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Written Statements

Volume 486: debated on Wednesday 21 January 2009

Written Ministerial Statements

Wednesday 21 January 2009

Communities and Local Government

Local Government Finance

I have today laid before the House two reports.

The first is the Local Government Finance Report (England) 2009-10. This report establishes the amounts of revenue support grant (RSG) and non-domestic rates (NDR) to be paid to local authorities in 2009-10, and the basis of their distribution. A draft of this report was issued for consultation on 26 November 2008.

The second report is the Limitation of Council Tax and Precepts (Alternative Notional Amounts) Report (England) 2009-10. This sets out the alternative notional amounts for the nine restructuring authorities which will be established on 1 April 2009. This report provides 2008-09 budget requirement figures for these authorities that can be used as a comparison in the event that the Government use our capping powers. A draft of this report was also issued for consultation on 26 November 2008 alongside the finance settlement, on which we received just one response from a restructuring authority, which confirmed its agreement with the figure in the report for its alternative notional amount.

On the settlement, we received a total of 109 written responses from 107 individual authorities, MPs, and formal and informal groupings of authorities. Ministers met delegations from the Local Government Association, London councils, and groups representative of county councils, shire districts and fire and rescue authorities. Having considered the views of the local authority associations and others who have commented on the provisional settlement, I have decided to confirm my proposals for the distribution of the 2009-10 local government grant and for the alternative notional amounts in relation to the financial year beginning 1 April 2009.

The final figures published today for 2009-10 confirm those originally published with the 2008-09 settlement in January 2008. In line with Government’s policy on multi-year settlements, it has always been clear that the settlement for 2009-10, as the second year of a three-year settlement, would not be changed from that previously published other than in exceptional circumstances. Having fully considered all the representations received during consultation I have not found such exceptional circumstances.

This settlement represents a continued real-terms increase in investment in local government, which will allow authorities to continue to deliver improving services at an affordable cost. Total formula grant for 2009-10 will be £780 million or 2.8 per cent. higher than in 2008-09 on a like-for-like basis. Specific grants, such as the dedicated schools grant, are on top of these figures and bring the total increase in funding for local authorities to 4.2 per cent. in 2009-10. In the 10 years up to 2007-08 we have increased total Government grant by 39 per cent. in real terms, with an above inflation increase for local government in each and every one of those years. There will be a further total increase over this three-year settlement of £8.9 billion.

Given this substantial rise in investment in local government over more than a decade, there can be no excuse for excessive council tax increases. I have made clear and I repeat today—that the Government expect the average council tax increase in 2009-10 to be substantially below 5 per cent.. We had to take capping action in 2008-09. If necessary, we will do so again in 2009-10 to protect council tax payers if they are faced with excessive increases. No authority should be in any doubt about the Government’s resolve in this matter, particularly during this period of economic downturn, including requiring authorities to re-bill if necessary.

I shall be sending copies of the Local Government Finance Report to all local authorities in England and making available full supporting information on the Communities and Local Government website at: http://www.local.communities.gov.uk/finance/0910/grant.htm.

I have placed copies of the reports and related tables showing each authority’s allocation of formula grant and other supporting material in the Vote Office and the Library of the House.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Sri Lanka

The Government have long- standing concerns with the promotion of peace in Sri Lanka, where the conflict has claimed at least 70,000 lives during the past 26 years. We are now at an important moment.

Since its abrogation in January 2008 of the 2002 Ceasefire Agreement, the Sri Lankan Government have embarked on a policy of militarily defeating the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). In recent months the Government have made significant military gains, including the capture of Kilinochchi, the former administrative centre of the LTTE in the north, and the capture of remaining rebel territory in the Jaffna peninsula. These gains make progress on a political solution even more urgent. The LTTE is a proscribed terrorist organisation with no democratic mandate to represent the Tamil people. It is responsible for a terrorist campaign that has targeted innocent civilians across all communities in Sri Lanka over the past three decades.

Thousands of lives have been lost since the renewal of open hostilities in 2006. We recognise the Government of Sri Lanka’s need to root out terrorism. It also has a responsibility to safeguard the rights of all its citizens and adequately to address their political concerns. Our consistent position remains that for peace to be sustainable, an inclusive political process that takes fully into account the legitimate concerns of all Sri Lankan communities—Sinhalese, Tamil and Muslim—is essential. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said, we must see an end to the conflict and new drive for a lasting political solution. We continue to engage with all political parties across all communities in Sri Lanka to support progress in this direction.

We are deeply concerned by the humanitarian situation in Sri Lanka and the growing number of internally displaced persons (IDPs). My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke about this issue with President Rajapakse when they met last September and we continue to raise our concern at senior levels. The UN estimates that 200,000-300,000 IDPs remain in the conflict area. Although there have been convoys providing basic humanitarian assistance, there are credible reports that these supplies are inadequate. The military gains by the Sri Lankan armed forces have resulted in these IDPs being squeezed into an ever-decreasing space. Further deterioration in the situation would mean acute humanitarian need and distress.

