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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 586: debated on Tuesday 14 October 2014

Deputy Prime Minister

The Deputy Prime Minister was asked—

D2N2 Local Enterprise Partnership

1. What discussions he has with the D2N2 local enterprise partnership on devolving powers and responsibilities from Whitehall. (905398)

During negotiations on the growth deals, I met all local enterprise partnerships, including D2N2. The growth deal in my hon. Friend’s area will mean that £174 million previously held by central Government will be devolved to his area, creating jobs, investing in the skills needed by local employers, improving roads and supporting small businesses. I am determined to build on that deal and will visit the area shortly to discuss what further powers and resources can be devolved.

D2N2 has made Nottingham road in Ripley in my seat one of its key sites for growth. The area suffers terribly from traffic congestion. Is funding available to complete a bypass for Ripley and Codnor so that we can relieve that congestion?

I am familiar with that proposal. It was not put forward as a priority by the local enterprise partnership but, as I have said, I am keen to have a further look at what other schemes will make a big impact locally. My hon. Friend has made a powerful piece of advocacy for it today, and perhaps when I am in the area I will look at it.

Would D2N2 be more powerful and effective if it was directly elected? In the Minister’s view, should LEPs be directly elected?

LEPs are elected in the sense that every one of them contains the democratically elected leaders of their local councils, but they also contain the business leaders of the area, which is important. For example, in the deal we did with Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, the technology director of Rolls-Royce, which the hon. Gentleman will concede is a very important employer in Derbyshire, said that the focus in the LEP strategy on growth and investing in infrastructure is exactly what is needed, and that it aligns with the company’s objectives. Bringing business and the democratically elected council leaders together is the right way to go.

Social Mobility

No one should be prevented from fulfilling their potential by the circumstances of their birth. What ought to count is how hard people work and the skills and talents they possess. Of course, the UK is still a long way from achieving that ideal. Income and social class background have a significant and lasting impact on a child’s future life chances. That is why our 2011 strategy, “Opening Doors, Breaking Barriers”, established improving social mobility as the principal goal of the Government’s social mobility policy. We have committed to reporting regularly on a set of key indicators and have created a new social mobility and child poverty commission. I chair a group of key Ministers to oversee delivery of the strategy.

The Deputy Prime Minister will know that a child’s life chances are determined in the first few months and years of their life. We have previously discussed getting the right kind of quality into child care, but does he agree that supporting families to encourage children with their language, their bonding and their security is also critical? What, therefore, does he make of the Government’s record? There are 628 fewer Sure Start centres, despite the huge increase in the birth rate over the same period.

I am not sure whether the hon. Lady is aware that the number of families using children’s centres has actually gone up very significantly. Support to families is, of course, provided in lots of different ways. That is why we have the pupil premium—in particular, the early years pupil premium—channelling money precisely to the early years in a child’s education in the way she describes. That is something that this Government have done; it did not happen under her Government. It is why, for the first time, all young children in the first three years of primary school are getting a free, healthy hot meal at lunch time. It is why we have expanded the amount of free child care and pre-school support available to all three and four-year olds, and to two-year-olds from the 40% of most disadvantaged families. These are very big steps, all of which are devoted precisely to the objective she describes, which is helping children when they are young.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that social mobility is often impeded in unhappy relationships? This is typified when one of the partners starts tearing a strip off his partner in public, often motivated by declining self-worth and familial support. Is not divorce the better option?

I think the problem is when one party feels bitter from the first day they are caught in a relationship they feel they should not have entered into in the first place. I know the hon. Gentleman wants to call time on this political relationship and instead enter into a sort of lock-in with Nigel Farage, but I am not sure that that relationship will make him any happier.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that the threatened closure of every youth centre in Trafford as a result of public spending cuts can only put social mobility in the borough at risk?

I do not know why the council took those decisions. Other councils have not had to take such dramatic decisions and have managed their finances more effectively. As I said in my previous answer, this Government have been responsible for a significant reallocation of money to help children in the crucial early years. Through the Youth Contract and other initiatives we now see youth unemployment lower today than it was when this Government first came into office.

What are the Government doing to increase the number of pre-school children who are reading books and engaging in reading? We know that that has a big impact on social mobility, particularly for those in D and E and poor areas where they do not have access to books. Reading is vital and I do not think we are doing enough.

I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman: the huge and positive effect of getting children to enjoy and relish reading is well demonstrated. In fact, a new campaign has recently been launched, with the support of The Sun and a number of campaign groups, to get children reading more. I was at a primary school just yesterday to play my bit in advertising the campaign. The more that hon. Members from both sides of the House can get involved the better, because it will mean more children reading at an earlier age.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister consider that his own deprived background and upbringing is a good example of social mobility?

That is a characteristically sour question. I have never sought to hold myself up as some paragon of social mobility. What I care about, and what I suspect everybody in this House cares about, wherever they come from, is that we live in a country where people can live out their dreams regardless of the circumstances of their birth.

Individual Electoral Registration

3. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the roll-out of online individual electoral registration; and if he will make a statement. (905400)

4. What assessment he has made of the effectiveness of the roll-out of online individual electoral registration; and if he will make a statement. (905401)

Voter registration is now easier and more convenient than ever before with the launch of online registration. Applying to register now takes as little as two to three minutes. It has been a big success so far. More than 90% of users who have provided feedback on the “Register to Vote” website have said they are satisfied or very satisfied with the service. To date, more than 2.5 million applications have been made under individual electoral registration, with the majority made online.

