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Volume 589: debated on Wednesday 10 December 2014

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.