Thursday 14 December 2017
Victims of Sexual Offences: Protection in Court
The Government are committed to ensuring that victims are supported throughout the criminal justice system. This is particularly so for victims of sexual violence: a devastating and traumatic crime.
Sections 41 to 43 of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Act 1999 Act came into force in 2000 and provide critical protection for complainants in sex offence cases by tightly restricting the circumstances in which the defence can introduce evidence relating to the complainant’s sexual history.
There is a general prohibition on the use of sexual history evidence by the defence in sex offence trials. There are very limited circumstances in which the law allows such evidence to be introduced, but crucially section 41 prevents the use of sexual history by the defence to discredit the complainant. The defence must make an application to the court to introduce evidence or questions of a complainant’s sexual history, which is then decided upon by the judge in that case.
The Government want to be sure that the law is working as it should, and strikes the right balance between protecting complainants and ensuring the defendant's right to a fair trial. That is why we have undertaken a study to look at how the law in this area is working in practice.
Earlier this year, the then Lord Chancellor and I asked the Crown Prosecution Service to undertake an analysis of rape cases finalised in 2016 to determine the frequency and outcome of applications, under section 41.
This study looked at 309 such cases and found that in 92% of them—the overwhelming majority—no evidence of the complainant’s sexual history was introduced by the defence. Additionally, applications to introduce such evidence were only made in 13% of these cases. These findings strongly indicate that the law is working as it should, and strikes a careful balance between the need to protect complainants and ensuring that defendants receive a fair trial, consistent with the common law and Article 6 of the European convention on human rights.
Whilst this is reassuring, we want to do more to provide vulnerable victims—and the public at large—with complete confidence in our criminal justice system. The Government are committed to ensuring that victims are treated with dignity and fairness in court. We are therefore taking additional steps to ensure the law continues to function effectively. These steps include the launch of new mandatory CPS prosecutor training and updated legal guidance; discussing with representatives of the Bar and solicitors the opportunity to improve training for criminal practitioners on section 41; a review by the Criminal Procedure Rule Committee of their rules in this area; and improved data collection.
Throughout this study we have listened to the views of victims’ groups and stakeholders, and engaged with them on raising awareness of section 41 and ensuring its effective operation. We will continue to engage with them on this issue.
Further details of the study are set out in a report that accompanies this statement. The measures we are taking are in addition to our wider work to support victims and witnesses in sexual offences cases. This wider work includes the roll-out of pre-recorded cross-examination for vulnerable witnesses in sexual offence cases, the introduction of new guidance for independent sexual violence advisers, and our commitment to publish a victims’ strategy in early 2018. The Government have also committed to publish a draft Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill and provide an additional £20 million to provide support to victims and to organisations combating domestic abuse.
Copies of the report have been laid before both Houses and the full report is available here:
Government Accountability and Transparency
Since 2010, the Government have been at the forefront of opening up data to allow Parliament, the public and the media to hold public bodies to account. Such online transparency is crucial accountability for delivering the best value for money, to cutting waste and inefficiency, and to ensuring every pound of taxpayers’ money is spent in the best possible way. Indeed, such data has allowed those working within central and local government to identify savings and stop excessive spending they did not otherwise know about.
The sunlight of transparency also acts in itself as an important check and balance, and helps ensure the highest standards of public life amongst elected representatives and officials. Alongside this, open data has great potential to deliver better public services through innovative uses of digital and mobile technology.
This moves away from more bureaucratic processes under previous Administrations, such as Public Service Agreements, Departmental Strategic Objectives and Comprehensive Performance Assessments, which were time consuming for public servants and opaque to the outside world.
Open data and transparency
Today a new webpage will go live on gov.uk that will, for the first time, bring together in one place a comprehensive list of the core transparency data published by all Government Departments, alongside details on how that data is prepared.
We have published new guidelines that clarify not only what core transparency data will be published by central Government and how frequently; but also how we will ensure it is available in the most usable format and is easy to find.
This new landing page and publication guidance will help people find and navigate the information they need more easily and reaffirms our commitment to continue to drive forward the transparency agenda.
This guidance represents the minimum requirements which are common to all central Government Departments: many Departments can and do go further.
Single Departmental plans
We are also publishing today a refreshed set of single Departmental plans across Government. These set out each Government Department’s objectives and how they will achieve them. Taken together, they show how departments are working to deliver the Government’s programme.
