Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 590: debated on Tuesday 6 January 2015

As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on a full range of Government policy initiatives—[Laughter.] I do not understand the hilarity. Within Government I take special responsibility for this Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.

The Deputy Prime Minister says that he supports the Prime Minister on a full range of Government policy; I should think that as the Deputy Prime Minister he supports the Prime Minister on the whole range of Government policy. The Government have been incredibly complacent about the role of individual voter registration. I have over 10,000 students in my constituency, many thousands of whom are not registered. What is the Deputy Prime Minister going to do about that? How is he going to spend the £10 million emergency fund? Is it not a recognition that this is a huge problem across the country and should be dealt with?

The new system is supported on all sides of the House. It was originally planned by the previous Government to move to a system of individual voter registration, so that we move beyond the paternalism which assumed that the head of a household would always register the people in that household. The new system gives everybody the individual right to decide for themselves how and when they want to be registered. As the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), just explained, we are providing resources and are considering providing more resources to local authorities in those areas where certain groups are at present under-registered.

T5. Across the world hundreds of thousands of Christians are being perniciously persecuted for their faith, beaten with nail-studded wooden clubs in Sri Lanka, abducted and killed by Boko Haram in Nigeria and Cameroon, burned to death, forcibly married and on death row in Pakistan, and children are chopped in half or sold into slavery by IS in Iraq. We know of this in this House, and of much more. What are the Government doing about it? Is it not time for this country to appoint a global ambassador for religious freedom? (906812)

I am sure everybody is shocked not only by the news but by the litany of abuse, persecution and violence that is inflicted on Christians and all religious denominations that are persecuted minorities around the world. The Government, through bilateral engagement and working with partners in international organisations, funding projects, and providing religious literacy training for Foreign and Commonwealth Office staff, do a lot to counter this. There is also, as the hon. Lady will know, an active advisory group on international freedom of religion or belief, which we strongly support. The question whether we should go further—of course, we should always keep an open mind on this—and create an envoy or an ambassador on religious freedom is not quite as straightforward as she implies. Other countries that have taken that step have found that those ambassadors and envoys are excluded from visiting certain countries. That is why the best course of action at present is for each of the Foreign Office Ministers to retain the responsibility for promoting freedom of religion and belief in the areas of the world which they cover.

Yesterday the Deputy Prime Minister said that it was the Liberal Democrats who put the heart into this Tory-led Government. Can he tell us where is the heart in the bedroom tax, where is the heart in making low-income people worse off, and where is the heart in giving tax cuts to millionaires while more people go to food banks? If there is a heart in this Government, it is a heart of stone.

At the election, there were 600,000 more people in relative poverty than there are now. There were 300,000 more children in relative poverty, 200,000 more pensioners in relative—[Interruption.] I know that Labour Members do not what to hear this, but the right hon. and learned Lady seems to think that we lived in a world of milk and honey before 2010 and that all the problems in the world were created by this coalition Government. Manufacturing declined three times faster under her party’s Government than it did under Margaret Thatcher. Inequality is now lower than at any point since 1986. We are a Government who have sorted out her mess, and done so fairly.

Once again, the Deputy Prime Minister has shown that he will say anything to defend the Government and that he is completely out of touch. The reality is that without the Liberal Democrats, there would be no VAT hike, no trebling of tuition fees and no dismantling of the NHS. No one is fooled by the Lib Dems’ attempts outside this House to distance themselves from the Tories. The public know that this Government have not got a heart, and the right hon. Gentleman is making a mistake if he thinks the public have not got a brain and do not realise this. That is why no one will trust the Lib Dems again.

I will tell you what I think is heartless and incompetent: going on a prawn cocktail charm offensive to the City of London in the run-up to the last election and allowing the banks to get away with blue murder. The banks blew up on the right hon. and learned Lady’s watch because they did not heed our warnings that they were getting up to irresponsible lending practices. I will tell you what is heartless: crashing the British economy and costing every household in this country £3,000. I will tell you what is heartless: giving tax cuts to very, very wealthy folk in the City and making their cleaners pay higher taxes through income tax. Come next April, we will have taken over 3 million people on low pay out of income tax—the majority of them women. That is fair; and it is something we did that she did not.

T14. In his speech yesterday, the Deputy Prime Minister appeared to revive the spirit of “The Wizard of Oz” when he claimed that Lib Dems would put heart into the Conservatives and spine into Labour. As Deputy Prime Minister, does he see his role as Dorothy, in a dream world on the yellow brick road, the Wizard, who turns out to be all smoke and mirrors, or the Scarecrow, who needs a brain? (906821)

Order. Whether the question is well prepared or not is not for the Chair to decide; what the Chair does want is to hear the answer.

