Written Ministerial Statements
Monday 10 October 2011
Tax Agreement (Switzerland)
On 6 October the Government signed an agreement with the Swiss confederation on co-operation on tax matters. The agreement seeks to tackle tax evasion by UK residents through the use of Swiss financial services. It will clear up past tax liabilities through the imposition of a significant one-off levy, safeguard future revenues through a new withholding tax on investment returns, and expand the powers of HM Revenue and Customs to find out about Swiss assets.
The text of the agreement has been deposited in the Libraries of both Houses and is available on the HM Revenue and Customs’ website.
Communities and Local Government
Work of the Department (Conference Recess)
I would like to update hon. Members on the main items of business undertaken by my Department since the House rose for conference recess on 15 September.
Delivering better services
Under the last Administration, thanks to policies engineered in Whitehall, millions of homes saw cuts to their local rubbish collections. Weekly rubbish collections are the most visible of all front-line services and I believe every household in England has a basic right to have their rubbish collected every week.
In June 2011, the Government review of waste policy in England stated:
“The Government will be working with local councils to increase the frequency and quality of rubbish collections and make it easier to recycle, and to tackle measures which encourage councils specifically to cut the scope of collections”.
On 30 September, my Department announced a new fund of up to £250 million to support councils to deliver weekly collections of household waste. The new weekly collections support scheme will support councils which switch from fortnightly to better weekly collections, and will support weekly collection councils which wish to keep and improve the weekly service they offer, such as through better procurement, new technologies and reward schemes like Recyclebank and others.
Councils will be able to bid individually or in consortiums, and with the private sector, where that increases value for money. In order to encourage the most innovative and locally tailored solutions, authorities will be able to bid for a mix of revenue and capital funding.
In due course, I will make a further statement on the detail of this scheme, and the details for inviting councils to submit innovative bids for funding. This initiative will help councils deliver better weekly collections, and in the process make it easier for families to go green and improve local amenity and local environment. It also builds on the abolition of bin taxes through the Localism Bill and our plans to abolish unfair bin fines introduced under the last Administration.
Helping local families
Under the last Administration, while bin collections halved for many homes, across the country council tax more than doubled. In 2011-12, the coalition Government introduced a council tax freeze, which was taken up by all participating councils.
On 3 October, the my right hon. Friend, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, announced £805 million support to help freeze council tax bills for a further year. The support for local authorities, on top of the existing freeze, means that taxpayers living in an average band D home in England could save up to £72 compared to a 5% rise in council tax. In addition to providing real help to households in difficult times this provides a positive contribution to those local authorities who wish to keep council tax down while protecting vital front-line services.
I will shortly make a written statement setting out the provisions for English local authorities and my officials will then write to the authorities with full details of the scheme for 2012-13, including providing an indicative breakdown of estimated grants to help local authorities with their budget planning.
Improving transparency and accountability
Transparency is at the core of delivering efficient and accountable Government. On 29 September, my Department published the final code of recommended practice for local authorities on data transparency. The code of practice calls on local authorities such as councils and fire and rescue services to shine a light on every part of their business, from employees’ salaries over £58,200 and details of all their contracts and tenders to details of grants to voluntary organisations, spending data and the locations of public land and building assets.
Subject to consultation, Ministers will consider making the code a legally binding requirement to ensure authorities are fully accountable to the people they serve. The coalition Government have abolished top-down inspection and increased local autonomy making local accountability more important than ever. Central Government have a role in ensuring that local people can exercise their right to know how their money is being spent and have the information they need to question that spending. Decentralisation and a robust local democracy needs greater local accountability.
On 5 September, I informed the House that I had asked the Audit Commission to outsource its audit work from next year, as the first step towards disbanding the Commission and introducing a new, decentralised audit regime which will allow local authorities to appoint their own auditors. Following careful consideration of the options, we determined that outsourcing was likely to offer the best value for money for the taxpayer. In line with our commitment to transparency, on 10 October my Department published on its website a summary of the independent report we commissioned to inform our decision.
