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Written Statements

Volume 574: debated on Thursday 30 January 2014

Written Statements

Thursday 30 January 2014

Attorney-General

Serious Fraud Office (Contingencies Fund Advance)

I would like to inform the House that a cash advance from the Contingencies Fund has been sought for the Serious Fraud Office (SFO).

The SFO has incurred higher than anticipated expenditure and a reserve claim has been agreed by HM Treasury as part of the supplementary estimate 2013-14 process.

The advance is required to meet an urgent cash requirement on existing services pending parliamentary approval of the 2013-14 supplementary estimate. The supplementary estimate seeks an increase in both the resource departmental expenditure limit and the net cash requirement in order to settle material liabilities.

Parliamentary approval for additional resources of £19 million will be sought in a supplementary estimate for the SFO. Pending that approval, urgent expenditure estimated at £11 million will be met by repayable cash advances from the Contingencies Fund.

The advance will be repaid upon Royal Assent of the Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill.

Cabinet Office

City Deal

Following the successful completion of the first wave of city deals in July 2012, with the “core cities” the Government committed to work with a further 20 cities and their wider areas to negotiate a second wave of city deals in October 2012.

I can today inform the House that the Government and university, business and civic leaders in Oxford and Oxfordshire have reached agreement on a city deal.

The Oxford and Oxfordshire city deal will support innovation by investing in a network of innovation centres at Hanwell, Culham, Begbroke and the Oxford Bio Escalator.

It will invest in three sets of transport projects to ease congestion and make commuting times shorter, including access improvements to the Science Vale Oxford enterprise zone, the A40 approach to Oxford and improved transit on the A34.

A business support network will be established in Oxfordshire to assist growing businesses. A total of 500 additional apprenticeships will be created aimed at supplying the technical skills these businesses need.

Draft Deregulation Bill (Joint Committee's Report)

The Government are pleased to announce that their response to the Joint Committee’s report on the draft Deregulation Bill will be published later today.

The Joint Committee undertook a process of pre-legislative scrutiny on the draft Deregulation Bill from July to December 2013 and published their report on 19 December.

As Ministers with responsibility for the Deregulation Bill, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) and I welcome the Joint Committee’s report and would like to thank the Committee for their consideration of the draft Bill. The Government have listened carefully to the recommendations of the Committee and responded accordingly.

Markets for Government Services

The Government are determined to ensure there is a vibrant, competitive and diverse supply base for public services, with a range of providers delivering high-quality services.

Over the past few months Serco has engaged constructively with the Government following the emergence of material concerns relating to their contracts with the Ministry of Justice. Throughout this period the Government’s approach has been rigorous, and on 19 December 2013 my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice announced a settlement with Serco to recompense the taxpayer for £68.5 million, excluding VAT, for the overcharging found in an audit of Ministry of Justice contracts and to repay past profits of £2 million from the prisoner escorting contract.

Serco has now developed a thorough plan for corporate renewal. Following scrutiny by officials and a detailed review by the oversight group as well as our independent assurers, Grant Thornton, the Government have accepted this plan represents the right direction of travel to meet our expectations as a customer.

This does not affect any consideration by the Serious Fraud Office, which acts independently of Government, in relation to the material concerns previously identified.

However, the Government are reassured that Serco is committed to act expeditiously on any new information emerging from ongoing investigations.

The changes that Serco has already made and its commitment to go further over coming months are positive steps that the Government welcome. However, Serco’s corporate renewal is an ongoing process and the Government place a strong emphasis on the full and timely implementation of the agreed corporate renewal plan. The Crown representative, together with Grant Thornton, will continue to monitor progress as their plan is implemented, reporting to Government on a regular basis. I hope this will enable our confidence to continue to build.

Treasury

Corporate Capital Gains

I am announcing today the Government’s intention to include in the Finance Bill 2014 a legislative change to the Taxation of Chargeable Gains Act 1992. This will confirm that the targeted anti-avoidance rule preventing the use of capital losses in schemes to shelter income profits from corporation tax applies to all arrangements in which a chargeable gain accrues and however the tax deduction is achieved. This change will have effect from today.

HMRC has become aware of artificial arrangements where it is argued that these rules do not apply due to the particular way in which the chargeable gain and tax deduction arise. Such an interpretation is contrary to the original intention that the rule should be of general application to ensure that a company’s capital losses are only used to relieve chargeable gains that arise from genuine commercial transactions.