A well prepared and obviously much rehearsed question. My view, as the hon. Gentleman’s party hares off to the right and the Labour party hares off to the left, is that the majority of the British people want us to stick to the course of fixing the economy but doing so in a spirit of fairness and compassion. That is why my party, unlike the other two, will remain firmly camped on the centre ground.

T2. A high-skill, high-wage economy needs more of our young people going into apprenticeships, so will the Deputy Prime Minister explain how last year 6,000 fewer young people started an apprenticeship than the year before? Is not this simply a Government who have betrayed the promise of Britain’s young people? (906809)

That is an absolutely ludicrous assertion. My right hon. Friend the Business Secretary has presided over the biggest expansion of apprenticeships in this country since the second world war. We have seen 2 million new apprenticeship starts under this Government—a far, far higher rate of apprenticeship starts than ever occurred under 13 years of the Labour Government.

T15. Despite the fact that London is the powerhouse of the economy and continues to subsidise the rest of the United Kingdom, there are still pockets of deprivation. What powers will my right hon. Friend propose be devolved to the Mayor of London and to London’s local authorities to combat those areas of deprivation? (906822)

As the hon. Gentleman may know, the growth deal for London had a particular focus on giving greater flexibility and freedom to decision makers in London to address the skills gaps not only in the economy as a whole but in London in particular. As he rightly alluded to, there are of course pockets of real deprivation in our capital city, but there are also pockets of folk, both young and old, who simply do not have the skills needed to get themselves back into the labour market.

T4. From Lincolnshire to London, chief constables are expressing mounting concern over the Government’s proposed cuts to policing leading to neighbourhood policing being hollowed out, response times getting longer, victims being let down and, crucially, public safety being put at risk. Are they right? (906811)

Of course, the police have had to absorb 20% reductions in their budget and it is extraordinary—we should all pay tribute to police forces up and down the country for this—that they have none the less equally presided over a decline in crime rates to historically very low levels indeed. I am extremely confused this morning—[Interruption.] Let me explain, and the confusion will then be on the other side of the House, not on this side. The Labour party has vilified the coalition Government, day in, day out, for taking difficult decisions to balance the books, but I read this morning that it would actually inflict more cuts on local government and would not relieve the public sector pay restraint on millions of people in the public sector. I would be interested to know what Labour’s solution really is. It criticises us for things it now apparently wants to do itself.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister take this opportunity to acknowledge that one of the singular successes of the Scottish referendum campaign was the engagement of new first-time voters from the age of 16 and above? Given the imminent general election, will he encourage local authorities throughout the United Kingdom to build on that groundswell of young people’s engagement with politics—I cannot believe, and I am sure my right hon. Friend does not, that what happened in Scotland is not a reflection of the level of potential interest that exists throughout the rest of the UK as well—with a view to building, perhaps in a future Parliament, what Holyrood is likely to do for next year’s Scottish elections and extending the franchise for House of Commons and all levels of parliamentary elections in the future?

I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend. I hope that those who doubt the wisdom of moving towards extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds—there are, of course, some in this House who still doubt it—will look carefully at the experience of the Scottish referendum, which mobilised huge public participation not only across all communities and age groups, but, perhaps most especially, among 16 and 17-year-olds. I think that any doubts anyone might have had about the wisdom of extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds should be dispelled by that experience. I, like my right hon. Friend, look forward to a time when we have genuine cross-party consensus about giving all 16 and 17-year-olds across the United Kingdom the right to vote.

T6. This summer, one or two former Ministers may seek gainful employment in the corporate sector. Is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments is effective at ensuring that big corporate interests are not able to buy inside influence improperly? (906813)

As the hon. Gentleman will know, the point of the advisory council is precisely to ensure that improper influence is not secured by the employment of those who have recently held ministerial office. Of course, the rigour with which the advisory council operates should always be kept under review, and if the hon. Gentleman has suggestions about how we can make it more rigorous I am very keen to hear from him.

Further to the earlier exchange on Bradford, may I urge the Deputy Prime Minister not to devolve more powers to Bradford council, which has consistently shown that it does not care about Shipley in its district, but only about its central Bradford heartland? My constituents feel that decision making in Bradford is just as distant, if not more so, than decision making in Whitehall. May I urge him instead to allow my constituents in Shipley and Keighley the opportunity of a referendum to decide whether they want to break away from Bradford and form their own unitary authority, which would be the same size as Calderdale council and allow some genuine local decision making?

I do not want to comment on the prospects of Shipley splitism and separatism, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman’s sense of grievance about where decisions are taken—in Bradford or Shipley—will not dim his enthusiasm for something that this coalition Government have pioneered, which is the devolution of power from Whitehall to all parts of the country. I hope that these local difficulties can be resolved, such that we can devolve more power to all areas of the country.