In September and October my Department published two further groups of reports presenting the findings from research projects commissioned by the previous Administration. 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. The first group was published on 29 September and relates to immigration; a summary of the reports and their cost to taxpayers can be found online at:
The second group, published on 6 October relates to housing; a summary of the reports and their cost to taxpayers can be found online at:
Ensuring fairness for council workers and taxpayers
The cost of local government pensions to the taxpayer has risen from £1.8 billion in 1997 to £6 billion in 2009-10 increasing burdens on council tax—and in turn, hitting pensioners the hardest. In the light of changing demographics, this growing burden is not sustainable or fair on the taxpayer. Moreover, Lord Hutton’s report sets out why public sector pensions need to be reformed to more fairly protect taxpayers.
On 7 October, my Department published a consultation that proposes how to deliver the £900 million of savings required by the spending review 2010 to the local government pension scheme in England and Wales by 2014-15.
The paper proposes a progressively phased increase in employees’ contribution tariff from April 2012 that would raise an additional £450 million, or 1.5% of pay, and a change in the accrual rate from April 2013 to raise an additional £450 million, or 1.5% of pay. This provides a balance between increasing employee contributions and adjusting the accrual rates while making the necessary savings to better protect the taxpayer.
To ensure the scheme continues to be an attractive scheme to all existing and future members. Any increases in contribution rate will protect low earners, with no increase for those earning less than £15,000, and mean high earners pay in proportionally more reflecting their more generous pensions.
We will continue to engage with local government and trade unions throughout the consultation as they have a key role to play. We hope all parties will take the time to consider these proposals in a constructive manner.
Building a better Britain
We believe that creating the conditions for sustainable growth and thriving economies begins at a local level, with local control and responsibility and local investment.
On 3 October, the coalition Government invited the Lancashire and Hull and Humber local enterprise partnerships to develop proposals for two new enterprise zones. This is in response to the recent announcement by BAE systems on their sites in Brough, Warton and Samlesbury. The zones will benefit from simplified planning rules, super-fast broadband and tax breaks for new business for the next four years. The Government will work closely with these local enterprise partnerships to develop strong and viable proposals for enterprise zones that will accelerate local growth, generate hundreds of jobs and attract many new start up firms.
On 10 October, my Department published a consultation on reforming the community infrastructure levy to provide that a proportion of the money raised from development will go directly to the neighbourhood where it takes place. Local people will have the freedom to spend this money to deal with the demands that new development places on their community, for example by providing facilities such as parks, playgrounds and community centres or new and improved transport.
The levy will also continue to be used to contribute to larger infrastructure projects across areas like new roads, transport, or hospitals. Developers will benefit from a system that ensures they know upfront how much they will be expected to contribute towards the infrastructure needed to support new development and communities will benefit because they will be able to decide for themselves how the demands placed on their area are best addressed.
The Government are also moving ahead with plans to release disused public land and empty offices with enough capacity to build up to 100,000 new homes by 2015. On 5 October, four Departments with significant landholdings published their strategies that set out how their formerly used land and property has the capacity to deliver more than 50,000 desperately needed new homes.
Over the summer these departments have moved swiftly to identify land and property that could be released for new development. This builds on the 11,000 housing starts that will be achieved through the release of land owned by the Homes and Communities Agency. The amount of previously-developed land owned by the public sector is more than twice the size of Leicester, and its development could support as many as 200,000 construction and related jobs.
At the same time, my right hon. Friend, the Minister for Housing and Local Government announced fresh steps to help communities across the country reclaim and develop hundreds of acres of unused public sector land and buildings, which could be used to deliver the schemes communities want to see in their areas. Members of the public will now be able to request a sale of public land and buildings by filling in a simple and user-friendly form. It will replace a system that is so obscure and restrictive that it has hardly ever been used, with only one successful application in the past 13 years.
