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Written Statements

Volume 521: debated on Tuesday 18 January 2011

Written Ministerial Statements

Tuesday 18 January 2011

Treasury

Economic and Financial Affairs Council

The Economic and Financial Affairs Council will be held in Brussels on 18 January 2011. The following items are on the agenda:

Presentation of the Presidency Work Programme

The Hungarian presidency will present its ECOFIN work programme for the first half of 2011.

Follow-up to the December European Council meeting

Council will discuss the outcomes of the European Council, where leaders agreed on a permanent mechanism to be established by euro area member states to safeguard the financial stability of the euro area as whole. The Government achieved their priorities on the European stability mechanism: that it will be for only euro area member states; replace the European financial stability facility (EFSF) and the European financial stabilisation mechanism (EFSM); and that in the future, article 122(2) TFEU will not be used for safeguarding the financial stability of the euro area.

Implementation of the Stability and Growth Pact

The Council will discuss the assessment of action taken by Malta in the context of its excessive deficit procedure on the basis of a communication from the Commission. Actions taken by other member states could also be assessed on the basis of the Commission’s autumn economic forecast and the fiscal notifications. The Government expect the Council to agree that Malta has taken effective action regarding its deficit, in line with Council recommendations.

Introduction of the euro in Estonia: Practical experience

In line with past practice, the Council will have an exchange of views following the introduction of the euro in Estonia on 1 January 2011.

Annual Growth Survey

The adoption by the European Commission of the annual growth survey will mark the beginning of the first cycle of the European semester. From now on, every year the Commission will present its growth survey covering fiscal, structural and macroeconomic issues. This communication, which will be presented to the European Parliament and the Council, will serve as a basis for the guidelines and conclusions drawn up by the March European Council with a view to the medium-term budgetary strategies and national reform programmes to be adopted in April. The Government are content with this approach, given that they secured special wording in the new code of conduct which allows the UK to submit its budget to the EU after it has been approved by Parliament, rather than in draft, as will be the case for other member states.

Review of draft National Reform Programmes (NRPs)

There will be an exchange of views on member states’ draft national reform programmes (NRPs), which set out member states’ reform priorities and plans and were submitted to the Commission in November. Full NRPs are due in April. The Government believe that the focus of the NRPs should be on tackling bottlenecks to growth.

Communication from the Commission: towards a Single Market Act

There will be an exchange of views on the Single Market Act, which was published on 27 October 2010, and is out for consultation until 28 February 2011. The Government support the single market and believe that future reforms should be strongly focused on measures which encourage growth.

Double Taxation Convention (United Kingdom and Mauritius)

A new protocol to the Double Taxation Convention with Mauritius was signed at Port Louis on 10 January 2011.

The text of the protocol has been deposited in the Libraries of both Houses and made available on HM Revenue and Customs’ website. The text will be scheduled to a draft Order in Council and laid before the House of Commons in due course.

Culture, Media and Sport

Transfer of Royal Parks Agency

I am publishing today a statement regarding the transfer of the management of the eight royal parks and the Royal Parks Agency (RPA) from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to the Greater London Authority (GLA).

The current arrangements and the intended change

It is not widely known that managing the royal parks in London is the responsibility of a central Government Department, on behalf of the Queen. The team that runs the royal parks and reports to the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport is known as the Royal Parks Agency (TRP). We are proud of the work the agency has done for Londoners and for visitors to London. The royal parks are well known across the world and spending time in the parks is an essential part of a visit to the capital.

This statement is about how the parks will be made more accountable to the public through the Mayor. The Government do not propose any major changes in relation to how the parks should be managed, the standards to which they should be maintained, and what should be on offer in the parks to the public. Prior to transfer this will be summarised in a framework agreement. The royal parks are a cherished part of our national heritage as well as being a priceless resource for Londoners and visitors to London. That is understood by all involved in the proposed transfer of management.

At the moment the main line of accountability through Parliament is through Ministers and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. We intend that in future this accountability should be through London’s Mayor since all the royal parks are in London. The Mayor is a well known figure who is elected every four years and is held accountable by Londoners for what he achieves for London and for visitors to London. Managing the royal parks would also fit well with the Mayor’s existing responsibility for tourism in London as well as his strategic responsibilities for the environment in London.

As a result, we are proposing that the current Royal Parks Agency team would become part of the Greater London Authority (GLA) and report to the Mayor. The GLA would have day-to-day responsibility for maintaining and managing the royal parks, including fulfilling statutory obligations. The Government will need to legislate when the opportunity arises to give the GLA equivalent management powers to those that the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport currently exercises, and to make other provisions needed to give effect to the policies set out in this statement.