T7. It has been reported in The Guardian, so it must be true, that the Deputy Prime Minister is spending at least two days a week in his constituency because he fears losing his seat to Labour’s Oliver Coppard. Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether the role of Deputy Prime Minister is now part time; and if it is, will he give up half his salary? (906814)

It is a novel concept for the hon. Gentleman to seek to criticise me for doing the work that I have done with great pleasure and relish for the past 10 years, which is to be a dutiful constituency MP, as well as a party leader and Deputy Prime Minister. I make no apologies for the fact that week in, week out I attend—as I hope the hon. Gentleman does—to constituency duties as a constituency MP.

May I wish the Deputy Prime Minister a happy new year? I have made a resolution not to be nasty to the Liberal Democrats. [Interruption.] No, I am not going to break it. He has been very courageous. He has been a courageous leader of the Liberal Democrats. He has socked it to the Labour party at the Dispatch Box today. He is supporting the Prime Minister. He is even sounding like a Tory. Has he thought of joining us?

I could give the hon. Gentleman so many reasons why I would never join him. Without in any way seeking to breach the festive spirit, I would say that he stands as a constant reminder of why I would never join his party.

T8. With people falling off the electoral register—potentially 12 million by the next election—does the Deputy Prime Minister support our plans to trial online voting and to look at holding elections at weekends? (906815)

Of course we should have an ongoing debate about how we can make voting easier, bring it more up to date and make sure that the whole experience of participating in elections is a 21st-century experience and not a 19th-century one. Debates on those kinds of proposals should continue, but they should not be to the exclusion of making sure that we introduce individual voter registration successfully. That is the reason we are making particular efforts, not least by giving substantial support to local authorities in parts of the country with the highest numbers of unregistered voters so that they can go out and get them on the register.

Happy new year to you, Mr Speaker, and to the Deputy Prime Minister. Will he clarify what he said to me at his last Question Time? He said that the failure to support the Boundary Commission’s changes was linked in some way to House of Lords reform. I have gone back and studied the coalition agreement, and it is quite clear that there was no such linkage whatsoever; it was linked to the alternative vote referendum. Will he put the record straight, and explain why he introduced a measure in 2010 and then voted against it in 2013? Was it purely for party political advantage?

As the right hon. Gentleman will have seen from looking at his well-thumbed copy of the coalition agreement, the section on constitutional and political reform floated a package of measures, including House of Lords reform, boundary reform and party funding reform. Unfortunately, on a number of those crucial items—for instance, on party funding reform and House of Lords reform—his party decided not to see through those reforms. I just think that most people accept that constitutional reform is best done, first, on a cross-party basis and, secondly, not on a piecemeal basis. That is why I think it was right, when it became obvious that there was no longer cross-party consensus in favour of ambitious constitutional reform, that the deal was off.

T9. The Deputy Prime Minister accepted over £30,000 in donations from Autofil in Nottinghamshire, which is transferring 160 British jobs to Bulgaria. If those jobs were in Sheffield, would he still be taking the money? (906816)

As I said in response to an earlier question, it is of course for a private company to decide how it makes its own arrangements. I certainly make no apologies for the transparent way in which I and colleagues in my party receive donations—a lot more transparently and a lot less in hock to vested interests than the huge dollops of subsidy that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues receive from the trade unions.

From suicide crisis to life-threatening eating disorders, too many of my constituents with mental health problems find it difficult to get timely help. What can the Government do to ensure, in a supportive way, that the NHS treats mental health as seriously as physical health?

I strongly agree with my hon. Friend, and for a long time one great injustice has been that mental health services have been treated like a sort of Cinderella service in the NHS. We are finally starting to right that wrong by putting mental health on the same legal footing as physical health in the NHS, and next year we will introduce new access and waiting standards for mental health, as have existed for physical health for a long time. I hope that my hon. Friend knows that a few weeks ago I announced a complete overhaul of the way in which eating disorders—particularly those suffered by youngsters—are dealt with, so that that is done more properly than in the past.

T11. Given that the Deputy Prime Minister and his Lib Dem Ministers are rowing back from coalition policies at Olympic speeds, why are they still carrying red ministerial boxes and taking ministerial salaries in a Government whom they are so antagonistic towards? (906818)

First, I congratulate the right hon. Lady on her honour—I am sure I do so on behalf of the whole House. I hope she will understand a rather simple distinction between our pride in the things that we have done in this coalition Government—taking people out of tax, expanding apprenticeships on a scale never done before, giving healthy meals at lunchtime to children, providing two, three and four-year-olds with more child care and pre-school support than ever before, and revolutionising our pension system so that the state pension is provided at a decent rate—and the disagreements about the future that of course political parties have, whether in coalition or not. I disagree with the Labour party’s mañana, mañana approach to never really dealing with the deficit, and with the Conservative party’s approach of carrying on with cuts even after the deficit has been dealt with. That is a perfectly reasonable disagreement about the future that we will all argue about over the next four or five months.