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Written Statements

Volume 485: debated on Wednesday 10 December 2008

Written Ministerial Statements

Wednesday 10 December 2008

Children, Schools and Families

The Play Strategy

Fun and exciting opportunities to play are at the heart of a happy, healthy and enjoyable childhood. Better outdoor play opportunities are good for children, good for families and good for communities.

Time and space to play safely is integral to delivering our children’s plan ambition to make England the best country in the world for children and young people to grow up in—it is vital to children’s physical, emotional, social and educational development.

Today, with the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, I am delighted to publish the first national play strategy for England, backed by the children’s plan investment of £235 million. This investment will mean that every residential area has a variety of high-quality places for all children to play safely, and free of charge.

An accelerated roll-out of our new investment will mean that children across the country will be able to benefit sooner from improved play sites, and £30 million due to be spent in 2010-11 will now be brought forward to 2009-10 as part of Government action to support the country during the economic downturn. This means that every local authority will have been offered at least £l million capital funding by April 2009, which they can begin spending in line with local plans and supported by our national delivery partner, Play England.

The strategy sets out in more detail how we will deliver our capital investment programme from 2008 to 2011 so that up to 3,500 new and refurbished play sites and 30 large staffed adventure playgrounds will be built to reflect the needs of children, parents and the local community.

The Government’s action is a direct response to demands from children, young people and their families for better play facilities in every area. In April, our “Fair Play” consultation set out an ambitious range of proposals to make a reality of our vision for world-class play opportunities.

This consultation attracted an overwhelming response, with 9,400 children and young people letting us know how they would like Government to support their play—12 per cent. of these responses came from disabled children, reinforcing the need to do even more to make sure that we make play accessible for all children, regardless of their circumstances.

The enthusiastic support for our proposals in the “Fair Play” consultation underpins the play strategy. The play strategy sets out Government’s commitment to:

put children and young people’s views at the heart of the design and development of local neighbourhoods—and their consultation as a central requirement of new investment in local play areas;

help local authorities deliver the exciting play spaces that children want;

inform parents and children about local play opportunities;

improve access for disabled children so that they can benefit fully from our investment in play facilities;

put in place clear requirements on school capital programmes around outdoor play and recreational spaces;

put children’s play needs at the heart of new residential and social housing developments;

ensure children are safe when they travel around and play in their neighbourhoods, including by working with the third sector and community policing to improve the supervision of children playing;

invest in the workforce who support and supervise play—enabling 4,000 playworkers to achieve a level 3 play work qualification by 2011;

invest £1.5 million in third sector-run adventure playgrounds and provide funding to help build third sector infrastructure; and

introduce a new national indicator for play from 2009 for local authorities, which will measure children satisfaction with parks and play areas.

The first new outdoor play areas are already being built across the country. We want to maintain this momentum, making sure that every local authority works to improve levels of satisfaction that communities have with their local provision.

As a result of our investment and the implementation of this play strategy, led locally by children’s trusts, we want at least 100,000 more children to tell us every year that their local play areas and parks are good or very good. Increasing levels of satisfaction in every local authority will show us that we are successful in developing more child-friendly communities, which value children’s play and provide better environments for children and young people to enjoy.

We know that we can only achieve our vision for play in 2020 by working in partnership with local and national delivery partners, including the third sector, and by putting children, young people and their parents at the heart of the design and development of neighbourhood provision.

We hope to build on the huge interest and engagement with our consultation earlier this year to deliver the improvement in local facilities that every family wants.

Communities and Local Government

Disabled Facilities Grant

The Government are today announcing the local authority allocations for the Disabled Facilities Grant programme, making available £157 million for the Disabled Facilities Grant programme in England for 2009-10, an increase of 7 per cent. on the amount for 2008-09. Over 230 local authorities will receive an increase in their allocation. A table detailing the funds provided to individual authorities has been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

The Disabled Facilities Grant programme has seen successive increases in funding in recent years, increasing from £57 million in 1997 to £146 million in 2008-09. The Disabled Facilities Grant programme helps around 37,000 disabled and older people each year to live as comfortably and independently as possible in their own homes through the provision of adaptations. The Disabled Facilities Grant programme provides mandatory grants for housing adaptations including improving access to a home and to the basic facilities within a home such as the provision of ramps, door widening, stair lifts and level access showers.

