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Written Statements

Volume 405: debated on Thursday 15 May 2003

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Written Ministerial Statements

Thursday 15 May 2003

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland Health And Social Services Estates Agency

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
(Mr. Desmond Browne)

The targets, which have been set for 2003–04, are based on the corporate aims and objectives of the Agency as set out in Section five of its Corporate and Business Plan. The targets are in line with the Department's policy of seeking to improve the service provided to the Agency's clients in terms of both quality and value for money and I am satisfied that they present a demanding challenge for the Agency. A copy of the Corporate and Business Plan will be placed in the Library of both Houses.The targets are as follows:Quality

Ninety per cent. of external clients to regard the quality of the Agency's Client Support services as satisfactory, of which 30 per cent. regard the quality as either very good or excellent.
Ninety per cent. of external clients to regard the quality of the Agency's Project Management services as satisfactory, of which 30 per cent. regard the quality as either very good or excellent.
Ninety per cent. of external clients to regard the quality of the Agency's Trust Consultancy Support services as satisfactory, of which 30 per cent. regard the quality as either very good or excellent.
Eighty five per cent. of external clients to regard the quality of the Agency's Specialist Engineering services as satisfactory, of which 25 per cent. regard the quality as either very good or excellent.

Throughput/Service Delivery

Complete eight Firecode audits on HSS bodies by 31 March 2004.
Support the Department in any accepted recommendations of the Northern Ireland Audit Office on Departmental and Trust surplus land and property holdings.
Complete testing against Health Service guidance and relevant British and European Standards and issue test reports to the Authorised Person in respect of 145 sterilisers and washer disinfectors by 31 March 2004.
Respond to requests indicating a proposed programme for medical devices services within 10 working days of receipt of a written request.
Issue all Hazards Notices and Advice Notes initiated by the Medicine & Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) within three working days from receipt of the final MHRA Notice, (provided that no further consultation is involved).
Issue all Safety Notices indicated by MHRA within five working days from receipt of final MHRA Notices, (provided no further consultation is involved).

Financial

Ensure that the Agency lives within its running cost allocation for the year.
Demonstrate that the full costs the Agency are recouped, on a notional basis, through Service Level Agreements with its clients.

Baton Rounds

I have today written a letter to the Independent Assessor of Military Complaints Procedures, Mr. Jim McDonald, in response to his report on the military use of baton rounds.The Government are grateful to Mr. McDonald for carrying out this independent review.I have placed copies of the letter in the Libraries of both Houses.

Environment, Food And Rural Affairs

Rural Payments Agency

I have set the Rural Payments Agency the following performance targets for 2003–04:CUSTOMERS

To process and pay at least 96.14 per cent. of valid IACS claims by value within the EU deadline.
To process and pay at least 80 per cent. of valid non-IACS claims by volume within ministerial guidelines and 99 per cent. within the set EU Commission deadlines or in their absence 60 days.
To process and pay at least 98.5 per cent. of valid claims correctly.
To develop by 31 March 2004 a customer focused communications plan that builds on the findings of the Agency's Annual Customer Survey and supports the achievement of its e-take-up target for 2005.

FINANCE

To ensure that disallowance within the control of RPA due to non-compliance with EU requirements remain below 2.5 per cent. of the value of CAP payments made by the Agency.
To carry out 85 per cent. of the on-the-spot inspections for CAP schemes in accordance with EU regulatory requirements, taking into account any agreed derogations.

BUSINESS PROCESSES

To have the Rural Land Register in place by 31 March 2004.
To have the new integrated financial, e-procurement and HR systems in place by 31 March 2004.
To have developed the new AAPS system in preparation for processing 2004 AAPS claims in 2004–05.
To provide accurate and timely operational advice in support of policy development and Defra business systems.
To merge BCMS within RPA's governance, management and operational structures by 31 March 2004.

PEOPLE

To complete a baseline skills analysis of existing staff and to define the skills required for 90 per cent. of future posts by 31 March 2004.
To implement the Agency's EFQM and HP action plans.

