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Written Statements

Volume 542: debated on Friday 23 March 2012

Written Ministerial Statements

Friday 23 March 2012

Business, Innovation and Skills

National Careers Service and “The Right Advice at the Right Time”

In “New Challenges, New Chances”, the Government’s reform plan for Further Education and Skills published on 1 December 2011, we reinforced the importance of first class advice on careers and skills to help individuals make informed choices. It is right at the heart of our strategy for sustainable growth and social renewal.

That is why, on 5 April 2012, I will be launching the National Careers Service. This major new service will ensure that accurate information and professional advice about learning and work is available to all.

Alongside the launch of the National Careers Service, I will be publishing a document called “The Right Advice at the Right Time” bringing together in one place all that the Government and their partners are doing to ensure young people and adults get the advice they need on learning and work. We are now entering a new phase, where high quality, high status careers advice services should be readily available.

I believe passionately in the power of careers guidance to transform lives. We have debated these plans on a number of occasions, including during the passage of the Education Bill. Throughout, the passion and commitment of my parliamentary colleagues to getting the best for young people and adults has shone through. I will be pleased therefore to make sure that copies of “The Right Advice at the Right Time” are made available to colleagues in the Libraries in both Houses.

Retail and Manufacturing Consultation

The red tape challenge is playing a key role in reducing the burden of regulation that stifles growth. Unnecessary regulation has to be removed leaving only regulation that is necessary to safeguard the rights of consumers and employees.

The retail theme was the first to go live on the red tape challenge website and received almost 9,000 comments. The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Minister with responsibility for business and enterprise, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr Prisk), announced on 28 July 2011 the range of retail regulations that the Government wished to scrap, simplify and abolish. Similarly, the manufacturing theme considered 128 regulations and seeks to scrap 47% of these.

Today we are publishing the retail and manufacturing consultation. This seeks views on the removal of regulations that have been identified under both the retail and manufacturing themes of the red tape challenge process as no longer required.

The Government also intend to amend the Pyrotechnic Articles (Safety) Regulations 2010. This is to remove heavy-handed intervention to make it possible to lower the age at which Christmas crackers can be brought from 16 to 12.

Many of the regulations covered by this consultation were introduced to tackle a specific problem relating to a particular product such as; safety issues arising from poorly constructed bunk beds; or customers being mislead through disingenuous pricing. While these regulations may be very effective at stamping out the problem they were designed to tackle, they are not flexible enough to deal with new products or practices.

A new approach has been taken since these regulations were made, one which seeks to tackle the bigger problems facing consumers. The issue of price fixing for example is dealt with in all its forms and for all sectors of the economy by the Competition Act 1998, while the General Product Safety Regulations 2005 protect consumers from products which are unsuitable for use whatever their purpose and whatever danger they pose, provided the supporting European standards offer an acceptable level of safety protection.

A full list of the regulations to be amended and revoked are as follows:

Pyrotechnic Articles (Safety) Regulations 2010 (SI 2010/1554);

Bunk Beds (Entrapment Hazards) (Safety) Regulations 1987 (SI 1987/1337);

Children’s Clothing (Hood Cords) Regulations 1976 (SI 1976/2);

Imitation Dummies (Safety) Regulations 1993 (SI 1993/2923);

Pencils and Graphic Instruments (Safety) Regulations 1998 (SI 1998/2406);

Wheeled Child Conveyances (Safety) Regulations 1997 (SI 1997/2866);

Gas cooking Appliances (Safety) Regulations 1989 (SI 1989/149);

Heating Appliances (Fireguards) Regulations 1991 (SI 1991/2693);

Gas Catalytic Heaters (Safety) Regulations 1984 (SI 1984/1802);

All-Terrain Motor Vehicle (Safety) Regulations 1989 (SI 1989/2288);

Cooking Utensils (Safety) Regulations 1972 (SI 1972/1957);

Indication of Prices (Beds) Order 1978 (SI 1978/1716);

Child Resistant Packaging and Tactile Danger Warning (Safety) (Revocation) Regulations 1992, already revoked, (SI 1992/2620);

Stands for Carry-cots (Safety) (Revocation) Regulations 1996, already revoked, (SI 1996/2756);

Magnetic Toys (Safety) (Revocation) Regulations 2009, already revoked, (SI 2009/1347).

The removal of these regulations will not reduce consumer protections but will increase clarity and simplify the law for business and consumers.

The consultation will stay open for eight weeks and close on Wednesday 23 May. This shorter period reflects the consultation that has already taken place through the red tape challenge website and the deregulatory nature of these regulations. Direct contact will be made with consumer rights groups and business representative groups to ensure sufficient opportunity is provided to consider the implications of the removal of these regulations.

