Written Ministerial Statements
Monday 5 September 2011
HM Revenue and Customs (Repeal of the Scott Undertaking)
Sir Richard Scott undertook an inquiry following the collapse, in 1992, of the trial of a UK company known as Matrix Churchill for the alleged supply of prohibited weapons components to Iraq. In the course of his studies Sir Richard identified an instance where a visit to a company by HM Customs and Excise (HMCE), ostensibly for a VAT audit, had been used to see if the company was involved in the supply of components for weapons. Sir Richard thought this covert action amounted to unlawful trespassing, as the primary concern of the visit was a non-VAT matter, and recommended against its use. HMCE accepted the recommendation and reported this to Parliament on 25 June 1996. This voluntary forbearance is known as the “Scott undertaking” and it has been the HMCE, now HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC), policy position ever since.
The Scott undertaking, restricting certain covert activity by HMCE and now HMRC criminal investigators, was made at a time when there was no human rights compliant legislation allowing covert entry on to property. This changed with the enactment of the Police Act 1997.
The Police Act 1997 regulatory regime now in place provides a legal framework for the type of covert activity identified by Sir Richard. The process is sufficiently robust to ensure that such covert investigation activity is only used in the most serious cases when the tests of necessity and proportionality are met. The action is authorised by a designated authorising officer and the activity then approved by the Office of Surveillance Commissioners.
As a result, the undertaking given by HMCE following the Scott report has been overtaken by the Police Act 1997 and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. But because HMRC continues to observe the Scott undertaking, legitimate investigation activity is not being used.
In September 2009 this issue was raised with the inspectors of the Office of Surveillance Commissioners during their annual inspection of HMRC. The chief surveillance commissioner, Sir Christopher Rose, subsequently considered the issue and concluded that HMRC’s adherence to the Scott undertaking served no useful purpose and was likely to inhibit otherwise proper, human rights compliant, investigative processes. Sir Christopher wrote to the director of criminal investigation on 6 January 2010 setting out this position and expressing his support for steps to release HMRC from its undertaking to adhere to the Scott recommendation.
HMRC will be released from the Scott undertaking from the date of this statement.
Communities and Local Government
Fire Service College
The Government see strong value in a national college for the fire and rescue service to deliver common, consistent standards of safety-critical training and improved intra-operability across the service in support of resilience and to enable it to meet public expectations.
However, the current Fire Service College ownership and business arrangements do not provide the flexibility necessary for the college to operate with sufficient commercial success. As we said in our response to “Fire Futures”, the Government wish to explore options for a new ownership, operational and governance model for the Fire Service College which, through greater involvement from other sectors—whether private, public or voluntary—secures its future, supports national resilience and provides best value for the public purse.
The Government’s preferred option for a Fire Service College of the future is a partnership between the public and private sectors with the fire sector playing a key role in that partnership. While a public/private sector partnership is the preferred option, we do not wish to close off other options and would welcome ideas on whether other arrangements may be more suitable
To inform its view of market appetite and viable options, the Department for Communities and Local Government is today launching a short phase of pre-market engagement. This will allow interested parties to offer clear views on the future of the college, and the Department to assess the reaction of the market to the overarching aim of delivering a new model for the Fire Service College.
A copy of the pre-market engagement document can be found on the Department’s website at:
DCLG (Summer Recess Work)
I would like to update hon. Members on the main items of business undertaken by my Department since the House rose on 20 July 2011.
Supporting High Street Recovery
As I outlined in my written statement of 11 August 2011, Official Report, column 121WS, my Department has taken a leading role in cross-government action to help rebuild communities, open up shops and to help residents and councils get their areas back to normal as quickly as possible in the aftermath of the public disorder.
With the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, we are providing an additional £20 million to create a new high street support scheme. The flexible scheme is aimed at supporting the specific streets and areas where businesses suffered most. Local authorities will be able to use it to fund the proportion of hardship relief from business rates that would otherwise fall to them, and to help affected firms to get back up and running quickly.