Following on from a Department for International Development (DFID) mission in September 2008, we will be sending a DFID humanitarian expert in the coming weeks to try to assess the situation and to report on the distribution of £2.5 million in humanitarian funding that we have committed to assist IDPs in northern Sri Lanka. In co-ordination with international organisations on the ground, we have urged all parties to abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law, in particular the need to ensure the safety of civilians, to allow their free movement and to enhance access for humanitarian agencies to facilitate the delivery of adequate supplies of humanitarian aid. Safe passage for civilians wanting to escape the hostilities should be guaranteed by all parties and safe humanitarian space provided for them. We believe that a full independent assessment of the IDPs’ humanitarian needs is essential. Such an assessment would be a powerful demonstration that everything that can be done is being done to support these vulnerable people. We will continue to press on these matters.

Recent weeks have seen a considerable number of high profile attacks on media freedom in Sri Lanka. We condemn such brazen attacks. Of particular concern was the murder on 8 January of the Chief Editor of the Sunday Leader newspaper, Lasantha Wickrematunge. The Sri Lankan authorities have a duty to take prompt action to ensure a thorough and independent investigation is carried out. Those responsible must be held to account. The lack of progress in securing convictions for such cases indicates that urgent action is needed.

There continue to be reports of abductions, disappearances and acts of violence and intimidation in Sri Lanka. Without strong mechanisms for independent human rights reporting, it is difficult to assess the true scope of the problem. We consistently call upon the Government of Sri Lanka to take decisive action to tackle human rights abuses, including by taking action against those responsible for violations. Creating an environment in which people from all communities in Sri Lanka live without fear is essential to creating the conditions for a sustainable end to the conflict. The recent commitments by militias on release of child soldiers and disarmament following our lobbying are welcome steps that need to be followed through.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has written to President Rajapakse to express our concerns.

Health

NHS Constitution for England

Lord Darzi’s review of the NHS, “High Quality Care for All”, concluded that there was a case for a constitution to enshrine the principles and values of the NHS in England. A draft constitution based on extensive evidence and research with public, patients and staff was published for consultation on 30 June 2008. The consultation process was led by strategic health authorities and overseen by a group of experts on the Constitutional Advisory forum. Consultation events for patients, the public and staff were held in each primary care trust and the outcomes fed back to the strategic health authorities and then the Constitutional Advisory Forum. The Department also received over 1,000 direct responses to the consultation, which closed on 17 October 2008.

The NHS values, which form part of the constitution, were developed separately and were the subject of extensive engagement with staff, patients and the public.

The Constitutional Advisory Forum published its report on 11 December, emphasising that the response to the consultation had been overwhelmingly positive, with a broad consensus in favour of an NHS constitution. They made a series of recommendations on how to improve the document and on how to embed it in the NHS. The Department has responded to these recommendations and to the responses to the consultation in the Government response, published today and placed in the Library.

The final NHS Constitution for England, which has been placed in the Library, is an enduring document that sets out the principles and values of the NHS and for the first time brings into one place NHS pledges and the rights and responsibilities of patients, the public and staff.

As a result of the consultation, the NHS Constitution contains a new right to receive the vaccinations that the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation recommends under an NHS-provided national immunisation programme. The new right to choice has also been extended to include a right to information to support that choice. This currently means that any person requiring an elective referral may choose any clinically appropriate secondary care provider for their first consultant-led outpatient appointment and has a right to information to support that choice.

The new legal rights in the NHS Constitution will be created through separate regulations and directions, which are due to come into force on 1 April. Regulations on the right to receive vaccinations have been laid today. Directions on the right to choice and draft directions underpinning the right to rational local decisions on drugs and other treatments have also been published today.

The Health Bill, published on 16 January, provides for a legal duty on all NHS bodies and independent contractors providing NHS services to have regard to the NHS Constitution in their decisions and actions. The Bill also requires the NHS Constitution to be reviewed at least every 10 years following full consultation.

Also published today are the handbook to the NHS Constitution and a statement of NHS accountability, both of which have been placed in the Library. The handbook to the NHS Constitution is designed to give NHS staff and patients all the more detailed information they need. It explains what the rights, pledges and responsibilities mean and explains what to do if rights are not met or pledges are not upheld. It also explains the legal basis of each right.

The consultation on the NHS Constitution asked whether the Government should produce a statement of NHS accountability. The response was highly positive. The Statement of NHS Accountability is a public-facing document, which describes the system of responsibility and accountability for taking decisions in the NHS and provides a summary of the structure and functions of the NHS in England. The NHS Constitution commits the Government always to make available an up-to-date statement of accountability in the future.