Education And Skills

Bankruptcy And Student Loans

It has become clear that under current legislation student loans are written off on bankruptcy. I have, therefore, instructed the Student Loans Company (SLC) to pay back student loan repayments to bankrupt student loan borrowers.This issue came to light during the passage of the Enterprise Bill in Parliament last year. Prior to that, we believed that bankruptcy had been ruled out in legislation as grounds for write off of student loans.We have announced in the Higher Education White Paper that we will be amending our legislation so that graduates will have to continue repaying their student loans, even if they declare themselves bankrupt, and we hope to do so as soon as possible.One hundred and ninety eight borrowers have continued to repay their student loans after notifying the SLC that they have declared themselves bankrupt. The SLC have collected a total of around £75,000 from these borrowers and will now return this to them, together with interest compensation.Government policy is, and always has been, that student loan debt should not be written off with bankruptcy. Graduates should not see bankruptcy as an easy route to repaying the money they have borrowed through the generously subsided student loan system. Bankruptcy could have an adverse affect on graduates' employment prospects, future earnings, credit rating and their ability to take out loans and mortgages.

School Budgets

On Friday 2 May I published a detailed analysis of the school budgets of local education authorities for 2003–04, based on authorities' own statements, and my Department wrote to all LEAs to ask questions about the spending decisions that that analysis had raised. LEAs were asked to reply by 12 May.My Department has now received replies from every LEA. I would like to record my gratitude for the speed and comprehensive nature of their responses.The funding of schools is a shared responsibility of central and local Government. In 2003–04, there have been a number of very significant pressures on LEA and school spending. Nationally, the additional resources provided for education more than match those pressures. However, central Government—partly in response to the requests of LEAs and schools—have introduced a number of changes to both education funding and the wider local government finance system. In particular, changes to the distribution formula for Education Formula Spending, together with the ending of a substantial body of ring-fenced grants from my Department's Standards Fund, have meant that different LEAs and schools have received a wide range of year-on-year increases in overall support for education.

I have already taken steps through an additional grant of £28 million to ensure that all LEAs have at least a minimum increase of 3.2 per cent. per pupil, in addition to taking account of the effect of the Standards Fund and teachers' pension changes. I have also provided a special grant costing £11 million to 18 London LEAs to help them fund this year's increases in London weighting. The full cost of the teachers' Threshold will continue to be paid by additional grant from my Department. And, as made clear in the letter sent to all LEAs on 2 May, the £205 million performance-related pay grant that my Department will be paying in 2003–04 will be sufficient to meet all of schools' on-going commitments arising from the performance-related pay grant provided in 2002–03, and to cover the costs of similar progress along the Upper Pay Spine for those teachers becoming eligible for performance points in September 2003.

From my Department's preliminary analysis of LEAs' responses, it is clear that many local authorities have taken action to manage local problems, and to ensure that their schools have received reasonable year-on-year increases in funding. A number of LEAs have chosen to increase their spending on schools by significantly more than the additional resources that central Government have made available. Others have managed the pressures on central spending so that they can increase the budgets of individual schools.

LEAs have also confirmed that a significant proportion of the budgets they had not allocated to individual schools by 31 March has now been allocated. For example, Bath and North-East Somerset has confirmed an additional £2.3 million has been allocated; Bradford an additional £3.6 million; and Birmingham £12.5 million. Where LEAs have indicated that they cannot make allocations yet, they have guaranteed that all the money will be received by schools during the year, and confirmed that they are ensuring that all schools are being notified of the sums that they can expect to receive.

However, my Department's preliminary analysis of LEAs' budget statements, and responses to the questions asked of them, show that some local decisions have contributed to schools experiencing financial difficulties for 2003–04. In particular, we note that:

some LEAs are still not increasing their schools budget to match in full the increase in education resources from central Government;
the great majority of LEAs have decided to increase the budgets they hold for centrally-provided and centrally-funded pupil provision at a significantly higher rate than the increase in the budget they delegate to schools. While these central services are important, it is vital that all LEAs also ensure that their schools receive appropriate budgetary increases;
in particular, some LEAs have greatly increased their central spending on special educational needs; we need to work with authorities to understand better why this is happening and how SEN funding can be used to best effect; and
many LEAs have provided very different budget increases to different schools, with some schools receiving much smaller budget increases than the local average. While a number of LEAs' local distribution formulae place a limit on the year-on-year losses that a school may receive, these in general still allow some schools to face very significant budget reductions.

Further analysis of LEAs' individual responses is currently underway within my Department, but it is clear that the budgets that LEAs have set for 2003–04 cannot, in general, be reopened.

