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Written Statements

Volume 502: debated on Tuesday 8 December 2009

Written Ministerial Statements

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Business, Innovation and Skills

Financial Support (Students)

This year Government are spending more than £5 billion on student support in England, underpinning our commitment that finance should not be a barrier to higher education. The number of undergraduate entrants to higher education has increased by 19 per cent. since 1997, and the 20 most deprived constituencies have shown higher than average growth in student numbers over that period.

Students need a simple and straightforward application service when they are applying for student support. As I said to the House on 14 October, this year’s problems have had an unacceptable effect on individual students and their families. Even when they have not led to financial hardship, they have undoubtedly caused worry and frustration. It is clear that there were serious lapses in the customer service provided by the Student Loans Company (SLC).

At the beginning of September I became aware that, in this first year of operating the new service, there were delays in processing, customers were unable to speak to the company, and some documentary evidence could not be traced. I ordered that a number of actions be undertaken to enable the company to accelerate the processing of applications and to increase the number of calls being answered.

These issues are why, together with the recently appointed chair of the Student Loans Company, I commissioned Professor Sir Deian Hopkin to provide external scrutiny to the review of lessons to be learned from this year’s processing problems. Professor Sir Hopkin has now provided his report and I am very grateful to him for carrying out his work so swiftly.

While at the time of this statement the Student Loans Company has paid 801,000 students, it is clear that this year the service has fallen short of expectations. The report says that:

“While some aspects of the programme have been realised and some progress made on others, there has been a conspicuous failure in key areas of its delivery which has had a far-reaching impact on applicants and stakeholders”.

The Department accepts in full all the recommendations in Professor Sir Hopkin’s report and, as I would expect, the board of the Student Loans Company has also accepted the recommendations in their entirety.

I am now clear that decisive action is required to change the service and that the key to this is strengthening the leadership of the company and ensuring that the customer is at the heart of everything the company does. The chair of the Student Loans Company has confirmed that the senior management team of the company will be strengthened and reorganised.

I expect the chair to ensure that the company transforms how it communicates with its customers so that they know what to expect from the service, what is expected of them, and that risk management, contingency planning and staff training are all significantly improved.

I have asked my officials to consider the best practice in other public sector organisations to enable us to better challenge and scrutinise the company’s performance. But there must be no confusion about roles: it is for the Student Loans Company board to hold the executive to account and to ensure it has the capacity and capability to deliver the service.

Key to moving forward and improving the service next year is early engagement with customers and stakeholders in the higher education sector. I have therefore asked the company to establish a stakeholder forum which will include representation from the National Union of Students, Higher Education Institutions and UCAS. This will help the company to develop Student Finance England, including implementation of the recommendations in Professor Sir Hopkin’s report and should mean, with stakeholders more closely involved in the company, that many of the issues experienced this year can be identified earlier and swift action be taken to avoid them in the future.

We have invested significantly in a substantial programme of improvements which are designed to transform the way the student support service works for customers. Over the next few years, the centralised service—which takes over from applications to local authorities where the level of service was variable—will allow students to apply online; they will no longer need to send in their passports to verify their identity; and their sponsors will not need to send paper evidence of family income.

I acknowledge that some of the improvements will take time to implement, but I have received assurance from the chair that improvements in the way the service is managed will be made quickly. As the report says, the highest priority at the moment is to successfully complete this year’s application cycle. There remain problems with disabled students’ allowances and I have asked the Student Loans Company to engage directly with universities and assessment centres to speed up the process, and to increase staffing resource for these activities.

The chief executive and chair of the Student Loans Company have publicly apologised for the difficulties customers have suffered. As the Minister responsible for higher education, I too have expressed regret for the unacceptable service parents and students have experienced.

Customers must also play their part, and take responsibility for applying for their student support in good time if we are to ensure the service has the best chance of operating efficiently.

A copy of the report and a letter from the chair of the Student Loans Company are being deposited in the Libraries of the House and paper copies of the report will be placed in the Vote Office and Printed Paper Office.


