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Written Statements

Volume 451: debated on Tuesday 7 November 2006

Written MinisterialStatements

Tuesday 7 November 2006

Treasury

United Nations Measures Orders

In line with measures I announced to Parliament on 10 October regarding the strengthening of counter-terrorist financing frameworks, the Government will be seeking the agreement of the Privy Council on 14 November for the adoption of two Orders in Council concerned with giving effect to UN financial sanctions regimes against al-Qaeda and the Taliban, and North Korea. The Government strongly support international efforts to tackle abuse of financial systems and these new orders will further enhance the UK’s ability to play its full part in these international actions.

Al-Qaeda and Taliban (United Nations Measures) Order 2006

UN financial sanctions against persons associated with al-Qaeda and the Taliban are currently given effect in the UK through the al-Qaeda and Taliban (United Nations Measures) Order 2002. The new Order will update these earlier provisions, bringing them into line with the new Terrorism (United Measures) Order 2006 that came into effect on 12 October 2006.

The Al-Qaeda and Taliban (United Nations Measures) Order 2006 will further strengthen our powers to freeze assets, including the property of persons listed at the United Nations under the relevant UN Security Council resolutions or who we suspect are persons acting on their behalf, and to prevent funds or economic resources being made available to them.

North Korea (United Nations Measures) Order 2006

Following North Korea's announced nuclear test, the United Nations Security Council voted unanimously on 14 October 2006 to adopt resolution 1718 (2006), which calls upon all member states to impose sanctions against North Korea’s nuclear, ballistic missile and other weapons of mass destruction-related programmes. The North Korea (United Nations Measures) Order 2006 will give effect to the financial sanctions measures set out in resolution 1718.

Consistent with the UN Security Council resolutions and with other financial sanctions legislation, both Orders in Council include provisions to allow the Treasury to license exemptions to the restrictions to meet legitimate humanitarian needs.

ECOFIN (7 November 2006)

Items on the agenda were as follows:

Financial Management—Ministers received a presentation from Hubert Weber, the President of the Court of Auditors, on the Court of Auditors’ report on the 2005 General Budget.

Statistics: 2006 Status Report and EU Statistical Governance—ECOFIN adopted conclusions on the Economic and Financial Committee’s 2006 status report and other statistical issues.

Sustainability of Public Finances: Sustainability Report—Ministers held an exchange of views and adopted conclusions on the Commission report regarding the sustainability of public finances.

Excise Duties: Minimum Rates on Alcoholic Beverages—ECOFIN discussed issues relating to the minimum excise rates on alcoholic beverages.

VAT and Excise Duties: Travellers’ Allowances Directive—Ministers discussed issues relating to the Travellers’ Allowances Directive.

ECOFIN Ministers also met with European Free Trade Area Finance Ministers to discuss energy policy and climate change. Finance Ministers agreed in principle to bring the European Free Trade Area Members into the EU’s Emission Trading Scheme.

Communities and Local Government

Planning Enforcement

Today I have published the outcome of the “Review of Planning Enforcement” that has been carried out by the Department for Communities and Local Government. There was a high level of response to the review—around 500 of those consulted sent in replies and recommendations to our questions about enforcement—whether it was working, and what might be done to improve it.

There was strong agreement amongst consultees that the current statutory framework for enforcement remains fit for its purpose. There was no need to introduce stronger provisions, or to make unauthorised development a criminal offence, and enforcement should remain at the discretion of local authorities,

The introduction of temporary stop notices was an early outcome of the Review of Planning Enforcement. It is now over eighteen months since we gave local planning authorities the power to issue a temporary stop notice to require the immediate cessation of a breach of planning control for a period of 28 days. This has proved a popular enforcement tool for local planning authorities. Over 300 were used in 2005-06 to stop unauthorised development, protect the environment and to speed up the process of enforcement.

Temporary stop notices have proven a welcome and helpful measure in speeding up the enforcement process. They have been used successfully to stop a wide variety of unauthorised development, including: damage to listed buildings, trees, wildlife sites; unauthorised landfill, quarrying, tipping, processing and storage of waste, clay extraction; building new houses, flats, garages, barns; Gypsy sites; access roads and engineering and building works.

The review has, however, highlighted that enforcement does not have a high profile in authorities and that there is a lack of resources and trained staff working in this area. In taking forward the recommendations of the review, therefore, our focus is on how we can encourage and support proactive approaches to enforcement in planning. Enforcing planning activity, whether through reaction to complaints about breaches, proactive monitoring, or taking measures that prevent the necessity of repeated interventions, helps to create a quality, fully rounded planning service which in turn delivers sustainable outcomes. I want all authorities to regard enforcement as an essential element in their service.

