Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 584: debated on Tuesday 8 July 2014

As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on a full range of Government policy initiatives. Within Government, I take special responsibility for the Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.

I support the Deputy Prime Minister’s policy to get some of the most disadvantaged two-year-olds into free child care. However, does he share my concern that nearly two thirds of councils recently reported that they have vulnerable two-year-olds in poor quality settings? What is more, the Sutton Trust says that that is likely to get worse in September as the scheme is expanded. What assurances can he give that no vulnerable two-year-old will be in a poor-quality child care setting?

I am glad the hon. Lady takes such an interest, because providing that free pre-school support to two-year-olds from the most disadvantaged families is a progressive and significant policy. I believe she is referring to the data released on 26 June which, it is worth pointing out, were from a census carried out in January. We are obviously looking at the data very carefully. As it happens, there are now around 280,000 vacant child care places available around the country. As she will know, the offer to two-year-olds will be expanded to twice as many families, so we need to ensure that there is a funded place available to around 260,000. The demand and supply are there, but she makes a valid point that the care needs to be of a high quality and standard. I am keen to take on board any ideas she has about how we can ensure that happens.

T3. May I take the opportunity to welcome the “devolution revolution” represented in the growth fund announcement yesterday? Specifically, the announcement about the Henbury line—after a lot of pestering it shows that pester power can work—is very welcome. For local residents, having a loop line soon is an absolute priority, before housing in north Bristol creates absolute gridlock. Will the Deputy Prime Minister work with the local enterprise partnership to ensure that the public’s priorities are represented in the LEP’s priorities? (904695)

First, I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for the phrase “devolution revolution”. We should have used that yesterday—it would, perhaps, have given us even more coverage. On the Henbury loop line, she is right to say that this has been warmly welcomed by the local community. I pay tribute to all the work she has done to make sure that that is the case. In terms of the plans the local enterprise partnership comes up with, the whole point of LEPs is precisely that they speak on behalf of the community and that they do not represent a top-down quango approach. My understanding is that as part of the growth deal with the west of England, we have agreed to co-invest in several jointly agreed priorities, including the MetroWest project, which reflect local needs and local wishes.

With more people going to A and E, not least because of the difficulty of seeing their GP, the average time people spend in A and E has gone up, not down, despite what the Prime Minister tried to claim last week. Last year, nearly 1 million patients had to wait more than four hours in A and E—the worst year in a decade. Is the Deputy Prime Minister, like the Prime Minister, just going to deny this, or will he get his Government to do something about it?

What I find so curious about the right hon. and learned Lady’s line of questioning is that it comes from the party of Mid Staffs and the party that doubled the number of managers. This is the party that refused to commit to the £12.7 billion funding increase that this Government put into the NHS. Above all, it was her Government who entered into outrageous sweetheart deals with the private sector that meant that a quarter of a billion pounds of taxpayers’ money was handed over to private sector health providers without helping a single NHS patient.

Of course we need to work hard to support our A and E services. They are under greater pressure than ever before, but her party’s approach—cutting the budget, employing more managers and not more nurses, and handing out sweetheart deals to the private sector—is not the way to do it.

Does the right hon. Gentleman really think that the terrible things that happened in Mid Staffs were representative of the situation in our fantastic NHS as a whole? Shame on him! People will see that there is no chance of the Government sorting out the problems in A and E when they are just intent on pretending there is no problem. It is the same old story when the Tories are in power: the NHS is undermined and people suffer. Does he realise that his plan to differentiate his party from the Tories is doomed to fail while he is supporting the Tories on the NHS every step of the way and smearing the NHS as well?

If the right hon. and learned Lady’s Government were not responsible for Mid Staffs, which Government were? They were in power at the time. The reports made it quite clear that it was because of the manic approach to targets that health professionals in Mid Staffs and elsewhere were taking such false decisions. Does she deny that her party still has not supported our budget increase for the NHS? Does she still deny that it was her Government who gave sweetheart deals to the private sector, and imposed botched privatisation and competition on the NHS? We do not need to take any lectures from her on the NHS.

