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Written Statements

Volume 468: debated on Thursday 29 November 2007

Written Ministerial Statements

Thursday 29 November 2007

Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

National Minimum Wage

I am pleased to announce that the Government have submitted their economic evidence on the national minimum wage to the Low Pay Commission. The Commission will take this and all the other evidence received into account when preparing its next report on the minimum wage, which will be submitted to the Government by the end of February 2008.

The economic evidence addresses recent trends in economic and labour market performance, as well as the impact of the national minimum wage on pay, employment and younger workers.

Copies of the Government’s economic evidence have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses and will be posted on the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform website at: www.berr.gov.uk.

The Government submitted their evidence on non-economic issues to the Commission in October. A combined volume of the non-economic and economic evidence will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses at a later date.

Competitiveness Council

The following statement provides information on the Competitiveness Council in Brussels on 22 November 2007, at which I represented the UK. The meeting was chaired in the morning by Manuel Pinho, Portuguese Minister for Economy and Innovation, and in the afternoon by State Secretary João Tiago Silveira of the Portuguese Justice Ministry:

The Council held an exchange of views and reached agreement on integrated conclusions covering Industry, SME, and e-skills policy, as well as on the Commission’s recent communications on globalisation and competitiveness. The Council agreed on the importance of sustainability and knowledge, as well as facilitating access to markets, both internal and external. I intervened to emphasise the importance of an integrated approach to competitiveness, and an open trade policy.

The Council took note of a progress report and held an exchange of views on better regulation. I intervened to welcome progress, but also to emphasise that further work is needed on impact assessment and the reduction of administrative burdens, including in the field of company law.

The Council also took note of a progress report and held an exchange of views on the revision to the timeshare directive. I intervened to press for further progress on this proposal, but argued that the issue of the right of withdrawal for consumers should be addressed as part of the Commission’s wider review of consumer legislation.

Conclusions on sustainable and competitive European tourism were also adopted, noting the contribution which sustainable tourism can make to regeneration and economic development.

The Council adopted conclusions on a simplified business environment for EU companies in the areas of company law, accounting and auditing, emphasising the importance of creating an investment-friendly climate and improving European competitiveness.

The Council took note of a progress report and held an exchange of views on the patent system in Europe, focusing on whether to split jurisdiction for infringement and validity disputes, and on whether to combine work on patent litigation and the Community Patent. The UK intervened to argue against split jurisdiction, and to avoid linking progress on patent litigation issues to the Community Patent.

Under Other Business, the Commission and Presidency gave short progress reports on the single market review, the free movement of goods, the classification, labelling and packaging of substances, product safety, services of general interest, trade defence instruments (where the UK intervened to support a modernised regime which takes account of the interests of all players), the legal protection of designs, and a number of presidency conferences. The incoming Slovenian presidency gave a brief indication of its likely work programme.

Communities and Local Government

Thames Gateway

One year ago, we published the interim plan for the Thames Gateway, Europe’s largest regeneration programme, setting out the long-term vision and objectives for the Thames Gateway. We are today publishing a delivery plan, which sets out cross-government priorities and funding progress for the next three years.

Since last year, we have seen major progress on key projects including Crossrail, the Eurostar Ebbsfleet station, the O2 complex and the Olympic Park investment over the last three years includes improving green spaces such as Rainham Marshes, and public sector improvement such as new Sure Start centres as well as economic regeneration projects. Two new universities at Southend and Medway are providing nearly 5,000 new higher and further education places, the Docklands Light Railway extension to Woolwich will be completed in 2009 and employment growth from 2001-2005 was 9 per cent.—faster than the national average.

The plan published today provides a framework for making the best use of public investment, local ownership, big project expertise and private sector entrepreneurship. It sets out a proposed spending programme for 2008-11 which includes £500 million from the Department for Communities and Local Government for regeneration and £100 million for local transport improvements within a total Government investment commitment of over £9 billion.

The cross-government plan identifies three important themes for change in the Gateway: a strong economy, improvements in the quality of life for local communities and the development of the Gateway as an eco-region.

Within these, key to the success of the region are: (1) economic transformation in four key areas: Canary Wharf, London Gateway, Ebbsfleet Valley, and the Olympic Park with Stratford City; (2) supporting the ten largest developments for new homes; (3) the Thames Gateway Parklands; and (4) investing in a skilled workforce.

