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Written Statements

Volume 579: debated on Monday 28 April 2014

Written Statements

Monday 28 April 2014

Treasury

Loan to Ireland

HM Treasury has today provided a further report to Parliament in relation to the bilateral loan to Ireland as required under the Loans to Ireland Act 2010. The report relates to the period from 1 October 2013 to 31 March 2014.

A written ministerial statement on the previous statutory report regarding the loan to Ireland was issued to Parliament on 8 October 2013, Official Report, column 1WS.

Business, Innovation and Skills

National Measurement Office

I have tasked the National Measurement Office (NMO) to provide policy support to Ministers on measurement issues and a measurement infrastructure which enables innovation and growth, promotes trade and facilitates fair competition and the protection of consumers, health and the environment.

I have agreed with the NMO that their objectives for 2014-16 will be to:

Increase economic growth, innovation and social impact through a world-class scientific and industrial measurement infrastructure;

Promote competition and fair trading both in the UK and internationally through a modern weights and measures and hallmarking regime;

Provide good value-for-money metrology services;

Protect the interests of the public, business and the environment by enforcing relevant legislation.

The agency will also be expected to provide professional, value for money, corporate services.

The performance targets I have set the agency are as follows:

Implement arrangements for National Physical Laboratory (NPL) post-March 2014 and agree the partners who will work with Government on NPL and the model under which the partnership will realise the stated policy objective of strengthening both fundamental research and engagement with business;

Improve performance of the National Measurement System (NMS) programmes over the corporate plan period 2011-12 to 2014-15 as measured by the value scorecard developed to reflect high-quality science, leadership and international influence, contribution to growth in the UK economy, capability to meet current and future measurement needs and active knowledge transfer;

Reduce NPL energy consumption in 2014 calendar year by 5% from 2013 calendar year to increase the efficiency of science spend;

Support stakeholders by ensuring at least 95% of metering enquiries are answered within three business days of receipt of all necessary documentation;

Achieve a satisfaction rating among certification service customers of at least 95% for customers scoring satisfied or above, with at least 60% scoring “very satisfied”.

Achieve an increase in income of at least 5% for certification services from the 2013-14 financial year;

Generate at least a positive 3:1 net contribution to consumers and the environment as well as the low-carbon economy through the activities of the enforcement authority;

Reduce non ring-fenced admin costs by at least 14% in cash terms over the corporate plan period 2011-12 to 2014-15;

Reduce the per capita overhead rate from 2013-14.

Communities and Local Government

Easter Recess (Department's Work)

I would like to update hon. Members on the main items of business undertaken by my Department since the House rose for recess.

Supporting communities recover from the floods

One of our continued priorities is to ensure that those affected by flooding are given the help and support they need to help rebuild their lives.

On 11 April, my Department announced that the Government will further extend the council tax discount to all flood-hit households for as long as they are unable to return to their homes. This extends a commitment we made in February 2014 to fund a three-month council tax discount. This is expected to amount to £6 million of support, £2 million more than was originally set aside.

To date 48 local authorities have reported that they have offered the discounts to affected residents with a further 63 actively planning to do so. This is part of wider efforts that are ensuring Government Departments, local authorities and agencies are working together to do everything they can to help communities recover from the extreme weather during winter 2013 to 2014.

Protecting tenants and leaseholders

All tenants and leaseholders have a right to fair and transparent treatment from their letting agent and we are determined to secure a better deal for tenants in the private rented sector without introducing excessive red tape that would push up rents and reduce choice.

On 15 April, my Department announced three approved “redress schemes” that all letting and property management agents will be required to join later this year. They will ensure tenants and leaseholders have a straightforward option to hold their agents to account. The Property Ombudsman, Ombudsman Services Property and the Property Redress Scheme will offer independent investigation of complaints about hidden fees or poor service. Where a complaint is upheld, tenants and leaseholders could receive compensation.

On 26 April, my Department outlined how the new powers to protect the rights of park home owners and stamp out unscrupulous site owners have been brought into force.

Helping the most vulnerable people into work

The Government are determined to test different ways of delivering support to the most disadvantaged people who want to work, but lack the basic maths, English and other skills that are vital when applying for jobs.