The amendment will put it beyond doubt that the rule applies to all arrangements where capital losses are misused in an attempt to reduce income profits. This confirms the purpose of the rule rather than extend its intended scope.

Communities and Local Government

Local Authorities (Housing Supply)

The Government have appointed Natalie Elphicke and Councillor Keith House to jointly lead the independent review into the role of local authorities in housing supply.

The review will consider the role that councils can play in helping to meet the housing needs of their local population, within the context of the need to ensure good value for money and fiscal discipline.

The review should aim to support stability in the local authority housing sector, and take as its context recent reforms such as the abolition of the housing revenue account subsidy system, which has given local authorities freedom and responsibility of running their own housing businesses.

The review will include stock holding and non-stock holding councils within its remit, and cover councils’ role in increasing supply for their communities across all tenures. Particular issues to be considered include:

how stock-holding councils are using their new freedoms under housing revenue account self-financing to support housing supply;

what more councils could do to support housing supply; including:

making maximum use of their existing asset base to support new development through asset sales;

capacity and skills issues in supporting locally-led larger-scale development;

how councils are using their own land to support their own, or others’, house building;

what innovative financing mechanisms councils have used to increase house building while ensuring value for money;

how local authorities can drive efficiency improvements in their management and development of social housing.

The review will report by the end of 2014.

The full terms of reference for the review are available at: https://www.gov.uk/government/policy-advisory-groups.

A copy is also being placed in the Library of the House.

Defence

Armed Forces Pay Review Body

I am pleased to announce that I have appointed Mr Timothy Flesher and Mrs Vilma Patterson as members of the Armed Forces’ Pay Review Body commencing 1 March 2014 until 28 February 2017. These appointments have been conducted in accordance with the guidance of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments.

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 33rd progress report on developments in Afghanistan since November 2013.

On 20 November, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) announced the final list of 11 candidates running in the 2014 presidential elections following the adjudication of complaints by the Independent Electoral Complaints Commission. The final candidates are Abdullah Abdullah, Qutbuddin Hilal, Abdurrab Rasoul Sayyaf, Zalmai Rassoul, Abdul Rahim Wardak, Qayyum Karzai, Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, Daoud Sultanzoi, Gul Agha Sherzai, Mohammad Nader Naim and Hedayat Amin Arsala. There are three female second vice-presidential candidates in the final list. The campaign period will begin on 2 February.

On 21-25 November, the text of the US/Afghan bilateral security agreement (BSA) was put to a Loya Jirga (Grand Council) for agreement. The Loya Jirga discussed the text before approving it for President Karzai to sign. President Karzai announced at the closing of the Loya Jirga that he wanted more time to negotiate the text with the US before signing. To date the BSA has not been signed.

The UN Office on Drugs and Crime’s (UNODC) Annual Opium Survey for Afghanistan was published on Wednesday 13 November. The survey reported that poppy cultivation has increased for a third consecutive year, reaching 209,000 hectares. Cultivation in Helmand increased by 34% to 100,693 hectares.

The International Development Secretary visited Afghanistan in November and announced £18.5 million of new programme funding, some of which will be focused on promoting women’s rights. This funding includes £8 million additional support to support the 2014 presidential and provincial elections and 2015 parliamentary elections, bringing the total amount of UK aid for elections to £20 million. The UK is one of the leading donors supporting the electoral process and democracy organisations.

On 16 December, the Prime Minister visited Camp Bastion to thank troops for their continued efforts and to see first hand the progress in the performance of the Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) and UK draw-down activity. While emphasising the challenges that Afghanistan still faces, the Prime Minister paid tribute to UK armed forces and stated that they can

“come home with their heads held high”.

The Prime Minister was also accompanied by the retired England international footballer, Michael Owen and announced a new UK/Afghan football partnership.

The Defence Secretary visited Afghanistan on 9 November. During his visit he met President Karzai, the Afghan Minister of Defence, Bismullah Mohammadi, and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) Commander, General Dunford. He was also joined by His Royal Highness the Duke of York on 10 November as part of a poignant Remembrance day service which was held in Camp Bastion to pay respects to all those who have been killed while on operations in Afghanistan.

On 5 November, Warrant Officer Ian Fisher of 3 Mercian Regiment was killed following a joint UK and Afghan national civil order police patrol, which was attacked by a suicide vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (IED) on the main national highway, Route 611 near Nahr-e Saraj. A further four UK soldiers were wounded in action. On 23 December, Captain Richard Holloway of the Royal Engineers died after coming under enemy fire while on operations. Their deaths are a stark reminder of the incredible sacrifices made by our armed forces. The deaths of Warrant Officer Fisher and Captain Holloway bring the total number of British fatalities on operations in Afghanistan in 2013 to nine.

