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Topical Questions

Volume 588: debated on Tuesday 18 November 2014

As Deputy Prime Minister I support the Prime Minister on a full range of Government policies and initiatives—[Laughter.] Oh yes I do—most of the time. Within Government I take special responsibility for the Government’s programme of political and constitutional reforms.

More than 1 million people in this country are now surviving thanks to food banks. Does the Deputy Prime Minister regret backing the Tories’ war on the poor, and bringing in things like the bedroom tax and changes to council tax that have put so many people in that plight?

Members across the House will be concerned to help those who need support, but before the hon. Gentleman gets on his high horse, he must remember that under his party’s stewardship and the previous Government, youth unemployment rose by 45% and the gap between the rich and the poor was larger than in the 1980s, and because they crashed the economy in 2008 £3,000 was wiped off the household budget of every home in this country. That is not a record to be proud of.

T2. I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for his interest in Wiltshire and Swindon’s local growth deal. He will have seen our second round bid for the digital Corsham project. Can he assure me that in future these deals will go beyond our much-needed investment in local transport infrastructure and lay the foundations for the skills and businesses of the digital economy? (906089)

As my hon. Friend knows, growth deals are not just focused on transport; they very much respond to the proposals put forward by local areas and local enterprise partnerships. I was very pleased that we were able to agree, with the local enterprise partnership in round 1, almost £200 million for the Swindon and Wiltshire growth deal. As he will know, there was over-subscription in the first round. We hope to hold further rounds and I hope the proposal for a digital hub in Corsham will be included from his local area.

The Deputy Prime Minister and his Tory best friends claim that they have turned the economy around, but the facts are that under this Government more and more people are on zero-hours contracts, the income of people who are self-employed has fallen by 14%, and low-paid and insecure work is leaving more people reliant on benefits to top up their pay and to help to pay their bills. While millionaires enjoy a Tory-Lib Dem tax cut, everyday working families are on average £1,600 a year worse off and struggling to make ends meet. Will the Deputy Prime Minister tell us whose recovery this is?

Almost every time we meet across the Dispatch Box, the right hon. and learned Lady repeats the extraordinary suggestion that we have somehow been responsible for tax cuts for people in the higher tax bracket, when for 95% of the time that her party was in power the top rate was 40p. It is now 45p, which is 5p higher than it was under Labour. As I said earlier, the gap between rich and poor was higher under her party’s stewardship of the economy than it was in the 1980s, manufacturing declined four times more than it did under Margaret Thatcher, and we have taken more than 3 million people on low pay out of paying any income tax at all. That is the contrast between our records, of which I am very proud.

The fact is that the Government have cut taxes for millionaires while they have cut tax credits for everyday working people. The fact is that the right hon. Gentleman’s Government are borrowing £190 billion more than they planned. They said they would balance the books by 2015, but the deficit is likely to be £75 billion by then. Stagnant wages and too many low-paid jobs have led to a shortfall in tax receipts, meaning more Government borrowing. With thousands more people reliant on in-work benefits, it emerged last week that the Government have spent £25 billion more than they planned on social security. [Interruption.] At least the facts I am putting to the Deputy Prime Minister are accurate, unlike the facts he misrepresented. His Government have left hard-working families not knowing how they will make ends meet. Why will he not admit it? He says they have rescued the British economy, but this recovery is only for a privileged few.

Say that to the fact that there are now more women in work than ever before. Say that to the fact that youth unemployment is lower than it was when we inherited the economy from the right hon. and learned Lady. Say that to the fact that we are now days away from being able to confirm that 2 million new apprenticeships are being formed under this Government—twice as many as under the Labour Government. We have cut tax for people on the minimum wage by two thirds. During Labour’s time in office there was the ludicrous and unacceptable situation where stockbrokers paid less tax on their dividends than their cleaners did on their wages. We have changed that. We have fixed the economy. They messed it up in the first place.

T3. I was languishing on the Front Bench for some time, so I did not have the opportunity to ask the Deputy Prime Minister a question about consistency that has been bothering me. In 2010, he introduced a measure to equalise the electorates in each constituency. That seemed to me to be very fair and he was very eloquent in saying how important it was to be fair and for each vote to have the same value. Two and a half years later he voted against it. Please could he tell me, the House and the good British people why he did that? (906090)

I am delighted that the right hon. Gentleman is now languishing—as he puts it —elsewhere and is able to ask his question. He appears to have forgotten that the proposal to equalise constituencies was part of a wider package of constitutional reform. A deal is a deal, and his party, having committed solemnly to the British people to push for House of Lords reform, flunked it. Quite understandably, therefore, the deal could not be proceeded with.