The improved process for requesting the sale of public land and property will be one way of applying for land to be released by Government Departments, and will also apply to land owned by councils and other public bodies.
Promoting home ownership and affordable housing
The Government also want to support people to meet their aspirations of home ownership. Since 1980, nearly 2 million social homes have been bought by their occupants under Right to Buy, improving social mobility and building mixed communities. The Right to Buy gave something back to families who worked hard, paid their rent and played by the rules. It allowed them to do up their home, change their front door, improve their garden—without getting permission from the council. It gave people a sense of pride and ownership not just in their home, but in their street and neighbourhood. Yet under the last Administration. Right to Buy discounts were cut significantly.
On 2 October, the Prime Minister announced the intention to raise Right to Buy discounts to a level which will make the scheme attractive to tenants across England. The receipt from the Right to Buy will be used to pay off the housing debt and build more housing for affordable rent—for every home bought under Right to Buy, a new affordable home will be built, over and above our existing plans. Further details of this will be set out in the forthcoming housing strategy. The reform of the housing revenue account system is and remains a coalition priority and the timetable for the reform remains unchanged.
Tackling the 700,000 empty homes across the country is a top priority for my Department. On 20 September, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Andrew Stunell), announced more powers for community groups to bring empty homes back into use. Community and voluntary organisations will be able to bid for a part of £100 million of Government funding for pioneering housing schemes that will ensure empty properties are lived in again. This will also help to provide more affordable housing. The coalition Government are already providing more incentives for councils to bring empty homes back into use, including them in the new homes bonus. In one year of the new homes bonus just under 16,000 previously empty properties have been brought back into use.
My Department will also consult in due course on plans to allow councils local discretion to introduce a council tax premium on homes in their area that have been empty for more than two years, to provide a stronger incentive to get the homes back into productive use and remove the blight from such properties on local neighbourhoods.
The coalition Government will stand by and help families who work hard and play by the rules, while tackling the small number of people who abuse the system. In this context, it has been estimated that there could be 6,000 households living in this taxpayer-funded social housing with incomes greater than £100,000. This is not fair to the millions of people in genuine housing need and those who work hard, earn a modest income, yet still remain on a housing waiting list. On 4 October, the Minister for Housing and Local Government indicated that he will be looking at introducing a “pay to stay” scheme for social tenants on incomes greater than £100,000 who want to stay in those properties. A consultation on this will be published in due course.
I am placing in the Library copies of the press notices and papers associated to this statement.
Independent Review of Single Source Pricing Regulations
On 26 January 2011, Official Report, columns 10-11WS, I announced that Lord Currie of Marylebone would chair an independent review of the regulations used by the Ministry of Defence (MOD) in single source, non-competitive, procurement, the so-called Yellow Book. Lord Currie has now submitted his independent report, a copy of which has been placed in the Library of the House. I would like to thank Lord Currie and his team for the report. The MOD and other interested parties will now consider his recommendations.
The Government welcome Lord Currie’s recommendations. In broad terms his report focuses on achieving a more open relationship between MOD and defence industry, ensuring standardised high-quality cost data are provided by contractors to the MOD. This will help ensure greater transparency of costs and should improve the MOD’s ability to negotiate realistic prices. Industry will be incentivised to deliver efficiency by the opportunity to make greater returns should they deliver cost savings for the MOD. Making industry more efficient should not only achieve value for money to the taxpayer, but also lead to a more competitive role for the UK defence industry in the export market.
Small and medium enterprises (SMEs) will be offered fewer data reporting requirements and a simplified profit rate process. Larger contractors will provide an annual statement on how they have engaged SMEs in their supply chain.
Lord Currie recommends these arrangements are overseen by an independent Single Source Regulations Office (SSRO) which would replace the existing review board to provide stronger oversight over both MOD and industry.
