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Written Statements

Volume 517: debated on Thursday 4 November 2010

Written Ministerial Statements

Thursday 4 November 2010

Business, Innovation and Skills

Local Growth White Paper (Correction)

I announced the publication of the Local Growth White Paper on Thursday 28 October. It has now come to my attention that the White Paper contains an error.

Paragraph 3.23 of the White Paper reads:

“That is why, for example, nationally important infrastructure projects (such as large scale wind farms and power plants), the supply of aggregate minerals and planning for waste will become the responsibility of the Planning Inspectorate’s recently announced Major Infrastructure Planning Unit”.

The Major Infrastructure Planning Unit will not, however, be responsible for examining applications for aggregate mineral extraction. Nor will it be responsible for examining applications on those waste management facilities which fall below the thresholds set out in the Planning Act 2008. Therefore, paragraph 3.23 should read:

“That is why, for example, nationally important infrastructure projects (such as large scale wind farms and power plants) will become the responsibility of the Planning Inspectorate’s recently announced Major Infrastructure Planning Unit”.

A correction slip to this effect has been added to the copies of the White Paper laid in the Journal Office and deposited in the Vote and other offices.

Communities and Local Government

Planning Circulars (HMOs)

I am today publishing a replacement to Department for Communities and Local Government Circular 5/10 (on planning controls for houses in multiple occupation), and a replacement appendix D of Department of the Environment Circular 9/95 (on the article 4 direction process, that allows local planning authorities to withdraw permitted development rights in certain circumstances). Copies have been placed in the Library of the House.

A replacement to Department for Communities and Local Government “Circular 5/10: Changes to Planning Regulations for Dwelling Houses and Houses in Multiple Occupation” will cover changes to planning legislation introduced in October this year, which make changes of use from family houses to small HMOs permitted development (i.e. there is no need to obtain planning consent for this from the local planning authority).

Appendix D of Department of the Environment “Circular 9/95: General Development Consolidation 1995” relates to article 4 directions, which allow local planning authorities to withdraw permitted development rights. The updated appendix D being published today reflects amendments to the article 4 direction procedures introduced in April 2010. The main effect of these changes is to grant local planning authorities the ability to confirm article 4 directions themselves rather than to have to apply to the Secretary of State (as was formerly required for certain directions), require that all article 4 directions are subject to local consultation, and to require that all article 4 directions are publicised by site notice in addition to local advertisement.

The replacement appendix D also reflects amendments to the compensation provisions related to article 4 directions introduced in October 2010, which limit the period during which local authorities may be liable for such claims.

Taken together, the replacement to Circular 5/10 and the updated appendix to Circular 9/95 will ensure that up-to-date and accessible information exists in relation to planning controls over HMOs and the making of article 4 directions. No further impact assessment has been produced for these publications as changes to planning legislation of houses in multiple occupation and article 4 directions have previously been assessed.

Home Department

Justice and Home Affairs (Pre-Council Statement)

My right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Secretary for Justice, and I will attend the Justice and Home Affairs Council on 8 and 9 November in Brussels.

The Council will begin with a Mixed Committee with Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland (non-EU Schengen States). Due to the standing commitment to update Council on the progress of the second generation of the Schengen Information System II (SIS II) the Commission will provide an update on developments.

Next there will be a discussion on the proposal to move Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina to the positive annex of Regulation 539/2001 which would exclude their nationals from the EU visa requirement when travelling to the Schengen area. The United Kingdom does not participate in the border and visa aspects of the Schengen Acquis as they build on elements of the Schengen Acquis in which we do not participate. The UK will not be affected by changes to the regulation of the Common Visa List, but will maintain an interest in all visa issues notably issues relating to full reciprocity for third-country nationals.

The Council will note progress towards an amending regulation on Frontex, the EU external borders agency. The new regulation is intended to increase the capacity of Frontex to strengthen the security and surveillance of the external Schengen borders, to develop relationships with third countries, and better to assist member states to return those with no right to remain in the EU. The UK is not directly affected as the amending regulation relates to those elements of the Schengen Acquis in which we do not participate. However, the UK does provide support to the operational and other activities of Frontex and we have been actively engaged in the drafting process for the amendment. The UK is particularly keen to see that the remit of Frontex is extended to allow it to handle the personal data of those suspected of involvement in criminality at the border. We believe that being able to gather and share these data with other agencies such as Europol is vital to Frontex’s contribution to the fight against human trafficking and smuggling.

The Council will be updated on a draft regulation updating the establishment of a network of immigration liaison officers, with a view to reaching agreement between Council and Parliament before the end of the Belgian presidency. The amended regulation is intended to strengthen the EU’s capacity to address illegal migration, and seeks to achieve greater benefit from Immigration Liaison Officer (ILO) networks for Frontex and the Commission. The UK supports the content of this proposal, and welcomes its aims to strengthen Frontex and to enhance partnership working within the EU (and with other international partners) to tackle illegal migration. However, we do not agree with the current interpretation of the UK’s legal participation and will look to protect the UK’s right to opt in.