Northern Rock PLC

Earlier this year, the Government announced that Northern Rock would be restructured, subject to state aid approval from the European Commission. That approval was received on 28 October 2009 and the Government welcome the European Commission’s decision as an important step in restoring Northern Rock to viability.

Legislation to give effect to the restructuring—The Northern Rock plc Transfer Order 2009—will be made and laid before both Houses of Parliament today.

Under the order the restructuring of the company will take place on 1 January 2010. Part of Northern Rock’s business will be transferred to a new company, also wholly owned by the Treasury:

The business transferred to the new company will include Northern Rock’s retail and wholesale deposit business (other than certain wholesale deposits held on behalf of Northern Rock’s Granite securitisation and covered bond programme), a proportion of its unencumbered mortgages and its mortgage origination and servicing platform. The new company will be regulated as a deposit taker by the FSA.

The legal entity which is Northern Rock plc will retain the remainder of Northern Rock’s mortgage book, arrangements relating to the Granite securitisation and the covered bond programme, the Government loan, its other borrowings, derivatives and certain wholesale deposits held on behalf of its Granite securitisation and covered bond programme.

The intention is that the companies will be renamed in conjunction with the transfer, such that the new company will be named “Northern Rock plc” and the old company will be named “Northern Rock (Asset Management) plc”.

On restructuring the guarantees covering the liabilities of Northern Rock will be replaced by separate guarantee arrangements for Northern Rock (Asset Management) plc and Northern Rock plc. All retail deposits in Northern Rock plc continue to be guaranteed in full, and guarantees will not be lifted with less than three month’s notice. Full details of the guarantee arrangements are available on the Treasury website (

Both entities will continue to be wholly owned by the Government and operate at arms’ length from Government on commercial principles. UK Financial Investments (UKFI) will take on management of the Government’s shareholdings in these two companies. The restructuring will enable Northern Rock to increase its new lending and support the economic recovery.

Full details of the financial support provided by the Government to support the restructuring will be set out next month.

The Treasury has also made the Northern Rock plc (Tax Consequences) Regulations 2009. These regulations make provision to neutralise unintended tax consequences that could otherwise be triggered by transfers of assets and liabilities between these two companies wholly owned by the Government.

Communities and Local Government

Local Government (Unitary Proposals)

My right hon. Friend, the then Minister for Local Government, the Member for Wentworth (John Healey) told the House on 6 February 2008, Official Report, column 66-68WS, that we were requesting the Boundary Committee under section 4 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 to advise on certain matters respectively relating to the unitary proposals made by Exeter city council, Ipswich borough council, and Norwich city council. We originally requested the advice by 31 December 2008, which, on account of litigation brought by certain local authority against the Boundary Committee, we subsequently extended to 8 December 2009.

The Boundary Committee has now provided its advice, copies of which have been placed in the Library of the House.

In its advice the Boundary Committee has, pursuant to its powers in section 5(3) of the 2007 Act, made alternative unitary proposals covering the counties of Devon, Norfolk, and Suffolk, and recommended, on the basis of the evidence available to it, that the original unitary proposals made by Exeter city council, Ipswich borough council, and Norwich city council are not implemented.

There is now a period of six weeks until 19 January 2010 for representations to be made to the Secretary of State about the Boundary Committee’s advice, and for any further representations to be made about any of the three original proposals.

Thereafter, the Secretary of State intends to take his statutory decisions under the 2007 Act as to whether to implement, with or without modification, any of the unitary proposals—the alternative proposals made by the Boundary Committee and the original proposals—before him, or to take no action. Before taking his statutory decisions he will consider carefully the Boundary Committee’s advice, all the representations he receives, and all other relevant information available to him. Under the 2007 Act no proposal can be implemented unless Parliament has approved an Order giving effect to the Secretary of State’s decision.

We recognise the need to end uncertainty and intend to move forward as quickly as practicable. Our priority is to ensure that the people of Devon, Norfolk, and Suffolk will have the councils that are best able to play their part at the heart of providing innovative and better value public services across the counties, providing strong strategic leadership, engaging effectively with their most local communities, and delivering efficiencies and service improvements.