The Department will now consider the report’s recommendations as part of the next stage of consultation, which will run until 6 January 2012. Responses to all aspects of the report are welcome, but the Government particularly seek views on the merits of the establishment of the SSRO or possible alternatives such as the strengthening of the existing cost assurance and analysis service. A final report will then be produced which we intend to publish in early 2012 when I shall report back to the House.
Deputy Prime Minister
Boundary Commission for Wales (Appointments)
On 4 October 2011 Mr Paul Loveluck CBE and Professor Robert McNabb were appointed as members of the Boundary Commission for Wales (BCW), following the resignation of two former members of that commission earlier this year.
Mr Loveluck’s career has included spells as president of the National Museum and Libraries of Wales, CEO of the Wales Tourist Board, and CEO of the Countryside Council for Wales. Professor McNabb is professor of economics at Cardiff university, a fellow of the Higher Education Authority and Learned Society of Wales, and a former dean of Cardiff Business School.
The appointments are for five years and made following a fair and open public appointments process competition, in accordance with the code of practice published by the Commissioner for Public Appointments. Ministers made the appointments in line with the recommendations of a panel which comprised a Cabinet Office official, the deputy chair of the BCW (Mr Justice Lloyd Jones) and an independent assessor approved by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments.
The Boundary Commission for Wales has stated that it will publish its initial proposals for the 2013 review of parliamentary constituencies in January 2012 and that it expects to complete the 2013 review within the deadline stipulated by Parliament. The Government made the replacement appointments as quickly as possible and will continue to take the necessary steps to ensure there is no risk to this deadline.
I will be making an announcement on new schools this afternoon via an oral statement in the House of Commons. A list of new schools will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses to coincide with this oral statement.
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Global Abolition of the Death Penalty
I wish to make the House aware of the 2011 update to HMG’s strategy on global abolition of the death penalty and provide an update on progress which the Government have made against the strategy since it was publicly launched on 11 October 2010.
Promoting human rights and democracy is a priority for the UK Government. It is the long-standing policy of the UK to oppose the death penalty in all circumstances as a matter of principle. We believe that its use undermines human dignity; that there is no conclusive evidence of its deterrent value; and that any miscarriage of justice leading to its imposition is irreversible and irreparable.
Since the publication of the “Strategy for Abolition of the Death Penalty”, the Government have raised the death penalty bilaterally with a number of our priority countries at both official and ministerial level in Asia, Africa, the middle east, the USA, Europe and the Caribbean.
We have had some success through our project work. The British High Commission in Uganda is currently supporting a project which aims to provide access to justice for those who have been on death row for over three years, and through this we have funded work by an organisation which has applied to the courts for those on death row to have their sentences commuted to life imprisonment. The FCO is also currently funding a project in the middle east and north Africa region covering Tunisia, Morocco and Jordan, funding workshops which have provided others with the tools to advocate for abolition. This project has also led to the publication of a book that shows the death penalty is not implicit in sharia law. Through the funding of projects in Commonwealth Caribbean and Commonwealth African countries, we have worked to achieve further restrictions on the use of the death penalty, for example in June the mandatory death penalty for felony murder was ruled unconstitutional in Trinidad and Tobago as a result of one of these projects. In July the FCO funded a regional workshop in the Caribbean, providing training to 70 mental health professionals from across the Caribbean, which should lead to improved mental health assessments for those facing the death penalty in the region. In Kenya we supported a regional seminar on the abolition of the death penalty, which took place in April, and we are also currently supporting project work in Nigeria and China.
Consular staff in London and at our overseas missions continue to work hard, in collaboration with the NGO Reprieve, and local lawyers to make progress on the cases of British nationals facing the death penalty. For each case, we have agreed with the key stakeholders our handling strategy, to ensure that our representations are targeted and appropriate. In recent months we have made ministerial and head of mission representations on cases in the US, Ghana, Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Pakistan.