T5. Has the Deputy Prime Minister seen today’s report from the cross-party Higher Education Commission that shows how awful the situation is that students in debt face for the rest of their lives? Some 68% of them will never pay back their loan, and many will never get a mortgage, because he deserted them, broke his pledge and voted for £9,000 fees? (906092)

I am perplexed. When those controversial changes were introduced, the hon. Gentleman said they would be too harsh on students, but now he is criticising them because students will not have to pay off their outstanding loans. It cannot be both. He predicted at the time that fewer people would be going to university, but there are more youngsters on full-time courses now then ever before; he predicted that fewer kids from disadvantaged backgrounds would be going to university, but there are now more kids from poorer backgrounds at university than ever before; he predicted that kids from black and minority ethnic backgrounds would not go to university, but there are now higher rates of participation in university among kids from BME backgrounds than ever before. Why does he not stick with the facts?

T7. In a recent informal ballot I organised in my constituency, more than 80% of those who replied wanted to leave the EU. Is it not now time for a Government Bill so that we can have the referendum that people want? (906094)

I suspect that the hon. Gentleman and I will have been in the same Lobby back in 2011 when we introduced legislation on behalf of the coalition guaranteeing in law something that could not be tampered with by future Governments and Parliaments: the circumstances in which a referendum on our membership of the EU would take place—when the rules next change and we are asked to endorse a new treaty. That was our view then, and it remains my view now. It is perfectly free to do so, but his party has decided to change its mind radically since then.

T6. The Liberal Democrats have said they want to reform the bedroom tax, so why did the Deputy Prime Minister and his colleagues not support the Bill brought in by my hon. Friend the Member for Worsley and Eccles South (Barbara Keeley) to exempt the 60,000 unpaid carers being hit by this unfair policy? (906093)

The hon. Lady is right that, on the basis of research we commissioned in government, we think that amendments need to be made so that new social tenants receive only the housing benefit they need for the number of bedrooms they have, but the Liberal Democrats feel that disabled adults should be treated the same as disabled children and that those offered an opportunity to downsize should have the provisions applied to them. That was the subject of the private Member’s Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for St Ives (Andrew George). If we had been granted a money resolution, we could have voted on it in this House.

T9. May I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for recently visiting my constituency to promote the northern futures initiative? Does he agree that the idea of giving real power back to the great northern cities is long overdue, and will he give the House an update on recent progress? (906096)

As ever, it was a great pleasure to visit my hon. Friend in his constituency. He is right that through city deals and local growth deals we are finally loosening the clammy grip of Whitehall that for too long has stifled innovation and autonomy in our local communities, particularly our great cities, in the north and the elsewhere, which should be powerhouses able to make up their own minds, rather than being hamstrung by Whitehall red tape.

T8. On Friday, the UK Youth Parliament held its sixth annual sitting in this Chamber. Last year, its members chose votes at 16, and this year they chose mental health services and the living wage, as their main campaigns. Could the House mark the importance of the Youth Parliament perhaps by having an annual debate on the subject chosen by it? (906095)

Of course, I defer to you, Mr Speaker, and the usual channels, but I hope we can take up that idea. In selecting mental health for debate, the Youth Parliament was right to shine a spotlight on the sometimes awfully under-resourced and badly organised children and adolescent mental health services around the country. They need reform and improvement, and it was right to push the House to do that. I hope we can take up the hon. Lady’s suggestion of an annual debate on the topics the Youth Parliament selects in the future.

T10. My right hon. Friend made it very clear that he would grant a money resolution necessary for the EU referendum to proceed once the same facility was in place for the first private Member’s Bill that dealt with the bedroom tax or spare room subsidy. What can he do to make sure that the Prime Minister respects the decision of Parliament and does not abuse the privilege of Executive power? (906097)

On the private Member’s Bill and the Prime Minister’s decision to withhold the money resolution, the Prime Minister will need to reply directly to my hon. Friend. But the convention of granting money resolutions to private Members’ Bills is a long-standing one that, broadly, should be respected.

T12. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that with so many different constitutional processes under way and so many different views being expressed on our country’s constitutional future, we are in danger of creating an even bigger dog’s breakfast than we already have? (906099)

As I explained, excessive neatness—the idea that we have everything rolled into one single process and decided simultaneously—is probably unrealistic and undesirable. But especially in the wake of the Smith commission and the debates we are having about how we administer votes in this House on English and Welsh matters, we need a wider constitutional convention stretching into the next Parliament to bring all the different threads together in the way that the hon. Gentleman implies.

