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Written Statements

Volume 515: debated on Monday 6 September 2010

Written Ministerial Statements

Monday 6 September 2010

Treasury

Employer National Insurance Contributions (New Businesses)

The Government are determined that all parts of the UK benefit from sustainable economic growth, and that the private sector recovery is particularly strong in areas that are currently overly dependent on the public sector.

To help deliver this on 22 June 2010, the Chancellor announced the launch of a regional employer national insurance contributions holiday for new businesses (the holiday). The holiday comes into operation today, and will last until 5 September 2013. The holiday reduces employment costs for qualifying new businesses set up from 22 June 2010 outside Greater London, the South East and East of England. In doing so, it will directly provide an incentive to encourage enterprise and business growth.

On 27 August, Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs published a technical note that included an overview of the scheme, draft clauses and draft explanatory notes. This was in order to provide as much certainty and clarity as possible to employers in qualifying businesses so that they are able to take advantage of the holiday from today.

Copies of the technical note have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses, the Vote Office and is also available on the HMRC website: http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/news/august.htm.

The draft clauses will be included in the forthcoming National Insurance Contributions Bill that will be introduced in the autumn.

Communities and Local Government

Departmental Business (Recess)

I would like to update hon. Members, at the earliest opportunity, on the main items of business undertaken by my Department since the House rose on the 27 July 2010.

Transparency

As part of the coalition Government’s drive to increase democratic accountability, we have asked all local authorities to publish performance and spending data over £500 online by January 2011. How taxpayers’ money is spent should be available for public scrutiny. The public should be able to decide whether services have been delivered well and if they have achieved value for money. Already 45 councils have put their information online.

There should not be one rule for councils and another for the Whitehall Department overseeing local government. My Department has therefore now taken the step of being the first to publish all its expenditure over £500 for 2009-10 online, and I instructed the Department’s main arm’s length bodies to do likewise. We will publish our 2010 first-quarter spending at the end of this month and, in line with the rest of Whitehall, will publish all monthly spending from November onwards.

We also confirmed plans to review and tighten the “Code of recommended practice on local authority publicity”, subject to consultation as required by statute, including stronger guidance to prevent taxpayers’ money being spent on lobbyists who operate outside the freedom of information regime.

The Department also reached an agreement last month with the Ordnance Survey to provide free access for public sector bodies to all its core datasets from April 2011. This will replace costly and inefficient contracts and triple the number of bodies with access to the data.

Localism

We have continued to demonstrate our belief in the capability of councils to get the job done without Whitehall interference by further decentralising, devolving and reducing the bureaucratic burden faced by local authorities from Government regulation.

On 13 August, I announced plans to disband the Audit Commission. This decision was taken in line with the coalition Government’s commitment to radically scale back centrally imposed, bureaucratic and costly inspection and auditing, saving council tax payers’ money. The Audit Commission’s responsibilities for overseeing and delivering local audit and inspections will stop; the Commission’s research activities will end; audit functions will be moved to the private sector; councils will be free to appoint their own independent external auditors from a more competitive and open market; and there will be a new audit framework for local health bodies. This will save council tax payers £50 million. The National Audit Office will oversee the new audit arrangements, helping ensure probity, robust scrutiny and healthy competition.

I have also announced changes that will mean councils no longer have to administer endless guidance on food licences, road closures and insurance in order to allow communities to hold local fêtes and street parties. From now on councils will be able to request that organisers instead complete one simple form.

In addition, my Ministerial colleagues have over the past five weeks set out plans to:

replace the various environmental impact assessments with one clear and streamlined set of regulations, making it easier for councils and developers to green-proof building projects;

end the intrusive and bureaucratic Place Survey saving £4 million a year;

give local authorities new powers to review and revoke byelaws without needing to seek permission from this Department. It should not take a rubber stamp from central Government to scrap outdated local laws, such as on the use of dickey straps, the beating of carpets or the transport of dead horse carcasses; and

allow the Local Government Association to take over control of the Revenue Support Grant “top-slice” funding that goes to local service and leadership improvement bodies, combined with the LG Group adopting the same transparency standards that councils are obliged to follow, including being subject for the first time to freedom of information requests.

Following the revocation of regional spatial strategies that created top-down targets for councils, Ministers in my Department have announced that the New Homes Bonus scheme will be introduced early in the spending review period so that councils and communities which go for growth now by supporting the construction of new homes where they are needed will receive direct and substantial extra incentive funding to spend as they wish.

We were further able to confirm last week that the New Homes Bonus scheme will also apply to the provision of authorised traveller sites. This was part of a balanced package of proposals to ensure fair play in the planning system. The tenure rights of travellers on authorised local authority sites will be strengthened, and subject to necessary impact assessments, we announced our intention to revoke the controversial top-down planning circulars with short, light-touch guidance that will give local authorities greater discretion. These reforms will help strengthen community cohesion which has been undermined by the perception that different planning rules apply for different groups. Further announcements on this issue will be made in due course.

People power

As a Department we are committed to devolving real power to people.