Following publication in the summer of “The Nation’s Commitment: Cross-Government Support to our Armed Forces, their Families and Veterans” (Cm 7424), we have now changed the Disabled Facilities Grant regulations in order to help the most severely disabled ex-service personnel by disregarding Ministry of Defence compensation schemes from the Disabled Facilities Grant financial test. This is in recognition of the unique contribution service personnel make to society. The change will come into force on 31 December 2008.

Local authorities are being informed of their individual allocations. Details of the amount awarded to each authority will be available on the CLG website.

Culture, Media and Sport

Listed Events (Review)

I have today appointed David Davies OBE as the independent Chairman to carry out a review of the listed events regime and to make recommendations to me about the future and content of the UK’s list. The Chairman will lead an advisory group, whose membership will be broadly drawn and include sporting, broadcasting and wider business expertise. The group will also have a perspective from the devolved nations. The Chairman and advisory group will be supported by a project team within my Department.

I have agreed that the review should cover three main areas:

The principle of having a list;

The criteria against which events may be listed; and

The content of any list itself.

The review process will include consultation with broadcasters, rights holders and the public as appropriate. The review will also take account of relevant research.

The advisory group will bring forward recommendations to me in the second half of next year.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Food Security

In July of this year, I published a discussion paper entitled “Ensuring UK Food Security in a Changing World”. I wanted to start a debate on the long-term challenges to our food security such as climate change, increased demand—particularly for some foods—and the energy dependence of our food supply. I also wanted to assess the impact of shorter term issues, including export bans and rises in commodity prices, that are in part a consequence of these same challenges.

Annual food price inflation has now decreased from a peak of 14.5 per cent. in August 2008 to 11.2 per cent. in November. We expect it to continue to decline over the coming months, reflecting the falls we have seen in oil and commodity prices. The UK feed wheat price currently stands at £88 per tonne, less than half the peak of £185 back in March. Pig prices have edged down over recent weeks, where the change in the value of sterling continues to offset the impact of declining wider EU market prices, whilst cattle and sheep prices have remained relatively level. The average farm gate milk price in September—the latest month for which figures are available—was 27 per litre, 17 per cent. higher than a year earlier, but we have seen price falls in many dairy commodity markets over recent months. The proportion of income spent on food by the UK’s poorest 20 per cent. went up from 15.5 per cent. to 16.5 per cent. at the peak of food price inflation and is not likely to have changed substantially since July. We are doing further work to see what this has meant for food purchasing decisions.

We received over 100 written responses to July’s paper and held three workshops. It was clear that many people, from producers to retailers and consumers, feel strongly about agriculture and food. A wide range of views were expressed ranging from support for intensive farming to calls for a radical rethinking about the relationship between traditional agricultural inputs and the food we produce. Issues raised included landscapes, water, food distribution, agricultural research, nutrition, and skills in farming and food sciences.

Many of those responding agreed that we should not base our food security policy on the pursuit of self-sufficiency, and the debate has shifted to a broader discussion of the complex factors that contribute to our food security. Twenty six countries—including our own—provide 90 per cent. of our food consumption, with the majority coming from other EU countries. In addition, inputs to food production such as oil, fertiliser and feed, are globally traded commodities. Trade with developing countries is also important, and respondents agreed that the Government needed to continue to pursue both radical CAP reform, and an agreement from the current Doha trade round. Nonetheless, UK production does—and will in the future—provide an important contribution to our food supply, which varies widely across sectors, from 10 per cent. in fruit, to over 100 per cent. in cereals.

