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Written Statements

Volume 508: debated on Tuesday 23 March 2010

Written Ministerial Statements

Tuesday 23 March 2010

Business, Innovation and Skills

Companies House

I have set Companies House the following targets for the year 2010-11:

Customer

To achieve a score of more than 86 per cent. in each quarterly Companies House customer satisfaction survey.

To achieve on average a monthly compliance rate for accounts submitted of 96 per cent.

To achieve an electronic filing target for accounts of an average of at least 30 per cent. in quarter four.

To achieve an electronic filing target for other transactions of at least an average of 73 per cent. in quarter four.

To increase the proportion of transactions that can be filed electronically to 90 per cent. by March 2011.

To ensure that 97.5 per cent. of electronic documents can be accessed within 60 seconds by search customers from the Companies House download area.

To resolve 97 per cent. of all complaints within five days.

The chief executive to reply within 10 days to all letters from Members of Parliament delegated to him for reply.

Processes

To ensure that 96 per cent. of electronic transactions received are available to view on the public record within 72 hours.

To ensure that 95 per cent. of paper transactions received are available to view on the public record within eight days.

To ensure that 99.5 per cent. of images placed on the Companies House image system are legible and complete.

To ensure that Companies House Direct, WebCHeck and WebFiling are available 99 per cent. of the time.

People

To ensure that our average work days lost per person is no more than 10.

To improve the operational energy efficiency rating of Companies House’s headquarters building by 10 per cent.

Finance

To achieve by 2010-11 a reduction, in real terms, of 15 per cent. compared to 2007-08 in the operational monetary cost of the registry per company on the register (three-year target).

To achieve taking one year with another, a 3.5 per cent. average rate of return based on the operating surplus expressed as a percentage of average net assets.

To pay invoices within 10 days of receipt.

UK Space Agency

My noble Friend the Minister for Science and Innovation, Lord Drayson, has today made the following statement:

I am pleased to announce that it is intended to establish the UK Space Agency as an executive agency of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

From 1 April 2010, it is intended that the UK Space Agency will operate as a shadow executive agency prior to being established as a full executive agency.

The new agency is being created following the space innovation growth team report sponsored by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and a public consultation, which ran from July to October 2009, on how to fund and organise the civil space sector so that it can meet the challenges of the future and deliver the greatest benefits to the country. The agency will replace the British National Space Centre and bring together for the first time a range of UK space activities under one single management to enhance efficiencies and improve strategic decision making.

The agency’s responsibilities will include scoping and delivering UK Government’s space requirements, strengthening the UK’s relationship with the European Space Agency; agreeing with UK industry how to maximise the benefits of space technologies; and working with the scientific community to provide a clear voice on decisions that affect the sector.

During the transition to a full executive agency, the shadow agency will begin to take over responsibility for BIS policy and key Government budgets for space. This will start with the ESA subscriptions currently funded by Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and subsequently managing UK interests in EU projects including the space component of GMES, and Galileo. These are currently the responsibility of DEFRA and DFT respectively. Further policy transfers may be agreed. It has also been agreed in principle that the agency will manage the UK’s financial interest in the EU Satellite Centre, which is currently the responsibility of the MOD; subject to further work. The shadow agency will also begin to take responsibility for space funding for technology and instruments currently carried out by the Research Councils and TSB. It will also negotiate on the UK’s behalf on international bodies. The exact date for the creation of the full executive agency and the timescales for the shadow agency’s assumption of the above responsibilities will be confirmed over the coming months.

The new agency will allow the UK to exploit fully its competitive advantage in satellites, robotics and related technologies and to take full advantage of the opportunities offered by a world increasingly dependent on advances in space innovations and science.

Debt Relief Orders

We are today launching a consultation about personal insolvency. Specifically, we are asking whether we should amend the eligibility criteria relating to debt relief orders (DROs) in order to allow access to those people who are currently excluded because they have pension rights based on a small current pension valuation that they cannot draw down for some years.

DROs were introduced in April 2009 following research that identified that there were people in long-term debt difficulties who had nothing to offer their creditors and who could not afford to make themselves bankrupt. Delivered in partnership with the professional debt advice sector, DROs provide low-cost easy access to debt relief for those overwhelmed by relatively low levels of unmanageable debt. They are designed to provide a fresh start for the most vulnerable people trapped in debt.