On 16 April, my Department, together with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, announced support for STRIVE (Skills, Training, Innovation and Employment), a scheme that will give the most vulnerable homeless people the right skills and training to get into work. STRIVE, run by homelessness charities Crisis and St Mungo’s Broadway, will work alongside Jobcentre Plus to identify those who would benefit most from the scheme.

Reforming public sector pensions

On 24 April, the Fire Brigades Union called further industrial action over May bank holiday weekend. The Government have tried and tested contingency arrangement in place.

The Government have met with the FBU on many occasions, most recently during April, and have remained in ongoing communication to find a solution. The Fire Minister wrote to the FBU before action was called saying proposals are still under consideration and stressed the importance of maintaining an open dialogue on this and other matters. In choosing to take its members out on unnecessary strike action, the FBU Executive Council has signalled clearly that it has no desire to progress the proposals we were considering and has effectively drawn that discussion to a close. This can only further damage firefighters’ standing with the public.

The deal on the table gives firefighters one of the most generous pension schemes in the public sector, and the proposals protect the earned rights of a higher proportion of members than any other public sector scheme. Nearly half will see no change and even firefighters who are not protected will see no change until 2015. Under the new scheme, a firefighter who earns £29,000 will still be able to retire after a full career aged 60, get a £19,000 a year pension, rising to £26,000 with the state pension. An equivalent private pension pot would be worth over half a million pounds and require firefighters to contribute twice as much.

The focus will now be on implementing the proposed final agreement in time to take effect from 1 April 2015.

Defending the independent free press

The coalition agreement stated the coalition Government’s clear intention to protect the independent free press by tackling unfair competition from local authority newspapers. Localism needs robust and independent scrutiny by the press and public, and municipal state-produced newspapers suppress that. “Town Hall Pravdas” not only waste taxpayers’ money unnecessarily, they undermine free speech. The Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 contains measures to ensure compliance with the provision of the existing local government publicity code.

On 17 April, formal letters were issued to five London boroughs, triggering the first legal steps we can now take to require compliance with the publicity code for local authorities. The action is being taken against the municipal newspapers of Greenwich Time, Hackney Today, the Newham mag, Waltham Forest News and (“Tower Hamlets”) East End Life.

These councils were the ones most clearly in breach of the code, given their weekly or fortnightly publication of hard-copy, delivered, free municipal newspapers. We are prepared to take further action against any council that clearly breaches the code—whatever the political colour.

Empowering people to improve local neighbourhoods

Community budgets are a way for local public service providers to work together to meet local needs. Community budgets allow providers of public services to share budgets, improving outcomes for local people and reducing duplication and waste.

On 14 April, my Department announced a further 123 communities will take control of neighbourhood schemes to boost employment, combat crime and improve the health of residents through the “Our Place” programme. The announcement signals a major expansion in the programme which is a neighbourhood level way of working that brings together councillors, public servants, voluntary and community organisations and local residents —to tackle local issues and improve the way an area works.

Supporting vibrant high streets

This Government are taking action to support healthy and vibrant local high streets. We are undertaking a series of measures designed to get empty and redundant buildings back into productive use and make it easier for valued town centre businesses like shops, banks and cafes to open new premises, while ensuring that councils have powers to tackle the harm to local amenity caused by a concentration of particular uses.

In the March 2014 Budget, the Government announced their intention to create a new wide “retail” use class, excluding betting shops and payday lenders. In the light of the localised concern that have been expressed about the clustering of betting shops on some high streets, we propose that any changes to the new use class for betting shops and payday lenders will require planning permission. A consultation paper on the broader planning use class reforms will be published in due course.

On 24 April, a new advisory board met together for the first time to look at how digital technology can help create the sustainable and thriving high streets of the future. John Walden, chief executive of Home Retail Group, will be the chairman of this new Digital High Streets Advisory Board. The group will work with the Government and others with an interest in revitalising UK high streets and report to the future high streets forum.

Backing locally led housing development

There is genuine enthusiasm and ambition for housing growth in communities across the country, but we need to ensure new locally-led developments are well-designed, and bring together high-quality homes, jobs, and green spaces in communities where people want to live raise their children. Over the Easter recess, we published three documents:

Large sites infrastructure prospectus—This £1 billion fund provides a programme of support over a six-year period designed to address these barriers and help accelerate and unlock housing developments of at least 1,500 housing units that have slowed down or stalled completely.

