Written Ministerial Statements
Tuesday 3 July 2012
Extra-statutory Concession (A19)
Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs is today publishing a consultation document on extra-statutory concession (ESC) A19.
The document sets out HMRC proposals to introduce changes to ESC A19 over the course of the next year and seeks the views of taxpayers to inform any future changes.
ESC A19 allows HMRC, under certain prescribed circumstances, to forgo the collection of tax arrears where they arose because of HMRC’s failure to act on information provided by the individual, their employer or the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).
Following discussions with taxpayer representative bodies over the last year, it is clear that more can be done to make ESC A19 easier for customers and their representatives to understand and to ensure that the concession remains fit for purpose following the introduction of the national insurance and PAYE Service (NPS). In response to those discussions, HMRC has proposed a revised version of ESC A19 and would now like to seek wider public opinion on this revised version to help test its thinking in this area.
In particular the consultation seeks to:
improve the clarity of ESC A19 so that it is more user-friendly and easily understood by taxpayers;
help HMRC bring greater objectivity to ESC A19; and
help HMRC align ESC A19 with the HMRC charter and ensure that it continues to be available in appropriate cases.
The consultation document is available on the HMRC website at: http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/consultations/index.htm.
Sanctions for Directors of Failed Banks
The Government are today launching a consultation on proposals that could prevent the directors of failed banks from holding similar positions at financial institutions in the future. The Government are also consulting on the possibility of introducing criminal sanctions for serious misconduct in the management of a bank.
The Financial Services Authority’s (FSA) report into the failure of the Royal Bank of Scotland, published in December 2011, highlighted how errors made by senior management contributed to the bank having to be saved by the taxpayer. It also set out the difficulty in taking regulatory action against the individuals concerned under the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000.
The Government are committed to tackling the legacies of the crisis and implementing the most far-reaching reforms of British banking in our modern history. Today’s proposals are some of the most ambitious in Europe.
The first proposal will make it easier for the regulator to stop directors of failed banks from taking up similar positions in the future. At present, the onus is on the regulator to prove that an individual is not fit to hold an executive position in a bank. The proposals in the consultation, if taken forward, will mean that an individual who has been a director in a failed bank will have to prove that they acted properly and were not responsible for the failure before taking up a similar position in another financial institution in the future. If taken forward, the necessary measure would be included (as a Government amendment) in the Financial Services Bill.
The second proposal would involve the creation of a new criminal offence for serious misconduct in the management of a bank. Government recognise that there are practical issues to consider and that the introduction of a new criminal offence could raise complex issues. So this is an initial consultation. As a result, it would not be possible to include the proposal in the Financial Services Bill and, if it is taken forward, the Government would envisage including the necessary legislation in another Bill during this Parliament.
The consultation will close on 30 September 2012. Copies of the consultation document have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.
Communities and Local Government
Planning Simplification Measures
Today I am announcing additional measures to support the delivery of sustainable development by making the planning system simpler and more effective.
The national planning policy framework and the Localism Act provide the basis for a radically improved planning system and there is clear evidence that they, and the earlier written ministerial statement on planning for growth, are already delivering results: we are seeing the rate of local plan adoptions rise—37 plans have been adopted in the last 12 months, compared with less than 60 adopted in the six years before the 2010 general election, and high levels of approval rates for planning applications.
The proposals I am announcing today will help streamline the process of applying for planning permission, ensure that planning is properly resourced and create greater engagement and accountability in the process.
Over 100 local planning authorities are working with front-runner communities on neighbourhood planning. To help those communities with their neighbourhood plans, we will be providing further funding to the four organisations currently offering support on neighbourhood planning: the Royal Town Planning Institute (Planning Aid); the Prince’s Foundation for Building Community; the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, working with the National Association of Local Councils; and Locality (the Building Communities Consortium). The further funding will enable the four support providers to offer practical and bespoke advice and assistance to those leading communities with their neighbourhood plans.
