Written Ministerial Statements
Tuesday 21 April 2009
Communities and Local Government
Today I am announcing that new support to help homeowners remain in their home if they fall on difficult times will now be available. Homeowners Mortgage Support (HMS) will enable eligible borrowers to reduce their monthly mortgage interest payments to affordable levels for up to two years to help them get back on track with their finances if they suffer a temporary loss of income.
This new support builds on a range of measures the Government have already put in place to ensure that repossession is only ever a last a resort.
From today, the following major high street lenders will offer their customers HMS: Lloyds Bank Group (which includes Halifax and Bank of Scotland), Bradford and Bingley, Northern Rock, the Royal Bank of Scotland (which includes NatWest and Ulster Bank), Cumberland Building Society, and the National Australia Bank Group (which includes Clydesdale and Yorkshire Bank).
A number of other banks, building societies and specialist lenders have also confirmed today that they will offer their customers HMS as soon as possible. These are Bank of Ireland (which includes Bristol and West), GMAC, GE Money, Kensington Mortgages, Standard Life Bank, and the Post Office.
Lenders offering HMS will have the security of a Government guarantee if the borrower defaults.
At the same time, four other high street lenders, Barclays (including First Plus), HSBC, Nationwide and Santander (including Abbey and Alliance and Leicester) have all confirmed today they are offering comparable arrangements to their customers, while opting not to take up the Government guarantee. Customers of these institutions experiencing a reduction in income and willing to make regular monthly payments will receive a similar level of support and be encouraged to seek independent money advice.
As a result of today’s announcement, lenders covering more than 80 per cent of the mortgage market will now be providing enhanced support to their customers. Borrowers will receive independent money advice as part of these changes to help them make the right decisions for their circumstances. The door will remain open for further lenders to join the scheme, and we will be working actively with the sector to enable this.
HMS does not provide consumers with a payment holiday. The mortgage interest payments that have been deferred will eventually have to be paid back.
Households will need to seek independent money advice before signing up to the scheme to make sure they understand the consequences of participating. We have been working closely with Shelter, Citizens Advice Bureau, Consumer Credit Counselling Service, National Debtline and PayPlan to ensure they are ready to provide advice on the scheme, including making £2.5 million available for advice agencies to support the delivery of the scheme.
Homeowners Mortgage Support is part of the Government’s offer of real help for homeowners who are struggling to keep up with their mortgage payments. It is the latest element of the extra support put in place for homeowners which includes:
£25 million in additional funding for debt advice services;
A new pre-action protocol which sets out guidance from the judiciary on the steps that a lender is expected to take before taking action to repossess;
For those households whose cases reach court, free legal advice or an appropriate alternative, is available across the country;
Enhancements to the Support for Mortgage Interest (SMI) support available to out of work households; and,
A new Mortgage Rescue Scheme targeted at vulnerable households.
Homeowners are also protected through FSA regulation, including the expectation of fair treatment for customers.
A final impact assessment, setting out the estimated costs and benefits of Homeowners Mortgage Support, is also being published today. This is available to download from:
Further information, including eligibility criteria for households and full list of lenders working with us to offer this option to households is available at: http://www.communities.gov.uk/housing/buyingselling/mortgagesupportscheme/
A consumer guide to the scheme can be found at: www.direct.gov.uk/HMS.
Nuclear Test Veterans' Health Research
The Government have been actively engaging with the concerns expressed by our nuclear test veterans that they and their offspring have been adversely affected by their participation in the British nuclear tests of the 1950s and 1960s.
The wider published peer-reviewed epidemiological evidence to date has not demonstrated a general link between veterans’ ill-health and participation in the tests. Similarly there is no peer-reviewed evidence suggesting that their children and grandchildren are at increased risk of genetic abnormalities.
