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Written Statements

Volume 575: debated on Tuesday 4 February 2014

Written Statements

Tuesday 4 February 2014

Treasury

Public Service Pensions Uprating 2014

Legislation governing public service pensions requires them to be increased annually by the same percentage as additional pensions—state earnings-related pension and state second pension. Public service pensions will therefore be increased from 7 April 2014 by 2.7%, in line with the annual increase in the consumer prices index up to September 2013, except for those public service pensions which have been in payment for less than a year, which will receive a pro rata increase.

Communities and Local Government

Local Accountability and Council Tax

Over the coming weeks, councils will be holding their annual budget meetings at which they will formally take decisions about their expenditure on local services and their council tax levels for the year ahead. These discussions will affect the lives and household budgets of all who live in the council’s area.

Local people should be able to see how those they have elected to represent them have voted on these critical decisions. However, such decisions could be clearer.

A survey by Conservative Way Forward in August 2013, based on Freedom of Information Act requests to 340 councils, found that 78% of councils could not or would not say how councillors had voted on setting that year’s council tax. Three-quarters of councils which chose not to freeze council tax had not recorded their votes.

The Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 will lay the way for greater reporting of council meetings using digital and social media. To complement this, we believe that local accountability would be further enhanced by asking all councils to publish, as a matter of record, how each councillor votes on any budget decisions including council tax changes. Indeed, recorded votes are the norm for parliamentarians.

Accordingly, we have written to every council leader making clear our expectation that this year all councils will adopt at their budget meeting the practice of recording in the minutes of the meeting how each member has voted on the budget and amendments to the budget.

To facilitate this, we laid before Parliament the Local Authorities (Standing Orders) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2014 which make provision requiring councils to amend their Standing Orders (it is open to councils to waive them before they can be permanently amended) so as to make mandatory the practice of recorded votes at budget meetings.

This small but practical reform increases council transparency and accountability over council tax, and highlights the work that councillors do in championing their communities and representing local electors.

It is the latest step in a series of measures the coalition Government have taken to help address the cost of living for hard-working people. This Government have announced a further two years of council tax freeze funding, on top of the average 10% cut in council tax in real terms that this Government have helped deliver since May 2010.

We will be also publishing shortly the final local government finance settlement and the council tax referendum threshold for 2014-15.

Severe Weather Recovery Scheme

I wish to provide a further update for the House on the Department for Communities and Local Government’s work on flood recovery including the £7 million severe weather recovery scheme that I announced in my statement of 17 January, Official Report, column 33WS.

The severe weather recovery scheme will support and speed recovery in affected areas by helping to bridge the gaps between costs covered by the Bellwin scheme, insurance and existing central and local government obligations and programmes, including the £3.4 billion the Department for Transport is already providing to English local authorities—outside London—for highways maintenance from 2011-15. It is jointly funded by my Department and the Department for Transport.

Today, the full details of the severe weather recovery scheme have been published on the gov.uk website and the scheme is now open for local authorities to make an application. The deadline for submitting claims to this scheme is 19 February 2014.

I would like to provide the House with some further details of the scheme. We want to be able to give local authorities the flexibility to use the money as they see fit, so the funding will be distributed through a grant paid under section 31 of the Local Government Act 2003.

The Department for Communities and Local Government element of the scheme will provide additional support to local authorities where they have incurred, or will incur, costs on supporting their communities during the recovery phase following the east coast tidal surge and the more recent severe weather. Qualifying activities may include one or more of the following: offering council tax discounts; providing assistance for long-term displaced households; placing households in temporary accommodation; support payments to flood affected households; the purchase or provision of new household items for those affected; provision of temporary caravans; use of rest centres; and tourism impacts.

The Department for Transport element is a capital grant scheme and the funding will be distributed by formula to those local highway authorities who can clearly demonstrate that they have suffered damage to their local highway assets.

Full details of the scheme can be found at: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/severe-weather-recovery-scheme

We are considering the response and recovery support needs for the Somerset local authorities separately.

Furthermore, I would like to inform the House that I am chairing a series of round-table discussions with local authority leaders from impacted authorities. To date I have met with leaders from East Anglia, Kent, Yorkshire, authorities in the south of England and the Thames valley and over the next few weeks I intend to meet with leaders from the north of England, the west country and Somerset. I will also be meeting with members of the voluntary community sector to understand the contribution they make to a multi-agency response in these circumstances. My Department will make further announcements in due course.

Defence

Advisory Group on Military Medicine (Triennial Review)

On 5 December 2012, Official Report, columns 57-58WS, my predecessor the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois) announced in Parliament through a written ministerial statement, the commencement of the triennial review of the Advisory Group on Military Medicine (AGoMM). I am now pleased to announce the completion of the review.

AGoMM plays an important role providing independent, specialist advice to Ministers and senior officials on the policy for medical issues within medical force protection, and for clinical treatments used on military operations.

The review concludes that the functions performed by AGoMM are still required; however, it should be delivered as a public sector working group rather than the current model of an advisory non-departmental public body (NDPB). The review also looked at the governance arrangements for the body in line with guidance on good corporate governance set out by the Cabinet Office. The report makes a couple of recommendations in this respect, mainly around the publication of unclassified information about the work of AGoMM and its membership; these recommendations will be implemented shortly.

The full report of the review of AGoMM can be found on the gov.uk website and copies have been placed in the Library of the House.

Home Department

EU Readmission Agreement (Azerbaijan)

The Government have decided not to opt in at this stage to the draft Council decisions concerning the signature and conclusion of the agreement between the European Union and the Republic of Azerbaijan on the readmission of persons residing without authorisation (European Union Document Nos. 15493/13, COM(2013) 745; 15494/13, COM(2013) 744).

There is little illegal migration from Azerbaijan to the UK and we have no operational problems with returns which an EURA would help to resolve. It would be possible for the UK to seek to participate in the agreement post adoption if these circumstances were to change.