On 30 July I set out proposals to give the public the power to veto excessive council tax rises. This will replace top-down council tax capping by this Department. And under separate plans, students studying under European institutions will receive the same council tax exemptions as students studying in England.

We also announced plans to put the 8 million tenants in social housing in control of where they live through a national affordable home-swap scheme. For the first time this will give tenants the chance to see details of every council and housing association tenant looking to exchange homes—not just in their area but across the country. This will strengthen the rights of tenure for tenants—allowing them to move home without losing their place on the social housing ladder.

In conjunction with the Secretary of State for Transport, I have written a joint letter to local authorities to encourage them to avoid a proliferation of unnecessary signs, railings and advertising hoardings in order to make streets tidier and less confusing for drivers and pedestrians. We took the opportunity to remind them that Government advice in this area clearly states that for signs to be most effective, they should be kept to a minimum. As part of the big society, we are also urging community groups to inform their local council of particularly bad examples of excessive street clutter.

Finally, a portrait of Her Majesty the Queen has been unveiled in the reception of the Department for Communities and Local Government. The small capital cost of the new official portrait in Eland House, Victoria, was funded through savings made in ministerial budgets. The Queen has an extremely important role to play in unifying people, no matter what their social background, race or religion.

Copies of the press notices containing more details of each item of business listed above have been placed in the Library of the House.

Defence

Aggregated Service

I am pleased to be able to announce to the House details of changes to eligibility for the award of campaign medals to personnel serving in Afghanistan and Iraq that have been approved by Her Majesty the Queen following recommendations by the military chiefs of staff. These amendments will be backdated to the start of both operations and will ensure that personnel who have served on both operations receive the recognition that they deserve.

The current eligibility criteria for the operational service medal (Afghanistan) and the Iraq medal require personnel to have served within the qualifying area for 30 continuous days. As a result, groups of service personnel who hitherto fulfilled their duty obligations during difficult and sometimes dangerous tours of duty but who did not meet the 30 days continuous service requirement were excluded from qualification for a medal. Examples of such groups include, but are not exclusively limited to, the aeromedical evacuation teams who have been deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq and who accompany injured patients back to the UK. Similarly, personnel based at the Kuwait support facility who conducted convoys into Iraq but who did not accumulate 30 continuous days service in Iraq have not qualified for the Iraq medal.

Personnel who deploy to or from the operational theatre for short periods to complete specific operational tasks, and subsequently return on one or more occasions, will now be allowed to accrue aggregate qualifying service in the defined medal earning area. The qualifying period for aggregate service will be 45 days which is longer than that required for continuous service in recognition of the intermittent rather than continuous exposure to risk and rigour. The eligibility criteria will distinguish between those on operational duty and visitors who will continue to be ineligible for medals on an aggregate basis.

Personnel who are evacuated from the operational theatre as a result of either death or wounding are awarded the appropriate campaign medal no matter how long they have served there and this will not change.

The inclusion of aggregate service will be retrospective to the start of both operations in Afghanistan (11 September 2001) and Iraq (20 January 2003). Individuals who believe that they meet the new criteria are invited to apply for the OSM (Afghanistan) or Iraq medal directly to the MOD Medal Office. Information will be promulgated internally to each service and externally (for those who have now left the armed forces) via service and ex-service organisations.

Education

Pupil Place Planning

Today I am announcing the first 16 Free School proposals to progress to the next stage of the process and develop a full business case and plan.

We need to reform our education system if we are to accelerate improvement to keep pace with the highest-performing systems of the world and ensure that every pupil growing up in this country gets a better chance of achieving their potential. Free Schools form an integral part of the Government’s education policy to improve choice for parents and raise standards for all young people.

The proposals I have agreed to move forward to business case and plan stage today represent a diverse mix: there are parent-led, community-led, sponsor-led and teacher-led proposals; there are faith and non-faith proposals; there are proposals for large secondary schools and for small primary schools.  All of these proposals have been driven by demand from local people for improved choice for their young people and I am delighted that so many promising proposals have come forward at such an early stage.

I hope that many of the projects progressing today will become the first Free Schools in September 2011. This is a challenging time scale, and some groups may decide that it is preferable to open at a later date for practical reasons. To support groups in meeting the robust requirements of the business case and plan stage, we will now be providing the proposers that progress to this stage with support co-ordinated by a named contact within my Department. At the next stage, proposers will need to make a fully detailed business case for the new school and set out their plans for opening and operating the proposed school. I will make an assessment based on this final business case on whether to allow a new school to be set up.

The proposals announced today are just the start of our Free Schools programme. My Department has received a number of promising proposals for 2012 and 2013 and we will be making further announcements about taking these forward in due course. New proposals are frequently being submitted to the Department. We want it to be open to a diverse range of groups to come forward with proposals which meet the needs of their local area, and for proposals to progress at the pace which is right for both proposers and for parents and young people in the local area.