The Government are, however, determined to address the ongoing concerns of nuclear test veterans. I had a constructive meeting with the British Nuclear Test Veterans Association (BNTVA) and interested MPs on Monday 20 April. I am pleased to report that the BNTVA have agreed to help identify a representative sample of veterans and their descendants with a view to conducting an assessment of their health needs. I therefore announce today an intention that the Ministry of Defence will work with veterans and experts to finalise the details of research to investigate the particular health needs of nuclear test veterans and their offspring with a view to identifying priorities and taking action to improve health. I also intend some follow-up to last year’s New Zealand chromosome study. The aim will be for projects to be of practical relevance to veterans with results delivered to a reasonable time scale. The work will be tendered in the normal manner and should be under way before the end of this year. A working group including representatives from the BNTVA will be established to take these projects forward.
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Draft Flood and Water Management Bill
A draft Flood and Water Management Bill for England and Wales and a consultation paper will be laid before Parliament today. Copies of the draft Bill and associated documents will be available in the Vote Office and have been placed in the Library of the House. The draft Bill and the consultation paper set out the Government’s proposals to improve flood risk management and ensure water supplies are more secure, and the consultation period will close on 24 July. I am inviting the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Select Committee to scrutinise this draft Bill in the coming weeks.
The aims of the draft Bill will be to:
reduce the likelihood and impact of flooding;
improve our ability to manage the risk of flooding, by clarifying who is responsible for what;
improve water quality;
give water companies better powers to conserve water during drought;
reduce red tape and other burdens on water and sewerage companies;
improve the overall efficiency and management of the water industry; and
reduce pollution and improve water quality.
The draft Bill will implement the key recommendations made in Sir Michael Pitt’s independent review into the summer 2007 floods, as promised in the Government’s response in December. It includes giving local authorities a clear leadership role in local flood risk management, encompassing all sources of flooding. It would also introduce a modern risk-based approach to reservoir safety to replace the current system where regulation depends on size rather than the risk posed to surrounding communities.
In addition to the provisions on flooding, the draft Bill includes measures to improve conservation of water in times of drought and the regulation of the water industry, and it will enable water companies to develop new ways of delivering very large infrastructure projects.
The draft Bill and associated consultation paper cover all the remaining legislation necessary to give full effect to the Government’s policy statements “Making space for water” and “Future Water”.
The documents will also be available on the DEFRA website at: http://www.defra.gov.uk/environ/fcd/floodsandwaterbill.htm
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Israel (UK Strategic Export Controls)
I am taking this opportunity to update Parliament, following my answers on 19 January, Official Report, column 514, on whether UK-supplied equipment may have been used by the Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) during the recent conflict in Gaza.
All strategically controlled exports from the UK—both military and dual-use goods—require an export licence, issued by the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform on the basis of advice from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Ministry of Defence and, in relevant cases, the Department for International Development. Applications are assessed against the consolidated EU and national arms export licensing criteria and any other relevant announced policy. There are eight criteria, which set out the basis on which applications will be assessed. The most important criteria in relation to exports to Israel are as follows:
Criterion 2 (we will not issue an export licence where there is a clear risk that the export might be used for internal repression), criterion 3 (we will not issue licences for exports which would provoke or prolong armed conflicts or aggravate existing tensions or conflicts in the country of final destination), criterion 4 (preservation of regional peace, security and stability), and criterion 7 (the risk that the equipment will be diverted within the buyer country or re-exported under undesirable conditions).
Estimates suggest that Israel buys over 95 per cent. of its military requirements from the US. The EU accounts for a proportion of the remainder. The UK is estimated as accounting for less than 1 per cent. of total Israeli military exports. Of the goods licensed by the UK, a significant proportion will have been for dual use goods for non-military use, or for goods for incorporation in Israel before onward export to a third country. Of the military goods licensed from the UK, the majority have been for components rather than complete systems or sub-systems. Many of the licences we have identified covering military equipment were for components for incorporation into US-manufactured platforms which were then re-exported to Israel.
I will start by dealing with the equipment used by the IDF in relation to Operation Cast Lead which—contrary to suggestions made in the press and elsewhere—we do not believe contained components supplied under licence from the UK.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs): UAVs were used extensively for reconnaissance and targeting. The Heron and Hermes 450 variants were positively identified. Numerous export licence applications have been received to supply equipment to Israel’s significant UAV industry. The great majority are subject to further incorporation in Israel for onward export and a small number approved for demonstration, research, testing and our own “Watchkeeper” UAV programme. We have no evidence to suggest that goods licensed by the UK were diverted within Israel for use by the IDF.
