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Written Statements

Volume 463: debated on Monday 23 July 2007

Written Ministerial Statements

Monday 23 July 2007

Treasury

Tax and Benefit Reference Manual

Copies of the 2007-08 edition of the Tax Benefit Reference Manual (TBRM) are today being deposited in the House of Commons Library.

HM Treasury publishes the TBRM annually. It is a technical manual detailing the tax and benefit system, describing both the current and historic regimes.

Children, Schools and Families

Data Protection and Technology Guidance

Guidance on how the Data Protection Act 1998 applies to the use of biometric data in schools is published today by the British Education Communications and Technology Agency (BECTA).

Biometric data are increasingly being used in schools as the benefit for schools of running cashless lunch queues, and improved school libraries and attendance systems, become clear. This guidance advises schools to fully involve parents in any decision to introduce this new technology. It restates schools’ freedom to run themselves for the benefit of young people—including introducing new technology to make day-to-day administrative tasks easier.

The guidance also underlines that headteachers and governing bodies should be clear and open with all parents and pupils about this and all aspects of their education. This will involve explaining what biometric technology is, how it will be used, what is involved, what data will be held and stored, why they are required, how they are secured, and for how long they are retained. It also advises that schools should recognise some parents’ or pupils’ concerns over the introduction of biometric technology and offer alternative systems, like smartcards, to access the same services if they want to opt out.

Today’s guidance sets out how Data Protection Act 1998 applies to the use of biometric data in schools—building on BECTA’s existing guidance on data security and the data protection law.

The Data Protection Act requires that:

Schools cannot use biometric information for any purpose other than the express purpose for which it was collected. This means that data taken for use in a library, can only be used for that purpose;

Schools must process all personal data fairly and lawfully. This means that schools must ensure that all pupils, or their parents or those with parental responsibility if schools judge they cannot understand, know what personal information they have on record and how they intend to use it.

Schools cannot pass on biometric information to any outside organisation nor can third parties access this information;

Schools cannot keep personal data for longer than it is needed for its specified purpose. Pupils’ biometric data must therefore be destroyed when they have left the school.

Schools must put appropriate security measures in place to safeguard personal data from unauthorised processing and accidental loss, destruction or damage. BECTA gives clear guidance to schools on data and ICT security.

BECTA and the Information Commissioner already give schools clear guidance on how to comply with the Data Protection Act. This additional guidance is designed to help schools by confirming how the law relates to biometric data and how to comply with it.

I want parents to be fully engaged with every aspect of their children’s education—this is at the heart today’s guidance. We give schools complete freedom to run their own affairs and I back every head teacher’s right and professional judgment to choose technology to improve their day-to-day running—but it is plain common sense for them to talk to parents about this and all issues relating to their pupils to demystify how schools operate.

I have seen at first hand how well these systems work. They can speed up lunch queues, remove the need for children to carry money and take away the stigma of singling out those on free school meals. Moreover, they can enable schools to register pupils more easily as they move from class to class.

Schools are well used to handling sensitive information like attendance registers, behaviour records and home addresses. But we are absolutely clear that they have to comply with data protection laws. This means that this data can only be used for their explicitly stated purpose, cannot be shared with third parties beyond their stated purpose: and they must be destroyed when the pupil leaves the school.

Defence

Annual Report and Accounts 2006-07

I am pleased to announce that I am today publishing the Ministry of Defence’s annual report and accounts 2006-07. It combines the Department’s annual performance report and departmental resource accounts in a single document that provides a comprehensive overview of the MOD’s financial and non-financial performance. I am also publishing the Government’s expenditure plans 2007-08 for the Ministry of Defence presenting the forward plans for departmental expenditure across the remainder of the 2004 spending review period.

The report shows that the armed forces and the Ministry of Defence delivered what they were required to do during a busy and challenging year. They continued in particular to achieve our highest priority: success on operations. It reflects the broad and diverse range of operations and tasks undertaken during the year, including a number in support of the outputs of other Government Departments. It details the progress the Ministry of Defence has made in achieving the public service agreement and efficiency targets agreed with Her Majesty’s Treasury in the 2004 spending review, in delivering the capabilities and reformed force structure set out in the July 2004 Command Paper “Delivering Security in a Changing World: Future Capabilities” and the other elements of the defence change programme, in implementing the defence industrial strategy, and in implementing the Government’s wider sustainability goals.

Copies of the annual report and accounts and the Government’s expenditure plans have been placed in the Library of the House. They are also available online from the Department’s website at: www.mod.uk.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Animal Products (Import Controls)

The review of controls on the import of animal products for the financial year 2006-07 has been laid before Parliament today as required under the Animal Health Act 1981 (as amended by the Animal Health Act 2002). I welcome the opportunity to report on progress made in the past year to reduce the risk of disease entering the country via imports of animal products.

Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) continues to deliver an enforcement strategy that targets anti-smuggling activity on the highest risk traffic and to review deployment of resources and react flexibly in response to changes in the pattern of risk.

Seizures of illegally imported animal products have again increased when compared to previous years (35,001 between 1 April 2006 and 31 March 2007, approximately a 7 per cent. increase on the equivalent period from 2005-06), reflecting the enforcement measures in place, and we recognise that these efforts must be maintained.

There continues to be a joined-up approach across Government Departments on the overall communications strategy. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) will continue with its ongoing publicity campaign with a change of emphasis, taking into account levels of public awareness and seizure information. HMRC will continue to promote the products of animal origin (POAO) personal import rules through a wide range of communication channels, as well as seeking new opportunities for media publicity.

We continue to enhance our understanding of the risks from illegal imports of POAO, as well as monitoring and assessing the changing threats from around the world.

Copies of the review will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses, on the DEFRA ‘personal food imports’ website at: www.defra.gov.uk/animalh/illegali, and sent to stakeholders for information seeking their feedback. Hard copies will also be available on request.

Health

Prescription Charges

On 17 October 2006, the Government published its response to the Health Select Committee Report on NHS Charges (Cm 6922).

The Government responded to the 22 recommendations made by the Committee on areas such as prescription charges, car-parking charges, dental charges, on eligibility for NHS sight tests and on the hospital travel costs scheme.

As part of the response, the Government committed to carrying out an internal review of prescription charges and to making a further statement to the House prior to the summer recess this year.

Following this internal review, the Government have decided to hold a consultation in the autumn so that the public can contribute their views on any proposals prior to a final decision on future prescription charges.

The Government have made clear that any changes to the system would need to be cost neutral for the NHS. A further statement will be made after recess giving details of the consultation.

Home Department

Independent Police Complaints Commission (Annual Report)

I am pleased to announce that the annual report of the Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) will be published and laid before Parliament today.

This is the third annual report from the IPCC. The report deals with the work completed in 2006-07 and, in particular, how the IPCC has dealt with the challenges which its third year of existence has brought and how it has engaged with diverse communities and stakeholders. The IPCC have now developed a robust formal process with all of the relevant policing agencies to ensure that lessons are learned and disseminated.

The IPCC’s remit now extends beyond the police service. The IPCC has operational responsibility for complaints about the conduct of members of the Serious Organised Crime Agency and of Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs who use “police like powers”. Their remit will be further extended to cover similar functions in the Borders and Immigration Agency.

Living Animals (Scientific Procedures)

I wish to respond to the publication entitled “Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals—Great Britain—2006, which is being presented as a Command Paper (7153) today. Copies will be placed in the House Library.

This annual report meets the requirement in the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 to keep Parliament informed about the use of animals for experimental or other scientific purposes. It also forms the basis for meeting periodic reporting requirements at EU level. Some changes have been made to improve the contents and layout of this publication; in particular a more concise report with just the key tables is available in hard copy and supplementary information with additional tables is available on the Home Office website.

The report shows an overall increase over the previous year of 4 per cent. in the number of procedures undertaken. The total number of procedures was 3.01 million, an increase of 115,800 over the previous year. There has now been a relatively small increase for the fifth year running; it is the highest total since 1992 and marks an overall 15 per cent. increase since 2001. A number of factors, investment in research and development and strategic priorities determine the overall level of scientific procedures

Non-toxicological procedures accounted for about 86 per cent. of the procedures carried out. These included fundamental research in human and veterinary medicine to improve understanding of disease mechanisms and possible therapeutic options, and development of vaccines. Most toxicological studies were for the safety and efficacy testing of new drugs and medicines.

Procedures for toxicological purposes accounted for the remaining 14 per cent. of all procedures. About 74 per cent. of these were for testing the safety and efficacy of new drugs and medicines. In keeping with previous years, those procedures that used mice or rats (or other rodents) were the great majority at 83 per cent. Those using fish amounted to 9 per cent. and those using birds, 4 per cent. The total of all procedures using dogs, cats, horses and non-human primates, that is those species offered special protection by the Act, was less than 1 per cent. of the total.

Genetically normal animals were used in about 1.65 million regulated procedures, representing 55 per cent. of all procedures for 2006 (compared with 57 per cent. in 2005 and 84 per cent. in 1995). Genetically modified animals (nearly all rodents) were used in 1.04 million regulated procedures representing 34 per cent. of all procedures for 2006 (compared with 33 per cent. in 2005 and 8 per cent. in 1995).

Advances in the opportunities to use genetically altered animals for new areas of biomedical research means that the trend of increased production and use of genetically altered animals has continued. It allows a more precise and often less invasive study of physiological processes and disease mechanisms than was previously possible. Most of the animals concerned are mice, which appear and live as normal. Many are only used in breeding programmes.