In line with commitments set out in the growth review and autumn statement, we have identified a number of potential changes to the use classes order and associated permitted development rights. If agreed, they would provide new opportunities for development and sustainable economic growth through the reuse of existing buildings, without the need to apply formally for planning permission. These include temporary or so called “meanwhile” use of empty commercial premises as recommended in the Portas review. A consultation paper is being published alongside this statement.
The national planning policy framework has successfully distilled over 1,000 pages of policy into around 50, with clear benefits for every user of the system. The next challenge is to do the same with planning guidance—some 6,000 pages of it. Practitioners will have an important role to play in ensuring we establish clear, usable guidance that supports effective planning and I will shortly announce more details on the approach we propose to take.
There is also scope to make the information requirements for planning applications clearer, simpler and more proportionate. This can be achieved without undermining the ability of local planning authorities to make well-informed decisions, or the ability of the public fully to understand what is being proposed. I am publishing detailed proposals for consultation alongside this statement.
We also intend to speed up the process for determining planning appeals, which I know can be a source of frustration for applicants and communities alike. We will consult on proposals to both shorten and streamline the process for all parties later this year.
It is important that local authorities, communities and planning inspectors can rely on the information contained in applications. To reinforce this point I will amend the declaration on the standard application form so that applicants are asked to confirm that the information provided is, to the best of their knowledge, truthful and accurate.
We are also proposing to make technical amendments to regulations to clarify and improve the operation of the community infrastructure levy. We intend to introduce these regulations in the autumn.
Providing planning departments with the resources that are required to turn round planning applications efficiently and effectively is important. The planning application fee is a relatively small component of the costs of any development, but delays by planning departments in the processing of applications can lead to substantial costs for residents and professional developers. Fees are currently set by Government and have not been increased since 2008. Most councils are experiencing a shortfall in fee income which is failing to meet the costs of deciding planning applications which, in turn, has to be subsidised by ordinary council taxpayers, who end up subsidising the planning process. The Government therefore propose a one-off adjustment to uprate fees in line with inflation, amounting to around 15% since 2008. We intend to introduce new fee regulations that would make this change come into force in the autumn.
Appropriate resources must be matched by improved performance. The growth review announced the Government’s intention to introduce a “planning guarantee” that it should take no longer than 12 months to determine any planning application, including any appeal. The guarantee places an equal expectation on local planning authorities and the Planning Inspectorate that they deal with cases in no more than 26 weeks. The guarantee is aimed at the minority of decisions that take a significant amount of time beyond the statutory time frames of eight and 13 weeks (for minor and major applications respectively) to determine. Later in the year we will publish a consultation paper on proposals to underpin the guarantee, together with a report on existing performance against it by planning authorities and the Planning Inspectorate.
We are also taking a number of steps to improve the performance of statutory consultees such as the Highways Agency, Natural England and the Health and Safety Executive. Alongside the requirement for key consultees to produce improvement plans, announced in the autumn statement, we intend to take forward our commitment to ensure that there is a more effective mechanism for applicants to obtain an award of costs, if there has been an appeal against refusal of planning permission where a statutory consultee has acted unreasonably. I have today published a consultation paper setting out these proposals. The suggested changes to the award of costs circular also make it clear that appellants may be at risk of having costs awarded against them if the evidence on which they have based their appeal is found to be manifestly untrue.
Taken together, the measures that I am announcing will make a further important contribution to our task of making planning simpler, more accessible and better able to support sustainable development.
The consultation documents being published as part of today’s announcements will be available on the Department’s website.
In December 2011, I informed the House about the military contribution that was being planned in support of the police-led safety and security operation being put in place for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games. I can now confirm that, following further planning and exercising, the Government have agreed to the deployment of ground-based air defence (GBAD) systems as part of this contribution.
The deployment will consist of four Rapier and two high-velocity missile (HVM) systems which will form part of an integrated and multi-layered air security plan that includes Typhoon aircraft (at RAF Northolt) and helicopters (at Ilford TA centre and from HMS Ocean) as well as a network of air observers and radars. This plan provides the most effective capabilities to deliver a safe and secure airspace during the games.
