Thursday 6 February 2014
A meeting of the Economic and Financial Affairs Council was held in Brussels on 28 January 2014. The following agenda items were discussed.
Current legislative proposals
The presidency provided information on the ongoing work on financial services dossiers.
Implementation of the Single Supervisory Mechanism
The European Central Bank (ECB) provided an update on the state of play of the implementation of the single supervisory mechanism (SSM). The establishment of the SSM will help to safeguard euro area financial stability and is critical to restoring market confidence over the medium term.
Presentation of the Presidency work programme
The Greek presidency presented its six-month work programme for ECOFIN. The main themes of the presidency are: growth, jobs and cohesion; further EU/eurozone integration; migration, borders and mobility; and maritime policy.
Follow-up to the European Council meeting on 19-20 December 2013
Council held an exchange of views on the December 2013 European Council conclusions regarding the implementation of the compact for growth and jobs. The UK supports the objectives of the compact to promote growth and competitiveness and tackle unemployment.
Implementation of the Stability and Growth Pact
Council endorsed a Council decision on the existence of an excessive deficit in Croatia and a council recommendation to put an end to the present excessive deficit situation.
Communities and Local Government
New Homes (Change of Use)
In May 2013, the coalition Government amended legislation to allow for offices to convert to homes without having to apply for full planning permission. The policy goal was to make it easier to convert redundant, empty and underused office space into new homes, promoting brownfield regeneration, increasing footfall in town centres and boosting housing supply.
Providing new homes
These new flexibilities have been well received by the housing industry and are helping to bring forward much needed new homes across England. A recent survey by Estates Gazette (10 January) has found that there were more than 2,250 applications for change of use from office to residential in the first six months since this change was introduced.
Some of these developments are, in themselves, each set to deliver more than 100 homes. By making efficient use of existing buildings, we are helping to tackle the housing shortage across England while simultaneously creating jobs in the construction and services industries. The significant take-up is good news.
Need for certainty
Unlike other permitted development rights, and recognising that this new national right could affect areas differently, we offered local authorities the opportunity to seek an exemption where they could demonstrate an adverse economic impact. All requests for exemption underwent a robust and thorough assessment. In total, 33 areas were exempt in 17 local authorities. We kept in place a light-touch “prior approval” process, to allow any transport, contamination and flooding issues to be addressed by councils; under a “prior approval” process, councils can still refuse the application, on these set grounds.
The specific secondary legislation was laid and scrutinised through the appropriate parliamentary processes. The London borough of Islington, and others, recently challenged this exemption process in the courts. However, their claims were dismissed by the High Court and have not been appealed.
Disproportionate use of Article 4
With permitted development rights, there may be unique circumstances where a local authority deems it appropriate to remove a national right by using what is known as an article 4 direction.
To ensure these powers are used appropriately, local authorities are required to notify my Department whenever they make a direction. This is different from the regime under the last Administration where Secretary of State’s express approval was required for most article 4 directions; now the Secretary of State has a reserve power. Importantly, the office to residential process operates differently from other permitted development rights, given the exemption process.
I am now aware of eight local authorities who have made directions which prevent office to home conversions under national rights. These directions vary in extent, some apply to entire local authority areas and others are targeted at specific sites.
Having reflected on the reasoned justification presented by each authority for their article 4 direction, and given the special exemption process which had already taken place, it is considered that the London borough of Islington and Broxbourne borough council have applied their directions disproportionately.
My Department is therefore writing to these authorities to request that they consider reducing the extent of their directions so that they are more targeted. This will ensure that offices which should legitimately benefit from this national right can do so. Ministers are minded to cancel article 4 directions which seek to reimpose unjustified or blanket regulation, given the clearly stated public policy goal of liberalising the planning rules and helping provide more homes.
Avoiding unjustified levies on the new homes
We are also aware that some local authorities may be unclear on the correct intention of the detail provisions of national legislation for office to home conversions. In some instances, authorities do not appear to have applied the correctly intended tests to determine applications for prior approval and have sought to levy developer contributions where they are not appropriate (on matters unrelated to the prior approval process). To ensure the permitted development rights are utilised fairly across England, my Department will update our planning practice guidance to councils to provide greater clarity on these points. Unjustified state levies should not be applied in any attempt to frustrate the creation of new homes.
These practical planning reforms are providing badly needed new homes on brownfield sites, close to urban locations and transport links, at no cost to the taxpayer.