Local Growth Fund (Housing Infrastructure) prospectus—This sets out the detail on how to access the £50 million part of the Local Growth Fund in 2015-16. It is designed to help speed up and restart housing developments between 250 and 1,499 units that have slowed down or stalled.

Locally led garden cities prospectus—This invites local authorities to put forward their ideas for how they wish to develop garden cities, how they wish to make use of the existing central Government funding and support, and what other freedoms, flexibilities and support they need to make ambitious new garden cities a reality. As an indication we would expect developments to be at or above the 15,000 homes level.

My Department has also advertised for the position of chairman of the new Ebbsfleet Urban Development Corporation which will take forward the new garden settlement in that locality.

Delivering infrastructure in Enterprise Zones

In a further boost to infrastructure, on 22 April, I announced £120 million infrastructure investment plan to bring businesses and jobs to the Sheffield area. The Sheffield Enterprise Zone will turn £25 million of Government funding into £94 million more of private sector investment so they can lay down the infrastructure needed for its premier sites at Markham Vale and Rotherham to attract new businesses to the area.

Regenerating urban estates

The Government are keen to support the regeneration of England’s most run-down estates, and in turn, delivering thousands of new homes. Some £150 million was set aside in this year’s Budget can be used to kick-start and accelerate the regeneration of such deprived housing estates.

Despite record numbers of people living in London by 2021, the inner boroughs will still contain 1.7 million fewer people than they did in 1939. A new research study by estate agents Savills indicates that rediscovering just half of this former housing capacity would supply the whole of London’s projected housing needs for the next 17 years.

In due course, the study will consider how to rebuild estates to deliver more homes and commercial space on the same amount of land. The homes would be a combination of five to six storey homes and blocks of flats. This approach can also increase the value of the land, attracting more private investment which, over 10 years, could lead to several hundred thousand new homes in London. Later this year, the comprehensive study will consider the best way to get started, while fully involving local communities in the design and planning process, and identify the barriers that may need to be overcome.

Remembering our brave heroes

An entire generation of men fought for Britain’s freedom in the first world war. For hundreds of those men their bravery was of such an exceptional nature they were bestowed with the highest military award, the Victoria Cross. As these men were honoured then for their extreme bravery on the battlefields, they should be honoured still.

On 24 April, I announced over £100,000 to the Victoria Cross Trust for a project to ensure that the gravestones and final resting places of our brave solders are venerated memorials where communities can pay their respects and learn about their local heroes.

The project aims to restore all the graves in need of repair. Headstones will be cleaned or replaced so that the final resting place of those who received the highest military award for valour are a truly fitting tribute to their sacrifice. The campaign is being supported by The Sun newspaper and in addition to the £100,000 being provided by the Department, we will also match any money raised by readers’ donations up to a maximum of £200,000.

Last year my Department announced a national campaign of commemorative paving stones to be laid in the place of birth of first world war Victoria Cross recipients across the country so that communities will have a permanent memorial of their local heroes.

Learning the lessons from genocide

We have a tradition in the UK of remembrance. While we are quite rightly marking the centenary this year of the start of the first world war, we should also commemorate and remember acts of genocide in more recent times.

The Srebrenica genocide on 1995 was the worst attack on citizens suffered anywhere in Europe since 1945. On 11 April, the Government announced it will fund 750 young Britons to travel to Bosnia and Herzegovina to learn lessons from the 1990s Bosnian war and, on their return to the United Kingdom, pledge an action towards rejecting hatred and intolerance at home. On 12 April, I also addressed Kwibuka20, an event in Birmingham remembering the Rwanda genocide of 1994.

Genocide requires constant vigilance; it requires prompt action at the first sign of hatred. Sparks of intolerance can only exist at the will of our own complacency.

Celebrating England's local tradition and identities

On 24 April, my Department announced that the proud history, unique culture, and distinctive language of Cornwall will be fully recognised under European rules for the protection of national minorities. The decision to acknowledge the unique identity of the Cornish now affords them the same status under the European Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities as the UK’s other Celtic people, the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish. For the first time the Government have recognised the distinctive culture and history of the Cornish, building on the existing recognition given to the Cornish language.