To that end, we are looking at working with the Planning Advisory Service and the National Association of Planning Enforcement to provide opportunities and events that promote the importance of enforcement and provide workshops and training around some of the key elements. We will be encouraging authorities to share ideas at these events, with the aim of producing a benchmark of good practice, and some ‘golden rules’ of enforcement. And we are working, through our culture change programme, on identifying training and career structures for staff working in enforcement, and raising its profile in authorities.

We have also accepted recommendations in the review to look at some longer term changes. Over the next year we will be updating Circular 10/97 and the Enforcement Good Practice Guide.

There are also some areas where we will commission further work, following helpful comments from those we consulted. In particular, we will work with the LGA to see whether there is scope for extending planning fees to cover aspects of enforcement.

Publication of this review is only the first step in an ongoing process of evaluation and change that is designed to ensure that authorities have the means at their disposal to carry out effective and appropriate enforcement, and maintain the integrity of their planning functions.

A summary of the recommendations has been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

National Housing and Planning Advice Unit

The Government are today announcing that they will be establishing a new non-departmental public body in England—The National Housing and Planning Advice Unit.

In response to Kate Barker’s review of housing supply, the Government gave a commitment to set up, by autumn 2006, an independent national advice unit to strengthen the evidence and analysis on improving housing market affordability available to the regional planning bodies throughout the planning process.

The National Housing and Planning Advice Unit is an advisory non-departmental public body comprising a small expert panel/board—six members including a chair—with a supporting technical unit of 10-12 staff. It is an independent body sponsored by DCLG with an annual budget in place of up to £2 million.

A chair, Stephen Nickell, and a board of five board members—Professor Glen Bramley, Bob Lane, Professor Paul Cheshire, Dr. Peter Williams and Max Steinberg—have been appointed after an open public competition held in accordance with the code of practice of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments.

A copy of the unit’s remit has been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

Constitutional Affairs

Reform of the Coroners' System and Death Certification (Constitutional Affairs Select Committee Report)

I am publishing today the Government's response to the Constitutional Affairs Select Committee report, of 1 August, on “Reform of the Coroners’ System and Death Certification”. Copies have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses. It will also be made available on the Department for Constitutional Affairs website.

The draft Coroners Bill was published on 12 June. In the Bill we aim to do three things. First we will improve the way that the system serves the public interest and meet bereaved families’ concerns. The Bill will give families involved in the inquest process a clear legal standing in the system. We will also give families new rights through a new complaints and appeals system, enabling them to challenge a coroners’ decision, and the introduction of a Charter for Bereaved People which lays out the level of service families can expect. Secondly we will strengthen coroners’ work. The Bill will establish a proper appointments system for coroners, who will have to be legally qualified and will have to work full time as coroners, instead of having another job and working part time as coroners. Thirdly, we will create a national structure for coroners’ work. For the first time there will be a chief coroner who will provide national leadership for coroners, as the Lord Chief Justice does for judges. This will be supported by national standards, a coronial advisory council, a proper inspection system and national training for coroners and their officers.

I would like to thank the Committee for its thorough inquiry into our proposals to reform the coroners system, as set out in the draft Coroners Bill and for the additional consideration it gave to death certification. The Government regard pre-legislative scrutiny as a vital step in the consultation process.

Our public consultation exercise on the Bill has almost concluded. We are considering very carefully the views put forward about our proposals before finalising the Bill for parliamentary introduction as soon as time allows.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Correction to PQ 95254

In my reply on 26 October 2006 to the below question from the hon. Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) two pages were omitted from the answer (Official Report, column 2071W). I regret this error and now attach the whole reply.

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, how many redundancies there were in her Department in each year since 1997; what the cost of such redundancies was in each year; how many temporary staff were employed in each year; and how many staff were seconded by outside organisations to posts within the Department in each year. (95254)

The rules governing redundancies are set out by the Cabinet Office and include schemes for Compulsory Early Retirement (CER) for officers over 50 and Compulsory Early Severance (CES) for those under 50.

The annual number of junior/middle management officers in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) who have taken redundancy through the CER or CES schemes for the years 1997 to 2006 are shown below and include efficiency restructuring in FCO Services. Costs shown for the years 1997 to 2001 are the total for all early retirements in each of those years. We could not break these figures down further without incurring disproportionate costs. The costs from 2002 to 2006 cover redundancy packages only.