I am placing the report in the Library of the House. It will also be published on the gov.uk website (www.gov.uk/government/publications/afghanistan-progress-reports).

Ukraine

I wish to update the House on the situation in Ukraine and the Government’s response.

Peaceful protests began in Kiev on the evening of 21 November 2013, as a result of the announcement by the Government of Ukraine that they would delay signature of the EU-Ukraine association agreement. The protests spread and turned violent, particularly after 16 January 2014, when the Ukrainian Parliament passed a series of “anti-protest” laws in a vote that was flawed. These laws limited the right to protest and the democratic space in Ukraine. There have been a number of deaths and, worryingly, a number of activists have also disappeared. The Ukrainian authorities have made hundreds of arrests and there has been evidence of mistreatment of protestors by the authorities. Journalists seem to have been disproportionately targeted by the security forces.

Working closely with our international partners, the United Kingdom has called for calm on all sides throughout the protests. We have also made it clear to the Government of Ukraine that they bear particular responsibility to refrain from violence. The Foreign Secretary made these points to the Ukrainian Foreign Minister on 24 January. He also told him that the laws passed on 16 January called into question Ukraine’s democratic course. I was pleased to see on 28 January that the Ukrainian Parliament voted to repeal those laws. I hope steps can now be taken to address the underlying causes of the protests.

This is now a crucial time for Ukraine, and I will continue to urge the Government and the opposition to find a compromise acceptable to all sides, that allows the Ukrainian people the secure, prosperous and democratic future they deserve.

I would like to pay tribute to the overwhelmingly peaceful nature of the demonstrations in Ukraine. The United Kingdom will continue to monitor the situation and make it clear to those concerned that any restrictions on fundamental rights or abuse of basic human rights by the authorities will have serious consequences for the relationship between Ukraine and the United Kingdom. We are also clear that there is no place for violence, and that all sides should focus on dialogue and confidence building as a basis for finding a way forward.

Home Department

Charging Principles Response Document

People who need permission to visit the UK and those who want to live, work or study here must pay a fee. It is important that we seek input into how we ensure that those who benefit directly from the immigration system and enhanced border control contribute appropriately to its costs in the future.

A targeted consultation looking at charging principles was held between 11 November and 3 December 2013. The consultation sought views on how the Home Office charges customers and the services it provides.

Views were sought from stakeholders who have an interest in the way fees are set, on the consistency and complexity of fees and on premium services. We also requested views on proposals on administrative reviews and refunds and how the Home Office interacts with third parties.

Responses to the consultation have been reflected in fee proposals for 2014 where possible and these will be laid in Parliament shortly. Other issues raised as part of the consultation will be considered over the next 12 months.

A copy of the consultation response document has been placed in the Library of the House and on the Home Office website.

Justice and Home Affairs Council

The Informal Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) Council was held on 23 and 24 January in Athens. I attended the interior day on 24 January on behalf of the United Kingdom. My right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice was unable to attend the justice day due to commitments in Parliament, but he was represented by a senior official. The following items were discussed.

The justice day began with a discussion of the future development of the justice and home affairs area. There was widespread support among member states for implementation and consolidation of existing EU legislation, mutual recognition, exploiting new technologies, and greater coherence between internal and external EU justice and home affairs activities. Fundamental rights and minimum criminal procedural standards were also a theme for many member states. The UK supported concentrating on the implementation of existing EU law rather than creating new legislation, and argued against further harmonisation. The presidency concluded that mutual recognition should remain the basis of judicial co-operation and that existing legislation needed to be implemented and codified. It also said that there was a need to make full use of e-Justice and new technologies, and to have much greater coherence between internal and external EU JHA work.

Next, the Commission set out its package of measures on procedural rights in criminal law. The chair of the European Parliament’s LIBE Committee said the package would be a priority for the new European Parliament. There were mixed views from those member states who spoke in response, with support expressed in principle but some concerns raised about the detail of what the package would mean in practice.

Over lunch, the presidency asked for views on the proposed amendments to the European small claims procedure regulation. The UK joined the majority of member states in agreeing that the threshold should rise but there was a difference of opinion about what the new level should be. Most also agreed with the greater use of electronic communication methods, provided member states retained some discretion in their use. Although not raised by the presidency, some member states also expressed concerns about the proposed changes to the cross-border restriction and the introduction of a cap on fees.

