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Written Statements

Volume 481: debated on Monday 20 October 2008

Written Ministerial Statements

Monday 20 October 2008

Health

NHS Operating Framework

The NHS Management Board met last week to discuss the Operating Framework and the NHS’s priorities for the coming years.

The Management Board noted that as a result of successive generous spending settlements and the excellent financial management across the NHS that has been achieved over the last few years, the NHS is on a firm financial footing for the years ahead.

While the NHS’s current financial position is settled for this spending review period, good financial planning means that the board needs to plan on a longer-term basis. This means looking to at least a five-year timeframe rather than just the next two years.

At the same time, a new funding formula and tariff calculations are being introduced. These are complex changes that the board decided needed to be refined further to enable robust financial planning in the NHS.

The NHS Management Board have therefore decided to delay publishing the Operating Framework in order for these changes to be properly worked through and to allow the necessary time to reach a view around the longer-term financial assumptions towards the end of the year.

Home Department

Justice and Home Affairs Council

The Justice and Home Affairs Council will be held on 24 October 2008 in Luxembourg. My noble Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Ministry of Justice (Lord Bach), the Scottish Minister for Community Safety (Fergus Ewing) and I will attend on behalf of the United Kingdom. As the provisional agenda stands, the following items will be discussed:

The Council will concentrate on interior and justice issues. The morning of the Council will focus on interior items, starting with the Mixed Committee also attended by Norway, Iceland and Switzerland. The presidency will give an update on the state of play of the second generation Schengen Information System (SIS II). The Council will then be asked to adopt the council decision and regulation published by the Commission on 16 April 2008 establishing the legal framework governing the migration from the Schengen Information System in its current form, SIS 1+, to SIS II. The UK is content to adopt the texts in their current form. The presidency will then request that member states approve the amending SISNET budget for 2008. The UK is content to approve the budget.

The presidency is seeking to agree Council conclusions on proposals to set up national alert platforms and a European platform for reporting offences on the internet. Europol is being invited to conduct an impact assessment with a view to establishing and then hosting the European platform. This platform would receive alerts on offences from the national platforms of the European Union’s member states. The UK is broadly supportive since the draft would enable us to rely on existing national platforms to feed the European platform.

The presidency is seeking to agree Council conclusions on the Principle of Convergence, which aims to improve EU police co-operation through a range of measures such as improved police training, better use of technology and equipment and joint investigation teams, where this can be seen to add value. The UK supports the initiative where it focuses on practical measures to enhance police co-operation.

The presidency has issued a paper to guide debate on West African drugs (cocaine) trafficking. Drug trafficking through West Africa causes harm to EU citizens, undermines the impact of regional EU development assistance, and undermines governance in the region. The UK believes that there needs to be an EU co-ordinated response to the threat and this is an excellent opportunity for us to steer that response.

The Council will discuss the Commission proposal on the use of passenger name records (PNR) data for law enforcement purposes, which restrict the processing of PNR data to flights between third countries and EU member states only for the purposes of counter-terrorism and combating organised crime. The UK wishes to see an EU level framework that sets a minimum level of harmonisation for the processing of PNR data, allowing member states to legislate domestically for additional collection and uses of PNR data. The Council will be asked to note progress on these issues and give a mandate for working group discussions to continue.

Ministers will be asked to agree the creation of a European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS). This proposal is designed to create a computerised conviction information exchange system between member states. The UK will support this as the arrangements will allow the system to function smoothly, enable the technical work to progress without unnecessary bureaucracy and ensure that member states maintain a sufficient degree of control.

The presidency will be seeking political agreement on the articles of the proposal for a Council regulation on jurisdiction, applicable law, recognition and enforcement of decisions and co-operation in maintenance obligations. It is planned that the recitals and standard forms will be agreed at the Council in November. As the UK did not opt in to this proposal we will have no vote. However, following the compromise on applicable law rules which was agreed to enable the UK to participate in the adopted regulation, we hope to be in a position to signify our wish to accept the measure under the terms of article 4 of the UK-Ireland protocol.

