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Oral Answers to Questions

Volume 589: debated on Wednesday 10 December 2014

Northern Ireland

The Secretary of State was asked—

Economy/Inward Investment

1. What steps her Department is taking to strengthen the economy of, and increase inward investment to, Northern Ireland. (906458)

2. What steps her Department is taking to strengthen the economy of, and increase inward investment to, Northern Ireland. (906459)

May I first thank you, Mr Speaker, Opposition Front Benchers and the House for your indulgence in allowing the Secretary of State to be absent, exceptionally, today? As you know, she is chairing the extremely important talks at Stormont, and we hope that they will come to a satisfactory conclusion very soon. She takes her duties in this House very seriously, as you know, and she is grateful to you for your indulgence today.

The Government’s long-term economic plan is working for Northern Ireland, and the UK Government continue to work with the Executive to promote Northern Ireland as a great place to invest. Political stability is paramount in attracting further investment, and I encourage the parties to make significant progress in the current cross-party talks.

As a result of the autumn statement, 12,000 people in Northern Ireland will be lifted out of income tax altogether following the increase in personal allowances, and almost every home buyer will pay less stamp duty. Does my hon. Friend agree that the autumn statement will bring great benefit to the whole of Northern Ireland and its people?

Yes, I very much do. It is quite clear that we need to increase prosperity in Northern Ireland. Prosperity is the key to improving security, as indeed is security to the prosperity of Northern Ireland. It is worth noting the substantial amount of foreign direct investment that Northern Ireland is now attracting. It gets the UK’s second most FDI per head, with a 32% increase last year. Foreign investors are recognising that Northern Ireland is a great place in which to invest. The latest figures are extremely encouraging.

I welcome the Chancellor’s announcement that corporation tax setting powers will be on their way to Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland economy is of course very heavily dependent on public sector jobs. What more can the Government do, using the corporation tax powers when they come, to encourage inward investment and innovation in Northern Ireland?

The Chancellor has expressed our desire to devolve that power to the Executive, and the Executive are keen to take it on. The extent to which it will impact on the Northern Ireland economy is of course a matter for the Executive—as is the level at which they wish to pitch corporation tax, once devolved—but they have suggested that up to 40,000 jobs might be created in Northern Ireland by having the power. It is particularly important for encouraging the private sector. As my hon. Friend will know, we are trying with the Executive to rebalance the economy so that the private sector is encouraged, and the devolution of corporation tax is an important part of that.

Does the Minister agree that the Government’s key extra measure of focusing on skills and making sure that people are properly trained, coupled with business investment, is precisely the way to improve productivity and therefore living standards?

I absolutely agree. My hon. Friend will have noted that the changes to national insurance in particular in the autumn statement are very much focused on getting young people into employment. The national insurance rebate is extremely helpful for small business in particular. He will have read with pleasure, as I have, the list of firms that are increasing their presence or investing for the first time in Northern Ireland. It is truly impressive, and it just shows what a great place Northern Ireland now is in which to invest.

The Minister rightly referred to the big increase in foreign direct investment under the Northern Ireland Executive in recent years, but does he agree that the Executive has to deal with many issues and problems that are unique to Northern Ireland? The legacy of the past causes a financial drag on the Executive—increased expenditure—and that has to be addressed by the parties and the Government in the talks this week.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely correct. The past still hangs heavy over Northern Ireland. For people of my generation, our image of Belfast in particular is of course shadowed by what we saw on the television screen all those years ago. Investors who are now looking to Northern Ireland still have those images in their minds, and we need to overcome that. The security situation is key to this, and the improvement in the security situation has been instrumental in making Northern Ireland look and feel a far better place in which to invest.

Does the Minister agree that, as we all accept, political stability is absolutely key in growing the economy in Northern Ireland and creating the conditions for economic prosperity? In his recent remarks in Enniskillen on 24 November, Gerry Adams said that his party was using equality to “break” Unionists—he actually used a foul-mouthed expletive at that point. He said that that was the republican strategy. Does the Minister agree that such language on the use of a policy such as equality is deeply offensive to everybody in Northern Ireland, undermines political stability and confidence and shows that Sinn Fein’s honeyed words and positive language sometimes mask a deeply disturbing policy?

I think Sinn Fein needs to be very careful about the language it uses, as indeed do all politicians. People are looking at Northern Ireland as a potential place to invest and are put off by that kind of posturing. It is very important that all parties work together to continue making Northern Ireland a great place to invest.

As the Minister said, central to attracting business investment into Northern Ireland is political stability and leadership. In that context, the Opposition welcome the Prime Minister’s planned visit to Northern Ireland later this week and his intention to participate, alongside the Taoiseach, in the current all-party talks. Will the Minister assure the House that, alongside an agreement on the budget, including welfare reform, the Government are at the very least seeking to secure agreements on the past and on parades?