An impact assessment on the NHS Constitution has also been published today and a copy placed in the Library of the House.

Home Department

Police Grants (England and Wales) 2009-10

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has today laid before the House the Police Grant Report (England and Wales) 2009-10 (HC 148). The report sets out my right hon. Friend’s, determination for 2009-10 of the aggregate amount of grants that she proposes to pay under section 46(2) of the Police Act 1996, and the amount to be paid to the Greater London Authority for the Metropolitan Police Authority.

General police grant allocations, which include Home Office Police Grant and Department for Communities and Local Government/Welsh Assembly Government General Grant for each police authority for 2009-10 are set out in the table.

General Police Grant Allocations for English and Welsh Police Authorities 2009-10

Police Authority

2008-09

2009-10

Change on

Formula Allocation 1

Allocation 1

2008-09 Formula Allocation

£m

£m

%

English Shire Authorities

Avon and Somerset

173.7

179.7

3.5%

Bedfordshire

68.5

70.8

3.3%

Cambridgeshire

78.7

81.0

3.0%

Cheshire

117.6

120.5

2.5%

Cleveland

95.3

97.7

2.5%

Cumbria

65.6

67.2

2.5%

Derbyshire

109.2

112.6

3.2%

Devon and Cornwall

181.9

186.4

2.5%

Dorset

63.7

65.3

2.5%

Durham

89.2

91.4

2.5%

Essex

173.0

177.9

2.8%

Gloucestershire

57.8

59.3

2.5%

Hampshire

202.2

207.5

2.6%

Hertfordshire

117.7

121.1

3.0%

Humberside

125.1

128.4

2.6%

Kent

187.2

192.1

2.7%

Lancashire

198.8

204.1

2.7%

Leicestershire

114.7

118.0

2.9%

Lincolnshire

62.3

64.3

3.1%

Norfolk

85.4

87.6

2.5%

North Yorkshire

74.8

76.7

2.5%

Northamptonshire

73.5

75.5

2.6%

Nottinghamshire

136.9

141.4

3.3%

Staffordshire

117.4

120.6

2.7%

Suffolk

69.2

71.0

2.5%

Surrey

99.3

101.8

2.5%

Sussex

165.7

169.8

2.5%

Thames Valley

231.9

238.2

2.7%

Warwickshire

52.8

54.1

2.6%

West Mercia

118.9

121.8

2.5%

Wiltshire

63.6

65.2

2.5%

Shires Total

3571.3

3669.0

2.7%

English Metropolitan Authorities

Greater Manchester

445.6

458.9

3.0%

Merseyside

260.6

267.4

2.6%

Northumbria

243.8

249.9

2.5%

South Yorkshire

199.1

204.1

2.5%

West Midlands

468.0

486.1

3.9%

West Yorkshire

328.2

339.2

3.4%

Mets Total

1945.4

2005.7

3.1%

London Authorities

GLA – Police

1930.0

1978.3

2.5%

City of London2

20.2

21.0

N/A

English Total

7466.9

7674.0

2.8%

Welsh Authorities

Dyfed-Powys3

53.1

54.4

2.5%

Gwent3

80.6

82.6

2.5%

North Wales3

78.2

80.1

2.5%

South Wales3

176.7

181.5

2.7%

Welsh Total

388.6

398.6

2.6%

Total

7855.5

8072.6

2.8%

Notes

1 Rounded to the nearest £100,000. Grant as calculated under the Local Government Finance Report (England) and Local Government Finance (No.2—Provisional Settlement Police Authorities) Report (Wales). Table includes the effects of floors and scaling. 2 Figures for the City of London relate to Home Office Grant only as calculated in the Police Grant Report (England and Wales). Revenue Support Grant is allocated to the Common Council of the City of London as a whole in respect of all its functions. The City is grouped with education authorities for the purposes of floors.

3 Welsh figures include Home Office floor funding.

Northern Ireland

Omagh Bombing

In the town of Omagh on 15 August 1998, a criminal terrorist group known as the Real IRA (RIRA) detonated a 500 lb bomb in a car, after issuing warnings which were clearly misleading and resulted in compounding the number of deaths. RIRA murdered 29 men, women and children and two unborn babies.

To date, despite the efforts of then Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) and now Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and the Garda Siochana, only one person has been convicted on a charge of conspiracy to cause an explosion. This conviction was overturned on appeal in the Dublin Court of Criminal Appeal.

The Government understand that because no one has yet been brought to justice for this heinous crime the pain and grief continues to compound for those who suffered so much.

The events around 15 August 1998 have rightly been the subject of media coverage and understandably continue to generate interest.