Single Departmental plans are important tools for transparency and accountability. They allow the public to track the Government’s progress and performance against a number of indicators. They also indicate which Ministers and senior officials are responsible for delivering each objective.
Under the terms of the Ministerial Code, Ministers must ensure that no conflict arises or could reasonably be perceived to arise between their Ministerial position and their private interests.
Today we are publishing an updated list of Ministers’ interests which captures those interests relevant to Ministers’ responsibilities; it should be read alongside the two Parliamentary registers.
We are also publishing an update report on “the handling of Ministers’ interest” from Sir Alex Allan, the Prime Minister’s independent adviser on Ministers’ interests, alongside an updated list of Ministerial responsibilities and the regular quarterly disclosure of Ministers’ gifts, hospitality, overseas travel and meetings with external organisations.
The Government are also publishing agendas and the meeting notes of the first two meetings of the Co-ordination Committee between the Government and the DUP, as well as the terms of reference.
Diversity in public appointments
The Cabinet Office is also today publishing an action plan for improving the diversity of public appointments. Getting the balance right when making public appointments is a key part of ensuring we have public services which understand and respond to the needs of the population they serve.
In 2013, Government set an aspiration that 50% of new public appointments made each year should go to women. Good progress has been made—49% new appointments made in 2016-17 went to women.
However, up until now we have had very little data on the make-up of existing bodies. This report sets out the record of each department, and the steps we are taking to ensure public bodies accurately reflect the diversity of 21st Century Britain with a new strategy and new aspirations for increasing diversity in public appointments.
Transparency of senior officials and special advisers
Special advisers are a critical part of the team supporting Ministers. They add a political dimension to the advice and assistance available to Ministers while reinforcing the impartiality of the permanent Civil Service by distinguishing the source of political advice and support. The Cabinet Office are today publishing the annual list of special advisers and their cost.
Special advisers are temporary civil servants. They represent 0.05% of the Civil Service pay bill. There are 88 special advisers across the whole of Government; the total Civil Service has 423,000 civil servants.
Departments are also publishing routine quarterly data on gifts and hospitality, received by special advisers, as well as information on meetings with senior media figures.
Alongside quarterly data on the travel and expenses of senior officials, the Government are also publishing today the transparency returns on senior public sector pay, as well as updated guidance on the controls for remuneration of senior civil servants and ministerial appointments to public bodies.
The Government will also shortly be publishing new figures on gender pay differentials across the Civil Service.
Copies of the associate documents are being placed in the Library of the House and will be published on gov.uk.
Communities and Local Government
Today marks six months since the Grenfell Tower tragedy and I am sure I speak for the whole House when I say our thoughts very much remain with those affected.
A national memorial service will take place at St Paul’s Cathedral today to mark this, which the Prime Minister, ministerial colleagues and I will attend. This will provide the opportunity for us to remember those who tragically lost their lives and I hope offer some comfort to the bereaved and survivors. I am determined those who lost their lives, their families and friends, the survivors and the community will not be forgotten and are supported in getting the help they need and deserve.
On 11 December I wrote to all colleagues with an update on some of the work being undertaken to support those affected and I plan, with Mr Speaker’s permission, to make an oral statement to the House before recess.
Above all, I am determined that the lessons of the Grenfell fire are learnt and never forgotten so that a tragedy like this can never, ever happen again.
Grant-in-kind: Jordanian Armed Forces
I have today laid before the House a Departmental Minute describing a package of equipment that the UK intends to provide to the Jordanian Armed Forces. The value of the package is estimated at £2,562,500.
The provision of equipment will be treated as a grant-in-kind. Following correspondence from the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee in 2016, Departments which previously treated these payments as gifts have undertaken to notify the House of Commons of any such grant-in-kind of a value exceeding £300,000 and explaining the circumstances; and to refrain from making the grant until 14 parliamentary sitting days after the issue of the Minute, except in cases of special urgency.
The grant-in-kind in this case comprises vehicles, furniture and IT equipment, generators and a range of personal-issue items. The granting of this equipment will support the Jordanian Defence & Borders programme and is fundamental to the aims of the Government strategy for Jordan. Delivery of targeted areas of equipment support is an integral part of the approach in order to assist Jordan in developing the capability to protect its borders. The activity is in support of the National Security Council objectives and is funded through the conflict, security and stability fund administered by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Department for International Development and the Ministry of Defence.