The talks are comprehensive, and it is hoped that their outcome will be ambitious. The hon. Gentleman is right that issues around the legacy of the past are central to what is being discussed in Stormont at the moment. I am hopeful that by the end of the week we will have a positive outcome, but all parties need to understand that this is part of a process and that they must remain engaged. Let us hope for some good news in a few days’ time.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Will he clarify whether the Government are linking the devolution of corporation tax solely to the parties reaching an agreement on next year’s budget? Surely the decision should be based on longer-term considerations such as the impact on jobs and growth and the block grant in Northern Ireland, as well as on the implications for the rest of the United Kingdom.

No, I think it is important that corporation tax is seen as part of a whole. It cannot be taken in isolation, and it is important that the Executive formulate a balanced budget that takes welfare reform into account. Without that balanced budget, it is difficult to see how we can reasonably devolve an important power such as that.

Just a week ago, the members of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee met Senator Gary Hart in Belfast. He was very positive in suggesting that it may well be possible to arrange a trade mission to come from America to Northern Ireland to see what the possibilities are. Will the Minister follow up such a suggestion?

I am very pleased that my hon. Friend has met Senator Gary Hart, who is very much part of the current talks process. Apropos my remarks earlier about foreign direct investment, I am pleased to say that it is going up dramatically, although clearly it is not enough, and we would like to see far more in Northern Ireland from America and elsewhere. I would certainly welcome such a proposition.

Security Situation

The safety of people and communities remains the Government’s top priority in Northern Ireland. Although the threat level in Northern Ireland remains at severe, excellent co-operation between the Police Service of Northern Ireland and its partners has put violent dissident republicans under strain in recent months. There have been a number of significant arrests, charges and convictions, which are helping to suppress the threat.

I thank the Minister for his update on the serious nature of the security threat from republican terrorists and the absolute necessity of defeating them.

Does the Minister also accept that there are those who violate the sanctity of the homes of elderly people living in our community, threatening and terrorising them? Should not those criminals get custodial sentences of at least seven years, irrespective of how little or how much they actually steal through their criminal activity?

I will not be drawn on matters that are outside my sphere of competence, and I would certainly defer to the Department of Justice for action on many of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raises. I know that the PSNI takes these matters extremely seriously, as do the Government, and appropriate action must be taken.

Does the Minister agree that the greatest contribution to increasing overall security would be a successful and comprehensive outcome to the talks, which enter a vital period this week? It is important that we confront not only the problems of today but the wounds of the brutality and violence of the past. Is the Minister aware that a number of families are in Westminster today as part of their campaign looking for justice and for answers?

May I thank the hon. Gentleman, particularly for his contribution to the current talks? He is correct to say that the outcome of those talks will have a big impact on security in Northern Ireland, and we must all understand that. All parties must understand the extent of the stakes, because if this process fails I am afraid that the future will not look good. The positive developments that we have already discussed today cannot be guaranteed, so we must ensure that the talks have a positive, comprehensive outcome.

Is the Minister satisfied that appropriate and, as necessary, enhanced security measures are in place over the festive season?

That is a matter for the Minister of Justice in the Executive and the Police Service of Northern Ireland. I know that as we approach Christmas the tempo of operations by dissidents in particular has a tendency to increase. The PSNI and the Department of Justice are aware of that and making appropriate preparations.

There is a high level of dissident republican activity over Christmas and new year, and there is evidence that dissident republicans have direct contact with terrorist groups in north Africa and the middle east. Will the Minister outline what discussions have taken place with Governments from that region to ensure that the flow of weapons and bomb-making expertise is stopped?

Those matters are primarily for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and she is in touch with relevant countries to ensure that the threat of terrorism from individuals from countries outside the United Kingdom is reduced as far as possible. The hon. Gentleman will be following closely the progress of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill through this House, as that is relevant to the issue he raises.

In recent weeks the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee heard from officials in Northern Ireland and the police service that cuts to budgets are already leading to long delays in the resolution of actions covered by the Historical Enquiries Team. Will the Minister look into that and ensure that no further cuts lead to people who should have had justice years ago having to wait even longer? People are already waiting three times longer than was originally scheduled.

The spending power of the Executive has increased since the beginning of this Parliament and will continue to do so. Spending within the police budget is a matter for the Chief Constable, who has set up the historical legacies team from the Historical Enquiries Team. A further body is under discussion as part of the current talks.

I understand fully the concerns expressed by the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr McCrea) about the recent horrendous attack in Lisburn on an elderly person, although I am not authorised to speak on sentencing policy on behalf of my party. The first responsibility of any Government in relation to Northern Ireland remains security. In the run-up to Christmas when threat levels are high, as other hon. Members have said, we owe a particular debt of gratitude to the brave men and women who serve in the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Looking ahead, what assessment has the Minister made of the impact of current and projected budget cuts on police numbers and public protection?

