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House of Commons Hansard
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Written Statements
23 March 2015
Volume 594

Written Statements

Monday 23 March 2015

Cabinet Office

Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments

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The Government have asked Sir Gerry Grimstone to lead a review of the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments. This will be the first review of the Office’s status and role since the role of the Commissioner for Public Appointments was created by the Public Appointments Order in Council 1995 on 23 November 1995. Although the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments is technically not a public body, the review will follow the guidance on conducting a triennial review.

The review’s purpose will be to establish the continuing need for the Office, and to examine its scope of responsibilities. In particular the review will consider the Office’s role in regulating the processes by which Ministers make appointments to the boards of certain public bodies and certain statutory offices. The review’s terms of reference have been placed in the Library of the House.

Sir Gerry will seek input from a wide range of individuals, including current and former Ministers, current and former officials and advisers, the Government’s Non-Executive Directors, the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, Parliament, public bodies and those who have gone through an appointments process. The review will report in the summer.

TERMS OF REFERENCE. The role of the Commissioner for Public Appointments was created by the Public Appointments Order in Council 1995 on 23 November 1995, following recommendations made by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (under the chairmanship of Lord Nolan). We are now twenty years on, and this provides a suitable opportunity to review the role of the Commissioner and the processes around public appointments. In the light of the range and diversity of public appointments, it is important to ensure that the procedures are both effective and proportionate. The review will be led by Sir Gerry Grimstone and will report to the Minister for the Cabinet Office.

[HCWS448]

“The State of the Estate in 2013-14”

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I have today laid before Parliament, pursuant to section 86 of the Climate Change Act 2008, “The State of the Estate in 2013-14”. This report describes the efficiency and sustainability of the Government’s civil estate and records the progress that Government have made since the previous year and since 2010. The report is published on an annual basis.

[HCWS450]

Treasury

Convergence Programme

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Article 121 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) requires the UK to send an annual Convergence Programme to the European Commission reporting upon its fiscal situation and policies. The UK’s Convergence Programme will be sent to the European Commission by 30 April. This deadline was set in accordance with the European semester timetable for both convergence and national reform programmes. The Government support the European semester which plays an important role in EU surveillance of economic and fiscal policy.

Section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993 requires that the content of the Convergence Programme must be drawn from an assessment of the UK’s economic and budgetary position which has been presented to Parliament by the Government for their approval. This assessment is based on the Budget 2015 report and the most recent Office for Budget Responsibility’s Economic and Fiscal Outlook and it is this content, not the Convergence Programme itself, which requires the approval of the House for the purposes of the Act.

Article 121, along with Article 126 of the TFEU, is the legal basis for the stability and growth pact, which is the co-ordination mechanism for EU fiscal policies and requires member states to avoid excessive Government deficits. Although the UK is bound by the stability and growth pact, by virtue of its protocol to the treaty opting out of the euro, it is only required to “endeavour to avoid” excessive deficits. Unlike the euro area member states, the UK is not subject to sanctions at any stage of the European semester process.

Subject to the progress of parliamentary business, debates will be held on 24 March for the House of Commons and on 25 March for the House of Lords in order for both Houses to approve this assessment before the Convergence Programme is sent to the Commission. While the Convergence Programme itself is not subject to parliamentary approval or amendment, I have deposited advanced copies of the document in the Libraries of both Houses and copies will be available through the Vote Office and Printed Paper Office.

The UK’s Convergence Programme will be available electronically via HM Treasury’s website after it is sent to the European Commission.

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Communities and Local Government

Local Audit

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Today, the final commencement order of the Local Audit and Accountability Act 2014 was signed off. This means that the residual Audit Commission will close its doors on 31 March, paving the way for local audit appointment within a new, leaner framework which, while it retains the knowledge and expertise of the commission where it has value, will create more freedom and flexibility for local public bodies, replacing top-down inspection with local accountability.