Subject to completion of the Departmental Minute process, the equipment is expected to be delivered in early 2018.
Single Source Procurement Legislation
Section 37 of the Defence Reform Act (2014) requires me to carry out a review of the single source procurement legislation (the DRA and the Single Source Contract Regulations 2014) within three years of it coming into force on 18 December 2014. In meeting this obligation, I would like to express my appreciation for the work and support provided by the Single Source Regulations Office (SSRO) which undertook an extensive consultation process with stakeholders from mid-2016 onwards. I have had regard to the recommendations on changes to the legislation provided by the SSRO in June 2017.
Following further engagement with the SSRO and industry, my review of the legislation has now been completed. It identified a number of areas where changes to the legislation could improve the operation of the regime. Further work will now be needed on the detail of how these could be implemented. In particular, we will need to assure ourselves that the changes result in the intended benefits without imposing unnecessary additional burdens on the Ministry of Defence or suppliers, and that the benefits justify the use of Parliament’s time. I will make a further statement on this in early 2018.
Air Cadet Aerospace Offer
A review of gliding and developments within the Royal Air Force (RAF) Air Cadets suggests that a revised Air Cadet Aerospace Offer is overdue. The RAF Air Cadets, in 2017 and beyond, are offering more comprehensive training opportunities to complement cadet gliding and flying that, in light of the broader use of digital technologies, ensure the Air Cadet Offer is looking to the future.
The RAF Air Cadets continue to offer a wide range of excellent activities and opportunities to young people to broaden their experience, improve their confidence and equip them with the skills to succeed, both professionally and personally. Previously, the “Air” in Air Cadet has largely been associated with gliding, flying scholarship and air experience activity. In 2017—and as we look to the future—this places insufficient recognition on broader aviation activities offered alongside flying, with cadets being trained in a number of associated aerospace subjects, which offer the possibility of achieving recognised qualifications or contributing to a CV. In line with wider RAF transformation, we are also considering further cadet learning in emerging areas and technologies such as:
Space—with potential linkages to the National Space Centre; and
Through links to the RAF 100 legacy “Trenchard Group”, which seeks to transform our training and education offer: airspace control, artificial intelligence and augmented reality.
We are modernising to provide wider aerospace and Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) experience and qualifications that benefit both cadets and industry in emerging aerospace technology areas. Furthermore there is industry interest in providing aerospace experience shown through linkages with cadets at the Royal International Air Tattoo and Syerston Aerospace camps.
The current generation of cadets and volunteer staff view this positively. It follows that gliding will, in future, be just one part of a useful array of qualifications and experience available to cadets in the aerospace field.
To broaden cadets’ perspectives, a National Aerospace Camp took place in August 2017, following the success of the two previous camps in 2015 and 2016. This brought together over 200 cadets from every corner of the United Kingdom to provide a tailored training programme, focusing on aerospace, aviation, engineering and flying. Alongside many visits to specialist and unique MOD, RAF and aviation establishments; cadets were involved in training in remote-control helicopter flying, radio, synthetic simulator training and air traffic control.
The RAF Air Cadets are in collaboration with the Aviation Skills Partnership, to provide pathways into the aerospace sector. A national hub will be created for the RAF Air Cadets and their adult volunteers, as part of the RAF100 legacy, to engage with modern learning, upskilling, accreditation and development through aerospace subjects. The Aaron Aerospace Academy will be built at RAF Syerston and is intended to form part of a national network of aerospace academies, in the coming years, with state of the art facilities.
Throughout the financial year 2016/17 a total of 17,600 cadets had powered flying experiences in the Grob Tutor, with additional opportunities expected as part of a new Air Experience Flight based in Northern Ireland. A further 2,000 have flown in front-line aircraft during training sorties. Tutor flying is now better integrated as part of the wider training programme as, since the gliding relaunch, the utilisation of Part Task Trainer (PTT) simulators has been realigned, with simulated gliding training a pre-cursor to both gliding and Tutor powered flying qualifications. Each Volunteer Gliding School (VGS) now incorporates at least one PTT and, in addition, five Aerospace Ground Schools equipped with PTTs have been established in locations where full VGS’ were previously closed.
