Written Ministerial Statements
Monday 10 January 2011
Financial Assistance for Ireland
I have today placed in the Libraries of both Houses copies of the agreement providing a credit facility to Ireland of £3,226,960,000. This agreement was negotiated between HM Treasury and Ireland and signed on the 22 December following enactment of the Loans to Ireland Act, which received Royal Assent on 21 December 2010.
Communities and Local Government
Work of the Department During Recess
I would like to update hon. Members on the main items of business undertaken by my Department since the House rose on Tuesday 21 December 2010.
The Department has recognised the important role pubs and clubs can play at the centre of the local community. On 30 December we announced a review of restrictive covenants preventing precious community pubs reopening again as public houses or entertainment venues. This review is in line with the Department’s commitment to cutting red tape and devolving real power to local communities. By changing the use of restrictive covenants communities will have greater opportunity to use the community right to buy powers to take over local pubs if they come up for sale and ensure important hubs of community life remain open.
Six months ago I wrote to all councils calling on them to throw open their files to make local government spending more transparent and show waste is being eradicated. Councils need to show they have done everything possible to reduce waste and duplication to save taxpayers’ money and protect front-line services.
The Department continues in its drive for open and transparent government, and on 1 January issued a new year’s reminder to local authorities that they are expected to publish their spending data over £500 online by the end of January 2011 in accessible formats. Over 180 councils have already shown their commitment to democratic accountability and rooting out waste by opening their books for public scrutiny ahead of the deadline. This includes publishing details of senior pay, councillor expenses, minutes of meetings, and any useful front-line service data of interest to residents or entrepreneurs.
Removing parking restrictions from national planning policy
We trust councils and communities to know what is best for their local area and we are continuing to devolve greater powers to enable them to act on their own.
On 3 January in conjunction with the Secretary of State for the Department of Transport, we removed national planning guidance that required councils to limit the number of parking spaces allowed in new residential developments and to set higher parking charges to encourage use of other forms of transport. Councils and communities are now free to set parking policies that are the best fit for their local area and for residents. These changes to planning policy will allow councils to set competitive local parking charges to promote town centres and attract shoppers to the high street. Councils will also be able to decide the right number of parking spaces for new residential development, helping to alleviate the problems of on-street parking congestion.
The Government recognise that for many people cars are a lifeline and we want to make it easier for motorists to make greener choices. Alongside steps already taken by the Department for Transport, we also outlined more support for drivers of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles. On 3 January, we announced our intention to allow charging points to be built on streets and in outdoor car parks without the need for planning permission, removing bureaucracy and ensuring that making a green choice does not mean making a less convenient choice. We have also urged councils to follow this lead and promote electric vehicle charging points in new developments.
The combination of severe snow and the festive break created a major headache for many councils and I pay tribute to the refuse collectors and other staff that have braved severe conditions to make their rounds. None the less it is clear that there has been widespread public concern at the extent of the disruption to collections in some local authority areas. On 4 January my ministerial colleague, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill) wrote to all council leaders to stress the importance of delivering high quality waste and recycling services that meet local needs. The Government stand ready to work with the Local Government Association councils and DEFRA to ensure this happens.
Councillors play a vital role in the local community and they should be free to be able to act in the best interest of the people they are elected to serve. On 4 January the Department highlighted the restrictions placed upon them under so-called “predetermination” rules, preventing them taking part in decision on which they have campaigned or expressed a predisposed view. Under a measure contained in the Localism Bill these restrictions will be amended to give councillors the powers to champion the needs of local residents.
Delivering more homes
On 5 January my ministerial colleague, the Minister for Housing and Local Government, set out our intention to develop an action plan to boost the number of self-builders across the country—and address the common barriers aspiring self-builders face, including availability of land, finance and expert advice. The self-build sector is already important to growth and housing supply—with self-builders completing as many as 10,000 building projects each year—so making it easier for more people to build their own home will provide a welcome boost to the housing market.
On 7 January I introduced new safeguards to restrict the use of Empty Dwelling Management Orders. These heavy-handed rules, which were introduced in 2006, mean people who leave their house empty for more than six months risk having it confiscated. Homes at risk do not have to be blighted or boarded up and can be taken over even if they are already on the property market, if councils believe the asking price is “unrealistic”.