Tanks and Armoured Bulldozers: Merkava tanks were deployed in support of the ground offensive into Gaza. We have not identified any UK components on the Merkava tank. D9 Armoured Bulldozers were used to clear ground, clear routes for armoured vehicles and there are credible reports that they were used to demolish houses containing weapons caches or tunnels. None were supplied under licence from the UK, nor were any components for them.
Secondly, there is equipment which may have been involved in Operation Cast Lead and may have contained British-supplied components.
Satellites: Israel has a number of reconnaissance satellites that could have been used to provide information to the IDF, and for which the UK has supplied minor components. We assess that these might have been used to prepare the operation but would not have played a significant part in the operation itself.
Thirdly, there is IDF equipment that was used in Operation Cast Lead and which almost certainly contained British-supplied components.
Combat Aircraft: The F16 was widely used, including for the delivery of precision-guided ordnance. No licences have been granted by the Government for the export of F16 components sent direct to Israel since 2002. British made components for F16s have been exported to the United States where Israel was the ultimate end-user. These licences covered components for head-up displays, head-down displays and enhanced display units.
Helicopters: Apache attack helicopters were used in the operation as part of the initial air campaign, and later in support of ground troops. Licences have been approved for the export of components to the US for incorporation into equipment for use on Apache helicopters ultimately destined for Israel. These licences covered parts for the fire control and radar system, navigation equipment and engine assemblies.
Naval Vessels: Saar-Class Corvettes took part in the operation from the waters off Gaza. They are likely to have been used for a number of tasks, but there are credible reports that the Saar 4.5 was used in a naval fire support role (the Saar 5 does not carry a gun suitable for such a task). Applications have been approved for components direct to Israel for a 76mm gun for a Saar 4.5 class vessel. We have also licensed the supply of other types of equipment for the Israeli navy; most recent cases have been for ubiquitous cabling for the Saar-class vessels and components for radar equipment. Of the cases for radar equipment most have been for air defence purposes, but they have the technical capability to be used for fire-control against surface targets.
Armoured Personnel Carriers: Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) were used and these included conversions of UK-supplied Centurion tanks to carry troops, for mobile headquarters and as combat engineer vehicles. The Centurions were sold to Israel in the late 1950s.
It is inherent in the consolidated criteria that judgments are in part based on past practice, so evidence from Operation Cast Lead will be used in all future applications. I can confirm that we are looking at all extant licences to see whether any of these need to be re-considered in light of recent events in Gaza. All future applications will be assessed taking into account the recent conflict. I continue to believe that UK export controls and the consolidated criteria are amongst the strongest and most effective in the world and are the best basis for putting into practice our commitments on arms exports.
Leader of the House
To enable MPs to do their work representing their constituents effectively, there needs to be an allowance system. The public are entitled to be confident that that the allowance regime is fair and reasonable and effectively enforced.
The Prime Minister has asked Sir Christopher Kelly and the Committee on Standards in Public Life to look at all of the relevant issues involved in MPs' allowances as speedily as possible.
In the meantime the Government thinks it is right to bring forward reforms that can be enacted sooner. We will therefore be asking the House of Commons to support the following proposals, which will reduce the cost to the taxpayer:
A. Flat-rate Allowance. We propose that, for MPs representing constituencies outside London, the Personal Additional Accommodation Expenditure (commonly known as the ‘second home’ allowance) should be abolished and be replaced by a flat-rate daily allowance, based on actual attendance at Westminster on parliamentary and Government business or the business of the Opposition Front Benches. This will be limited to the Parliamentary Session or a maximum number of days.
There will now be no second home allowance or claims for food, furniture and fittings, fuel, mortgage interest, rent or council tax.