The Royal Parks

There are eight royal parks managed by the agency, all within Greater London:

Bushy Park;

The Green Park;

Greenwich Park,

Hyde Park;

Kensington Gardens;

The Regent’s Park including Primrose Hill;

Richmond Park; and

St. James’s Park.

The Royal Parks Agency currently also manages other land in central London, such as Victoria Tower Gardens, Grosvenor Square Garden, and Brompton Cemetery, which are not part of the royal parks themselves. The Government are developing proposals with the GLA and others who, in place of the Royal Parks Agency, will be best placed to take responsibility for these open spaces and structures and monuments within them in future.

Management of the parks

The royal parks are owned by Her Majesty the Queen in right of the Crown. The parks were, in the main, originally royal hunting grounds and pleasure gardens and were subsequently made over for public use. The royal parks are part of the historic Crown lands and were put under the management of the Secretary of State’s predecessor in the middle of the 19th century.

The general power of management of the parks currently exercised by the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport derives from the power granted by section 22 of the Crown Lands Act 1851 (“the 1851 Act”) to the Commissioners of Works. Day-to-day management is carried out on behalf of the Secretary of State by the Royal Parks Agency, led by its chief executive. We propose that the Royal Parks Agency would no longer be an Executive agency of the DCMS but instead become an integral but distinct part of the GLA. Crown ownership of the royal parks would be maintained.

The Government do not propose to divide up the royal parks into separate parks operated by individual London boroughs. The Government’s aim is to strike an appropriate balance between decentralising power and maintaining the integrity of this historic estate. Greater accountability for the royal parks will be introduced at the level of London-wide government, where all the competing interests can be best addressed. The Mayor is accountable to people who live and work in the immediate vicinity of the parks. He is also accountable to Londoners from other areas who use the parks, and he is responsible for the quality and interest of what London as a whole contributes to the UK and offers tourists and visitors. The Mayor has recognised the strong interest of the royal household and the London boroughs in the good management of the parks and is considering options for a new governance structure for the parks as a whole which will offer them a stake in a new supervisory board.

The devolution of management responsibility for the royal parks to the GLA will also mean that there will be greater scrutiny of the management of royal parks on a regular basis. The London Assembly will be able to hold the actions of the Mayor to account and will have the power to summon officials and seek information.

Retaining oversight where there is a national interest

It is recognised that the royal parks are national assets and there may be occasions when it is still necessary for the Government to be able to ensure that national interests are safeguarded. The Secretary of State will have reserve powers to intervene if it appears that the national interest might be compromised. For example it will be essential to ensure that the current use of the parks and their roads for national ceremonial occasions should continue in a manner which befits their status. Such events must always be given priority over local matters or other events. This is one example of where the Secretary of State will be able to ensure, through a power of intervention, that the royal parks continue to be managed in the national interest and will be able to ensure that future management is not inconsistent with, nor undermines, the significance or status of the royal parks.

Regulation making powers

Currently, under the Parks Regulations (Amendment) Act 1926, the Secretary of State makes regulations that he considers necessary for securing the proper management of the parks. The principal regulations are the Royal Parks and Other Open Spaces Regulations 1997, and these cover matters such as the hours of opening of a park or of particular parts of it, carrying on any trade or business in the park, the conduct of persons using the park as regards, for example, littering, climbing trees, lighting fires, damaging property and keeping control of animals. These regulations are subject to the approval of Parliament. If any person fails to comply with, or acts in contravention of, any regulations, he is guilty of an offence against the Parks Regulation Act 1872 and is liable on summary conviction to a penalty. The regulations are enforced by the Metropolitan police. We intend to create an equivalent bye-law making power for the GLA. Instead of an approval by Parliament it would be subject to confirmation from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

Section 62 of the Road Traffic Regulation Act provides that regulations may also be made by the Secretary of State for imposing and recovering charges for leaving vehicles, or vehicles of any class, in the park. These regulations are subject to the approval of Parliament. We intend to create an equivalent byelaw making power for the GLA. Instead of an approval by Parliament it would be subject to confirmation by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.

Summary of the benefits of the transfer

By transferring responsibility to the GLA, reporting to London’s Mayor, we intend to ensure clear democratic accountability to Londoners on the management and operation of these historic parks and open spaces. Through the Mayor, there would be a visible public champion for the royal parks. Better accountability is likely to lead to management that is more responsive to the needs and expectations of park users and local people.

