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Topical Questions

Volume 586: debated on Tuesday 14 October 2014

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

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.