T5. I welcome the investment for Kent announced yesterday in the local growth fund proposals, but does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that the Government and the South East local enterprise partnership should give further consideration to supporting the Folkestone seafront development, a scheme that could have a major impact on the further regeneration of the town? (904697)

I know how keen the hon. Gentleman and many of his constituents are on securing funding for the Folkestone seafront regeneration. I know that he is disappointed that it was not included in the growth deal announced yesterday, which was, of course, a significant one. It is worth £440 million between now and 2021, and in his area it is principally focused on some transport projects. I simply urge him to carry on making the case for the Folkestone seafront regeneration because the growth deals announced yesterday were not the final word; we want to continue with this approach and I very much hope that the Folkestone seafront regeneration project will finally be agreed.

T2. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that if individual voter registration is to work, we are all, in part, responsible for making it work, including civic society? May I ask him, very politely and very nicely, if he will consider the Bite the Ballot schools initiative? I heard what was said about this earlier. The Deputy Prime Minister used to be a good democrat; will he actually come out in favour of it? (904694)

I have attended a session in a school in my constituency under the so-called Rock Enrol! programme organised by the Bite the Ballot team, an excellent team with whom I have worked over many years. They are brilliant people who organise motivational schemes for young people who, almost invariably, are much more interested in voting as a result. All of us, as constituency MPs, must play our part in working in partnership with the organisation in schools in our local areas.

T6. The Government have repeatedly stressed the importance of rail connectivity to economic development, and did so again yesterday in the excellent announcements on local growth deals. May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to a proposal in a consultation document from the Department for Transport that suggests the ending of three services between Cleethorpes and Manchester, which could have a detrimental effect on the private sector investment that yesterday’s announcements were aimed to attract? (904698)

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we are currently considering options for services between Manchester and Cleethorpes in the new TransPennine Express and Northern franchises. So far the analysis of the journeys made by people has found that the majority of passengers from Cleethorpes are only travelling as far as Sheffield, or connecting at Doncaster or Sheffield for onward services. That is why we are considering the case for terminating the current direct services from Manchester at Doncaster, with a replacement service from Sheffield to Cleethorpes, but the consultation runs until August and I encourage him and anyone with an interest in this proposal to share their views through that process.

T4. The Deputy Prime Minister has previously brought forward proposals for the reform of the House of Lords that would have increased the percentage of bishops, giving them 12 out of 300 seats. Given that the Church of England is not the established Church in all parts of the UK and has shown a much less than enthusiastic approach to adopting UK equality legislation, particularly on women and same-sex marriage, will he consider in any future proposals he brings forward either reducing the percentage of bishops or removing them altogether from the House of Lords? (904696)

The representation of the Church in the current or a reformed House of Lords must, like anything in this area, be subject to cross-party discussions. I have my own views; the hon. Lady has hers. Personally I would like a completely directly elected second Chamber. That is a normal approach but, as she knows, her party, for reasons that only she can explain to me, decided not to support a reform that the Labour party was supposed to have made for generations. I say, “Shame on the Labour party.”

T7. May I press my right hon. Friend on ensuring that people who are in the military can be registered? May I make a practical suggestion, which is that responsibility be given to the adjutant on the base to make sure that all members of the military fill in the forms? (904699)

My hon. Friend raises an important point. Online registration is making registering to vote quicker and more convenient than ever before. It helps those based overseas, such as military personnel. He may know that we have removed the requirement for applications from overseas voters to be attested, except where identity cannot be established against the public record. The Ministry of Defence conducts extensive information campaigns with the support of the Electoral Commission every year to encourage service personnel and their families to register to vote. I hope that that will continue to raise the levels of registration among those personnel.

T8. I am not sure whether the Minister of State understood the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Tooting (Sadiq Khan). Since 2008, it has been law that electoral registration officers must knock on the doors of householders who do not return their electoral registration forms. Since then, 98 EROs have broken the law, and West Devon has broken it five times. This breaking of the law has been tolerated by the Deputy Prime Minister’s Department and by the Electoral Commission. When is it going to stop? (904700)

The hon. Gentleman raises an important point, and there is obviously no dispute either that the law must be applied or about the importance of door-to-door canvasses. Under the system, the Electoral Commission has formally to request the Government to issue a direction that EROs should act where this is not being done. We have not yet received that request from the Electoral Commission.