We have also worked with the EU to create an international voice for abolition. We have raised the death penalty with a number of countries, through statements, dialogues and project work. We have also raised many cases of third country nationals who are facing the death penalty.
In November 2010 the UN General Assembly resolution on the moratorium on the use of the death penalty was adopted with record support. As part of an EU campaign, the UK lobbied several states to vote in favour of the resolution or at least move from voting against to abstention. We have also made recommendations to several countries on the death penalty through the universal periodic review process since October 2010.
We have welcomed a number of other positive developments over the past year. Illinois became the 16th US state to abolish the death penalty in March, and in China we welcomed the return of the power of final review to the Supreme People’s Court and the reduction of the number of crimes eligible for the death penalty from 68 to 55 in February. The international momentum towards abolition continues to grow and the Government will continue to work to make progress against their strategy in order to achieve their ultimate objective of global abolition of the death penalty.
A copy of the updated strategy to 2015 will be placed in the Library of the House and published on the FCO website (www.fco.gov.uk) on 10 October.
Sino-British Joint Declaration (Hong Kong)
The latest report on the implementation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong was published today. Copies have been laid in the Library of the House. A copy of the report is also available on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website (www.fco.gov.uk). The report covers the period from 1 January to 30 June 2011. I commend the report to the House.
Southern Cross Healthcare and Social Care Market
I wish to update the House on Southern Cross and the Government’s wider response to the issues which this case has raised.
On 30 September, Southern Cross announced that 250 of the care homes in which it operates have been transferred to new care operators. This represents one third of all of Southern Cross’s homes, involving 249 homes in England and one in Scotland. In each case, the transfer was scrutinised and approved by the relevant national regulator. For the time being, Southern Cross will continue to provide care services in the remainder of its homes.
Two further transfers of homes are expected in October and when the transfers are concluded Southern Cross will no longer be a provider of care services.
The Association of Directors of Adult Social Services is maintaining a list of Southern Cross’s care homes with information on plans for transfer to alternative providers, as well as contact information for residents, relatives and any other interested parties. This is updated weekly and is available at:
This first set of transfers is an important step towards the consensual and orderly winding down of the company. Throughout, it has been the Government’s overriding concern to secure the welfare and safety of the residents in Southern Cross’s care. This transfer and the ones to follow should ensure that this is achieved, with minimal impact on the residents of these homes and clear arrangements to ensure continuity of care.
We will continue to monitor closely the remaining steps to the full transfer of all homes, and will work closely with all interested parties, but I am encouraged that those involved in the restructuring negotiations have put in place the necessary agreements to secure a successful outcome.
As noted by the National Audit Office in its recent report on the social care market “Oversight of user choice and provider competition in care markets”, the case of Southern Cross has highlighted the risks associated with a large care provider facing financial difficulty.
In my previous written ministerial statement to Parliament, I said the Government would shortly be publishing a discussion paper on the issue. This paper has been published today, and forms a part of the Government’s wider engagement exercise on care and support reform, as reported to the House on 15 September 2011.
The paper considers the issues raised by the risk of financial failure in large providers and seeks views on service continuity and/or whether new measures are necessary. It sets out what the Government think is the key objective of any reform, and outlines the key considerations which need to be balanced when coming to a view on what measures may be appropriate. It then lists a range of possible options that could be pursued, drawing on experience in other sectors and considering both regulatory and non-regulatory approaches. This includes possible roles for Monitor, as allowed for in the Health and Social Care Bill currently before the House. The paper invites comments on these options, but also welcomes other ideas. At this stage the Government have not formed a firm view on what would be the best approach. They want to take this opportunity to hear different views, before settling their position ahead of next year’s White Paper.
“Oversight of the Social Care Market; Discussion Paper” 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.
Changes in Immigration Rules
The Government are today laying before the House a statement of changes in the immigration rules. The first change will allow the UK Border Agency to refuse entry or stay in the UK to those subject to immigration control with outstanding unpaid NHS charges of £1,000 or more. This change will be phased in from 1 November.