I welcome the growth in online registration, but is the Minister satisfied that the procedures for those with a learning disability are sufficiently robust to allow them to participate fully in the online process? Does he have any record of the numbers currently utilising that assistance?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. The Government are taking action to target all those missing from the electoral register, such as students, those in residential care homes or those with learning disabilities. We have learnt lessons from places such as Northern Ireland. We are currently funding not just electoral returning officers but a number of organisations, including Mencap, to ensure that people end up on the register.

One problem with the electoral register in my constituency is that in areas with lots of students and rented properties those on the register will often have moved, so one can imagine more and more people being registered at the same property. What steps are being taken to remove people from the register when they no longer live at a property?

First, let me clarify that no one who registered to vote at the last household canvass will be removed from the electoral register before the general election. Secondly, those who did but were not automatically confirmed—a small minority of those registered to vote—have at least until the end of 2015 to register. It is the job of the electoral returning officer to contact people and ensure that the register is as complete and accurate as possible.

I have concerns about people missing from the register, but I am also concerned about extra people on it. What obligations will there be on EROs to ensure that those on the register are real people? Concomitantly, does that mean that people will have to prove their identity when they vote?

I thank the hon. Lady for a very good question. The purpose of IER is to match people on the register through the Department for Work and Pensions matching service and local matching. Currently, 80% of people on the register have been matched, but the job of EROs is to ensure it is as complete and accurate as possible, and that involves writing to people and, where there is not a match, getting further proof of identity.

I congratulate the Minister on his appointment.

In the other place, the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Roberts has moved an amendment to the Wales Bill placing a duty on EROs to organise voter engagement sessions in schools and colleges. The amendment is supported by all four main political parties in Wales. We will support it: will the Government?

The Government are conscious that as part of the move to IER we must make efforts to maximise the register. To do that, we have allocated £4.2 million to 363 local authorities and partnered with five national organisations. We will obviously take a look at what is happening in Wales, but we are already taking steps to maximise the register.

10. Having stood in his shoes, I support my hon. Friend’s work on registration. Does he agree that the time has come to consider updating our voting methods to include online and mobile options, in line with the way in which an entire generation lives its life in other spheres? (905408)

That is a good point. It is worth noting that the move to online registration, which the Government introduced, represents the biggest modernisation of our electoral registration system in more than 100 years. However, registering to vote is very different from actually casting a vote online. Currently, if there is an error, we can check it, but if someone voted online and there was an error there would be no mechanism for checking it. So that is a step we will not be taking at this moment.

When IER was introduced in Northern Ireland, the number of people registered to vote plummeted. If a similar proportion of the register disappeared in London, nearly 1 million people would lose the ability to vote. How on earth does that increase democratic engagement and participation?

IER was first introduced by the Labour party; the coalition Government have taken it forward. It is an incredibly good modernisation process, ensuring for the first time that the head of household does not determine who gets on the electoral register, which I am sure Opposition Members welcome. As I said in a previous answer, we already have an 80% match under IER, and the Government are taking steps to maximise the register further. No one who was on the canvass before the introduction of IER will not be on the electoral roll come the general election in 2015.

Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership

5. What discussions he has had with the Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly local enterprise partnership on devolving powers and responsibilities from Whitehall.

I was in Cornwall last week to meet the members of the local enterprise partnership and to sign the growth deal with Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. The deal is worth £200 million to the economy of Cornwall and Scilly, and will fund a range of infrastructure projects. It will include upgrading the Night Riviera sleeper service—which provides one of the most delightful railway journeys it is possible to take in the country—and relocating the maintenance centre of that service from London to Penzance; improving road junctions throughout the county; and dealing with some of the congestion around the A38 at Saltash.

I am very pleased that the Minister was able to bathe not only in the sunlight of my constituency but in the achievements of the Liberal Democrat and Independent-led local authority, as well as the campaigns on which I have been working, and the signing of the growth deal. To make certain that the deal succeeds, will he ensure that the Deputy Prime Minister’s excellent policies for delivering devolution are implemented not just in urban areas, as the Government propose, but in rural areas such as Cornwall, so that growth deals and European programmes can also be delivered?

I must tell my hon. Friend that not just one part of the coalition was responsible for those achievements. I negotiated rigorously with the leaders of all the parties in Cornwall, and we secured a very good deal, which will enable more decisions and resources to be devolved to Cornwall for the benefit of the people who know and love the area best. That is a big achievement, which was widely welcomed in Cornwall.

Order. The hon. Member for Hexham (Guy Opperman) is a legendarily cheeky chappie. Hexham, in Northumberland, is a very considerable distance from Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, on which this question is exclusively focused. I say that by way of explanation.

Constitutional and Political Reform

The referendum in Scotland has led to demands for political and constitutional reform across the United Kingdom, and marks a new chapter of constitutional renewal. It will start with the devolution of significant new powers to Scotland, which will establish, in effect, home rule there. The Prime Minister has asked the Leader of the House of Commons to lead a Cabinet Committee that will examine the constitutional implications of devolution across the United Kingdom, including the so-called West Lothian question. Particular attention will be paid to the decentralising of more powers away from Whitehall to communities in England. As we move towards a more federal system, we shall need to codify the devolution of labour between Westminster and the constituent parts of the United Kingdom, and set out a clear statement of the values that we all share. I believe that that can best be done through the establishment of a wide-ranging constitutional convention during the next Parliament.

