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Written Statements

Volume 593: debated on Friday 27 February 2015

Written Statements

Friday 27 February 2015

Cabinet Office

UK Statistics Authority (Contingencies Fund Advance)

The Cabinet Office wishes to report that a cash advance from the Contingencies Fund has been sought for the UK Statistics Authority (referred to as the Statistics Board in the Statistics and Registration Service Act 2007). The advance is required in order to meet an urgent cash requirement on services.

Parliamentary approval for additional resources of £15,000,000 from the Reserve will be sought in a Supplementary Estimate for the Statistics Board. Pending that approval, urgent expenditure estimated at £15,000,000 will be met by repayable cash advances from the Contingencies Fund.



Transforming the North's Railway

A transformation in transport connectivity between the cities of the north is vital to realising their potential to become a “northern powerhouse” for the UK's economy.

On 27 October 2014, the Government set out how they intended to work with Transport for the North, Network Rail and the Highways Agency to develop a new transport strategy for the north.

A central plank of this work is improving the railways connecting the northern cities. As announced by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, this includes the development of proposals for HS3, a high speed rail link designed to cut journey times between these great cities, boosting businesses and creating more jobs and security for hard-working people.

This work continues apace, and it remains the Government’s intent to publish an interim report shortly.

In the meantime, I am pleased to inform the House that I published today the invitations to tender for the next Northern and TransPennine Express rail franchises.

I have also published today “Transforming the North’s Railway”, a stakeholder briefing document that sets out the Government’s response to the consultation on the two franchises that took place from June to August 2014.

These publications mark an important first step in the transformation of the train services in the north of England to support economic growth. More people than ever are using the north’s railways, and the demand for travel by rail into our great northern cities is predicted to grow into the future. Passengers, businesses, local communities and their representatives across the north told us that railway services must be revitalised and expanded upon under the new franchises in order to be fit for the (21st) century and to achieve our vision for the “northern powerhouse”.

The Government have listened carefully to those views. The invitations to tender published today, the result of the Government’s collaborative work with Rail North, representing local transport authorities across the north, require the shortlisted bidders for the two franchises to start on the journey of transformation that is needed.

This includes

a modernised fleet of Northern trains, including full replacement of the unpopular Pacers and the introduction of 120 new-build vehicles by 1 January 2020

more frequent services, including on Sundays

more seats at the busiest times

dedicated funding for investment in Northern’s stations

significantly increased funding for community rail

challenging targets for increases in customer satisfaction

Wi-Fi capability on all trains, providing free connectivity where there is coverage

working in partnership with Network Rail to deliver the Government's £1 billion investment in the railway infrastructure of the north, including electrification and the northern hub

retention of the important direct link between South Humberside and Manchester Airport.

To complement a rejuvenated northern franchise that serves the interests of its passengers and local communities, the Government’s vision is that TransPennine Express becomes the inter-city rail operator for the north, operating fast, high-quality inter-regional services, with a strong focus on serving its customers well.

Shortlisted bidders for the TransPennine Express franchise have until 28 May 2015 to submit their bids. For Northern, the deadline is 26 June 2015.

It is anticipated that the new franchises will start in April 2016. Franchise management will be carried out by a joint Rail North Ltd - Department for Transport team based in West Yorkshire Combined Authority’s offices in Leeds under a partnership agreement with my Department, which we expect to complete soon.



Devolution in Wales

This Government have a strong record of taking forward devolution in Wales reflecting public opinion. In 2011, we delivered a referendum which saw the National Assembly for Wales acquire full law-making powers across its devolved policy areas. We established the Commission on Devolution in Wales, the “Silk” commission, which delivered two unanimous reports on the future of devolution in Wales. The Wales Act 2014 implemented almost all of the recommendations in the commission’s first report. It devolved a comprehensive package of tax and borrowing powers to the Assembly and Welsh Government, giving them new tools and levers to put Wales in a stronger position to develop as a nation.

The Government are today announcing the outcome of the Wales devolution programme—the “St David’s day” process—on the future of devolution in Wales.

I have led a series of discussions with the four main political parties in Wales and sought the views of others, including business and academic representatives, in order to establish where there is consensus on the future path of devolution in Wales. These discussions have without exception been approached in a positive and constructive way and I am grateful to all participants for their invaluable contributions.

I want to establish a clear devolution settlement for Wales which stands the test of time. The Command Paper I have laid before the House today sets out a blueprint to achieve that, and to make the Welsh settlement clearer, more stable and long-lasting.