On 18 March 2011, I announced the Government’s response to the 2010 consultation on refusing entry of stay to NHS debtors and signalled my intention to lay a new rules change in respect of outstanding NHS charges. This will deter overseas visitors from misusing the NHS and encourage overseas visitors to meet their obligations to pay for the NHS services that they use. The UK Border Agency will continue to work closely with the Department of Health on a range of measures to prevent health tourism.
I can also confirm that we are publishing the impact assessment for the changes in respect of outstanding NHS charges on the UK Border Agency website and I will arrange for a copy to be placed in the House Library.
A minor technical change to the evidential requirements for settlement is also being made which will oblige economic migrants to provide supporting documents to show they are earning a minimum amount before they are granted settlement.
I am also making minor changes to rule 317 on parents, grandparents and other dependent relatives to improve the drafting and transparency of the rule. Consequential changes will be made to rule 319(v) which deals with the dependent relatives of refugees and those with humanitarian protection.
We are also making some technical corrections to the rules for other dependent relatives of a refugee or beneficiary of humanitarian protection. We are deleting a provision in the rules that requires an applicant to be refused if he or she has one or more unspent convictions within the meaning of the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974 when they apply for entry clearance or further leave to remain in this route. This provision was included in error, as Government policy is that indefinite leave to remain (ILR) should be refused to people with unspent convictions, but not that an application for entry clearance or limited leave to remain should be refused. We are also clarifying the existing rules to ensure that other family members who wish to switch into the further leave to remain or settlement route in this category can do so. The amendments will also affect the criteria for granting settlement as we are clarifying the need for an applicant to have valid leave to enter or remain in the United Kingdom so that those who have overstayed do not qualify under the rules.
We are also making minor, technical changes to the immigration rules on students, including: to reflect that Education Scotland is the new name for Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Education; to amend the definition of UK-recognised body to confirm that this includes foundation programme offices for post-graduate doctors and dentists; to clarify the definition of who benefits from the streamlined application process for tier 4. A minor correction is being made to the rules laid on 6 April to make provision for spouses and civil partners of a British citizen or settled person in the United Kingdom in line with the policy intention relating to in-country switching.
Minor changes are also being made to the immigration rules relating to unmarried and same-sex partners of a British citizen or settled person in the United Kingdom to enable in-country switching into this route, reflecting the policy intention.
The last change relates to the Olympic and Paralympic games. The UK needs to manage effectively the entry and stay of persons accredited for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games such as athletes, umpires, technical staff and broadcasters and other individuals before, during and after the games in order to deliver a safe and secure games. Such persons are referred to as games family members.
In order to do this, and fulfil contractual and agreements reached with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games (LOCOG), it is necessary to make two sets of changes to the UK’s immigration rules.
The first change amends appendix 1 to the immigration rules by exempting certain holders of the Olympic Identity and Accreditation Card (OIAC) and Paralympic Identity and Accreditation Card (PIAC) from visa requirements during the accreditation period of the games, which runs from 30 March 2012 to 8 November 2012, providing the card is presented with a valid national passport or other document satisfactorily establishing nationality and identity, and providing the requirements set out in the statement of changes to the immigration rules have been met.
The second change amends the visitor category of the immigration rules by creating two new categories of visitor—an “Olympic or Paralympic games family member visitor” and an “Olympic or Paralympic games family member child visitor”. Leave in these two visitor categories will only be available during the accreditation period of the games to games family members who meet the requirements of the immigration rules. Individuals granted leave to enter or remain as an Olympic or Paralympic games family member visitor and Olympic or Paralympic games family member child visitor, during the period of 30 March 2012 to 8 May 2012, will be admitted for up to six months, while those who are granted leave to enter or remain during the period of 9 May 2012 to 8 November 2012 will be admitted up until, and including, 8 November 2012. In both cases conditions prohibiting recourse to public funds and restricting employment to employment only related to Olympic and Paralympic games, will be attached to the leave.
