Thursday 30 November 2017
During Prime Minister’s questions on 29 November 2017, in answer to the question from the hon. Member for Battersea (Marsha De Cordova) I should have said that spending on disability is £50 billion.
Communities and Local Government
Local Government Improvement: Somerset and Suffolk
I am announcing today that having carefully considered all the material and representations I have received, I am “minded to” implement two locally led proposals for merging district councils in Somerset and Suffolk.
The first of these is a proposal Taunton Deane Borough Council and West Somerset District Council submitted to me in March 2017 to merge into a new, single district council. The second is a proposal Forest Heath District Council and St Edmundsbury Borough Council submitted in September 2017 similarly to merge into a new, single district council.
I am satisfied, on the basis of the information currently available to me, that each of these proposals fully meets the criteria that I told the House on 7 November 2017, Official Report, column 48WS, I would use for assessing proposals for merging district councils, namely that:
the proposal is likely to improve local government in the area concerned;
the proposal commands local support, in particular that the merger is proposed by all councils which are to be merged and there is evidence of a good deal of local support;
and that the proposed merged area is a credible geography, consisting of two or more existing local government areas that are adjacent, and which, if established, would not pose an obstacle to locally led proposals for authorities to combine to serve their communities better and would facilitate joint working between local authorities.
Before I take my final decisions on these proposed mergers there will now be a period until 19 January 2018 during which those interested may make further representations to me, including that if a proposal is implemented it is with suggested modifications. The final decisions would also be subject to parliamentary approval.
Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Transport, Telecommunications and Energy Council
The Transport, Telecommunications, and Energy (TTE) Council will take place in Brussels on 4 and 5 December 2017. The UK’s deputy permanent representative to the EU will represent the interests of the UK at the telecommunications session on 4 December.
The council will seek to gain a general approach among EU member states on the proposals laying down the renegotiated regulatory framework for the Body of European Regulators for Electronic Communications (BEREC). The UK is proposing to vote in favour, subject to scrutiny, having already submitted a formal request for scrutiny clearance or waiver, ahead of the council vote.
The presidency is expected to provide a progress update on the e-privacy regulation, expected to be used as a means of highlighting the importance of privacy online.
Also tabled is a policy debate on the Commission’s initiative on the free flow of data proposal.
The presidency will provide information relating to the DSM initiative on 5G, with an update on the 5G spectrum road map. Additional agenda items include information from the presidency on European electronic communications code, as well as the Council conclusions on cyber security and the Council’s action plan.
The Council will be receiving information from the Bulgarian delegation, as the incoming presidency in the first half of 2018, to set out its work programme for the next six months.
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Hague Convention on Child Abduction
The Government have decided to opt in to the European Commission’s proposals for Council decisions authorising the acceptance by certain member states of the accession of named countries to the 1980 Hague convention on the civil aspects of international child abduction, in the interests of the EU. The acceptances are as follows:
Luxembourg and Romania to accept Georgia and South Africa
Croatia, the Netherlands, Portugal and Romania to accept San Marino
Romania to accept Chile, Iceland and Bahamas
Austria and Romania to accept Panama, Uruguay, Colombia and El Salvador
The UK has already accepted all of the named countries, and therefore these Council decisions do not instruct the UK to take any action.
All EU member states are party to the 1980 Hague convention, the primary civil law international instrument which provides a mechanism to seek the prompt return of wrongfully removed or retained children to their country of habitual residence.
When a country wishes to accede to the convention, it is necessary for an existing contracting state to accept that country’s accession before the convention can apply between them. It is the European Commission’s view that there is exclusive competence on the EU for all matters relating to the 1980 convention and that therefore member states must be authorised by the EU to accept accessions by third countries and must do so collectively through Council decisions.
Although not anticipated in the proposals, the Government believe that the UK opt-in under the protocol to title V of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union applies and it has therefore asserted its right to choose whether to opt in and has decided that it is in the UK’s best interests to do so.
The Government have taken this decision notwithstanding the fact that they dispute the Commission’s claim to exclusive competence.
The Government believe that the wider significance of these proposals for external competence mean that it is in the UK’s interests to participate fully in these negotiations, including having the ability to vote. These proposals must be agreed by unanimity within the EU Council.
Chemical Weapons: Syria
I wish to make a statement about the use of chemical weapons in Syria and the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW)—UN joint investigative mechanism.
