Written Ministerial Statements
Wednesday 30 January 2013
Business, Innovation and Skills
I am pleased to inform the House that the drive to recruit volunteer mentors to help and support businesses looking to start, grow and prosper through the Get Mentoring project has now hit its target of 15,000.
These new volunteer business mentors come from the small business community and have committed to volunteering at least one hour a month of mentoring for two years. They have been recruited and trained over the past 14 months as part of the £1.9 million Government-funded Get Mentoring project, delivered by the Small Firms Enterprise Development Initiative (SFEDI), working in partnership with over 140 business and trade bodies. This represents the biggest ever recruitment of business mentors in the UK and equates to over 180,000 hours of free business support.
The Get Mentoring mentors are now accessible via the Institute of Enterprise and Entrepreneurs (IOEE) on mentorsme.co.uk, the national mentoring portal owned and operated by the British Bankers’ Association (BBA).
Mentoring is a vital part of starting and growing a business and thanks to our national recruitment drive, there is now a network of over 27,000 new and existing business mentors across the country accessible through the portal. Wherever you are, there is now a business mentor near you.
Growth is our number one priority, and that means making every effort to support businesses so they can grow. Small businesses, particularly those in the early stages of setting up, need as much help and support on how best to survive and make a success of their business as possible. Vibrant local mentoring networks are an essential component of that support.
Business mentors have a wealth of experience and knowledge to pass on and research shows that nine out of 10 business people who use a mentor have benefited.
Our thriving small business sector now has access to a network of business mentors with the experience and know-how to help them make the right choices for their business and tackle the challenges of running a business with vigour.
What is important now is that those who have been trained are encouraged to put these new skills into practice and are able to share their knowledge and experience with the small businesses that need it.
Over the next three months SFEDI is delivering a programme of “Meet A Mentor” events to connect small businesses looking for help with the volunteer business mentors. The first event takes place at the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills on February 15 and will involve over 100 small businesses and entrepreneurs. This will be followed by other events across the country, connecting local businesses with mentors that can guide and support their success and growth.
For more information on the “Meet A Mentor” events go to: http://getmentoringuk.eventbrite.co.uk/.
I want to encourage all small business owners to make use of the support and expertise available through the national mentoring network, and in so doing take an important step towards securing a bright future for themselves.
I hope you will join me in encouraging local businesses within your constituencies to make the most of this valuable support network.
A meeting of the Economic and Financial Affairs Council was held in Brussels on 22 January 2013. Ministers discussed the following items:
Current legislative proposals
The presidency updated Ministers on the single supervisory mechanism (SSM), capital requirements directive IV (CRD IV) and economic governance—“Two Pack”.
Presentation of the Presidency work programme
The presidency presented its ECOFIN work programme for the first half of 2013. Priorities include: economic governance and policy co-ordination; strengthening financial regulation and supervision; progressing work on economic and monetary integration; and representing the EU in the G20.
Follow-up to the European Council meeting on 13/14 December 2012
The presidency provided a summary on issues related to deepening economic and monetary union as detailed in the December European Council conclusions. These issues are reflected in the priorities of the current presidency’s work programme.
Annual Growth Survey
The Council discussed the annual growth survey which was published last November and signalled the start of the European semester 2013. Council conclusions will come back to a future ECOFIN.
Communication: Action Plan to strengthen the fight against tax fraud and tax evasion
The Commission presented its action plan to strengthen the fight against tax fraud and tax evasion. The plan follows the mandate of the March 2012 European Council which called for concrete ways to fight tax fraud and tax evasion.
Financial Transaction Tax (FTT)
The Council adopted a proposal for a Council decision authorising enhanced co-operation for an FTT. The UK will not participate in an enhanced co-operation FTT. The UK was one of a number of member states who raised concerns that the European Commission has not provided any analysis of the impacts an enhanced co-operation FTT would have on individual member states, both participants and non-participants. The UK tabled a minute statement stating that the UK could not support the proposal as it was not possible to take the view that the conditions set out in the treaty on the functioning of the European Union and the treaty on European Union are fulfilled. These conditions include the following: any such co-operation shall not undermine the internal market or economic, social and territorial cohesion; such co-operation shall not constitute a barrier to or discrimination in trade between member states, nor distort competition between them; and any enhanced co-operation shall respect the competences, rights and obligations of those member states which do not participate in it.