After lunch there was a discussion on data protection and the issue of international transfers of personal data. There was broad support among member states for the principle of extending the rights of EU residents to third countries where possible but also concern among some delegations, including the UK, about the lack of an effective enforcement mechanism outside the EU, the potential for controllers to be confronted by conflicting legal obligations and a lack of certainty for data subjects about their precise rights. The UK maintained that the focus of effort should be on chapter 5 of the draft regulation, and its rules on international data transfers which are enforceable within the EU. Nonetheless, the presidency concluded that Justice Ministers agreed to the geographical scope of the proposed regulation while highlighting that there were issues about enforceability outside the EU. Further discussions will now take place at the technical level.

The interior day began with the presidency referring to the tragedy earlier in the week off the island of Farmakonisi in which a number of migrants died. The Commission (Malmström) expressed its concern about the loss of life.

The first session concentrated on terrorism and border security, including links between terrorism and border security, the “smart borders” package and preventing the movement of fighters to and from conflict zones.

The Commission also described the content of its communication on countering radicalisation and violent extremism. Member states and the EU’s counter-terrorism co-ordinator (De Kerchove) broadly welcomed the communication. A large number of member states stressed the importance of making progress on EU passenger name records (PNR) and called upon the European Parliament to unblock it.

The UK argued that EU PNR was essential to enable authorities to track the movements of terrorists across borders. The UK also suggested that other member states consider a system using advance passenger information (API) data to implement a “no fly” system, as we do. On smart borders, the UK stressed the need for joined up co-operation with third countries, in particular Turkey. Finally, the UK offered to share its experience of legislation to prevent people travelling to conflict zones for terrorist purposes.

The Commission stated that it intends to review the implementation of the framework decision on terrorism. Several member states were willing to look at amending the EU’s legislation on terrorism, in particular in the light of new legislation at national level.

The presidency concluded by calling for the use of all available tools to combat terrorism, in particular EU PNR and better use of the SIS II system; the smart borders package and better co-operation with third countries also needed to be stepped up.

The second session focused on the future development of the JHA area where the presidency introduced its paper and underlined the importance it attached to the strategic guidelines being clear about the need for burden sharing in the migration field, and solidarity with those member states under the most pressure.

The Commission said that the strategic guidelines on the future of the JHA area needed to take account of a range of new security and migration challenges. There was also a need to step up work on counter radicalisation and a number of serious crime areas, including trafficking in human beings and cybercrime. The European Asylum Support Office had an important role in supporting some member states to deal with excessive pressures on their systems. These issues would be considered in more depth at DG Home’s conference on the future of the JHA area on 29 and 30 January.

The UK highlighted that burden sharing was not the solution and that it would simply increase the pull factor. Nor should we call into question the Dublin system, which had only recently been strengthened. Instead, there was a need to strengthen the external border and reduce illegal immigration into the EU through practical co-operation, with a focus on returns and reducing abuse of migration and asylum systems. The UK stated that future JHA priorities should include better exchange of criminal records as well as action to tackle trafficking in human beings and modem slavery, where the UK was introducing new legislation.

The UK argued that the strategic guidelines should address the issue of abuse of free movement; in particular the way in which illegal third country migrants and criminals exploit free movement to circumvent controls on immigration. This was core JHA business and had previously been covered in the Stockholm programme.

In conclusion, the presidency called upon the Commission to listen to member states’ views in preparing its communication. There would be a further discussion at the March JHA Council.

Justice

Deaths of Service Personnel (Inquests)

I join the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, with responsibility for defence personnel, welfare and veterans, my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), in making the latest of our two Departments’ joint statements to the House, reporting progress with inquests into the deaths of service personnel on active service overseas. First, we record our deepest gratitude to our service personnel in all their skill, professionalism and courage on behalf of us all. We remember those who have given their lives, and we think of their families and their loved ones.

In this statement we provide information on coroner investigations and inquests which are being conducted by the senior coroners for Oxfordshire, for Wiltshire and Swindon and for other coroner areas in England and Wales. The statement gives the position at 23 January 2014.

We have placed tables in the Libraries of both Houses to supplement this statement. The tables contain information about the status of all current cases, including whether a board of inquiry or a service inquiry has been or is to be held.

