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Topical Questions

Volume 580: debated on Tuesday 13 May 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 the Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.

Real wages are down, 1.4 million people are stuck on zero-hours contracts and thousands more families have been forced to turn to food banks. Is that the right hon. Gentleman’s party making a difference in government?

The hon. Lady might have forgotten that when we came to power her party had left an absolute economic catastrophe behind. The great Labour recession in 2008 cost every household in this country more than £3,000. Her party predicted that more than 1 million more people would be unemployed when in fact 1.7 million new jobs have been created, of which we are very proud.

T5. I know that the Deputy Prime Minister has been somewhat exercised about minimum terms for knife crime, but he must be aware of the repeated guidance of senior judges and the residual discretion that will exist in the proposals to reflect other minimum terms. What is his beef? (904007)

It is important that sentences fit the circumstances of a crime and that, in seeking to address knife crime, which is a concern that unites the House, we do not unwittingly do something that can lead to higher reoffending rates. As we know from bitter experience, decanting young people into prison for short sentences leads to a revolving door of crime. I want to see less crime, not more, and that is why I want us to be smart, not simply to talk tough on crime.

Not least as a result of difficulties in being able to afford to buy a home, 9 million people are now renting. That figure includes 1.3 million families with children, for whom security and continuity are particularly important. Does the Deputy Prime Minister back our plans to move from one-year tenancies with unpredictable rents, to three-year tenancies with predictable rents? Will he back our proposal to stop letting agencies charging tenants as well as landlords?

The right hon. and learned Lady makes an important point about the virtues of longer-term tenancies. We are working on a model tenancy agreement that will support tenants and families who want a longer fixed-term tenancy, and will publish the final agreement in the summer.

Although the right hon. and learned Lady rightly identifies the problem on agencies’ charges, the solution that she suggests may lead to higher rental costs for people renting properties. That is why we will announce today that we will place new obligations on agents to publish with full transparency the fees that they charge, so that people can shop around and get the best deal available.

But transparency is not good enough. We need to be sure that letting agents do not rip tenants off by, as well as charging the landlords, charging the tenants. There will be a vote in the House today. Will he vote with us to protect people in rented accommodation, or will he back the Tories in standing up for the rip-off letting agencies?

As I explained, we all share the right hon. and learned Lady’s concern about those charges. We just want to make sure that the solution does not make the situation worse, because once rents go up, they tend to stay up.

The fundamental problem, for which her party bears a heavy responsibility, is that we are simply not building enough affordable homes in this country, and have not done so for a long period. Under the previous Government, fewer social homes were built than under the Thatcher Government. Now, the rate of affordable house building is higher than it has been in the past 20 years.

T6. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that consumers deserve to have clear labelling of all halal meat in stores and restaurants? If my constituents go to Pizza Express, they expect the guidance and labelling to be on the menu, not just on the website. (904008)

I have a lot of sympathy with what my hon. Friend says. Consumers need the right information about the food that they are buying. Some meat is already voluntarily labelled as halal or kosher. This is an issue that provokes strong responses, and for some people it is important that all meat is labelled clearly. We are working with other EU countries to look at the best options for compulsory labelling, to give consumers the choice they want. A study into this matter will finish this summer, and we will review the options then.

T3. The Deputy Prime Minister claims that he has lowered taxes for poorer households by raising the personal allowance, but will he confirm that the localisation of council tax support is raising taxes for the very worst off? (904005)

As I said earlier, we inherited a situation in which we needed to restore stability to the public finances, create growth, create employment and create an incentive for people to work. That is why there have been some controversial reforms, but we have also introduced the biggest change in the personal income tax system in a generation, taking 3 million people on low pay out of paying any income tax.

T7. How big a contribution is the Government’s universal free school meal policy expected to make to social mobility? (904009)

Despite some claims to the contrary, this policy has been researched and worked on for many years, including two two-year pilots. The evidence shows not only that children get a health benefit from eating more healthy meals and a social benefit as they sit together to share those meals but that the policy is having dramatic effects on closing the attainment gap, which is still too wide in far too many of our schools across the country.

T4. Last week, I met a disabled Sheffield grandmother who helped her two daughters to stay in work by looking after her grandchildren a few times a week, but two of her three bedrooms were deemed surplus by the Government. In tears, she told me that she could not make ends meet because of the bedroom tax. The Deputy Prime Minister is trying to distance himself from the Conservatives, but why not on the bedroom tax, which was only voted through with his support? (904006)

As the hon. Gentleman and I have debated in the past, the fact that many families, including in Sheffield, live in overcrowded properties where there is no space for young children to do their homework, and not enough space for people to live in decent conditions, is a fundamental problem. Overcrowding is a real issue, yet we have many other places where people live in social rented accommodation with rooms that they do not need. In some way—I know that the hon. Gentleman wants to put his head in the sand like the rest of his party and does not want to deal with any of these difficult issues—we need to make sense of that, and that is what we are trying to do.