Communities and Local Government
Local Government Finance
Local government has been at the forefront of the coalition Government’s transparency agenda, opening up the books, its spending and its meetings to public scrutiny and ensuring councils are fully accountable to their local residents, rather than Whitehall and regional quangos. We intend to go further with the transparency code to free up more data, and ensure it is reused and republished for creative and innovative ends.
However, we want to ensure all bodies that help set council tax are transparent and fully accountable to the people.
The Secret State
Some parts of local government are not so open as elected local councils. There is a secret state in our country: a regime of local bodies which help set council tax, but have minimal presence or public profile. Such largely unelected council tax levying bodies include:
Internal Drainage Boards
Integrated Transport Authorities
The Environment Agency
Joint Waste Disposal Authorities
National Parks Authorities
Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority
Harbour and Bridge Boards
Port Health Authorities
The Government intend to bring forward legislative proposals to increase the accountability and transparency of levy increases which are raised on billing authorities by levying bodies, and ensure there are stronger democratic check and balances on their council tax increases.
Council tax referendums
We will ensure that in future, excessiveness will be determined with reference to the basic amount of council tax—that is, the band D amount including levies. We also intend that the legislation can be applied in response to council tax increases set in 2013-14.
On 19 December, I announced the trigger points we are proposing to set for council tax referendums in 2013-14. We propose that a 2% referendum principle will apply for all principal local authorities, police and crime commissioners and fire and rescue authorities. This would mean that if an authority or commissioner wished to raise their relevant basic amount of council tax in 2013-14 by more than 2%, their local electorate will have the opportunity to approve or veto the increase in a binding referendum. Further details were outlined in the written ministerial statement of 19 December 2012, Official Report, column 103WS.
At present, the legislation determining excessiveness requires a comparison to be made between the relevant basic amount of council tax for the year in question and the year immediately preceding that year. The relevant basic amount is the band D council tax adjusted to exclude levies. A consequence of this is that some authorities are seeking to increase their overall council tax bills by a substantial amount through levy increases without being accountable to their local residents and having to hold a referendum.
Such levy increases often stem from poor policy decisions by the unelected bodies. For example, in Manchester city council, their proposals for higher council tax this year are driven, in part, by a badly drafted, long-term PFI agreement signed by the Greater Manchester Waste Disposal Authority, pushing up the waste levy on council tax due to the cost of rubbish disposal being well over the current market rates.
Another consequence is that a referendum principle based on the relevant basic amount affects the amount a local authority can raise through council tax in cash terms, which can be to the authority’s detriment if its council tax requirement includes a large proportion of levies. Metropolitan authorities have made representations expressing their concern and requested that the calculation of excessiveness should be based on the basic amount of council tax, rather than the relevant basic amount.
The Government therefore intend to bring forward legislative proposals to ensure that levying bodies are accountable to the public. The future determination of excessiveness will be based upon the basic amount of council tax (i.e. the actual band D amount). This will bring all revenue raised through council tax—including levies—within the scope of the legislation. Council tax payers will want to see this change which will ensure that unelected levying bodies do not have a disproportionate effect on council tax levels. As now, we intend that the referendum principles should be determined on an annual basis to reflect prevailing circumstances and should be subject to the approval of the House of Commons.
Local authorities should be on notice that we will pay close attention to increases in their basic amount of council tax in 2013-14 and we are prepared to take action in response to any large increases. Authorities should have no doubt that we will consider setting principles in future years which are specific to authorities that increase their basic amount of council tax in 2013-14 by more than 2% without having sought the approval of the local electorate in a referendum.
These proposals will increase the accountability of large numbers of unelected public bodies for their money-raising and spending decisions; and secondly they will encourage these bodies to focus on better deliver and value for money.
Following the current period for representations, the final principles for 2013-14 will be included in a report to be put before the House of Commons for approval alongside the local government finance report in the coming weeks.