Glider recovery rates are now steady and predictable, allowing a total of nearly 3,000 glider sorties to be conducted since recovery of the fleet began. 22 Viking gliders have been recovered so far and gliders have been assigned to Syerston, Little Rissington, Upavon and Tern Hill. Current plans are that up to 15 Vigilant gliders will be delivered, of which six have been recovered so far, with two having been assigned to Topcliffe and the remainder operating at Syerston.
These VGS units are now starting to offer wings courses, as they did prior to the pause in flying. More VGS will be regenerated in the coming months.
The review identified that a smaller fleet can be effectively used to potentially improve availability and extend the service life of the gliders. Accordingly, the recovery plans, focusing on contractor capacity and value for money, will now deliver up to 60 Viking gliders, rather than the 73 previously anticipated. As such the revised numbers will deliver the required output-that of giving Air Cadets the opportunity of gaining gliding experience as part of the wider aerospace offer—and will not impact the number of VGS squadrons agreed in March 2016, or the size of the Volunteer Instructor cadre required to support it.
A modern Air Cadet Aerospace Offer should focus on achieving an appropriate balance of gliding, flying, simulation, STEM and front line air experience, making best use of the assets that the RAF have to offer, whilst also looking to the future. The RAF remains extremely grateful for the hard work, time and energy of the volunteers that support the Air Cadets in driving forward this transformation of the Air Cadet Aerospace Offer.
Schools and Colleges: Advice and Guidance
Today the Government are launching a public consultation on proposed changes to its Keeping Children Safe in Education (KCSIE) statutory guidance. All schools and colleges in England must have regard to this guidance when carrying out their duties to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.
KCSIE sets out the legal duties that schools and colleges must comply with, together with good practice guidance on what schools and colleges should do in order to keep children safe. The guidance is extensive, covering what staff should know and do to safeguard children, the management of safeguarding in schools and colleges, safer recruitment and responding to allegations of abuse against staff.
It is important that this guidance is regularly updated to reflect current concerns and best practice. KCSIE was last updated in September 2016 and the time is right to update this guidance again. The consultation document explains a number of proposed changes to KCSIE. The aim is to help schools and colleges better understand what they are required to do by law and what we strongly advise they should do in order to safeguard and promote the welfare of children.
The consultation will last for 10 weeks, closing on 22 February 2018. Following the public consultation, we expect to publish revised guidance, for information, early in the summer term 2018 and for this to come into force in September 2018, at the start of the new school year.
The proposed changes include providing further guidance on sexual violence and sexual harassment between children in schools and colleges. As well as consulting on these changes the Government are also today publishing a more detailed Departmental advice on this issue.
Children and young people must be protected from sexual violence and sexual harassment, and schools and colleges are under a legal duty to safeguard their pupils.
The detailed advice we have published today should help schools and colleges take swift and proportionate action to keep children safe and support victims of abuse.
The advice sets out what sexual violence and sexual harassment look like, the legal responsibilities of schools and colleges and effective safeguarding practice and principles to support schools and colleges in their decision making process when there is a report of sexual violence or sexual harassment.
The issue of sexual violence and sexual harassment in schools was the subject of an inquiry by the Women and Equalities Committee. As part of its response to the Committee’s recommendations, the Department for Education set up an advisory group to review existing Departmental guidance, including KCSIE and behaviour and bullying guidance. The Department has worked with the advisory group and other expert stakeholders to draft the advice document and is grateful to them for their contributions.
The consultation document, containing full details of the proposals and inviting responses and the Departmental advice can be accessed via gov.uk. Copies of the consultation document and Departmental advice will also be placed in the House Libraries.
Social Mobility: Education
Today, 14 December 2017,I am publishing “Unlocking Talent; Fulfilling Potential: A plan for improving social mobility through education”.
This is an ambitious plan to put social mobility at the heart of education policy, helping to make Britain fit for the future. It sits alongside the work of other Departments, and brings together a coherent, concerted approach to begin to level up opportunity right across the education system.
Our education reforms are raising standards in schools: compared to 2010 there are now 1.9 million more pupils in good and outstanding schools. Our introduction of a central focus on phonics is transforming literacy rates for young children. There are record numbers of young people in education or training and more disadvantaged young people going to university.
But, in our country today, where you start still all too often determines where you finish. And while talent is spread evenly across the country, opportunity is not. If we are to make this a country that truly works for everyone, there is much more to be done to deliver equality of opportunity for every child, regardless of who they are or where they live.