I am concerned that there is a risk that councils could use the orders inappropriately to instigate action against homeowners in vulnerable situations. It is wrong that a bereaved family could face having their loved one’s home taken over for a period if there is a delay in them deciding what to do with it.
So I am limiting use of the orders to empty properties that have become magnets for vandalism, squatters and other forms of antisocial behaviour. A property will also have to stand empty for at least two years before an order can be obtained, and property owners will have to be given at least three months notice before the order can be issued. These new safeguards will ensure that responsible homeowners do not face having their properties seized.
Midlands Medical Accommodation Project - Phase 2
The Midlands Medical Accommodation (MMA) project aims to create, by March 2014, a new community of excellence—clinical, research and training at the Defence Medical Services establishments of Whittington near Lichfield and in Birmingham, both located in the west midlands. The project will be delivered in three phases of incremental acquisition, of which increment 1 is complete. I am pleased to say that the funding for increment 2 is now in place, and a contract for the associated work has been awarded to Carillion plc, subject to conditions precedent.
Increment 1 has already delivered a modern headquarters office building in which the Surgeon General’s strategic headquarters and the headquarters of the Joint Medical Command are now collocated and fully operational;
Increment 2 will create a modern training centre. This will include new training facilities; a new learning centre; a new lecture theatre; new messes for officers and for warrant officers and senior non-commissioned officers; service living accommodation for officers (permanent staff) and a new junior ranks’ dining and leisure facility. These will replace the existing facilities at Keogh barracks which would require levels of investment that compare unfavourably with those of the project; and
Increment 3, running along side increment 2, will provide modern single living accommodation. This is part of the ongoing upgrade programme approved under project SLAM.
The MMA project will draw together the currently dispersed components of the Defence Medical Services. The foundation of a close geographic community around Lichfield and Birmingham will encourage long-term life and career choices, particularly about stability, housing and education. This community will become a central and enduring feature in the life of the Defence Medical Services. It will be a firm base from which to exploit and sustain progress in military medicine, and a community providing respite from the intense demands of operational service. The Midlands Medical Accommodation project lays the foundation of a cohesive community of excellence and fellowship that will meet, with confidence, the strategic imperative to deliver military health care.
NHS South West
On 17 June 2010, I asked Sir David Nicholson, chief executive of the NHS in England, to initiate a review into the approach and behaviour of the NHS South West (the strategic health authority) in relation to Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust (RCHT), in particular, to the dismissal of John Watkinson and, by association, the trust’s position in relation to the provision of upper gastro-intestinal services in Cornwall.
Verita, a specialist company that conducts independent investigations, reviews and inquiries, carried out the review. The report was published on the Department of Health website on Tuesday 4 January 2011.
In the written ministerial statement of 17 June 2010, Official Report, column 57WS, I committed to updating the House on the findings of the report and my response. The key findings of the report were:
the strategic health authority put appropriate pressure on the RCHT board to suspend John Watkinson but was not involved in the decision to dismiss him;
the strategic health authority was justifiably concerned about many aspects of RCHT’s performance in the period leading up to the RCHT board’s dismissal of John Watkinson;
the RCHT chair and non-executive directors were relatively inexperienced within the NHS and it was good practice for them to take advice from the more experienced strategic health authority before making their own decision what to do; and
NHS South West is considered to have acted appropriately given its performance management responsibilities for NHS organisations in the south west and the fact that RCHT was not a foundation trust.
The report has been placed in the Library. Copies are available to hon. Members from the Vote Office and to noble Lords from the Printed Paper Office.
Seasonal Influenza Update
Seasonal flu virus circulates each year and this year is no exception. This statement is to update Parliament following developments during recess.
Seasonal flu is different from the outbreak of pandemic flu in 2009, when a new flu virus emerged (H1N1, or “swine flu”) against which humans (particularly those aged under 65) had little or no natural immunity. When the pandemic flu virus emerged in 2009, our pandemic preparedness plans were triggered. These plans entailed the mass distribution of “antiviral” drugs, the launch of the “National Flu Line”, and a “Catch it. Bin it, Kill it” advertising campaign designed to help members of the public understand how they could limit the spread of flu.