As a result of all the comments we have had on our discussion paper, it seems clear that food security is most usefully looked at in terms of the resilience of our food supply chains, access to safe, nutritious, affordable and diverse foods, and ensuring the long-term environmental sustainability of the food and farming sector. Our agri-food sector, from farm gate to retail is hugely important. It is worth £79 billion and employs 3.7 million people.

I am today announcing that the membership of The Council of Food Policy Advisers, which I have established to support our work on food security, affordability and sustainability, under the Chairmanship of Dame Suzi Leather, will be:

Sir Don Curry

Sue Davies, MBE

Professor Elizabeth Dowler

Professor Gareth Edwards-Jones

lain Ferguson, CBE

Paul Kelly

Professor Tim Lang

Guy McCracken

Claire Pritchard

Dame Fiona Reynolds

Geetie Singh

Tim Smith

Stefan Tangermann

Additional members will be announced later.

I will ask the council to advise on what may be necessary in future to ensure that we have a secure and sustainable food system in the UK. I will also invite the council to examine the draft indicators for food security that DEFRA has been developing in the light of the responses we have had. We will continue to work with stakeholders as we develop these and consider broader risks to our food security.

The UK’s food security is strongly linked to global food security. The Foresight project on the future of food and farming, conducted by the Government’s chief scientific adviser, Professor John Beddington, is looking to 2050 and examining how we will feed a global population of 9 billion healthily, equitably, and sustainably, and what implications this has for UK policy.

Part of the answer lies in promoting environmentally sustainable agriculture throughout the world. The Government will continue to support this, drawing on domestic and international research and expertise including this year’s International agricultural assessment headed by Professor Bob Watson, DEFRA’s chief scientific adviser.

In addition, the Government will continue to press for the establishment of a Global Partnership For Agriculture And Food Security (GPAFS). GPAFS will bring together Governments, international institutions and civil society to help develop national and international plans for agriculture, food security and nutrition and support increased sustainable agricultural production.

I also welcome the EFRA Select Committee’s announcement that they will be holding an inquiry into the strengths and weaknesses of the UK food system, and the opportunities and challenges the country faces in responding to the global demand for increased food production. DEFRA looks forward to submitting evidence.

The Government are committed to ensuring sustainable food security in the face of climate change and a rapidly increasing global population. To do so will require leadership in the UK, co-operation with other countries and a transformation in our international institutions. I will update the House as this work develops.

Innovation, Universities and Skills

EU Education Council

I represented the UK at the Education Council, on behalf of DIUS and DCSF.

Summary

The council adopted resolutions on multilingualism and on lifelong guidance. The Council also agreed conclusions on co-operation on schools; vocational education and training; and youth mobility. The texts of all the dossiers adopted are in line with UK national priorities.

Council

A resolution was adopted on multilingualism which recognises the value of multilingualism both in terms of personal development and to the economy. The UK agrees with these overall goals, but has worked to ensure that the definition of multilingualism is as wide as possible, including world languages and less widely used European languages.

Ministers agreed conclusions on enhanced co-operation in vocational education and training.

These conclusions form the latest review of the Copenhagen process which was designed to improve European co-operation on vocational education and training. Commissioner Figel noted that their communication “New Skills for New Jobs”, to be published on 16 December, would have a key role to play in linking vocational education and training to the labour market.

A resolution was adopted on guidance in lifelong learning. This resolution aims to strengthen the role of guidance within countries’ national lifelong learning strategies and to strengthen European co-operation in this field. A ministerial debate flagged the wide range of approaches underway in different countries. I highlighted the new Apprenticeships Bill and the adult advancement and careers service as examples of the work the UK is doing.

Ministers adopted conclusions on European co-operation on schools, which propose areas of focus for future co-operation at a European level on schools through the open method of co-ordination. The conclusions acknowledge that the responsibility for organising school systems and education policy lies entirely with member states. All who spoke welcomed the text and agreed that, although this was an area of member state competence, the EU had a useful co-ordination role in helping countries to meet their 2010 goals in education and training under the Lisbon strategy. By the end of this year, the commission would also publish their draft priorities in the area of education and training for the period up to 2020.