2003–04 is a unique year, because of both the extent of changes in the system for funding schools, and one-off pressures relating to teachers' pensions and National Insurance. It is clear that there has been very real uncertainty over this year's funding allocations.

To ensure that these special circumstances do not adversely affect schools, I have decided that, for 2003–04 only, LEAs and schools will be given the additional flexibility to use their devolved formula capital funding from my Department to support revenue expenditure. The decision to use a school's capital funding in this way will need to be made jointly by the school and its LEA, and should only be taken in those circumstances where failure to do so would lead to excessive instability within that school.

I wish to reaffirm the importance that I place on schools and LEAs making proper provision for capital expenditure on schools. Since 1997, this Government have increased the total support made available for capital spending on schools from £700 million to £3.8 billion, with further rises planned to £5.1 billion by 2005–06. Devolved formula capital is intended for much needed maintenance of school buildings. The new flexibility over the use of this funding should, therefore, only be used where all other options have been exhausted. It will be allowed for one year only, in advance of the further changes that I intend to introduce for 2004–05. My officials will be contacting every LEA today to inform them of this change.

My officials are also discussing with the LSC what flexibility it can offer in the way it reduces schools' funding allocations where sixth form numbers are lower than expected. On Monday I published the London Challenge strategy which is aimed at transforming secondary education in London. I intend to keep under review the resources available to ensure that this important initiative is successfully implemented.

Schools and LEAs now need to consider how, making use of existing school reserves, other local flexibilities, and, if necessary, the flexibility in devolved formula capital, they can ensure that schools can properly manage within their overall budgets this year. LEAs should bear in mind that they can permit schools to set a deficit budget which they are likely to be able to repay over the next few years; and that, with local agreement, the collective balances of their schools can be used to cover the funding of such agreed deficits. In addition, as I have already indicated to LEAs, I will be willing to give sympathetic consideration to proposals from local authorities to set aside restrictions in existing Fair Funding Regulations and schemes, or in the conditions of grant for the Standards Fund, where the authority thinks that this would assist them in alleviating funding difficulties in particular schools.

Schools and LEAs will also wish to be reassured that next years settlement will offer them a clear and stable platform on which to deliver high standards of education. Many of the changes that have been introduced in 2003–04 will cause less turbulence in 2004–05. In that context, my Department's analysis of this year's settlement, and LEAs' responses to the questions we have asked them, will underpin the introduction of changes to education funding for 2004–05, as promised in my statement on 6 May.

The key priority will be to identify the changes that need to be made so that all schools can expect to receive a reasonable per pupil settlement in 2004–05. In order to achieve that, we are committed to working closely with representatives of local government, teachers and head teachers, starting with the Central Local Partnership Meeting on 21 May. We believe that to meet our shared goal we need to discuss how best to ensure:

sufficient education funding increases for every LEA;
the right balance between support through general grant and through ring-fenced and targeted grant;
confidence that schools and pupils will receive the money intended for them;
the right balance between in-school and out-of-school provision;
variations in the budget increases received by different schools within each LEA are appropriate and fair;
workforce reform, in line with the National Agreement, can be sustained.

My Department will also work with local education authorities to improve and clarify its procedures so that all LEAs are able to distribute their funds, notably Standards Fund, to schools in a timely way.

My intention is to ensure that changes are in place in good time to allow schools and LEAs to plan for 2004–05 and so provide increased predictability and stability in school funding.

Transport

Departmental Annual Report

I have today published my Department's Annual Report for 2003. Copies have been laid before Parliament and placed in the House Libraries.The Report sets out the Department's activities and achievements over the last year and it shows that progress has been made. It also describes the Department's future expenditure plans for the period of the spending review 2002 and how the strategy and resources have been put in place to deliver our aim of transport that works for everyone.

Work And Pensions

Housing Benefit

On behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions I am announcing the publication of the 2002–03 third quarter's performance statistics for local authority administration of Housing Benefit and Council Tax Benefit (HB and CTB). A copy of the quarterly statistics for all local authorities in Great Britain has been placed in the library and has been published on the Department for Work and Pensions web-site at http://www.dwp.gov.uk/asd/other_stats.html. Publishing these statistics is part of our strategy for reforming Housing Benefit. It is right and proper that the public see how well or how badly their council is doing. We are using these statistics to challenge poor performance.Statistics for the third quarter of 2002–03 show that across the country performance has improved with processing of new claims dropping from an average eight weeks between July and September to seven and a half weeks in the following three months.The statistics are un-audited and are provided quarterly by local authorities to my Department.The latest annual audited Best Value performance information for English local authorities is for 2001–02 and was published by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister on 12 December 2002 on the Best Value Performance Indicators website at:

http://www.bvpi.gov.uk/home.asp. A copy is in the Library.

