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Written Statements

Volume 685: debated on Thursday 3 December 2020

Written Statements

Thursday 3 December 2020

Cabinet Office

Election Spending Limits Uprating

Elections rely upon political parties and candidates’ ability to communicate their views and commitments so that voters can make an informed decision. To this end, it is right that registered parties and nominated candidates can incur campaign expenditure, but it is also right that there are limits on this expenditure to ensure a level playing field. Many of the current statutory spending limits have not been changed since they were set out 20 years ago, with a small number raised more recently in 2014. This is a significant length of time, and has the effect of reducing the ability to campaign given inflationary costs of printing and communication.

With elections scheduled for 6 May 2021, I am making this statement to outline the Government’s intention to raise the spending limits by inflation for candidates at local council elections in England in time for those May elections. This uplift would take into account the change in the value of money since these amounts were last changed and ensure that limits remain consistent with the initial intent of spending limits when considered by previous Parliaments. It makes no other substantive or real-terms change. I am keen to ensure that, where possible, parties are given notice of potential updates to electoral law well in advance of those elections. The Government are also mindful that the backdrop of the covid-19 pandemic may result in a greater emphasis on postal and digital campaigning ahead of May’s elections; this adds to the case for limits to be updated and uprated.

It is the Government’s intention to review party and candidate spending limits for all other polls (within the legislative competence of the UK Government) next year, with a view to uprating them in line with inflation since they were originally set. This will create a baseline for regular and consistent reviews of all limits in future. We will work with stakeholders, including the Electoral Commission and the Parliamentary Parties Panel, on this process.

[HCWS618]

Treasury

Loan Charge: Sir Amyas Morse Report Recommendations

The loan charge was announced at Budget 2016 to tackle disguised remuneration tax avoidance schemes, which paid income in the form of loans that were not taxed or subject to national insurance contributions.

In September 2019, the Government asked the former Comptroller and Auditor General, Sir Amyas Morse to lead an independent review of the loan charge policy and its implementation. Sir Amyas Morse presented his conclusions in a report published in December 2019 and made 20 recommendations for change. In response the Government accepted all but one of the recommendations (HCWS14).

The Government accepted Sir Amyas’s recommendation that HMRC should report to Parliament on their implementation of the loan charge once the changes had been implemented and before the end of 2020.

HMRC have today published their report setting out the actions they have taken to deliver the recommendations: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/independent-loan-charge-review-hmrc-report-on-implementation.

This has been published together with their review of HMRC’s future policy on interest rates: https://www.gov. uk/government/publications/interest-rate-review.

A copy of the report has been shared with the Treasury Committee, Public Accounts Committee and Lords Economic Affairs Committee. The report will also be deposited in the Libraries of both Houses.

[HCWS621]

Defence

Mali Deployment

I would like to provide an update to the statement made by my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth North (Penny Mordaunt), on 22 July 2019 (HCWS1779) in which we announced the Government’s intention to deploy a contribution from our armed forces to the United Nations multidimensional integrated stabilisation mission in Mali (MINUSMA).

I can confirm that 300 UK personnel will have deployed to MINUSMA and completed required in-country quarantine by 22 December. The deployment comprises 250 troops from the Light Dragoons, the Royal Anglian Regiment and other attached personnel, and a further 50 forming a national support element.

The UK has committed to a three-year deployment to MINUSMA, with a review to be held at the 18-month point. UK personnel will deploy on six-month operational tours with a two-week rest and recuperation break. Accordingly, the first deployment of Light Dragoons will be replaced by a second contingent led by the Royal Anglian Regiment and Queens Dragoon Guards in summer 2021.