There are strict eligibility criteria of assets less than £300, debts of no more than £15,000 and surplus income of less than £50 per month. But because a pension is treated as an asset, some people who would otherwise qualify find themselves unable to apply for a DRO because they have pension rights based on a pension that has a low current valuation. This consultation examines a number of options designed to make the system fairer for these people. In particular, we propose asking whether a pension should not count towards the value of assets provided that the current valuation is no more than either £1,000 or £5,000 or £10,000; and/or where the individual cannot draw down the pension for at least five years or 10 years. We also intend to ask whether there should be an additional requirement that the pension scheme must be one that is approved by HMRC.

I am placing copies of the consultation paper in the Libraries of both Houses.

We intend to actively engage with stakeholders throughout the consultation and welcome views on whether the proposals will deliver a workable solution that provides greater access to vulnerable debtors. The consultation will close on 23 June 2010.

Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009

My noble Friend the Minister for Postal Affairs and Employment Relations, Lord Young of Norwood Green, has today made the following statement:

I gave a commitment to this House in response to assurances sought by the noble Lord, Lord Low of Dalston during the report stage of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Bill to report on progress on three specific areas below. I can now report on the implementation of the apprenticeships provisions of the Apprenticeships, Skills, Children and Learning Act 2009 and specifically how each of the commitments I gave will be taken forward.

A timescale for exercising the powers that are being taken under this legislation and associated regulations.

Sections 82-86; 104 and 106: will commence in full on 1 April 2010, at the same time as those sections relating to the chief executive of Skills Funding and the Young People’s Learning Agency.

We expect that sections 1, 3-6,11-17, 23-27, 32-39 and 105 will come into force in April 2011.

We are currently working to establish a detailed timeline for the development of regulations. Specifically, we have begun preparatory work in relation to the regulations that are to be made under part 1, and in part 4, sections 92 and 95, using the anticipatory exercise of powers provision in section 13 of the Interpretation Act. The timeline for regulations to be laid, subject to the will of Parliament, is as follows:

Part 1, with the exception of section 1(5) relating to the alternative completion conditions—we expect to lay regulations in autumn 2010, and they will come into force in April 2011. The regulations in respect of section 1 (5) will be laid in spring 2011 and come into force in September 2011; and

Part 4, sections 91-99 will come into force in April 2013. Regulations to be made under sections 92 and 95 will be laid in the summer of 2012 and come into force in April 2013.

Work with key stakeholders on regulations, guidance and practical steps to encourage participation of those aged 19to24.

Mindful of the need to engage fully with stakeholders to help shape the development of the regulations apprenticeship offer requirements for learners with learning difficulties and disabilities under sections 92 and 95 we have established a stakeholder reference group to advise and work with officials and the national apprenticeship service. A preliminary meeting of the group was held on 25 February. At that meeting it was agreed to establish a small working group, chaired by Peter Little OBE, to consider and make recommendations on the specific flexibilities that the regulations should contain in relation to sections 92 and 95. The work of this group will inform the drafting of the regulations to be laid before Parliament in the summer of 2012. This work will also help to provide clarity on the scope of the proposed flexibilities and allow sufficient time for local authorities, delivery partners and learning providers to make appropriate preparation and provision for the regulations before they come into force in 2013.

A clear lead from the top that the recruitment of disabled apprentices should be a priority, with no less priority being given to disabled young people than they currently enjoy from the Learning and Skills Council.

We fully acknowledge that inequalities within the apprenticeship programme remain a challenge. Overall, the latest data show that of the 73,000 people who started an advanced or higher apprenticeship in 2007-08 only 9 per cent. considered themselves to have a learning difficulty/disability/health problem. These inequalities are not unique to apprenticeships—they are mirrored in the wider employment pattern—but many apprenticeships are still more segregated (by gender, ethnicity and disability) than the rest of the corresponding sector’s workforce.

I can assure the House that disabled young people will be no less a priority for the chief executive of Skills Funding and the chief executive of the National Apprenticeships Service than they are currently. I have asked the Joint Apprenticeship Unit in my Department and the Department for Children, Schools and Families to work with the National Apprenticeship Service to ensure that the service meets the commitment I gave to the House on increasing the proportion of learners with learning difficulties and/or disabilities in apprenticeships; and that equality and diversity is a key priority for their second year of operation and for the future. The National Apprenticeship Service is working with employers to help them understand and be more responsive to the needs of learners from under-represented groups; and to promote apprenticeships to those under-represented groups, their communities and key influencers, including parents, teachers, community leaders and support workers.

I am able to report also that initial discussions have taken place between the Joint Apprenticeship Unit, the National Apprenticeship Service and the Department for Work and Pensions to explore how additional learner support funds and the access to work programme can form a package to support better those learners with learning difficulties and/or disabilities to take up and sustain employment with training as an apprentice.

