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Topical Questions

Volume 592: debated on Tuesday 10 February 2015

I am grateful for such applause as I rise to my feet. As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on a full range of Government policy initiatives. Within government, I take special responsibility for this Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.

The Deputy Prime Minister talks a lot about cleaning up political donations, yet his Liberal Democrats were perfectly willing to take a donation of £34,000 from the managing director of Autofil Yarns, a company that is removing 160 British jobs to Bulgaria to protect its profits. Does the Deputy Prime Minister regret that? Is he going to repay it, or is this just another yarn that is being spun by the Liberal Democrats?

The puns come thick and fast. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will explain why his party blocked party political funding reform recently, and whether his question was written by one of his trade union paymasters. Being lectured by the Labour party on how parties are funded really takes the biscuit.

T3. Will my right hon. Friend tell us what proposals are being made to devolve stamp duty to local authorities, and will he tell us about the other fiscal measures which, I understand, are being announced elsewhere today? (907539)

As my hon. Friend will know, a number of steps have been taken to devolve and decentralise what has traditionally been the very over-centralised way in which we raise and spend money. We are not just devolving unprecedented fiscal powers to the various nations in the United Kingdom, but, for instance, giving greater borrowing powers to local government in England. However, the journey is not yet complete, and, in my view, further steps towards further fiscal devolution and decentralisation should be taken in the years ahead.

We are fast approaching the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta. Over the last five years, the Deputy Prime Minister’s Government have extended the use of secret courts, curtailed judicial review, and radically reduced access to justice by making massive cuts in legal aid. Which of those policies of his Government does he consider to be most in keeping with the spirit of Magna Carta?

Does the right hon. Gentleman not remember what his Government did to habeas corpus, and that great tradition? Does he not remember his Government’s flawed attempt to impose an identity card database, which we brought to an end? Does he not remember his push to fingerprint innocent children in schools throughout the country, and does he not remember wanting to store the DNA of innocent citizens throughout the country? For heaven’s sake, let him remember his own record and that of his own party before he starts trying to cast aspersions on this Government.

The Deputy Prime Minister has had five years’ experience of this arrangement. It works like this: we ask the questions, and he tries to answer them. Let me try one more question. It may be the last.

It is, of course, important for our country to use its influence with its allies to improve human rights abroad. As the Deputy Prime Minister will know, the Ministry of Justice wants to enter into a £6 million contractual arrangement with the Saudi Arabian justice system to share “best practice”. Many people are rightly concerned about the sentence of 1,000 lashes that was given to Raif Badawi, and the regular use of execution by beheading in Saudi Arabia. What does the Deputy Prime Minister think about the British Government’s making money out of the Saudi Arabian justice system, and what is he going to do about it?

The issue is not whether the right hon. Gentleman has the right to ask questions. The issue is his absolute amnesia about what his Government got up to, from invading Iraq illegally to shredding civil liberties on an industrial scale. As for the question that he has asked, the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (Simon Hughes), says that no contract has been entered into with Saudi Arabia.

Like the right hon. Gentleman and, I suspect, many Members on both sides of the House, I consider some of the practices that we have seen in Saudi Arabia to be absolutely abhorrent, and completely in conflict with our values. What every Government, including his own, have done in such circumstances is make a judgment on whether to cut off relations with other Governments with whom we disagree, or whether to try to influence them and bring them more into line with our values. That is clearly what his Government did, and it is what this coalition Government are trying to do as well.

T4. I understand that if the United Kingdom votes to leave the European Union in a referendum—the United Kingdom as a whole—the Scottish Parliament will, under the vow, have to pass a legislative consent motion before it can happen. Is that not a recipe for constitutional crisis? (907540)

The right hon. Gentleman’s views and my views on Britain’s continued membership of the European Union may be at a variance, but I am starting to agree with him that stumbling into a referendum on such a momentous matter without really thinking through the implications for the country as a whole would not only result in a constitutional quagmire, but would possibly jeopardise millions of jobs in this country. That is why I would counsel him and his party not to make breezy commitments in the run-up to a general election which could leave this country much poorer.

T2. We have talked a great deal about students this morning, but the students about whom I am concerned are young adult carers, who often struggle financially because their caring means that they cannot take on paid work. Indeed, a survey by the National Union of Students found that financial difficulties were the main reason why young carers considered abandoning their courses. Enabling carers to fulfil their educational potential is meant to be one of the Government’s priorities, so will the Deputy Prime Minister tell us why so little has been done to help young adult carers to fulfil theirs? (907538)

I certainly agree that the hon. Lady identifies a problem that is by no measure solved. Carers young and old work under huge pressures. They are unsung heroes and heroines for society. We have taken a number of measures, for instance to try to give greater respite care to carers of all ages, but I accept the hon. Lady’s challenge that we need to do more.