In addition we announced a £10 million recovery fund to help councils with the immediate costs of making their areas safe, clear and clean again, including funding council tax relief. The Government will also meet councils’ immediate costs for helping people who have had to leave their home as a result of the rioting.
Helping Local Shops and Local Firms
On 1 August, I announced that centrally imposed limits on town centre car parking spaces will be scrapped, providing a boost to high streets and giving councils greater freedom to support local business and town centres.
My Department recognises the vital economic and social role of pubs in the local community. On 2 August, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), launched a review of restrictive covenants, a legal clause that can be used to prevent community pubs reopening as public houses following a sale. By changing the use of certain restrictive covenants, communities would also be given greater opportunities to use the new “community right to buy” power in the Localism Bill.
On 25 August, new figures published by my Department illustrated how businesses are benefiting from the doubling of small business rate relief. We are determined to ensure that even in a tough financial climate, local businesses are able to thrive when given the right support.
Driving Local Growth and Regeneration
The Government are determined to help ensure that Britain is the best place in the world to start and grow business and we believe this begins at the local level. It is local business and commerce that drive the private sector growth, jobs and wealth that this country needs.
On 17 August, together with the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, I announced 11 new enterprise zones. This brings the total to 22 enterprise zones across the country that will accelerate local growth, generate thousands of jobs and attract hundreds of new start-up firms. The zones will benefit from simplified planning rules, super-fast broadband and over £150 million of tax breaks for new business for the next four years. The introduction of enterprise zones is just one of over 100 reforms being taken forward as part of the Government’s “Plan For Growth”, announced at Budget 2011, to create the conditions for strong, sustainable and balanced growth.
On 17 August, I also announced a £20 million enterprise and growth package for Tottenham and Croydon to address the long-standing barriers to growth which were further compounded by the recent riots. The London enterprise fund is intended to provide specific, targeted support to these areas to arrest and reverse economic decline, provide immediate investment and to boost the local economies.
We have taken swift action to restore the flow of regeneration funding from the European Union after a period of interruption caused by irregularities in projects under the last Administration. The European Commission has welcomed new measures taken by the Government to standardise the monitoring system and introduce a programme of enhanced checks. On 1 August, the Commission confirmed it would lift the interruption on payments of European development funding in England allowing vital regeneration work to continue bringing wider economic development and other benefits to local communities.
Improving the Planning System
We believe that planning policy should promote sustainable growth and responsible development rather than hinder it.
On 25 July, my colleague, the Minister with responsibility for cities, decentralisation and planning, the Minister of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) announced a new, simpler national planning policy framework which streamlines over 1000 pages to 52 pages. The draft framework, which is open for consultation, is a key part of our reforms to make the planning system less complex and more accessible, and to promote sustainable growth.
The document is underpinned by powerful protections for communities to safeguard the natural and historic environment. It underlines the need for local authorities to work closely with communities and businesses and to seek actively opportunities for sustainable growth to deliver the homes, jobs, and infrastructure needed for a growing population while protecting the environment
This Government want to simplify the planning system and make it less bureaucratic for everyone. On 29 July we set out our intention to local authorities to introduce a new “planning guarantee” which will speed up local planning applications meaning that no planning application should take longer than 12 months to make a decision. Local people will be able to see how their councils perform against the guarantee using information which is made available by councils as frequently as possible.
We recognise the significance of positive planning on the wider community and believe that the current system has impeded the expansion of good schools. On 15 August, together with the Secretary of State for Education, I introduced a new planning statement to support the expansion of popular state schools and the creation of free schools. The new guidance is a boost for state education and local promoters of the Government’s flagship free schools programme, who can now be confident their proposals will be processed swiftly in response to demand from local people.
On 27 August, the Minister of State for Housing and Local Government, Department for Communities and Local Government, encouraged local authorities to consider how reforms across the planning system and new powers restoring local control over housing provision could be used to create more housing supply by enabling people to have more opportunities to choose innovative housing solutions—such as residential moorings.