Ministers adopted conclusions on youth mobility, which seek to increase the numbers of young people spending a period of time abroad through undertaking part of their studies participating in EU mobility programmes. Ministers discussed the importance of mobility both for the development of individuals and also for the labour market. I highlighted our increasing numbers of Erasmus participants, the aim to widen participation to less advantaged groups, and the increased language learning among teachers.

The presidency presented updates on the adoption of a new credit system in vocational training, quality assurance in vocational training, and the next phase of the Erasmus Mundus programme. The Commission presented information on the Europa diary; learning to learn; collaborative working with India and Israel; and on the Euroskills event held in Rotterdam in September. Portugal and Poland announced their bids to host the 2010 Euroskills event. I welcomed the Rotterdam event and noted that we would host Worldskills in London in 2011. The Czech Minister presented the Czech Republic’s presidency priorities in the field of education. These comprised the future strategy in education and training post-2010; encouraging partnerships between education and employers; and pressing for progress in higher education via the Bologna process.

EU Informal Meeting (Bordeaux)

The meeting was chaired by the French Minister for Education, Xavier Darcos. Win Harris, director of the DCSF/DIUS/DWP Joint International Unit represented the UK. The meeting focused on co-operation in vocational education and training for 2008-10.

Ministers adopted the Bordeaux Communiqué which laid out the vocational training objectives for Europe up to 2010. Based on conclusions adopted at the 21 November Education Council, it outlines four priorities in this field:

implementing the European Credit System for Vocational Education and Training (ECVET), together with the future European Quality Assurance Reference Framework;

attracting students into vocational training;

improving links between vocational training and the labour market;

improving European co-operation in this field, in particular by increasing peer-learning activities.

The full Communiqué is available at: http://ec.europa.eu/education/news/newsl087_en.htm

Ministers noted the “Copenhagen process” launched in 2002 had resulted in the development of the tools outlined in the communiqué. Such tools enabled comparability of vocational education qualifications, and flexible learning through credit transfer. As a consequence, many education systems now measured learning outcomes rather than inputs, and the numbers of vocational education students were rising.

An exchange of views on future skills requirements in Europe highlighted the challenges of long-term changes to employment structures, the increased mobility of individuals, and demographic change. Better anticipation of skills needs would allow both education systems and employers to respond effectively to the needs of the labour market.

The afternoon session of the meeting was chaired by Valérie Pecrésse, French Minister for Higher Education. Following discussion, Ministers endorsed the European Universities Association’s “Charter on Lifelong Learning”—a publication outlining ideas for universities and Governments to increase universities’ contribution to lifelong learning.

Justice

Persistent Young Offenders

The PYO pledge was one of the Government’s key manifesto commitments in 1997. Not only has it succeeded in demonstrating to persistent young offenders that their behaviour has consequences and those consequences follow quickly, but it has also improved the effectiveness and efficiency of criminal justice agencies in working together to tackle young offenders. In 1997 the average time from arrest to sentence for persistent young offenders was 142 days. We have bettered our pledge to halve the average time from arrest to sentence to 71 days and in 2007 we achieved 65 days, the lowest annual figure since the pledge was introduced in 1997.

The pledge was the first cross-criminal justice system target, and has been an excellent catalyst in bringing criminal justice agencies together to ensure that PYOs are dealt with expeditiously. Alongside the pledge, the criminal justice system is now delivering on a wide range of performance indicators and public service agreement commitments, such as increasing the proportion of serious offences brought to justice and improving public confidence in the criminal justice system.