These changes to the immigration rules will help the UK facilitate the entry and stay of games family members in the UK during the games while also allowing the UK Border Agency to maintain a robust immigration control.
We previously informed Parliament, in the explanatory memoranda accompanying the Immigration (Provision of Physical Data) (Amendment) Regulations 2011 and the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 (Amendment) Order 2011 and during their debate in the House of Commons and House of Lords, that we would be amending the Channel Tunnel (International Arrangements) Order 1993 and Channel Tunnel (Miscellaneous Provisions) Order 1994 to enable the collection of fingerprints and facial images from visa nationals accredited for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games at the UK’s train juxtaposed controls in France and Belgium. The aforementioned 2011 regulations enable biometric information to be taken from persons accredited for the Olympic and Paralympic games who would usually be required to apply for a visa and therefore have their biometric information taken as visa nationals but as part of the host city contract Her Majesty’s Government gave a commitment that in specified circumstances there would be no requirement for certain holders of an accreditation card to apply for a visa before travelling to the UK. The amendments to the channel tunnel orders are no longer considered necessary as the 2011 regulations, when read with the provisions of the channel tunnel orders, provide us with the legal power to make the collection at the UK’s train juxtaposed controls in France and Belgium.
Emergency Towing Vessels
I am pleased to confirm to the House that the Scotland Office is now leading efforts to secure a long-term replacement for the emergency towing vessels (ETV) service in waters surrounding the Northern Isles and Western Isles.
It has been agreed that interim funding will be provided from the UK Government to support the service for up to three months while this work continues. The contract will be managed by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and every effort will be made to ensure value-for-money for the public purse.
The Scotland Office, drawing on technical and operational advice from the Maritime and Coastguard Agency and Scottish stakeholders from the UK ETV working group, will lead efforts to broker a long- term replacement for the service. Time scales are tight and this work will be progressed as a matter of urgency. I will convene a meeting of a Scottish ETV working group on Monday 17 October, comprising representatives of Highlands and Islands local authorities. Marine Scotland, KIMO (Kommunenes Internasjonale Miljøorganisasjon) and other interested parties. An announcement will be made by the end of the year notifying the House of the outcome of this work.
Parliamentary Written Question (Correction)
I regret to inform the House that there was an inaccuracy in the answer I gave to parliamentary question 58263 on 20 June 2011, Official Report, column 20W, about rolling stock. The variable track access charges that were contained in the table were incorrect. The corrected table is reproduced below.
Variable Track Access Charge
When under diesel power
When under electric power
(1) Indicates brace.
Incident at Gleision Colliery
On Thursday 17 September, a retaining wall holding back a body of water collapsed in Taren Gleision drift mine near Pontardawe in the Swansea Valley. Of the seven men working in the mine three men were able to escape, but all of the remaining four miners tragically died. The four trapped miners were named as Charles Breslin, 62; David Powell, 50; and Garry Jenkins, 39, from the Swansea Valley; and Phillip Hill, 45, of Neath.
It is a distressing time for the families and friends of those who lost their lives and I send my sincere condolences to them. I would also like to pay tribute to the efforts of the whole community and the organisations, including the Red Cross and the WRVS, who provided support to all concerned during what were very difficult days.
The emergency services and mine rescue workers involved in the search and rescue operation carried out their work in incredibly difficult and dangerous circumstances. We are deeply indebted to them for their tireless determination and dedication.
The Cabinet Office Civil Contingencies Secretariat provided full co-ordination in the immediate aftermath ensuring all parts of Government with a role to play were fully appraised of the situation on the ground and of any actions that needed to be taken locally and centrally. We worked closely with the Welsh Government in the initial stages of the operation. The right hon. Member for Neath (Mr Hain) was present as events unfolded and my office worked closely with him in the immediate aftermath.