T7. Given reports over the weekend that Tony Blair will play a prominent role in Labour’s election campaign and given the fact that he still draws the maximum allowance—£115,000 of taxpayers’ money—for his public duties, does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that he and all former Prime Ministers should be covered by the Nolan principles of public life? (907543)

The public duty cost allowance limited to £115,000 per year was created to help cover expenses incurred by former Prime Ministers in meeting the continuing additional costs they incur because of their special position in public life. The Nolan principles apply to public office holders. There are no plans to extend their application to present or former politicians, whether Prime Ministers or not.

T5. May I ask the Deputy Prime Minister at this eleventh hour to step in and save Jarrow’s NHS walk-in centre? I have made a plea to the Prime Minister, and I have made a plea to the Secretary of State for Health. Can the Deputy Prime Minister stop this? Some 27,000 people are going to be dumped on overloaded local GPs and A and Es. It is deliberate sabotage of the NHS, to get the private sector involved through the backdoor. I ask the Deputy Prime Minister to help. (907541)

I am, of course, more than willing to look into that. I doubt very much, however, that it could remotely be as the hon. Gentleman characterises it, as this Government outlawed the sweetheart deals with the private sector that the previous Labour Government indulged in, and, of course, decisions on how local health services are commissioned are taken by local commissioners, not decision-makers in London.

T10. Traditional industries in my constituency such as the mills at Abraham Moon and Hainsworth have had growing exports recently and have expanded, but they have concerns about the skilled work force they will need. Can the Deputy Prime Minister assure me that the skills funding in the local growth deals will help such important businesses to address their needs? (907546)

Yes, I absolutely can. As my hon. Friend will know, the local growth deal in his area places a particular emphasis on making sure that there are, over time, no youngsters whatsoever who are not in employment, education or training—the so-called NEETs—and the skills provided to youngsters in the area continue to be boosted. One of the achievements that everybody in the coalition parties can be proudest of is that we have massively expanded the number of apprenticeships available across the country: 2 million new apprentices have been taken on over the past several years.

T6. When the lobbying Act went through the House concerns were expressed that it would prevent organisations from engaging in the democratic process. Have any concerns been put to the Deputy Prime Minister about how the law is actually working with an election looming? (907542)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. A number of concerns have been expressed, but I think they are misplaced. It is clear from the way in which the legislation was crafted that there was no intention to stop anyone making their views known at any time; the intention was simply to expect anyone who wants to influence a particular election in a particular constituency to abide by the same rules as those who are competing in those elections in those areas.

T11. A recent growth deal saw tens of millions of pounds being invested in the future of Gatwick airport station. May I seek assurances from my right hon. Friend that further growth deals will focus on improving transport infrastructure for the area? (907547)

: I am pleased that we were able to support Gatwick airport station redevelopment as part of the growth deal. The growth deals that have been announced are not, of course, the end of the story. In total, I think we have announced £7 billion of the £12 billion that it was envisaged would be committed to growth deals over time. Local enterprise partnerships have been encouraged to identify their own local growth priorities, so that they can submit their own ideas to future growth deals, which I hope will continue in the next Parliament.

T8. According to the latest figures, a staggering 23,500 voters appear to be missing from the electoral registration lists in Cardiff. We have already heard how the scandal is affecting young people and students, but it also appears that a significant number of people in the black and minority ethnic community across the city are missing from the register. What is the Deputy Prime Minister going to do about this? (907544)

Nobody will have their right to vote taken away from them as we move to individual voter registration. What I find so fascinating as I listen to all this heat and fury from the Opposition is that when they were in government they supported the move to individual voter registration, and for good reasons. The previous system was patronising and out of date; it rested on the idea that the head of a household would register everyone in that household on to the electoral register. Do the Opposition now want to revert to that system? It was patronising, out of date and unfair to many voters.

T12. Since 2010, unemployment has fallen sharply and employment has risen dramatically, but all the while, we have had a large and growing trade deficit with the European Union. How does the Deputy Prime Minister square that with the Liberal Democrat myth that 3 million British jobs depend on our EU membership? (907548)

The figures cited are certainly not mythological; they have been arrived at independently by Government Departments and other researchers. It is not difficult to work out the economic value, given that the European Union, whatever its flaws and its present difficulties, is the world’s largest borderless single market, with more than 500 million consumers. It is also by far the largest destination for goods and services produced in this country, for the simple reason that we are a European country located in the European hemisphere.

T13. The most recent figures from the Office for National Statistics show a rise in youth unemployment of 30,000 compared with the previous quarter. May I offer the Deputy Prime Minister the opportunity to have a deathbed conversion tomorrow and to support Labour’s proposed bank bonus tax, which would help to get tens of thousands of young people into decent jobs? (907549)

It is—how can I put this politely?—brave of Labour to select jobs as the subject of its Opposition day debate. It is the party that crashed the economy in the first place. Youth unemployment is lower today than it was when the hon. Gentleman’s party left office. We have created countless more apprenticeships than Labour made available, and 1.8 million more people are in work now than when the Labour Government left office. Inequality, income inequality and relative child poverty are lower under this Government. He might not like the facts, but they speak for themselves.