Since becoming Secretary of State for Wales I have made clear that I believe in further devolution where there is a clear purpose for devolving additional powers to Wales, and the package I am announcing today is underpinned by that principle.

There are four key Government commitments in the St David’s day package:

i. To implement a reserved powers model for devolution in Wales. This will make devolution in Wales clearer and better defined.

ii. To devolve significant additional powers to the National Assembly and the Welsh Government in areas such as energy, the environment, transport and local government elections. The Assembly will also become responsible for deciding how it conducts its own affairs and regulates its proceedings. These are based on those recommendations in the Silk commission’s second report on which there is consensus.

iii. To consider and analyse the non-fiscal recommendations in the Smith commission agreement for Scotland to decide which might be appropriate for Wales. In two cases, elections to the National Assembly and the licensing of onshore oil and gas extraction, the Government have decided that there is a clear case for devolving these powers, and commit to doing so in the Command Paper.

iv. To introduce a floor in the level of relative funding provided to the Welsh Government. The precise level of the floor, and the mechanism to deliver it, will be agreed alongside the next spending review. The Government have made this commitment in the expectation that the Welsh Government will call a referendum on income tax powers in the next Parliament.

The new borrowing powers for the Welsh Government, set out in the Wales Act 2014, will be extended to enable the Welsh Government to issue bonds to borrow for capital expenditure. In the next Parliament, we will also consider the case and options for devolving further powers to the Assembly over air passenger duty (APD).

Taken together, this is a landmark in the Welsh devolution process and lays the foundation for a clearer, stronger and fairer settlement for Wales. We now have a strong blueprint for a new Wales Bill in the next Parliament.

It is in the best interests of the people of Wales that we have a clear devolution settlement which gives them a stronger voice over their own affairs within a strong and successful United Kingdom. The Command Paper published today sets out the path to achieving that.


Work and Pensions

Personal Independence Payment

Later today, I will publish Command Paper Cm 9015, the Government’s response to the first independent review of the personal independence payment (PIP) assessment. The review was carried out by Paul Gray and published in December 2014. Paul is also chair of the Social Security Advisory Committee.

The Department for Work and Pensions has already made significant improvements to the PIP process, particularly in relation to waiting times. This response is therefore an important step in making further improvements to ensure the PIP process works as well as it can for all claimants. It will be the first of two, and focuses on the short-term recommendations made in the review. It sets out the action the Department will take, together with the assessment providers, to continue to deliver positive changes to support PIP claimants through the assessment process.

The Department accepts all the short-term recommendations in full except the recommendation to configure assessment rooms in a specific way. We believe we are able to deliver the principle of an open, engaging consultation without being prescriptive about seating arrangements, and will work with the assessment providers to deliver that.

The broad scope of some of the medium and longer-term recommendations, such as those which will require the commitment of other organisations and cross-government agreement, will require further consideration, particularly in light of the recent recommendation by the Smith commission to devolve disability benefits in Scotland. Having done further work to fully understand the wider implications of those recommendations, the Department intends to provide a subsequent response addressing them in due course.


Work Capability Assessment

Later today, I will publish Command Paper Cm 9014, the Government’s response to the fifth independent review of the work capability assessment. This is the fifth and final annual independent review, as required by the Welfare Reform Act 2007.

I would like to thank Dr Paul Litchfield for carrying out the review, and I welcome his findings.

Dr Litchfield looked at the changes that have been made to the WCA in response to the first four reviews and although he has recommended further minor improvements he also acknowledged that the WCA needs a period of stability. His recommendations relate to a range of issues including:

An increase in the number of people being placed in the support group, especially younger people;

the need to ensure that communications are as good as they can be, especially for more vulnerable claimants;

better support for claimants with learning disabilities.

The Government have accepted all but two of the 28 recommendations that fall within the scope of the Department for Work and Pensions. The recommendation on a specific allocation of mandatory reconsideration casework cannot be accepted as it would restrict the Department’s operational flexibility. The Department is exploring the impact of a geographical telephone number further and cannot accept this recommendation fully at this point. The 26 recommendations accepted include proposals to improve the mandatory reconsideration process, exploring the sharing of information between assessments and with other Government Departments, and working with the new assessment provider to improve online communications.

I strongly support the principle of the work capability assessment and am committed to continuously improving the assessment process to ensure it is as fair and as accurate as possible. Dr Litchfield's recommendations build on improvements already made to the assessment to achieve this aim.