The deployment of police assets is a matter for the Chief Constable and the Department of Justice, which broadly takes its funding from two sources—the block grant, plus additional security funding provided by the UK Government, which, as the hon. Gentleman will know, amounts to £31 million in the next financial year. I know that the Chief Constable greatly values that additional resource to cover some of the additional security costs in Northern Ireland, but principal responsibility for the deployment of that resource rests and remains with the Minister of Justice.

Party Funding

5. What assessment she has made of the level of transparency of political party funding in Northern Ireland; and if she will make a statement. (906462)

Political parties in Northern Ireland must report funding they receive to the Electoral Commission, but this is not published owing to the risk of donor intimidation. Legislation will be brought forward shortly to increase the information available about party funding in Northern Ireland, while still protecting donor identities.

Section 15A of the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2006 makes provision for funding to be published and, thanks to the excellent Library, I have today read the Sinn Fein accounts, which told me next to nothing, needless to say. Sinn Fein’s money used to come from the IRA through nefarious activities. Does my hon. Friend agree that it is important for the integrity of the political process in Northern Ireland that we have transparency in political funding as soon as possible so that we can learn whether Sinn Fein is taking a legal approach?

I certainly agree with my right hon. Friend that transparency of funding of political parties is essential. Indeed, I see on the Sinn Fein website that it is the stated intention of that party itself. Although the material published on the Electoral Commission’s website in relation to Sinn Fein’s accounts is basic, I hope that the new legislation—in which my right hon. Friend was very much involved—will give us greater clarity, although it is important that donor identity is preserved.

We had the scandal of the on-the-runs, we had the scandal that for 10 years people associated with one political party were involved in fuel smuggling to raise money, and we have the ongoing scandal of elected Members not taking their seats but receiving money from the House. When will the Government address that?

People considering how to cast their votes should pay particular attention to the work that their elected representatives do here. That increasingly appears to be the case and, given the current circumstances, I would have thought that it applied to Sinn Fein more than any.

While I wholly support the cross-party consensus on transparency in political funding in Northern Ireland, I would like a commitment from the Government that they will continually reassess the position. Until we have full transparency, Northern Ireland will not be wholly free.

We are all working towards complete normality in Northern Ireland. The assessment at the moment is that we are not there yet, and for security reasons we have to ensure that donors have anonymity. My hon. Friend must accept that, but it is an issue that needs to be kept under constant review. At some point—sooner rather than later, I hope—we will be able to normalise that aspect of election law across the United Kingdom.

With the general election only five months away, can the Minister confirm that the Northern Ireland Office has already sought an assessment from the Chief Constable of the risk of violence to donors to political parties in Northern Ireland?

The provisions in the Northern Ireland (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act should protect the identity of donors, but if they wish to make themselves known through the Electoral Commission, they can do so. In the run-up to the general election, the security services in Northern Ireland are well aware of increased threats to individuals that may obtain, including those whom the hon. Lady mentions.

Corporation Tax

6. When the Government plan to publish an analysis of the potential effect of introducing a devolved rate of corporation tax in Northern Ireland. (906463)

8. When the Government plan to publish an analysis of the potential effect of introducing a devolved rate of corporation tax in Northern Ireland. (906465)

The autumn statement set out that the Government are in favour of devolving corporation tax powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly. If the powers were devolved, the Executive would be responsible for setting the rate of corporation tax in Northern Ireland. The effect would therefore be dependent on the approach taken by the Executive.

What assessment has been made of the effect of the Government’s economic and welfare policies in Northern Ireland on the feasibility of devolving corporation tax? Can the Minister give the House a fuller explanation?

It is estimated by the Executive that the devolution of corporation tax, and the implementation of the cuts it envisages, would result in 40,000 new jobs in Northern Ireland, which is substantial. It will certainly help to improve and enhance the level of foreign direct investment, which I have touched on already. That is impressive, but it has to be sustained. It is particularly interesting to note that in the Office for National Statistics figures announced today, one of the highest sub-regional centres in the UK, in terms of gross value added per capita, is Belfast. We need to grow the economy in Belfast. The devolution of corporation tax would play an important part in that.

Will the Minister give a guarantee that the devolution of corporation tax will not have an adverse effect on the block grant to the Northern Ireland Executive?

Whenever the Minister is speaking with his right hon. Friends the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister, will he ensure that ongoing talks consider the possibility of additional resources, so that the skilled work force in Northern Ireland can become a pool of employees for inward investors who take advantage of corporation tax?

The hon. Gentleman will be familiar with the economic pact published about 18 months ago and updated during the summer, which gave significant new powers to promote the economy, in particular to grow jobs, and there was a significant amount of lending as a result. It has been successful. The groundwork has been laid and we have seen, in the figures I have quoted today, that it is having some level of success. Corporation tax will take that to the next level.