We now want to build on the success of the pledge by concentrating on the most high-risk youth offenders. The PYO pledge focused on young, prolific offenders, but only after they had been convicted three times. We do not want to wait until a young offender receives multiple convictions before deciding that they are a priority for the attention of criminal justice agencies. We made clear in the “Youth Crime Action Plan” published earlier this year that the priority for the criminal justice system is to target those young people most at risk of offending. The success of the PYO pledge means that we will start from a strong position that should ensure that the benefits gained in terms of speed through the system and cross-agency working will not be lost.

From next year, we will be asking criminal justice agencies to focus their efforts on a single priority group of young offenders deemed to pose the highest risk. The group will be identified locally by youth offending teams who will determine who should be targeted under the area’s prolific and priority offender programme. These offenders will be prioritised through the criminal justice process, with the application of a premium service by the agencies, and in terms of sentencing interventions. This new approach to addressing youth offending behaviour will be supported by performance measures focused on reducing the reoffending of this group, and on improving their timeliness through the criminal justice system. The reoffending measure will enable us to monitor performance on reducing the rate of reoffending (by comparing rates of reoffending as measured by recorded convictions). The timeliness measure will enable monitoring, of the time through the system from arrest to conclusion (whether in the youth court or the Crown court). To supplement these performance measures, we will also use the Ministry of Justice’s time intervals survey to monitor expected improvements in timeliness of all youth cases through youth courts, as a result of the recent introduction of the criminal justice simple, speedy, summary initiative in youth courts.

This new approach means that for the first time, we will be targeting the combined efforts of the criminal justice agencies in a more holistic way on managing the offending of a common group of priority young offenders with an explicit focus on reducing their reoffending. The new approach will ensure the engagement of a wider partnership of agencies, both within and outside the criminal justice system, in working with and prioritising these young people, the continuation of interventions beyond the end of their time in the youth justice system, and a managed transition to adult services as they turn 18.

The Office for Criminal Justice Reform will monitor and report on performance both in terms of reoffending and timeliness, and will support and challenge the 42 local criminal justice boards which have responsibility for delivering the new approach. It will agree local levels of ambition with them, consistent with the performance management approach adopted across the wider “Justice for All” public service agreement 24 target as a whole.

I am therefore, today, announcing the conclusion of the Persistent Young Offenders (PYO) Pledge from the end of December 2008, and the plans we have to continue to deal with those young offenders whose behaviour causes the greatest damage and distress to law-abiding citizens.

Corsten Report (Government Response)

The Government’s response to the report by Baroness Corston of “A Review of Women with Particular Vulnerabilities in the Criminal Justice System” (Cm 7261) was published on 6 December 2007. This was followed by a written ministerial statement and a progress report I issued on 24 June 2008 (Official Report, Col. 7WS) outlining developments made over the last six months.

A year on since the Government’s response was published, I am today updating Parliament and publishing a report on significant progress made since June 2008, detailing our continued commitment to bring about real improvements for women offenders. I have placed copies of the progress report in the Libraries of both Houses. Copies are also available in the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office.

My new role as Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Government Equalities Office alongside my continued role with the Ministry of Justice has created further synergies to strengthen the cross-Government joint working that is fundamental to the success of this agenda. I am pleased to report on the significant actions which we have been able to deliver against the commitments made in the Government’s response and the wider work we are undertaking to take this agenda further forward beyond the Corston commitments:

The Ministry of Justice is committed to providing additional resourcing in the new year to divert vulnerable women who are not serious or dangerous offenders from custody. We plan to reduce the number of women in prison and to provide additional services in the community for women offenders and women at risk of offending. The resources will be used to build capacity of one-stop shop services and to develop further bail support services better to meet the needs of women. Baroness Corston was convinced that one-stop shop services delivered through women’s centres provide the radical new women-centred approach her review called for. The Ministry of Justice has been working with regional offender managers—and directors of offender management—as well as the Griffins Society to map existing provision and develop a picture of where there is potential to develop capacity. It is proposed to invest in existing third sector providers to enable them to work with courts, police, probation and other statutory agencies to provide support and services to vulnerable women in the criminal justice system.

