Skip to main content

Topical Questions

Volume 594: debated on Tuesday 24 March 2015

As Deputy Prime Minister, I support the Prime Minister on the full range of Government policy initiatives. I take special responsibility for the Government’s programme of political and constitutional reform.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I urge him to intervene in the campaign to get the drugs that are needed for those with Morquio syndrome, Duchenne muscular dystrophy and tuberous sclerosis. The Prime Minister said that there should be continuity of treatment, yet we have found out that that will not be delivered by the Department of Health. Katy Brown, the mother of my six-year-old constituent Sam Brown, has said that that is at best “misleading, at worst underhand”. This situation is disgraceful. We need to fund those drugs now on an interim basis. Will my right hon. Friend speak to the Prime Minister and get it sorted this week?

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the way he has sought to represent his constituent Sam Brown, and all the other children and their families who are—quite understandably—concerned about the continued provision of these drugs. As he heard from the Prime Minister when he raised the matter at Prime Minister’s questions two weeks ago, the understanding is that NHS England is conducting a review that will conclude by the end of next month. In the meantime, drug companies will continue with the provision of these drugs until the end of May, so that continuity is assured. Given my hon. Friend’s concerns, I will undertake to look urgently at the matter again.

In an interview last week the Deputy Prime Minister pronounced that

“the way in which politics works is bust”

and that “Westminster is a joke”. When he said that, was he referring to himself?

He went on in that interview to say that he is now “more anti-establishment” than he was five years ago. Were those the same five years in which he took the ministerial car, the ministerial salary and the Tory Whip? Were they the same five years in which he trebled tuition fees, imposed the bedroom tax, put up VAT and cut taxes for millionaires? However he describes himself, the only thing people in this country will remember him for is giving a whole new meaning to the phrase, “Yes, Prime Minister.”

I cannot blame the right hon. and learned Lady; she certainly finished in the style to which we have all been accustomed for the last five years by reading out pre-rehearsed questions. I think that the era of single-party government in this country is over. I know she does not like that idea and that the establishment parties—those Members sitting both behind me and in front of me—do not like it either, but I think it is over. This coalition Government have, in very difficult circumstances, presided over what is now the fastest growing economy in the developed world, with more people in work than ever before, and more women in work than ever before, after the absolute economic mess she bequeathed us. That is quite an achievement.

T5. I welcome the focus that growth deals are giving to investment priorities in north-east Cheshire and across the country. What steps are being taken to help boost and support the life sciences corridor in Cheshire and across Manchester, and to help boost jobs in Macclesfield as well? (908271)

I know that the Minister for Universities, Science and Cities was recently at Alderley Park, and I am grateful for my hon. Friend’s personal contribution to the Alderley Park taskforce. I am pleased that through the local growth deals Cheshire and Greater Manchester secured an allocation from the Government of £20 million towards their joint £4 million LEP life science investment fund. More broadly, we must build on strengths in the health care sector in the north of England. That is why in last week’s Budget £20 million was announced for the “health north” initiative, which will enable better care for patients and promote medical innovation in the north of England.

T2. Through local growth deals and local enterprise partnerships the Government claim to be giving local communities greater control over spending priorities with one hand, yet they savagely make cuts with the other. That means a real failure to deliver projects in places such as West Lancashire that are on the edges of our cities, and they are missing much of the investment that could be made. In the final stages of this Government, will the Minister acknowledge that that has not been fair to all our communities? (908268)

This is the second time the issue has been raised, and it would be so much easier to take seriously the hon. Lady’s concern about savings that have been asked of local government were it not for the fact that the shadow Chancellor has said that hundreds of millions of pounds would be asked of local government in further cuts if the Labour party won the next election. Which is it? Does the Labour party believe that further savings need to be made from local government, or not? Officially it says that those savings will need to be made, even in the next Parliament as we continue to balance the books, yet in this House the hon. Lady and her colleagues somehow think that no savings are required whatsoever. I am afraid savings will continue to be required until we have finished balancing the books and balancing them fairly.

T6. Is the Deputy Prime Minister aware of representations that there should be a tax on family homes in London and the south-east to pay for nurses in Scotland? Does he agree that we need to have a fair Union and a strong Government, not a weak Government dancing to the tune of, and held to ransom by, the Scottish National party? (908273)

I certainly agree that in the same way as it would be very ill-advised to put the UK Independence party in charge of Europe, it would be very ill-advised to put the SNP in charge of a country it wishes to pull apart.

On property taxation, as the hon. Gentleman knows we have a property tax system, the council tax, which rather eccentrically ends at a certain level. My party therefore believes it is logical to extend the principle of banded taxation for properties higher up the value chain, both here in the south-east and elsewhere.

