Wednesday 6 December 2017
Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
EU Insolvency Regulation
The UK has opted in to the proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council updating the lists of insolvency proceedings and insolvency office- holders in annexes A and B to regulation (EU) 2015/848 on insolvency proceedings. The UK had previously opted in to the underlying regulation on insolvency proceedings in 2015. Amendments to the annexes of the regulation trigger a new opt-in decision.
The annexes list the different insolvency procedures and insolvency office-holders in each member state governed by the regulation. Amendments are made from time to time to reflect changes to member states’ domestic insolvency laws. The current proposal relates to new Belgian, Bulgarian, Croatian, Latvian and Portuguese insolvency procedures and the amendments are considered necessary to ensure that the lists of member states’ domestic insolvency laws are kept up to date. My officials have reviewed the new procedures and agree with the European Commission’s assessment that they properly fall within the scope of insolvency proceedings governed by the regulation.
Government Asset Sale
Today, I can update on the Government’s sale of part of the pre-2012, commonly known as “Plan One”, English student loan book.
The sale included loans issued by English local authorities under the previous (pre-2012) system, specifically those that entered repayment between 2002 and 2006.
Throughout the process, Government’s decision on whether to proceed remained subject to market conditions and a final value for money assessment. I can update Parliament that the transaction achieved a value of £1.7 billion, exceeding the HMT Green Book valuation.
Ministers will shortly be laying before Parliament a report on the sale in accordance with section 4 of the Sale of Student Loans Act 2008. This will provide more detail on the sale arrangements and the extent to which they give value according to HM Treasury Green Book rules.
In advance of that, I would like to reiterate the points I have made previously about the impact of the sale on borrowers and on Government policy.
The position of all borrowers, including those whose loans have been sold, will not change as a result of the sale. The sale does not and cannot in any way alter the mechanisms and terms of repayment: sold loans will continue to be serviced by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) and the Student Loans Company (SLC) on the same basis as equivalent unsold loans. Purchasers have no right to change any of the current loan arrangements or to contact borrowers directly. Those whose loans have been sold will be notified in writing by the Student Loans Company within three months, for information only. No action will be required. Government have no plans to change, or to consider changing, the terms of pre-2012 loans.
Higher Education: Resolution (13 September)
On 13 September 2017, the House agreed the motion that the Higher Education (Higher Amount) (England) Regulations 2016 (S.I. 2016, No. 1206) and the Higher Education (Basic Amount) (England) Regulations 2016 (S.I. 2016, No. 1205), both dated 13 December 2016, copies of which were laid before this House on 15 December 2016, in the last Session of Parliament, be revoked. These regulations cover maximum fee caps for the current academic year, 2017-18.
The Government listened carefully to the views expressed in the House on 13 September 2017, and to those expressed by young people and their parents. I therefore made a written statement to the House on 9 October 2017 setting out changes to higher education student finance which will benefit students further in 2018.
In that statement, I confirmed that the Government had decided to maintain maximum tuition fees at their current level for the 2018-19 academic year. This means that the maximum level of tuition fees for a full-time course will remain at £9,250 for the next academic year (2018-19). This is around £300 less than it would have been had the maximum fee been uprated with inflation.
I also confirmed changes to the earnings threshold above which borrowers are required to make contributions to the costs of their education. From April 2018, the repayment threshold for loan repayments will increase from its current level of £21,000 to £25,000 from the 2018-19 financial year. Thereafter the threshold will be adjusted annually in line with average earnings. These changes apply to those who have taken out, or will take out, loans for full-time and part-time undergraduate courses in the post-2012 system. They also apply to those who have taken out, or will take out, an advanced learner loan for a further education course.
Increasing thresholds will put more money in the pockets of borrowers by lowering their monthly repayments with the greatest overall lifetime benefit for those on middle incomes. Borrowers earning less than the repayment threshold (currently £21,000 a year, rising to £25,000 for 2018-19) will continue to be exempt from repayments.
Following the written ministerial statement to the House on 9 October, I can now make a further announcement on student finance arrangements for higher education students undertaking a course of study in the 2018-19 academic year beginning in August 2018.
Maximum grants and loans for living and other costs will be increased by forecast inflation (3.2%) in 2018-19. And for the first time, students starting part-time degree level courses from 1 August 2018 onwards will qualify for loans for living costs.
Further details of the student support package for 2018-19 are set out in the document available as an online attachment.
I expect to lay regulations implementing changes to student finance for undergraduates and postgraduates for 2018-19 early in 2018. These regulations will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny. The Department of Health will be making a separate announcement on changes to student finance for postgraduate healthcare students and dental hygiene and dental therapy students in 2018-19.