Hon. Members will recall that in August 2010, I announced plans to disband the Audit Commission and refocus audit on helping local people hold local public bodies to account for their spending decisions. The new system coming into effect will sweep away the old top-down regime, offering greater responsibility and choice for local councils, replacing central bureaucracy with local democracy, while upholding the same high standards of audit.

While this quango was borne of good intentions, local government has changed since the 1980s. The commission had become a regulator of local government, micro-managing local services and imposing excessive red tape, from best value performance indicators, to comprehensive performance assessment to comprehensive area assessment. Such box-ticking exercises did not champion the public’s interests, as evident by the fact the Audit Commission bullied and cajoled councils into axing weekly rubbish collections in order to meet Whitehall targets set by Labour Ministers.

Despite a slogan of “protecting the public purse”, it wasted public money on ill-advised spending decisions, such as a luxury London hotel to house its chief executive, a best practice audit conference with a string quartet, drinks receptions for its “alumni”, fine dining at the most expensive restaurants using corporate credit cards, board dinners in oysters bars (losing the receipt in the process), and hiring lobbyists to “combat the activities of Eric Pickles” (arguably, one of the least successful lobbying campaigns in history).

We therefore abolished the commission’s interfering and ineffective inspection regimes in 2010, and in 2012 the remaining in-house audit contracts were successfully outsourced, saving £250 million over five years. The Royal Assent of the Local Audit and Accountability Act in January 2014 put the legal framework in place to finish the job. Our latest estimates for the savings to taxpayers have increased to £1.35 billion over 10 years, with councils pocketing the bulk of the savings.

My Department will also this week make the necessary transfer schemes to provide continuity for essential roles in the local audit system. The National Audit Office will set the standards for public audit and take on responsibility for the code of audit practice, with the Financial Reporting Council and professional accountancy bodies monitoring the quality of audit as they already do for the private sector. The recent inspection by PwC into the London borough of Tower Hamlets illustrates how a private firm can provide robust advice and analysis without fear or favour.

The Cabinet Office will assume responsibility for the national fraud initiative, joining up its existing anti-fraud work. Public Sector Audit Appointments Ltd is the transitional locally led body set up to manage the existing audit contracts until they expire ahead of full local appointment of auditors in 2017. This new streamlined regime mirrors the framework already used for the private sector, while maintaining the high standards of public audit.

The localisation of audit is complemented by other transparency reforms to increase local accountability and empower an army of armchair auditors. The local government transparency code requires councils to place online important local information about spending and decisions; we have introduced a lighter-touch transparency code to smaller local bodies like parish councils so people can access key spending, governance and meeting information; we have changed the law to allow filming and reporting of public council meetings by the press and public; a new common period next year will allow local ratepayers to inspect councils’ accounts––a right more powerful than freedom of information, and it is our intention to legislate in the next Parliament to allow those local inspection rights to be exercised by members of the press who may not otherwise live or work in the council area.

I am confident that these reforms will protect taxpayers’ money and ensure high standards in local government.

[HCWS451]

Local Government Update

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I would like to update hon. Members on a number of actions taken by my Department relating to local government:

Updating statutory notices for the 21st Century

Statutory notices are an important way of ensuring that local residents are informed of decisions that affect their property and lives. Public bodies must do more than provide just ‘an obscure notice’ on the depths of a council website, with local newspapers retaining a key role. Last year, my Department invited bids for innovative approaches to be taken to both protect local newspapers and provide essential information to the public in new ways.

We have now announced almost £1 million of funding for 24 local pilot programmes as part of efforts to help councils bring their public information requirements into line with the modern media. We have backed proposals from both councils and local newspaper groups which embrace new technology and innovation to improve the provision of vital information to the public.

The pilots include collaborations between councils and local media organisations, tests of new technology such as mobile phone applications and social media, and consultations with local people over how they want to receive information.

We are committed to supporting an independent free press, and to ensuring that local taxpayers are better informed about council decisions that affect their lives. We look forward to seeing the results. The pilots will run from March 2015 to the end of August 2015.