Next the Council will discuss the sixth report of the Commission on the maintenance of visa requirements. Regulation 539/2001 as amended (the Common Visa List) aims to establish reciprocity with non-EU countries which continue to impose a visa requirement on the nationals of some EU member states for stays of under 90 days (although those member states do not impose the visa requirement on nationals of those non-EU countries). The UK will not be affected by changes to the regulation of the Common Visa List however; will maintain an interest in all visa issues, and notably issues relating to full reciprocity for third-country nationals.

Following Mixed Committee, the Council will receive a progress report on those dossiers being prioritised by the Belgian presidency under the Common European Asylum System: the extension of the long-term residents directive to beneficiaries of international protection, the qualification directive, Eurodac, Dublin and the establishment of the European Asylum Support Office. The UK Government believe that the challenges that Europe faces in the asylum field are better addressed by practical co-operation than by further legislation. We need to work with those member states that are under pressure to help them improve their asylum systems and deal with the claims they receive. In particular, the EU needs to provide properly co-ordinated support to help Greece implement reforms to its asylum system. We see the new European Asylum Support Office as playing a crucial role in this work and will play an active role in the office’s development.

Over lunch Interior Ministers will receive an update from the Belgian Minister for Immigration on recent visits to Cyprus, Malta and Greece and have a discussion on solidarity in the field of immigration and asylum.

After lunch the Council will have a discussion on the creation and implementation of an EU policy cycle on organised crime (Project Harmony), which presents a pragmatic, intelligence-led approach to prioritising and tackling agreed threats caused by serious organised crime. The UK, having been a project partner in this initiative since its creation, supports these conclusions as we believe key benefits to the UK include greater opportunity to influence the EU agenda on organised crime; the potential alignment of EU funds to support operational delivery; and as a result greater commitment of member states to work collaboratively to tackle the agreed prioritised threats.

The presidency will seek a firm political steer on the way forward for implementation of the Prum Council Decisions. The Council will acknowledge that obstacles are not only technical in nature but also political and linked to financial and human resources. The Council will also consider recommendations for practical solutions, through the provision of technical assistance, the use of EU funding, and a streamlined evaluation process.

The Commission will present their annual report on the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) which is due to be published on 10 November.

Under AOB the Commission will present their initiative for a regulation on the marketing and use of explosives. The regulation proposes to limit access by the general public to specific chemicals that can be used to manufacture home-made explosives by restricting their use and possession above set concentration thresholds. The UK will seek to negotiate changes to the text and it is expected that the proposal will go for Council approval in the middle of 2011.

The presidency has also placed the Prague process-building migration partnerships as an AOB item at the request of Hungary. The intention of the process is to implement strengthened practical and operational co-operation with main countries of transit and origin based on the global approach to migration—specifically the Eastern migration route, which includes Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Slovakia. We support the Prague process and welcome the valuable results it has achieved, it is a good example of how we can turn our policies into practical action.

The Justice day will commence with a Commission presentation on a proposal for a directive regarding measures against new forms of cybercrime, including large-scale cyber-attacks. The UK takes the issue of cybercrime very seriously and recognises that it is an international problem. The UK is keen to work with other member states to ensure that there can be an effective response to cybercrime in the EU. We are considering whether to opt in.

There will be an orientation debate on the European Investigation Order (EIO) which is a draft directive aimed at streamlining the system of mutual legal assistance between participating EU member states to discuss broad issues relating to the EIO including grounds on which an EIO could be refused. In particular, the Council will be asked to give a steer on the grounds for refusal which should apply; the UK will argue strongly that proportionality must be a consideration. Detailed work will then continue at working group level.

There will be an information point on the letter of rights to information in criminal proceedings. This is the second measure in the road map to strengthen procedural rights in criminal proceedings and it aims to set common minimum standards and improve the rights of suspects and accused persons by ensuring that they receive information about their rights. The UK has opted in to this measure.

During lunch Justice Ministers will discuss judicial co-operation in cross-border regions in the light of responses to a questionnaire submitted to member states. The questionnaire and the debate are aimed at improving the knowledge about the different forms of international co-operation between borders. The UK’s experience of co-operation in cross-border regions is limited to that between the borders of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Northern Ireland

Equality Commission for Northern Ireland

I am pleased to announce the appointment of four new Commissioners to the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland. Fidelma Carolan, Milton Kerr, Stephen McIlveen and Liam Maskey will take up office on 8 November 2010.

The Equality Commission is a key institution of the Belfast agreement and plays a vital role in protecting and promoting equality for all members of the diverse society in Northern Ireland. The Commission is now facing new challenges, not least in fulfilling its remit in a testing economic environment.

I am confident that the four new Commissioners bring a wealth of knowledge, skills and understanding, helping the Commission to meet the challenges ahead and build on its considerable achievements over the last 11 years.