These announcements build on the Government’s existing reforms to higher education, which have delivered a 25% increase in university funding per student per degree since 2012. University funding per student is today at the highest level it has ever been in the last 30 years.
We have world-class universities accessed by a record number of young people from disadvantaged backgrounds and a progressive funding system which ensures that costs continue to be split fairly between graduates and the taxpayer. The entry rate for disadvantaged 18-year-olds is already at a record high this year, and significantly higher than at the end of the 2016 cycle. People recognise that degrees from our universities provide a route to rewarding and well-paid jobs, and that is why more people are deciding to go to university than ever before.
We will build on those strengths through our planned reforms, which seek to improve the quality of teaching and incentivise universities to focus on graduate outcomes through the teaching excellence and student outcomes framework.
We will be consulting shortly on widening provision of accelerated degrees to enable students to study more intensively, obtain degrees at lower cost, and secure a quicker entry or return to the workplace.
And the Government are committed to conducting a major review of funding across tertiary education to ensure a joined-up system that works for everyone. As current and significant reforms move into implementation, this review will look at how we can ensure that our post-18 education system is accessible to all; and is supported by a funding system that provides value for money and works for both students and taxpayers, incentivises choice and competition across the sector, and encourages the development of the skills that we need as a country.
Attachments can be viewed online at: http://www. parliament.uk/business/publications/written-questions-answers-statements/written-statement/Commons/2017-12-06/HCWS318/.
Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council
My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Lord O’Shaughnessy) has made the following statement:
The Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council will meet on 8 December in Brussels.
For the health part of the meeting there will be three main agenda items on the draft Council conclusions on health in digital society; the draft Council conclusions on the cross-border aspects in alcohol policy; and pharmaceutical policy in the EU—which will cover the following:
Report on the state of paediatric medicines in the EU— 10 years of the EU paediatric regulation—information by the Commission.
Issues related to European patients access to treatment—information from the Romanian delegation.
Lack of drug availability in Greece—information from the Greek delegation.
Under any other business, there will also be reports on:
Valproate and teratogenic medicinal products—information from the Belgian delegation.
State of health in the EU—information from the Commission, OECD, and the European observatory.
Annual growth survey 2018—information from the Commission.
Steering group on health promotion, disease prevention and management of non-communicable disease—information from the Commission.
Outcome of the high-level meeting “AMR: One Health Action Plan and evidence-based policy making” (Brussels, 23 November 2017)—information from the presidency.
Work programme of the incoming presidency—information from the Bulgarian delegation.
NHS Pay: Resolution (13 September)
We know pay restraint has been challenging for staff but it has helped the NHS to recruit an additional 32,300 professionally qualified clinical staff since 2010.
Increasing pressures on the NHS due to, among other things, an ageing population and changing public expectations continue to create increased demand and activity and this means that there have been shortages of some groups. We have been working hard to tackle this.
Since 2010 there are 10,100 more nurses on our wards. There are currently over 52,000 nurses in training. In addition, since September 2014 more than 2,400 nurses have completed the return to practice scheme.
This year there were nearly two applicants for every available nurse training place. On 4 December UCAS published their end-of-cycle data which shows 22,575 applicants with confirmed places to study pre-registration nursing and midwifery in England from August 2017. These figures show there still is strong demand for nursing and midwifery courses. There were more 18 to 20-year-olds from England accepted to nursing courses than ever before from August 2017.
We have already confirmed that the across-the-board 1% public sector pay policy will no longer apply to pay awards for 2018-19. This is due to a recognition that in some parts of the public sector flexibility to go above the 1% may be required to ensure continued delivery of world-class public services.
At the budget we announced that, in order to protect frontline services in the NHS, we are committing to fund pay awards as part of a pay deal for NHS staff on the agenda for change contract, including nurses, midwives and paramedics.
We will make final decisions on funding at the appropriate time after listening to the pay review bodies who will, as is usual practice, consider written and oral evidence from a range of stakeholders, not just from the Government. They will look at issues such as recruitment, retention and affordability, and will then come back with a recommendation. We expect their reports in May next year.
Public sector pay packages will continue to recognise workers’ vital contributions, while also being affordable and fair to taxpayers as a whole.
Justice and Home Affairs Council
The EU Justice and Home Affairs Council of Ministers will meet on 7 and 8 December in Brussels. I will represent the UK for Interior day. The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, the right hon. David Lidington MP will represent the UK for Justice day.
Interior day, 7 December, will begin with an exchange of views on the interim report and recommendations of the High-level Expert Group on Radicalisation (HLEG-R), which was set up to consider how best to address radicalisation in EU member states. The non-EU Counter-Terrorism Group (CTG) will present to Council their assessment of the terrorist threat in the EU, and update on recent capability developments, including on work needed to improve co-operation with the law enforcement community. I will intervene positively in support of HLEG-R and CTG activities.