Treasury

ECOFIN

The Economic and Financial Affairs Council was held in Brussels on 16 March 2010. The following items were on the agenda:

Alternative Investment Fund Managers (AIFM) Directive

The presidency deferred agreement on the AIFM Directive to a later Council meeting at the UK’s request. The Government have made clear that the presidency’s text is not acceptable in its current form, and believe that postponing agreement will provide an opportunity for further work on the draft directive to ensure proportionate regulation that operates effectively and properly strengthens the system, while realising the benefits of the EU single market. The directive broadly aims to establish a secure and harmonised EU framework for monitoring and supervising the risks that alternative investment fund managers pose to their investors, counterparties, other financial markets and financial stability more generally; and permit them, subject to compliance with certain requirements, to provide services and market their funds across the internal market.

VAT Invoicing Directive

ECOFIN agreed a general approach on proposals put forward by the Commission on the VAT Invoicing Directive. The UK supports the proposals, which aim to simplify and modernise electronic VAT invoicing, further harmonise general invoicing rules and reduce the burden on businesses. The directive will be adopted once the European Parliament has given its opinion.

Stability and Growth Pact: follow-up on Greece

The Council held an exchange of views on the basis of a Commission report that follows up the Council decision of 16 February 2010, giving notice to Greece to take measures for the deficit reduction judged necessary in order to remedy the situation of excessive deficit. Measures taken by the Greek authorities have been a combination of fiscal measures and structural reforms and include the announcements from the Greek authorities on 3 March of a further €4.8 billion in austerity measures. ECOFIN concluded that Greece is appropriately implementing the Council decision and stability programme, and that announced measures appear sufficient to safeguard 2010 budgetary targets provided that they are implemented effectively, fully and in a timely manner.

Preparation for the European Council

a) Europe 2020

ECOFIN agreed Council conclusions following the publication of the Commission communication on Europe 2020—a European strategy for smart sustainable and inclusive growth. The UK believes that the strategy should be focused on delivering strong, sustainable and balanced growth. After 25 and 26 March spring European Council, further work will be carried out by ECOFIN and other sectoral councils before returning to European Council for final agreement in June.

b) Exit strategies

The Council adopted two sets of Council conclusions, one on exit strategies in the financial sector, and one on the phasing out of temporary measures in labour and product markets. These will feed into further discussions at European Council.

c) Climate change finance

ECOFIN adopted Council conclusions on the economic and financial aspects of climate change. The UK believes it will be important to maintain the EU’s ambition post-Copenhagen, especially on the financial commitments made, and also hopes that the EU will issue support for work by the high level advisory group on climate finance, which will meet for the first time in London later this month, co-chaired by the Prime Minister.

Budget guidelines for 2011

The Council adopted a statement on its priorities and budgetary policy, which will serve as a reference throughout the budgetary process to come. The UK is content with the guidelines, which reflect the need for budgetary discipline in a time of fiscal constraint.

Children, Schools and Families

Safeguarding Children and Vulnerable Adults

I am today publishing two consultation documents as part of reviews of elements of the vetting and barring scheme as recommended by Sir Roger Singleton, the Government’s chief adviser on the safety of children, in his recent report “Drawing the Line”.

The first seeks views on a review of the statutory requirements, and the Government’s advice, for Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) disclosures for safeguarding purposes on those who work with vulnerable groups, when they are already registered with the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA).

The second seeks views on a review of whether there is a continuing need for the separate class of work with different requirements, defined in the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006 as “controlled activity”.

I am also today publishing for consultation a revised version of the guidance “Safeguarding Children and Safer Recruitment in Education”. This is the key safeguarding guidance for schools, and has been revised largely to take account of the implementation of the vetting and barring scheme under the Safeguarding Vulnerable Groups Act 2006. Changes are also included in response to “Keeping our School Safe”, Sir Roger Singleton’s review of safeguarding arrangements in independent schools, non-maintained special schools and boarding schools in England. The consultation also seeks views from the education sector on whether CRB checks should be required or recommended where an individual is registered with the ISA.

These consultations are available to download from: www.dcsf.gov.uk/consultations. Views are sought by 15 June 2010.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Agriculture and Fisheries Council

The Minister responsible for food, farming and the environment, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick) will represent the United Kingdom at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council in Brussels on 29 March.

Discussions will take place on four substantive items—Council conclusions on the Commission Communication on “A better functioning food supply chain in Europe”; presidency conclusions on the “Future of the CAP—market management measures post 2013”; an exchange of views on agriculture and the CAP in the perspective of the EU 2020 strategy; and the quarterly report from the Commission on the dairy market.

Under any other business, the Austrian delegation will provide information on the OECD ministerial meeting in February.

Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science

I have set the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS) the following performance targets for 2010-11.

Value for public money

Finance—Achieve break-even performance and deliver efficiency gains

To demonstrate financial sustainability through full cost recovery, sound financial management and governance. Measured through achieving an audited break-even performance 2010-11 and delivering £0.5 million of efficiency gains.

Delivery

Customer satisfaction to exceed 82 per cent.

Measured through weighted average of customer response to post-contract survey that covers seven aspects of service quality. Incorporates project delivery metrics.

Social responsibility to exceed 75 per cent.

Measured through health and safety key performance indicators; delivery of strategic actions in CEFAS’ health and safety plan; maintaining ISO14001 accreditation; and delivery of CEFAS sustainable development action plan.

Capability

Science excellence to exceed 75 per cent.

Measured through numbers of peer reviewed scientific papers, aspects of the customer satisfaction survey dealing with understanding customer needs and their rating of CEFAS’ science quality; additional aspects are scored together and include take up of CEFAS science by the media, numbers of positions of influence held by CEFAS staff (high level science working groups and advisory positions); numbers of conference presentations; investment in new science through seedcom fund; staff qualifications and professional development.

Staff engagement to exceed 63 per cent.

Measured by an annual questionnaire to staff, using a weighted scale for the eight survey categories.

Further details are given in the CEFAS business plan 2010-11, a copy of which will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

Health

People with Learning Difficulties (Health Care)

I am today announcing the organisations that the Department has selected, following an open competitive procurement process, to:

carry out a time-limited confidential inquiry into premature and avoidable deaths of people with learning disabilities; and

provide a time-limited public health observatory service to help commissioners better understand the health and health care needs of people with learning disabilities in their local populations.

Contracts have been awarded to:

University of Bristol Norah Fry Research Centre (Bristol), to run the confidential inquiry; and

North-East Public Health Observatory (NEPHO) in partnership with the Centre for Disability Research at Lancaster University, to provide the public health observatory service.

Both these contracts have been awarded for an initial period of 12 months from March 2010, with the intention to extend them for a further two years until March 2013 subject to evaluation of the work carried out in the first year and availability of funds.

These contract awards follow recommendations made in “Healthcare for all”, the report of the independent inquiry headed by Sir Jonathan Michael into access to health care for people with learning disabilities. The inquiry recommended that the Department establish a confidential inquiry to improve evidence for health and care professionals and a Public Health Observatory to improve data and information to support commissioning. As part of the “Valuing People Now” strategy for people with learning disabilities published last year, the Department gave a commitment to implement both these recommendations. These contract awards take forward that commitment.

These projects have an important part to play in delivering the improvements in health and health care for people with learning disabilities to which the Government are committed.

Bilateral Healthcare Agreement (UK and Isle of Man)

I would like to inform the House that, following further discussions between the Department and the Isle of Man Government, it has been agreed to defer the termination of the bilateral healthcare agreement between the UK and the Isle of Man by six months.

We have also agreed that the current 2009-10 financial allocation of £2.8 million given by the UK Government to the Isle of Man Government for elective treatment will be the last payment of this kind. From 2010-2011, no such payment will be made and no public money will change hands between the respective Governments. This new arrangement will bring the Isle of Man into line with other agreements that the UK has with a number of non-European economic area countries.

Both Governments have agreed to keep the situation under review with the expectation that it can form the basis of a new reciprocal healthcare agreement that would come into place in the autumn, if the new arrangement is working for both parties.

We believe that we have arrived at a position that not only provides the UK taxpayer with an agreement that represents value for money, but also ensures arrangements for travellers on temporary visits remain the same as they are today.

Justice

Out-of-Court Disposals

On 14 December 2009 the Home Secretary, Attorney-General and I announced to Parliament the terms of reference for the review of the use of out-of-court disposals to be conducted by the Office for Criminal Justice Reform (OCJR). I am issuing this written statement to update the House on further work that is being undertaken.

The initial work on the review provided a greater understanding of the operation of the existing out-of-court disposals frameworks for adults and young people. We plan now to seek further evidence by undertaking a detailed review of individual case files to examine the particular circumstances in which out-of-court disposals have been administered for apparently serious offences. This will inform an examination of the broader policy of these frameworks and consideration of how to improve transparency and accountability in how out-of-court disposals are used.

This is a substantial piece of work and will require public consultation. We will continue to keep Parliament informed of progress.

Law on Libel

I am publishing today the Government’s views on reform of the law on libel in the light of the conclusions of the libel working group established by the Ministry of Justice; the recommendations of the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee in its recent report on its inquiry on “Press Standards, Privacy and Libel”; and, the responses to our recent consultation paper “Defamation and the internet: the multiple publication rule”.