Both the Rapier and HVM systems were deployed to six carefully selected sites for the live military exercise, Ex Olympic Guardian, which took place between 2 and 10 May. The exercise allowed us to test the integration of the equipment with the other elements of the air security plan and confirmed the effectiveness of the GBAD systems, including the associated detection capabilities that are themselves important in compiling the best situational awareness of the airspace over London.
The Government recognised at the outset that the deployment of military equipment and personnel across London could be unsettling. The deployment of military assets, including GBAD, is a temporary measure to provide security over the period of the games. Since December, the Ministry of Defence (MOD), with the Metropolitan police, has been engaging local communities, landowners, relevant council leaders and Members of Parliament to allay concerns, provide reassurance about these deployments and, as far as possible, take measures to minimise the local impact. The MOD remains committed to this engagement and is pleased that the majority of the public recognise and support our important contribution to keeping the games, London and the UK as secure as we can. A small number of activists object to the deployment of these defensive measures and a legal challenge to the Government’s decision to deploy GBAD has been initiated. The MOD will defend these proceedings vigorously and is confident of defeating them.
The coming weeks will also see the return of HMS Ocean to the Thames, Typhoon aircraft to RAF Northolt and helicopters to Ilford TA centre. The mobilisation of volunteer reservists in support of the Olympics will also begin in earnest. The defence contribution to the wider police-led safety and security operation is on a similar scale to that of other recent Olympic games. It is a balanced and proportionate measure which will deter would-be aggressors and reassure domestic and international audiences that we are ready to play our role in ensuring a safe, secure and enjoyable 2012 Olympics.
Child Sexual Exploitation
Today I am setting out details before both Houses of three reports that deal with sexual exploitation of children and I outline the Government’s plans to take our existing action plan forward to deal with this horrendous crime.
The conviction of nine members of a network responsible for child sexual exploitation in Rochdale on 8 May raised serious concerns about the safety of young people in residential care and the ease with which they can fall prey to such abuse. On 9 May, the Secretary of State for Education asked the deputy children’s commissioner to report to him urgently on emerging findings from her inquiry into child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups. He asked that the report should focus particularly on risks facing looked-after children living in children’s homes.
We are very grateful to Sue Berelowitz for this early report which sets out emerging findings ahead of the interim report which will be published in September. It is being published today, together with our response to its recommendations which we accept in full and are driving forward as set out below.
Sexual exploitation blights the lives of too many of our children and young people and we need to do more to protect children, support victims and punish perpetrators. That is why the Government published their “Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation Action Plan” in November 2011, looking at this abuse from the point of view of the young person and the impact not just on the victim but the whole family. We have been driving forward implementation of the plan, involving five Government Departments working with a wide range of local and national organisations, voluntary and community sector partners, and law enforcement agencies. We have made it very clear that this kind of criminal behaviour will not be tolerated and that offenders like those in the Rochdale case can expect to face the full force of the law.
We are also publishing today a progress report on the implementation of the action plan and announcing further urgent action to help protect young people in residential care in light of recent serious concerns about the vulnerability of such children, in particular those placed a long way from their home area.
Our progress report shows that local safeguarding children boards and others have been rising to the challenge to do more to identify and tackle child sexual exploitation. Recent well-reported police operations have highlighted some very effective joint working by the voluntary and community sector and by statutory agencies. There are many examples of valuable initiatives that are making a practical difference—such as the “Say something if you see something” campaign addressing the problem of hotels unwittingly being used as venues for the sexual exploitation of young people and the Barnardo’s project which is developing specialised foster care placements for victims of child sexual exploitation. The new sentencing regime for dangerous offenders, which is likely to be implemented by autumn 2012, will introduce mandatory life sentences for very serious repeat offenders and help bring more perpetrators to justice.