The South Wales branch of the National Union of Mineworkers set up the Swansea Valley Miners Appeal Fund as a trust to administer the donations to support the families of those involved in the disaster. His Royal Highness, The Prince of Wales, has agreed to be the Royal patron of the fund. The Wales Office worked with the Charity Commission to assist the fund in gaining its charitable status, which was confirmed on 26 September. Until this point the Wales Office has agreed to reimburse the appeal fund for the funding it did not receive from gift aid contributions while charitable status was being sought.
South Wales police are currently the primary lead for the investigation and are working closely with the Health and Safety Executive. The gathering of evidence has been extremely difficult and dangerous. This evidence will need to be reviewed and the Government will continue to do all they can to facilitate a full investigation.
Work and Pensions
Cold Weather Payments Scheme 2011-12
I am pleased to announce that regulations to amend the cold weather payment scheme will be laid later today. The changes will come into force on 1 November this year, in time for the beginning of the winter period.
Following advice from the meteorological office the amendments will introduce four new weather stations to the scheme for winter 2011-12 and withdraw the current stations at Dundrennan, St Catherine’s Point and West Freugh. As a result of the changes the postcodes that are currently linked to the withdrawn stations will be re-assigned to different weather stations. The four new weather stations are:
The new stations have been chosen to maintain weather station to postcode links that are at least as representative as the current arrangement.
I have written to each Member who made representations about the administration of the scheme last winter to make them aware of the advice from the meteorological office.
Cold weather payments are separate from, and in addition to, winter fuel payments.
The amendments resulted from the Department’s annual review of the cold weather payments scheme. The review drew on expert advice from the meteorological office and took account of representations from benefit claimants and Members of Parliament.
For winter 2011-12 the cold weather payment rate will continue to be £25 for each seven-day period of very cold weather.
Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council
(3 October 2011)
The Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council met on 3 October 2011 in Luxembourg. Andy Lebrecht, UK deputy permanent representative to the European Union, represented the UK.
The first item on the agenda was a policy debate on the future shape of the European social fund (ESF) and its role in the implementation of the Europe 2020 strategy. The Commission confirmed that it would publish its draft regulation on the ESF in 2014-2020 later in the week. The presidency stressed that it was vital to strengthen the role of the ESF in cohesion policy. Member states agreed that the ESF should contribute in helping to achieve Europe 2020 targets and that ESF should be more efficient and targeted at the most disadvantaged. For the UK, Andy Lebrecht intervened to stress the need to focus EU resources on the less developed member states, to improve value for money, and that ESF should add value to national investment in employment and skills. The UK also raised concerns about the effectiveness and added value of the European globalisation fund.
The second item on the agenda was a report from the presidency on preparations for the tripartite social summit which will take place on 17 October 2011.
The Council also adopted Council conclusions on the role of voluntary work in social policy and managing demographic changes.
Under any other business, a debate on the EU Aid for the Needy scheme took place. France and Slovenia had circulated a joint paper asking Employment Ministers to lobby their agriculture counterparts to agree a short-term continuation of the programme, which would allow food to be sourced from the open market as well as from increasingly limited intervention stocks, and to introduce an element of co-financing. The Commission reiterated its support for the scheme and indicated that it would table a revised proposal with a dual cohesion and agriculture legal base, reverting to 100% EU funding. A number of member states expressed support for the scheme and the Commission’s efforts to find a solution. The UK, along with Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden stressed that measures such as these should be delivered at national level. A Europe wide scheme raised competence issues and was not as effective as national measures. The presidency noted the positions in Council and would send a note on the discussions to the Agriculture Council.
The other items under any other business were reports on Polish presidency conferences and the EPSCO informal which took place in July. The presidency also reported on preparations for the first annual convention of the European platform against poverty and social exclusion which takes place in October. The French reported back on the G20 labour and employment Ministers which took place in Paris and the Germans reported back on the meeting of an informal ministerial group on employment and social policy which took place in Potsdam.