Numbers

Costs (£1)

1997

23

2,824,767

1998

1

3,314,768

1999

5

3,801,817

2000

7

1,871,688

2001

3

2,825,390

2002

2

198,498

2003

1

173,353

2004

2

68,739

2005

10

1,270,758

2006

17

2,080,925

1 Estimated Costs

Since 1995, we have given FCO senior management staff the opportunity to volunteer for early retirement on CER or CES terms if they complete a full posting before retirement age or had been unable to find a suitable appointment within the Department. To meet efficiency targets, in particular to reduce substantially the number of staff in the Senior Management Structure, we extended this offer to a wider range of senior officers in September 2004, using funding from the HM Treasury’ Efficiency Challenge Fund. The numbers of officers who took early retirement on these terms since 1997 are shown below. As mentioned previously, the costs for 1997 to 2001 are totals covering all early retirements; to provide a further break down would incur disproportionate costs.

Number

Costs (£1)

1997

10

2,824,767

1998

2

3,314,766

1999

2

3,801,817

2000

9

1,871,688

2001

8

2,983,651

2002

7

1,079,194

2003

17

1,905,058

2004

20

2,920,305

2005

35

6,827,231

2006

32

6,042,855

1Estimated costs

The number of temporary/agency staff employed annually by the FCO is as follows:

2003

30

2004

41

2005

57

2006 - January

35

The figures listed refer to FCO and FCO Services members of staff on temporary contract whose salary is paid from the FCO pay bill. Officers paid from project or departmental funds have been excluded. Information prior to 2003 has not been included; the research required to collect these data would incur disproportionate costs.

The FCO does not have a central record of the numbers of staff under contract from agencies. To obtain such figures would incur disproportionate costs.

We do not maintain central records of staff working in the FCO on inward secondment. Individual Directorates within the FCO have the authority to recruit and deploy staff on inward secondment to fill knowledge and skills gaps within the organisation.

The FCO considers inward secondments to be loans from organisations other than Government Departments or agencies. Loans from other Government Departments or agencies are known as interchange.

Health

Tattoo Removal

On 18 October 2006 in a written answer to the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) Official Report, column 1331W, I stated that 187,086 tattoos were removed by the NHS between April 2004 and March 2005. I regret that this figure was incorrect.

A variety of procedures are used to remove tattoos, which are also used in the treatment of other skin conditions. NHS information systems do not record sufficient detail to allow distinction between procedures to remove tattoos and procedures to treat other skin conditions. The answer was based on a mistaken attempt to estimate the number of tattoos from the information on the wider grouping of skin procedures. That attempt was intended to be helpful, but ended up being misleading because it is not possible from the existing data sets to say with any precision how many tattoos are removed by the NHS each year, and secondly, because clinical advice is that it is likely to be a far smaller number than the figure given.

I have received a formal apology from the Information Centre, who accept full responsibility for providing an incorrect response to the parliamentary question.

The Information Centre and the Department of Health place the highest importance on the integrity of information and I have been assured by the chief executive of the Information Centre and the permanent secretary at the Department of Health that appropriate steps are being taken to ensure that a similar situation does not recur.

I apologise to the House for the error.

Home Department

Highly Skilled Migrant Programme

I am today announcing changes which the Home Office is making to the Highly Skilled Migrant Programme.

We believe that properly managed migration is in the interests of the UK and that we should aim to attract the brightest and the best from around the globe. The Highly Skilled Migrant Programme (HSMP), which was launched in 2002, has played a crucial role in ensuring that we do this. It allows individuals with exceptional skills to come to the United Kingdom to seek work or opportunities for self-employment. Highly skilled migrants contribute to the economy and help to create opportunities for UK workers. The UK has benefited from the contribution which they make and it is important that we continue to do so.

That is why we are making changes to the programme today, which will build on its past success to make it more effective in attracting the most highly skilled migrants to the UK. We will do this by introducing more objective and transparent criteria which lead to the award of points under the scheme. Some of the current points scoring criteria are subjective, and so are difficult for prospective applicants to measure themselves against and for caseworkers to judge. We are replacing them with a set of more objective attributes, which will award points for previous academic and professional qualifications, previous earnings, and age, as well as bonus points for previous work (or study, in some cases) in the UK. Holders of MBA degrees from certain institutions will still be able to receive all of the points necessary to be approved, for having that qualification. We are also introducing a mandatory English language requirement, outside the points structure, for both initial and extension applications under HSMP. It is right that those who come to work in highly skilled jobs should be able to speak English, which is integral to labour market success.

We are also making a change to the requirements for those who have already been granted leave under HSMP and who apply to extend it. The current extension test is that applicants should have taken all reasonable steps to become lawfully economically active in the UK. We are replacing this with a points test and a mandatory English language requirement, similar to those faced by applicants applying to the programme for the first time. These tests will make it easier to curtail abuse within the scheme and will ensure that applicants who are granted further leave under the HSMP have demonstrated their ability to make a contribution to our economy.

