Thursday 8 March 2018
Exiting the European Union
General Affairs Council
I represented the UK at the General Affairs Council in Brussels on Tuesday 27 February. The items on the agenda were: presentation of the priorities of the Bulgarian presidency; annotated draft agenda for the European Council on 22 and 23 March 2018; and rule of law in Poland I article 7(1) treaty on European Union (TEU) reasoned proposal.
A provisional report of the meeting and the conclusions adopted can be found on the Council of the European Union’s website at:
Presentation of the priorities of the Bulgarian presidency
The presidency set out the four priorities for its tenure: the future of Europe and young people; security and stability; the western Balkans; and the digital economy.
Annotated draft agenda for the European Council on 22 and 23 March 2018
The presidency presented the annotated draft agenda for March European Council, which includes: jobs, growth and competitiveness (and possibly trade); and the western Balkans. Leaders would also discuss migration and digital taxation.
On the jobs, growth and competitiveness agenda item, the Council welcomed a discussion on the single market, digital single market and social issues. I intervened to call for any tax discussion to focus on digital taxation, reflecting progress at international level. I also highlighted the UK’s publication of a position paper on corporate tax and the digital economy last autumn.
Under the western Balkans agenda item, Ministers welcomed the adoption of procedural conclusions on the EU-Western Balkans summit in May. I intervened to welcome the focus on the western Balkans region. I highlighted the UK’s close co-operation with the presidency and the Commission ahead of the Berlin Process Western Balkans summit in London in July, which will seek to deliver on regional priorities identified at the May summit.
On migration, the Commission highlighted the need to reach agreement on internal asylum reform.
Rule of law in Poland/article 7(1) TEU reasoned proposal
The Commission presented its reasoned proposal under article 7(1) TEU, concerning the rule of law in Poland. The Commission referred to the improved levels of dialogue with Poland but emphasised that it wanted to see action taken to address its concerns. Poland acknowledged the improved dialogue and stated that its forthcoming paper on this issue would place its judicial reforms into their wider systemic context.
I intervened to emphasise the importance the UK places on the rule of law and judicial independence, and that the UK expects its partners to respect international norms. I affirmed the UK’s view that responsibility for constitutional issues lies primarily with national Governments and welcomed the improved dialogue between the Commission and Poland. I highlighted that a solution is most likely to be found in this dialogue leading to a common understanding on how to resolve the issue in a way which aligns with international norms.
The Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Justice and I are today launching a consultation which seeks to address domestic abuse at every stage from prevention through to rehabilitation.
Domestic abuse is an inexcusable and devastating form of abuse that can have a lifelong impact on its victims and their families. There are approximately two million reported victims every year, and domestic abuse accounts for over 10% of all police recorded crime and nearly 20% of all police charges.
This Government have taken strong action to tackle domestic abuse. We are the first country to criminalise coercive and controlling behaviour, and we have introduced domestic violence protection orders and the domestic violence disclosure scheme. We have made legislative changes to legal aid to make it more accessible. Last year we also amended electoral law to make it easier for survivors of domestic abuse to register to vote, while keeping their name and address private.
In addition this year we have introduced a Secure Tenancies (Victims of Domestic Abuse) Bill that will maintain the status of survivors living in social housing with an existing lifetime tenancy when they move to a new social property. We have provided £20 million for accommodation-based services such as refuges, which is already providing 2,200 additional beds in refuges and safe accommodation benefiting 19,000 victims. The best available data shows bed spaces have increased by 10% since 2010 and we are committed to supporting refuges and providing stable funding in the future.
We are reviewing the way in which refuges and supported housing are delivered and have heard the concerns about how our proposals will work in practice. We are working with all the charities and organisations working on the frontline, asking them to come forward with their ideas on how best to deliver this. That process is ongoing—and we have been clear no options are off the table as we work with them to ensure women requiring support in their time of need are not let down.
However we know there is more to do and that is why this Government are committed to transforming how we think about and tackle domestic abuse. We want victims to feel supported so that they can seek help and to rebuild their lives, safe in the knowledge that their perpetrator will be pursued and prosecuted.
The consultation seeks views under the four main themes set out below with the central aim of prevention running through each.
Promote awareness—proposals to help put domestic abuse at the top of everyone’s agenda, and raise public and professionals’ awareness.
Protect and support—proposals to enhance the safety of victims and the support that they receive.
Pursue and deter—proposals to ensure an effective response to perpetrators from initial police response through to conviction and management of offenders (including rehabilitation).
