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Written Statements

Volume 475: debated on Thursday 15 May 2008

Written Ministerial Statements

Thursday 15 May 2008

Treasury

Valuation Office Agency

I have today set the following key performance indicators for the Valuation Office Agency for 2008-09:

Customer Satisfaction

To achieve overall customer satisfaction of 90 per cent.

Operations

To enable prompt issue of correct bills by local authorities through clearance of rating reports within an average of 12 working days and council tax reports within an average of 14 working days in England and 12 working days in Wales.

To enable prompt issue of tax assessments by clearing all HMRC initial appraisal cases for inheritance tax within an average of eight days and for capital gains tax within an average of 11 days.

To contain reductions in the 2005 rating lists to a maximum of 4.2 per cent. of the total compiled list-rateable value, over the entire life of the lists.

To ensure that 96 per cent. of new council tax bandings are right first time.

Value for Money

To improve overall value for money on local taxation work by 3 per cent. per annum.

To improve value for money on inheritance tax work for HMRC by 5 per cent.

People

All staff to have the core skills and competencies for their role within six months of taking up a post.

Children, Schools and Families

Ofqual

I announced in a statement to the House on 2 April the establishment in interim form of the new independent regulator of qualifications and tests, known as Ofqual. In the Government’s Draft Legislative Programme published yesterday (Cm 7372) we announced that we intend to legislate to establish the regulator as part of an Education and Skills Bill in the 2008-09 session. I am today publishing an exchange of letters with Kathleen Tattersall OBE, the chair of Ofqual, prior to the launch event for Ofqual tomorrow.

Communities and Local Government

Planning Casework Performance

The Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 requires the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government to set and meet a timetable for the majority of planning cases which are to be decided by her (as opposed to being decided by a planning inspector) and to make a report to Parliament each year on performance. This is intended both to ensure that such cases are dealt with expeditiously and to enable the parties to any particular case to know when they can expect to receive a decision.

The Secretary of State has accordingly today laid before Parliament an Act paper reporting on performance on all decisions made between 1 April 2007 and 31 March 2008. During this period, 100 per cent. of the 131 decisions made by the Secretary of State on cases other than appeals against refusals of consent for works to trees covered by tree preservation orders were made within their statutory timetables, as were 617 out of 627 decisions (98.4 per cent.) on tree preservation order appeals.

Statutory timetables apply to decisions on called-in planning applications; planning appeals recovered for the Secretary of State’s decision; other cases “linked” to such decisions, including listed building consent, conservation area consent, advertisement consent and enforcement notice appeals; and tree preservation order appeals. They do not apply to cases decided by inspectors or to those decided by the Secretary of State jointly with a Minister of another Department

Espoo Convention (Bucharest 19-21 May)

The UK will be represented at official level at the fourth meeting of the parties to the UNECE convention on environmental impact assessment in a transboundary context (the Espoo convention), to be held in Bucharest, Romania, from 19 to 21 May.

The meeting will be invited to adopt a work plan and budget to cover the period to the next meeting of the parties, around 2011, and decisions on good practice, co-operation and modifications to procedures, all designed to improve the effectiveness of the convention. None of the matters to be considered are expected to raise concerns about UK interests. We will support adoption of a work plan that is realistic and properly costed, and will contribute to the agreed costs of the convention.

Parties will be expected to indicate their intention to ratify a protocol to the Espoo convention on strategic environmental assessment (SEA). The UK signed this protocol in 2003 with the intention of ratifying as soon as measures needed for compliance were in place. It is now established that the UK is compliant with no requirement for specific measures and we therefore propose to confirm our intention to ratify the protocol.

Defence

RAF Pumas (Board of Inquiry)

I wish to inform the House today of the findings of the Royal Air Force board of inquiry (BOI) into the accident involving Pumas XW211 and XW218 in Iraq in the early hours of 15 April 2007.

XW211 and XW218 were part of a Puma helicopter formation in support of coalition operations. The accident occurred when the lead aircraft, XW211, had landed and its passengers had disembarked. XW218 then tried to land next to XW211 but its main rotor blades hit those of XW211. Sadly, two personnel lost their lives and several received serious injuries. Our deepest sympathies remain with the families of those servicemen.