On 27 August, my Department published a new and simple guide for communities wanting to start up, share or save their own community orchards that could help reverse the national decline in traditional orchards. The guide will form part of a series that continues with our commitment to cutting out red tape and making it easier for communities to protect the spaces they value most.
In addition to this on 30 August I outlined how new planning reforms in the Localism Bill can be used by local communities to classify green spaces such as bowling greens and safeguard them from the threat of development or closure.
On 31 August, my colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for cities, decentralisation and planning, announced an additional 36 “front-runner” areas that will test out neighbourhood planning, bringing the total to 126 across the country. Each front-runner’s local council is being given £20,000 to support work on neighbourhood planning and free advice from planning experts will be available for the local community.
Delivering a Fairer Housing System
On 3 August, the Minister of State for Housing and Local Government announced plans to speed up the process for evicting tenants from homes when all other efforts to curb their antisocial behaviour have failed. The new mandatory power for possession will speed up the possession process by allowing previous convictions for serious antisocial behaviour to trigger eviction proceedings and short-cut the often long and expensive process which often requires landlords to prove again the actions of their tenants. I announced our intention to include, as part of this consultation, a proposal to make necessary changes to housing legislation so that landlords will have even stronger powers to evict tenants who engage in serious antisocial behaviour or criminal activity such as rioting beyond the local neighbourhood.
On 25 August the Minister of State also outlined plans that give councils more financial freedoms to improve, buy and build new housing for the local community. The proposals will allow councils more flexibility to trade their assets and use the receipts to enable further investment new homes and regenerating the local area.
Increasing Freedoms for Local Government
Continuing our commitment to give councils greater financial freedom, on 25 July, we once again opened up applications for councils to apply to borrow and sell against their assets to enable them to tackle historic pay inequalities while protecting front-line services. The deadline for applications is 16 September 2011.
On 2 August, I set out our proposals to localise support for council tax, freeing up billing authorities to decide how best to support working-age households and establish stronger incentives for councils to get people back into work. These changes sit alongside the Government’s wider welfare reforms that are focused on ending a culture of benefit dependency, and in order to protect the positive work incentives and distributional impacts of universal credit some changes to the universal credit design may be required. The Government will provide further detail in the next few months.
Since August 2010, we have been examining the most cost-effective way to disband the Audit Commission, transferring audit into the private sector and allowing local authorities to appoint their own auditors. Determining the best value-for-money approach, on 28 July, I announced that the commission will outsource all its in-house local public work to the private sector in the next financial year.
On 2 September, my Department published guidance to local authorities on how to protect voluntary and community groups from disproportionate cuts to their funding. The guidance, which reduces 56 pages of prescriptive statutory guidance to one page, outlines how councils can achieve best value in their areas. In deciding how best to fulfil their best value duty, councils are required to consult those using, or likely to use, a local service. This should include community and voluntary organisations.
Augmenting Transparency in Government
The Department is continuing its commitment to deliver transparent and open government to drive out waste, protect front-line services and ensure value for money to the taxpayer. We want to make it easier for local people to see how their money is being spent. On 22 July we launched a new online search engine to show residents when they could use their rights to inspect their council’s detailed financial spending and ledgers.
On 21 July, my Department published a further group of reports presenting the findings from research projects commissioned by the previous Administration. There remains a backlog of unpublished reports that were produced by the previous Government. The reports and findings are of general policy interest, but do not relate to forthcoming policy announcements. We are publishing these documents in the interests of transparency and as part of our freedom of information commitment to publish the results of all commissioned research. The latest batch relate to resilience, and can be found online at:
We believe that the public has the right to see the scale and variety of publicly owned assets and we have urged councils and other public bodies to publish their own assets lists that will help to identify billions of pounds of potential savings. In recognising the huge worth of public assets we have also committed to working with areas seeking to make savings through better property management. On 5 August, my Department published a demonstration map outlining over 180,000 publicly owned assets which helps to illustrate the potential scope for savings.