We will ask the Senior Salaries Review Body to set the appropriate level of allowance independently, comparable to those set by wider public and private institutions. The Committee on Standards in Public Life will want to consider these issues going forward, including the issue of taxation. Provision will be made for the long-term ill and maternity leave. The claims by each Member should be published annually.
B. London. For anyone representing constituencies within reasonable distance of Westminster, the Personal Additional Accommodation Expenditure will be replaced by the London supplement, which already applies to inner London MPs. The Committee on Standards in Public Life will of course want to look at the current Green Book rules on this and the SSRB should report on the level of the allowance.
C. Grace and Favour homes. Ministers who for security or other reasons live in so-called ‘grace and favour’ homes will continue to pay council tax and tax on the benefit of living in this accommodation but will not receive this new allowance. The Committee on Standards in Public Life should be asked to report on these arrangements.
D. MPs’ Staff. In future all staff appointed by MPs without exception should become direct employees of the House of Commons, which would become centrally responsible for their employment terms and conditions, their contracts, and the payment of their salaries within the limit allowed—and will have the right to make an independent assessment of such contracts. The Committee on Standards in Public Life is examining the rules governing employment of spouses or other relatives.
E. Full receipts. There will be a requirement for receipts for claims for all remaining transactions (for office costs, travel, and communications), including those under £25. MPs’ claims will be subject to independent audit by the National Audit Office.
F. Transparency of MPs’ Second Incomes. The Prime Minister has already asked the Committee on Standards in Public Life to look into the issue of MPs and second jobs, in order to avoid conflicts of interest and to reflect the fact that MPs receive a parliamentary salary for a full-time job. Meanwhile, there should be greater transparency.
This Government have been the first to publish a list of Ministers’ interests.
Where Members of Parliament have a second source of income from second jobs, irrespective of whether it is in their capacity as an MP, every payment shall be declared with a full description of who paid and what for. There shall also be a full declaration of the hours worked for the payment received.
G. Pensions. We have taken steps through the SSRB to reform MPs’ pension arrangements. In the meantime, in order to contain the cost to the public purse, a proposal will be put before Parliament to increase the contribution required from MPs by around £60 per month for the current year and to extend the scheme’s pension limit of two thirds of final salary to all scheme members for future service.
H. We will ask the Committee on Standards in Public Life to look at the circumstances applying in Northern Ireland before final application of the flat rate allowance for MPs representing Northern Ireland.
I hope that with the support of the whole House we could implement the majority of these proposals in time for 1 July. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has offered to meet with the leaders of the main Opposition parties to discuss them. The Committee on Standards in Public Life will report their views in due course, which of course we will consider seriously, but we should implement as many interim changes as possible without delay.
District Electoral Area Commissioner (Northern Ireland)
I am pleased to announce to the House that I have appointed Richard Mackenzie CB as District Electoral Areas Commissioner for Northern Ireland. His appointment will take effect from 1 July 2009 following the completion of his work as Local Government Boundaries Commissioner for Northern Ireland. As District Electoral Areas Commissioner, Mr Mackenzie’s role will be to make recommendations on the grouping of local government wards in Northern Ireland into multi-member constituencies for the purposes of elections to local councils.
New Road Safety Strategy
The Department has today published a consultation paper on a new road safety strategy for Great Britain. The consultation document, “A Safer Way”, proposes a new approach to road safety, ambitious new casualty reduction targets and a number of new measures to assist in achieving those targets. It also proposes a long-term vision to make Britain’s roads the safest in the world.
The paper puts forward four national targets for achievement by 2020, as compared with the 2004-08 average. The headline target is to reduce road deaths by one-third. We propose further targets to reduce serious injuries on our roads, also by one-third, and to halve the combined total of death and serious injuries to children on our roads. Lastly, given our aims to increase levels of walking and cycling and to improve safety, we suggest a target to halve the rate of road death and serious injury to pedestrians and cyclists per kilometre travelled.