A BOI was convened that same day to establish the circumstances of the loss and to learn lessons from it; a BOI does not seek to apportion blame. The board concluded that the accident was caused by XW218 being positioned too close to XW211. A contributory factor was the difficulty of judging distances accurately to another rotating disc—that is, the main rotor blades—at close range.

The BOI and the chain of command made 17 recommendations that are now being studied closely, and some have already been implemented.

The BOI into the accident involving Pumas XW211 and XW218 is now complete. I express my gratitude to the president of the board and her team for their painstaking work.

A redacted version of the main body of the BOI report and the military aircraft accident summary (MAAS) will be available on the MOD internet site at http://www.mod.uk/DefenceInternet/AboutDefence/CorporatePublications/BoardsOfInquiry/. A copy of the MAAS is also being placed in the Library of the House. As you will appreciate, the safety of our people is a principal consideration and we have therefore removed from the BOI report information that might endanger the security or capability of UK and coalition personnel, or be of use to an enemy. We have, however, tried to be as open as possible and have carefully considered the public interest arguments both for and against disclosure of the information in the report. We have ensured that each redaction is fully justified by an appropriate exemption in the Freedom of Information Act.

The Ministry of Defence is co-operating fully with the Wiltshire coroner who will hold an inquest in due course.

Headquarters Allied Rapid Reaction Corps

On 12 September 2007, I announced my decision that Headquarters Allied Rapid Reaction Corps (HQ ARRC) and its intimate supporting elements, 1 Signal Brigade (1 Sig Bde) and 102 Logistic Brigade (102 Log Bde) should all move from Germany to the UK over the period 2009-14 (Official Report Columns 122WS - 124WS). I explained that this decision would need to be confirmed following scrutiny of the detailed plans for the moves, and that this work would start with the proposed move of HQ ARRC and its intimate supporting elements from Rhine Garrison in Monchengladbach to Innsworth in Gloucestershire.

Today I am announcing that the programme team’s detailed plans for the move of HQ ARRC and its intimate supporting elements have been completed and scrutinised, and that I have decided that the move to Innsworth will take place in 2010, which fits with the MOD’s current commitments and priorities and means that the site will still be fully revitalised in the near future. The Innsworth site was taken over by the Army on 1 April 2008 and it is being prepared to enable the necessary refurbishment and new build works to begin. In the meantime we will maintain all essential services at the site, undertake all necessary works services and work with the local authorities in Gloucestershire to prepare for the arrival of personnel, families and equipment in 2010.

The programme team will continue to consult with interested parties including the trade unions and, in Germany, we will continue to engage with the relevant authorities and employee representatives at national, regional and local levels.

Our NATO allies have been notified of this decision, including the German Government as host nation.

As far as the moves of 1 Sig Bde and 102 Log Bde are concerned, I announced on 31 January 2008 that the site occupied by the defence college of aeronautical engineering (DCAE) at Cosford in Shropshire is the MOD’s preferred site for the two brigades (Official Report Columns 25WS-26WS). Detailed planning for these moves continues, as well as for a series of other moves within Germany to determine how best we can provide infrastructure support there once the planned moves to the UK have been completed. Under current assumptions, we envisage restructuring HQ United Kingdom support command (Germany) in Rheindahlen, which will result in a smaller support organisation integrated with HQ 1 (UK) Armoured Division in Herford, and a discrete HQ being established in the UK to ensure necessary infrastructure support to overseas locations. All the moves and changes to the provision of infrastructure support will lead to the closure of Rhine garrison and Münster station, the latter completing the closure of Osnabrück garrison.

As stated in my previous announcement, these moves and the work of the programme team in no way signal a change in either our commitment to the NATO alliance or in our overall defence policy, nor do they in any way devalue the continued close bilateral defence relationship between the UK and Germany. Although we may make further modest adjustments to our force levels in Germany, our plan, with the continued agreement of the German Government, remains to base UK forces there in the form of HQ 1 (UK) Armoured Division and the majority of its formations and supporting units—some 15,000 service personnel—for many years to come.