The 16 proposals approved to go forward to business case and plan stage are (in alphabetical order):

Bedford and Kempston Free School, Bedford Borough

The Childcare Company, Slough

Discovery New School, West Sussex

The Free School Norwich, Norfolk

Haringey Jewish Primary School, Haringey

I-Foundation Primary School, Leicester

King’s Science Academy, Bradford

Mill Hill Jewish Primary School, Barnet

Nishkam Education Trust, Birmingham

North Westminster Free School (ARK), Westminster

Priors Marston and Priors Hardwick School, Warwickshire

Rivendale Free School, Hammersmith and Fulham

St. Luke’s School, Camden

Stour Valley Community School, Suffolk

West London Free School, Ealing or Hammersmith and Fulham

Wormholt North Hammersmith Free School (ARK), Hammersmith and Fulham (to be known as Burlington Primary Academy)

I will update the House as these projects progress further.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Parliamentary Written Answer (Correction)

I regret to inform the House that there was an inaccuracy in the answer I gave to parliamentary question 7334 on 26 July 2010, Official Report, column 703-704W, about information and communication technology spend since 1997. The response neither fully answered the question nor contained accurate data. A corrected answer is provided below.

Graham Evans (Weaver Vale): To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, how much (a) her Department and its predecessors and (b) its agencies and non-departmental public bodies spent on information and communication technology in each year since 1997. [7334]

Richard Benyon: In response to the amount spent on information and communication technology since 1997, the Department was not formed until 2001 and data between then and April 2007 could only be obtained at disproportionate cost.

07-08

08-09

09-10

Core DEFRA

126.8

99.9

113.5

Rest of DEFRA

265.8

269.0

284.9

392.6

368.9

398.4

Breakdown for the rest of DEFRA

07-08

08-09

09-10

Animal Health

27.6

35.2

29.5

Environment Agency

84.0

88.0

115.5

Kew

1.9

2.0

4.0

Natural England

46.7

35.5

32.3

Rural Payments Agency

91.0

93.7

88.5

British Waterways

7.0

7.2

6.6

FERA

1.3

1.4

2.5

CEFAS

1.2

1.4

1.3

VLA

3.2

2.6

2.7

Smaller Units (estimate)

2.0

2.0

2.0

Total

265.8

269.0

284.9

The information is not held in full for smaller bodies, and this can only be assembled at disproportionate cost. Estimates have therefore been used based on partial data.

Private Sewers and Lateral Drains (Ownership Transfer)

I am pleased to announce that on 26 August 2010 I published for consultation draft regulations to effect the transfer of private sewers into the ownership of the statutory sewerage companies in England from 2011. The consultation paper sets out the Government’s intentions and provides an opportunity for interested parties to respond with their views on the accompanying draft regulations. A copy has been placed in the Library of the House.

The decision to transfer follows an extensive review of the arrangements for private sewers and laterals in England and Wales. Existing private sewers and lateral drains (that part of the drain that extends beyond the property boundary) are currently the responsibility of the owners of the properties they serve. This fact typically comes as a surprise to owners, who usually assume that the sewer and lateral drain serving their property are the responsibility of the local sewerage company or local authority.

Private sewers serve more than one property so ownership is shared and usually a large extent of the sewer will lie outside a property’s own boundary. Lateral drains serve one property but always lie outside the property’s boundary. Transfer provides the only comprehensive solution to a range of private sewer and lateral drain problems affecting householders. These include a lack of awareness of owners’ responsibilities and unwillingness or inability to co-ordinate or contribute to potentially high costs of maintenance and repair. It will bring simplification and clarity to owners, local authorities and sewerage companies, all of whom typically become involved when these problems arise.

Transfer will also significantly help address a lack of integrated management of the sewerage network as a whole, and provide much greater efficiency of effort, environmental stewardship and expenditure at a time when climate change impacts and housing growth may impose greater demands on urban drainage systems. Having a much greater proportion of the sewer network in the management of the water and sewerage companies means they will be able to plan maintenance and resolve problems more easily and comprehensively. The Government are also taking steps to stem the proliferation of newly built private sewers in order to prevent the recurrence of existing problems in the future.

Subject to approval of the regulations, transfer will take place from October 2011 in order to allow the water industry and those businesses operating around it sufficient time to prepare for transfer. The costs of necessary future improvement and maintenance will, post transfer, be met by an increase in the sewerage element of bills for the generality of customers. Although these costs cannot be stated now with certainty, Ofwat estimates indicative increases of around £3 to £14 per annum across the water and sewerage companies in England.

Justice

Legal Services Ombudsman

On 12 August 2010, the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor made directions (which will take effect on 6 October 2010) instructing the legal services ombudsman to limit her investigations to those arising from service complaints against persons described in section 22(1)(a) and (b) of the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990. The directions were made by virtue of his powers under section 21 of, and paragraph 1(1) of schedule 3 to, the Courts and Legal Services Act 1990 (c.41).

The directions support the transitional arrangements. They ensure a timely cessation of the current system under which the legal services ombudsman operates and establish (as of 6 October 2010) the new Office for Legal Complaints which will administer a fair, transparent and independent legal complaints handling scheme, namely the Legal Ombudsman (LeO). Under the new scheme the LeO will not have jurisdiction to deal with conduct complaints and these will be dealt with by the respective approved regulator.