We intend the GLA to have the opportunity to include the future management of the parks in the broader plans which the Mayor develops for London. There will be close links to London-wide policy on a range of issues which affect the parks including planning, transport, environment, tourism and sport. The Mayor will be well placed to seek out opportunities for private sector support for the parks. The Mayor recognises that for successful transfer of management of the royal parks there is a need to ensure:

the national importance of the royal parks continues to be recognised;

the identity and character of the royal parks, which underpins their importance to local residents and visitors, is not adversely affected;

the high quality of the royal parks and their unique identity is maintained and enhanced where possible;

the wide range of interests within, and uses of the royal parks continue to be recognised and valued;

the management of the eight royal parks is retained by a single administration; and

local representation is adequately accounted for.

A policy framework will set out the parameters in which the GLA manage the parks.

There are a number of conditions which will be built into the framework. Key issues this will address include:

the parks must be managed on behalf of the nation as a whole;

the royal parks management structure will be an integral but a distinct part of the GLA;

it is likely a board will be established to manage the parks. This is likely to comprise a chair appointed by the Mayor of London. Members appointed by the Mayor are likely to include representatives from the London boroughs and a member appointed by or on behalf of the sovereign;

the natural and built features must be maintained to a high standard;

that the GLA must consult widely on any major changes to the royal parks;

that the GLA continue to honour the informal arrangements made by TRP with the royal household and the Army in relation to ceremonial use of the parks which should have overriding priority;

quiet recreation by the public remains the parks’ primary use;

that there will be no negative impacts on delivery of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games, the Diamond Jubilee, ceremonial and other state events;

that the transfer will not take place until post 2012 to minimise disruption to the Olympic and Paralympic games;

the level of funding the GLA will receive from the Government will be agreed at the outset but is subject to future spending reviews; and

monitoring arrangements will need to be put in place post transfer to ensure that any teething problems are dealt with.

Home Department

Alcohol Sales (Coalition Commitment)

Today, we are announcing our intention to deliver on this commitment by introducing a ban on sales of alcohol below the rate of duty plus VAT.

The Government acknowledge the growing concern over how cheaply some alcohol drinks are being sold, and they are themselves concerned about the link between alcohol and crime and disorder—in many cases as a result of “pre-loading” in preparation for a night out.

As part of our consideration of how to deliver the coalition commitment to deliver a ban on below cost sales, the Home Office and Treasury have carried out respective reviews of alcohol pricing and taxation. These confirmed a consensus that pricing controls can be an effective way of both improving public health and reducing violent crime.

Banning the sale of alcohol below the rate of duty plus VAT is the best starting point for tackling the availability of cheap alcohol and will send a clear signal to retailers and the public that Government take this issue seriously. They will effectively set a minimum level below which alcoholic products cannot be sold and will stop the worst instances of deep discounting which result in alcohol being sold both cheaply and harmfully. Importantly this system will have a limited burden on business and can be delivered at low cost to the taxpayer.

We intend to take forward measures to deliver this commitment without delay subject to the Government’s regulatory assessment and clearance process.

Justice

Freedom of Information

On Friday 7 January 2011, the Ministry of Justice announced the Government’s plans to extend the scope of the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act and to further increase transparency in public affairs. The Government will bring forward a number of measures to bring those plans into effect:

We will introduce a section 5 order under the Freedom of Information Act in the spring to bring the Association of Chief Police Officers, the Financial Ombudsman Service and the University and Colleges Admissions Service within the Act’s scope.

We will also consult a range of further bodies with a view to their inclusion in the Act by a further section 5 order later this year. This includes bodies as diverse as Examination Boards, Harbour Authorities, the Local Government Association and the NHS Confederation.

We will amend section 6 of the FOI Act in the Freedom Bill to end the anomaly where companies wholly owned by a single public authority are subject to the Act but those wholly owned by more than one public authority are not. We will also introduce measures to enhance the independence of the Information Commissioner’s Office in the same Bill.

We will ensure that, starting from 2013, Government and other public records are made available at the National Archives or other places of deposit 10 years sooner than at present by commencing amendments to the Public Records Act to reduce the 30-year rule to a 20-year rule. In tandem, we will also commence amendments to the FOI Act to reduce the time some types of information—including information contained in court records, and relating to ministerial correspondence and policy formulation—may be withheld.

Finally, we will also conduct a process of post-legislative scrutiny of the FOI Act to see how well the Act is working in practice and whether further changes should be made. It is important that this review of legislation, designed to promote openness and transparency, is itself undertaken in a transparent way and with the involvement of Parliament.