Yet a small minority of town halls are trying to undermine these reforms, not least, since they are unable to hit such builders with state levies or since they may have an irrational objection to more private housing. Yet, these conversions coming forward will help offer competitively priced properties, accessible to hard-working people. Moreover, those who seek to oppose these changes need to spell out exactly where they think new homes should go instead given the pressing demand for housing and the need to protect England’s beautiful countryside.
Ministers wish to send a clear message to the housing industry that we will act to provide certainty, confidence and clarity, and that we are supporting their investment in these new homes to bring underused property back into productive use as housing.
As announced by the Prime Minister the Government are enhancing the terms of the Bellwin scheme to help local authorities in England meet the immediate costs associated with protecting lives and properties in response to the recent severe weather events and the east coast tidal surge.
The changes for the Bellwin scheme will be:
Bellwin grant to be paid at 100% above threshold instead of 85%;
Extension of the eligible spending period until the end of March 2014;
Reduced Bellwin thresholds for all county councils and unitary authorities; and
An additional measure to allow upper-tier authorities with responsibility for fire to claim Bellwin on a comparable basis to stand-alone fire authorities for fire-related costs.
Bellwin grant reimburses local authorities for costs incurred on, or in connection with, their immediate actions to safeguard life and property or to prevent suffering or severe inconvenience as a result of a disaster or emergency in their area.
The standard Bellwin scheme provides for reimbursement of eligible costs at 85% above a threshold—of 0.2% of the authority’s net revenue budget. The threshold recognises that councils have a long-established responsibility to prepare cover for unforeseen events. Beyond that level, Bellwin comes into play.
The enhanced scheme terms reflect the exceptional nature of the recent weather events and the challenges facing local authorities in their role as first responders.
The changes to the Bellwin scheme terms will apply to applications relating to the severe weather events in England from 5 December 2013 to date. Revised terms and thresholds will be issued to all local authorities who have registered or who continue to register for Bellwin assistance from these events.
For the longer term I am committed, along with colleagues from across Whitehall, to undertake a review of the Bellwin scheme to assess what changes may be needed to its operation in the light of more frequent and challenging weather events.
Support for other parts of the United Kingdom is a matter for the devolved Administrations.
I would like to put on record again my thanks to all of those emergency responders, local authorities and charitable organisations who have worked to protect and support flood affected communities throughout this time. I will continue to update the House on recovery progress.
Red Arrow Hawk XX177 (Service Inquiry)
I wish to inform the House of the findings of the service inquiry into the accident involving RAF Aerobatic Team Hawk T Mk 1 XXI77 on 8 November 2011, in which Flight Lieutenant Sean Cunningham was tragically killed.
On the day of the accident, Flight Lieutenant Cunningham was undertaking pre-flight checks at RAF Scampton when the front cockpit ejection seat firing sequence was inadvertently initiated and he was ejected from the aircraft. The main parachute failed to deploy and he sustained fatal injuries.
A service inquiry was convened by the director general of the Military Aviation Authority to examine the cause of the accident and to make recommendations to prevent recurrence. The service inquiry panel has conducted an independent, thorough and objective inquiry and its report has been completed.
A copy of the full service inquiry report has been provided to relevant defence stakeholders to ensure the timely dissemination of these air safety lessons. The recommendations have all been addressed or are in the process of being addressed.
The coroner’s inquest into the death of Flight Lieutenant Cunningham has now concluded. As such, a copy of the service inquiry, redacted in accordance with the provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, is being placed in the Library of the House today and on the gov.uk website.
Kings Science Academy
Members of Parliament have tabled parliamentary questions seeking information relating to the financial management of Kings science academy in Bradford, including requests for details of discussions involving the Department for Education and those involved in the management of the school. The ongoing police investigation means that it would not be appropriate to release details at this time, and this statement seeks to clarify the Government’s responsibilities in this regard.
It is in the public interest to maintain confidence in law enforcement and the criminal justice system, and allow the relevant agencies to carry out their investigation. West Yorkshire police have told the Department for Education that, due to the ongoing investigation, the Government must not release information into the public domain which is relevant to the case. West Yorkshire police must be allowed to complete their investigation into matters at Kings science academy—and make their judgments about referrals to the Crown Prosecution Service—without information that might be relevant to their case being put into the public domain. The parameters of the investigation are, quite rightly, for West Yorkshire police to determine.
Therefore until such time as those investigations are concluded, and a determination regarding the case is reached, it would not be appropriate to release the information held by the Department. This would be consistent with the application of the exemption at section 31 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
Energy and Climate Change
Contingent Liability: Nuclear Decommissioning Authority Indemnification
The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is responsible for the decommissioning and clean-up of the United Kingdom’s civil public nuclear legacy sites, using competition for contracts to bring in world-class expertise to enhance innovation, improve clean-up and deliver value for money.