T3. Given the overwhelming dominance of London and the south-east in the unelected second Chamber, does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that an elected senate of the nations and regions would be a good way to give the regions of England a stronger say in how the country is run? (908269)

Yes, that would be an excellent idea. I only wish the hon. Gentleman’s party had actually abided by his wisdom when we had the chance to vote for an elected second Chamber. For specious procedural reasons, the Labour party turned its back on its long-held traditional view in favour of democracy in the second Chamber. I agree that one of the virtues of an elected second Chamber is precisely that it would provide an accurate reflection of the regions and nations of the United Kingdom at the other end of the building.

T7. Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, has said that by 2020 the NHS will need an extra £8 billion a year at the very minimum to provide the services we all need. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is our duty as politicians to find that funding, and that any party going into this election saying that it will provide less than that is, no matter how it spins it, actually saying that it will underfund the NHS? (908274)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point. Simon Stevens’s analysis of the financial needs of the NHS specified that by the end of the next Parliament there would be an £8 billion funding gap. That is not some sort of easy throwaway figure; it was identified on the basis of certain assumptions about considerable continued savings in the NHS. The Liberal Democrats have specified how we would find that £8 billion. It is now for other parties in the House to come clean on how they would find the money identified by Simon Stevens.

T4. The Deputy Prime Minister and I have not always seen eye to eye, but as it is his last appearance in the Chamber I will go easy on this occasion. He failed to mention, when he answered Question 1, that Liverpool is a part of the northern powerhouse. What guarantees can he give that my city will have a seat front and centre at the top table of the northern powerhouse? (908270)

I very much hope it is not the last time the hon. Gentleman and I interact across the Floor of the House of Commons—and in this configuration as well. Liverpool already has a seat at the top table of the Northern Futures and northern powerhouse initiatives. The significant rail and road transport projects, which were confirmed just last week, had Liverpool very much at their heart. They will lead to significantly improved road and rail connections from Liverpool to the rest of the north-west and to the rest of the country. The good thing is that those proposals were developed on a cross-party basis—of all parties—and in a consensus of both national Government and local government, including in Liverpool.

T10. As someone who was initially sceptical about the longevity of the coalition Government, I am very proud of our achievements and very pleased with our successes. Consequently, I would award the current Government nine marks out of 10. How many marks out of 10 would the Deputy Prime Minister rate the current Government? (908277)

I will leave the marking and the scores to other people. I look to hearing the scores that will no doubt be delivered by other, more critical voices shortly. I agree with my hon. Friend that the durability of the coalition Government was not widely predicted when we were formed. I remember, when the coalition started, reading almost daily portentous predictions that the coalition Government would not survive. We have survived for half a decade and we have done so in the national interest.

T8. The Deputy Prime Minister promised in the coalition agreement to set a limit on the number of special advisers. There were 71 under Labour. There are 107 now, including 20 in his office, at a cost of £1,200,000. Does he believe in leading by exhortation rather than example? (908275)

We have been more open and transparent about the employment of special advisers than any previous Government, and I have never hidden the fact that in a coalition Government of two parties, clearly both parties will wish to employ special advisers in order to facilitate the mechanics and workings of government.

T11. May I thank the Deputy Prime Minister’s office warmly for all its hard work in ensuring that growth deals for Gloucester and Gloucestershire have been delivered over the past five years, and may I exhort him to do more of the same in the next Parliament? (908278)

I thank my hon. Friend. I agree that the growth deals have set an important precedent in handing more power, money and decision-making authority to local communities, and I hope it sets a trend that will not be reversed in the next Parliament.

It is no surprise that the previous career of the hon. Member for Gloucester (Richard Graham) was as a Foreign Office diplomat. He is able to react to any situation, even when he is busily consulting his iPhone. We are deeply obliged to him.

T9. I notice that the Deputy Prime Minister is responsible for building strategic relations with Europe. Given how weak our country is in Europe and NATO and how so many people compare this Prime Minister with Neville Chamberlain, is he proud of the job he has done promoting Britain in Europe? (908276)

The hon. Gentleman gets very worked up. It is no secret that there are differences of opinion in this coalition Government on some of the big long-term issues concerning Britain’s future in the EU. My party will never argue for withdrawal from the EU, because we think it is in our overwhelming national interest to remain part of it. I would say this, however: political and diplomatic strength is directly related to economic strength, and, in my view, if we stay the course and finish the job—and finish it fairly—of fixing the finances and continuing to rewire the British economy, within a generation it could be the largest and most potent economy in Europe, which will deliver considerable clout to future generations.

T12. Given that London’s economy is greater than Scotland’s and Wales’s combined, as we devolve power to Scotland and Wales and the northern powerhouse, what plans does my right hon. Friend have for making sure that devolution flows to London as well? (908279)

I agree that the process of devolution and decentralisation not only to the different nations of the UK but to the different parts of England is an ongoing process that should benefit all parts of the country, including London. Just last week, announcements were made of the further devolution of powers to the London Mayor’s office, in addition to the considerable powers he already possesses. That could be built upon in the future.