We are under no illusion that this will be easy. Nor that education can do it alone. But it does play a vital role—equality of opportunity starts with education.
This plan will deliver action targeted towards the people and the places where it is needed most through five key ambitions. Firstly, there is an overarching ambition to provide additional support to parts of the country that need it to ensure no community is “left behind”. Then there are four life stage ambitions:
Ambition 1: Close the word gap in the early years: children with strong foundations start school in a position to progress, but too many children fall behind early. We need to tackle development gaps, especially key early language and literacy skills, including by boosting investment in English hubs and professional development for early years professionals.
Ambition 2: Close the attainment gap in school while continuing to raise standards for all: the attainment gap between disadvantaged children and their more affluent peers is closing. But these pupils still remain behind their peers. We will build on recent reforms, and raise standards in the areas that need it most. This will include more support for teachers early in their careers, providing clear pathways to progression, and getting more great teachers in areas where there remain significant challenges.
Ambition 3: High-quality post-16 education choices for all young people: we have more people going to university than ever before, including more disadvantaged young people, but we need to expand access further to the best universities. We are delivering a skills revolution including working with business to make technical education world class, backed by an extra £500 million investment at the March 2017 Budget.
Ambition 4: Everyone achieving their full potential in rewarding careers: employment has grown, but we need to improve access for young people from lower-income backgrounds to networks of advice, information and experiences of work through a new type of partnership with businesses and employers. We will also support adults to retrain/upskill.
To achieve these ambitions, we are shifting the way we work. We are focusing on what works: putting evidence at the heart of our approach, embedding and extending successful reforms, and spreading best practice.
We are also shifting focus on building lasting success through partnership: asking employers, education professionals, voluntary groups and many others to step up and join a united effort across the country to put social mobility at the heart of their work too.
Improving opportunity for the next generation of young people is one of the great challenges of our time; everyone must play their part. But the prize is huge: a country in which talent and potential are what matters more. A country where everyone can be at their best.
The plan will be published on the Department for Education’s website and copies will also be placed in the House Libraries.
Unlocking Talent; Fulfilling Potential (Social Mobility Action Plan.pdf) plan can be viewed online at:
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Overseas Territories Joint Ministerial Council
My hon. Friend the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Lord Ahmad of Wimbledon) has made the following written statement:
On Tuesday 28 and Wednesday 29 November, I chaired the sixth meeting of the Overseas Territories Joint Ministerial Council in London. The council was attended by elected leaders and representatives from Anguilla, Ascension Island, Bermuda, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Montserrat, Pitcairn, St Helena, the Sovereign Base Areas of Akrotiri and Dhekelia, Tristan da Cunha and the Turks and Caicos Islands.
The key themes discussed at this year’s Council included post-hurricane reconstruction and recovery in the overseas territories; environment and climate change; the implications for the overseas territories of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union; developing tangible change for the overseas territories and their citizens; anti-corruption, beneficial ownership and tax transparency; governance, human rights and child safeguarding; and health. Ministerial colleagues from the Departments for International Development, Exiting the European Union, Health, Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and Her Majesty’s Treasury attended the discussions. Territory leaders also met the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for International Development. I held bilateral meetings with Territory leaders. The Minister of State for Europe and the Americas (The right hon. Sir Alan Duncan MP) met Members of the Falklands Islands Legislative Assembly.
The Council agreed a communiqué which identified priorities and set out a number of important commitments and areas for joint work in the year ahead. On the important subject of disaster recovery, the UK reiterated its commitment to work in partnership with the Governments of the territories affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria. We welcomed the additional £15 million of UK support for early recovery in addition to the £62 million investment in relief so far; and the Prime Minister’s announcement on 28 November of a further £70 million in grants and up to £300 million of loan guarantees to support long-term reconstruction in the worst-affected territories. We discussed the private sector’s important role in driving economic recovery, and the need for the overseas territories to have disaster preparedness policies in place that are fit for purpose.
We continued our dialogue on the implications for the overseas territories of Brexit, and reiterated our objective to achieve a deal in the negotiations that works for all parts of the UK family. We will seek to ensure the security and economic sustainability of the overseas territories is preserved and, where possible, strengthened post Brexit. We welcomed the progress made by those overseas territories with financial centres to implement the bilateral arrangements for law enforcement exchange of beneficial ownership information, and committed to review the effectiveness of the first six months of their operation. We also welcomed the overseas territories’ co-operation in international efforts to promote tax transparency and tackle financial crime, as well as their constructive engagement with the EU Code of Conduct Group and the Global Forum for Asset Recovery. We reiterated our commitment to show leadership in tackling corruption.