This will be followed by a discussion on co-operation between Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) operations and EU JHA agencies. This work aims to join up the activity of JHA agencies more effectively with EU security and defence missions in third countries. The Commission will identify lessons that can be learnt from existing co-operation, such as Operation Sophia (tackling migrant traffickers in the central Mediterranean) for other CSDP operations and JHA agencies. The UK supports improving co-operation in this area and I will endorse this workstream.
The Commission will update on the state of play on implementation of the directive on the use of passenger name record (PNR) data. The UK has the most developed capability for processing PNR data in Europe and will continue to offer advice and support to member states in the development of their own capabilities.
There will be a progress report on the technical discussions on improving interoperability of EU information systems, following the recommendations made by a high-level expert group in June. The Commission is also expected to set out the principles behind their forthcoming legislative proposal on this issue. The UK supports efforts to improve interoperability of EU information systems, but we will need to scrutinise the proposal when it is published.
This will be followed by a progress report from the presidency on negotiations on the reform of the common European asylum system. The UK has not opted in to the majority of these measures, and I am unlikely to intervene on this item.
The presidency will then seek a general approach on the proposed EU-LISA regulation. The Government have opted in to the draft regulation and have no concerns with the text, but as the proposals have not cleared parliamentary scrutiny, I will abstain on the vote in Council.
At a working lunch Ministers will debate the strengthening of the Schengen area which is likely to focus on improving Schengen border management through a variety of co-ordinated actions, including the proposed Schengen internal borders legislative package which was published in September. The UK does not participate in the Schengen border free zone and I will not intervene in this discussion.
In the afternoon, the presidency will provide an update on discussions exploring the implications of the Court of Justice of the European Union judgment in the TELE2 / Watson case from December 2016, and the circumstances in which member states can require the retention of communications data. The UK continues to play a leading role in these discussions. I will update the Council on the proposed UK approach reflecting the principles set out in our consultation, launched on 30 November, on new safeguards for the use of communications data.
In addition, there will be a policy debate on best practice in tackling encrypted data. The UK is supportive of work in this area and is keen to ensure that law enforcement can access the data they need to protect the public, but that any proposals do not weaken internet security or jeopardise existing good co-operation with service providers.
Finally the Council will receive updates on the third meeting of the central Mediterranean contact group which took place in Bern on 13 November 2017; the outcomes of the EU internet forum meeting on 6 December; and the presidency’s mid-term review of the JHA strategic guidelines. The incoming Bulgarian presidency will also give a presentation on their work programme and priorities.
Justice day, 8 December, will begin with the presidency seeking a general approach on the European criminal records information system (ECRIS) directive and the regulation regarding exchange of information on third country nationals (ECRIS-TCN). There appears to be broad agreement on the text prior to the JHA Council, which the Government can support, although as the proposals have not cleared parliamentary scrutiny, we will abstain on any vote in Council.
A second general approach will be sought on Justice day for the proposed regulation on mutual recognition of freezing and confiscation orders. While there is not yet agreement among member states on whether this should take the form of a regulation or a directive, we expect the presidency to seek a qualified majority on the basis of a regulation. The UK remains neutral on this question. This proposal has not yet cleared parliamentary scrutiny and so we will abstain should there be a vote.
There will be an update from the presidency to Ministers on progress on the EU on accession to the European convention human rights, following ECJ opinion 2/13 in December 2014. Although progress has been slow, the responsible working group in the Council has now held a first discussion on all but one of the issues raised by the Court’s opinion. The outstanding issue is the question of whether common foreign and security policy (CFSP) would fall within the jurisdiction of the ECtHR after accession; a paper on this is expected from the Commission. The presidency is expected to ask the Commission for an update on the timing of this paper, but no questions will be posed of Ministers.
The lunchtime discussion will be on preparations for the next e-justice strategy and action plan.
Justice day will resume with a policy debate on the recast Brussels IIa regulation. The presidency will be asking Ministers to confirm that the recast Brussels IIa regulation should abolish for all types of judgments the procedure by which judgments from one country are recognised for enforcement in another (known as exequatur) and that the method by which this is done should be considered further by the negotiations working group. The UK continues to support the abolition of exequatur subject to the inclusion of sufficient safeguards.
Finally, there will be a policy debate on the draft proposals for a directive on preventive restructuring, second chance and insolvency proceedings. The presidency has set out conclusions for agreement by Ministers on the future direction of work. The UK is generally supportive of these conclusions.