Calling time on inflated golden goodbyes

My Department has previously sought the views of the local government sector on reforms to the legal minefield that can pressure councils into giving large pay offs to chief executives they want to dismiss.

Slow and costly bureaucracy requires councils to appoint a “designated independent person”, usually a Queen’s Counsel, to review dismissal and disciplinary cases for chief executives. Councils seeking to dismiss a chief executive for misconduct or poor performance have in some cases paid out inflated lump sums to avoid the cost of taking this bureaucratic route. Local government estimates the review process can cost at least £100,000 in legal fees, not counting independent investigation costs and salary for the suspended officer. One previous case cost £420,000 and took 16 months to adjudicate. Ministers believe decisions by full council ensure proper democratic accountability, without the need for a centrally dictated process.

We are laying this week the associated secondary legislation which will reduce the unnecessary and costly bureaucratic process for councils to take decisions about disciplinary matters, including dismissal, of the most senior staff.

They will require such decisions to be taken transparently by full council; and when making such a decision, require the council to consider any advice from a panel of independent persons. These are the independent persons appointed for the purposes of the members’ conduct regime under the Localism Act 2011, and, where possible, must be local government electors for the area concerned; there will be restrictions against paying inflated expenses for such advice.

The reforms give councils the power to decide on the best disciplinary process that will deliver value for money for local taxpayers, while retaining independent scrutiny and accountability to local people.

My Department will also be shortly be publishing guidance to local government on the use of severance agreements and on ‘off-payroll’ arrangements, reflecting reforms we have introduced at a civil service level to protect taxpayers’ interests.

Protecting local government against cyber threats

My Department have been working jointly with security experts and local government colleagues to develop guidance for local authority leaders and their teams on cyber resilience. It is very important, as local people increasingly access local service electronically, that they have confidence that their information will be safe and the services they use can be relied upon. We are publishing guidance this week on the steps that local councils should take to build resilience.

Review of Arms Length Bodies

We are announcing the start of the triennial review of the valuation tribunal service and the valuation tribunal for England. The valuation tribunal considers appeals from council taxpayers and business ratepayers about the levels of council tax and non-domestic (business) rates. The review will examine their role, whether they are operating efficiently, and whether their control and governance arrangements continue to meet the recognised principles of good corporate governance.

Reforming council tax and business valuation practices

Following a statutory consultation, my Department has now published its response and associated secondary legislation on curtailing the powers of entry of the Valuation Office Agency, using powers under the Protection of Freedoms Act 2012. This Government believe that the privacy and rights of homeowners and businesses should be protected and strengthened wherever possible. These reforms include protection from unnecessary and intrusive visits into a taxpayer’s home or business, and introduce a new requirement for consent from a First-tier tribunal before any power of entry. It is intended that this will create a considerable road block and check and balance against use of the power.

This action builds on steps we have taken to cancel the last Administration’s plans for a council tax revaluation in England, and terminate the ‘Big Brother’ council tax revaluation database being drawn up by the Valuation Office Agency.

Cutting red tape on councillors

Ministers in my Department have agreed with colleagues in the Ministry of Justice to take forward steps to remove the annual fee that many councillors are required to pay to register as data controllers under the Data Protection Act. Instead, local authorities will undertake the notification process itself as part of their local authority-wide registration, and individual councillors will be exempt from the fee. This will remove an effective ‘tax on volunteering’. Ministers have asked officials to draft the necessary secondary legislation in purdah, with a view to laying the amending legislation early in the next Parliament.

I am placing copies of the associated documents in the Library of the House.

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Education

Equality and Human Rights Commission

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I am today laying before Parliament a copy of the Strategic Plan Revision for 2015/16 which has been prepared by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), as required by Section 4 of the Equality Act 2006. The Commission will next revise the Strategic Plan by March 2016.1 am also today placing in the Libraries of both Houses copies of a revised framework document agreed between the Government Equalities Office and the EHRC.