Council tax freeze
More broadly, local authorities should be signing up to this year’s council tax freeze offer.
Over the last two years, the coalition Government have worked with councils to help freeze council tax bills for hard-working families and pensioners and this has seen council tax bills in England fall by 4.4% in real terms. Under the last Administration, band D council tax bills rose by £751 (+109%) across England as a whole.
This Government are setting aside an extra £450 million over the next two years to help local government in England to freeze their council tax in 2013-14, which will be the third successive year in which a freeze scheme applies. The cumulative impact of three years’ worth of council tax freezes represents up to £227 off the council tax bills of an average band D home.
We would encourage every eligible council to participate and receive the extra Government funding to support the freeze.
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Foreign Affairs Council and General Affairs Council
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs will attend the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) on 31 January, and I will attend the General Affairs Council (GAC) on 4 February in Brussels. The Foreign Affairs Council will be chaired by the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Baroness Ashton of Upholland, and the General Affairs Council will be chaired by the Irish presidency.
Foreign Affairs Council
Ministers will discuss developments in Mali since the emergency Foreign Affairs Council met on 17 January. I expect conclusions to be issued. The discussion will focus on the severity of the situation in Mali and the need for decisive action by the international community and the EU, including progress on the EU training mission.
The Council will have a discussion on the European neighbourhood policy and the Arab spring ahead of the European Council in February. We will push for sustained political support for countries undergoing transition in the southern neighbourhood; to uphold the level of ambition agreed in 2011, particularly on deep and comprehensive free trade agreements; and seek a robust assessment of how far the targeted benefits and clear communication of the European neighbourhood policy have incentivised reform.
On Syria, we are urging EU partners to look at all options to protect civilians and to assist the National Coalition and opposition groups opposed to extremism, including amendment of the EU sanctions regime. We must send a clear message to the regime that all options remain on the table.
On Egypt, the Council will discuss the political transition, including parliamentary elections and the constitution. We will continue to encourage greater emphasis on the principles of more-for-more in the follow-up to the EU-Egypt task force in November, in line with EU ambition to use the ENP to incentivise reform, with a specific focus on supporting free and fair parliamentary elections and tackling the economy.
This item was originally scheduled for December’s Foreign Affairs Council (FAC), but due to time constraints, was removed from the meeting’s agenda and re-scheduled for January’s FAC. Ministers will have the opportunity to discuss the EU’s priorities with the US during President Obama’s second term. We expect the discussion to cover a spectrum of leading international issues, including the global economy and a possible EU-US free trade deal.
Middle East Peace Process
Ministers will seek to co-ordinate the EU’s approach on the MEPP for the year ahead. The discussions will focus on opportunities for action by the EU on specific issues, notably Palestinian financing, border management, Palestinian reconciliation and settlements. We will emphasise the importance of a major effort on the peace process, and call for the EU to offer strong support for a US-led push for progress in the coming months. We will also reiterate the need for co-ordinated action by EU member states to support the financial viability of the Palestinian Authority, urging Israel to transfer tax revenues and Arab states to fulfil pledges of support. We will support EU action which supports Egyptian-brokered ceasefire efforts and addresses the underlying causes of the conflict in Gaza.
Ministers will take stock of progress in Somalia and agree conclusions on EU activity on Somalia. The discussion provides an opportunity to underpin EU support for the Government of Somalia’s priorities, particularly in support of the security sector and building the state’s capacity to deliver services. There will also be an opportunity to set out plans for the 7 May Somalia conference which will be co-hosted by the Prime Minister and President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud of the Federal Government of Somalia. President Hassan Sheikh Mohamud will meet the Council over lunch.
Ministers will discuss the EU’s policy on the Arctic. I do not expect conclusions. This will be an opportunity to influence the future direction of the EU’s Arctic policy following the joint communication “Developing a European Union policy on the Arctic region: progress since 2008 and next steps”, published on 26 June 2012, and will set the tone for any future conclusions. The UK is broadly supportive of the approach laid out in the 2012 joint communication. I also expect the discussion to cover the application by the EU for permanent observer status at the Arctic Council. I note that previous conclusions in 2008 welcomed the application, and a further set in 2009 expressed continued support for it, thereby giving the Commission a clear mandate to pursue the application.