I am placing in the Library copies of the departmental press notices and papers associated with the announcements above.
The Secretary of State for Defence announced on 18 July that, as a result of the Government’s commitment to a real-terms rise in the equipment budget of 1% after 2015, he had given the go-ahead for the procurement of 14 Chinook helicopters, 12 to expand the fleet and two to replace those lost on operations in Afghanistan in 2009.
I am pleased to be able to confirm that we have now signed a contract with Boeing for their delivery. This will expand the Chinook fleet to a total of 60, which will provide a significant capability lift to the front line. The total value of the procurement including development, manufacture, and support for the first five years is approximately £1 billion.
The first of the new Chinooks will enter into service with the Royal Air Force in May 2014, making an immediate contribution to the operation of the UK Chinook capability and allow more of the mature airframes in the fleet to be available for operations in Afghanistan in 2014 should they be required. All of the new Chinooks will be delivered by December 2015. Three helicopters will be ready for operational deployment in early 2015 and all 14 will be fully operational by early 2017. This significant uplift in helicopter capability is just another in a series of steps we are taking to modernise our armed forces and meet the adaptable posture outlined in the strategic defence and security review.
Deputy Prime Minister
Boundary Commission for Wales
On 22 June, the Welsh Government published an independent report into the recent work of the Local Government Boundary Commission for Wales (LGBCW). On the same day the Welsh Government Minister for Local Government and Communities announced that the appointments of the LGBCW commissioners were to be terminated, in light of the report’s conclusions.
Two of the LGBCW commissioners also serve as commissioners on the Boundary Commission for Wales (BCW), which makes recommendations to the UK Government on the determination of Westminster parliamentary constituency boundaries.
At my invitation, the commissioners concerned made representations about their positions on the BCW. They also set out their views on the termination of their appointments as LGBCW commissioners, insofar as it affected their positions as BCW commissioners.
The commissioners have both offered to resign from the BCW in order to ensure that it is best able to complete the important task that Parliament entrusts to it. I welcome the commitment of the commissioners in this regard and on that basis their resignations have been accepted.
Ministers have begun the process of making replacement appointments, following the code of practice published by the Commissioner for Public Appointments. The replacements will be made swiftly and the Government will take the necessary steps to ensure that there is no risk to the deadline set by Parliament for the completion of the parliamentary constituency boundary review that is currently underway.
Use of Force (Schools)
On 23 June this year I made a statement announcing that the Secretary of State had asked his expert adviser on behaviour, Charlie Taylor, to review the implications for schools of the requirement to record and report the use of force in schools, and that, subject to the outcome of that review, it was our intention to commence this requirement on 1 September 2011.
In the light of the results of this review, the Secretary of State has decided not to commence this requirement and will seek to repeal it at the first suitable legislative opportunity.
Copies of Charlie Taylor’s report have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.
EU-Australia PNR Agreement
The coalition Government are firmly committed to protecting the security of their citizens and to defending their civil liberties. Our experience is that both security and privacy are possible. We must resist trading one off against the other as some would wish us to do.
We are firmly committed to consistency in our approach to civil liberties and will seek to translate our domestic agenda to the EU level—this includes purpose limitation; rigorous evidence-based arguments; the principles of necessity and proportionality; stringent data protection safeguards, especially when handling sensitive personal data; independent data protection oversight; and, of course, full compliance with EU law and the EU treaties.
The UK, in common with many other EU member states and third countries, places considerable value on the collection and analysis of passenger name record (PNR) data (that data collected by carriers in the exercise of their business) for the purpose of preventing terrorism and serious crime. The appropriate use of PNR data is vital in keeping the public safe.