England’s traditional counties date back over a thousand years of English history, but many of the counties have been sidelined by Whitehall and municipal bureaucrats in recent decades, including the municipal restructuring by Edward Heath’s Government in 1972. By contrast, this Government are championing local communities continuing to cherish and celebrate such traditional ties and community spirit.

To mark St George’s day, on 23 April, my Department announced a new initiative to support the “tapestry” of traditional English counties, including getting rid of a Whitehall ban on the names of traditional counties being displayed on street and road signs. We have also published a new online interactive map of England’s county boundaries.

Planning guidance has been changed to allow for councils to put up boundary signs marking traditional English counties—for example, the likes of Cumberland, Huntingdonshire, Westmorland and Middlesex. In addition, the Government are shortly to propose changes to highways regulations to allow traditional county names to appear on boundary road signs. The current rules prevent unitary councils like Blackpool from having a road sign saying “Lancashire”, or Poole saying “Dorset”—since they confusingly are not considered to be part of an “administrative county”.

No council is being forced to make any change or put up unnecessary street clutter, but the intention is to free councils from Whitehall red tape, support local tourism and to cherish local ties and traditions. Local communities will be able to lobby their councils for the restoration of traditional boundary signs, including campaigns by public subscription.

This is part of a series of steps to champion England’s national identities; the Government have previously changed Whitehall rules to allow local and county flags to be flown without planning permission, and supported the Flag Institute in encouraging a new wave of county and community flags to be designed and flown by local communities.

I am placing in the Library copies of the press notices and documents associated with these announcements.

Defence

D-Day 70th Anniversary Commemorations (UK/France)

My noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, Lord Astor of Hever, has made the following written ministerial statement:

On 6 June this year the United Kingdom, along with its friends and allies, will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings—the largest amphibious landing the world has ever seen. The landings, which were crucial to the allied victory in Europe in 1945, will be commemorated on both sides of the English channel.

This year is especially important, as it is the final one which the Normandy Veterans Association will officially mark. Later this year, they plan officially to disband, and lay up their national standards at a service at St Margaret’s church, Westminster.

The Ministry of Defence is working closely with a range of stakeholders including the Normandy Veteran’s Association, the Royal British Legion, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, Portsmouth city council and the French authorities in order to ensure that all commemorative events are a success.

Commemorations in the UK

In Britain, it is fitting that Portsmouth, which was one of the key strategic locations along the south coast and from which tens of thousands of allied servicemen left for Normandy, will be the main focus of commemorative activities. Portsmouth city council is organising an impressive line-up of events and activities, with the focus being on the 5 June. I would urge any veterans who are unable for any reason to travel to Normandy to consider joining the commemorations in Portsmouth.

Commemorations in France

In France, there will be three main events on 6 June. These are:

An international ceremony, organised by the French Government, on Sword beach. Heads of State will attend this event. A number of veterans will be invited to attend this event.

A United Kingdom/France service of remembrance at Bayeux cathedral, followed by a special event at Bayeux Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemetery.

A service organised by the local community and the Normandy Veterans Association at Arromanches.

UK military personnel from all three services will provide logistic and ceremonial support at these events. This work is being co-ordinated and led by the Army’s force troops command. Other events taking place in the Normandy region include ceremonies on 5 June to mark the liberation of Ranville by the British 13 Parachute Battalion—the first village to be liberated on D-Day. Members of 16 Air Assault Brigade will mount a mass parachute drop.

Travel to Normandy for the commemorations

As announced last year, veterans wishing to return to Normandy in June have been able to apply for financial support from the Big Lottery Fund, which has extended its Heroes Return 2 scheme until December 2015. The scheme helps second world war veterans and their spouses, widows and widowers, and accompanying helpers, to undertake commemorative visits.

Access to the commemorations in France

Given the scope of the commemorations, the security required by the presence of many VIPs, and the close nature of much of the countryside, the French authorities have decided to impose an anti-congestion zone in the Normandy area around the D-Day 70 commemorations from 0600 to 1900 on Friday 6 June. Access to this zone will be controlled by means of passes, issued by the French authorities. The Ministry of Defence is working in co-operation with the Royal British Legion, Normandy Veterans Association, regimental associations and others to register details of all veterans and those accompanying them in order that we can ensure that passes are available which will enable our veterans, and those accompanying them, to get to where they need to. This does not include members of the general public wishing to gain access to the area, who will have to apply direct to the French authorities.