On 15 September 2008 the BBC broadcast an edition of the Panorama programme, written and presented by John Ware, entitled “Omagh—What the Police Were Never Told”. John Ware had also written an article published in The Sunday Telegraph on 14 September alleging, inter alia, that at the relevant time, vital intercept evidence had not been passed promptly enough to the police and thereby might have prevented the bombing or subsequently assist the investigating officers to bring the perpetrators to justice.

In view of the seriousness of the issues raised, the Prime Minister on 17 September asked Sir Peter Gibson, the Intelligence Services Commissioner, to “review any intercepted intelligence material available to the security and intelligence agencies in relation to the Omagh bombing and how this intelligence was shared”. In his review, Sir Peter examined the role of GCHQ in gathering and handling intercept intelligence at the material time. He also investigated what intercept was shared with the RUC.

In preparing his report, Sir Peter drew on a range of highly sensitive and highly classified material made available to him by those agencies involved in the production of intercept intelligence.

Some of this material is inevitably subject to legal constraints. Its publication would disclose information about how our security and intelligence agencies currently function and thereby compromise current operations aimed at ensuring the protection of our national security.

Nonetheless, the Government believe it is right and appropriate to publish as much of the findings of the review as possible.

I have therefore placed in the Library of the House a copy of a document setting out in considerable detail Sir Peter’s conclusions. It is also my intention today to make the full, classified report available to Members of the Intelligence and Security Committee for their scrutiny.

At the time of the Omagh bombing the action taken by GCHQ on any interception was governed by procedures agreed between GCHQ and RUC Special Branch. Those procedures were documented in written guidance for the relevant GCHQ team. Specifically, intercepts relating to phone numbers designated by Special Branch as being highest priority were monitored live. GCHQ carried out the tasks it was asked to carry out by Special Branch.

Throughout 1998, including on 15 August, GCHQ ensured intelligence from any interception that might have been relevant to those operations being conducted by Special Branch was made promptly available to them. This included “near real time” provision of information; that is, almost immediately after a call had been listened to itself in near real time. This was in accordance with the pre-agreed criteria.

Any formal intelligence reports were issued within hours of interception in broad accordance with procedures agreed between GCHQ and Special Branch.

Sir Peter concludes he is satisfied that in the days surrounding 15 August, and on the day itself, to the extent that any relevant intelligence derived from interception existed, this was shared with RUC HQ and Special Branch promptly and fully; and done so with the latter by procedures agreed with Special Branch South. He also concludes that there was nothing to suggest either a bomb attack was going to take place on 15 August or the town of Omagh was the target of any such bomb attack.

Sir Peter found no evidence to support the allegations of the Panorama programme that, in the run-up to 15 August, the Garda had warned the police of a likely attack. Crucially, any intelligence derived from interception as might have existed would not have prevented the bombing.

The programme also suggested that the cars involved in the bombing could have been tracked and their journey monitored on a screen.

Sir Peter is also satisfied that in 1998, on the basis of evidence from an independent expert witness from a mobile communications provider, it was neither possible to track mobile phones in real time nor visualise the location and movement of mobile phones in the way shown in the Panorama programme.

Assertions in the programme that live monitoring on the day would have shown what was going to happen are incorrect and unsupported by any evidence.

It was also implied in the Panorama programme that GCHQ did not pass on intercepted intelligence to RUC CID to help the enquiry. This is not supported by the facts.

Further to this, there were arrangements in place at that time which allowed for RUC Special Branch to make requests in respect of further dissemination of any GCHQ material. The records confirm that no such request was made.

The handling of intelligence material by the then Special Branch and their relationship to other investigative arms of the police has been the subject of a number of previous reviews and reports. As the Chief Constable has indicated in a letter sent to me yesterday, a copy of which I have also placed in the Library of the House, in line with the recommendations made by the police ombudsman in her December 2001 report on the bombing, and the subsequent Crompton report, serious and organised crime investigation, including terrorist crime investigation and the intelligence branch were grouped together within one department, crime operations, under a single assistant chief constable.

Special Branch no longer exists, having been replaced by a branch with service-wide responsibility for all intelligence from volume crime to the most serious crime.

A dissemination policy today determines how intelligence is shared for the purposes of a criminal investigation; early investigative expertise is sought in cases of serious crime; and the Police Service of Northern Ireland resources these areas to operate at the highest national standards in respect of handling intelligence and the investigation of serious and organised crime.

The Government share with the British and Irish public the deep regret that those responsible have neither faced justice nor been punished for their wicked crimes. And while it remains right that the police and other agencies charged with protecting the public from terrorism are accountable for their conduct and subject to scrutiny, we must never forget the bomb was the deliberate work of RIRA and we all have a continuing duty to do all we can to bring these criminals to justice.