Last month tens of thousands of 16 and 17-year-olds took part in a democratic election in these islands for the first time. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with Opposition Members that there is no reason whatsoever for any 16 and 17-year-old in any part of the United Kingdom to continue to be denied the right to vote by any democratic institution, and what work is he doing in the Government to ensure that that right is conferred as quickly as possible?

As the hon. Gentleman knows, my party and I have long been in favour of extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. I agree with him: I think that the sight of so many 16 and 17-year-olds rejoicing in exercising their votes in the referendum merely confirms and strengthens the case. However, as the hon. Gentleman also knows, that extension has not been agreed across the Government, and the debate will therefore continue.

The Scottish referendum showed the importance of actively engaging with people in determining their future. Why do the Government think it acceptable for the English to have their constitutional change and their future determined by a Cabinet Sub-Committee?

As I said earlier, any Government Committee can only put forward proposals for wider debate here and with the public. I strongly agree with the hon. Lady’s implication that we should be involving the public as actively as possible. That is why—as I also said earlier—my own view is that a constitutional convention needs to be established as all the different moving pieces evolve within the United Kingdom. My strong preference is for the first step in that convention to be a public one, and for what would effectively be a citizens jury to be created, as has happened in other countries. That could get the ball rolling.

It is estimated that more than 5 million British citizens living abroad would be entitled, prima facie, to vote in next year’s general election. Why is it not one of the Government’s priorities to ensure that we increase the proportion of those who are registered? Their number is currently fewer than 16,000. Is that not shameful?

The hon. Gentleman has made a good point. Of course we should be making efforts to encourage all who are entitled to vote to do so, whether they live here or elsewhere in the world.

Does my right hon. Friend accept that city deals cover only one part of the north, that most people do not live in cities and that we need a better and broader alternative for northern devolution?

It is important for my hon. Friend to be aware that although city deals were the first deals to be struck in the longer journey of devolving and decentralising powers from Whitehall to other parts of the country, they were succeeded by growth deals, which were just as significant in scale and covered all parts of the country, rural as well as urban.

I welcome the Deputy Prime Minister’s words about the need for a constitutional convention and about 16 and 17-year-olds rejoicing at the chance to vote in the Scottish referendum. He has always been an advocate for 16 and 17-year-olds having the vote. Bearing in mind the fact that, if we are honest, MPs have nothing to do between now and May—[Interruption]—in Parliament, why does he not work with us to try to give 16 and 17-year-olds the vote by the time of the next general election? It can be done this time. There is a willingness on his part, and on our side, too.

The right hon. Gentleman can speak for himself if he thinks he has nothing to do. It may be why he is pursuing other ambitions. There is quite a significant legislative agenda still to be examined and debated in this Parliament. It is an open secret that there are differences between the two parties on extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds. My view—I suspect it is the same as his—is that that change will happen, but a bit more slowly than I would like.

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.

I do not know whether the Deputy Prime Minister has had a chance to look at the Select Committee on Communities and Local Government report “Devolution in England: the case for local government”. It argues that devolution should happen in England, that it should be based on local government and that initially it should happen in the major cities and the city regions, including Sheffield. Crucially, it argues that devolution has to involve tax-raising powers as well as spending powers. Does he personally agree with that way forward?

I agree with two important assertions that the hon. Gentleman makes. First, we should not reinvent the wheel in terms of the institutional architecture that we have. I alluded earlier to the fact that we have started, through the city deals and growth deals, to build new powers, handed downwards, on travel-to-work areas around our great cities. Secondly, decentralisation without money is hollow and meaningless. That is why we have introduced tax increment financing and new borrowing powers for local areas, and localised business rates.

Absolutely; let’s go further, but those are some of the most significant steps to decentralise our over-centralised tax system in a very long time.

T2. Like many in the Chamber, I welcome the fact that we will devolve more powers to cities and to the west midlands in particular, but will my right hon. Friend be mindful of the fact that the character of the constituency that I represent and the city of Wolverhampton do not wish to be consumed by or subsumed in a Greater Birmingham authority? (905345)

I understand the hon. Gentleman’s pride in the identity of his constituency and of the constituents he represents. Equally, working collaboratively across the west midlands is the best way to draw on the strengths of the region. That can be done effectively, while retaining local identity, through the partnership between Greater Birmingham, Solihull, the black country and other places in the west midlands. It is that combination of collaboration and retaining local identity that is the secret to the success in his area.

The NHS is one of people’s biggest concerns now. People have to struggle to get to see their GP; many are having to wait longer in accident and emergency; operations are being cancelled; and NHS staff are demoralised while billions of pounds are squandered on an NHS reorganisation that no one wants. In the light of that, will the Deputy Prime Minister admit that it was wrong for his party to vote for the top-down NHS reorganisation? Does he now regret that?

I am always struck by how brave the right hon. and learned Lady is in being as pious about the NHS as she appears. Her Government were the Government of Mid Staffs and Morecambe Bay. It was her Government who introduced six times as many managers as nurses and entered into sweetheart deals with the private sector, which wasted a quarter of a billion pounds of taxpayers’ money on operations that never helped a single NHS patient. We do not need to take any lectures from her or her party on protecting the NHS.