Under AOB, the Foreign Ministers of Sweden, Bulgaria and Poland, who visited the south Caucasus region in December 2012, are likely to introduce a discussion of current developments in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia, and highlight some of the challenges ahead. We do not expect this to be a substantive discussion. The Foreign Ministers will want to discuss EU engagement with all three states under the eastern partnership, and progress towards the association agreements (for all three) and deep and comprehensive free trade agreements (for Georgia and Armenia) that are currently being negotiated. On Azerbaijan, the likely focus is the EU’s energy interests and human rights, while on Armenia the likely focus is the 18 February presidential elections and the Armenian minority in Syria. Ministers may raise the Nagorno-Karabakh dispute between Azerbaijan and Armenia, and in particular the risk of an escalation of tensions if the airport in the territory is opened. On Georgia, there is likely to be a focus on supporting co-operation between President Saakashvili and Prime Minister Ivanishvili.
General Affairs Council
The 4 February GAC will primarily focus on preparation for the 7 and 8 February European Council. The February European Council agenda has three main items, which the GAC will consider: the multiannual financial framework (MFF), external relations and trade. The GAC will also hear a presentation on the Irish presidency work programme and review a draft agenda for the 14 and 15 March European Council.
Multiannual Financial Framework
The February European Council will focus on the MFF negotiations. The Prime Minister will continue to argue for a real-terms freeze in the EU budget and will protect the UK rebate. Though we do not expect detailed discussion at the GAC, there will be an opportunity for member states to highlight their positions ahead of the February European Council at a lunch with European Council President Herman van Rompuy. I will restate the UK position on the MFF and outline the position the Prime Minister will take.
External Relations—Arab Spring
As mentioned above, discussion on the Arab spring will have been covered in the FAC. However, this topic will also be addressed when the GAC helps to prepare the conclusions of the European Council.
The European Commission has recently produced a paper on the role of trade in promoting growth and jobs. This paper clearly sets out the potential benefits of further trade liberalisation and the challenges of overcoming barriers to trade, and has provided a useful basis for discussion at the February European Council.
As the Prime Minister said in his speech on Europe on 23 January, progress on EU-US trade talks is a priority for the 2013 UK presidency of the G8. Dependent on the outcome of a report due from the EU/US high level working group, we hope that the European Council will call on the Commission to bring forward a draft negotiating mandate for agreement during the Irish presidency.
Broadly, I will be calling for progress on trade liberalisation to be made at the February European Council; in particular, I will emphasise that the European Council should endorse the December free trade agreement with Singapore and make progress towards a free trade agreement with Japan.
Programme of the Irish Presidency
The Irish presidency will formally present their work programme. The overarching vision of the Irish for their presidency is growth and jobs creation. They share our ambition on structural reform of the single market, including the conclusion of the services directive and the digital single market.
The Irish presidency programme is available on their website at the following address: http://www.eu2013.ie/.
Direct Entry to the Police
On 27 March 2012 I issued a written statement to the House on the Government’s response to Tom Winsor’s final report of his review of remuneration and conditions of service for police officers and staff in England and Wales.
The Government remain committed to the review’s principles and objectives. It is vital that we have a modern and flexible police force to meet the demands placed on it, while being fair to police officers and staff who deserve to have pay and workforce arrangements that recognise the role they play in fighting crime and keeping the public safe.
In his review Tom Winsor said it is
“clear that the next 30 years are unlikely to be like the last 30. Chief Constables will need different and better tools to respond to future challenges”.
The issue of choosing our police leaders is of the highest importance to the future of the police. This consultation addresses the implementation of Tom Winsor’s recommendations for a fast-track inspector scheme, recruitment directly to the rank of superintendent, and amending eligibility for chief constable rank to include service in a chief officer equivalent role overseas in a common law jurisdiction. The fast track to inspector scheme will attract the brightest with the most potential to go on to become leaders. Direct entry at senior ranks will make sure that there is access to the best pool of talent, those who have proven leadership and business skills and who can bring with them fresh thinking from other sectors.