We condemn the use of chemical weapons by anyone, anywhere. It is of great concern that chemical weapons attacks against civilians in Syria have continued, four years after the Syrian regime used sarin in Ghouta to such horrific effect in 2013.
The UN Security Council has made clear repeatedly, in resolutions 2118 (2013), 2209 (2015), and 2235 (2015), that there would be consequences for those responsible for using chemical weapons in Syria. The Security Council thus sent a clear signal that all chemical weapons attacks in Syria must cease.
On 26 October the joint investigative mechanism (JIM) issued its report on its investigation into the incident in Khan Sheikhoun of 4 April 2017 (available at www.un.org as document reference S/2017/904). When I updated the House in April I said that the Assad regime almost certainly gassed its own people, in breach of international law and the rules of war. Nearly 100 people died and hundreds more were injured in that terrible attack. Six months later the JIM concluded that it was
“confident that the Syrian Arab Republic is responsible for the release of sarin”
at Khan Sheikhoun. The JIM also concluded that it was
“confident that ISIL is responsible for the use of sulfur mustard”
at Um Housh on 15 and 16 September 2016. The JIM’s report is the result of a painstaking, independent investigation by UN investigators.
These were not isolated incidents. The JIM had already found that the regime used chlorine as a chemical weapon on at least three separate occasions in 2014 and 2015 and that Daesh used sulphur mustard once in 2015. The OPCW reported on 2 November that sarin was more than likely used on 30 March in Ltamenah, only 15 miles from Khan Sheikhoun. The OPCW continues to investigate further reports of alleged chemical attacks by both Daesh and the Syrian regime. It also continues to investigate “gaps, inconsistencies and inaccuracies” in Syria’s declaration of its chemical weapons programme.
I was appalled to see Russia veto three times the attempts by the UN Security Council to continue the JIM’s investigations. Those votes, bringing Russia’s vetoes on Syria to a total of 11, demonstrated Russia’s overriding determination to protect its allies in the Syrian regime, whatever the crimes committed. Despite the fact that, in 2013, Russia said it had secured Syria’s agreement to destroy all its chemical weapons, Syria has continued to use them. Russia’s response to four confirmed chemical attacks by the Syrian regime and two by Daesh is to shut down further investigation.
The UK has been at the forefront of international efforts to ensure that reports of attacks are properly investigated and those responsible identified. The UK was proud to have supported both the JIM and the OPCW’s fact finding mission, including contributing funding to the OPCW’s Syria trust funds, for destruction, verification and investigative activities. And we responded to the request for assistance from the investigators by sharing information which underpinned the conclusions the UK had reached nationally and which I set out to the House in April.
We will not let Russia’s actions to close down the JIM stop our efforts to uphold international law prohibiting the use of chemical weapons, and to identify and bring to justice those who violate that law. We fully support the OPCW’s ongoing investigations, and other investigations into crimes committed in Syria, such as the UN Human Rights Council’s commission of inquiry and the UN General Assembly’s international impartial and independent mechanism (IIIM). Working with our partners on the UN Security Council and in other fora, we will actively seek to hold to account those responsible for using chemical weapons and prevent such attacks happening again.
I wish to inform the House that I am today introducing changes to the dedicated immigration policy for residents of Grenfell Tower and Grenfell walk.
First, I am extending the dedicated immigration policy for survivors of the Grenfell Tower tragedy.
The extension will allow survivors who have not yet come forward to do so by 31 January 2018. Providing survivors with an additional opportunity to come forward to regularise their immigration status is consistent with the Government’s objective to ensure all those directly affected receive the support they need.
Second, having reviewed the impact of the policy over the last four months, I have also decided to extend its scope to enable any Grenfell survivor with valid leave in another category to switch into the dedicated leave outside the rules policy by 31 January 2018. Individuals will no longer need to demonstrate that their leave is due to expire in the next 12 months or that they cannot qualify under another immigration route in order to be eligible under the Grenfell Tower immigration policy. They may wish to seek independent legal advice as to whether switching or remaining in their existing immigration route is the best option for them.
Finally, I have carefully considered the issue of access to public funds and I would like to provide reassurance to those who have leave in another category, such as family or work, but who qualified under the Grenfell Tower immigration policy for a change of conditions. I am announcing today that they will continue to have recourse to public funds and permission to work for as long as they qualify for leave to remain in the UK.
I hope this announcement provides further reassurance that the welfare of those directly affected by the fire is the Government’s top priority. Anyone who has not yet come forward can do so before 31 January 2018 by calling our Home Office Grenfell team on 0208 196 4531 and arranging an appointment to speak to a member of our dedicated team in person.