T9. In May, the Deputy Prime Minister met Prime Minister Sharif of Pakistan. Did he raise with him the need to reform Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, which are often used to persecute and prosecute minority communities, including the Christian community? What was Mr Sharif’s response to such representations? (904701)

I did indeed raise a range of human rights concerns with Prime Minister Sharif during his recent visit. I know—I think this has been confirmed to the hon. Gentleman—that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister discussed Pakistan’s blasphemy laws with Mr Sharif during the same visit. I want to pay tribute, as I am sure all Members will, to those brave people in Pakistan who are pushing for debate and reform. We will not shy away from raising this issue with the Pakistan Government or Prime Minister Sharif. After his visit, if not before, he is certainly clear of the seriousness with which we treat the issue that the hon. Gentleman has rightly raised.

T11. Earlier this year, the Deputy Prime Minister said it was an exaggeration to suggest that rising food poverty was linked to the coalition’s welfare reforms, yet when the all-party inquiry into hunger and food poverty visited South Shields last week, we heard person after person say that benefit delays and sanctions had led them to rely on handouts. Does the Deputy Prime Minister think my constituents are exaggerating? (904703)

I think the hon. Lady is being extremely partial in her description of my views on this issue. Of course this is something that we need to take extremely seriously; no one wants to see people needlessly going hungry in our society. Rather than seeking to boil down the complex reasons for why people might go to food banks into a simple soundbite, she should recognise that under her Government, relative poverty was higher than it is now, unemployment was higher, youth unemployment was higher, more children were living in relative poverty—300,000 more than there are now—and more pensioners were living in relative poverty. Before she starts casting stones, she should look at her own party’s record in government.

T12. As we approach the Scottish referendum, in which the Deputy Prime Minister wants to see a no vote, which polls suggest is likely, will he commit the Government finally to answering the West Lothian question? (904704)

“Finally” is the operative word for something that has bedevilled debate in Westminster for more than 100 years. As the hon. Gentleman knows, in January 2012 we set up the McKay commission to consider how the House of Commons should deal with legislation that affects only part of the United Kingdom. The commission’s report—an excellent one—was published in March, and the Government are now considering it in detail. I must point out to the hon. Gentleman that if this question were so straightforward to sort out, I suspect someone would have done it a long time ago.

T13. Under the Deputy Prime Minister’s flagship school meals programme, he pledged that every infant child would receive a hot, healthy school meal. How many children will be eating cold sandwiches in September because, once again, he cannot keep his word? (904705)

Even by the hon. Lady’s standards, it is a bit sour to try to undermine a policy that has not yet been implemented. It will be implemented in September and is a really progressive policy. All the evidence shows—as did the pilots conducted under the previous Government in Durham and parts of east London—that this will not only save families on low income a lot of money, but help to raise the educational performance of children from lower-income backgrounds and provide a powerful way of creating cohesion among young children as they share a meal together. We are working intensively with thousands of schools across the country at the moment, so I cannot give the hon. Lady a precise answer, but the overwhelming majority of those schools are already ready to provide this service. We are working with them over the summer to make sure that if there are any exceptions in the provision of those healthy school meals at lunch time in September, there will be only a very small number of them.

My right hon. Friend recently visited Solihull college in my constituency, and saw for himself the brilliant work that it is doing with skills and apprenticeships. Will he join me in welcoming the Birmingham and Solihull LEP growth deal, which will, among many other things, make an aviation engineering training centre a reality, and help Birmingham international airport to become the go-to place for the world’s airlines when they need engineering, maintenance and repair work to be done?

I certainly join the hon. Lady in paying tribute to everyone who worked on the growth deal in her area. Over the next few years, growth deals collectively will represent a transfer of £12 billion of Government money away from Whitehall—out of Departments here in London—and into the hands of local communities and local enterprise partnerships. That is a really big, bold act of decentralisation, which I think will finally break the back of the excessive centralisation from which we have suffered for far too long.