The Deputy Prime Minister has sunk to a new low in responding to a question on the NHS by eliding and comparing the whole of the NHS with the abomination of what went on at Mid Staffs. That is absolutely reprehensible, and it is typical of this Deputy Prime Minister to defend the indefensible. He might not have any regrets, but yesterday The Times reported that a senior Cabinet Minister—evidently not him—called the NHS reorganisation their biggest regret. What does the Deputy Prime Minister think is the biggest regret for voters: the NHS reorganisation or voting Liberal Democrat?

I am not going to retract for one minute the point I made that it was the right hon. and learned Lady’s party that wasted a quarter of a billion pounds on sweetheart deals with the private sector—sweetheart deals that we made illegal in the Act she now criticises—and I do not regret that the numbers of people waiting longer than 18, 26 and 52 weeks to start treatment are lower than at any time under her Government. I do not regret for one minute that we have spent £12.7 billion extra on the NHS—money that she has not supported—or that the cancer drugs fund has already helped over 55,000 people, or, as I announced last week, that we are finally giving parity of esteem to patients with mental health conditions, which her Government denied for so very long.

T3. Recalling the failed Liberal-inspired AV referendum, and recalling the failure of the Liberal party to support proposals to reduce the number of MPs by 50, will the Deputy Prime Minister, after his delightful party conference speech, please now address the West Lothian question, and not block proposals that only Members of Parliament representing English constituencies will in future vote on English matters? (905346)

I note first that the hon. Gentleman’s party blocked House of Lords reform when it was a manifesto commitment and party funding reform, but on the point he raises, far from blocking it, my party has put forward a proposal, unlike any other party, on how to deal with this issue. We are saying that we should create, in this House, a Grand Committee composed of MPs reflecting the votes cast in England, such that if there is a Bill that affects only England and Wales, they can say whether or not they want to exercise a veto on that Bill. That is our proposal; so far, I have heard a deafening silence from all other parties on this important debate.

T5. As individual voter registration will reduce further the number of young people registered to vote, will the Deputy Prime Minister support Labour’s policy of following Northern Ireland’s successful schools initiative, whereby local authorities automatically register young people to vote, which has dramatically increased the number of young people on the electoral register? (905348)

Perhaps I just need to repeat what the Parliamentary Secretary said earlier. We have learned the lessons of what happened in Northern Ireland and have automatically transferred a huge number of people from existing databases—

It is actually an answer to the question. The hon. Lady says from a sedentary position that it is not the question, but the question is how do we make sure that there is the maximum number of people on the register as we move to individual voter registration? We have done much more than she suggests, and much more than her Government ever did, to ensure that people are automatically transferred to the individual voter register, and I think that will prove to be very successful.

T4. Will the Deputy Prime Minister comment further on his announcement last week of the introduction of the first ever NHS waiting time standard for people suffering with mental health conditions? (905347)

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend’s implication that there has in effect been institutionalised discrimination against patients with mental health conditions compared with those with physical health conditions. While I pay tribute to the previous Government for introducing waiting times for patients with physical conditions, it is only now—we have had to wait several years—that we have started to introduce the same entitlements for mental health care patients. For instance, if a child has a first episode of psychosis, from next year there will be the guarantee that the vast majority of them will be seen in a couple of weeks, just as if someone was diagnosed and referred with cancer, and someone suffering from depression will be referred to talking therapies and will receive those talking therapies within six weeks, and 18 weeks at the maximum. That is a big step in the right direction.

T7. I can see why the Deputy Prime Minister might not be chasing the student vote in 2015 in quite the way he did in the last election, so will he tell the House what he is doing to encourage students to register and vote? (905350)

It is worth remembering what is happening right now. Despite all the controversy of the recent changes, more young students are applying to go to university than ever before, there is a higher rate of students from disadvantaged backgrounds going to university than ever before, and a higher proportion of youngsters from black and minority ethnic backgrounds are going to university than ever before, confounding all the predictions that the hon. Lady’s party made at the time of the change. I suspect that the effects of individual voter registration will confound all its predictions as well.

T6. Is my right hon. Friend considering further devolution of economic development powers to city regions such as Plymouth? (905349)

My understanding is that my hon. Friend came to the signing of the growth deal last week. He will be aware that, since the launch of city deals in December 2011, we have made it clear that we want to see more and more city deals and growth deals being entered into. So far, 28 city deals and 39 growth deals have been negotiated, and the cities and local growth unit—working to the Minister of State —continues to work with local areas on that agenda so that we can announce further deals in the future.

T9. As part of a community consultation in the city that the right hon. Gentleman and I both represent, I have spoken to hundreds of people over the past few weeks. One of the main concerns that they raised was the consequences of the cuts to local authority spending, particularly on adult social care. Will he explain why, on the Government’s own measure, Sheffield council will have had a 22% reduction in spending power over this Parliament, while areas of lesser need such as Wokingham have had an increase? Does he think that that is fair? (905352)

The hon. Gentleman and I have debated this before. As he knows, those reductions have been spread across the country as fairly as possible to ensure that areas with the greatest needs have those needs reflected. He will be equally aware of my dismay at the actions of the local Labour council in Sheffield in cutting and closing swaths of public libraries, depriving local communities of their libraries when so many councils in a similar position in other parts of the country have not done so.