Health

General Medical Council (Fitness to Practice Rules)

The General Medical Council (Fitness to Practise) (Amendment in Relation to Standard of Proof) Rules Order of Council 2008 was laid before Parliament on 8 May. The General Medical Council has amended its Fitness to Practise Rules, the effect of which is to require the standard of proof that is applicable to civil proceedings to all proceedings before a Fitness to Practise panel or the Investigation Committee which commence on or after 31 May 2008. The GMC has written to all doctors whose cases may be affected by this change. These rules are not contingent on the changes in the law being proposed in the Health and Social Care Bill.

Home Department

Home Office Departmental Report

We have today published the Home Office’s 2008 departmental report. Copies are available in the Vote Office and on the Home Office website. The report describes the work of the Home Office during 2007-08, in particular as reflected in its strategic objectives and key targets.

Serious Organised Crime Agency Annual Report 2007-08

The annual report of the Serious Organised Crime Agency for 2007-08 is being published and laid before Parliament today. As required by the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, the report includes an assessment of the extent to which the annual plan for 2007-08 has been carried out.

Copies of the report will be available in the Vote Office as soon as possible.

Justice

Interception of Communications (Prison)

On 29 January 2008, Simon Creighton of Bhatt Murphy wrote to Treasury solicitors. In his letter, he stated that he had come across a written transcript of a telephone conversation between himself and his client, Mr Harry Roberts, in late 2005 while Mr Roberts was detained in HMP Channings Wood. The transcript was amongst material supplied to him by the specially appointed advocate (SAA) who had been involved in Mr Roberts’ previous parole hearing. Mr Creighton also stated that there appeared to be at least one other telephone call between himself and Mr Roberts which had been recorded.

On 30 January 2008, the Treasury solicitor forwarded Mr Creighton’s letter to officials at the Ministry of Justice. On receipt of the letter, officials began enquiries of HMP Channings Wood as to how the telephone conversations had come to be recorded and transcribed.

I and other Ministers at the Ministry of Justice were told of the existence of the transcripts on 4 February.

In response to the allegations being made, the then Deputy Director General of HM Prison Service commissioned an investigation into the circumstances surrounding the interception, monitoring and retention of communications between Mr Roberts and his solicitor. I also asked for an internal investigation to be undertaken by the National Offender Management Service to determine the precise circumstances in which the transcripts of legally privileged conversations had come to be made and passed to the SAA. I am now in a position to inform the House of the findings of the investigations into this issue.

This statement relates to how transcripts of conversations between Mr Creighton and Mr Roberts came to be included in material prepared for Mr Roberts’ previous parole hearing. In summary, the Prison Service investigation concluded that this occurred because Mr Roberts failed to identify his solicitor’s telephone number to staff at Channings Wood prison, though Mr Roberts, through his solicitor, disputes this finding.

The prison rules allow for the interception of communications in prison and for intercepted information to be retained for up to three months and to be disclosed to the police and others when it is necessary and proportionate to do so, either on receipt of a lawful application to access the information or by way of lawful voluntary disclosure. Interception is the action that makes the contents of a telephone or mail communication available to a person other than the sender and intended recipient. An operational manager can authorise the interception of communications for reasons such as prison security and control, but there is also a policy that prisons will monitor all the communications of certain prisoners—for example category A prisoners—who pose the greatest risk to the public and/or security within prisons. Telephone monitoring is the action of listening to recordings of the content of intercepted telephone communications. Prison staff keep a record of which calls have been monitored. The interception described here is undertaken by the prison authorities under prison rules. It does not require authorisation by a Secretary of State under part I of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). Nor should it be confused with the directed surveillance class of authorisations under part II of RIPA, necessary for the conduct of covert eavesdropping in prison visiting rooms, which were the subject of the recent inquiry by the chief surveillance commissioner, Sir Christopher Rose, about which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department made a statement on 21 February 2008 (Official Report, col. 536). There is no suggestion that any legal visits to Mr Roberts were monitored.