In terms of local communities, we have given priority in our spending allocations to six priority locations: Stratford, the Lower Lea and the Royal Docks; London Riverside; Greenwich Peninsula and Woolwich; Thurrock; Kent Thameside; and Medway. There are also five urban renewal areas receiving support: Barking; Basildon; Erith; Sittingbourne and Swale; and Southend.

The plan sets out the route to make the most of the economic potential of the Gateway, encourage new investment and jobs, and boost the skills of local people to take up new opportunities. This plan outlines:

an increase in the number of new jobs we expect in the Gateway to 225,000 by 2016;

a £200 million Strategic Economic Investment Fund to support priority projects from the RDAs’ Thames Gateway Economic Development Investment Plan, that the RDAs estimate will lever in an additional £75 million and is on top of their baseline annual investment;

a “Pan-Gateway” skills plan developed by the Learning and Skills Councils to invest £1.6 billion in teaching and learning, and £850 million in new building for further education;

the building and opening of new and extended further and higher education campuses in Grays and Basildon, Swale and Medway, creating around 9,000 places;

commitment to a recommended approach to the biggest remaining constraint to development in the Thames Gateway, junction 30 of the M25 (the junction with the A13) with an announcement in 2008;

an allocation of £100 million from the Community Infrastructure Fund to invest in 13 local transport schemes.

On top of economic investment, we are committed to improving the quality of life for all residents in the Gateway as a critical part of regeneration—building more affordable houses, investing in thriving town centres, public places and spaces, growing and improving public services, and supporting community cohesion. In this plan:

we prioritise funding from the Thames Gateway programme to secure housing programmes in the 10 locations where extra homes are most urgently needed. These 10 programmes are expected to deliver nearly 110,000 homes by 2016, the majority of our target figure;

we set out the Housing Corporation intention to invest over £800 million in around 15,000 affordable homes by 2011;

we confirm that Communities and Local Government will ask the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) to do a further housing audit in the Gateway in 2010 to measure progress in improving design quality;

we include planned spending of over £600 million in this CSR period as part of a longer-term £1.4 billion programme on new hospital provision serving the Gateway;

we include planned investment of £1.2 billion on new or substantially refurbished schools in Gateway authorities, as well as £278 million allocated to support Sure Start centres in Gateway authorities, including 90 new ones;

we announce the appointment of Sir Terry Farrell as Design Champion for the Thames Gateway Parklands, a new programme to celebrate and enhance the individual character of the Gateway backed by a £35 million allocation of Thames Gateway funding to invest in improving the natural and urban environment;

The plan also outlines the challenges for the Gateway in both increasing economic growth, development and prosperity and tackling climate change. The Thames Gateway can lead the way with environmental jobs, greater use of renewables and new technologies, and environmental improvements to existing homes and building. This plan takes the first steps to promote higher standards for cutting carbon emissions, water conservation, reducing waste, and protecting people against flood risk. The plan outlines:

that Communities and Local Government will invite proposals for a new Eco-quarter in the Gateway, similar to the plans for eco-towns but this time—for the first time—within an existing urban area;

a continuing commitment to 80 per cent. of new homes being built on brownfield land;

some £2 million available to promoters and developers to fund eco-risk assessments of the top 10 housing programmes, to ensure they will design in climate change mitigation, flood risk management, energy and water efficiency from the start;

planned investment of £15 million in a community-focused programme to retrofit existing homes with energy saving measures that will reduce emissions by up to 60 per cent.

an allocation of £1.5 million from the Thames Gateway fund to work with the Energy Savings Trust to establish the first of the new national energy service centres to deliver the Green Homes Services across the Gateway;

a follow-up to our 'water neutrality' feasibility study, investigating costs and possible delivery mechanisms;

work on the costs and possible delivery mechanisms for a zero construction waste target across the Gateway;

investment by the RDAs in an International Institute for sustainability.

The Government will ensure that public funds invested in the Gateway are subject to rigorous appraisal to secure value for money and, wherever possible, be used to attract additional private funding to maximise the benefit for Thames Gateway communities. The levels of funding set out in this delivery plan are therefore indicative and subject to final confirmation as individual projects come forward for appraisal.

The role of Government across the Gateway is to ensure that key infrastructure is provided to promote improvement and growth and to provide the conditions that enable investor confidence to flourish. We need the market to respond to the new opportunities on offer. The ultimate measure of success will be when that investor confidence is assured and places in the Gateway take on a new and self-sustaining identity.