[HCWS446]

Energy and Climate Change

Oil and Gas Authority: Consultation on Levy Design

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Today I am launching a consultation on the design of the levy to fund the new Oil and Gas Authority (OGA).

We are working at a great pace to establish and empower the OGA to be a strong and influential regulator, equipped with the necessary powers to regulate and steward the UK continental shelf.

To ensure the OGA is sufficiently resourced to deliver its remit of maximising economic recovery from the UKCS, and in line with the established precedent for other regulatory bodies, we have determined that the OGA should recover its costs from the companies who benefit from its services.

While the Government have agreed to contribute £3 million per year for five years starting from April 2016 to ensure the OGA is well funded from the outset, the OGA’s ongoing costs will be met by a combination of the extant fees and charges regime, and a new levy on industry. We agree with industry that it is important that the levy is simple, transparent and cost-reflective.

This consultation sets out details of the allocation methodology and the proposed levy rates. In line with the early focus of the OGA, we have determined that initially we will levy only offshore petroleum licence holders as (in the short term) the OGA will incur costs related to these licence holders. We intend that the OGA will begin collecting the levy in October 2015, subject to regulations.

The consultation will be open for four weeks and will conclude on 20 April 2015 and the Government welcome views on the proposals and invites comments through the consultation process.

I will be depositing a copy of this consultation in the Libraries of the House.

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Justice

Property/affairs: Missing Persons

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My noble Friend the Minister of State for Civil Justice and Legal Policy (Lord Faulks QC) has made the following written statement.

“I am pleased to announce that following its consideration of the responses to the consultation paper published by the Ministry of Justice on 27 August 2014 the Government have decided to create the new legal status of guardian of the property and affairs of a missing person.

The Government strongly support the creation of the new legal status and will now prepare the necessary primary and secondary legislation and guidance to enable the proposed scheme to be implemented as quickly as possible. In this task we will continue to work with stakeholders to design a scheme that can be implemented at minimum cost and operated with minimum problems.

The timing of the introduction of the legislation will be decided by Ministers in the next Parliament. Nonetheless, given the importance of this measure, the strong support to date from all sides and its own commitment to bringing forward legislation as soon as possible, the Government hope that legislation will be brought forward without delay in the new Parliament.

The key features of the proposed scheme will be:

A guardian will be required to act in the best interests of the missing person and in this respect will be subject to duties similar to those of a trustee.

The guardian will be supervised by the Office of the Public Guardian and will be required to file accounts in much the same way as a deputy appointed under the Mental Capacity Act 2005.

A guardian will be appointed by a court on application by a person with a sufficient interest in the property and affairs of the missing person.

The appointment will be for a period of up to four years with the possibility of applying for an extension for up to another four years.

The replies to the consultation are described and analysed in the response paper published by the Ministry of Justice today.

I have placed a copy of the response paper in the Library of each House of Parliament. It is also is available at https://consult.justice.gov.uk.”

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Transport

HS2 Update

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Following the publication of”'HS2: On track”[1] on 12 March which set out the good progress we have made on HS2 over the last five years, I thought it would be helpful to give an update on the latest project developments.

The hybrid Bill for the first phase of HS2 is making good progress through Parliament. By the end of today the High Speed Rail (London-West Midlands) Select Committee will have sat for 76 days and heard almost 400 petitions, almost twice as many as the Crossrail Committee heard in 21 months of sittings. I am sure the whole House will welcome the commitment and seriousness with which the Committee has gone about the very important task of ensuring that the project strikes the right balance between the needs of affected communities and the environment, and the long-term needs of the country as a whole.

We are continuing to develop our plans for the redevelopment of Euston station and are working with the local community to ensure we keep disruption to a minimum. On 18 March we signed an agreement with the London Borough of Camden that fulfils our pledge to social rented tenants affected by Euston’s redevelopment. We have now ensured that replacement housing will be available for all 136 social rented properties in Camden affected by HS2.