T8. What steps are being taken to support the science corridor in north Cheshire and south Manchester to further strengthen the economic contribution of life sciences in the north-west? (905351)

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for his personal contribution to the Alderley Park taskforce, and to the constructive approach taken by AstraZeneca, which has created a strong platform for a sustainable future at the site, with a strong life sciences core. I congratulate everyone involved in the Alderley Park taskforce on securing a £15 million investment fund to support the growth of small to medium-sized businesses on the site. My hon. Friend will also be aware that, in the July growth deal announcement, Cheshire and Greater Manchester secured a provisional allocation from the Government of £20 million towards their £40 million local enterprise partnership life science investment fund. These are all important steps in the right direction.

T10. I am sorry, but the Deputy Prime Minister needs to get into the real world. Of course cuts are being made in the national health service, and they are being caused by the reorganisation because the billions that it has cost need to be recouped. In Jarrow, that vandal Dr Walmsley, who is doing the Government’s dirty work, is cutting a walk-in centre that is used by more than 27,000 patients a year. And the Deputy Prime Minister says there are no cuts! (905353)

Let me give the hon. Gentleman a few facts. There are more doctors and nurses than at any point under the last Government. There are 12,500 more clinical staff, 6,100 more doctors, 3,300 more nurses and 1,700 more midwives. There are more nurses than at any point during the last Government, and over 20,000 fewer administrative staff. I just do not think that some of his assertions are sustained by the facts.

T12. During the Deputy Prime Minister’s recent appearance on his weekly radio slot on the excellent LBC, he said that he wanted a speedy and timely resolution to the question of English votes for English laws. Will he therefore confirm that he will support the proposal for changes to Standing Orders that could bring about that resolution in a speedy and timely manner, as he indicated? (905355)

As I said in answer to an earlier question, my party has put forward a sensible proposal to deal with this issue. I do not agree with those who say that this is a clever wheeze that would in effect give an unfair advantage to one party in the House of Commons to the exclusion of all others. Nor do I agree with those Labour Members who want to stick their head in the sand and not address the issue at all. We have proposed a solution, and I look forward to the other parties coming forward with equally well considered proposals.

T11. This follows on from the question from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman). Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that following the disastrous Health and Social Care Act 2012, seven out of 10 NHS services put out to tender have been awarded to private health care companies? These contracts are worth more than £16 billion—20% of the NHS budget—and this would not have been possible if the Lib Dems had not propped up that legislation every step of the way. (905354)

This collective act of amnesia is extraordinary. It was the hon. Lady’s party that paid the private sector 11% more in these rigged tariffs with private sector providers than it paid the NHS. It was those rigged contracts between the Department of Health and private sector providers that we, not the Labour party, outlawed in law.

T13. Yesterday I was at the launch of Kirklees business week at Kirklees college, where we discussed the devolving of powers and responsibilities from Whitehall to the Leeds City Region local enterprise partnership. What role does my right hon. Friend see that playing in helping to deliver much needed transport infrastructure improvements in West Yorkshire? (905356)

I congratulate my hon. Friend because he has been a huge advocate for the groundbreaking growth deal we announced for the Leeds City Region LEP on 7 July, which provides up to £600 million of local growth funding over 20 years for the West Yorkshire Plus Transport Fund. The fund puts decisions on local transport spending into the hands of those who know the area best, and it will be a trailblazer for similar funds and initiatives in other parts of the country.

What negotiations have taken place in the transatlantic trade and investment partnership—TTIP—negotiations to ensure the protection of the national health service for the people?

I would not support, as I am sure the hon. Lady would not—I doubt anyone on either side of the House would—the TTIP negotiations if there was any risk that in doing so we might undermine our right to run our NHS in the way we want, as voted on in this Parliament. I am absolutely confident that we are able to do that, but if we need to make that even more clear and put it beyond any reasonable doubt, clearly we should set out to do so. It is important that we debunk some of the myths that somehow suggest that TTIP is undermining our sovereign right to run the NHS in the way we want.

T14. Does the Deputy Prime Minister support televised election debates for the three main political parties? Does he feel that he should be invited? (905357)

I am looking forward to the debates, as they were a really good innovation and people want them next time. I can understand the concerns of parties with only one MP in this House, but as a leader of a party with 55 MPs I do not want any of the larger parties to use the angst among the very small parties with only one MP to serve as an alibi for foot-dragging. Let us get on with it and have these debates.

Does the Deputy Prime Minister think it is right that the Electoral Commission is trying to curb the tweets of charities?

The North East LEP has done great work, but does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that in rural Northumberland we need the LEP to support rural connectivity and economic regeneration projects such as The Sill and the Gilsland station rebuild?

If those issues are not covered by the growth deal that has already been entered into, they are precisely the kind of items that my hon. Friend and others locally may wish to push for in the successor rounds, because devolving control over transport investment decisions is emerging as one of the common themes in all the different growth deals across the whole country.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister confirm that any devolution package for the devolved Administrations will not be uniform but will recognise the wishes and the capacities of each Administration? Given Sinn Fein’s fiscal irresponsibility in Northern Ireland, does he agree that the devolution of additional fiscal powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly needs to be considered carefully?