But as long as exploitation still exists, we can and must do more. There are still areas of the country where the existence of child sexual exploitation is not properly acknowledged or addressed. This is wholly unacceptable, and underlines the need to sustain the drive to implement the action plan fully. To support this, we are publishing alongside the progress report a new, accessible, step-by-step guide for front-line practitioners on what to do if they suspect a child is being sexually exploited. We will continue to work with local safeguarding children boards and practitioners to promote improved practice supported by this new guide.
The Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s report published today sets out a compelling case for making urgent improvements in children’s residential care. While it makes it clear that the majority of children who become victims of sexual exploitation are not in residential care, it is also clear that these young people are disproportionately at risk. The report highlights concerns about the quality and stability of placements in children’s homes. It draws particular attention to the large number of children who are placed a long way from their home area, and who can be at additional risk through such isolation. The Government accept the report’s recommendations about how to secure improvements and provide better safety and support in children’s homes. These concern, in particular, the responsibilities of local authorities in deciding to place a child in another area, and in responding if there are problems.
The Government also welcome the “Report from the Joint Inquiry into Children who Go Missing from Care”, issued on 18 June by the all-party parliamentary groups for runaway and missing children and adults and for looked-after children and care leavers. This emphasised the need to tackle failings in arrangements to safeguard these extremely vulnerable children and young people.
In the light of concerns raised by the Rochdale case about the safety of children in residential homes, Ofsted immediately brought forward for urgent inspection a number of homes where information received suggested some concern about the sexual exploitation of residents.
Ofsted’s new framework for the inspection of children’s homes, which was introduced in April this year, focuses more strongly on whether a home has taken action to implement recommendations in previous reports, and whether improvements are flowing through in consequence.
In addition, we are taking the following immediate action to respond to the recommendations in the reports from the deputy children’s commissioner and the all-party parliamentary groups:
Make sure that we have a clearer picture of how many children go missing from care and where they are by improving the quality and transparency of data;
Ensure children’s homes are properly protected and safely located by removing barriers in regulation so that Ofsted can share information about the location of children’s homes with the police, and other relevant bodies as appropriate;
Help children be located nearer to their local area by establishing a “task and finish group” to make recommendations by September on strengthening the regulatory framework on out-of-area placements. While there may be good reasons for placing a child or young person at some distance from their home area, it is difficult to accept that nearly half of all children in children’s homes benefit from such distant placements. Both reports are clear about the problems that can arise. We will consult on changes in the autumn.
Establish a further expert working group to look at the quality of children’s homes. This will review all aspects of the quality of provision in children’s homes, including the management of behaviour and the appropriate use of restraint, and the qualifications and skills of the work force. Too many children are still being placed in homes for short periods of time, and the care they receive can often fail to address the complexity of their needs. The group will consider the location and ownership of homes, local authority commissioning practices and arrangements to drive improvement. It will complete its work by December.
The actions we are announcing today underline the Government’s determination to tackle child sexual exploitation and protect our most vulnerable children.
The following documents will be available in the Libraries of both Houses:
Report on the emerging findings of the Office of the Children’s Commissioner’s inquiry into child sexual exploitation in gangs and groups,
Letter from Tim Loughton MP to Sue Berelowitz, deputy children’s commissioner,
Letter from Tim Loughton MP to Ann Coffey MP, chair of the APPG for runaway and missing children and adults,
“Tackling Child Sexual Exploitation Action Plan” progress report and step-by-step guide for frontline practitioners on what to do if a child is being sexually exploited.
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Midlands and North-East England Floods
I would like to provide an update on the significant flooding events that took place on Thursday 28 June following a further period of extraordinarily high rainfall.
Last Thursday, there were heavy thunderstorms across Northern Ireland, Wales and England where it particularly affected the midlands, Yorkshire and both the north-west and north-east. These thunderstorms caused intense rainfall over short periods, with levels of up to 35 mm seen in just 1 hour in Hereford and Shrewsbury, and up to 50 mm of rainfall in 2 hours in the north-east.
It has been confirmed so far that at least 570 properties were flooded, mostly through surface water flooding, caused by particularly intense rainfall over short periods in urban areas.