10. Last week, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said that the figures on the cost of devolving power over corporation tax to the Northern Ireland Executive were given to the Executive. Will the Minister spell out to us the cost to the block grant and the timeline for implementation? (906467)

That very much depends on whether the powers are taken up by the Executive and the extent to which they are taken up. The hon. Lady will be aware that corporation tax in the last financial year raised in excess of £400 million. Were corporation tax to be devolved, and reduced as far as it possibly could be, then we are talking about that sort of figure.

13. Is the Minister aware that the Nevin Economic Research Institute warns that £400 million will have to be cut from public spending in Northern Ireland should corporation tax be moved there? (906470)

That is a matter for the Executive. They need to make a judgment on whether it will produce a net improvement to the economy in Northern Ireland. They have decided that it will create up to 40,000 extra jobs, so they clearly believe that corporation tax will have a net benefit to the economy of Northern Ireland, but they will have to find the money from the block grant.

Welfare Cap

7. What assessment she has made of the effect in Northern Ireland of the introduction of the welfare cap. (906464)

Welfare expenditure accounts for one-sixth of all public spending. The introduction of a UK welfare cap was overwhelmingly approved by 520 Members of this House, although I accept not by the hon. Gentleman. The cap ensures that social security expenditure remains fair to claimants and yet affordable to taxpayers in both Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

On welfare spending in Northern Ireland, what assurance can the Minister give that the operation of the cap will not entail a cap within a cap in ways that mean future benefit take-up campaigns will, for the first time, be at the expense of other benefits, which has never been the case in the past?

The hon. Gentleman is perhaps confusing the welfare cap with the benefit cap. It is important to note that the previous Minister in the Department for Social Development, Nelson McCausland, said that universal credit will lift 10,000 children out of poverty, and that most people in Northern Ireland will benefit from the change in the welfare rules. This has a substantial capacity to improve the lives of those who are reliant on welfare in Northern Ireland.

Youth Unemployment

The November labour market survey reports that the unemployment rate in Northern Ireland for 18 to 24-year-olds has come down 5% over the year, and the Government are directly helping to get young people into work by abolishing national insurance contributions for businesses employing under-21s and apprentices aged under 25.

The Minister will be aware that unemployment in Northern Ireland is much higher than the UK average, and a recent survey by the Belfast Telegraph found that two thirds of young people wanted to leave Northern Ireland. What specific steps is he taking to improve skills and training to encourage young people to stay in Northern Ireland?

Of course, these are matters primarily for the Department for Employment and Learning, with which the Government work closely. I hope the hon. Lady will be aware of the economic plan published 18 months ago in collaboration with the Northern Ireland Executive laying out the steps that we would take jointly to promote a shared and integrated future, including the creation of the further education college at Craigavon. Further such measures will be considered. The important thing is to increase the number of apprenticeships in Northern Ireland, and the national insurance contributions announced in the autumn statement are an important part of that.

Prime Minister

The Prime Minister was asked—

Engagements

I have been asked to reply on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who is visiting Turkey and Auschwitz.

This morning, I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in the House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

Last week, the Deputy Prime Minister refused to attend the autumn statement. Exactly which parts of the statement did he most object to?

The autumn statement was a coalition autumn statement. I spent one day in Cornwall; Opposition Members have spent five years in cloud cuckoo land when it comes to the economy, and the Government side of the House has been clearing up the mess they created.

In the light of my right hon. Friend’s enthusiasm for devolving powers from the UK Government to the component parts of the UK, does he have similar plans for devolving competences from Europe to the UK?

The right hon. Gentleman might be surprised to know that I once wrote a booklet about that very idea. Just as we must do at a European level what nation states cannot do on their own—on the environment, globalisation, trade talks and so on—so other powers should be devolved downwards where possible.

It is good to see the Deputy Prime Minister back in his place after his important day trip during the important statement last week.

Since he became Deputy Prime Minister, he has had the opportunity to appoint seven Cabinet members. Will he remind the House how many have been women?

The right hon. and learned Lady knows exactly who the members of the Cabinet are from the Liberal Democrat team. I would remind her, however, that millions of women in this country have got from this Government what they never got from her Government: better pensions; more jobs; tax cuts; shared parental leave; better child care; and more flexible working. Instead of scoring Westminster points, why does she not do the right thing for millions of women around the country?

The right hon. Gentleman is reluctant to answer the question, which is unlike him, because normally when he is asked about numbers and women, he is quite forthcoming. I will tell the House the answer: four and a half years as Deputy Prime Minister, seven Cabinet appointments, and not one woman. And this is not a Westminster point, because it affects what they do. So will he tell the House, since his Government introduced tribunal fees, what has been the fall in the number of sex discrimination cases?