The measures outlined above will increase transparency. However, we must also ensure that information which it is not in the public interest to release is properly protected, and that we have proper regard to this country’s long-standing constitutional conventions. It is for this reason that on 16 January 2011, I made a commencement order to bring into effect changes made in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 to enhance the protection for information relating to communications with the royal family and royal household. The changes provide an absolute instead of a qualified exemption for information relating to communications with the sovereign, heir to the throne or second in line to the throne or those acting on their behalf. The exemption for other members of the royal family and members of the royal household remains qualified. The lifespan of the exemption changes from 30 to 20 years or the lifetime of the relevant member of the royal family plus five years, whichever is longer.

This amendment to the FOI Act is necessary to protect the long-standing conventions surrounding the monarchy and its records, for example the sovereign’s right and duty to counsel, encourage and warn her Government, as well as the heir to the throne’s right to be instructed in the business of Government in preparation for their future role as monarch. The changes will come into force tomorrow.

Copies of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 (Commencement No. 4 and Saving Provision) Order 2011 (SI 2011 No. 46 (C. 3)) have been placed in the Vote Office and Printed Paper Office.

Prime Minister

Competition and Policy (Media, Broadcasting, Digital and Telecoms Sectors)

Responsibility for all competition and policy issues relating to media, broadcasting, digital and telecoms sectors has been transferred from the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills to the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport.

This includes:

merger and competition cases in these sectors;

sponsorship of the telecoms sector, mobile and fixed;

sponsorship of all content industries, including computer games and publishing;

telecoms policy, including implementation of the EU framework;

broadband policy and delivery (including Broadband Delivery UK);

internet policy and governance, including implementation of the Digital Economy Act;

spectrum;

BT Pension Crown Guarantee;

responsibility for sponsorship of Ofcom (except in relation to postal regulation); and

full responsibility for the digital TV switchover and digital radio action plan.

The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills will retain responsibility for postal regulation; sponsorship of telecoms equipment manufacturing and the wider electronics, IT services and software sectors. He will also continue to work with the Cabinet Office as part of the national cyber-security programme.

The Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, formerly a joint Minster, will now report solely to the Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport. He will continue to work closely with Ministers in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Transport

Driving Standards Agency (Cardiff)

The Driving Standards Agency (DSA) is responsible for setting standards and conducting theory and practical driving tests for motorists in England and Wales. The DSA is a trading fund which is funded by the fees received from customers, which are set at a level to recover its costs. The DSA therefore has a duty to ensure its costs are kept at the minimum possible level in the interests of its customers, while maintaining standards of service. That means being as efficient as possible in every area of work and considering closely any areas of spending which may not be necessary

Following a review of its operations the DSA has decided to close its area office at Caradog House in Cardiff.

The office has 87 staff who provide administrative support for DSA within Wales, the south of England and London areas—mainly in deployment of examiners, customer service and test centre property management and procurement activities.

Staff have been informed of the decision. There will now be a period of consultation with trade unions. The consultation will be completed by 19 April 2011.

Possible redeployment options for the staff concerned are being explored. It is intended to retain a small office to support some operational staff in the area. Other responsibilities will be transferred to DSA’s headquarters in Nottingham and northern area office in Newcastle.

Closure of Caradog House will not affect testing provision in Wales and the DSA will continue to provide services under its agreed Welsh language scheme.

Commissioners of Irish Lights

In my statement to the House on marine aids to navigation of 26 July 2010, Official Report, columns 75-76WS, I said that the Government believe a solution needs to be found as soon as possible to the imbalance of funding for marine aids to navigation in the Republic of Ireland. I am pleased to inform the House that the Irish Transport Minister and I have now reached an understanding on the reform of the funding of the Commissioners of Irish Lights.

The Commissioners of Irish Lights is the general lighthouse authority which has provided marine aids to navigation for the benefit of mariners visiting and passing the shores of the whole island of Ireland for hundreds of years. The organisation has come to symbolise the close friendship and shared history of our nations.

For many years, the funding of the Commissioners of Irish Lights work has been a joint undertaking, its costs being met primarily from light dues income from commercial shipping raised in both our jurisdictions and paid into the general lighthouse fund.

This funding mechanism has been the subject of debate for a number of years and there have been calls to facilitate a more equitable arrangement, whereby the costs of the work of the Commissioners in the Republic of Ireland are funded solely from sources of income there.

The Irish Transport Minister and I have reached an understanding that we will aim to see the Commissioners of Irish Lights self-financing by 2015-16. This understanding will facilitate the long-term sustainable funding of the Commissioners of Irish Lights and ensure the continued co-operation of the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland in the provision of marine aids to navigation.