Around 80 properties have been reported to have flooded in both the midlands and the north-west, around 400 properties have been flooded in Yorkshire and the north-east, and approximately 35 properties flooded across Lincolnshire.
I am also very sorry to have to report that, tragically, one gentleman, Mr Michael Ellis, lost his life after being swept away in flood water in Bitterley, near Ludlow in Shropshire. I am sure that all Members of the House will join me in offering their heartfelt condolences to all his family and friends, at this difficult time.
The flooding experienced has also seen serious impacts on transport links. Both east coast and west coast mainlines experienced significant disruption due to landslides associated with the heavy rain. In the north-east and north-west there was widespread and severe disruption to highways, and across all affected areas many minor roads were temporarily closed. A thunderstorm near to Birmingham airport also caused temporary closure with delays to flights being caused, and a small number of diversions and one cancellation.
At the height of the flooding event on Thursday, more than 20,000 customers were without power, with 3,000 still being disconnected on Friday morning. Around 63 schools had to be shut on Friday due to the effects of the flooding, mostly in the north-east.
To put the amount of rain that we have seen recently into context, I can confirm that 2012 has had the UK’s wettest recorded April-June quarter since records began. I can also confirm that this June has officially been the wettest in both England and Wales since records began. Up to 27 June, the total UK rainfall was a record 130.1 mm. This has not been a normal event. The previous wettest June was that in 2007.
I would also like to once again take the opportunity to praise the excellent response from our front-line emergency services. I know that specialist flood rescue teams were requested and attended in affected areas, and this made a real difference in the response to the emergency.
The Prime Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Richard Benyon), who is the Floods Minister and I have all visited impacted areas in the past few days, giving us all the opportunity to meet with people who have suffered through the flooding of homes and businesses. We understand the devastation flooding causes. However, it has also been impressive to see the community spirit shown in those impacted areas where people really do come together to overcome adversity, as well as providing the opportunity to meet with some of the brave emergency responders who put their own lives at risk to ensure the safety of others. On Saturday, I visited the north-east where east Gateshead and North Tyneside bore the brunt of the storm. But I am pleased to say that existing flood defences like Blackball Mill protected at least 100 homes from serious flooding.
I am also very grateful for the diligent work by Met Office and Environment Agency staff in the Flood Forecasting Centre. Timely warnings were given as well as the promotion of the text messaging service for those in flood-affected areas. The predictions that have been in place, not just for this event but throughout all of the flooding events that we have been experiencing in the past month have been invaluable, and have made a real difference in our ability to prepare for flooding and limit its impacts as much as possible, such as teams of local authority and Environment Agency operational staff working well before the flood waters arrived, clearing drains, testing defences and preparing flood basins.
As the clean up for these events takes place, Government officials will soon be discussing the recovery arrangements with local authorities in affected areas. However, unfortunately over the past weekend we have experienced further significant rainfall, and this has led to further flooding of 79 properties in Cumbria and 18 in Lancashire. My sympathies go out to all those affected at what is undoubtedly a difficult time.
As I said last week, with our changing climate, we will never be able to completely prevent flooding as we have seen over the past week and in earlier June. However, through the excellent preparations and work of front-line responders, including the police, fire service and the Environment Agency, and the investment being made by Government, we are better prepared for flooding than ever before.
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Foreign Affairs Council
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs attended the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) in Luxembourg on 25 June.
Foreign Affairs Council (FAC)
The FAC was chaired by the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Baroness Ashton of Upholland. A provisional report of the meeting and all conclusions adopted can be found at:
The agenda items covered were as follows:
European Neighbourhood Policy
Ministers discussed the situation in the EU’s southern neighbourhood, focusing on Syria and Egypt. This Council marked the anniversary of the revision of the EU’s neighbourhood policy. The conclusions summarised the progress to date on the EU’s southern neighbourhood policy. Ministers agreed on the Council’s approach to EU funding in the neighbourhood from 2014, incorporating clear conditionality, with the capacity to reduce funding in the event of democratic regression.