Treasury

ECOFIN (13 March 2012)

The Economic and Financial Affairs Council was held in Brussels on 13 March 2012. Ministers discussed the following items:

Financial Transaction Tax (FTT)—State of Play

The presidency presented a state of play note that listed a number of open issues that remained with the FTT proposals following the completion of the first technical reading. Ministers discussed these issues and agreed that more technical work and supplementary analysis by the Commission, including looking at possible alternatives, was necessary ahead of an orientation debate later in the Danish presidency. I reiterated that the UK position of opposition to the Commission proposals for an FTT remained unchanged.

Reinforcing and Deepening fiscal surveillance on Greece

The presidency introduced a recommendation for a Council decision addressed to Greece with a view to reinforcing and deepening fiscal surveillance and giving notice to Greece to take further measures judged necessary to remedy their excessive deficit. This recommendation was adopted by the Council.

Alert Mechanism Report

Ministers agreed Council conclusions on the Alert Mechanism Report. The Alert Mechanism Report is part of the new macro-economic imbalances procedure. The Commission will now begin finalising the in-depth reviews for those countries flagged as potentially being at risk of having or developing imbalances.

Follow-up to the European Council Meeting of 1-2 March 2012

The presidency briefly reminded Ministers of the March European Council conclusions and stressed the importance of translating those conclusions into action ahead of the June European Council.

Read Out from G20 Meeting of Finance Ministers and Governors (Mexico 25-26 February 2012)

The presidency briefly summarised the discussions at the G20 Finance Ministers’ meeting. The Commission noted that there seemed to be moderate optimism on the euro area position, although significant challenges remain. The Commission and European Central Bank also noted the importance of agreeing on reinforcement of euro area firewalls.

Implementation of the Stability and Growth Pact (Hungary)

The Commission presented a proposal to suspend €495 million of cohesion fund (CF) commitments to Hungary in 2013, following the Council decision on 24 January that Hungary has not taken effective action to sustainably correct its excessive Government deficit. After an extended discussion between Ministers, the proposal was adopted by the Council. Hungary was willing to accept the decision in the light of a statement in the minutes of the meeting making clear that Council would return to the matter at its meeting on 22 June, with a view to lifting the suspension if Hungary undertakes the necessary corrective measures. The Commission also presented a recommendation on measures to be taken to bring an end to the situation of excessive Government deficit in Hungary. This was agreed by Ministers.

Any Other Business: Informal ECOFIN

The presidency looked forward to the forthcoming informal ECOFIN in Copenhagen on the 30 and 31 March and set out some possible items for discussion, including the relationship and co-operation between the euro area and the EU as a whole.

Any Other Business: Discharge Procedure

The presidency debriefed the Council on the presentation to the Parliament on the 28 February of the Council’s recommendations on the discharge for the 2010 budget.

Eurogroup debrief

Ministers were debriefed over breakfast on the Eurogroup meeting of 12 March which had discussed the economic situation and the progress on deficit and debt sustainability efforts being made by a number of euro area member states. Informal consultations had also taken place over appointments to the European Central Bank board, head of the Eurogroup and head of the European stability mechanism (ESM).

European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) President

Ministers discussed the forthcoming election of a new president for the EBRD. Two candidates had already been nominated, including the incumbent, and in the course of the discussion Poland confirmed they would be putting forward a candidate. I also informed ECOFIN that the UK would be putting a candidate forward. The Chancellor has since nominated Sir Suma Chakrabarti as the UK candidate.

Communities and Local Government

Disabled Facilities Grant Funding

Today the Department for Communities and Local Government is announcing the local authority allocations for the disabled facilities grant programme in England, making available £180 million in 2012-13. An additional £228,750 will be paid to local authorities that have funded adaptations for ex-service personnel in 2011-12, to enable them to live independently at home with dignity and respect. This recognises Government’s commitment to helping service personnel gain the housing they deserve.

Local authorities are being informed of their individual allocations. Details of the amount awarded to each authority will be available on the Department for Communities and Local Government website and a table detailing the funds provided to individual authorities has been placed in the Library of the House.

The disabled facilities grant programme has been protected. By the end of the spending review period the national disabled facilities grant budget will increase from £169 million in 2010-11 to £185 million in 2014-15. In January we announced an additional £20 million DFG funding, bringing the total this year up to £200 million, delivering a total investment of £745 million over the SR period.

The programme helps disabled people to live as comfortably and independently as possible in their own homes through the provision of adaptations. Entitlement to a disabled facilities grant is mandatory for eligible disabled people and the grant provides financial assistance for the provision of a wide range of housing adaptations ranging from stair lifts, level-access showers and home extensions. The programme is therefore key in delivering the Government’s objective of providing increased levels of care and support to both disabled and vulnerable people to help them live independently in their own homes.