On 20 March we published a report on the Northern Transport Strategy. Developed jointly with Transport for the North, the strategy sets out our ambition for a world class northern transport system, as well as the concrete steps we are taking to get there. The Government have already committed £13 billion of investment to improving connectivity across the north. The report set out how we will work with Transport for the north to build on this investment, including developing a new “TransNorth” rail system to slash journey times between major northern cities and taking immediate action to simplify rail fares across the north.

In addition to this, I have set out my commitment to get HS2 to the north sooner, delivering benefits to businesses and individuals more quickly. Therefore, subject to further analysis and decisions on the preferred route, I intend to prepare a dedicated hybrid Bill to lay during the next Parliament with a view to bringing HS2 to Crewe earlier than planned.

Finally, we have moved another step forward to realising our ambition of creating a world-class railway, with the appointment by HS2 Ltd of award winning designer Sadie Morgan as the Chair of an independent design panel, which will advise on the delivery of the HS2 Design Vision, published today. This will set the bar for all future HS2 design.

I welcome this progress and am pleased to be able to report that the momentum of the HS2 project remains strong to deliver a railway which will be an engine for growth in our country.

[1] Department for Transport (2015), HS2: On track, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/hs2-on-track

[HCWS445]

Rail Franchising: Great Western

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Today I have announced the successful conclusion of negotiations for a new directly awarded franchise agreement with First Greater Western Limited (FGW). This deal will see FGW continue to run passenger rail services on the Great Western franchise until the start of the services on the next competed franchise, which is expected in April 2019. The direct award secures an operator for the franchise for the three and a half years from September 2015 (with an optional 13 period extension at the Secretary of State’s sole discretion); through a period of unprecedented change on the franchise and the most significant upgrade of infrastructure and rolling stock for a generation.

The passenger benefits secured in this direct award are considerable, taking advantage of this Government’s significant investment in new infrastructure, electrification of the route, new intercity express trains on long distance routes and new high capacity electric trains in the Thames Valley, which will enable the cascade of diesel trains to the west and south west of England where additional capacity is badly needed.

The franchise overall will see an increase in capacity of around 25%, or 3 million seats per year as well as significant increases in service frequency and journey time savings. This will include a two trains per hour service to the south west of England, an earlier arrival into Plymouth, and double the number of trains to Cornwall. My Department will also work with FGW to improve the performance and quality of the rolling stock serving the south west of England, particularly for intercity services, during this direct award; to complement the introduction of the IEP trains.

Other benefits secured by the direct award include investment of £30 million to create 2,000 more car park spaces, additional customer information systems, CCTV, ticket gatelines, and a fund of £2.5 million for station access improvements, a £3.5 million station development match fund, as well as extension of station travel plans at a further 20 main interchange stations. The operator will also support the Government’s commitment to get more people into work by providing an annual fund and training opportunities for young and unemployed people, as well as providing 85 modern apprenticeships by the franchise end.

New passenger satisfaction, punctuality and cleanliness targets will be introduced on the franchise. We expect FGW to continue to provide improving standards for its 99 million annual passengers including the provision of free Wi-Fi on all train fleets. In addition the company will deepen its engagement with communities and stakeholders so that all the users of the franchise can continue to have a real influence in how it can continue to improve services.

Reaching this agreement with FGW marks a new chapter for the Great Western railway and builds on the success of my Department’s rail franchising programme; working in partnership with the rail industry to deliver far better services for passengers as well as value for money for the taxpayer.

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Work and Pensions

Office of Nuclear Regulation: Annual Plan

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My noble Friend The Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Lord Freud) has made the following written statement:

Later today I will place a copy of the Office for Nuclear Regulation’s Annual Plan for 2015-2016 in the Library of the House. The annual plan will also be published on the ONR’s website.

I can confirm, in accordance with Schedule 7, Section 25(3) of the Energy Act 2013, that there have been no exclusions to the published document on the grounds of national security.

It is also available on line at: http://www.parliament.uk/writtenstatements.

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