T8. Cummins Turbo Technologies, David Brown and Huddersfield university have benefited from regional growth fund investment. What plans does the Deputy Prime Minister have for further rounds of that investment scheme, which is sustaining, safeguarding and creating sustainable jobs in my part of west Yorkshire. (904010)

I congratulate my hon. Friend, who is a great champion of the regional growth fund. I have visited a number of the projects that he mentioned. Rounds 1 to 5 of the regional growth fund have awarded Yorkshire and Humber £270 million across 52 projects and programmes, which is expected to generate 64,000 jobs and private investment of £1.7 billion. There are many examples, as he himself has cited. The next round—round 6—will open this summer, so local bidders will be able to make further bids for regional growth fund money at that point.

T9. At the last election, political parties spent 10 times what third parties spent, so why did the Government choose to clamp down on third parties, which will do very little to take the big money out of politics? (904011)

I will send the hon. Gentleman the statistics. The amount of expenditure by third parties at election time has increased dramatically. What all of us on both sides of the House want to avoid is an American-style situation in which more and more organisations effectively seek to influence the electoral contest in different areas and constituencies, but do not abide by the same levels of transparency as political parties. All we are doing is saying to people who want to influence the outcome of an election that they need to publish the same amount of information in the same transparent way as we do as representatives of our political parties.

T11. It is very welcome and appropriate that the Government officially recognise that Cornwall has a significant role to play in the celebration of diversity in the UK, but given the Government’s clear desire to devolve, will my right hon. Friend ensure that Cornwall is given the appropriate powers within the EU funding programme to make decisions and drive the programme itself? (904013)

I share with my hon. Friend the good news that the Government have formally recognised the distinct identity of the Cornish people and, indeed, have provided more support for the teaching of the Cornish language. On the issue of the so-called convergence programme and the management of EU funding programmes in Cornwall, discussions are ongoing. Cornwall will have full input through the growth programme board and through local committees.

T10. The Government are keen to talk up their investment in cities, but they are doing nothing to ensure that superfast broadband is rolled out properly, with a third of businesses in Shoreditch, where Tech City is, not having access to it. Will the Deputy Prime Minister take that up in government? What will he do about it? (904012)

If the hon. Lady wishes to write to me about a particular instance in which she feels that progress has not been made, I am more than happy to take that up. As she will know, huge progress has been made in rolling out superfast broadband across the country, but she is right that there are bottlenecks that we are working constantly to alleviate. If she wants to raise any specific instances with me, I am happy to make sure that they are addressed.

T12. Given the Deputy Prime Minister’s chairmanship of the Home Affairs Cabinet Committee, does he agree with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the vast majority of the British people that it would be in the country’s best interest to have a net reduction in net migration? (904014)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, there has been a significant reduction in the number of people coming to our country from outside the European Union. I have never been an advocate of specific net migration figures, because there are many factors—not least freedom of movement across the European Union—over which we do not have any control. I want to have an immigration system that is tough where it needs to be tough. That is why I am a leading advocate of the reintroduction of exit checks—which were removed by previous Governments—so that we can count people out as well as in, but being welcoming to those people who want to play by the rules, pay their taxes and make a contribution to British life.

I note that the hon. Member for Newport West (Paul Flynn) is sitting in a diagonally opposite position to his usual preferred berth.

T14. It is difficult to hit a moving target, Mr Speaker. There are enormous variations in the numbers registered by electoral registration officers: the best figure is in north Wales, where up to 97% of eligible voters are registered, but it is clear that some areas are not doing the same job. What will the Deputy Prime Minister do to encourage these English laggards to catch up with the splendid example set by Wales? (904017)

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. Of course, we need to see the highest rates of registration possible. That is why, as we move towards individual voter registration, there will be several opportunities to transfer people automatically on to the new register and to make sure that there are door-to-door visits by electoral registration officers to give people the opportunity to register properly. I believe we are putting in place all the belt-and-braces measures we can to make sure that registration levels increase.

T13. Tomorrow, the Chester-based Registered Digital Institute, along with supporting charities such as Childnet, the Internet Watch Foundation and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, will come to Parliament to demonstrate the new friendly wi-fi scheme, which will help ensure that public networks are safe for families and children to use. Will my right hon. Friend support this worthwhile new initiative to improve online safety? (904015)

I welcome, as no doubt does my hon. Friend, any initiative taken by industry to help parents keep their children safe online. I warmly welcome the initiative that he is involved with tomorrow. The more we can encourage partnership between industry and Government, the police and other agencies, the better for the safety of our children.

The outgoing chief executive of the North Eastern local enterprise partnership has said:

“I have six big programmes, most are £100 million-plus, with a six-person team. That simply does not work.”

Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with those comments and, if so, what are the Government going to do about it?