I certainly agree that there is no straitjacket solution to devolution across the United Kingdom or even in areas in England. One thing we must avoid is the trap of excessive neatness. Each part of our diverse nation is different. I share the hon. Gentleman’s disappointment that there is this stand-off, which, in the long run, will mean that if budgetary gridlock ensues it will be the poorest and most vulnerable in Northern Ireland who will suffer most.

As a Greater Manchester MP and, until yesterday, a member of the local growth sub-committee, I am, as the Deputy Prime Minister knows, very supportive of the Manchester bid, which could have a considerable positive impact across our city region. Will he confirm whether we are any closer to getting this bid signed off?

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for all he did in the Government Whips Office and indeed in the regional growth sub-committee, working with my right hon. Friend the Minister of State. His work is hugely appreciated. My understanding is that the initiative to which he alludes is being worked on and, subject to a few t’s being crossed and i’s being dotted, announcements will be made very shortly.

Attorney-General

The Attorney-General was asked—

Witness Support

1. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to ensure that adequate provision is made to support vulnerable witnesses in cases of sexual abuse or domestic violence. (905413)

3. What steps the Crown Prosecution Service is taking to ensure that adequate provision is made to support vulnerable witnesses in cases of sexual abuse or domestic violence. (905416)

The Crown Prosecution Service works closely with the police and voluntary sector to ensure that vulnerable victims and witnesses in cases of sexual abuse and domestic violence are well supported. Special measures such as intermediaries, screens and live video links are used to help them give their best evidence in court. Additional support is also available for victims from independent sexual violence advisers and domestic violence advisers who guide them through the criminal justice process.

I am grateful to the Attorney-General for that answer. Two cases of domestic violence in my constituency have come to my attention. Both victims were put through more anguish and turmoil as a result of the support offered by the police, the courts, the voluntary sector and the CPS not being properly joined up—the left hand not knowing what the right hand was doing. Will he confirm that the CPS will work with all other parties to provide seamless and co-ordinated support?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. It is important that those services are co-ordinated, and that victims of such offences are taken seriously from the outset, that they are listened to and that they are supported throughout the process, so I take what he says seriously. If he can supply me with details of the cases, I will certainly investigate and see what may have gone wrong.

I commend the work of the Peterborough rape crisis care group based at Rivergate in Peterborough. Will my right hon. and learned Friend join me in welcoming the opening of 15 new rape support centres since 2010? What more can be done to focus efforts on local providers who give help to those who need it most?

I certainly join my hon. Friend in congratulating those who are involved in the work in his constituency. He is right that the voluntary sector has a huge part to play. He will know that the key concern of many who work in this sector is not just the existence of funding but the continuity of funding, which is why we have been keen to give some security to this sector with £40 million of funding for domestic violence more generally over the course of this Government.

Since the publication of the Jay report, a further 29 cases of child abuse have emerged in Rotherham. Given what Professor Jay said about the Crown Prosecution Service and other agencies, how can the Attorney-General reassure the House that everything possible is being done to support those victims and to bring the perpetrators to justice?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. He will understand that, because some of these investigations are ongoing, there is a limit to what I can say about them, but he is right that it is important in cases such as what may have gone on in Rotherham that we take seriously victims of abuse and that we support them throughout the process. He can be assured that we keep a very close eye on these particular prosecutions as they develop and will do everything we can to ensure that they are conducted properly.

Back in November 2013, Keir Starmer, the then Director of Public Prosecutions, launched a protocol under which the police, the social services and prosecutors would work together to share information on child sex abuse cases. What proportion of local authorities in England and Wales have adopted that protocol, and what consideration has the Attorney-General given to making it compulsory?

As the hon. Gentleman may anticipate, I will have to write to him with the figure but I can tell him that we consider the protocol to be very useful. I shall add one of the things that he did not mention to the list of those measures that are important in these cases: to ensure that prosecutors are properly trained and experienced to conduct these kinds of cases. That is precisely why, as he knows, we now have a pool of specialist prosecutors for rape cases and for child sexual abuse cases to ensure that that happens.

Given that the budgets for rape victims have been devolved to police and crime commissioners, what steps can be taken to ring-fence those budgets so that they are there for survivors and victims?

As I suspect the hon. Lady knows, not all of the victims’ budgets are devolved to PCCs, but for that part that is, we need to trust those who are locally elected to understand clearly that the needs of victims must be pre-eminent within the criminal justice system. I think that police and crime commissioners, from whatever party, generally speaking do understand that. I am sure that she will have productive conversations with her own PCC to make sure that that is the case.

Fraud/Serious Financial Crime

2. What progress he has made on the more effective prosecution of fraud and other serious financial crimes. (905415)

I discuss with the Director of Public Prosecutions and the director of the Serious Fraud Office the effective prosecution of fraud and financial crime. Both the Crown Prosecution Service specialist fraud division and the SFO have conviction rates of around 85% for 2013-14. This month the first plea of guilty has been entered in the LIBOR case. In the first six months of this year the SFO obtained financial orders worth over £23 million in total and it has successfully recovered around £9 million in confiscation orders from serious criminals.

Last month the Attorney-General indicated that he would consider adopting Labour’s policy of making it a criminal offence for a company to fail to prevent fraud by its employees. When will the Government legislate on that?