In line with this view, the Government continue to press for an EU PNR directive that includes provision for intra EU flights. The Government also believe that clear PNR agreements between the EU and third countries play a vital role in removing legal uncertainty for air carriers flying to those countries, and help ensure that PNR information can be shared quickly and securely, with all necessary data protection safeguards in place.
This agreement replaces the EU-Australia PNR agreement which has been applied provisionally from June 2008. The European Parliament postponed its vote on that agreement and asked the Commission to come forward with a single model for international agreements before it took a final vote. On 21 September 2010 the European Commission published a communication on the global approach to transfers of PNR data to third countries, together with a package of draft negotiating mandates for PNR agreements with Australia, Canada and the United States. In response to this, the Council presented a draft Council decision to authorise the Commission to open negotiations for PNR agreements with Australia, Canada and the US, together with draft negotiating guidelines (collectively referred to as the negotiating mandates).
The UK opted into these negotiating mandates in December 2010 and announced this decision to Parliament on 20 December 2010.
We fully recognise the importance of working with partners outside the EU given that the threats we face are global in nature and, in common with other EU member states, we view Australia as a key partner.
I wish to bring to Parliament’s attention that, after due consideration of civil liberty, data protection and security issues, the Government have decided to opt in to the Council decisions to sign and conclude the EU-Australia PNR agreement.
In particular, the agreement;
Restricts the purposes for which data can be processed to the prevention of and combating of terrorist offences and serious transnational crime;
Makes express provision for data security;
Restricts the period for which data may be retained to five and a half years, with data being masked after three years unless it is required for an ongoing investigation;
Provides that the masking mechanism shall be reviewed one year after entry into force and suggests archiving as an alternative method of restricting access if masking does not prove to be efficient or cost-effective;
Prohibits the use of sensitive personal data and mandates the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service to delete any such data it may receive from carriers;
Provides for the oversight of the Australian Information Commissioner;
Sets out rights of access, rectification and erasure and redress;
Contains specific provisions about data retention, including who may have access to the data throughout the retention periods;
Regulates the transfer of PNR data to other Australian Government authorities;
Only permits onward data transmission to a third country on a case-by-case basis and for the purposes outlined above. The data may not be transmitted further without the permission of the Australian Customs and Border Protection Service.
The Council decisions to sign and conclude the agreement were deposited on 23 May. These can be found at the following links:
Council decision to sign:
Council decision to conclude:
The Government will continue to work with the Scrutiny Committees when they consider whether to opt in to Council decisions to sign and conclude the US and Canada PNR agreements once these agreements are published, and will of course update Parliament on the Government’s opt in decisions.
Famine (Horn of Africa)
I would like to update the House on the drought in the horn of Africa and on the UK Government’s response.
The drought has prompted the most serious food insecurity situation in the world today. Across the region, 18 million people require emergency assistance. The UK continues to be at the forefront of the world’s response—I can report that Britain was one of the first donors to step forward with significant funds. Following my announcement on 17 August of an additional £29 million for Somalia, our contribution across the horn stands at £124.29 million, which we estimate will provide assistance to over 3 million people. We are the second largest bilateral donor behind the US. These funds have been reallocated from elsewhere in Britain’s development budget. The British public, too, is showing incredible compassion and commitment, raising more than £57 million through the Disasters Emergency Committee East Africa appeal.
Southern Somalia is the area of most concern. The first famine of the 21st century was declared there in two regions in late July and further news from the UN earlier today means that 750,000 people face imminent starvation in the next four months. In places, malnutrition rates are more than three times the emergency threshold, and tens of thousands are thought to have already died. Many of those who are still strong enough have fled—to Mogadishu, where I witnessed at first hand the depth of the crisis a few weeks ago—and to camps in Ethiopia and Kenya. When I visited Dadaab in north-eastern Kenya in July, I saw how agencies have struggled to keep up with the flow of new arrivals. The camps there represent the biggest concentration of refugees anywhere in the world.