If I understand it correctly, that is an issue about the resources which are allocated in the council to those big projects. One of the answers—the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) alluded to this earlier—is ensuring that there is greater devolution, greater control, greater autonomy and freedom to local councils and local areas. That is why the city deal, for instance, has been so warmly welcomed in the north-east.

Can my right hon. Friend tell the House whether there are any plans to extend into Basildon the £20 million TIGER—Thames Gateway innovation, growth and enterprise—fund currently directed at Thurrock?

My understanding is that the proposal to extend the fund is being actively considered now, but no final decision has yet been taken.

The Government have hushed up an opinion poll from the taxpayers who paid for it at a cost of £50,000. The poll reportedly shows a surge in support for Scottish independence. Tory and Labour scare stories are not working. There should be no Government secrecy, so will the Deputy Prime Minister be straight with the public on independence and publish that poll? There is no reason that it should be kept secret.

I have learned to try to be a bit wary about opinion polls. The only poll that counts is the poll that will take place on 18 September. I very much hope, and people such as me who do not have a vote—those of us south of the border—fervently hope that the Scottish people will decide to remain part of the family of nations that makes up the United Kingdom, because there is so much that we can do together that we simply cannot do apart. That is very much the argument that I hope will prevail on 18 September.

Can the Deputy Prime Minister ensure that not just local councils’ work, but economic development through the local enterprise partnership, is centralised? Will he give the House an assurance that York will remain with York, North Yorkshire and East Riding local enterprise partnership?

Many of the decisions about exactly where the lines of the maps are drawn in respect of the remit of local enterprise partnerships should, wherever possible, be driven heavily by local consensus—by people agreeing among themselves, rather than having some diktat imposed from above. Inasmuch as my hon. Friend’s view reflects local opinion, which I do not know as well as she does, we would like to reinforce that in Whitehall as well.

Has not Patrick Mercer’s recent resignation as MP for Newark reinforced the urgent need for measures on recalling MPs, which the Deputy Prime Minister has promised? When will he introduce them?

Both the Prime Minister and I have made it clear that we want to proceed with proposals on recall, and when we do they will be properly scrutinised; the early drafts have already been scrutinised by the relevant Select Committee. We are trying to strike the right balance between ensuring that the public feel that they have a right of recall in circumstances in which serious wrongdoing has occurred and avoiding this becoming a sort of kangaroo court arrangement, with people simply seeking to take actions against each other. That is the balance we are trying to strike. We will of course bring forward proposals in due course.

On the same issue, given recent events, does the Deputy Prime Minister still believe that voters will be satisfied with a recall system that is triggered by the Standards Committee, rather than constituents? Does he still believe that, despite recent controversies?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, we were quite open in the coalition agreement, right at the beginning of the Government—I know that he does not like this—about feeling that there needed to be some triggers to prove that serious wrongdoing had occurred before recall takes place. I actually have quite a lot of sympathy with his much more radical approach, but I doubt that it would curry much favour across the Floor of the House. I want to get something done, rather than aiming for the stars and ending up with nothing.

What influence does the £960,800 donated to the Liberal Democrats by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust have on Government policy?

A whole lot less than the influence the trade unions have on anything asked by Labour MPs in this Chamber.

Further to the answer the Deputy Prime Minister gave my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Mr Buckland), does he recognise the inconsistency of his position on minimum sentencing for knife crime, given that he voted for it in 2011 on amendments I introduced with the Government for mandatory sentencing for knife crime offences?

That was for a different offence, as the hon. Gentleman knows. His proposal would make simply possessing a knife an offence, assuming that the individual already has a knife-related offence against their name. In those circumstances, in which judges would have no discretion whatsoever, the proposal could, in my view, lead unwittingly to precisely the revolving door of higher rates of reoffending that we saw time and again under the Labour Government, when endless populist gimmicks led to higher rates of reoffending. One of the things that I am proud of is that this coalition Government, by avoiding that approach, have seen crime fall to the lowest levels ever recorded.

The Government are not doing nearly enough to move public sector jobs out of London and into the regions. What does the Deputy Prime Minister think we should be doing to move organisations such as the Care Quality Commission and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority to places such as Darlington?

I am always open, as are the Government, to proposals on moving further parts of the public sector from Whitehall and London to other parts of the country. Sheffield has benefited enormously from that, with the Department for Work and Pensions and the business bank being established there. The BBC, a public sector body, has had a huge imprint on the north-west. We will of course look at any sensible proposals in the same direction.

In assessing LEP plans from across the country, will the Deputy Prime Minister be kind enough to pay particular attention to the need for an extra junction on the A14 near Kettering, which features in the plans of both the Northamptonshire and South East Midlands LEPs?

Any proposal that enjoys the support of not only one local enterprise partnership, but two should of course be considered very seriously, and that is exactly the nature of the consideration being devoted to that proposal.