It is certainly worth considering whether we can do better in overcoming the gap in the law as it relates to finding those within the corporate world who are responsible for what are very serious crimes. The appropriate approach to politics is to take ideas from wherever they come and consider them carefully, which is exactly what the Government will do. When we are in a position to bring forward proposals, we will do so.

One of the new weapons that prosecutors have at their disposal is the deferred prosecution agreement, which I hope will be made use of in the near future. Will my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that he and our hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General are determined to maintain the Serious Fraud Office as an independent investigating prosecutor and that it is under no danger of being subsumed into any other piece of the Government machine?

My hon. and learned Friend is a distinguished former Law Officer and played a significant part in bringing forward deferred prosecution agreements. He should be proud of what he did in that regard. So far as the future of the SFO is concerned, I take the view that the Roskill model on which it is based, which combines lawyers, investigators and experts of other kinds into specific teams to deal with what are very complex and difficult investigations and prosecutions, is the right model. As I have said, it is achieving some creditable results. Although I do not set my face against any change in the future, I do think it is worth preserving that model. I know that the Solicitor-General and I will wish to make that argument very strongly.

Has the Attorney-General received from the Serious Fraud Office a request for an emergency injection of funds? Is he aware that it is struggling and estimates that it needs an additional £19 million to continue its work?

The hon. Gentleman may know that the funding model for the Serious Fraud Office is very unusual. It receives core funding, but it is recognised, not least by the Treasury, that there are a number of cases that, because of their nature and scale, require additional funding. That is standard practice for the SFO in terms of its funding. It received a large extra amount of money to deal with those so-called blockbuster cases last year and that will no doubt be the case this year. When we are in a position to set out figures for this year, we will do so, but it is in no way unusual that that should happen and it is a sensible model for what is effectively a demand-led organisation.

Will the Attorney-General share with us what measures are being taken to increase prosecution rates for all corruption cases?

My hon. Friend will appreciate that corruption cases might be prosecuted by the Serious Fraud Office or, on a lower scale, by other bodies. We seek to present the evidence to the Crown Prosecution Service, if that is the appropriate body, and for it to consider in accordance with the usual test whether the evidence is there and the public interest is met for pursuing a prosecution. He will understand and know clearly that the Government’s commitment to dealing with corruption at every level is very strong, and that commitment will continue.

Is the Attorney-General aware of the difficulties in obtaining successful prosecutions and the seizure of assets against criminal gangs operating from Northern Ireland involved in money laundering as a result of the non-operation of the National Crime Agency in that part of the United Kingdom?

Yes, of course. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the National Crime Agency’s writ does not run to Northern Ireland, but he is right that we need to work closely with the agencies that do work in Northern Ireland to ensure that we do the best we can to recover these assets. We will continue to work closely with the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure that that continues to happen.

The simple reality is that when county police forces deal with fraud without their area as well as within it, it simply does not work. I have been very frustrated going from pillar to post between those agencies and the Serious Fraud Office. What role does the National Crime Agency now play and should it not be bringing such cross-border cases together?

The Serious Fraud Office certainly works very closely with the National Crime Agency on its case load, but it is also important that we recognise what has happened within the CPS with the creation of a specialist fraud directorate, which tries to bring together some of the prosecutors, not least those from other Departments, such as the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for Work and Pensions, to ensure that we have the necessary expertise to pursue fraud wherever it is found. We will continue to do that, because it is important that we recover these assets and that we prosecute those responsible for fraud, which in many cases is effectively fraud on the taxpayer.

I wish the Attorney-General the best of luck in his new role, particularly in explaining to this legal illiterate Government their obligations under international and national law to uphold the rule of law. I also wish him the best of luck with Home Office empire building, and that is the purpose of this question. Will he confirm reports in The Times and the Financial Times that Ministers are discussing the abolition of the Serious Fraud Office and will he give this House a clear assurance that he will fight such attempts to dismember the SFO so that we continue to have an independent combined investigator and prosecutor of serious economic fraud?

I am grateful—I think—for the hon. Lady’s welcome. May I reassure her that this Government fully understand their legal obligations, both national and international, and that they will continue to do so for as long as I am Attorney-General? As for the Serious Fraud Office, let me repeat what I said to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Harborough (Sir Edward Garnier). It is crucial that we maintain, as she says, the unique model of combining investigators, lawyers and other experts in specific teams to address very complex and difficult cases. That is a model well worth defending. It would be foolish for any Minister within any Government to set their face entirely against any change that might produce a better outcome and, conceivably, a better deal for the taxpayer, but I think it is important to defend that model and she has my absolute assurance that I will continue to do so.

Proceeds of Crime

5. What steps he plans to take to assist prosecutors in depriving criminals of the profits of their crimes. (905419)

The Government are committed to improving our ability to recover criminal assets by amending the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002 through the Serious Crime Bill, currently in the other place, including by increasing sentences for failure to pay confiscation and the enhancement of investigatory powers after a confiscation order is made. The Home Office is leading a wider programme to improve asset recovery, with which prosecutors are fully involved.

I am grateful to the Solicitor-General for his response. It is good to hear him acknowledge that more needs to be done, but may I make an extra suggestion? The National Audit Office has found that the number of asset-freezing orders has fallen by a third and my understanding is that that might be because the CPS is timid and concerned about being stung for the costs when lawyers appeal the asset-freezing order. Perhaps he will consider capping the costs that could be recouped by lawyers in such circumstances, as that might make the CPS bolder.