I do not have that statistic to hand, but I am happy to provide it to the right hon. and learned Lady. Once again, however, she displays her and her party’s total denial about their record on women. Female unemployment rose 24% under Labour, and in one year women were given a paltry 75p rise in the state pension—scandalous, a total shame. Through our new, fairer single-tier pension, 650,000 women will get an extra £400 a year from 2016, and I care more about those 650,000 women across the country than I do about anyone around the Cabinet table.

I will answer the question since the right hon. Gentleman has not. Since the introduction of their tribunal fees, there has been a 90% fall in women taking sex discrimination cases to a tribunal, including women who have been discriminated against at work because they are pregnant.

Let me turn to another of the right hon. Gentleman’s key decisions. Of those who get the millionaires’ tax cut, what percentage are men?

This is quite breathtaking. Is the right hon. and learned Lady not aware that of the over 26 million people who have benefited from our tax cuts for low and middle-income earners, the tax cut has disproportionately gone to women? Is she not aware that under her Government the top rate of tax was 40p—5p lower than it is under this Government? Is she not aware that there are now more women in employment than ever before? That is a record of which we are very proud indeed.

And he should be aware that any gains on tax changes for women have been more than wiped out by the hit they have taken on the cuts to tax credits. And yes, I would indeed agree with him that it is breathtaking that 85% of those who benefit from the millionaires’ tax cut are men. Let us try him on another one. What proportion of those hit by his bedroom tax are women?

Since the right hon. and learned Lady is losing her way a bit with the statistics, let me tell her that we have cut tax for 11.9 million women, and that the gender pay gap for women under the age of 40 has pretty well disappeared under this coalition. Under her Government, only one in eight of the FTSE 100 board members were women. Under this Government, there are more women on FTSE 100 boards than ever before. The Labour party is becoming the Lance Armstrong of British politics: it has forgotten the better half of a decade of how it messed things up.

I will tell the Deputy Prime Minister and the House the reality for people who are paying the bedroom tax. Two thirds of those hit by the bedroom tax are women. It does not seem that there is any shortage of spare rooms in Downing street for the spin doctors to spin against each other. Let me ask him about something else. Of the £26 billion this Government have raised through changes to benefits and direct taxes, a staggering £22 billion has come from women. Can he explain why?

I think it is time to call out the right hon. and learned Lady on her Government’s record. Under Labour, unemployment was higher; female unemployment was higher; youth unemployment was higher; inequality was higher; child poverty was higher; pensioner poverty was higher; relative poverty was higher; fuel poverty was higher; and income tax for low and middle-income earners, including millions of women, was higher. When will she come to admit that her party created so much of the mess that this side of the House has had to clear up?

The right hon. Gentleman has just demonstrated that he is completely out of touch with women’s lives. It is always the same with this Deputy Prime Minister. He talks the talk, but he walks through the Lobby with the Tories. He briefs against them, but he always votes with them. He complains about the autumn statement, but he signed it off. That is why people will never trust him or his party ever again.

Does the right hon. and learned Lady seriously think that the British people are going to trust her and her party on the economy? Of course not. Manufacturing jobs were destroyed three times faster under Labour than they were under Margaret Thatcher. This was the party—[Interruption.] In fact, the shadow Health Secretary, sitting there demurely, is the only man in England who has ever privatised an NHS hospital, and they dare to lecture us. [Interruption.] Hinchingbrooke hospital—the only NHS hospital to be privatised, and by the Labour party. Inequality higher under Labour; privatisation of the NHS higher under Labour; and an economy destroyed under Labour.

Q2. My constituents will have been delighted to hear the Deputy Prime Minister support last week’s excellent autumn statement, because they know that it is the only credible plan for economic recovery. They have been worried about scurrilous rumours that he wants to raise taxes and impose a homes tax in the next Parliament, but, in view of his answer to Question 1, that cannot be true. Will he now confirm his loyalty to the long-term economic plan, which is bringing jobs and growth to people in Wimbledon? (906544)

Of course I agree wholeheartedly with my hon. Friend that we must stay the course in order to finish the job, and finish it fairly. He may be aware that the long-term youth claimant count in his constituency has fallen by a full 40% in the last year alone, which is an extraordinary achievement.

As my hon. Friend knows, my view is that it is simply not fair or justifiable to apply council tax bands to low-value properties without adopting the same approach to high-value properties. Why should a family living in a family home in Lewisham pay the same council tax as someone living in a £10 million palace, possibly in Wimbledon? That does not make sense to me, and it should change.

My 69-year-old Atherton constituent Margaret was run over by a car, and was left bleeding in the road for 90 minutes before the ambulance turned up. The Chancellor said last week that the Government had made cuts without affecting front-line services. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with the Chancellor, or does he regret supporting every cut that the Government have made?

What I regret enormously is the fact that every household in the hon. Lady’s constituency—indeed, every household in all our constituencies—took a hit of £3,000 because of the crash in 2008, which was caused in large part by the absolute neglect of the Labour party in government. That is what I regret. The economy has suffered a cardiac arrest the likes of which we have not seen before during the post-war period. I am very proud of the fact that this coalition Government are making painstaking, if controversial, decisions to ensure that we live within our means rather than simply burdening our children and grandchildren with this generation’s mistakes.