The NDA’s competition to choose a new parent body organisation (PBO) to take ownership of Magnox Ltd and Research Sites Restoration Ltd (RSRL) site licence companies (SLCs) is well advanced. Final bids were submitted last November and are currently being evaluated. The competition is scheduled to be concluded, with share transfer, in September 2014.
As with previous PBO competitions, none of the bidders would be prepared to participate in the competition if the NDA was not prepared, on the appointment of a new PBO, to give an indemnity to the incoming PBO, its affiliates and the SLCs against certain third party nuclear liabilities falling outside the scope of the Nuclear Installations Act 1965 (“NIA 1965”). There is currently no viable commercial insurance available to cover such liabilities.
A departmental minute will be presented to Parliament today, giving notice of a contingent liability for the issuing of an indemnity by the NDA to the incoming PBO when the competition is completed and the contract awarded.
We believe that there is a very strong case for this indemnity. An indemnity is a prerequisite to awarding the contract and securing the benefits of the competition. There is only a very low probability of a claim being brought under the indemnity and our assessment is that the benefits of the NDA contracting with a new PBO outweigh the small risk that the indemnity may be called upon.
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Gifting of Equipment (Syria)
The conflict in Syria remains catastrophic, with over 125,000 people killed and more than half the Syrian population in need of humanitarian assistance. The UK will continue to do all it can to end the conflict through a political settlement, while also alleviating humanitarian suffering and protecting UK national security.
The UK is committed to working with the moderate opposition to help develop their capacity to meet needs on the ground and to reduce suffering and to save lives, thereby also helping reduce the space for extremists to operate. In line with this approach, on 23 January, I laid before Parliament a departmental minute which set out our plans to expand a UK-funded pilot project to train and equip local council civil defence teams, enabling them to provide search and rescue, fire fighting and first aid services in areas under attack. I am pleased to present a further UK contribution of practical support to the moderate opposition, aimed at improving community policing.
The UK intends to work with international donors to provide training, technical assistance, maintenance funds, and basic equipment to the Free Syrian Police operating in opposition-controlled areas of Syria. The UK also intends to support the development of greater community oversight and monitoring of the police to help ensure that police are responsive to local needs. Through this support the UK is aiming to help improve humanitarian conditions, meet basic needs and build community resilience to counter the threat from extremist groups. If this initial phase is successful, developing the capacity of community policing could become a core aspect of the UK’s ongoing support to the opposition.
The departmental minute laid today sets out in more detail our plans to gift office and communications equipment, uniforms, and non-armoured vehicles to the Free Syrian Police. The goods will be procured, distributed and delivered by a carefully selected implementing partner. The total cost of the proposed gift is £910,000, which will be met by the Government’s Syria conflict prevention programme. Other donors, including the United States of America and Denmark, are also contributing on a similar scale and the UK’s assistance forms part of a co-ordinated approach that will help deliver the best value for money.
The gift forms part of a comprehensive UK programme of training and technical assistance worth approximately £2 million, which will be delivered by implementing partners. The training aims to build the capacity of the Free Syrian Police including through developing their strategy, planning and management mechanisms and enhancing co-ordination between Free Syrian Police units, as well as strengthening the relationship between police actors and local communities.
There is a strong need to support the Free Syrian Police, who are responsible for providing basic civilian policing in large areas of opposition-controlled territory. Police actors, local administrative councils and the National Coalition’s interim Ministers have all underlined to us the need to improve policing and security, and we have worked closely with Syrian partners and other donors to design a comprehensive programme of support.
The gift has been scrutinised to ensure that the provision of this equipment is consistent with export controls and complies with our international obligations. Recipients have been carefully selected to prevent equipment being given to those involved in extremist activities or human rights violations. All our assistance is carefully calibrated and legal, is aimed at alleviating human suffering and supporting moderate groups and is regularly monitored and evaluated. We have assessed the project for human rights risks, using the overseas security and justice assistance guidelines established by the Foreign Secretary in 2011 as part of ensuring these risks are effectively mitigated.
The Treasury has approved the proposal in principle. If, during the period of 14 parliamentary sitting days beginning on the date on which the departmental minute was laid before the House of Commons, a Member signifies an objection by giving notice of a parliamentary question or a motion relating to the minute, or by otherwise raising the matter in the House, final approval of the gift will be withheld pending an examination of the objection.