Afghanistan (Aircraft Deployment to ISAF)

The House will know that the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force has expanded substantially over the course of the last year and is continuing to grow in size. Air operations in support of the force have become more complex and NATO has identified a need for improved air traffic control.

I have therefore agreed a NATO request to commit two Boeing E3D Sentry aircraft and some 200 personnel from 8 Squadron, Royal Air Force, to fill this role as part of our standing contribution to the NATO Airborne Early Warning and Control Force. The detachment will be based in the Middle East. It is separate from the British deployment in Afghanistan announced by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on 30 November 2009, Official Report, column 835, and the size and structure of the latter will not be affected. On current plans, the detachment should begin to deploy shortly. It will recover to its home base at RAF Waddington by 28 February 2010.


“Healthy Children, Safer Communities” Strategy

I am pleased to announce that “Healthy Children, Safer Communities”, the Government’s joint strategy to promote the health and well-being needs of children and young people in contact with the youth justice system, is being published today.

This strategy will work to improve the health and well-being of children and young people in contact with the youth justice system to ensure that children and young people are safer, healthier and stay away from crime and that communities will be safer too.

In particular, the strategy:

provides a strategic framework within which local services can deliver quality improvements, and communicates the framework to the relevant health, education and youth justice organisations;

sets out the actions the Government will take to support these improvements;

develops a national approach, by building on the good work and good practice that is already underway in individual localities; and

maintains the significant impetus from recent policy developments including the Youth Crime Action Plan; Healthy Children, Brighter Futures Strategy, and Lord Bradley’s review of people with mental health problems or learning disabilities in the criminal justice system, to drive forward improvements in health and well-being services for children and young people in contact with the youth justice system.

The key elements of the strategy and related work for young people in contact with the youth justice system are:

harnessing mainstream services to reduce offending and reoffending—wherever children and young people are in the youth justice system, and whenever they are at risk of coming into this system, the health and well being needs should be met through mainstream services;

addressing health and well-being throughout the youth justice system—contact with the youth justice system will produce positive health and well-being outcomes for children and young people; and

making it happen—policy and decision-makers at national, regional and local level champion a strong response to the health inequalities experienced by children and young people involved in or at risk of becoming involved in antisocial and offending behaviour.

A copy of the strategy has been placed in the Library and copies are available to hon. Members from the Vote Office.

Home Department

Justice and Home Affairs Post-Council Statement

The Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) Council was held on 30 November and 1 December 2009 in Brussels. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Lord Bach, the Scottish Lord Advocate, Elish Angiolini, and I attended on behalf of the United Kingdom. The following issues were discussed at the Council:

The Council, in Mixed Committee with non-EU Schengen states, received an update from the presidency on the current state of play on the implementation of the regulation establishing the Visa Information System (VIS). As a result of testing delays in both the central and national databases the roll-out of VIS will now take place, subject to no further problems, in December 2010. The UK does not participate in the regulation.

The presidency then updated Ministers on arrangements for the first milestone test for the second-generation Schengen Information System (SIS II) noting that the test should take place by 29 January 2010. If the Council deemed the first milestone test to have failed it would then have two months to decide whether to switch to the contingency plan. The UK stressed the need to distinguish between technical and contractual elements of the project highlighting the importance of the milestone test in this respect. The UK could not accept a delayed milestone test being equated with non-compliance; if the test could not happen in January then the Council should be consulted on the next steps. This was reflected in Council conclusions adopted following the Mixed Committee.

The presidency sought the Council’s views on the need for an IT agency and its potential scope, inviting applications from those wishing to host it before the end of the year. It concluded that there was broad support for the agency, which would manage SIS, VIS and the Eurodac systems, and the details would be further discussed at working level. The UK supported the need for an agency and wishes to take part in the adoption and application of this proposal to the extent we participate in the relevant IT systems.