Q3. My constituents in Dover and Deal are very concerned about border security and the situation that we have seen in Calais this year. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that, while we have acted, the European Union should take more responsibility for people trafficking and the problems of Schengen open borders, and that it should make Italy take responsibility as the first country for asylum claimants on the island of Lampedusa? (906545)

Of course I understand what an important issue this is for my hon. Friend and his constituents. I agree with him that it is a problem shared and that therefore the solution needs to be shared as well, across the European Union. That is one of the reasons why I have always been an advocate of cross-border co-operation in the EU on issues concerning people who cross our borders. We cannot act on our own. I agree with my hon. Friend that, whenever possible, the European Union should act effectively and together.

Q4. Opposition Members have called for a section 30 order to fast-track elements of the Smith commission to Scotland, especially votes for 16 and 17-year-olds in the 2016 Scottish Parliament election. I know that the Deputy Prime Minister’s boss does not usually allow him to make the big decisions, but as he is in the big seat today, will he commit himself to going ahead with the section 30 order now? (906546)

We will stick to the timetable to which all the main parties in Westminster committed themselves at the time of the referendum. We have stuck to that timetable religiously so far. In fact, despite predictions to the contrary by the Scottish National party, we have over-delivered on the commitments regarding further devolution to Scotland.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, a lively debate is taking place about the franchise for 16 and 17-year-olds. My party has always believed that we should give them the right to vote. They took up that right with alacrity at the time of the Scottish referendum, but the issue will clearly continue to be debated across parties in the House.

The hon. Gentleman was standing, so presumably he was standing in the hope of being called. I do not know why he is so surprised.

Sometimes I worry I might forget where I am.

Some of the most heart-rending cases in my surgery on a weekly basis involve people who have had mental health difficulties and feel let down by the national health service and other organisations set up to help them. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree with me that it is time we did more?

I suspect that many Members from all parties in this House will agree that mental health services have for too long been treated as a poor cousin—a Cinderella service—in the NHS and have been systematically underfunded for a long time. That is why I am delighted to say that the coalition Government have announced that we will be introducing new access and waiting time standards for mental health conditions such as have been in existence for physical health conditions for a long time. Over time, as reflected in the new NHS mandate, we must ensure that mental health is treated with equality of resources and esteem compared with any other part of the NHS.

Q5. When the Health and Social Care Act 2012 passed through Parliament, the Government said it was not about privatisation. A recent study by the British Medical Journal says that one third of all contracts have gone to the private sector and only 10% to the voluntary and social enterprise sector. Does the Deputy Prime Minister regret supporting that legislation? (906547)

The right hon. Gentleman is being highly selective in describing what that report said. It actually said that of all NHS budget contracts, 6% had gone to the private sector. Guess how high it was when this Government took office: 5%. So Labour presided over a 5% delivery of contracts to the private sector, and we have added 1%. The Opposition delivered £250 million-worth of sweetheart deals to the NHS, deliberately undercutting the NHS for operations that did not help a single NHS patient in the country—and they have the gall to lecture us on the privatisation of the NHS!

Will the Deputy Prime Minister unreservedly condemn what appears to be the killing this morning by the Israeli defence force of the Palestinian Government Minister Ziad Abu Ein, who was doing nothing more than protesting in his own country against illegal demolitions and the destruction of ancient olive groves by the state of Israel? Will Her Majesty’s Government join in international pressure demanding a full investigation and then calling, should it be so justified, for the prosecution of the soldier who struck him?

Of course I and the Government will urgently look into the circumstances around this killing. Of course we condemn all unwarranted acts of violence on all sides in the middle east. I am not familiar now with the circumstances of this particular death, but clearly we want to see restraint exercised on all sides, we want to see an end to illegal settlement activity and to indiscriminate violence being inflicted on innocent Israeli citizens, and a demonstrative move on all sides, which will involve difficult compromises, towards the two-state solution, which is the only means by which peace and security can be delivered to all communities in the middle east.

Q6. The Deputy Prime Minister has received donations totalling £34,500 from the managing director of Autofil Yarns Ltd. What does he think of the fact that workers at Autofil Yarns Ltd have received the news recently that as many as 160 jobs could be moved overseas—jobs lost to Britain—by Autofil Yarns? (906548)

Clearly I cannot speak for Autofil; any company needs to explain its own business and investment decisions. I am very surprised by the hon. Gentleman’s line of questioning, given that the Labour party is entirely bankrolled by the puppet-masters of the trade unions. For all I know, that question might have been written for him by his trade union bosses. Surely he would agree with me that it is time we cleaned up party funding on a cross-party basis once and for all.