There is no flu pandemic this year, so these plans have not been triggered. Although the H1N1 virus is circulating, it is now one of the seasonal flu strains. This is because when it circulated in 2009-10, it helped to establish a residual level of immunity in people exposed to it, which means that H1N1 now circulates like other seasonal flu viruses.
In the United Kingdom, the H1N1 and influenza B viruses are the strains of flu that are circulating widely. H1N1 is the predominant virus, and is behaving—as expected—as it did in 2009-10. This means that H1N1 is likely to infect younger people—particularly those with underlying disease—and pregnant women.
A seasonal flu vaccine is available this year, as in previous years. This vaccine protects against all three strains of flu which the World Health Organisation identified would be most likely to circulate this year. Surveillance data show that these strains are circulating and that the vaccine is a good match.
General practitioners (GPs) order seasonal flu vaccine direct from the manufacturers according to their needs. This system is different from the childhood vaccination programme where the Department procures vaccine centrally and distributes it free of charge to the NHS.
We are aware of some reports of flu vaccine supply issues in some areas in England. We are working with NHS at the local level to ensure available supplies of surplus vaccine are moved to where they are needed. If efforts to source seasonal flu vaccine locally are not successful, the H1N1 monovalent vaccine (Pandemrix) is now available to GPs, for patients who are eligible for the seasonal flu vaccine.
I have already agreed for a review of procurement options of the seasonal flu vaccine to be undertaken, including central procurement, although no decisions have yet been made.
As in previous years, and on the basis of procedures which have existed for decades, the Government take expert advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JCVI). This year, as last year, the JCVI advised that those aged 65 and over, and those in clinical at-risk groups, should be vaccinated. Because of the specific characteristic of the H1N1 virus, the JCVI also advised for the first time that healthy, pregnant women should be vaccinated with seasonal flu vaccine. The JCVI has recently assured me that this advice is appropriate for this year’s flu season.
As in previous years, only certain groups are being targeted for vaccination. We have therefore focused our efforts on ensuring that these groups are vaccinated. Current information for vaccinations given up to 2 January 2011 shows that 70.0% of over 65s have been vaccinated and 45.4% of those in clinical at-risk groups have been vaccinated, which is broadly in line with previous years.
The latest data indicate that the rate of GP consultations for influenza-like illness (ILI) is currently 98 per 100,000 people but we need to be cautious about interpreting the data due to the holiday period. The highest recorded level this year was 124 per 100,000, which is lower than that recorded during the pandemic in 2009-10 and below the epidemic level of 200 per 100,000 people. Nevertheless, given that they reached these levels I have taken the decision to reinstate the “Catch it, Bin it. Kill it” campaign.
Data indicate that this year’s flu has resulted in greater than usual numbers of patients requiring critical care. These patients have largely been infected with H1N1, and the pattern is consistent with H1N1’s characteristics last year. As a result, where necessary, local NHS organisations have increased their critical care capacity, in part by delaying routine operations requiring critical care back-up. This is a normal operational process which is initiated by NHS organisations at the local level; critical care capacity is not “fixed” but is always able to flex in this way according to local need.
In addition, over the last month we have increased the number of so-called “ECMO” beds—for patients with the most severe disease—from 5 to 22.
The number of deaths this winter from flu verified by the Health Protection Agency currently is 50, with 45 of these being associated with the H1N1 infection. The number of deaths from seasonal flu varies each year, with over 10,000 deaths from seasonal flu estimated in the winter of 2008-09.
Some have queried why statistics for the number of deaths in pregnant women are not available. The only reason the Health Protection Agency has not published the breakdown is to protect those individuals from being personally identifiable, the number of such cases being small.
When influenza is circulating, antiviral medicines can also help clinical at-risk groups who have either been exposed to or have contracted a flu-like illness. This season we notified clinicians that the use of antiviral medicines in these groups was justified, but also, as a higher than normal number of patients outside the clinical at-risk groups were becoming seriously ill with flu, general practitioners (and other prescribers) were recommended to exercise their clinical discretion so that any patient who they feel is at serious risk of developing complications from influenza may receive antiviral treatments on the NHS. In response, demand for these medicines continued to rise.