I am also announcing new rules relating to the verification of documents submitted in HSMP applications. This will give entry clearance officers and caseworkers three key new powers:

We will specify the documents which applicants are required to provide as evidence of their points claims and of their English language ability. This is to ensure that we are able to verify documents independently, and will help to discourage abusive applications. It will also make the application process easier for ‘bona fide’ applicants, maintaining the UK’s competitive advantage as a destination for high achievers.

We will now refuse applications outright when documents which are not genuine have been submitted, whether or not they are material to the application. Such applicants should not be able to qualify under the scheme and are unlikely to benefit the UK.

We will also be able to refuse cases where we have reasonable grounds to suspect that documents are not genuine, which remain after we have applied verification checks.

These policies will not disadvantage genuine applicants, but will help to ensure that the scheme is both robust against abuse and targeted towards those who will benefit the UK.

We will make sure that the amended programme is kept under review.

As of tomorrow, the current HSMP rules will be deleted and the programme will then be suspended for 27 days. We are taking these steps to avoid a rush of speculative applications by people who would wish their applications to be considered under the old rules, which is what happened after the publication of the Command Paper on the points-based system. The suspension will enable us to make the transition effectively to the new rules and ensure that current levels of customer service are maintained when the new arrangements are introduced. In the interests of good customer service, we have made sure that this will not disadvantage applicants substantively. Applications made for leave to remain under HSMP during the suspension period will not be returned; they will be accepted as valid and will be considered against the new rules after the suspension period. This means that nobody’s leave will expire because of the suspension, provided that they make in-time applications. Migrants in this situation will also be given the chance to submit new evidence to show that they meet the new rules. Guidance on the new arrangements will be published tomorrow.

We also recognise that there will be people who are currently working or self-employed in the UK, but who may not be able to meet the new test for extending their leave. Many of these people will have been of real benefit to the UK, and we do not want to lose their contribution. We are therefore introducing specific transitional arrangements for people who have been self-employed or working as an independent contractor, but who will not be able to extend their leave under the new test. For people who have been employed, but cannot extend their leave under HSMP, we will make it easier for them to switch into work permit employment.

These changes are good for applicants, because they will make the application process easier, clearer and more objective. They are good for the UK, because they will keep us competitive in attracting skilled workers who will be successful in the labour market. And they are good for employers, who will be more able to recruit highly skilled migrants. They will therefore bring HSMP closer in line with the Government’s aims for migration, including supporting an objective set by the IND Review to ‘boost Britain’s economy by bringing the right skills here from around the world’. These changes will ensure that the HSMP remains one of our flagship immigration schemes. And I am confident that they will help us to maintain public confidence in our immigration system, and to make the case for managed migration where it is in the interests of the UK.

A Statement of Changes in the Immigration Rules, and Amendments to the Immigration (Leave to Remain) (Prescribed Forms and Procedures) Regulations 2006, are being laid before Parliament today to give effect to these changes.

Northern Ireland

North/South Implementation Bodies and Tourism Ireland Ltd

I have today placed in the Libraries of the House papers relating to decisions that have been taken during the period 13 June to 13 October 2006 which relate to the North/South Implementation Bodies and Tourism Ireland Ltd. under the terms of the Exchange of Notes of 19 November 2002 (Cmnd 5708).

Parliamentary Boundary Commission

The Parliamentary Constituencies Act 1986, as amended by the Boundary Commissions Act 1992, requires that the Parliamentary Boundary Commission for Northern Ireland undertake periodical reviews of constituencies in Northern Ireland. The Boundary Commission announced their revised recommendations on 18 May 2006 and are due to submit their final report by June 2007.

I am pleased to announce that Richard Mackenzie CB has been reappointed as a Member of the Northern Ireland Parliamentary Boundary Commission. His warrant of appointment will run until 31 October 2008.

Work and Pensions

Social Security (National Insurance Numbers) Amendment Regulations 2006

I announced on 18 July 2006 that the DWP would bring forward amendments to regulation 9 of the Social Security (Crediting and Treatment of Contributions and National Insurance Numbers) to make explicit the evidence which must be produced to demonstrate the "right to work" condition has been satisfied. These amendments will be laid before Parliament today and copies will be made available from the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office from 2.30 pm onwards.

The amendment regulations also incorporate a change which will require students who qualify for a student loan to apply for a national insurance number if they do not already have one. This change will mirror changes in forthcoming Department for Education and Skills regulations which will be made in early 2007. These changes will facilitate the improved collection of student loans.