Q7. In Peterborough, youth unemployment has halved since 2010, apprenticeships are at record levels and the jobseeker’s allowance claimant count has come down 51% in the past four years. In addition, the number of children living in workless households is now at a record low nationally. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that such achievements—and the policies that give rise to them, which were consistently opposed by Labour—show political courage and will change people’s lives for the better, and are not, as some people have foolishly suggested, the result of an ideological commitment to austerity? (906549)

Given that we were told by the Opposition at the outset of the coalition that 3 million people would be unemployed, it is striking that there are now more people in work than ever before. I find that striking in my own constituency, as the hon. Gentleman no doubt does in his. I remember being warned by the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Mr Blunkett) that there would be a “post-Soviet” meltdown and that people would be fending for themselves on the streets, but we now have fewer young people than ever in Sheffield who are not in education, employment or training. There are fewer NEETs in that great city than ever before, and we are seeing that repeated across the country. That is a result of a balanced, pragmatic, non-ideological approach to balancing the books steadily over time.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister use his evidently widespread support in the coalition ranks, particularly with the Prime Minister, to prevail on the Prime Minister to honour a pledge he made in June this year to the victims of the contaminated blood scandal that took place in the NHS? That scandal has reflected badly on successive Administrations, probably going as far back as that of Harold Wilson, if not further. In June the Prime Minister undertook to look at and rectify the situation, to the extent that that is possible, and this would be one promise that the coalition Government have it in their power to deliver.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his question. He is quite right to say that this heart-wrenching issue has dragged on for a very long time. If I may, I shall write to him about it. I know that steps have been taken to address some of the many legitimate outstanding claims, and I shall look into the matter and write to him.

Q8. The Deputy Prime Minister will be aware that Sherwood Forest Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust is currently in special measures. What assistance can he give to the Health Secretary as he works with the trust to ensure continued improvement despite its having to wrestle with its £40 million a year repayments on a private finance initiative deal signed under the previous Government? (906550)

I am afraid this is another example of the Janus-faced approach to the NHS by the party opposite. The Labour Government entered into this appalling PFI contract, along with other such contracts in the NHS, and those contracts are now costing the NHS £1 billion a year. It is an absolute scandal that the Sherwood Forest Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust has been crippled by a botched PFI deal entered into by the previous Government. The trust is now receiving central support to address its underlying financial deficit, and it has developed a plan showing year-on-year improvements in its position, including 145 extra nurses, nursing support staff and doctors since going into special measures.

Q9. If the Deputy Prime Minister had attended the autumn statement, he would have heard the Chancellor claim that this is a Government who back small businesses. He could give those words some meaning by backing Labour’s plan to outlaw large companies charging small companies to be on their supply list. Will he take this opportunity to back that plan in the Small Business, Enterprise and Employment Bill and really start to stand up for small firms? (906551)

Thankfully, we have seen more new and small businesses being created under this coalition Government than since records began. I agree with the hon. Gentleman—I think everyone would agree—about the revelations that have come to light in recent days of some large companies, particularly in the food sector, in effect charging small suppliers for the privilege of providing them with supplies. I know that the right hon. Member, the right hon. Minister, my—

I know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills is looking carefully at this matter, and he has already pledged publicly to take action if necessary.

Q10. My constituent Diane Howells visited GPs in Newark 15 times in eight months last year before she was eventually diagnosed with terminal cancer when her son Luke took her to the accident and emergency department in Newark. A quarter of all new cancer cases—amounting to 80,000 people a year—are only diagnosed at A and E. Will my right hon. Friend agree to review this tragic case and to back Luke’s campaign to have cancer ruled out first, rather than last, and to increase referral rates from our GPs? (906553)

Of course I shall look into the case, and I am sure my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health will also be keen to look at it and get back to my hon. Friend. As he knows, the NHS is successfully seeing 51% more patients with suspected cancers than it was four years ago; survival rates have never been higher; almost nine out of 10 patients say that their care is excellent or very good; and the cancer treatment fund has helped thousands upon thousands of patients. But, of course, where possible we should always do more.

Q11. The Deputy Prime Minister has made a series of extraordinary claims today, but among the most extraordinary is the one, in response to a question from my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Camberwell and Peckham (Ms Harman), that pensioner poverty rose under the last Government—in fact, pensioner poverty fell dramatically. Will he explain to the House what his source for that claim is? It certainly cannot be the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which in 2010 reported that pensioner poverty fell dramatically under the last Government. (906554)

The source is that what we are doing is a whole lot better than the insult of 75p. We have delivered the largest cash increase in the state pension ever; we have delivered the triple lock guarantee for pensioners; and we want to put that into law, so that, unlike under Labour, pensioners on the state pension will know that because of this coalition Government their state pension will go up by a decent amount every single time. That is my source.

Spending Priorities (Defence)

Our defence budget is the biggest in the EU and the second largest in NATO. This Government are spending 2% of GDP on defence this Parliament—we are one of only four NATO countries to do so.

