of course I accept that that parity of emphasis needs to be reflected in many individual commissioning decisions. I am not content when I hear that some clinical commissioning groups are not yet reflecting the equality of esteem for mental and physical health in their commissioning decisions. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have put hundreds of millions of pounds into improving talking therapies, and hundreds of millions of pounds into improving mental health for children, but I accept that there is still a long way to go.

I understand that my right hon. Friend had discussions last week with a resident of North Cornwall about the disposal of dredge spoil in Whitsand bay in my constituency and is reported as being shocked that all sides are passing the buck. What action has he taken or is he taking?

I am sure the hon. Lady will have raised the matter with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which will need to look into it. If she has not done so, I strongly urge her to do so. I am keen to ensure that that happens. I was not aware of the issue, but I can certainly imagine that it is a matter of great concern to the local residents she represents.

T10. The Government’s bedroom tax has affected nearly 2,000 families in Redcar and Cleveland, putting some families into arrears and increasing the number of unused, vacant properties. Does the Deputy Prime Minister think his policy has been a success in relation to his portfolio of increasing social mobility? (903258)

The hon. Gentleman may wish to bury his head in the sand, but there is a problem. About 1.7 million people are unable to get into housing, many children in our country are living in overcrowded properties where there is no space for them to do their homework, and there are 1.5 million spare bedrooms. We somehow need to make sure that those who do not have space are provided with it, and we need to deal with overcrowding, and that is what the Government are seeking to do.

A few moments ago, the Deputy Prime Minister was a tad shy when my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) asked him about the coalition policies that the Liberal Democrats had vetoed. Will he confirm that transparency is one of the principles that fall within the ambit of his responsibilities for constitutional reform, or do we have to wait until the general election and the Liberal Democrat manifesto to hear about the Liberal Democrats’ commitment to open government?

The hon. Gentleman wants some examples: I said no to proposals from his party that anyone could basically be fired at will with no reason at all; I said no to his party’s proposals for a snoopers charter; and I have said no to profit making in state schools and to prioritising tax cuts for millionaires when our priority should be tax cuts for many people on middle and low incomes. If he wants me to go on about how the Liberal Democrats are anchoring the Government in the centre ground to ensure that we build a stronger economy and a fairer society, be my guest.

T11. A recent answer to a parliamentary question reveals that by 2015 construction will have started on only 10% of schools in the Deputy Prime Minister’s priority school building programme. Is he happy with that record? (903259)

There has been a long record of ineffective use of the public funds provided to schools for their redevelopment. The Building Schools for the Future programme, for instance, was widely recognised to be inefficient in the deployment of funds. We are providing billions and billions of pounds of capital so that schools can be rebuilt across the country, and of course all of us, on behalf of our constituents, want that rebuilding programme to take place as soon as possible.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister encourage his colleagues to apply for a grant for Somerset from the European regional disaster fund before the deadline of 4 April? Gloucestershire had £31 million from the EU solidarity fund after the flooding in 2007; why not Somerset?

I know my hon. Friend feels strongly about that, but I hope she is also aware that there are a number of eligibility requirements when seeking to access funds from the EU solidarity fund. We have compared the damage today with the 2007 floods, and following contact with the European Commission, our assessment is that we have not met those conditions. Of course, that does not mean that there are not other avenues that we can explore. As I think she knows, we are having discussions with EU institutions such as the European Investment Bank to support the existing package of UK Government assistance, which includes £130 million for flood recovery in the south-west.

T13. May I ask the Deputy Prime Minister about another of his pledges—universal free school meals for infants from September, which were pioneered in Hull but scrapped by the Liberal Democrat council when it came to power? Will he confirm whether they will be hot school meals or cold packed lunches? (903262)

They need to be healthy meals that are provided to all toddlers and young children in the first three years at primary school. The hon. Lady is right that that has been piloted across the country, not only in her constituency but in Durham, Newham and elsewhere, and it has been shown to provide dramatic educational benefits. Of course the majority of the meals will be hot, but we are not going to prescribe, in the centralising way that I know her party is so fond of, that they are going to be hot in every single location across 24,000 schools in our country, but they do need to be healthy, hot and freely available. That will benefit families to the tune of hundreds of pounds and boost social mobility across the country.

The Deputy Prime Minister takes a lot of personal credit for extending free child care places for two-year-olds from families on low incomes from September. However, what advice would he give the headmaster of Carterhatch children’s centre, who is now telling fee-paying parents to remove their children from his school to make way for that expansion?

This is not a zero-sum game between better-off families and less better-off families. The evidence is overwhelming that if we want all children from all backgrounds to do well, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, we should use what available resources we have to give pre-school support to very small children—two-year-olds—from the poorest families. That is why it is a groundbreaking entitlement. I accept that it is of course a challenge for some nursery settings, but I very much hope and I think it is already the case that it is being implemented successfully across the country and will benefit children for many years to come.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister go back and think about universities, and perhaps talk to some vice-chancellors? Vice-chancellors who are giving evidence to the Higher Education Commission, which I co-chair, have said that they are extremely worried about the long-term financial sustainability of a higher education system based on a mountain of student debt.

What I find so curious is that the hon. Gentleman’s party now seems to be attacking our student loans repayment system for being too generous. It is more generous in many respects than the one over which Labour presided. Under Labour, graduates had to pay back the moment they earned £15,000; under our system, they do not have to pay anything back at £16,000, £17,000, £18,000, £19,000 or £20,000, but only at £21,000. The figures he refers to are predictions, which will of course vary wildly from one estimate to the next, about what graduates will earn not next decade, not the decade after that and not the decade after that, but in 35 years. Surely he should focus on the success of more young people from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university, rather than trying to make political mischief about what may or may not happen in 35 years’ time.

After the general election, I had the privilege to be the first MP to introduce 100 apprentices in 100 days for Eastbourne, which was a huge success. Since then, more than 3,000 new apprentices have started in Eastbourne, which is more than in the previous seven years put together. However, I have a real concern. A lot of the apprenticeships have come through on a level 2 pathway, which is crucial for people who are less academic, and I am concerned that the Labour party appears to be pulling that rug out from under them. What does the Deputy Prime Minister have to say about that?

I certainly share my hon. Friend’s pride in the fact that this Government, led by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in the Business Department, have spearheaded the largest expansion of apprenticeships in living memory. I am utterly dismayed that the Labour party wants to pull the rug out from under hundreds of thousands of youngsters on level 2 apprenticeships by no longer calling them apprentices. What a great way to support young people in our country!