We have taken prompt action to ensure that all patients have access to appropriate antiviral medicines when they need them, and there is no shortage of antiviral medicines in the country.
There is always more pressure on the NHS during the winter, but the NHS is well-prepared and is coping well. In summary, we are taking the following action:
the first line of defence against flu is vaccination, and we want to see vaccination rates increase still further. That is why we are currently working with the BMA and RCGP to ensure everyone in an at-risk group who has not been vaccinated contacts their GP and books an appointment;
the second line of defence is to practice good respiratory and hand hygiene. That is why we reinstated the Catch it, Bin it, Kill it campaign. In addition, and in advance of the new school term, we are encouraging parents to educate their children to use good hand and respiratory hygiene; and
the third line of defence is a well-prepared NHS with the ability to treat those who do need help. That is why we are working with local NHS organisation to help them escalate critical care capacity where necessary, and have increased the number of ECMO beds available for patients.
We are making available a range of winter performance information publicly available. This is published on the Winterwatch section of the Department’s website at: http://winterwatch.dh.gov.uk/.
Public Order Incident (Royal Car, 9 December 2010)
On 13 December 2010, I made a statement to Parliament about the acts of serious public disorder which took place in central London on 9 December and how these had been policed. In that statement I referred to the appalling attack on the car carrying Their Royal Highnesses The Prince of Wales and The Duchess of Cornwall. I informed the House that the Commissioner of the Metropolitan police had ordered a review of the policing arrangements in place on that evening, which would report by 17 December 2010 but warned that, for security reasons, the public details of the review might be limited.
The review was completed on 17 December and I have considered its content and recommendations in consultation with senior officers of the Metropolitan police. Although it is not possible to disclose the details for reasons of security, the overarching recommendations relate to operational planning and the co-ordination of personal protection and public order policing. A number of recommended changes were put in place immediately and are already proving to be effective, and the Metropolitan police is continuing to work with the Home Office and royal household to implement the remainder of the recommendations.
While important lessons have been learned from this shocking incident, the findings and recommendations must be seen in the context of the provision of protection for the royal family that has an enviable record over many years. Such protection always has to take into account the royal family’s desire to be seen by and to be close to the public.
The most significant area of learning from the incident of 9 December is the need to look beyond the available intelligence to take a broader view of threats that can reasonably be anticipated in the circumstances, and to adapt plans accordingly. I am confident that this will be firmly embedded in future arrangements.
Reproductive, Maternal and Newborn Health and Malaria Outcomes (Developing World)
My Department has finalised two frameworks for results, which set out the UK Government’s contribution towards improving reproductive, maternal and newborn health outcomes and malaria outcomes in the developing world.
“Choices for women: Planned pregnancies, safe births and healthy newborns—the UK’s Framework for Results for improving reproductive, maternal and newborn health in the developing world”; and
“Breaking the Cycle: Saving Lives and Protecting the Future—the UK’s Framework for Results for malaria in the developing world”
Both frameworks for results are available on the Department’s website (www.dfid.gov.uk). I will arrange for copies of both of the frameworks to be placed in the Libraries of both Houses.
Civil Law Reform Bill
The Government have decided not to proceed with the proposed Civil Law Reform Bill, which was published for pre-legislative scrutiny and public consultation in December 2009. The Government are grateful to the Justice Committee for its scrutiny of the draft Bill and to everyone who replied to the consultation for their comments, but in the present financial situation we need to focus our resources on delivering our key priorities.
Several of the provisions in the Civil Law Reform Bill were derived from Law Commission reports. The damages provisions were derived from the following reports published in the late 1990s: “Claims for Wrongful Death” (Law Com No 263); “Damages for Personal Injury: Medical, Nursing and Other Expenses; Collateral Benefits” (Law Com No 262); and “Aggravated, Exemplary and Restitutionary Damages” (Law Com No 247). The provisions relating to interest derived in part from the Commission’s 2004 report “Pre-judgment Interest on Debts and Damages” (Law Com No 295). These reforms will not now be taken forward.
I have today placed in the Libraries of both Houses copies of my letter to the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith), Chairman of the Justice Committee, informing him of the Government’s decision, and the response document to the consultation.