That was not exactly an answer to the question on the Order Paper. Given that this country for decades spent more than 4% on defence, does the Deputy Prime Minister not agree that it would be a disgraceful dereliction of duty if the British Government ever fell below the 2% minimum recommended by NATO?

As my hon. Friend will know, we are spending 2% of GDP on defence, and have consistently met and exceeded this NATO guideline. We are spending more than £160 billion on equipment and equipment support over the next 10 years, which will ensure that we have one of the best trained and best equipped armed forces in the world. Decisions on defence spending after 2015-16 will, of course, have to be determined in the next comprehensive spending round.

Engagements

Q13. What does the Deputy Prime Minister think of the fact that under his Government if he now needed an operation in Devon, he would be denied it because he smokes, as would the Communities and Local Government Secretary because of his size? (906556)

That’s a bit harsh. I do not think anyone would disagree with clinicians in Devon and elsewhere urging patients to look after themselves and prepare themselves for operation. My understanding is that the decision—or the announcement mooted—in Devon is about patients preparing for operations, but of course I disagree with the idea of, in effect, rationing in this way, which is one of the reasons we have announced, in total, £3 billion of extra money for our beloved NHS.

On 13 November, the people of Switzerland voted overwhelmingly to retain freedom of movement with the European Union, because their politicians talked about the economic benefits of being in the single market. Will the Deputy Prime Minister continue to do what the City, the CBI and companies in my constituency want, which is to talk about those benefits for the UK and reject the politics of knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing?

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend that freedom of movement, which is a privilege and entitlement that more than 1.5 million British citizens benefit from across the European Union, is something we should defend. But freedom of movement is not the same as, and is not synonymous with, the freedom to claim, which is why there is now a very healthy debate about how we ensure that freedom of movement can be protected while the rules on access to benefits can be changed.

Fixed-term Parliaments

Q14. What assessment he has made of the effect on the performance of Government of the introduction of five-year fixed term parliaments; and if he will make a statement. (906557)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and the Committee he chairs for their work on the operation of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011. Fixed-term Parliaments give greater predictability and continuity, enabling better long-term legislative and financial planning. The full effect of introducing fixed-term Parliaments is something that can only be assessed over time, which is why the Act will be reviewed in 2020.

Nearly 25 years ago, I asked the then Prime Minister, Mrs Thatcher, at Prime Minister’s questions whether she would set up a national institution to reduce the sexual abuse of children. May I congratulate the Deputy Prime Minister and his Government on setting up, over the past five years, a series of “what works” organisations to provide best practice including early intervention? Will he and other party leaders consider putting in their manifestos the creation of a national institute for the study and prevention of sexual abuse of children so that we do not have another 25 years’ worth of belated inquiries? Such an institute would pre-empt perpetration and help victims with the best evidence-based practice and programmes both nationally and internationally.

I happen to know that the hon. Gentleman is seeing my right hon. Friend the Minister for Crime Prevention on that issue next week. I and my party agree with the hon. Gentleman about the merits of “what works” initiatives. A “what works” institute for crime prevention would be a good idea. He shines a spotlight on the reprehensible and grotesque crimes of child sex abuse and exploitation. I agree that we need to work together, which is why the National Group on Sexual Violence against Children and Vulnerable People has been set up, to work across agencies, areas and local authorities to bear down on these reprehensible crimes.

Last weekend, I had the pleasure of visiting Motcombe primary school in my constituency. It has fought tooth and nail to introduce free school meals, and has been very successful. Will the Deputy Prime Minister take this opportunity to congratulate Motcombe and all the primary schools in my constituency and across England which have done such a fantastic job delivering on his policy?

Of course I congratulate everybody at Motcombe primary school and all the primary schools across the country which, despite all the scepticism and cynicism, have delivered healthy free school meals at lunchtime to 1.5 million more children. The educational and health benefits are considerable, and I am delighted that we are now doing this across the country.

With crude oil now below $70 a barrel, will the Deputy Prime Minister tell us why that price is not reflected at the pumps?

I know that my right hon. Friends the Chancellor and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury have raised this with the industry. We all want to see the lower shifts in oil prices across the world reflected in the prices on our forecourts. We must continue to focus on that in our dealings with all the oil companies.

“We should be clear. It is not wrong to express concern about the scale of people coming into the country. People have understandably become frustrated. It boils down to one word: control.” Does the stand-in Prime Minister agree with the Prime Minister, because they were his words?

There are some important controls that we need to improve and strengthen. It is essential that we reintroduce the proper border controls and exit checks that were removed by previous Governments. I insisted that that was in the coalition agreement. We are now on track to do that, so, just as we count people in, we count them out as well. Those additional controls are important, because we can then discover who has overstayed their presence here in the United Kingdom illegally, which is one of the biggest problems that we face.