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Written Statements

Volume 538: debated on Wednesday 11 January 2012

Written Ministerial Statements

Wednesday 11 January 2012

Treasury

Equitable Life Payment Scheme

The Treasury can confirm that the Equitable Life payment scheme is making high volumes of automated payments—10,000 this week alone.

The Equitable Life payment scheme is due to make in the region of £1.5 billion worth of payments. This represents a significant logistical exercise, which requires complex systems to be established to not only make payments but also respond to the resultant policyholder queries. The Government met their commitment to start making payments by the middle of last year and high volumes of automated payments are now being made.

Many thousands of payments a week are being made and the volume will continue to be ramped up. This means that over the coming months hundreds of thousands more eligible policyholders will receive their payment from the scheme. These payments will be made in accordance with the recommendations of the Independent Commission on Equitable Life payments. The Treasury has also confirmed that the first payments to with-profits annuitants have also commenced, and over 3,000 annuitants have already had their first payment issued.

The scheme is making good progress in paying out the £500 million provided for this financial year by the 2010 spending review, and as part of the Government’s commitment to transparency, the scheme will be publishing a more detailed report on the scheme to date. This report will be made available via the scheme’s website in the coming weeks.

Eligible policyholders that have not received payment yet need not do anything—the scheme has policyholders’ details from Equitable Life and the Prudential and will contact all the eligible policyholders it can by June 2012 at the latest.

Communities and Local Government

Social Housing

I announced in the Government’s housing strategy my intention to tackle social housing fraud and I am today launching a consultation that sets out my proposals in this area. These proposals would increase the deterrent to tenants considering cheating the system, enable those who do to be detected more easily and punished more severely, and encourage social landlords to take a more proactive approach to tackling tenancy fraud. This would free up valuable social homes that can then be allocated to those in greatest need.

There is a clear case for reform. Social housing is an enormously valuable national asset, providing essential support for millions: yet while there are over 1.8 million households on social housing waiting lists, estimates of the number of social homes in England being unlawfully occupied range from 50,000 to 160,000. The National Fraud Authority estimates that tenancy fraud costs £900 million per year. Replacing these unlawfully occupied social homes—to house those who have effectively been displaced by those who commit tenancy fraud—would cost several billion pounds.

Most forms of tenancy fraud are civil matters rather than criminal offences. This means that while abusing a social tenancy can be extremely lucrative, the consequences for those caught breaking the rules tend to be relatively minor—in most proven cases the legal tenant is simply required to give back the keys to a property in which they do not live. Existing legislation does not allow for a criminal prosecution for sub-letting or most other types of tenancy fraud.

In addition to the lack of an effective deterrent, tenancy fraud investigators argue that they do not have sufficient investigatory powers, meaning that they can only detect a fraction of the homes being unlawfully occupied. Recent Government investment has seen an increase in the number of social homes being recovered, but it is apparent that stronger measures need to be considered.

My proposals would introduce new legislation so that social tenants who abuse their tenancies could be subject to criminal sanctions with a maximum penalty of a £50,000 fine and two years’ imprisonment. They would also allow for any profits made from tenancy fraud to be confiscated, a restitutionary payment to be made to the landlord, and would give local authorities the power to prosecute for matters related to tenancy fraud.

We are also proposing to remove the discretion a court has when it comes to evicting tenants of housing associations who have been proven to have sub-let the whole of their homes. This would bring housing association tenants into line with council tenants. I will also review the “intention to return” defence often used by tenants, which has meant that a tenant can live away from the property for a substantial period of time, sometimes years, and still maintain their tenancy by arguing in court that they intend to return to the home.

These proposals would be in addition to rather than in place of the existing powers social landlords have, and in my view are sensible and practical measures that would rectify the anomalous situation whereby the incentive to cheat the system is so much greater than both the risk of detection and the eventual penalty incurred.

Education

National Curriculum in England (Information and Communication Technology)

I am today announcing my intention to launch a public consultation on my proposal that the national curriculum programmes of study and associated attainment targets and assessment arrangements for information and communication technology (ICT) in maintained schools in England should not apply from September 2012.

There is a significant and growing base of evidence, not least from Ofsted inspections, that demonstrates that there are persistent problems with the quality and effectiveness of ICT education in schools. Evidence indicates that recent curriculum and qualifications reforms have not led to significant improvements in the teaching of ICT, and the number of students progressing to further study in ICT-related subjects is in decline. Furthermore, the ICT curriculum in its current form is viewed as dull and demotivating for pupils. Its teaching may not equip pupils adequately for further study and work, may leave them disenchanted or give rise to negative perceptions that turn them off the subject completely. At the same time we know that the demand for high-level technology skills is growing, and many employers in the IT industry are concerned that the way in which ICT is taught in schools is failing to inspire young people about the creative potential of ICT and the range of IT-related careers open to them.

However, we also know that ICT teaching in schools can be done well. There are numerous positive examples of schools that are leading the way in developing new and exciting visions for ICT, and of industry-led initiatives which are invigorating ICT teaching in schools. In order to facilitate more innovative ICT provision in schools, I am proposing to make provision under the 2002 Education Act to disapply the existing ICT programmes of study and attainment targets at all four key stages, and the associated statutory assessment arrangements at key stage 3, from September 2012.

Under this proposal ICT would remain a compulsory subject within the national curriculum, subject to the outcomes of the national curriculum review. However, schools would be freed of the requirement to adhere to the existing programmes of study, attainment targets and statutory assessment arrangements.

By disapplying the ICT programme of study from September this year schools will be able to offer a more creative and challenging curriculum, drawing on support and advice from those best positioned to judge what an ambitious and forward-looking curriculum should contain. I am encouraged by the work of subject organisations and others on how universities and business can develop high quality computer science qualifications. I am keen to explore how Government can continue to facilitate this.

If, having listened to the views expressed in the public consultation and subject to the will of the House, I decide to proceed with the proposed disapplication of the ICT programmes of study, attainment targets and assessment arrangements, it will represent an interim measure that will be effective from September 2012 until September 2014, when the outcomes of the national curriculum review will come into force. The status of ICT within the school curriculum is currently being considered by the national curriculum review alongside that of all other national curriculum subjects (aside from English, mathematics, science and PE), and I will bring forward proposals later this year.

The public consultation on this proposal will commence shortly and run for 12 weeks. A consultation document containing full details of this proposal and how interested parties can respond to the consultation will be published on the Department for Education website. Copies of that document will also be placed in the House Libraries.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Single Payment Scheme

As explained in my statement of 8 November 2011, Official Report, column 12WS, one of the performance indicators I set the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) for the 2011 single payment scheme (SPS) was to pay 78% of the total estimated fund value to a minimum of 86% of eligible claimants by the end of December 2011. I can now confirm to the House that those figures were reached and exceeded.

By the end of 31 December 2011, RPA had made payments totalling some £1.427 billion (82.5%) to 92,066 English farmers (87.8%). These figures represent the highest ever proportion of SPS payments made by the agency in the opening month of the payment window. As such, it is a good example of the progress being made at RPA as it strives to deliver an improved level of service for English farmers in its administration of the scheme.

The focus now is on validating the remaining claims and making the related payments as soon as possible. I expect further progress in that regard over January, with a view to ensuring that the second SPS 2011 performance indicator (to have paid a minimum of 95% of both the eligible claimants and the total estimated value by the end of March 2012) is also met.