The PIN phone system—so called because prisoners are given a personal identification number (PIN)—intercepts and records all telephone calls that prisoners make, except those identified by the prisoner as legally privileged or otherwise confidential communications (for example with the Samaritans). All intercepted telephone communications are recorded by the PIN system and initially stored on the hard drive of the system before being copied onto either a tape or CD for retention purposes. Only those prisoners who pose the greatest risk have all their communications monitored but all establishments will undertake an element of random monitoring of telephone communications of no more than 5 per cent. of calls made on a particular day. Prisoners are made aware during the induction process and by notices prominently displayed within the prison that their calls are intercepted, recorded and may be monitored.

The PIN phone system is configured in such a way that it does not intercept communications between a prisoner and their legal representative or other confidential communications provided that these numbers are declared as being confidential. This is what is termed the confidential side of the PIN system—it is not subject to interception. However, in very limited circumstances, for example where a prison governor or law enforcement agency has reasonable cause to believe that a telephone call between a prisoner and his legal adviser is of a criminal nature or would endanger prison security or the safety of others, the governor may authorise the interception, recording and monitoring of such conversations by moving the legal representative’s number from the confidential side of the PIN phone system to the open side, without the prisoner’s knowledge. Such communications will then be intercepted, and a member of staff will listen to them, for such period as is deemed necessary. There was no authorisation to intercept, record and monitor the legal telephone conversations between Mr Harry Roberts and his solicitor, Mr Creighton. For the future I have decided it is more appropriate, given the sensitivity and seriousness of interfering with legal professional privilege, to raise the grade for such interception of communications to the Chief Operating Officer for the National Offender Management Service. We will amend the prison rules accordingly.

The general position is that legal representatives’ numbers are included on the confidential side of the PIN system to ensure that calls are not intercepted and recorded, although a log is kept of the date and time of the call. However, it is the responsibility of prisoners to notify the prison authorities of the telephone numbers of their legal representatives, so that such calls are not inadvertently intercepted.

In the case of Mr Roberts, in the view of the Prison Service, the recording of his telephone conversations with his solicitor occurred because Mr Roberts failed to identify to staff at HMP Channings Wood the telephone number of Mr Creighton of Bhatt Murphy. This was established during the investigation commissioned by the then Deputy Director General of HM Prison Service. When the PIN phone system was introduced at HMP Channings Wood in 2002, all prisoners were told that they needed to identify the telephone numbers of their legal representatives by completing a form, so that those numbers could be entered on to the confidential part of the PIN system with calls to those numbers not intercepted. Mr Roberts states that he did identify the relevant number, but there is no evidence that he did so. There is no documentary evidence that he underwent the training to familiarise prisoners with the PIN system on its introduction. However, the Prison Service has confirmed that Mr Roberts would not have received a PIN number or have been able to transfer funds to his PIN phone account had he not undergone the training. In June 2006, a notice was issued to prisoners at Channings Wood reminding them of their obligations under Prison Service Order 4400 to list their legal telephone numbers, to which Mr Roberts did not respond. Consequently, whilst he was imprisoned at HMP Channings Wood, all of his calls to his solicitor were intercepted, recorded and could have been monitored. There is, however, no evidence that Prison Service staff at Channings Wood carried out any monitoring of these communications.

On 8 November 2005, for the purposes of a closed hearing of the Parole Board, my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, South (Mr. Clarke), the then Secretary of State for the Home Department, was directed by the board to obtain recordings of telephone calls for the period 1 October to 8 November 2005 made by Mr Roberts whilst he was at HMP Channings Wood, to enable further detailed consideration of his level of risk to specific individuals. This request was for recordings in general. It did not refer to calls with his solicitor, nor was it intended to cover such calls. Mr Roberts was represented at the closed hearing by a specially appointed advocate (SAA).

The lifer section in the National Offender Management Service obtained the recordings without themselves listening to, transcribing or reviewing them in any way and sent them to the Treasury solicitor, who was acting for the Secretary of State. Secretarial staff at the Treasury solicitor then made transcripts of the recordings. Due to the pressure of time in preparing for the parole hearing and the concern of the SAA to have the material as soon as possible, Treasury counsel and the Treasury solicitor agreed with the SAA that the transcripts and tapes of the recordings should be provided to the SAA as they became available and before they were reviewed.