The most recent corresponding data for local authorities in Wales is for 2001–02. This is published on the Audit Commission website at http://ww2.audit-commission.gov.uk/pis/pi_data_01.shtml. A copy of the relevant extract from this site is in the Library.

The most recent corresponding data for local authorities in Scotland is also for 2001–02 and is in the Accounts Commission publication "Performance Indicators 2001–2002: Benefits, Finance and Corporate Issues", a copy of which is in the Library.

Departmental Report

I am today able to announce the publication of the Department for Work and Pensions Departmental Report. The report provides details of the Departments performance in 2002–03 against its Public Service Agreement targets and sets out the Department's expenditure plans for 2003–04 to 2005–06. A copy has been placed in the Library.

20012002
Department of AgencyTarget set For reply (working days)Number of letters received% of replied within targetTarget set For reply (working days)Number of letters received% of replies within target
Cabinet Office215599901547573
Leader of the House of Lords1553801515596
Crown Prosecution Service31597941536685
Department for Culture, Media and Sport184,41690184,74783
HM Customs and Excise3 4182,45262181,61659
Ministry of Defence4155,35085155,38183
Armed Forces Personnel Administration Agency1518100
Defence Aviation Repair Agency1014100

Culture, Media And Sport

Access Radio

the Government has considered Professor Everitt's report "New Voices: an evaluation of 15 access radio stations" and is minded to bring forward a draft order which would introduce a new tier of access radio stations once the Communications Bill becomes law.Before beginning to draft an Order, I am writing to the Radio Authority, the Commercial Radio Companies Association and the Community Media Association so that they have an opportunity to express their views at this stage. We intend to produce a draft Order for formal consultation in the autumn. No decisions have yet been taken on Government funding.

Dcms Annual Report

I am today arranging for my Department's Annual Report [Cm 5920] to be laid before Parliament in advance of publication tomorrow (16 May).Copies will also be deposited in the House Libraries and the text made available on the Department's website at

http://www.culture.gov.uk.

Cabinet Office

Correspondence

I am today publishing a report on Departments' and Agencies' performance in handling Members' and Peers' correspondence during the 2002 calendar year. Details are set out in the attached table. Departmental figures, where possible, are based on substantive replies.For the first time, the report includes performance on handling correspondence received from Members of the House of Lords across all Departments since 1 June 2002.The footnotes to the table provide general background information on how the figures have been compiled.

2001

2002

Department of Agency

Target set For reply (working days)

Number of letters received

% of replies within target

Target set For reply (working days)

Number of letters received

% of replies within target

Met Office1520801514100
Veterans Agency20279991526599
Department for Education and Skills41518,237761515,59584
Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs5159,905341511,24147
Foreign and Commonwealth Office2010,275792015,53583
UK Visas158,276781510,32298
Department of Health62019,665602017,94229
NHS Pensions Agency156598156595
Medicines Control Agency101782153689
Home Office7
*Non Prison Service correspondence15*16,2513515*26,05335
**Prison Service correspondence20**1,2107820**1,26786
Criminal Records Bureau85632N/A
HM Prison Service201,272752094277
UK Passport Service10279871013297
Inland Revenue3 4
*Local Tax Office delegated figures183,35677183,15771

(where local tax offices have replied direct to MPs)

183827518*43980
Valuation Office233090182075
Department for International Development4151,74087152,61296
Legal Secretariat to the Law Officers215284961537863
Lord Chancellor's Department201,73774202,57754
Court Service15591682023084
*1559378
HM Land Registry2024792032100
Public Records Office10111001516698
**106198
Public Guardianship Office915120621526131
*Target for correspondence sent direct to

Agency Chief Executive.

**Target for correspondence sent direct to

Agency Chief Executive.

Northern Ireland Office10358491050159
Compensation Agency for NI72793
Northern Ireland Prison Service102778103391
National Savings and Investments4156362154466
National Statistics4
*Letters where Chief Executive15192772021282

replied on Minister's behalf.