The Deputy Prime Minister’s proposals for the alternative vote system were roundly defeated in a referendum. Will he tell the voters whether he is now prepared to take no for an answer?

I would like the hon. Lady to confirm—perhaps by raising a hand—which party had AV as its manifesto commitment in the last election. It was not the Liberal Democrats; it was not the Conservatives—oh, it was the Labour party’s policy. We put to the British people her party’s own policy, and she now wants me to disown it. Honestly, of all the topsy-turvy accusations I have had levelled at me, that really takes the biscuit.

T13. For the last five years, I have tried to irritate the Deputy Prime Minister by asking him questions exposing Liberal Democrat failures, and he has always answered with good grace and good humour—although never the question I asked, of course—and I think that history will look on him as having been courageous in bringing his party into a national Government at a time of crisis. He should take great credit for that. My final question to the Deputy Prime Minister is simple: will he confirm whether he intends to serve another full term as Deputy Prime Minister? (908280)

I have enjoyed answering—or in the hon. Gentleman’s view, not answering—his questions on many occasions and perhaps look forward to doing so again in the future. I would happily settle for two terms as Prime Minister.

Because the Prime Minister has listed a number of people who might want his job and because a leadership contest might come much sooner than he wishes, would the Deputy Prime Minister like to indicate those of his colleagues who are likely to wish to replace him? One obvious candidate is not present at the moment.

T14. I warmly welcome the Government’s announcement on additional funding for childhood and adolescent mental health services. Will my right hon. Friend reassure me that we will never again see children and adolescents being held in police cells because there are insufficient in-patient beds? We need more tier 3 and tier 4 facilities for young people. (908281)

I strongly agree. It is very good indeed that something close to a cross-party consensus has emerged over the last few years in favour of dealing with generations of discrimination—and it is discrimination—against mental health in the NHS and, within that, an almost institutionalised form of cruelty through which very vulnerable children and adolescents with serious mental health conditions have not been treated and cared for. This cannot be reversed and corrected overnight, but we can make a start. We have done that, and last week’s announcement in the Budget of a £1.25 billion investment in children and young adult mental health services will have a transformative effect on the tens of thousands of children who will now be better treated than they have been for a long time.

My constituents, I am happy to say, voted for AV in the recent referendum, but they were not among the majority. Does the Deputy Prime Minister agree that with a five-party system at the UK level—and even more throughout the nations and regions of the UK—we need to look again at the electoral system and that this should be a priority for a constitutional convention hopefully set up under a Labour Government?

One should not expect to ask a Liberal Democrat about electoral reform and fail to get a hearty answer—well, perhaps not a hearty answer, but the hon. Gentleman knows what I mean. The electoral system we have is woefully unrepresentative of the way people vote. As he rightly suggests, it is becoming ever more unrepresentative as the old duopoly of politics gives way to something much more fluid and plural. Our electoral system—and, indeed, the way in which we conduct our business here—is stuck firmly in the past. It is anachronistic; it will have to change; in my view, it will change one day.

Is the Deputy Prime Minister as disappointed as I am that the groundbreaking devolution deal announced for West Yorkshire received a less than generous response from certain West Yorkshire council leaders?

I agree. I was struck by the rather churlish and sour note coming from a number of Labour leaders in West Yorkshire about a deal that amounts to a very significant transfer of power, money and responsibility to Leeds and the west Yorkshire area. It was warmly welcomed by Roger Marsh, the chair of the local enterprise partnership. It would be much better if we could work on a cross-party basis to welcome rather than denigrate those steps towards further devolution.

Only days ago, the Government appointed a Conservative Member of Parliament to the £45,000 a year job as chair of the National Heritage Memorial Fund. Today we learn that another Conservative MP is about to be appointed to another office of profit under the Crown. Is this not a flagrant example of jobs for the boys, and will the anti-establishment bit that is left in the Deputy Prime Minister condemn such appointments?

I am not entirely sure which specific instances the hon. Gentleman alludes to, but everybody remembers the explosion in quangocracy under the Labour Government when legions of placemen and women were dotted around the country by the Labour party. In fact, many of them are still in post.

The Government have devolved an awful lot of funding down to Labour-controlled west Yorkshire councils for their transport priorities. What can be done to make sure that we get some true devolution, so that the money can flow down to places such as Shipley for the much-need Shipley eastern bypass, and so that the money is not just kept by these Labour councils for pet projects in Labour heartlands?

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. Every time we enter into local growth deals, particularly those that are centred on big metropolitan authorities and big urban areas, there is legitimate concern—which was reflected in his question—about the possibility that some outlying or linked rural communities will not get a slice of the pie. Growth deals should be constructed in a way that allows both rural and urban areas to be included at every stage.