The Council will be asked to approve guidelines on the protection of vulnerable adults which encourage those member states that want to accede to the Hague convention of 13 January 2000 on the international protection of vulnerable adults to sign and/or ratify it as soon as possible and, once sufficient experience has been acquired in the operation of this convention, to invite the Commission to consider whether there is a need for additional measures at Community level. The Government support these guidelines. The UK has signed the Hague convention and has ratified it for Scotland. Ratification for the rest of the UK is to follow.

The Council will also be asked to agree a resolution for a set of non-binding guidelines on judicial training. The aim is to promote a better understanding among judges throughout the EU of European law, and the legal systems of other member states. There is a perception that, in some countries, established EU mechanisms of judicial co-operation are not being used in cases where they would assist, simply because the judges concerned are not aware of them. These guidelines recognise that Government are, in many countries, not themselves responsible for judicial training. They do not give rise to any obligations either on the Government or the judiciary.

The next JHA Council will take place on 27 and 28 November in Brussels.

Justice

Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements

The seventh annual Multi-Agency Public Protection Arrangements (MAPPA) reports are published today. The MAPPA bring together the Police, Probation and Prison Services in each of the 42 areas in England and Wales into what is known as the MAPPA “Responsible Authority”. Other agencies are under a duty to co-operate with the responsible authority; including social care, health, housing and education services.

The aim of MAPPA is to protect the public from the risks posed by serious and complex offenders, and they do this in two ways. First, by ensuring the production of risk management plans that benefit from the information, skills and resources provided by the individual agencies being co-ordinated through MAPPA. Secondly, by focusing multi-agency MAPPA management on the cases that need it most.

One of the most notable developments last year was the roll out of ViSOR, the Violent and Sex Offenders Register, to every probation area and every prison in England and Wales. This means that the Police, Prison and Probation Services, working together through MAPPA, have the same key information about offenders, including details of current risk management plans.

It is also clear that the MAPPA agencies are increasingly robust in dealing with non-compliance by these offenders, many of whom pose the highest risk of harm of all offenders under supervision. Offenders managed at MAPPA levels 2 and 3 are increasing likely to be recalled to prison for breaching sexual offences prevention orders, and registered sexual offenders more likely to be charged or cautioned for breaching the notification requirements.

These are the headlines but a great deal of work has gone on in the past 12 months to improve the way we manage dangerous offenders. Immediately after last year’s reports were published in October 2007, revised national MAPPA guidance was published. The new guidance incorporated the learning from the previous three years of research, case review and inspection findings and implemented seven of the recommendations of last year’s child sex offender review.

These included changes to formalise procedures for disclosing information about dangerous offenders to people outside of MAPPA where this is necessary to improve risk management plans. Section 140 of the Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008, which came into force in July, supports these procedural changes by requiring all 42 MAPPA responsible authorities to consider disclosure in all cases involving child sex offenders.

The annual reports describe how the arrangements work locally and include key public protection achievements in each of the 42 police and probation areas of England and Wales. They report on progress against local business plans, outline next year’s plans, and provide contact points for further information. They also provide statistical information on the number of offenders eligible for the MAPPA and how they are managed.

Copies of every area report are being made available to the Libraries of both Houses.

Transport

Blue Badge Scheme

The Blue Badge (Disabled Parking) Scheme provides a vital lifeline to 2.3 million disabled people in England. The value of the badge, in terms of independence cannot be understated, as 75 per cent. of badge holders say that they would go out less often without a badge.

Having listened to the views of badge holders, the general public and disability groups about how the scheme can be improved, I am today announcing the “Comprehensive Blue Badge (Disabled Parking) Reform Strategy England”. This strategy contains a suite of commitments that will be taken forward over the next five years, that are designed to radically reform the scheme in a manner that is right for the 21st century. Copies of the strategy have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses and are available from the Vote Office and Printed Paper Office.

I want to ensure that the maximum number of people, who have a genuinely severe disability, can benefit from the scheme. That is why the strategy contains a commitment to extend the scheme to people with certain significant temporary mobility problems (lasting at least one year,) individuals with severe mental impairments, seriously disabled veterans and more children, under three, with specific medical conditions.