T14. The coalition agreement provided for a limit on the number of special advisers, but since 2010 the number has increased. Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell us what he personally will do to place a limit on it? (904706)

As the hon. Lady will know, special advisers play a very important role in all Governments. Of course they need to be held to account, and of course we need to be entirely transparent about how many are employed, what they are paid, and so on. We have taken unprecedented steps in publishing that information. Special advisers play a particularly important role in a coalition. We have two parties seeking to work—as we generally do—productively and co-operatively within the Government.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that the growth deal for Coventry and Warwickshire will provide huge benefits through investment in advanced manufacturing at Ansty Park, which will complement the excellent work of the manufacturing technology centre which is already on the site?

I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I am delighted that so many Members are as excited as I am about the fact that the growth deals mark such a dramatic break from the past. Now, finally, people can take their economic destiny into their own hands, rather than having everything dictated to them from Whitehall.

T15. I represent a city that introduced free hot, healthy meals for all primary school pupils, which were then scrapped by an incoming Liberal Democrat council. Is it not the case that one in five infants will be in receipt of cold sandwiches from September onwards? Have we not seen enough of these half-baked promises from the Liberal Democrats? [Hon. Members: “Half-baked!”] The Deputy Prime Minister has got this wrong, and he needs to rethink it. (904707)

My head is swimming with the idea of a half-baked cold sandwich.

As the hon. Lady knows, the local Liberal Democrats objected to some of the plans of her local party because it was stealing from Peter to give to Paul. It was taking money away from low-income children in Hull to pay for that particular policy. We are giving schools far more time to deliver the free school meal commitment to children in the first three years of primary school than they were given by the pilot projects that were conducted by the hon. Lady’s party in government. We are providing an unprecedented amount of support. We have set aside a huge amount of money, and we are working intensively in schools. Instead of seeking to denigrate such a big, progressive policy, she should support it.

I welcome the emphasis on advanced manufacturing in Swindon and Wiltshire’s local growth deal, which was announced yesterday. That manufacturing extends well beyond Swindon, as I was able to show the Chief Secretary to the Treasury earlier this year. Does the Deputy Prime Minister recognise that we need to make investments to ensure that our local industry remains competitive if employers are not to go the same way as Dunlop, for example, in the automotive supply chain?

Of course I agree with my hon. Friend. One of the vital principles of rebalancing the British economy is getting away from the over-reliance on one square mile, the City of London, and instead catering for thousands of square miles across the country. That means giving as much equality of esteem to manufacturing as has traditionally been given to financial services. Under Labour, manufacturing declined three times faster than it did under the Thatcher Government, but it is now finally rebounding in a healthier way than it has for many years.

When is this coalition going to start breaking up? It is obvious that we have only nine months left for an election. At some point, the Deputy Prime Minister will have to make some announcement from that Box to say that it is breaking up.

I have an idea. There is a big march on Thursday, against pay levels, the wage freeze and everything else. Students will be on the march. The Deputy Prime Minister could join them. He could imagine that it is five years ago—he could take his little pledge card and promise them the moon. When is he going to do it?

I still marvel and admire the zeal and energy with which the hon. Gentleman delivers every question—well, they are not questions really; they are a sort of outpouring of bile. This Government will see the course through to the end of this Parliament. We have legislated for a fixed-term Parliament. That is an important constitutional innovation. As I said earlier, I personally think that coalition Governments of different compositions are more likely in future. That is why, among many other reasons, it is important that we do what we say and see through this Parliament from end to end until May 2015.

It is my ambition one day to be as youthful and dynamic as the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr Skinner). Last but not least, I call Mr Peter Bone.

I understand that, to strengthen the coalition, there may be a reshuffle on Monday. How does that work? Does the Deputy Prime Minister have specific posts that he appoints, such as the post of Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills? Can he appoint only Liberal Democrats to those posts, or can he approach other Members? If so, does he have my mobile telephone number?

There is no better way to finish Deputy Prime Minister’s questions than with the hon. Members for Bolsover (Mr Skinner) and for Wellingborough (Mr Bone). I am afraid I do not have the mobile telephone number of the hon. Member for Wellingborough. I am not going to ask for it; I hope he does not take that too badly. He is a versatile politician, but I do not think in anyone’s wildest imaginings he could ever approximate a decent Liberal Democrat.

I have allowed this to run on because there are fewer questions to the Attorney-General, but to those questions we now come.