Defence

Future Rapid Effect System

The Future Rapid Effect System (FRES) has a vital role to play in the future of the British Army. We stated that we would announce the outcome of the utility vehicle design trials by the end of November. I am delighted to announce today that these trials have been successfully completed on schedule, and that a recommendation has been produced based on technical design considerations. Further work with all three possible providers will be undertaken over the next few weeks in order to clarify the commercial implications of their proposals. Following this, a definitive announcement will be made on the preferred design to be taken through the remainder of assessment phase of this part of the FRES programme.

Sea King Integrated Operation Support

I am announcing today the award of a contract to Agusta Westland for Implementation Phase 2 of the Sea King Integrated Operational Support (SKIOS IP2) programme. This programme will maintain availability levels and reduce costs for each of the live variants of Sea King helicopter operated by the RN and the RAF. This is part of the wider Defence Logistics Transformation Programme to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of military logistics support to the front line. The contract builds on existing SKIOS arrangements and the support arrangements piloted on other MOD helicopters. It is worth around £470 million over the first five years, with a price review thereafter, and transfers to industry further responsibility for Sea King and component maintenance. The contract is forecast to deliver savings in the region of £90 million over 12 years against current support arrangements without any reduction of capability. These savings are in addition to the savings already achieved under Implementation Phase 1 of the programme, awarded in April 2005, which provides technical and spares support services. Implementation Phase 2 also transfers to industry approximately 300 military and civilian posts that currently provide flight line engineering and logistics support at Royal Navy and Royal Air Force Search land Rescue (SAR) bases in the UK and Falkland Islands. The contract represents another deliverable of the helicopter plans set out in the Defence Industrial Strategy, strengthens the partnered relationship with industry, and maintains aircraft availability levels but with reduced through life costs. Overall it provides better value for money for the taxpayer.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

NATO

The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) has replaced the hon. Member for Hereford (Mr. Keetch) as a Member of the United Kingdom delegation to the NATO Parliamentary Assembly.

Health

Abortion Act 1967 (Government Response to Science and Technology Committee Report)

Today we have laid before Parliament the Government response to the Science and Technology Committee’s report on the scientific developments relating to the Abortion Act 1967 (Cm 7278).

In June 2007, the Committee undertook to conduct an inquiry into scientific developments relating to the Abortion Act 1967. The Department participated in the inquiry and the Government is grateful for the Committee's report and has accepted several of the key recommendations.

The Command Paper sets out the Government’s response to all 32 conclusions and is available in the Library.

NHS Finance and Performance

At the end of 2005-06, the NHS had a net deficit of £547 million, with 123 (33 per cent.) organisations building up a total gross deficit of £1.3 billion. Today I am pleased to say that we have turned that position around completely.

Financial projections at the end of September 2007 show that the NHS is forecasting a healthy £1.8 billion surplus for 2007-08, with only 25 trusts forecasting a deficit. This is a dramatic improvement and a testament to the efforts of NHS staff over the last year and a half.

This level of surplus—which is only about 2 per cent. of the overall NHS budget—shows sensible financial management. The NHS should not merely be aiming to breakeven year-to-year, it should be planning for a surplus so that it can make long-term investment decisions, such as public health investments and shifting appropriate care out of hospital and closer to people’s homes.

The Chief Executive of the Audit Commission, Steve Hundred, said last month

“The NHS is no longer in deficit, which is good news for patients and for taxpayers, Managing money well goes hand-in-hand with providing better patient care. Trusts that fail to manage their money well are unlikely to be doing their best for patients”. (Audit Commission, Press Notice, 23 October)

But, while this is good news in overall terms, we are not resting on our laurels. We are working with strategic health authorities to support a handful of financially challenged trusts, which need intensive effort to get out of deficit. Our aim is that all NHS organisations should be out of in year deficit by the end of next year.

This financial turnaround and surplus have been achieved at the same time that the NHS has maintained or improved performance on key indicators of patient care. We will be publishing a report tomorrow that shows:

waiting times are down to an all time low and the NHS is on course to deliver the 18-week target;

cancer waits are down;

the excellent level of A&E performance has been maintained, even during periods of extra pressure;

latest data show continued progress towards halving rates of MRSA, a problem in health systems across the developed world; and

early signs of promise on Clostridium difficile, with latest quarterly figures showing a fall in numbers for the first time.