As the Foreign Secretary recently said, working alongside our development and diplomatic efforts, the UK’s military contribution to UN peacekeeping is a clear illustration of how our defence and security capabilities can contribute to the UK’s role as a force for good in the world. This deployment reflects our continued commitment to multilateralism and international peace and security, a responsibility we take seriously as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. It is part of a wider Government response in support of progress towards long-term and sustainable stability in Mali and the Sahel. It will help to minimise the impact of violent conflict on UK interests and strengthen partnerships between the international community and Sahel Governments to improve the overall response to the crisis.

Mali is at the forefront of countries in west Africa affected by instability, with terrorist violence and conflict between communities sharply on the rise. The violence is costing lives, hindering development across one of the poorest countries in the world, and spreading to the wider region. Our contribution will provide critical capabilities to the UN mission at a vital time. We can have genuine impact on the mission’s overall approach, to help reduce the spread of conflict and insecurity, contribute to the protection of civilians, and build a sustainable peace.

Led by the Swedish UN mission force commander, Lieutenant General Dennis Gyllensporre, we will be working alongside over 60 nations all contributing to MINUSMA. It is a truly global collaboration with contributions being made by west African nations in the region and our traditional western allies including Sweden, Germany, Canada, France and Ireland. The largest contingents of solders on MINUSMA will be coming from Guinea, Chad, Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, and Egypt.

The UK taskforce will be under the command of the Light Dragoons’ Commanding Officer, Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Robinson. The taskforce is configured for reconnaissance with their initial objective to understand the operating environment in the area around Gao so that they are well placed to support the UN mission. This will allow MINUSMA to better plan operations and deter and respond to threats.

Our MINUSMA commitment complements existing distinct and separate commitments we have in the region, including helicopter support to the Operation Barkhane (the French-led counter-terrorism initiative in Africa’s Sahel region), and sits within wider UK Government seeking to build stability, and support the most vulnerable populations in the region.

This is a dangerous mission. We have done all we can to mitigate the risk. Our forces are among the best in the world and they have the right training, equipment and preparation to succeed. I am confident that they will have a strong impact on the ground in Mali, will bolster our standing in the United Nations and will help us in our endeavours to make the UN and its peacekeeping missions as effective as possible.

[HCWS622]

Cyber and Electromagnetic Activities: Call-out Order

A new order has been made under section 56(1B) of the Reserve Forces Act 1996 to enable reservists to be called into permanent service to support HM Forces in connection to HMG’s cyber and electromagnetic activities (CEMA).

CEMA involves the carrying out, synchronisation and co-ordination of offensive, defensive, inform and enabling activities, across the electromagnetic environment and cyberspace. Defence is committed to assisting HMG by the provision of experts in these domains from HM Forces.

As part of this support, reserve forces will be on standby, as part of a whole force approach with regular forces and partners across Government, to deliver a range of defence outputs such as (but not limited to): the reinforcement of regular units by providing specialist and rare knowledge, skills and experience.

The order shall take effect from the day on which it is made and shall cease to have effect 12 months from the date on which it is made.

[HCWS619]

Education

Covid-19: Higher Education in Spring Term

As a Government we made the commitment that students living at university will be able to go home at the end of term if they need or choose to do so. We also recognise the importance of ensuring that students are able to return to university for the spring term. We understand that students, staff and providers need to be aware of the arrangements that will be in place for the spring term before students travel home so it has been our priority to communicate these plans as early as possible. Today, I am announcing those measures which we are putting in place to enable students to return to higher education following the winter break as safely as possible.

Government, students, staff and our wider communities greatly value the vital work of universities. That is why we are committed to ensuring that in-person teaching and university life can continue as far as possible during these unprecedented times. Universities have remained open throughout this pandemic, continuing to deliver high quality education through a blended learning approach.

The Government have prioritised education, including higher education, so we have worked to create a plan that supports the safe return of all students who left for the winter break and the resumption of blended learning. We remain committed to ensuring that in-person teaching and university life can continue as far as possible during these unprecedented times. We also recognise the huge amount of work that higher education providers have undertaken to set up asymptomatic test sites, provide covid-secure teaching and learning to students, and carefully manage any outbreaks, and we welcome the early successes of the asymptomatic testing programme.