The licensing system is demand led and the 1986 Act provides the Home Office, as regulator, with no mechanism for reducing animal use. Instead the Act requires that animal use is kept to a minimum. In addition, the procedures authorised must cause the minimum possible suffering to the smallest number of animals of the least sentience. The Act also requires that, before a project licence is issued, we must weigh the benefits to humans, other animals, or the environment against the costs to the animals involved. A licence cannot be granted if the work could be carried out without using animals.

The report and supplementary information can be found at:

http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/rds/scientific1.html

Prime Minister

Cabinet Committees

Today I am announcing a new set of Cabinet Committees. I have strengthened the system by re-casting it to focus on the Government’s priorities and, in doing so, have reduced the total number Committees. I have placed a copy of the new list of Cabinet Committees, their full membership and terms of reference in the Libraries of both Houses. The details are also available on the Cabinet Office website.

Transport

Government Car and Despatch Agency

I have today laid “The Government Car and Despatch Agency annual report and accounts 2006-07” before Parliament, copies of which are available in the Libraries of both Houses.

Work and Pensions

Independent Living Funds

On 15 March 2007 we published the review of the Independent Living Funds that had been conducted by Melanie Kenwood and Bob Hudson and I said that I would provide an initial response to the report before recess. A full response to all the recommendations will be published once we have considered the lessons from the individual budget pilots and the timescale required to ensure they become a mainstream part of the support system.

I welcome the progress the trustees have made on the matters that are for them to consider, for example, reimbursing national insurance and holiday pay, publishing trustees’ meeting minutes on their website, continuing to fund users during the first stage of their appeal (from October) and revising their leaflets, targets and processes.

We are now working with stakeholders on the medium-term recommendations such as improving customer care, seeking advice from a user-led organisation, improving the consistency of take-up and working towards a single assessment process with local authorities.

The purpose of the funds remains to provide support to severely disabled people, of working age, to enable them to live independently. I have not accepted those recommendations that significantly extend the funds.

The reviewers recommend in the long-term that that there should be a smooth transition towards full integration within a system of personalised budgets. These recommendations will be taken forward as part of the Government’s overall programme to support independent living for disabled people. In the meantime the funds will continue in their present form.

National Insurance Credits

People claiming incapacity benefit are entitled to receive national insurance credits for periods when they are unable to work. Such credits count towards accrued entitlement to state pension, incapacity benefit and other contributory benefits.

Details of such credits are held on HMRC’s National Insurance Recording System (NIRS2) and this Department’s Pension Strategy Computer System (PSCS) which records details of periods of incapacity for people claiming incapacity benefit.

It has become clear that discrepancies exist between the data held on these two systems—as was noted in the National Audit Office’s report on the National Insurance Fund in February 2006. These discrepancies have their origin in the introduction of NIRS2 in 1998 and the subsequent transfer of data from PSCS to NIRS2 on periods of incapacity. These discrepancies mean that some people may be receiving the wrong amount of contributory benefit. The main benefits affected are state pension and incapacity benefit. The cases most likely to be affected are those where an individual made a claim for incapacity benefit between 1998 and 2006.

Action has been taken to ensure that these credits are now being correctly recorded and, accordingly, I am now in a position to announce how this Department intends to handle those past cases where errors have occurred.

We estimate that up to 30,000 people may have had underpayments of benefit and about 90,000 have had overpayments. In cases of underpayment, the error does not necessarily mean that individuals have been receiving less money through benefits. For example, in the majority of the cases involving state pension, the underpayments will have been made up by additional pension credit payments. In the case of incapacity benefit underpayments some individuals will have received income support which will have reduced or extinguished any potential loss.

It is, nevertheless, clearly right that all such underpayments should be identified and the correct amount of contributory benefit paid, and any associated income related benefit reviewed. This Department will begin this work in August and aims to have completed it by early 2008. In all cases this Department will individually contact those affected.

Similarly, in the case of overpayments, many of those overpaid state pension would have had a correspondingly lower payment of pension credit. In respect of incapacity benefit this would, in some cases, have led to a correspondingly lower payment, or no payment, of income support.

In respect of cases where an overpayment may have occurred, the payments will have been made and received in good faith and I do not believe it would be right to reduce them. I propose, therefore, to introduce regulations that will allow us to continue paying these benefits at their current level to the individuals concerned for the duration of their claim. The draft regulations will be referred to the Social Security Advisory Committee in the normal way before being made and laid before Parliament.

Where the individual is under pension age we will also correct the national insurance contribution records so that future claims will be correctly assessed. Where correcting the record creates any gaps in an individual’s contribution record, HMRC will write to the individuals concerned advising them of their options, if they wish to pay any missing contributions.