As I announced in a written ministerial statement on 27 January 2010, Official Report column 58 WS, the libel working group was set up in response to concerns about the possibility that our libel laws were having a chilling effect on freedom of expression. Members of the working group reflected a range of interests and expertise, including organisations campaigning for free speech, claimant and defendant lawyers, media organisations, newspaper editors, and the academic and scientific communities.

The working group’s terms of reference were

“to consider whether the law of libel, including the law relating to libel tourism, in England and Wales needs reform, and if so to make recommendations as to solutions”.

The group focused on identifying key priorities relating to libel law in England and Wales, but did not consider issues relating to costs in defamation proceedings, where work is already under way.

The Government have taken a number of steps to control costs in defamation-related proceedings, ensuring that, where after-the-event insurance is taken out, defendants are notified as early as possible, and given the opportunity to reach a settlement without being liable for the insurance premiums. Defamation proceedings are now part of a mandatory costs budgeting pilot, with judges scrutinising costs as cases progress to ensure that they are proportionate and within the agreed budget. In addition, the Government are seeking to reduce the maximum “success fee” in conditional fee agreements in defamation-related proceedings to 10 per cent. as an interim measure so that the specific concerns around high costs in these cases can be addressed as quickly as possible.

The working group’s report was submitted to me last week, and will be published on the Ministry of Justice website today, together with the Government’s response to the consultation on the multiple publication rule, and copies will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses. I would like to express my gratitude to all the members of the working group for contributing their knowledge and expertise and for the considerable amount of time and effort that they have put into considering these important issues and producing their analysis and options for reform within such a tight timetable.

On the basis of all the views that have been submitted, the Government are convinced that reform of the law on libel is needed, and that action should be taken on a number of aspects of the current law and procedures. We will take steps to implement the necessary changes on as timely a basis as possible. However, in some instances primary legislation may be necessary. Where this is the case, we propose to develop our thinking further and come forward with detailed proposals to include a draft Bill for introduction as soon as parliamentary time allows in the new Parliament.

In particular we will be considering actively:

a single publication rule: The introduction of a single publication rule whereby a defamation claim will have to be brought within one year from the date of the original publication, subject to judicial discretion to extend this period as necessary.

a new statutory defence: Consideration of whether a statutory defence relating to the public interest and responsible journalism can be developed in a way which reconciles the competing interests in relation to reputation and the right to freedom of expression.

libel tourism: Procedural changes as proposed by the libel working group to address problems relating to the issue of “libel tourism”. These focus on a tightening, and so a more rigorous application, of the rules and practice in relation to service of defamation claims out of England and Wales where the court’s permission is required, in order to head off inappropriate claims at the earliest possible stage. We believe that the working group’s proposals in this area will provide effective practical benefits, and intend to raise them with the Civil Procedure Rule Committee and encourage the Committee to consider them as soon as possible.

other procedural issues that have been raised in the libel working group report and elsewhere, for example relating to changes to procedures to strengthen the defamation protocol governing pre-action behaviour and to resolve difficulties relating to decisions on the meaning of allegedly defamatory material at an early stage.

The Government believe that the programme of work that they intend to take forward represents an effective and practical way to ensure that our libel laws achieve a fair and just balance which enables people to protect their reputations against defamatory allegations without having a harmful effect on freedom of expression.

Work and Pensions

Child Maintenance Disregard

I am pleased to announce that the full child maintenance disregard will be introduced on 12 April 2010.

In the child maintenance White Paper published in December 2006 the Government committed that by 2010-11 they would increase significantly the amount of maintenance that all parents with care on benefit can keep before it affects the level of benefits they receive. The first phase in meeting this commitment was taken in October 2008 when a full child maintenance disregard was introduced in housing and council tax benefits and doubled to £20 across the other income-related benefits.

In the welfare reform White Paper, “Raising expectations and increasing support; reforming welfare for the future”, published in December 2008, the Government announced that a full child maintenance disregard would be introduced in all income-related benefits from April 2010.

By introducing a full child maintenance disregard, the Government are demonstrating their commitment to abolishing the revenue recovery function of the child maintenance system and instead focusing it on parental responsibility and tackling child poverty.

A full disregard will encourage both parents to set up an effective maintenance arrangement and the non-resident parent to pay maintenance because all of the money will go to the children rather than the state. It is important that both parents arrange maintenance agreements that provide reliable financial support for their children.

Workplace Pension Reform

Today we shall publish the Government response to the consultation on “The use of Default Options in workplace personal pensions and the use of group self invested personal pensions for automatic enrolment”.