Improve performance—proposals to drive consistency and better performance in the response to domestic abuse across all local areas and agencies/sectors.
The Government welcome responses from victims and survivors, charities, specialist organisations, experts and professionals across policing, criminal justice, health, welfare, education, social services, employment and local authorities who deal with these issues on a daily basis.
We are seeking a combination of legislative and non-legislative solutions for delivering the proposals set out in the consultation. Where primary legislation is required, the responses to the consultation will inform the content of the draft Domestic Abuse Bill announced in the Queen’s speech.
The consultation will run for 12 weeks to 31 May.
A copy of the consultation paper will be placed in the Library of the House and will be available online at www.gov.uk.
National Crime Agency Remuneration Review Body
The National Crime Agency (NCA) Remuneration Review Body has made recommendations on pay and allowances for NCA officers designated with operational powers, and observations on the NCA’s proposals to reform pay arrangements. I would like to thank the chair and members of the review body for their careful consideration of the evidence from the NCA, the Home Office, HMT and the trade unions.
The Government are committed to the delivery of world-class public services, and ensuring that public sector workers are fairly remunerated for the vitally important work that they do. That is why we ended the across-the-board 1% pay award policy for public sector workforces in September 2017. We recognised that some flexibility would be required in certain areas.
Each workforce is different and pay awards should therefore reflect the particular circumstances faced by those public workers and their recruitment and retention levels. It is also vital that our world-class public services continue modernising to maximise the contribution of our public servants, so they can continue to do their incredible work, improving our lives and keeping us safe.
Previous review body reports highlighted the need for reform to NCA pay arrangements and I welcome the review body’s support for the NCA’s proposed changes as an important step in that direction. There are two main elements to the pay reform: officers in two grades performing intelligence and investigator roles can opt into a new spot rate pay structure; and for the remaining workforce existing pay bands are being compressed. These changes are highly targeted, focusing on roles where there is evidence that pay has fallen significantly behind the market rate, and critical to the agency’s ability to improve productivity and transform to meet the rapidly evolving threat from serious and organised crime. This targeted pay reform will support the NCA’s ability to recruit and retain highly skilled staff to continue to fulfil their vital role.
To support implementation of these changes, the 2017-18 award will be backdated to 1 August 2017 and the 2018-19 award implemented on 1 August 2018. The award is as follows:
A varied award for staff in two targeted operational grades choosing to opt into the new pay structure and move onto new terms and conditions, including an increase in contracted hours;
A minimum 1% award for all officers not eligible for the new pay structure and not already receiving the pay range maximum for their grade;
A 1% award made up of consolidated and non-consolidated elements for officers not eligible for the new pay structure and already in receipt of the maximum for their grade or reaching it;
A 1% increase to the London weighting payment in 2017-18. 2018-19 will be determined following a formal review of the allowance.
These awards will be fully funded within the NCA’s existing budget. The small number of officers electing to remain on the terms and conditions of pre-cursor organisations will remain on their 2016-17 pay rates.
Copies of the NCA Remuneration Review Body’s report are available in the Vote Office and at gov.uk.
During the course of the past 13 months, in the absence of an Executive and Assembly in Northern Ireland, the UK Government have worked tirelessly to facilitate the restoration of devolved Government. It had been my firm hope that a new Executive would be in place to set a budget. That will now not be possible in time for plans to be put in place for the forthcoming financial year.
Yet there are acute pressures across public services to be addressed in 2018-19. And clarity is required now to enable planning to proceed for the year ahead. It is now imperative, therefore, that the UK Government provide clarity and certainty around Northern Ireland finances for 2018-19.
2018-19 Budget allocations
I set out below the resource and capital allocations which I consider to be the most balanced and appropriate settlement for Northern Ireland Departments. It would be open to a restored Executive, of course, to consider and revise the position I have set out.
In deciding on these allocations I have engaged intensively with the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NICS) to understand the needs of Departments as they continue to work to deliver the draft programme for Government. I have reflected too on the response to the budget briefing published by the NICS before Christmas, and discussed the budget situation with the main parties in Northern Ireland.
In the absence of local Ministers, and given the proximity of the next financial year, it would not be appropriate for the UK Government to seek to take fundamental decisions about service delivery and transformation at this time. Yet we must act to secure public services and enable NI departments to meet urgent pressures in health and education. That is what this budget settlement will do, by protecting and preserving public services within challenging fiscal constraints.