Revised guidance with further details on the Grenfell Tower immigration policy which reflect today’s announcement will be published in due course.
Retention of Communications Data
In order to maintain the essential capabilities of law enforcement to catch paedophiles, terrorists and criminals, the Government have announced proposed changes to the UK’s communications data retention and acquisition regime to comply with the judgment handed down by the European Court of Justice in December 2016. Communications data is used in 95% of serious and organised crime prosecution cases handled by the Crown Prosecution Service organised crime division, and has been used in every major Security Service counter-terrorism investigation over the last decade. Over 50% of data sought in child abuse cases is over six months old and may simply not have been available if the Government did not have the ability to ask providers to retain communications data.
The Government have given careful consideration to a judgment handed down by the European Court of Justice in December 2016 and are proposing new safeguards to ensure we comply with the judgment while still allowing the police to use communications data to solve crimes, catch paedophiles and protect the public.
I am therefore today announcing the publication of the Government’s consultation on:
changes it proposes to make, via regulations made under section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972, to the Investigatory Powers Act 2016 in response to the judgment; and
the draft communications data code of practice which sets out the processes and safeguards governing the retention of communications data by telecommunications operators and its acquisition by public authorities, including the police and the security and intelligence agencies.
Given the ongoing public interest in investigatory powers the Government consider it important to consult on potential changes to the legislative regime in order to inform the legislative response and subsequent parliamentary debate. The Government welcome comments on the amendments that they are proposing to the Investigatory Powers Act and on the draft code of practice. Consultation responses are particularly welcomed on the proposed amendments, although the Government will also consider other amendments that consultees consider should be made to the Act and draft code of practice more generally in response to the judgment.
The consultation will last seven weeks, taking account of the Christmas period. Copies of the consultation document, the draft code, regulations, Keeling schedule, impact assessment and case studies will be placed in the Library of the House. Online versions will be available on the www.gov.uk website.
Chief Coroner: Annual Report
I am pleased to lay and publish the Chief Coroner’s fourth annual report to the Lord Chancellor on the operation of coroner services under section 36 of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 (“the 2009 Act”). The report covers the period 1 July 2016 to 30 June 2017.
In particular the Chief Coroner’s report sets out:
The continuing work to promote consistency in the resourcing of and practices in coroner offices across England and Wales;
The training and guidance that coroners and their officers have received and the engagement with a wide range of stakeholders;
Recommendations to improve coroner services further.
His Honour Sir Peter Thornton QC retired as Chief Coroner on 30 September 2016 and His Honour Judge Mark Lucraft QC took up post as Chief Coroner on 1 October 2016.
I would like to take the opportunity to thank Sir Peter for his dedication to improving coroner services in England and Wales during his term as first Chief Coroner and the sound foundations he put in place for his successor, as well as for coroners more generally. Under his leadership the number of outstanding cases reduced. His guidance to coroners and training both to coroners and others have enhanced national standards and have brought a level of consistency to the coroner service across England and Wales, making sure that bereaved people are at its heart.
I would also like to record my appreciation for the fine work that Judge Lucraft has done since he took up post last year.
I am grateful too to coroners and their officers and other staff for having supported both Chief Coroners to improve services for bereaved people and for their valued and continuing frontline work.
Copies of the report will be available in the Vote Office and in the Printed Paper Office. The document will also be available online at gov.uk.
New Reserved Powers: Wales
I have today laid regulations specifying that the new reserved powers model of devolution for Wales will come into force on 1 April 2018. I consulted the First Minister of Wales and the Assembly’s Presiding Officer before making these regulations.
The new model places Welsh devolution on a firm foundation, with greater clarity on the boundary between matters that are reserved to Parliament and those which are devolved to the National Assembly for Wales.
The regulations also commence the further powers being devolved to the Assembly and Welsh Ministers under the 2017 Act, including powers over elections, transport and the environment. Most of these powers also come into force on 1 April.
The Wales Act 2017 delivers a clearer, fairer and stronger devolution settlement for Wales. Some parts of the Act are already in force, including provisions that:
reaffirm the Government’s commitment to the permanence of the National Assembly for Wales (the Assembly) and the Welsh Government;
remove the requirement for a referendum before the devolution of income tax to Wales; and
double (to £1 billion) the amount Welsh Ministers can borrow to fund capital expenditure.