That said, the large numbers of students planning to travel in the new year has been identified by public health experts as a possible risk factor for transmission of infection. The January term start dates are naturally staggered but this staggering is much more compressed than at the start of the autumn term, so we are asking providers to plan for students to return over a longer, five-week period. This will enable universities and higher education providers to test every student upon their return.

HE providers should first plan to welcome back those students on practical courses and placements, with these students returning to campus in line with their planned start dates from 4 January. We expect providers to make assessments of the courses and students that should be brought back first, based on the requirements of the curriculum, taking into account elements of clinical, practical and specialist teaching and learning as well as the needs of their students and staff. Providers may accommodate some other students to return to campus earlier but should only do so where there is a genuine need or extenuating circumstances. These students should be able to access campus facilities but should not commence in-person lessons until face-to-face teaching of their course formally restarts.

Students who do not have a clearly defined practical element to their course will still be able to continue their studies from the start of term remotely but providers should plan for students to return gradually from 25 January 2021 and staggered over a two-week period.

Staggering the return of students to campus over five weeks has three primary purposes:

to provide more time and capacity for universities in partnership with national health service test and trace to continue their rapid work to roll out asymptomatic test sites within university campuses;

to help manage the flow of students so that as many students and staff as possible can be tested immediately upon arrival at university; and

to help ensure that students who have practical/assessment elements to their learning in the early part of the term can physically return to campus.

In recent months there have been developments on testing which we plan to use to facilitate the safe return of all students. We will work with higher education providers to put in place asymptomatic testing arrangements for all students on arrival to university. However, individual institutions may choose to offer tests using different testing technologies (e.g. polymerase chain reaction, known as a PCR test), or to partner with neighbouring providers.

We also realise that this year has been incredibly difficult for students and we recognise that in these exceptional circumstances some may face financial hardship. I have now announced that we will be making available up to £20 million on a one-off basis to support those that need it most, particularly disadvantaged students. We will work with the Office for Students to do this, and further detail will be set out in due course.

I want to assure students, staff and their families that their welfare is our top priority. I want to thank universities for their tireless dedication in seeking to ensure safe environments for students and staff. The hard work of university staff has meant we are able to keep students and staff as safe as possible during term. We are pleased we can now announce how students can return to university for the spring term, while keeping themselves, their families, and their communities, as safe as possible.

As with all advice, this will be kept under review in light of scientific evidence, and the Government will provide further advice if necessary.

[HCWS620]

Housing, Communities and Local Government

Housing Adaptations

I am delighted to announce that the Government are releasing an additional £68 million for the disabled facilities grant in England. This funding boost for 2020-21 will help local authorities to provide more home adaptations and bolsters the £505 million that the Government already paid to local authorities for the disabled facilities grant in May, raising the headline total for the grant to £573 million this financial year.

I recognise that following the outbreak of covid-19, local authorities have continued to display excellence, innovation, and resilience in maintaining the delivery of essential services under very challenging circumstances. The disabled facilities grant can play a critical role in both preventing hospital and care home admissions and supporting smoother discharge from hospital. This additional £68 million in disabled facilities grant funding will enable local authorities to deliver more home adaptations for those people with disabilities who qualify.

I am pleased to confirm that spending review 2020 includes an investment of £573 million in disabled facilities grant funding for 2021-22, bringing the Government’s investment in the disabled facilities grant to over £4 billion since 2010. This further outlines our continued commitment to help older and disabled people to live independently and safely, and will provide some welcome certainty to local authorities as they plan their budgets for the coming financial year.

The additional funding for 2020-21 is being provided by the Department of Health and Social Care as part of the better care fund and will be paid by my Department to London boroughs, unitary authorities, and county councils on 9 December. In two-tier areas, counties must pass the appropriate disabled facilities grant funding to their district councils.

[HCWS617]