On the resource side, it delivers real-terms increases for health and education from their 2017-18 opening baseline. It also delivers cash terms increases for the Departments of Justice; Infrastructure; and Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs. Elsewhere, Departments would either be cash-flat or see small decreases, with notable reductions only for the two central Departments (Finance and the Executive Office). For capital, it provides a strong basis for investment and enables key flagship projects to progress.
Confidence and Supply funding
This settlement also delivers £410 million in financial support arising from the financial annex to the confidence and supply agreement between the Conservative Party and the Democratic Unionist Party.
This includes £80 million in support for immediate health and education pressures; £30 million to support programmes to address issues of mental health and severe deprivation; £100 million for ongoing work to transform the health service in line with the broad-based consensus fostered by the Bengoa report; and a £200 million boost in capital spending for key infrastructure projects. Furthermore, in recognition of the lack of opportunity for more fundamental service reconfiguration over the last 12 months, this Budget position allows for £100 million in flexibility to enable existing capital funding to be used to address public services resource pressures in 2018-19. This additional funding will be transferred in due course only with Parliament’s full authorisation, in line with the long-established estimates process.
But, as the NICS budget briefing made clear, transformation is needed in a number of areas to make services sustainable in the long term. The urgent work to prepare for this must proceed. To that end, the budget includes a £4 million fund to prepare the ground for transformation, alongside the £100 million set out for health transformation above. I also recognise that this budget only allocates resources for 2018-19 and the NI Departments will need urgently to plan for future years. In that context, it is right that the NICS should continue to take forward preparatory work which could assist with balancing the budget in 2019-20. This will ensure that options are kept open for a restored Executive to consider as part of future budget processes.
As part of setting a budget, it is essential that the UK Government provide clarity on the regional rate. This budget position has been constructed on the basis of an increase in the domestic regional rate of 4.5%. I consider that this is a necessary and important step to continue to support public services, particularly in health and education. The non-domestic rates would rise only at 1.5%, in line with inflation. Conscious of the interest of many stakeholders in the scheme, I can also confirm that this budget settlement would provide the basis for the small business rate relief to continue.
Implementing decisions within the overall allocations
This statement outlines overall allocations, based on my assessment of the options currently available to the NI Departments. To the extent possible, the consequent prioritisation of resources within NI Departments will need to be undertaken by permanent secretaries, as has been the case during the past year. The position will be monitored throughout the year and, where possible, resources reallocated to the highest priority areas in the normal way.
Permanent secretaries cannot, of course, take the full range of decisions that would be available to Ministers. In that context, the UK Government shall continue to support the Northern Ireland Administration, and to do whatever is necessary to meet our responsibilities to the people of Northern Ireland.
Annex of tables can be viewed online at:
Wheelchair Spaces on Buses
The Government believe that where people live, shop, go out, or park their car should not be determined by their disability and recognise the importance of accessible transport networks in supporting disabled people to live independent lives and fulfil their potential.
In January 2017 the Supreme Court handed down its judgment in the case of Paulley v. FirstGroup plc, concerning the “reasonable adjustments” which must be provided by bus operators to enable wheelchair users to access the on-board wheelchair space.
The Supreme Court judgment states that FirstGroup’s policy with regard to use of the wheelchair space was insufficient to meet the requirements of the Equality Act 2010, and that bus drivers should be required to do more than simply request that a person vacates the wheelchair space, including suspending the journey if needed. The judgment did not provide clarity on precisely what action a service provider should require its drivers to take or how the needs of both passengers in wheelchairs and other bus users, disabled or otherwise, should be taken into account.
In order to understand the implications of the judgment for disabled people, the bus industry and other passengers, and to identify actions for Government and others to take to ensure that required adjustments can be provided on buses we established a stakeholder “task and finish group on the use of wheelchair spaces on buses” (the group).
The group’s report to Ministers stated that:
“Our view is that drivers need to play an active role in ensuring that the wheelchair space is made available for passengers in wheelchairs, which includes requiring other passengers to move where necessary, but that drivers also need more powers than they have currently to enable them to do this effectively”.
The group agreed that while wheelchair users should be granted access to the on-board wheelchair space they may not be the only passengers who rely on using it, but that where other passengers do not have such a need they should be expected to vacate the space in order that it can be occupied by a wheelchair user.