Billy Wright Inquiry

On 14 September 2010 I made a statement to this House, publishing the report of the Billy Wright inquiry. The report made three specific recommendations that should be applied to the Northern Ireland Prison Service (NIPS).

In my statement of 14 September, I informed the House that I intended to meet with the Northern Ireland Justice Minister, David Ford, in the week following the publication of the inquiry’s report to discuss the recommendations made by Lord MacLean and his panel. In addition to this meeting I have also discussed the matter with the Justice Minister more recently. Although prisons issues are now, in the main, a devolved matter, it is right that I keep the House informed of progress in regard to the report’s recommendations.

I have now received correspondence from the Justice Minister updating me on progress made in relation to the recommendations and providing me with documentation relating to NIPS’ response to the recommendations made in the inquiry’s report. A copy has been placed in the Library of the House.

To summarise, in response to the first recommendation relating to the retention of records by NIPS, I am advised that steps have been taken in recent years to provide assurances regarding the retention and disposal of hard copy and electronic files. Details can be found in annex B of the documentation placed in the Library of the House. I am content that this recommendation has been satisfactorily complied with, as I believe is the Justice Minister.

In response to the second recommendation requiring NIPS to satisfy themselves that any relevant lessons from HMP Maze have been learned for HMP Maghaberry, the summary of a recent audit undertaken by the NIPS, and the steps being taken as a result, can be found at annex C of the documentation placed in the Library of the House. Remedial activities will include both physical infrastructure, where it is operationally required, and updating of certain policies and guidance.

The third recommendation invites the Justice Minister to consider whether a process similar to the Patten Commission on policing for Northern Ireland might pave the way for radical change in the way NIPS is managed and how its industrial relations are conducted. I am informed by the Justice Minister that his statement to the Assembly on 21 June 2010—the text of which can be found at annex D of the documentation placed in the Library of the House—relating to a fundamental review of the conditions of detention, management and oversight of all prisons, carried out by an independent team, fulfils the panel’s third recommendation. The Justice Minister also advises me that a strategic efficiency and effectiveness programme is being taken forward by the senior management of NIPS in consultation with the three staff associations. Annex E of the documentation placed in the Library of the House summarises the remit of this programme.

I am grateful to the Justice Minister and the Northern Ireland Prison Service for providing me with this information and I commend their promptness in addressing these important recommendations.

Independent Monitoring Commission Report

I have received the 25th report of the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC), on levels of paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland. The IMC conclude that dissident groups continue to pose a substantial and potentially lethal threat, particularly against members of the security forces. I am today laying the report before Parliament.

The Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) was established jointly by the British and Irish Governments in 2004 to help in the process of making the transition in Northern Ireland to a peaceful society and stable and inclusive devolved Government in Northern Ireland. In paragraph 1.5 of their 25th report the Commission refer to comments in previous reports on the

“implications for the continuation of the IMC of the peace process drawing to a close and more normal arrangements for security and the administration of justice taking over, since when we have had the devolution of policing and justice”.

Since they were formally established in 2004 they have prepared 20 reports on paramilitary activity and five reports on security normalisation in Northern Ireland. Over that period there have been significant changes in the political and security landscape in Northern Ireland.

In July 2005 the Provisional IRA announced an end to their armed campaign and in September 2005 the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) reported that the Provisional IRA had decommissioned all the arms within its control. In May 2007 the Ulster Volunteer Force made a statement renouncing violence and in June 2009 the Ulster Defence Association also issued a statement announcing that the struggle had ended. On 25 February 2010 the IICD reported to the British and Irish Governments that it had overseen the decommissioning of all the arms within the control of the UDA, UVF, Official IRA and the Irish National Liberation Army.

The Government’s security normalisation programme, including the conclusion of the military’s Operation Banner, was completed and reported on in the IMC’s 16th report.

In parallel with this programme of security normalisation, we have seen the political process firmly embedded in Northern Ireland. Devolution was restored on 8 May 2007 and devolved Government has now been up and running for the longest continuous period since 1972. Locally elected politicians from Northern Ireland are now responsible for making decisions about the issues that really matter to the people of Northern Ireland—jobs, health, education and the environment—and since 12 April 2010, policing and justice. In their last several reports the IMC have consistently assessed that, with the exception of some residual terrorist groups, the leaderships of paramilitary groups remain committed to the political process and to transforming their organisations.

The IMC have played a crucial part in supporting and enabling the historic changes that we have seen in Northern Ireland over the last 12 years. Although there remain those who have rejected peace and politics and who actively work to undermine it, Northern Ireland has made the transition to stable, local democracy and the job of the IMC is nearing completion. The two Governments have, therefore, asked the IMC to prepare one more final report on their work, including lessons learned. After that, we will bring the IMC arrangements to an end. I would like to place on record my thanks to the IMC for their work and their contribution to the developments that have taken place over the last six years.

There is a continuing public interest in ensuring that the public are informed about the threat from Northern Ireland-related terrorism. Once we have received and considered the IMC’s final report, the British and Irish Governments will do what is necessary to ensure that need is met.