Pilots on a conditional caution specifically for women developed in joint co-operation between the Government, local police, prosecutors and “Together Women” centres—presenting a chance for diversion at an early stage—were launched in September 2008. The pilots are running in Leeds, Bradford, Keighley and Liverpool for a period of six months and early indications are positive. The condition attached to the caution commits the woman to attend a “Together Women” centre for a full needs assessment, providing them with an opportunity to address the causes of their offending.

Following successful pilots, using the new model women's full search, the National Offender Management Service is now implementing the introduction of the new arrangements for full searching—as set out in Prison Service Instruction 38/2008—in all women’s prisons. The new arrangements do not require the removal of underwear unless there is intelligence or suspicion at any stage that an item is concealed. To date this has taken place at HMP Downview, HMP Send, HMP Morton Hall, HMP Styal, HMP East Sutton Park, HMP Peterborough, HMP Bronzefield and HMP New Hall. All women’s prisons will be on stream by 1 April 2009.

In October 2008 a probation circular providing guidance for greater use of female approved premises was issued. This encourages greater use of capacity in female premises by introducing flexibility into the admissions criteria to include women who may not necessarily present a high risk of harm to others. Such women could also benefit from the supervised, structured and supportive environment available. We are expecting to see an increase in numbers of women accessing them in the near future.

In July 2008 the independent Sentencing Advisory Panel published its consultation paper on the overarching principles of sentencing. The panel was asked by the Sentencing Guidelines Council to review the definitive guidelines “Overarching Principles: Seriousness and New Sentences: Criminal Justice Act 2003”. The consultation paper contains an important discussion of the principles of sentencing of women offenders. Further work needs to be done to understand current sentencing practice but we welcome the steps the panel has taken.

Lord Bradley's review into the diversion of offenders with mental health problems or learning disabilities is due to report to Government early in the new year. The review considers women offenders and the ongoing programme of work from the Corston report has formed part of the evidence Lord Bradley is considering. The Government welcome Lord Bradley’s review and accepted recommendations will be taken forward in the offender health and social care strategy, currently being developed by Government for publication in the summer.

The cross-departmental criminal justice women’s strategy unit now includes representatives from the Attorney-General’s Office, Government Equalities Office and the Department of Health, and we are continuing to negotiate with other Departments to contribute resources. The unit informs the work of the ministerial sub-group on implementation of the Government's response to Corston; which has recently expanded its membership to include Ministers from both the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and Department for Children, Schools and Families.

Northern Ireland

National Security (First Annual Report)

The Government have received and welcomed the first annual report of Lord Carlile of Berriew on the operation of arrangements for handling national security matters in Northern Ireland.

The report finds the operation of arrangements to be working effectively, and Lord Carlile is confident there will be no diminution of national security in Northern Ireland.

Consistent with his terms of reference, the report was submitted to both the Home Secretary and to me.

The Home Secretary and I welcome the content of this report which I am today bringing before Parliament. I have placed copies in the House Library.

Transport

Local Transport Act 2008

The effect of section 47 of, and Schedule 3 to, the Local Transport Act 2008 is to empower the Secretary of State to make regulations establishing a new regime for the impounding of certain public service vehicles operated without a valid operator’s licence. These provisions were included in response to a recommendation of the House of Commons Transport Committee in its pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Bill.

The Vehicle and Operator Services Agency (VOSA) is today publishing a consultation which sets out the Government’s detailed proposals for this new regime, including draft regulations. The proposals build on the existing goods vehicle impounding regime, which has helped to deter illegal operation in that sector. They should support the Government’s road safety objectives, as well as reducing unfair competition for legitimate operators. Comments are invited from all interested parties, and the consultation will close on 31 March 2009.

Copies of the consultation paper, draft regulations and a consultation-stage impact assessment will be available on the Department for Transport’s website at: www.dft.gov.uk, and copies are available in the Library of the House.