The Department for Communities and Local Government wrote to all local authorities in January 2011 to announce a small change to the disabled facilities grant allocation methodology, with part of the allocation being distributed using a relative needs weighted index. We are making £180 million available in 2012-13, the same as the main allocation in 2011-12, and as a result, all local authorities will receive the same individual allocations as they did in 2011-12.

Government have also invested £1.5 million in the FirstStop information and advice service which aims to help older and vulnerable people make informed decisions about their housing, care and support options and to help them maintain independent living in later life. In addition, the Government provided £51 million funding for handypersons schemes over the spending review period to deliver small home repairs and adaptations.

Traveller Site Provision

The Government are today publishing their new planning policy for Traveller site provision following a consultation initiated last year.

The summary of consultation responses and the final planning policy document will be placed in the Library of the House.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Afghanistan Monthly Progress Report

I wish to inform the House that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, together with the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development, is today publishing the fifteenth progress report on developments in Afghanistan since November 2010.

On 11 March a US soldier killed and injured a large number of Afghan civilians in their homes. We send our deepest condolences to the victims and their families and we support the investigation into the attack. As General Allen, Commander ISAF, has stated this incident in no way represents the values of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and coalition troops or the abiding respect we feel for the Afghan people.

On 6 March, five soldiers from the 3rd Battalion the Yorkshire Regiment and one from the 1st Battalion The Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment were killed when their Warrior Armoured Fighting Vehicle was struck by an explosion. The Prime Minister expressed deep sadness at their deaths and said that it stood as a reminder of the huge sacrifice that our troops have made, and continue to make, for the work we are doing in Afghanistan. This incident will be reported, in full, in March’s statement.

On 21 February, religious materials, including copies of the Qur’an, were mistakenly disposed of by US service personnel by burning at Bagram Airfield. This sparked a mass demonstration at the facility. In the following days protests spread to over 40 locations across Afghanistan. It remains unclear whether the incident will have any lasting repercussions. In the short term at least it has damaged Afghans’ perception of ISAF forces.

NATO Defence Ministers met in Brussels on 2-3 February. NATO members restated their commitment to Afghanistan. The Secretary-General reaffirmed that the decisions made at the Lisbon summit will remain the bedrock of the ISAF strategy. Importantly this strategy will see ISAF forces remain in Afghanistan, in a combat role, until the transition process completes at the end of 2014.

Despite these events, the UK continues to work with the Afghan Government and their people to ensure that local communities benefit from better public services, including justice, healthcare, education and roads.

In his written ministerial statement of 9 November 2009, Official Report, column 5WS, the then Secretary of State for Defence set out the UK policy on the detention and transfer of persons captured by UK forces in Afghanistan. We are currently reviewing that policy, in the light of operational security requirements and the US-Afghan memorandum of understanding on detention arrangements signed earlier this month. Pending the results of this review, the UK is additionally and exceptionally holding two individuals whose continued detention we judge necessary, for force protection purposes, rather than to gain further intelligence.

We welcome the recent steps taken by the Governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan to enhance their relationship. Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar visited Kabul on 1 February Prime Minister Gilani published a statement on 24 February which supported an inclusive Afghan led peace process. It called on the Taliban leadership and other insurgency groups to participate in a national reconciliation process. Hina Rabbani Khar visited London on 21 February. I and the International Development Secretary had productive and substantive discussions with her on the enhanced strategic dialogue and other matters. These discussions included UK-Pakistan relations, Afghanistan and the importance of regional stability. Both Afghanistan and Pakistan recognise that their long-term prosperity and security depend on maintaining strong and positive relations with each other.

I am placing the report in the Library of the House. It will also be published on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website (www.fco.gov.uk).

Health

Abortion Act 1967

There have recently been a number of serious allegations involving potential breaches of the Abortion Act 1967. The Metropolitan Police, Greater Manchester Police and the West Midlands Police, the Care Quality Commission (CQC), the General Medical Council (GMC) and the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) are investigating the allegations into sex-selection at a number of abortion services. The chief medical officer has written to all abortion providers reminding them of their duties under the Abortion Act. The GMC interim orders panel has suspended or placed restrictions on the three doctors named in the press reports. Decisions on the registration and approval of the clinics are awaiting the investigations by the CQC and Department of Health officials into compliance with the Act and registration requirements.

Registration inspections by CQC in February also identified cases where doctors had signed the required certificate of the ground for the abortion (HSA1 forms) before the woman had been seen in the clinic. The Act requires two doctors to certify that at least one (and the same) ground for abortion exists in relation to a specific woman. The pre-signing of these forms is potentially a criminal offence and is being investigated by the CQC and the police and may lead to further referrals to the GMC or NMC.