While Somalia remains our chief concern, the situation in Ethiopia and Kenya is also deeply worrying. More people are affected by the crisis in Ethiopia than any other country in the region; according to Government figures, 4.56 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance. Ethiopia hosts 240,000 refugees—over 75,000 from Somalia arriving this year. In Kenya, the worst affected areas are in the northern and eastern arid and semi-arid lands; over 500,000 children and pregnant and breastfeeding women are suffering from acute malnutrition.
Across the region, the crisis is made even worse by conflict and insecurity. Over the weekend, 20,000 Sudanese refugees crossed into Ethiopia fleeing violence in eastern Sudan. And in the worst affected parts of Somalia, insecurity means that many of those in most need cannot be reached. Officials in my Department are working closely with a small number of well-established and trusted agencies that can deliver effectively on the ground, ensuring aid reaches those it is intended for.
Let me be clear that across the horn the situation will worsen before it improves, with the situation forecast to be at its most dire in October. Relief efforts are now reaching more people every week, but although donor support and the volume of assistance in the pipeline have increased significantly, there remain serious gaps. Diseases such as cholera, measles and malaria represent a growing threat to the weakened population. It is vital that increased support flows into the health and water and sanitation sectors.
Although the situation remains grave, UK aid is working. Our support is already showing results:
In Somalia the UK will vaccinate at least 1.3 million children against measles and 670,000 against polio. Some 624,000 children will receive vitamin A inputs and at least 528,000 children will receive de-worming medication;
In Ethiopia in June and July, the UK helped to provide food to 2.4 million people with 1.68 million people benefitting from UK funded food aid programmes in May;
UK support has also provided over 45,000 people with food distributions or vouchers for food in Somalia. By the end of this week, an additional 35,000 will have been provided with cash to buy food;
A further 18,000 of the most severely malnourished Somali children will have been treated with specially formulated food;
A consignment of over 10,000 metric tonnes of specially formulated flour, rice, pulses, and oil for the prevention and treatment of moderately malnourished children is now en route to Somalia;
Almost 160,000 mosquito nets have been purchased to prevent weakened children and their families succumbing to malaria.
Unfortunately, other countries have been slower to contribute. That is why, throughout the summer, we have relentlessly pushed donor Governments across the world to dig deeper. This has yielded results and relief operations are now on a stronger financial footing. But acute humanitarian needs will persist into 2012 and Britain will continue to play a leading role in keeping the world’s attention focused, and pushing for sustained international support.
Ultimately, we need to stop these crises happening. We cannot avoid droughts, but we can avoid famines. We are already investing in building the resilience of communities to shocks. There is clear evidence that these investments work, as we can see from the impact of the crisis in Somalia, compared to Ethiopia, where people were better able to deal with the shock. We must build on this success.
In the long run, investing more effectively in reducing poverty and reinforcing resilience is not only better value for money than emergency relief, but will help those affected to break out of the cycle of disaster. In Somalia and the region, however, we need political progress to ensure aid can be used most effectively.
Victims of Crime Directive
The Government have decided to opt in to the directive on establishing minimum standards on the rights, support and protection of victims of crime. The directive meets the criteria set out in the coalition agreement with regard to EU Justice and Home Affairs measures.
In accordance with the coalition agreement, the Government have stated that they will approach forthcoming legislation in the area of criminal justice on a case-by-case basis, with a view to maximising our country’s security, protecting Britain’s civil liberties and preserving the integrity of our criminal justice systems. By opting in to this directive we will have the opportunity to strongly influence the text and ensure that the minimum standards victims can expect throughout the EU are clear, appropriate and affordable.
We welcome the proposed directive, which will benefit UK citizens who are victims in other EU member states. They will be afforded minimum rights, support and protection to a level similar to that they would receive as a victim of crime in the UK. The directive will allow UK citizens to move throughout the EU with confidence that should they fall victim to crime in any member state, their rights will be respected when participating in criminal proceedings and they will be able to access a minimum level of support across the EU.