Our current strategy has improved road safety significantly, reducing the number of deaths and serious injuries by 36 per cent. over the last decade, but eight deaths a day is still intolerable and we want to make our roads safer still. By improving our roads, our vehicles and our behaviour on the roads, we aim to develop a road safety system in which mistakes on the road do not lead to death or serious injury. We propose to do this through smarter working with local partners, not through creating large numbers of new offences and regulation. We need to target action on those roads, people and behaviours most associated with death and serious injury on our roads.
To improve safety on rural roads, where 60 per cent. of all British road deaths happen, we propose annually to publish maps highlighting the main roads with the poorest safety records, encouraging local agencies to rapidly improve safety standards. We also propose to recommend to highway authorities that lower limits are adopted on single carriageways currently subject to 60 mph limit, where risks are relatively high and there is evidence that a lower limit would significantly reduce casualties. To improve safety for pedestrians and cyclists, we propose to give guidance to local highway authorities recommending that, over time, they introduce 20 mph limits into all streets which are primarily residential in nature.
Improved vehicle safety will continue to be crucial in reducing road casualties. We aim to support improvements through regulation, where appropriate, but also through consumer information and raising awareness, working in partnership with industry. We expect further improvements in vehicles’ crash protection to be targeted around particular problems or collision types. We believe that advanced vehicle safety systems, helping drivers and riders to avoid crashes, have the potential to deliver increasing improvements in safety.
Our recent consultation on road safety compliance put forward measures to crack down on irresponsible behaviour and we will set out our conclusions in the final version of the new road safety strategy. Our proposals in the compliance consultation included tougher penalties for extreme speeding, and tackling drug and drink-driving.
We propose to support responsible road use by improving driver training and testing, through the highly successful THINK! campaign and through development of a seamless suite of educational materials from pre-school to pre-driver, the first phase of which will be published later this week. Significant new effort will also go into improving driving skills and standards.
Despite improvement in 2007, the number of collisions involving 18-24 year olds and newly qualified drivers remains unacceptably high. Tackling this issue remains a priority within our proposed new strategy, and we are also today announcing a programme of measures that will strengthen the way that people learn to drive and are tested, and create a culture of continued and lifelong learning.
The Driving Standards Agency’s “Learning to Drive” consultation paper prompted almost 7,000 responses. The responses, many of which were from young people, confirm general support for our view that education and incentive through improved training and testing is the best way to improve the safety of newly qualified drivers. As well as recognising that the great majority of people want to be law abiding and safe, such an approach also acknowledges that people learn to drive for many reasons, including to access education and employment.
Newly qualified drivers have told us that the current regime does not properly prepare them for driving unsupervised. The programme of measures will ensure that they are better equipped to drive safely and responsibly in modern driving conditions. They will also introduce a more efficient and effective learning process, and give employers and insurers greater confidence in the driving abilities of newly qualified drivers and those who have invested in further training.
The changes will be delivered through a phased implementation programme, which supports progressive improvements while avoiding disruption to those currently learning to drive. The first phase aims to deliver, over the next two years, an improved learning process, improved theory and practical driving tests, and further options for learning and qualifications.
Full details are set out in “Learning to Drive: Report on Consultation”, copies of which have been placed in the Library of the House. The consultation on the new road safety strategy closes on 14 July 2009. Copies of the consultation document have been placed in the Libraries of the House and are also available in the Vote Office and Printed Paper Office.
First Great Western Franchise (Correction)
On 26 February 2008, Official Report, columns WS 73-74, my predecessor, the right hon. Member for Bolton West (Ruth Kelly), made a statement to the House about the performance of the First Great Western Franchise, in which she also announced a package of benefits designed to bring about real improvements for passengers. The package is worth £29 million and is fully funded by First Great Western.
One of the elements of the package of passenger benefits announced in the statement was that First Great Western would undertake “refurbishment of Thames Valley commuter trains to a higher standard than committed in the franchise agreement to commence this year (2008) and to be completed by 2011”.
The stated completion date of 2011 was incorrect as it did not reflect the obligation in the agreement with First Great Western, which was to procure agreed expenditure on the refurbishment of the Thames Valley commuter trains by 31 March 2012, and I apologise for this.
I understand that First Great Western are confident that they will meet this obligation by the agreed date.