Last-minute accreditation and travel

I would ask parliamentarians to do all they can to assist veterans who may come to them between now and June to seek assistance regarding accreditation or travel, firstly by looking at the website below: https://www.gov.uk/government/topical-events/d-day-70 and then by contacting the Ministry of Defence at: PersTrg-DSSec-CECTMailbox@mod.uk or by telephone on: 0207 218 1431/ 0207 218 7917.

While the Royal British Legion, Normandy Veterans Association and the Ministry of Defence will do all they can to ensure that all veterans are able to attend these important commemorations, please also note that receiving funding from the Big Lottery Fund to travel to Normandy does not automatically guarantee accreditation —this must be applied for separately. I would urge applications to be made as soon as possible to avoid any disappointment.

Justice

Single Family Court

A new single family court for England and Wales came into being on 22 April 2014, when section 17(3) of the Crime and Courts Act 2013 came into force. The new court deals with all family proceedings, except for a limited number of matters which are reserved to the High Court, and it is able to sit anywhere in England and Wales. It replaces the three-tier court system which had previously existed. The new structure is expected to be more efficient and flexible, simpler for court users to understand and to promote increased judicial continuity in managing cases.

Section 9 (contact post-adoption) and many of the family justice provisions in part 2 of the Children and Families Act 2014 were also brought into force on 22 April. This includes a new requirement for a person who wishes to start certain types of family proceedings to first attend a family mediation information and assessment meeting; a new child arrangements order, replacing residence and contact orders; restrictions on the use of expert evidence in children proceedings; the introduction of a 26-week time limit for completing care and supervision cases; changes to focus the court’s scrutiny of local authority care plans on the long-term plan for the child; and measures to streamline court processes for divorce and dissolution of a civil partnership.

Section 11 of the Act (parental involvement) will come into force in autumn 2014. Section 18 will come into force two months after Royal Assent (which was on 13 March).

Civil Courts (Reforms)

On 22 April, following parliamentary approval, the Government brought into force a number of important reforms to improve the administration of civil justice and to provide a more efficient use of judicial resources.

The reforms implement a series of proposals supported by respondents to the Ministry of Justice’s “Solving Disputes in the County Courts” consultation paper published in 2011. Those proposals themselves originated in recommendations made by the retired Lord Justice of Appeal, Sir Henry Brooke, in his 2008 report “Should the Civil Courts be Unified?”.

The changes will contribute to the Government’s commitments on efficiency and public service reforms. They:

a. Establish a single county court for England and Wales;

b. Abolish the need for the Lord Chancellor’s agreement to High Court judges sitting in the county courts;

c. Increase the financial limit of the equity jurisdiction of the county court from £30,000 to £350,000;

d. Increase the financial limit below which cases may not be commenced in the High Court from £25,000 to £100,000 (with the exception of personal injury claims);

e. Extend the current powers of the county court to make freezing orders and

f. Remove certain types of specialist proceedings from the jurisdiction of the county courts.

Taken together, this package of reforms will ensure that cases are issued and tried at the most appropriate level of court; simplify the task and cost of allocating cases before a judge and transferring cases between courts; streamline procedures for judicial deployment to the county court; and ease work pressures on the High Court to enable it to focus on complex cases that truly require its expertise.

Transport

Abellio Greater Anglia Franchise

During recess my officials concluded negotiations with Abellio Greater Anglia on a new directly awarded franchise, which will see the company continue to provide passenger rail services for 27 months. This will secure continuity of service until the new competed franchise, expected to start in October 2016, is let.

The agreement secures tangible benefits for passengers, including a refresh of the Mark III rolling stock fleet that will see the installation of power sockets, new carpets, new seat covers and better lighting. The new agreement also requires Abellio Greater Anglia to install controlled emission toilets on to their train fleet, which will significantly reduce the amount of waste dropped onto the tracks on the network.