As reported in the last statement, Judge Peter Thornton QC, the Chief Coroner for England and Wales, has created a group of 11 coroners all of whom have received specialist training to conduct coroner investigations and inquests into some service personnel deaths relating to active service, including preparation and training for active service. The Ministry of Defence’s defence inquests unit (DIU) assists coroners to complete service personnel inquests as thoroughly and as quickly as possible, and will continue working with the Chief Coroner and the specialist coroners.

As previously reported, the Chief Coroner and the Lord Advocate now have in place an agreed protocol to enable deaths of service personnel killed abroad on active duty to be investigated in Scotland where this is appropriate. This will facilitate the provisions in section 12 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.

Once more we express our warm gratitude to all those who help bereaved families through the inquest process. We thank the Chief Coroner, coroners and their staff who are carrying this work forward.

Most repatriations of service personnel who have died overseas have been to RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire and, currently, RAF Brize Norton in Oxfordshire. Since October 2007, the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Justice have made extra funding available to the coroners in Wiltshire and Swindon and in Oxfordshire. The central funding enables those coroners to take the service personnel inquests forward in balance with the local caseload of the coroner area.

Current status of inquests

A further five inquests into the deaths of service personnel on operations in Afghanistan have been concluded since our last statement. In total there have been 598 inquests into the deaths of service personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan or who have returned to the UK with injuries sustained on active service and have sadly died here. In three cases no formal inquest has taken place. Two of these deaths were taken into consideration at inquests into other deaths in the same incidents. In the third case, a serviceman died from his injuries in Scotland and it was decided not to hold a fatal accident inquiry.

Open inquests

As of 23 January there are 26 outstanding open coroner investigations. Of these:

Three are under six months old;

Six are under nine months old;

Seven are under 12 months old;

12 are under 18 months old;

and 14 are over 18 months old.

The Ministry of Defence’s DIU target for completing inquests is 12 months from the date of death to inquest where no separate service inquiry (SI) is held, and 18 months where an SI is held. By way of comparison, the average time taken to complete all inquests in England and Wales in 2012 was 26 weeks.

Deaths in Afghanistan

As at 23 January 2014, 23 coroner investigations are open into the deaths of service personnel in Afghanistan.

The senior coroner for Wiltshire and Swindon has retained nine of these, and the senior coroner for Oxfordshire has retained four. Jurisdiction in the remaining 10 coroner investigations has been transferred to senior coroners for areas closer to the next of kin. Three hearing dates have been listed.

Deaths of service personnel who returned home injured

Three coroner investigations are open concerning the deaths of service personnel who returned home injured and have sadly died from their injuries. Three hearing dates have been set.

We will continue to inform the House of progress.

Transport

Project Management

I have today given the Information Commissioner a certificate under section 53 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (“the Act”) both as it applies for the purposes of the Act itself, and as it applies to the Environmental Information Regulations (EIR) 2004 (“the regulations”) by reason of regulation 18(6). This certificate relates to the Information Commissioner’s decision FER0467548 of 6 June 2013 (“the decision notice”). That decision notice found that the Cabinet Office had failed to comply with its obligations under the EIR in refusing to disclose a project assessment review (“PAR”) report concerning High Speed 2 (“HS2”), the project for a high-speed rail link between London, Birmingham, the east midlands, Sheffield, Leeds and Manchester.

The consequence of my giving the Information Commissioner this certificate is that the Information Commissioner’s decision notice, which requires the November 2011 Major Projects Authority project assessment review report to be disclosed, ceases to have effect.

A copy of the certificate has been laid before each House of Parliament. I have additionally placed a copy of the certificate and a detailed statement of the reasons for my decision in the Libraries of both Houses, the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office.

My decision to exercise this power of veto in this case was not taken lightly. I have taken into account the statement of Government policy on the use of the Executive override as it relates to information falling within the scope of section 35(1) of the Act.

I have taken into account the views of Cabinet, Ministers and the Information Commissioner, in considering both the balance of the public interest in disclosure and non-disclosure and whether this is an exceptional case. My view is that the public interest favours non-disclosure. I have also concluded that this constitutes an exceptional case and that the exercise of this power of veto is warranted.

In summary, the major projects review was conducted to inform the development of the HS2 project. The public interest in ensuring that projects of this scale, importance and cost are properly controlled and overseen is very high indeed. The assurance of confidentiality is important in the conduct of the review. In my view, there is nothing in the nature or content of this particular report which outweighs that strong public interest against disclosure.

A detailed explanation of the basis on which I arrived at the conclusion that the veto should be used is set out in my statement of reasons.