The communiqué reflects the commitment of the Governments of the overseas territories and the UK to continue to work in partnership to achieve the vision set out in the June 2012 White Paper: The Overseas Territories: Security, Success and Sustainability.
In line with our commitment in the White Paper, we will continue to report to Parliament on progress by Government Departments in implementing the commitments in the communique.
A copy of the communiqué has been published on the GOV.UK website.
I have arranged for the communiqué to be placed in the House Library.
The Joint Ministerial Council 2017 Communique can be viewed online at:
Health and Care Workforce Strategy
I wish to update Parliament that on 13 December 2017, Health Education England published the consultation “Facing the Facts, Shaping the Future”, a draft health and care workforce strategy for England to 2027.
This draft strategy is for consultation with stakeholders and the public more widely and is the product of the whole national health system, including NHS England, NHS Improvement and Public Health England.
It announces system-wide reviews to assess the impact of technological changes on clinical professionals and on how best to support the informal workforce—made up of family, friends, carers and patients themselves—in the future.
Further information on the consultation and how to participate can be found at: https://www.hee.nhs.uk/our-work/planning-commissioning/workforce-strategy .
A copy of the draft strategy can be found at:
Justice and Home Affairs Council
The EU Justice and Home Affairs Council of Ministers met on 7 and 8 December in Brussels. I represented the UK for Interior Day. The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, represented the UK for Justice Day.
On Interior Day (7 December) a General Approach was agreed on the proposed EU-LISA regulation. The Government have opted into the draft regulation and is content with the text. I abstained on the vote due to a Parliamentary Scrutiny Reserve.
The next item was a progress report on improving interoperability of EU information systems, following the recommendations made by a High-Level Expert Group in June. The Commission previewed legislation to be proposed next week, which will include the creation of a single “hit-no-hit” search interface. In general terms, the UK supports efforts to improve interoperability of EU systems, but we will scrutinise these proposals in further detail when they are released.
Ministers then exchanged views on the interim report and recommendations of the High-Level Expert Group On Radicalisation (HLEG-R). I intervened to share UK learning following the 2017 attacks, including the importance of working with local communities as highlighted in the newly published Anderson report. I voiced support for proposed new Commission structures, suggesting benefit in a research function and an EU wide strategic communications network.
The non-EU Counter Terrorism Group (CTG) followed with a presentation to the council, in which they covered their assessment of the terrorism threat in the EU, and set out in further detail their plans for future counter terrorism co-operation including with Europol. I intervened to support the ongoing CTG activities in this space.
This was followed by a discussion on co-operation between Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) operations and EU JHA agencies. This centred around lessons to be learned from existing co-operation between JHA agencies and EU security and defence missions in third countries, with Operation Sophia (tackling migrant traffickers in the Central Mediterranean) the focus. Work is continuing to implement the lessons learned and improve co-operation.
The Commission then gave an update on the state of play on transposition and implementation of the Directive on the use of Passenger Name Record (PNR) data. The Commission noted that not all member states were on track to meet the implementation deadline. The UK has the most developed capacity for processing PNR data in Europe and will continue to offer advice and support to member states in the development of their own capabilities.
This was followed by a short presentation from the Bulgarian delegation on the work programme for their upcoming presidency. The overarching aim of their presidency is to preserve unity and solidarity within the EU, noting that they will prioritise security-related issues, especially those relating to data, during their presidency.
The presidency then gave a progress update on negotiations of legislative proposals on the reform of the Common European Asylum System. The Commission noted their ambition to adopt EU Asylum Agency and Eurodac legislation by March 2018.
The working lunch discussed strengthening of the Schengen area. Ministers had a detailed discussion on how to improve Schengen border management, including through the proposed Schengen borders legislative package. The UK does not participate in the Schengen border free zone and I did not intervene in this discussion.
Following lunch, the presidency presented views on restricted data retention and targeted data access. The discussion focused on the need for a common approach, whilst taking account of the importance of data retention to law enforcement agencies. I intervened to update the council on the principles of the UK response to the Court of Justice of the European Union judgment in the TELE2 / Watson case from December 2016, as set out in our consultation, launched on 30 November, on new safeguards for the use of communications data.