May I welcome the announcement by the Deputy Prime Minister yesterday on schools funding? I particularly welcome the fact that two schools in my constituency—Cheadle primary and Great Moor junior—will benefit as a consequence. Can he give me an assurance that investment in education will be protected while we continue to address the deficit?

I am very pleased that we have been able to make that significant announcement of a further £6 billion to be allocated from central Government to refurbish, rebuild and maintain school buildings up and down the country. We are now assisting twice as many schools across the country than were being helped under Labour’s school building programme. My hon. Friend makes an important point. All the political parties will need to set out their stall in the run-up to the general election. The Liberal Democrats have said clearly that we want to protect funding from cradle to college and from nursery to 19, and not to implement the kind of real-terms cut in the money going to our schools that other parties have recently revealed.

T14. The Electoral Commission’s own research shows that the electoral registration of private renters stands at 63%, compared with the overall level of 85%. Is not this yet another example of how this Government are totally disregarding “generation rent”? What is the Deputy Prime Minister going to do about it? (907550)

Again, the facts speak for themselves. Since last summer, 5 million people have been entered on to the new individual voter registration system. Nine in 10 voters are transferred automatically on to it, and 1.3 million more people have been entered on to it since December alone. Of course we need to do more, across the parties and across the nation, to encourage people to register to vote, but it is the worst form of shameless scaremongering to suggest that a transition to individual voter registration—which the Labour Government advocated and introduced—is somehow entirely responsible for the fact that some groups are more under-registered than others.

I recently welcomed the Minister for Universities, Science and Cities, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) to Gloucester, where he saw at first hand the regeneration in Blackfriars. That regeneration will be helped by the recent growth award via the local enterprise partnership. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that there is potential for small city deals or county deals to help to devolve and boost regeneration projects in cities such as Gloucester, or would he encourage us to bid for the next growth deal via the LEP?

I would encourage the hon. Gentleman to do the latter. First, he is right to point out that decentralisation should not be only an urban phenomenon or just something granted to larger cities, although they were the pioneer areas where the city deals and growth deals first happened. We have made a good start, with the £12 billion growth deals that are under way, on ensuring that every part of the country—county, city, rural, urban—gets more powers handed down to it from Whitehall, and I very much want to see that.

Can the Deputy Prime Minister explain to 16 and 17-year-olds in my constituency why they were deemed mature enough to vote in the recent Scottish referendum yet his Government do not think they are mature enough to vote in the forthcoming general election?

I wholeheartedly agree with the hon. Gentleman; I have long believed that 16 and 17-year-olds should be able to vote. They take on responsibilities and duties as adults in so many other walks of life, and they showed themselves to be enthusiastic, informed and impassioned participants in the Scottish referendum. Unfortunately, we have not been able to secure agreement between the two coalition parties on this, but I look forward to the day when the House, on a cross-party basis, votes finally to give the democratic rights to 16 and 17-year-olds that they deserve.

I was reading the Hansard record of the previous Deputy Prime Minister’s questions, and the Deputy Prime Minister answered the first topical question in the same way as he did today. He said that his main purpose is to “support the Prime Minister” over a whole range of activities—after that, in brackets, was the word, “Laughter.” Can the Deputy Prime Minister name one thing he has done to support the Prime Minister?

I would like to correct the hon. Gentleman, as I have it here. I said:

“As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on a full range”.—[Official Report, 6 January 2015; Vol. 590, c. 143.]

That does not mean “complete range”; it does not mean the whole, as the hon. Gentleman suggests. Of course there are disagreements between myself and the Prime Minister, and of course there are disagreements between the coalition parties. I know the hon. Gentleman has not taken to the give and take of coalition government as readily as some Government Members have, but I think history will judge the two coalition parties kindly for having put the national interest first and working together, supporting each other, in order to fix the broken economy inherited from the previous Government. As he talks about support, I am delighted to hear that the Prime Minister and his party now support my party in, for instance, giving tax cuts to millions and millions of people on low and middle incomes—that was always our policy.

Will the Deputy Prime Minister be attending the lectures being given by the Rev. Lord Green, the chap who ran HSBC in such an ethical way? Apparently, he is giving lectures on “ethical banking”. Does the Deputy Prime Minister stand by the comments made by the Business Secretary when the Rev. Lord Green was made a trade Minister? The Business Secretary described Lord Green in terms of

“a powerful philosophy for ethical business.”

Even George Orwell could not have made that one up!

Again, the hon. Gentleman is a brave man to talk about regulation of the banking system from the Labour Benches, given his party’s total, singular failure to heed the warnings of my right hon. Friend the Business Secretary. I recall him standing there saying to the then Prime Minister, week in, week out, that the Labour party was heading for trouble because it did not regulate the banks properly. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman might want to ask questions of his own colleagues about why HSBC was able to get away with such outrageous business practices back in 2007 and 2008.