The discussion centred on concerns about the deteriorating situation in Syria, and the significant consequences for the region. Ministers agreed conclusions (see link above) condemning the shooting down of the Turkish military plane on 22 June and the recent atrocities. They reiterated the EU’s support to the Annan plan, and called for more robust and effective pressure through a UNSC resolution, using chapter VII measures. They also confirmed additions to EU sanctions listing a further six banking and state entities and one individual and a strengthening of the EU arms embargo on Syria. The Foreign Secretary encouraged further engagement with Russia.
The Council welcomed the peaceful conduct of elections in Egypt. The conclusions (see link above) congratulated Mohammed Mursi on his election as Egypt’s President; welcomed his commitment to inclusivity; reiterated the EU’s full support to Egypt’s democratic transition and renewed the offer of EU assistance. The conclusions reflected broad agreement on Egypt.
The Council confirmed its position on Iran oil sanctions, allowing the embargo to come into force on 1 July. High Representative Catherine Ashton gave a factual account of the E3 plus 3 and the 18-19 June Moscow meeting, noting that the next stage would be technical talks.
EU Human Rights Strategy
Ministers adopted conclusions on a strategic framework on human rights and democracy with an action plan implementing it. The Government took the difficult decision to override the House’s scrutiny reserve resolution on the action plan. This decision was not taken lightly, as the Government consider that parliamentary scrutiny is as an essential ingredient to the democratic process and oversight of EU decision-making. The two texts are the culmination of a two-year review of the EU’s external human rights policy, and the EAS hopes also to agree a third element: an EU special representative for human rights. The Foreign Secretary set out our strong support for EU action on human rights globally, while stressing that the agreed elements do not affect in any way the balance of competences between the EU and member states. He added that Parliament would want to debate the issue before the UK could give approval to the mandate for the proposed EUSR on human rights. Ministers also stressed the importance of freedom of religion, and of women’s rights.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Ministers agreed conclusions welcoming political progress since the start of 2012. They discussed further the steps which Bosnia and Herzegovina would need to take to make progress along its EU path. Ministers noted the European Commission’s high-level dialogue on accession on 27 June, which would be an opportunity to deliver key EU messages to Bosnian leaders.
High Representative Ashton briefed Ministers about her recent visit to Pakistan, during which the EU-Pakistan strategic dialogue had been launched. The Foreign Secretary argued that Pakistan should remain a strategic priority for the EU, and led calls for stronger engagement over the next five years, under the EU-Pakistan engagement plan agreed earlier this year. Ministers agreed wide-ranging conclusions (see link above) offering EU support for Pakistan’s forthcoming elections, reaffirming commitment to trade concessions, and pointing to a third EU-Pakistan summit to deepen the relationship further.
Ministers exchanged views on how visa policy could be used to encourage political change in Belarus. The situation in Mali was also discussed, and this item will be on the agenda of the FAC in July. Ministers also approved:
An EU position for the 14th meeting of the EU-Moldova Cooperation Council;
A Council decision authorising the opening of negotiations of a framework participation agreement in crisis management with the Republic of Moldova;
A partial general approach on the EU’s external financing instruments for the next multi-annual financial framework, as the basis for negotiations with the European Parliament;
Conclusions on central Asia, a progress report on the implementation of the EU strategy for the region, and the appointment of Patricia Flor as EU special representative for central Asia;
Conclusions on the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
I will continue to update Parliament on future Foreign Affairs Councils.
Nursing and Midwifery Council (Strategic Review)
On 26 January 2012, I announced to the House that the Government had commissioned the Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence (CHRE) to conduct a strategic review of the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC). The review has been published today and a copy 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.
Strong regulation of nurses and midwives is crucial to ensure public protection and, as the CHRE report shows, effective leadership within the NMC is key to this. The Government will be seeking urgent assurances that the processes which are in place for the appointment of a new NMC Chair are robust, given the importance that strategic leadership will have for the future performance of the NMC.
I would like to thank the CHRE for its work. The Government expect to see the NMC implement all of the recommendations that have been made.