The Commission also provided an update on its proposals for technical measures to help law enforcement address issues related to encrypted data, which was followed by a short discussion on best practice in this area. I intervened to encourage closer engagement with service providers, and the need to press industry to find technical solutions.
Interior day ended with the council receiving updates on the outcomes of the EU Internet Forum meeting on 6 December, and the presidency’s review of the JHA strategic guidelines. The Swiss delegation also gave an update on the third meeting of the central Mediterranean Group, which took place in Bern on 13 November.
Justice day (8 December) began with agreement by Ministers to 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). During a discussion on fingerprint thresholds, the Secretary of State for Justice intervened to indicate that the UK can accept the position reached, but also to express regret that the agreed text was not more ambitious, supporting the review clause in the text. While the UK can support the General Approach, as the proposals had not cleared Parliamentary Scrutiny, Secretary of State for Justice abstained on the vote.
A General Approach was then also agreed on the proposed Regulation on mutual recognition of freezing and confiscation orders. Despite some disagreement between member states on whether this should take the form of a Regulation or a Directive, this was passed by a qualified majority. The proposal had not cleared Parliamentary Scrutiny.
This was followed by a discussion on the recast of the Brussels lla Regulation, in which Ministers agreed to abolish exequatur for all decision in matters of parental responsibility, whilst retaining sufficient safeguards to ensure the best interests of the child and the right of defence were preserved. The Secretary of State for Justice highlighted the benefits for citizens and families that the change would bring in reducing time, cost and complexity for those in often difficult personal circumstances.
At lunch, there was a discussion about the next e-Justice Strategy and Action Plan.
The presidency then introduced a paper on the insolvency, restructuring and second chance Directive, setting out political guidelines on three issues; there was broad support for an optional viability test and general support for a mechanism to govern creditor voting rights. Member states were largely split on a proposed three year discharge period. The UK emphasised the potential benefit here for European economies and supported all three guidelines.
The Commission set out that it would continue to work towards an agreement for the EU to accede to the European Court of human rights, taking into account the concerns of the Court of Justice of the European Union, which had found the previous draft accession agreement contrary to the EU Treaties. The Commission gave no indication of a likely timescale, and noted that the issues raised by the Court were politically and legally complex to resolve.
Work and Pensions
Employment and Support Allowance
In 2013, the Department was made aware of individual cases which were transferred in error to contributory ESA, rather than to income-related ESA, and therefore which may have had an unidentified entitlement to additional premiums, such as the enhanced disability premium. These premiums are only payable to those on income-related benefits. From 2014 additional guidance was put in place to ensure all claims transitioning from that point forward were more fully assessed for both contributory and income-related benefits, and therefore the relevant premiums paid.
At the time officials did not identify the need to explore the potential impact of the earlier error. This was reconsidered in the light of analysis following the preliminary fraud and error statistics published in May 2016. In February 2017, Ministers were first informed of the results of this analysis and a sampling exercise began in preparation for a full repayment process. The Department has already started contacting individuals to establish if there has been an underpayment of premiums. A small number of claims have already been corrected and the appropriate arrears have been paid.
As a result of the sampling exercise, the Department estimates that around 75,000 claimants may have been underpaid. This amounts to about 5% of those people who transferred over from incapacity benefits, or around 3% of the current ESA caseload.
We realise how important it is to get this matter fixed. The Department has established a special team to begin contacting all individuals whom we believe may be affected. There is therefore no need for individuals to independently contact the Department on this matter. Once an individual is contacted and subject to establishing the relevant information, we expect to make a decision on each case and repay the appropriate arrears within 12 weeks. The Department expect to complete the review and correct cases during the course of 2018/19.
This relates to a specific group that transferred to contributory ESA between 2011 and 2014, for which applicable underpayments will now be corrected and paid. Arrears are payable to those who qualify from 21 October 2014 following an upper tier tribunal ruling in the case of LH v. SSWP on that date. Under section 27 of the Social Security Act 1998, when a tribunal establishes the meaning of a legislative provision, payments of arrears which pre-date the tribunal ruling are barred.
The Department is reviewing its processes to ensure any lessons are learnt and that this error is avoided in the future.