The Council adopted amendments to the common visa list lifting visa requirements for Serbia, Montenegro and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. Their citizens will no longer require a visa to enter the Schengen area. Albania and Bosnia Herzegovina were urged to work towards full completion of the benchmarks required for visa liberalisation. While the UK does not participate in the EU visa regime, we maintain an interest in all visa issues.

Under any other business Switzerland gave an update on the national referendum on the building of minarets and asked Schengen partners for their support to help free two Swiss businessmen detained in Libya since 2008.

Following Mixed Committee, the Council approved the A points list. Of note the Council endorsed the suspension of negotiations on the Council regulation and Council decision on the establishment of an evaluation mechanism to verify the application of the Schengen acquis. The Commission has been invited to review the texts and devise next steps, due to the European Parliament’s rejection of the text and the entry into force of the Lisbon treaty.

The Council adopted the decision authorising the presidency to sign the EU agreement with Japan on mutual legal assistance in criminal matters which includes important safeguards regarding the death penalty. Other measures of note included a framework decision on prevention and settlement of conflicts of jurisdiction in criminal proceedings, a resolution on a “roadmap” for strengthening procedural rights of suspected or accused persons in criminal proceedings, and Council conclusions on model provisions guiding the Council’s criminal law deliberations.

The presidency presented the draft future JHA work programme (the Stockholm programme). The Council considered interior issues on the first day and justice on the second. All delegations welcomed the draft text, although points on mutual recognition of asylum decisions and training targets for police and judges remained contentious. On asylum, the Commission insisted on mutual recognition of asylum decisions as a long-term objective. The UK along with a number of other member states supported a text reflecting that beneficiaries of international protection should not have an automatic right to move throughout the European Union. In addition the UK secured language limiting ambitious targets for providing training in European law to police and judiciary to those who were concerned with European co-operation. The UK also secured acceptable language on the “Roadmap” on criminal procedural rights.

Overall, the Government welcome the Stockholm programme, which will allow the EU to build upon the many successes of EU collaboration in this area. The programme will now go to the December European Council for final agreement. An action plan for implementation of this JHA work programme will be presented by the Commission as soon as possible in 2010.

Over lunch Interior Ministers held a discussion on the location of the European Asylum Support Office. The Council agreed that the office should be located in Valletta, Malta.

After lunch, the Commission introduced its proposals to revise directives on asylum procedures and qualification. The UK fully supported the objectives to streamline standards, simplify the law and combat abuse, but not the draft directives, which would go in the opposite direction. Restrictions on accelerated procedures would stop member states making fast, fair decisions on asylum applications. Lengthening the process and unnecessary burdens (like new rules on translation) would result in additional costs. Changes to who qualifies could actually result in member states granting asylum to those not in need of EU protection. Measures on unaccompanied minors would have negative effects and could undermine efforts to reduce human trafficking. These concerns were supported by other member states.

The presidency presented its paper on external relations to the Council and updated the Council on the recent global migration forum, held in Athens in early November.

The EU Counter-terrorism Co-ordinator (CTC), Gilles de Kerchove, presented his six-monthly report and outlined considerations for ongoing efforts to implement the CT strategy. Priorities would be: victims; prevention; information management; co-operation with the private sector; and development and security. The UK supports efforts made by the CTC to continue to drive forward EU co-operation on CT, and is particularly appreciative of his efforts with priority third countries, such as Pakistan. The Commission looked forward to further work with the private sector, such as follow up by future presidencies of the recent seminar organised by the UK’s Centre for the Protection of National Infrastructure (CPNI), and encouraged member states to further co-ordinate their counter-terrorism strategies.

The Council agreed the EU-US agreement on the processing and transfer of financial messaging data for the purposes of the US terrorist finance tracking programme (TFTP). This agreement, supported by the UK, was required due to a restructure of the SWIFT (Society for Worldwide Interbank financial Telecommunications) system used by the TFTP to identify and trace terrorist finance and facilitators. The presidency concluded that the interim agreement would be signed and, though temporary, did contain strengthened data protection provisions. It will come into force on 1 February 2010.