I am always receptive to ideas about the ways in which costs can be capped, but it is right that I remind the hon. Lady that the CPS still performs the lion’s share of confiscation orders, and that in 2013-14 £97.69 million was recovered. The new CPS proceeds of crime unit, which was set up in the summer, will bring together in a more effective way the regional asset recovery teams in order to achieve the results that both she and I want to see.

My hon. and learned Friend will be aware that last month’s incredibly successful Invictus games were supported by £1 million from the LIBOR fund. What other projects have benefited from money confiscated as a result of fraud and criminal activities?

My hon. Friend is right to emphasise the huge publicity that the Invictus games brought to the victim surcharge. It is now being used to help a range of victims—victims of rape and domestic violence and families bereaved by murder and by road traffic crimes involving a fatality.

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman), I know that the hon. and learned Gentleman cared strongly about legal aid and the restrictions on advice given to our constituents. Would it not make sense to restrict to such levels the legal costs that can be claimed by those appealing against confiscation of funds obtained through criminal activities?

I repeat that I am always receptive to new ideas. Quite clearly, more needs to be done to rein in some of the excesses of the cases that both the hon. Gentleman and I know about, but it is important that we focus efforts on getting the orders right in the first place and making sure that they are realistic and can be enforced. Enforcement is probably the most important priority.

Contempt of Court

The Criminal Justice and Courts Bill, which is currently being considered in another place, will make it a criminal offence for jurors to engage in conduct which is currently a contempt of court. By making juror misconduct a criminal offence, it will reinforce the message that such behaviour is unacceptable and threatens trial by jury.

Will my right hon. and learned Friend explain what measures are taken to enforce the existing law, and whether additional measures will be taken to enforce the law as it is about to be amended?

At present it is for the Attorney-General to prosecute cases of contempt of court in these instances, and there have been five prosecutions of jurors since 2010. It is not that we anticipate a large number of additional prosecutions as a result of this change, but rather that we want the message to be very clear to jurors that there are consequences should they decide not to abide by their oath, and that there is wider damage that may accrue to the concept of trial by jury if jurors do not abide by their oath. That is what we seek to achieve.

What proposals does my right hon. and learned Friend have to ensure that jurors do not find themselves in contempt of court for use of social media and the internet?

I think my hon. Friend is referring to an emerging difficulty that we face: not only do we wish jurors to abide by their oath—the oath is very clear, and they should be fully cognisant of what it requires of them—but we need to address the fact that in the age of social media, people can get themselves into trouble without realising it. That is why, beyond even jurors, we have tried to set out clearly in the social media arena what contempt of court might involve so that people can avoid it. We have sent out on social media clear messages, I hope, as to what should be avoided, and we will continue to look for ways to do that.

The Attorney-General has admitted that there have been only five such prosecutions, but will he look more thoroughly at the wonderful people who come and do jury service and are treated abominably, both in my constituency and throughout the country—kept waiting, never knowing what is going on, sent home and brought back? Why do we not improve their situation?

I agree entirely that we should pay tribute to all those who engage in jury service. The hon. Gentleman is right that it is a tiny minority of those jurors who cause any difficulty at all, and it is also right, as he says, that we should treat those jurors as well as we can. Having practised in the criminal courts, I know that there has long been an issue with jurors being kept hanging around and not given clear information as to what is going to happen next. Some of that, as he will appreciate, is a simple function of the uncertainties that criminal trials bring about, but I will certainly speak to my right hon. Friend the Justice Secretary about how we can do better for jurors. The hon. Gentleman is right—they deserve the best treatment we can give them.

The hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) has been kept waiting, but his moment has arrived.

Vasiliki Pryce: Prosecution Costs

8. What costs were incurred by his Department in prosecuting the case of Vasiliki Pryce in both of her trials at Southwark Crown court. (905422)

The costs of prosecuting counsel directly attributable to the two trials of Ms Pryce were £46,012. The costs ordered against her in the sum of £49,200 have been paid. The difference includes an element of pre-trial costs.

In the cases of Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce, the prosecution costs application to the court was £108,541 for Mr Huhne and £48,695 for Ms Pryce, despite the fact that Mr Huhne had no trials and Ms Pryce had two. Given that the court costs to the Ministry of Justice for Ms Pryce’s two trials were an estimated £30,000 on top of that, can the Solicitor-General explain the rationale for the discrepancy in those costs applications?

We have to bear in mind that an appeal is in process in relation to the costs of the defendant Huhne, which is due to be heard at the end of this month. It would therefore be inappropriate for me to comment on the merits of that application. However, I will say that a large number of disclosure applications and other preliminary applications were made in the case of the defendant Huhne, which might have some bearing on the issue my hon. Friend raises.

Interesting reading for the long winter nights ahead.

Bill Presented

Taxation of Pensions Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

Mr Chancellor of the Exchequer, supported by the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, Mr Secretary Duncan Smith, Danny Alexander, Mr David Gauke, Steve Webb, Priti Patel and Andrea Leadsom, presented a Bill to make provision in connection with the taxation of pensions.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 97) with explanatory notes (Bill 97-EN).