T11. I thank the Deputy Prime Minister for the energy that he has put into making the northern futures project work. Does he agree that growth in investment in infrastructure is a fundamental part of that? Does he also agree that getting the second phase of the Hazel Grove by-pass in my constituency has to be a part of that process? (906098)

I am sure that the Hazel Grove by-pass weighs heavily on the mind of the Chancellor, much as it does on my right hon. Friend’s and mine. He is right to say that revamping our national infrastructure, particularly those parts of our transport infrastructure that are still Victorian and in some cases somewhat dilapidated, is a major national mission that we must persist with over many years.

T13. Talking of great northern cities, I know that Hull is outside the Deputy Prime Minister’s golden triangle. Will he explain to my constituents why, in his statement of 6 November, he did not back Hull’s privately financed bid to get rail electrification to Hull in time for 2017 and the city of culture and why he said that we would have to wait until the 2020s? (906100)

The hon. Lady says I did not respond at all. As she will have noticed this morning, there are many Members of this House who have local infrastructure projects and who, quite rightly, want to see them advanced. I defer to nobody in my zeal to see road and rail improvements across the country. I know that this is an alien concept to those on her side of the House but affordability is something that one must attend to. If she is saying that there is a fully formed and fully affordable means by which electrification can be provided, of course that is something that all of us would back.

T4. Across London, and in my constituency in particular, some 10% of the adult population now come from eastern Europe but only about 3,500 appear on the electoral register as EU citizens not eligible to vote. There are now 4,000 EU citizens registered to vote who may think that they have a vote in the general election. Could my right hon. Friend do something to clean up the electoral register so that those who are entitled to vote can vote? (906091)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising this but we are not aware of individuals from EU countries being on the electoral roll for UK parliamentary elections. EU nationals are entitled to vote in the UK in European Parliament elections and local elections, and EU nationals on the electoral register have a separate mark against their name to indicate that they cannot vote in UK parliamentary elections. That system has served us well, but I and other Ministers will look at the issue that he describes.

T14. The Deputy Prime Minister talks about a cross-party constitutional convention. To ensure that it is not an establishment fix, will cross-party participation include those parties committed to a post-EU future? (906101)

As I said, all constitutional issues are always best dealt with on a cross-party basis. More than that, I think it is best dealt with when we embrace the public rather than make it just for politicians sitting in this Chamber—including, dare I say it, for such an anti-establishment figure as the hon. Gentleman. That seems to me to be the real thing that we should be doing—opening up this constitutional discussion to involve as many members of public as we can in the years ahead.

Order. I ask the hon. Member for Burton (Andrew Griffiths) to take his seat. We want to see not the back of his jacket, but the front of his face. We are grateful to him.

Why is far more not being done to ensure that UK nationals who live abroad are put on to the UK electoral register?

I think a fair amount is being done. The hon. Gentleman will be familiar with the time limits that operate with respect to people exercising their right to vote here if they live abroad, but British citizens who live abroad will be very mindful of their rights and can take them up very easily. Many British citizens living abroad do take them up on a regular basis.

Would the Deputy Prime Minister consider replicating the Scottish Government’s unique approach to attracting and retaining people on the electoral register by admonishing them for all their historic council tax debts?

I am not aware that we are planning to do that. As the hon. Gentleman knows, we have progressed with individual voter registration—first advocated by Labour when in government—and we have transferred data from other databases on to the individual voter registration database to ensure that the vast majority of voters are transferred on to individual voter registration without having to do anything themselves.

I welcome the work of my right hon. Friend and others to support the Greater Cambridge city deal, which will make a huge difference for transport and housing needs in the Cambridge area, but does he accept that if we had more devolution of powers to Cambridge we could do better—not just for ourselves, but in our contribution to the rest of economy? Will he look very carefully at what other powers could be given?

My hon. Friend is quite rightly proud of the astonishing economic dynamism of Cambridge and the surrounding area, which was of course reflected in the first city deal. I think it is a good thing that there is now such ambition to build on that city deal and go further. I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has listened very carefully to my hon. Friend’s representation and is keen to push this further.

Before this Session comes to an end, why cannot the Deputy Prime Minister bring himself to apologise for having voted for and supported from the beginning the hated bedroom tax?

Perhaps I will do so when the hon. Gentleman apologises for seeing his party going on a prawn cocktail charm offensive with the City of London, sucking up to the bankers and crashing the economy. Perhaps then we could all start apologising.