10*15463
Office of the Deputy Prime Minister3155,52376
Planning Inspectorate836494829190
Privy Council Office15237741548895
Scotland Office1596751511573
Department for Trade and Industry10109,260491011,56541
10
Companies House*10501001045100
Employment Tribunals Service**151210064693
Insolvency Service10292801039896
Patent Office10154951036798
Radiocommunication Agency1515100104489

2001

2002

Department of Agency

Target set For reply (working days)

Number of letters received

% of replies within target

Target set For reply (working days)

Number of letters received

% of replies within target

Small Business Service***104796

*Letters sent direct to Agency Chief Executive.

**Target date for letters sent direct to

Agency = 15 working days.

***Figures included in main DTI return.

Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions31514,37584157,67183
Department for Transport3156,50584
Driving Standards Agency31582100155698
DVLA10915981072999
Highways Agency315322961527396
Maritime and coastguard Agency1521951527100
Vehicle Inspectorate1532941527100
HM Treasury3154,03978154,64778
Treasury Solicitor's Department10391001026100
Wales Office31591631511897
Department for Work and Pensions2012,698662014,29765
Appeals Service158764155288
Benefits Agency202,529902050487
Child Support Agency203,29358203,19451
Employment Service1552094157295
Jobcentre Plus151,10357
The Pension Service1551171
Disability and Carers Service15749100
Debt Management153086
Child Benefit Centre202095

1 Departments and Agencies who received a total of 10 MPs/Peers letters or less during 2002 are not shown in this table. Holding or interim replies are not included unless otherwise indicated.

2 2002 statistics no longer include interim or holding replies details of which had been included in previous annual reports.

3 Includes interim or holding replies.

4 Includes all Ministerial correspondence eg letters from MEPs, Members of Devolved Legislatures etc.

5 The performance reflects problems in early part of 2002. DEFRA has taken steps to improve performance. Currently answering 74 per cent. correspondence within targets.

6 Poor performance was partly due to problems with a new internal tracking system and problems interfacing with the Agencies. Robust action is now taking place to address these problems including the setting up of a new Customer Service Centre to ensure that problems that occurred in 2002 do not happen again. Also includes figures for the Food Standards Agency as such correspondence is replied to by Department of Health Ministers.

7 The large increase in letters received relating to immigration matters has affected the overall performance. Home Office has made the improvement of performance a high priority with more robust systems being put in place to monitor the progress of correspondence and provide early indications of any outstanding or newly emerging problems, this includes the introduction of a new IT tracking system.

8 Figures for 2002 are not currently available.

9 A major restructuring programme has led to a large backlog of correspondence. There has also been a substantial increase in complaints to Ministers. A major recovery programme was launched to deal with this. 89 per cent. of Ministerial correspondence was answered within target by the end of 2002.

10 Due to problems in meeting the 10 working days target, DTI have raised their target for reply from 10 to 15 working days (in line with majority of other Government departments) for correspondence received in 2003. Raising the level to 15 working days will help improve performance to a more acceptable level.

Deputy Prime Minister

Care Homes

The Government recognise the need to address the question of council tax liability for self-contained units within care homes, in the light of appeals involving the John Grooms organisation and the Royal National Institute of the Blind.

We have concluded that in future where individuals live in registered care homes, in accordance with Part 2 of the Care Standards Act 2000, they should not be separately assessed for the purposes of council tax.

In such cases, the care home owner rather than individual residents, should be liable for the council tax. I have agreed with my colleague, the Minister of State, Department of Health, my hon. Friend the Member for Redditch (Jacqui Smith), that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister will consult shortly on the necessary changes to the relevant statutory instruments. Subject to this consultation, we aim to change the legislation later this year.

Defence

Baton Rounds

On 23 October 2002, I placed in the Library of the House details of the guidelines on the Rules of Engagement for the use of baton rounds in Northern Ireland. I did this as an exceptional measure aimed at building confidence in Northern Ireland following a request from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission.Since then, a change has been made to the guidelines in the light of a recommendation made by the Independent Assessor of Military Complaints Procedures in his report on the military use of baton rounds in Northern Ireland. This report was placed in the Library of the House in December 2002. As such I am now placing the updated extract in the Library of the House. It is drawn from a more general guidance card and includes all the relevant guidance on the Rules of Engagement for the use of Baton Rounds by the Armed Forces in Northern Ireland.