Westminster Foundation for Democracy (Triennial Review)
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office will shortly commence a triennial review of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy (WFD). It is Government policy that all Government Departments are required to review their non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs) at least every three years.
The review will be conducted in two stages. The first stage will examine the key functions of the WFD. The second stage of the project will ensure that WFD is operating in line with the recognised principles of good corporate governance. Copies of the review will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses.
Deaths in Custody
I am today announcing that the Government will be establishing an independent review into the self-inflicted deaths of 18 to 24-year-olds in custody.
The Government are committed to the safety of offenders and in particular to reducing the number of deaths in custody. Although there are already comprehensive investigations into individual deaths we recognise there is benefit at this time in collating lessons that may be system-wide. The purpose of the review will be to make recommendations for reducing the risk of future deaths in custody. Although the review will focus on 18 to 24-year-olds it will identify learning that will benefit any age group.
The review will be conducted by the Independent Advisory Panel on Deaths in Custody. I am grateful to Lord Harris of Haringey, chair of the IAP, for agreeing to lead the review. The review will report by spring 2015. Full terms of reference are available at: http://www.justice. gov.uk/about/deaths-in-custody-independent-review and copies will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses.
The Youth Justice Board will also shortly be publishing a report setting out action taken and lessons learned in respect of deaths in custody in the under-18 secure estate. A summary of some the key actions taken by the Youth Justice Board and the Government to respond to findings from the deaths of children in custody is available at the link above. The YJB’s report will be published after it has taken steps, where appropriate, to contact the families whose children are mentioned in the report.
The Government issued a consultation in November 2013 on transforming management of young adults—aged 18 to 20—in custody. As the IAP review will focus on deaths in custody of this particular age group we want to receive the recommendations from the review before we respond to the consultation. We will consider the responses to the consultation alongside the outcome of the review process, and will issue the Government response to the consultation having taken into account the responses and the recommendations from the IAP’s review.
We will continue to make improvements to relevant operational practice as regards the current young adult estate, such as bolstering the system for young people transitioning from the youth to young adult estate.
I would like to update the House about the fact that we have now moved into the next phase of the competition to award new regional rehabilitation contracts. Engagement continues with around 50 providers who make up the 30 bidders involved in our probation reforms and we have now formally invited them to submit bids.
Alongside this, an updated version of the target operating model for the reforms will be published shortly. The target operating model explains how the new system will work on the ground, and what the respective roles of the national probation service and community rehabilitation companies (CRCs) will be, including where CRCs will have the opportunity to innovate in how they rehabilitate and support offenders, including through mentoring.
I will also shortly publish a revised list of designated resettlement prisons following a review undertaken as a result of changes to the prison estate and discussions with criminal justice partners.
Copies of the revised targeted operating model and list of resettlement prisons will be shortly made available in the Libraries of both Houses. Copies of the draft contracts will be made available in the Libraries of both Houses later this month.
I would like to inform the House of the intention to award Crossrail’s rolling stock and associated depot facilities contract to Bombardier. In line with European procurement rules, the contract is now subject to a 10-day standstill period. Until this period is over, the contract award cannot be confirmed and Bombardier is unable to release information related to its bid.
The contract, which includes the supply, delivery and maintenance of 65 new trains and a depot at Old Oak Common for up to 32 years, has a capital value of around £1 billion. The contract will be between the successful bidder and Transport for London who will operate Crossrail as part of their services.
Together with the Mayor of London, my co-sponsor on the Crossrail project, I welcome this major milestone which Crossrail Ltd has reached ahead of schedule, ensuring the first trains are delivered by 2017 ahead of services commencing through the new central tunnels in late 2018.
Hon. Members will recall that the invitation to negotiate required bidders to meet a set of “responsible procurement” requirements on how they would engage with the wider supply chain and provide opportunities for training, apprenticeships, and small and medium-sized businesses within their procurement strategy.
Alongside this, bidders were asked to set out an estimate of the value of the contract that will be spent in the UK. While this was not an assessment criterion in the decision process, the successful bidder will be required to report against it following contract award.
Today, on the basis of that information, I can confirm that an estimated 74% of contract spend will remain in the UK economy as a result of this announcement.
Bombardier has confirmed that the new trains will be manufactured and assembled at their plant in Derby. This contract will support 760 UK manufacturing jobs plus 80 apprenticeships adding to the 55,000 jobs which will be supported by the Crossrail project over its lifetime.
The construction of the maintenance depot at Old Oak Common will see 244 jobs, plus16 apprenticeships and when fully operational will employ 80 people to maintain to the new fleet of trains.