New service improvements secured as part of the franchise agreement will double the current levels of off-peak services between Cambridge and Stansted airport (between 09.00 and 16.00) on Mondays to Fridays and provide a significant number of additional Sunday services on some of the branch lines operated by Abellio Greater Anglia.

This direct award lays the groundwork for the competed franchise to continue the improvements made to rail services in the region. It will also allow the findings and recommendations of the Norwich in 90 taskforce to be considered when the next franchise specification is developed.

This new contract continues my Department’s successful franchising programme in line with the schedule I set out in March 2013 and recently. The Government will continue to work in partnership with the private sector to deliver benefits for the industry, passengers and taxpayers.

Intercity Express Programme

On 24 July 2012, at the same time that the Great Western intercity express programme (IEP) fleet was financed, commercial close was reached for the east coast fleet of IEP trains. On 18 July 2013, I informed the House of my decision to exercise a pre-priced option within those contracts to extend the IEP train order for the east coast main line by 270 further class 800/801 vehicles, in addition to the existing order for 227 vehicles. The process to reach financial close for the whole fleet and to reach commercial close for the extended fleet has now finished, and I wish to inform the House of the results.

I am pleased to announce that the east coast IEP contract has been financed by Agility Trains East. Agility Trains will design, build, maintain and service the rolling stock and maintenance facilities for 497 new vehicles over the 27.5-year contract term. The value of the contract is £2.7 billion. I would like to thank Agility and its constituent entities, Hitachi and John Lang, for their support.

The IEP will see state-of-the-art new trains brought into operation on the east coast main line in 2018 following their introduction on the Great Western main line in 2017. These faster, higher-capacity and more environmentally sustainable trains will improve passenger experience and comfort, and will provide 28% more seats into Kings Cross at peak times, while delivering more reliable and efficient services. The trains will be operated by the winner of the intercity east coast competition that is currently live.

Agility Trains has financed the fleet, but the Government are investing £330 million on the east coast main line, to ensure that the trains will be able to reach all of the destinations served by the current fleet.

Overall the Government are investing £38 billion to transform the rail network over the next five years—a record amount of funding that will generate growth, create jobs and boost business. The intercity express programme is a vital part of that transformation with the trains being assembled in Newton Aycliffe, creating 730 jobs and securing more in the supply chain.

The Government are committed to using investment in transport as an engine for growth. This deal will benefit passengers and communities both along the east coast main line and in other parts of the country.

Work and Pensions

Scotland Analysis (Work and Pensions)

I laid before the House on 23 April 2014 the latest paper in the Government’s Scotland analysis programme, “Scotland analysis: Work and Pensions”. This series of publications is designed to inform the debate on Scotland’s future within the United Kingdom ahead of this year’s referendum.

The paper sets out why a UK-wide social security system and labour market works well for Scotland. It considers how the UK’s broad tax base ensures Scotland benefits from secure and stable funding and how by pooling resources, variations in demand for social security support in one part of the UK can be absorbed without varying the levels of funding received by individuals. It sets out how by remaining in the UK both the higher levels of social security expenditure in Scotland and future costs pressures from an ageing population are more affordable.

In the future the number of pensioners is predicted to increase, and cost pressures will increase accordingly. The paper highlights that an independent Scottish state would face a more acute challenge than the UK as a whole, both from demographic change, and its ability to absorb the impacts from a narrower tax base. The paper finds that an independent Scottish state could face additional social security costs rising to around £1.55 billion per year over the next 20 years (in today’s terms) as a result of demographic changes and policy commitments by the current Scottish Government. This would result in a total increased cost of around £450 per working-age person per year in Scotland over the next 20 years, than if spending per working-age person was at average UK levels.

The paper also sets out how an independent Scottish state would also face costs and complexity from unpicking the UK’s integrated social security infrastructure. It explains there would be costs in developing and setting up new systems while running costs could increase as economies of scale are lost. The UK Government would do nothing to put at risk the continuity of payments to their own citizens and would not be prepared to incur significant costs to change IT systems to cater for a different approach in Scotland. The paper also finds that if Scotland does not use sterling as its currency, it would not be possible to share a benefit system even for a transitional period.

The paper concludes that Scotland’s citizens and employers benefit from being part of the UK and the UK benefits from having Scotland as part of it.