Under any other business, the Commission noted the entry into force of the Lisbon treaty on 1 December: any third pillar proposals not adopted would become void and would need to be re-negotiated; new proposals would be brought forward under the new Commission, as soon as possible in 2010. Spain outlined its presidency priorities and, in the margins of the Council, the UK joined other member states in signing a mobility partnership agreement with Georgia.

On day two, the presidency outlined the progress made during negotiations on the framework decision on combating sexual abuse, exploitation of children and child pornography. A new proposal will be needed, following the coming into force of the Lisbon treaty. The Commission said it would table one as soon as possible. The UK welcomed the progress made and looked forward to a new Commission proposal.

Justice Ministers then debated transfer of proceedings in criminal matters. This covered, among other things, the extent to which EU action could add value to the 1972 Council of Europe convention on transfer of proceedings, in particular in relation to jurisdiction. The UK congratulated the presidency on its efforts to try to reach agreement on this complicated issue. It is not clear whether, or when, a new proposal on this subject will be brought forward.

The presidency updated the Council on the way forward on negotiations to update the framework decision on combating trafficking of human beings and, following the entry into force of the Lisbon treaty, looked forward to a new Commission proposal. The UK supported this view for an updated framework decision, drawing on the good work done by the Swedish presidency.

The presidency also updated the Council on the adoption of the action-oriented paper (AOP) and the human trafficking conference held in October. The UK highlighted that the implementation of the AOP should focus on how existing measures, instruments, and mechanisms could be best utilised. The UK welcomed the presidency’s efforts to link JHA work with the external dimension, but also needed to address the internal EU dimension of trafficking, as the EU contained source, transit and destination countries.

There was a state of play report on e-Justice, during which it was explained that the launch of the European e-Justice portal had been delayed for technical reasons. It is hoped that the launch can be rescheduled for the first half of 2010.

Under AOB, Spain listed their priorities for their presidency, which included the European protection warrant, and making progress on the new proposal on succession and wills.

Autumn Performance Report

The Home Office Autumn Performance Report 2009 has been published today by Command of Her Majesty.

It includes our report against the 2007 Public Service Agreements that are led by the Home Office. These PSAs ensure controlled, fair migration that protects the public and contributes to economic growth, make communities safer, reduce the harm caused by alcohol and drugs and reducing the risk to the UK and its interests overseas from international terrorism.

The report also provides an update on performance against the targets we set in the 2004 spending review that are still current. It shows that we have met our targets to reduce unfounded asylum intake and we are on course to reduce the harm caused by drugs.

Copies of the report are available in the Vote Office. The report is also available on the Home Office website.

Work and Pensions

Right to Control (Disabled People) - Government Response

In 2005, the Government made public their commitment to work towards equality for disabled people by 2025. Since then we have come a long way but, as many disabled people know, we still have further to go.

To help achieve this ambition, on 11 June 2009 we launched a national consultation on the Right to Control by publishing the consultation paper, “Making choice and control a reality for disabled people: consultation on the Right to Control”. We have also legislated for a Right to Control for disabled people in the Welfare Reform Act 2009, which recognises that disabled people are the experts in their own lives. We have worked closely with disabled people and their organisations to develop this right, including with our advisory group, chaired by Baroness Jane Campbell, and will test it in our Trailblazers, which will start in late 2010.

The consultation concluded on 30 September 2009 and 176 responses were submitted from individual disabled people, user-led organisations, service providers and local authorities, amongst others. These responses have helped us understand what areas we need to focus on and develop in order to offer a right that will be truly transformative for disabled people. Today, with the publication of the Government Response, “Making choice and control a reality for disabled people: Government Response to the consultation on the Right to Control”, we can take another step towards delivering the Right to Control and improve the life chances of disabled people by giving them more choice and control over how public money is spent to meet their individual care and support needs.

The Government response to the Right to Control consultation can be viewed and downloaded from the Office for Disability Issues website at Copies of the document will be placed in the House Library.