Previously I promised to consult on proposals for direct entry to the police. I can confirm that the consultation on the implementation of this major element of the wider programme of reform will launch today, 30 January, and close on 28 March. The consultation document and online questionnaires will be available on the Home Office website. My Department will ensure that all interested parties are aware of the launch of the consultation to ensure that they can have their views heard. I would also welcome responses from other interested organisations and individuals.
Tom Winsor’s recommendations form part of a coherent programme of police reform, along with wider reforms including the introduction of police and crime commissioners, the reduction in bureaucracy, developing professionalism in the police and the creation of the college of policing, and improving service to the public through collaboration between police forces, with other public services and with the private sector. This reform programme is working: crime is falling and public confidence is high.
Copies of the consultation will be available in the Library of the House and in the Vote Office. I will report to the House on the results of the consultation exercise in the summer.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is today laying before the House a statement of changes in the immigration rules that will bring about urgent changes to tackle abuse in the entrepreneur migration route while protecting genuine entrepreneurs. The changes will take effect on 31 January.
In April 2011 we made some changes to the investor and entrepreneur routes to encourage greater uptake. These changes have successfully brought about a steady increase in applications from overseas.
However, it is clear that, following our tightening of other migration routes, the entrepreneur route is now being targeted by applicants seeking to abuse the immigration rules. There is strong evidence that funds to prove eligibility are being recycled among different applicants and that artificial businesses are being created. We need to tighten the current rules to allow for a meaningful assessment of the credibility of an applicant for this route.
I am therefore acting promptly to tackle this abuse, without damaging the legitimate applicants who are important to our economic growth. I am introducing a “genuine entrepreneur” test which will give UK Border Agency caseworkers the ability to test the credibility of suspicious applicants. I am also making a further change to require the necessary minimum funds to be held, or invested in the business, on an ongoing basis rather than solely at the time of the application. This will apply to those already in the UK and those who apply to come here under the entrepreneur route.
I emphasise that these are technical but important changes to improve the effectiveness of the current rules. Those seeking to abuse the immigration system will always seek new methods to do so. We are vigilant and will take swift action where we see evidence of abuse. At the same time, we will protect genuine entrepreneurs and continue to encourage them to invest in the UK where they will be made welcome.
Cycling Infrastructure Funding
I am pleased to announce today details of a major investment of over £62 million in cycling in England.
This funding is part of the overall £107 million the Government announced during 2012 for investment over the following three years, and is in addition to the £600 million for the local sustainable transport fund.
I have decided that the £42 million cycling investment funding announced in the Chancellor’s autumn statement will comprise two elements—an urban element and an element for rural areas that are covered by national parks.
For the urban element there will be an opportunity for cities to bid for two or three cycle city ambition grants. These grants would be for infrastructure improvements to give people the confidence to take up cycling.
The areas eligible to apply for those grants would be the cities that have taken part in wave 1 and wave 2 of the city deals process. The list of cities is:
Brighton and Hove
Stoke on Trent
Successful applicant cities would be expected to provide funding of around £10 per head of population over two years, with a commitment to longer-term funding from the cities. We would expect funding to be focused on a single continuous urban area (i.e. a city centre and its suburbs), or perhaps two centres with high levels of travel to work/leisure connectivity.
Rural areas that are covered by national parks will be invited to apply for funding via the linking communities fund which is administered by Sustrans who will collate bids for Ministers. Successful bids will be those that can demonstrate schemes enabling more people to cycle.
The deadline for receipt of bids for the £42 million package will be 30 April, with a view to announcing successful bids in the summer this year. I will be placing a copy of the bidding guidance and application forms in the Library of the House when they are available shortly. They will also be published on the Department’s website at www.gov.uk/dft.
In respect of the remaining £20 million, £15 million will be used to boost the community linking places fund to support schemes that improve cycle-rail integration and enhance community cycling. A full list of schemes can be found at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/ linking-places-fund-tranche-2. Five million pounds will be added to the fund already earmarked to tackle dangerous junctions.