The financial improvement has not been at the expense then of patient care. In fact, the independent Healthcare Commission’s last survey of recent hospital inpatients showed 92 per cent. rated their care as good, very good or excellent.

These results have been achieved, in part, by introducing a stronger, fairer and more transparent NHS financial regime, coupled with a renewed emphasis on performance management, but more importantly by NHS organisations taking action to increase productivity such as:

increasing the use of day surgery and minimally invasive techniques;

by providing support for people with long-term conditions and reducing unnecessary emergency bed days; and,

reducing the use of agency staff.

The comprehensive spending review settlement gave health a very good increase of 4.0 per cent. in real terms, but even this means the NHS will need to plan for a slowdown on the recent unprecedented levels of investment. The surplus gives the NHS flexibility to respond to fluctuations in demand and enables organisations to commit future growth on improving services for patients.

It must be emphasised that this surplus is not being held at the centre. It remains with the NHS so they can use it to invest in improving the quality of patient care next year and in future years.

Through the rest of this financial year the NHS will use the surplus to accelerate improvements. For example, the strategic health authorities have between them agreed investments of £57 million in a programme of deep cleaning for hospitals to help deliver a better patient experience.

The NHS will also have the capacity to accelerate progress in the numbers of patients treated within 18 weeks of referral to a specialist. For example, £22 million has been made available in NHS South Central and is already producing more clinics, diagnostic facilities and operating theatre sessions.

While in the north-west £35 million will be made available to support a broad range of public health initiatives. A large amount of this resource will be targeted at educational programmes. And in the East Midlands £7 million has been made available to improve GP access and premises along with a further £5 million to reduce health inequalities.

In conclusion, NHS performance at quarter 2 shows encouraging progress being made in delivering our promises to patients and the wider public and the forecast surplus is a reassuring sign that the NHS is restored to financial health and will enable investment in improving the quality of patient care. Tables have been placed in the Library.

Home Department

Additional Protective Services (Demonstration Sites)

I am today announcing that three more initiatives are being added to the 10 already included as demonstrator sites for the protective capabilities programme. These initiatives are addressing the demands of major crime, serious organised crime and other threats to public safety by police forces and authorities working together in a range of different collaborative projects.

The new initiatives that the Home Office will be supporting are:

Police Forces and Authorities

Initiative

Staffordshire / Warwickshire / West Mercia / West Midlands

Regional Intelligence Project: to develop enhanced intelligence structures between the four regional forces.

Derbyshire / Leicestershire / Lincolnshire / Northamptonshire / Nottinghamshire

Specialist Operational Capacity and Capability: to identify and take forward opportunities to deliver joint specialist requirements for protective services across the region.

Humberside / North Yorkshire / South Yorkshire / West Yorkshire

Fast-Time tasking, co-ordinating and resourcing arrangements: to provide capacity and capability coverage for all seven protective services across the forces of the region.

The selection of these three initiatives, from 12 proposals submitted, will bring the number of forces participating in the programme to 34 across England and Wales.

The demonstrator sites are being established to examine and develop different models of collaboration between forces to enhance the delivery of a range of policing services focused on protecting the public. The lessons learned will be used to strengthen the development of future police joint working, particularly in finding ways to improve the capability and capacity for protective services delivery.

Home Office funding of £4.1 million is being provided in total to the demonstrators to support the start-up costs of their projects.

Autumn Performance Report

The Home Office Autumn Performance Report 2007 will be published tomorrow by command of Her Majesty. Copies of the report will be available in the Vote Office. The Report will also be available on the Home Office website.

The report sets out the progress we have made towards achieving our public service agreement targets.

The report shows that we have made progress against our targets. We have continued to reduce the harm caused by drugs. We are cutting crime levels in high crime areas faster than elsewhere. In the year to June 2007 we have brought 1.434 million offences to justice. Police performance continues to improve in tackling crime and public confidence is continuing to increase.

Justice

Leeds Magistrates Court

I am today announcing that yesterday, on 28 November, I formally asked Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Courts Administration to work with the Chief Inspectors for the Constabulary and the Crown Prosecution Service to conduct a thorough inspection and prepare a report to Ministers into the resulting and warrant processes at Leeds magistrates court.

An experienced judge will also be appointed by the senior presiding judge to conduct an independent investigation of the judicial responsibilities of legal advisers at Leeds magistrates court.