Assessments will be made fairer and more consistent—local authorities will receive up to £15 million per year to conduct improved independent medical assessments.

We will explore options for improving the badge renewal process, from a customer perspective, for people with permanent and degenerative disabilities.

Nine local authorities have been awarded the status “Centre of Excellence” in administering and enforcing the scheme. They will receive £500,000 to share good practice and drive up improvements in management of the scheme with other local authorities.

We plan to enable local authorities to charge a badge application fee—which has remained unchanged at £2 since 1983—that is more appropriate to their costs.

Badge holders and motorists are particularly concerned about abuse of the scheme, through theft, forgery or borrowing of disabled badges by non-disabled people. I am committed to preventing this, and the strategy outlines a number of anti-abuse measures.

Up to £10 million will be provided to local authorities, over the next three years, so that they can establish a system of data-sharing to reduce fraudulent misuse of badges. The scope for on the spot seizure of badges being used unlawfully by non badge holders, will be examined. Badge security features will also be improved.

A range of communication activity will take place to highlight the blue badge reform strategy. This will include messages about the impact that abuse has on disabled people.

There is a commitment to support the British Retail Consortium in doing more to tackle disabled parking abuse in their members’ off-street car parks.

Relevant authorities in London will be asked to gather evidence to determine whether parking restrictions currently placed on badge holders visiting central London should be relaxed.

Once the domestic reforms are complete, greater foreign reciprocity of the badge will be explored.

I am also publishing today a summary of responses to the Department’s recent public consultation on the scheme, which will be placed in the House Libraries, and have formally responded to the Transport Select Committee Enquiry on the Blue Badge scheme.

Work and Pensions

Pensions Regulator Powers

My right hon. Friend Lord McKenzie of Luton has made the following statement:

On 25 April the Government published the consultation document “The Powers of the Pensions Regulator—Amendments to the Anti-avoidance Measures in the Pensions Act 2004”. The consultation was focused on proposals to amend the regulator’s powers to ensure that they remain adequate and appropriate to address new risks resulting from changes in the pensions market.

The Government’s main concern was the emergence of new business models, which have highlighted weaknesses in the current legislation and may reduce the security provided by the pension scheme’s sponsor employer. This may be detrimental to scheme members’ benefits, and have a cost consequence for the Pension Protection Fund (PPF), and those responsible for paying its levy.

The consultation closed on 20 June and I am pleased to announce that I am today placing copies of the Government’s response to this consultation, along with an impact assessment, in the Libraries of both Houses.

We have listened carefully to the concerns raised during the consultation and at the Lords Committee debate of the Pensions Bill; in particular that the substantive proposals should be on the face of the Bill, that they should not impact disproportionately on business, and that transactions previously cleared by the regulator should not be unpicked. The Government’s policy objective is to support those employers who choose to run defined benefit schemes and to minimise undue costs: it therefore made a commitment to refine its proposed legislation to address these serious considerations.

The Government response sets out our proposals to make proportionate changes to the regulator’s powers, without unduly inhibiting legitimate business activity. The Government have today tabled amendments to the Pensions Bill clauses tabled at Lords Committee to give effect to these changes in primary legislation.

The Government have undertaken further work with key stakeholders over the summer to improve the legislation and to ensure its application is appropriately circumscribed. The amendments are intended to strike the right balance between protecting scheme members under pensions legislation and ensuring that legitimate interests of employers and investors are not unduly inhibited. The Government are grateful for the wide range of input it has received.

The amendments we are tabling today provide greater certainty for the pensions industry, corporate organisations and other parties, with important controls and a requirement on the regulator to produce a statutory code of practice to target the use of the new material detriment test for contribution notices. The regulator has today published draft content for this code, which complements the legislation and provides a list of circumstances to further define the expected use of this new test.

The regulator is required to undertake a formal consultation on this code and anticipates that this will begin later in the year, subject to Parliament’s approval of the legislation.

The Government’s response will be available on the Department’s internet site later today (http://www.dwp.gov.uk/consultations/2008/), and the pensions regulator draft content for the code of practice will be available on the regulator’s internet page (http://www.tpr.gov.uk).