The group made four specific recommendations:
That the Public Service Vehicles (Conduct of Drivers, Inspectors, Conductors and Passengers) Regulations 1990 (the Conduct Regulations) are amended to enable drivers to remove passengers from the bus who unreasonably refuse to move when requested from the wheelchair space;
The associated guidance is amended to better reflect the behaviours expected from drivers and passengers with respect to use of the wheelchair space;
Further work is conducted to consider how best to raise public awareness of the behaviours expected from passengers with respect to the wheelchair space, for example a public awareness campaign, or improved signage on buses; and
That conditions of carriage and disability awareness training best practice guidance are updated to reflect the fact that passengers will be required to move from the wheelchair space should it be required by a passenger in a wheelchair.
I am grateful to the group for their careful consideration of this complex issue.
Government agree with the group that the wheelchair space should be available to those who need it and that the balance of measures proposed, supporting bus drivers to facilitate access to the wheelchair space, and creating an environment where the needs of disabled passengers are recognised and respected should help to overcome the barriers still faced by some disabled people when using bus services.
In accepting the group’s recommendations in principle we will begin a process of further engagement to understand the specific experiences of a range of stakeholders affected by the wheelchair space issue, including wheelchair users, parents travelling with young children, and bus drivers—with a view to bringing forward a package of measures in 2018, informed by the group’s recommendations and our further consideration, to support access to the wheelchair space.
Disabled people make 10 times as many journeys by bus as by rail, and it is essential that the services they rely upon to access education, employment, social and leisure activities are accessible to them. We hope that in supporting access to the wheelchair space for those who need it we will help many more disabled people to travel with confidence.
Copies of the task and finish group’s report to Ministers and accompanying letter have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.
Attachments can be viewed online at:
Work and Pensions
On 8 February 2018, the Work and Pensions Select Committee, published a report into the universal credit project assessment reviews. From this publication, the House will be aware that my Department has been involved in a request under the Freedom of Information Act, for the release of the project assessment reviews conducted between March 2012 and October 2015 on the universal credit programme.
Project assessment reviews are an assurance tool used to assess major projects and programmes. The reviews are conducted by project professionals and subject matter experts drawn from across the public and private sector. The effectiveness of the reviews relies on confidentiality: information within the reports is non-attributable to encourage candour and a frank exchange of views. The reports act as advice to the senior responsible owner on the delivery aspects of their programme—they are not advice to Ministers. They are intended to give the senior responsible owner a project delivery perspective on their programme, independent of the programme management function. They represent perspectives for the senior responsible owner to consider and not absolute truths. The senior responsible owner, not the review team, is accountable to Parliament.
It should be noted that the reviews I will place in the Library are historical, conducted between March 2012 and October 2015. Come 2018, the universal credit programme is in a very different place since those reports were written. Universal credit is in every jobcentre and we are rolling it out safely and securely to all categories of claimant. We are focusing on the continued safe delivery of universal credit, so people continue to be helped to improve their lives.
In recognition of the confidential nature of these reports, the Work and Pensions Select Committee viewed the full set of project assessment reviews up to 2017 and published a report on 8 February 2018. The Work and Pensions Select Committee agrees that the historical issues have now been addressed and “substantial achievements” have been delivered since 2013. In the Committee’s report, they commended the Department for running the universal credit programme
“more professionally and efficiently with a collective sense of purpose”.
The universal credit programme does not lack scrutiny as the ongoing Work and Pension’s Select Committee inquiries demonstrate. Given the Select Committee has seen the reports subject to the freedom of information challenge, and commented upon them publically I can see no point in continuing to argue that case. Accordingly my officials will be writing to the Information Commissioner and to the first-tier tribunal to advise them of my decision to release copies of the requested project assessment review reports to the requestor.
With regard to future reports, I emphasise that the steps I have decided to take today, to disclose the material subject to proceedings, are exceptional. I remain of the view that it is critical to the effectiveness of the Infrastructure and Projects Authority assurance framework for participants to be confident that their comments will be non-attributable and that review reports will be treated as confidential.
I accept that this House and the wider public has significant interest in Government major projects. I support the principle of transparency, and the universal credit programme regularly publishes independent research and analysis into the effectiveness of universal credit. I believe that there are better ways of addressing this concern, rather than undermining the mechanism that provides senior responsible owners with an independent external perspective on the programmes they are responsible to Parliament for.
Universal credit is a flexible benefit, which has simplified the welfare system and ensures that people are always better off in work. We know that the legacy system trapped people in benefit dependency. We needed a new approach to reflect the 21st-century work environment. The evidence shows universal credit is working, with people getting into work faster and staying in work longer than under the old system.
I am sure this House joins me in recognising the great progress we have made since 2010, with 3 million more people in work and unemployment at a near record low. Universal credit builds on this success, delivering welfare reform that works for everyone.