The concerns about Leeds magistrates court relate to two issues: the recording of outcomes of cases principally between 1997-2003 and subsequently, in the case of recordable offences, updating the Police National Computer (PNC). This is a process known as resulting. The second related issue centres on a process used for withdrawing warrants issued by the court for the arrest of defendants who fail to appear. The withdrawal of a warrant is a judicial decision.

The investigations will verify the number of cases involved, the breakdown of offences and the position regarding the Police National Computer (PNC). The terms of reference are as follows:

“Under Section 60(4) of the Courts Act 2003 and working with HM Chief Inspector of Constabulary and HM Chief Inspector of CPS; the Chief Inspector of Court Administration will report to the Secretary of State for Justice, the Home Secretary and the Attorney-General as necessary on:

1. The effectiveness and appropriateness of the systems enabling a record of every court adjudication to be entered in the magistrates court register at Leeds magistrates court.

2. The effectiveness and appropriateness of the systems enabling court registers to be conveyed to the police from Leeds magistrates court.

3. The effectiveness and appropriateness of the systems enabling court adjudications from Leeds magistrates court to be placed on the PNC.

4. The effectiveness and appropriateness of the interagency systems in place to manage warrant withdrawal in Leeds magistrates court.

The Chief Inspector of Court Administration will support the separate and independent judicial investigation of the judicial responsibilities of legal advisers at Leeds magistrates court, as appropriate”.

In addition the following actions are in place:

We have started investigating the national process and practice for withdrawing warrants, involving courts, the police and the Crown Prosecution Service. This has identified differing practices across magistrates courts which will require further local investigation and may require us to clarify the procedures.

Simultaneously we are writing to all local criminal justice boards as part of a national review into warrant withdrawal practice across England and Wales and will provide further detailed national guidance should that be required.

Following a pro-active national review instigated by officials in January 2007 about the effectiveness of processes for resulting the 2.2 million cases dealt with in the magistrates court each year, my officials identified that there were some courts which needed to improve performance and take action to deal with any outstanding cases.

Ministers have been actively engaged in this on-going work on improving performance in resulting since January.

The majority of outstanding cases were dealt with by the end of May and performance has been improving since. The courts keep performance under regular review to ensure the accuracy of the resulting process. I have however asked HMCS to again review comprehensively the information for any outstanding issues.

However, the national review identified a continuing issue at Leeds magistrates court where there was a problem with the process. Where any evidence of misconduct was found disciplinary investigations have been undertaken. A further investigation is ongoing.

As part of the work that court staff were undertaking to look at these issues, this month they identified a further problem with an historical process dating back to 2003 to withdraw old “failure to appear” warrants which had been agreed by the court, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) and the police. Although the withdrawal of warrants is entirely appropriate in certain circumstances, the process used in Leeds needs to be investigated.

In June 2006 the Government issued guidance for areas on withdrawing warrants, emphasising the issues that should be taken into account and stressing that the decision to withdraw a warrant is a judicial one. However, over the last few months it has become evident that the issues over the processes used in Leeds were of sufficient concern to merit a detailed inquiry. The issue over the withdrawal of warrants, which was reported to ministers last week, is of particular concern.

It is for that reason I have asked the inspectors to review all of these matters to provide me with independent assurance that the issues have been dealt with appropriately and whether there are any national lessons that we should learn from the experience in Leeds. Together with the review of the process for the withdrawal of warrants and the judicial responsibilities review, I will then be able to assess whether further national actions need to be taken, including improvements to the resulting process.

The resulting of cases and enforcement of warrants are important areas of work. All criminal justice agencies work continually to improve processes and address performance issues where they arise.

HMCS has worked with the police to improve performance and, for the first time, the joint target of having 75 per cent. of all case results entered on the PNC within 10 days of the court hearing was met in July 2007 and has been maintained.

We have also improved the enforcement of warrants. From August 2004 until June 2007 there was a 54 per cent. reduction in the number of outstanding warrants. Latest data indicate that the number of warrants withdrawn per month has fallen by more than 30 per cent. since the same period in 2005.

I will make a further statement to the House on the findings and facts relating to all these matters, the action that has been taken and the actions that will be taken when the investigations have concluded. The inspectorate report will be published to Parliament.

Wales

Education and Skills Bill (Framework Powers)

I am pleased to inform the House that an explanatory memorandum explaining the proposals for the use of framework powers in the Education and Skills Bill is available today. Copies of which can be found in the Vote Office, Libraries of both Houses and at: www.walesoffice.gov.uk