In the light of the serious nature of these allegations, CQC are this week conducting a series of unannounced inspections of all abortion providers. Any evidence of failure to comply with the Act and registration requirements will be investigated by CQC, the police and other regulatory bodies. I will consider withdrawing an independent abortion provider’s approval to conduct abortions if the requirements of the Act are not being met. Any provider’s registration to carry out termination of pregnancy may also be suspended or cancelled by the CQC. I will provide further final details of actions taken when the initial investigations are complete.

In addition, my officials will work with the CQC and other regulatory bodies to examine compliance with the Act and relevant statutory and professional requirements in order to inform the planned revision of the Procedures for the Approval of Independent Abortion Providers for consultation later this year.

Transport

Additional Funding for Buses

I am today announcing the winning bidders for the Better Bus Area and Green Bus Fund competitions, which we launched before Christmas 2011.

Taken together, this significant investment will get more people on buses, and so aid the Department’s overarching objectives of helping to create growth and cut carbon.

The quality of the bids for the Better Bus Area Fund and Green Bus Fund have been excellent and I am pleased to report that because of the prudent financial management of the Department’s funds by the Secretary of State and her ministerial team, I have been able to increase the allocations previously announced, from £20 million to £31 million in respect of the Green Bus Fund, and from £50 million to £70 million in respect of the Better Bus Area Fund.

Projects under these two funds will help drive forward our bus travel in England, helping buy, amongst other things:

439 low-carbon buses to forge the future of the low-carbon economy (we expect the majority of these to be manufactured in the UK);

the development of hop-on hop-off multi-operator tickets that put spontaneity back into the hands of the passenger;

real time information for bus passengers and for bus operators to cut down waiting time and prevent buses bunching up. No more waiting for a bus and then three come along at once;

smarter traffic lights that recognise buses and give them priority with barely an impact on other traffic.

Twenty-four lead local transport authorities across England will benefit from the £70m Better Bus Area Fund, right across the country. Five local transport authorities and 26 bus companies have been awarded £31 million of Green Bus funding.

Together this package will encourage people onto the bus, cutting congestion, promoting a low-carbon transport infrastructure and encouraging growth.

Documents listing the successful bidders under each competition have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses, and are being published on the DFT website.

I will be in a position to make a further statement on bus subsidy reform in the near future.

Work and Pensions

Automatic Enrolment Timetable

On 25 January we issued details of the revised implementation timetable, reaffirming our commitment that automatic enrolment will start on time, from October 2012, and will apply to all employers.

We also said that we would publish a consultation document setting out the full detail of these changes, along with draft regulations and an impact assessment.

These documents will be published later today. The consultation will close on 4 May.

Discretionary Social Fund Scheme

Last year I announced measures to manage crisis loan demand back towards pre-2006 levels, prior to reform of the discretionary elements of the Social Fund.

From April 2013 the existing crisis loans scheme will be abolished and replaced in part by new local provision by local authorities in England and the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales.

While the April 2011 measures have made a considerable contribution towards managing demand, further measures are required prior to the transfer of funding for the new local provision. I am therefore announcing two further changes to the crisis loan system.

From 9 April 2012:

For non-householders facing an emergency or disaster situation, the maximum crisis loan award in relation to living expenses will be based upon 30% of the appropriate benefit personal allowance rate, rather than the current rate of 60%. Householders and people without accommodation will continue to receive maximum awards based upon 60% of the appropriate benefit personal allowance rate.

Crisis loans awarded to alleviate hardship because child tax credits have not been received will be treated as alignment payments. This means that they will be exempt from the cap that restricts crisis loan living expense awards to 3 in a 12-month rolling period. (Alignment payments will be replaced by short-term advances from April 2013 and will continue to be administered by DWP).

Crisis loans for living expenses are awarded for two main reasons. To help:

A benefit claimant to bridge an income gap before their first full benefit or wages are paid; or

A person who faces other situations in which their normal income has been lost, stolen or is otherwise not available.

A person who does not have to maintain their own dwelling because they are living in the dwelling of someone else (who is liable for costs such as housing costs, council tax and mains fuel) does not need the same level of crisis loan award to mitigate a serious risk to their health or safety.

The maximum living expenses award in an emergency or disaster for a person who is without any type of accommodation will continue to be based upon 60% of the appropriate benefit personal allowance rate to take account of their special needs.

These changes do not alter the requirement of the Department to consider an applicant’s need for an award, whether or not they are a householder.

Copies of the amended Secretary of State “Directions and the Equality Impact Assessment” will be placed in the House Library later today.