In January 2006, when counsel for the Secretary of State discovered one transcript of a telephone conversation between Mr Roberts and Mr Creighton, she alerted the Treasury solicitor and the lifer section to the existence of the transcript, and advised that the transcript should not be reviewed. On further examination of the transcripts, two other transcripts of telephone conversations between Mr Roberts and Mr Creighton were discovered. All three transcripts were then deleted from the transcripts that the Secretary of State provided to the Parole Board. However, as a result of an oversight some copies of the transcripts were kept. The prison governor at Channings Wood was not made aware of the existence of this material.

At that time, the SAA was representing Mr Roberts in all matters relating to the closed proceedings and consequently there were no communications between the Treasury solicitor and Mr Creighton about matters relating to the closed hearing. As a result, a decision was taken by the Treasury solicitor not to tell Mr Creighton of the existence of the transcripts and tapes. However, the SAA was made aware of the existence of the transcripts and the SAA had the transcripts and tapes and would have been able to raise any concerns on Mr Roberts’ behalf, although he did not in fact do so.

On 8 January 2008, the Parole Board directed that the SAA send the papers to Mr Creighton for the purposes of a new parole hearing for Mr Roberts. As far as counsel and Treasury solicitor for the Secretary of State were concerned, the transcripts had been deleted from the Parole Board dossier and so were not part of the evidence for the closed hearing of the Parole Board and there was no reliance on the transcripts of legally privileged conversations for the purposes of the parole hearing. However, the SAA had both the tapes of the recordings and the undeleted transcripts and these were included in the papers sent to Mr Creighton.

The Treasury solicitor and Mr Creighton have exchanged correspondence about this matter. Mr Creighton wrote to the Treasury solicitor on 29 January. The Treasury solicitor replied on 28 February. Mr Creighton wrote a further letter on 4 March, and the Treasury solicitor replied on 25 March. Mr Creighton wrote a further letter on 1 April, and the Treasury solicitor replied on 14 May. Mr Creighton, on his client's behalf, disputes part of the account above. I am, therefore, with his agreement, placing the full correspondence in the Libraries of both Houses.

I would like to add for completeness that I learned on 25 February that Derbyshire constabulary also had in its possession a number of transcripts of legally privileged conversations between Mr Roberts and his legal advisers and that the chief constable had instigated an internal investigation. That investigation has now concluded. The recordings of telephone conversations obtained by Derbyshire constabulary were as a result of four applications under the prison rules to HMP Channings Wood for recordings of Mr Roberts’ conversations, which altogether covered the period 19 August 2005 to 8 October 2006. The investigation revealed that Derbyshire constabulary’s remit in this matter extended only to consideration of a possible risk that had arisen to sources of certain information which had been provided to the Parole Board and taking such action as was necessary and proportionate to mitigate that risk. The constabulary was not involved in any decision regarding Mr Roberts’ continued imprisonment. Derbyshire police were properly authorised to access Mr Roberts’ communications under the formal process agreed between HMPS and ACPO. Derbyshire police’s requirements were managed by the police intelligence officer at Channings Wood.

The investigation also found that it was only officers at detective constable level in Derbyshire constabulary that knew of the existence of the legally privileged material. Those officers then failed to inform or seek advice from their senior officers or the force solicitor. The officers involved have since received advice on legal professional privilege, and systems within the constabulary have been tightened more generally.

The chief constable of Derbyshire has provided assurance that the transcripts held by his constabulary were never used as evidence or intelligence, nor were they disseminated to any senior officer or partner agency. Derbyshire constabulary reacted promptly, comprehensively and openly once this issue was brought to its attention. Derbyshire constabulary has given an undertaking not to destroy any material relating to Mr Roberts, but in particular the transcripts of his telephone conversations, including legal conversations without the prior agreement of Mr Creighton and NOMS.

The report of the interception of communications commissioner for 2006 (HC 252) was laid before Parliament by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on 28 January 2008. NOMS continues to work closely with the interception of communications commissioner, who has non-statutory oversight of the interception of communications in prisons. NOMS will undertake a wide-ranging review of interception policy and procedures and an operational pilot of revised procedures. This review will consider the training needs of staff engaged in interceptions and whether further awareness is needed about the handling of legal professional privilege and other confidential material. I will make a further statement, should this be necessary.