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Written Statements

Volume 690: debated on Thursday 4 March 2021

Written Statements

Thursday 4 March 2021

Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

Magnox Decommissioning Contract: Holliday Inquiry

On 27 March 2017, the then Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), informed the House of the defective procurement between 2012 and 2014 of the contract for the clear-up of the 12 Magnox sites, of the decision taken to settle with unsuccessful bidders following a successful legal challenge, and the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority’s decision to terminate the contract on the grounds that a material change had arisen to the specification on which bidders were invited in 2012 to tender.

The Secretary of State undertook to investigate fully and expose the reasons behind these failures so as to avoid the same mistakes being made in the future. In order to achieve this, he appointed Mr Steve Holliday to chair an independent, non-statutory inquiry. Mr Holliday’s report, copies of which have been laid in the House today, delivers on that commitment.

I am grateful to Mr Holliday and his team for the comprehensive and rigorous work of this inquiry, which is reflected in this report. The team has reviewed tens of thousands of documents to get to the truth, and it is only through this diligence that we can now confidently learn from the mistakes of the past.

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority is charged with the delivery of a range of challenging, complex and safety-critical activities, across Magnox and the other sites in its estate. Since it was established under the Energy Act 2004, the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has driven a significant step-change in the decommissioning of the UK’s legacy nuclear sites.

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority has already acted upon the inquiry’s interim findings that were published in October 2017 and significant improvements have been put in place. This includes strengthening of its commercial and legal capabilities and the introduction, with Government support, of a board-level programme and projects committee. My Department has already taken action to improve its own oversight of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority by strengthening the capacity and capability of the team in BEIS that provides the sponsorship function and also by appointing a director from UK Government Investments on to the board as a Government shareholder representative.

The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority will need to continue to develop to become a more efficient, effective and resilient organisation that continues to drive transformation on the ground and to deliver value for money for the taxpayer. I will be looking to the organisation’s chair, chief executive and the other board members to demonstrate that, where they have not already done so, they will respond fully, effectively and in a timely manner to the findings of this report. There are also findings and recommendations for my Department and UK Government Investments as well as for the Government more widely which we will consider with great care.

It is my intention that the Government and the NDA will publish formal responses to the inquiry chair’s recommendations later this year.

[HCWS820]

Health and Social Care

Covid-19 Update

The lockdown has reduced social contact and, as such, the numbers of covid-19 cases, hospital admissions and death rates have reduced significantly but continue to remain high across the country. As of 25 February, the weekly case rate for all ages in England is on average 97.1 per 100,000, and 65.2 per 100,000 for people aged 60 and over. Overall positivity for England is 4.3%, with rates continuing to remain higher than desired across the whole country. These figures remain high indicating that we are not yet ready to ease further restrictions immediately from an epidemiological perspective.

Data indicates that the number of patients in hospital with covid-19 across England has reduced to 10,765 and mechanical ventilation bed occupancy is 1,658 (as of 1 March). Sadly, between 15 February and 21 February there have been a total of 2,421 covid-19 related deaths in England, within 28 days of a positive covid-19 test. The number of deaths within 28 days of a positive test has fallen and now reflect levels seen at the end of October. The coronavirus England briefing, 4 March 2021, is available here:

https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/coronavirus-england-briefing-4-march-2021

The vaccine rollout continues to be a success for the UK. As of 2 March, over 20.4 million people across the UK have now received their first dose of a covid vaccine—equal to over a third of the adult population, and over 840,000 people have now received their second dose of a covid vaccine. Daily updates on vaccines doses are available here:

https://coronavirus.data.gov.uk/details/vaccinations

On 22 February, the Prime Minister announced a four-step roadmap to move England out of the current national lockdown. The Government will take a cautious approach to easing restrictions which is guided by data. The measures set out for 8 March prioritise the return of face-to-face education in schools and colleges.

The full roadmap publication can be found at the following link: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/963491/COVID-19_Response_-_Spring_2021.pdf

Progression to the next step of the roadmap will be guided by data, and not dates. There will be at least five weeks between the steps in the roadmap: four weeks for the data to show the impact of the previous easing; and one week’s notice for the public and businesses ahead of future changes.

Before taking each step, the Government will review the latest data on the impact of the previous step against four tests.

1. The vaccine deployment programme continues successfully

2. Evidence shows vaccines are sufficiently effective in reducing hospitalisations and deaths in those vaccinated.

3. Infection rates do not risk a surge in hospitalisations which would put unsustainable pressure on the NHS

4. Our assessment of the risks is not fundamentally changed by new variants of concern.

[HCWS825]

Healthy Weight Inquiry

Last year, in response to growing numbers across the country living with excess weight and obesity, the Government published our new strategy, “Tackling obesity: empowering adults and children to live healthier lives”. Worryingly, during the covid-19 pandemic, evidence has shown that people with obesity are more likely to be admitted to hospital, to an intensive care unit and, sadly, to die compared to those of a healthy body weight. This is as well as being at a heightened risk of other diseases such as diabetes, heart disease and some cancers.

So today I am delighted to announce that the Government are committing an additional £100 million over 2021-22 to support people living with obesity, to lose weight and maintain a healthier lifestyle.

More than £70 million will be invested in weight management services available through the NHS and local authorities. The funding announced today will mean up to 700,000 adults have access to support that can help them to lose weight, from access to digital apps, weight management groups or individual coaches, to specialist clinical support. This funding will also support GPs and other health professionals to help make weight management an integral part of routine care. It will encourage clinicians to have conversations about weight with their patients and enable them to refer patients to new services.

£30 million will be used to fund a variety of initiatives that will help individuals maintain a healthy weight. This includes providing access to the free NHS 12-week weight loss plan app and continuing the successful Better Health marketing campaign to motivate people to make healthier choices. Some of the funding will go towards improving services and tools to support healthy growth in early years and childhood. This will assist up to 6,000 children, and their families, to grow, develop and maintain a healthier weight whilst providing many more with advice on lifestyle changes to promote a healthy weight.

Evidence suggests that people who have access to structured weight management services are more successful in losing weight than people who try to manage alone. Losing weight reduces the risk of developing diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease and some cancers. This funding will support a breadth of new services so that people can find an approach that works for them.

I am also very pleased to announce that Sir Keith Mills, who has pioneered reward programmes through Airmiles and Nectar points, has been appointed to advise on developing a new approach, “Fit Miles”, to support people to eat well and move more, using incentives and rewards.

Drawing on a wealth of experience and best practice from around the world, Sir Keith will support the Government to develop and test innovative approaches with public and private partners that use incentives and rewards to help people make healthier choices.

This additional funding will complement other policies announced in last year’s obesity strategy that will change the wider environment and empower people to make the healthier choices. From restricting advertisements for food and drinks high in fat, salt and sugar, banning unhealthy promotions and consulting on alcohol calorie labelling, to requiring large businesses to provide calorie information—these actions are helping us all make healthier choices.

The Department of Health and Social Care is working closely with NHS England and Improvement and Public Health England to ensure this programme of funding helps those who need it most. This funding will support people across the country achieve a healthier lifestyle. The Department of Health and Social Care will provide further detail on this programme of work in the coming weeks and months.

[HCWS823]

Home Department

Home Office Funding: 2020-21

Net cash requirement for the year exceeds that provided by the main estimate, and is within that provided by the supplementary estimate. The supplementary estimate has not yet received Royal Assent.

The Contingencies Fund advance is required in order to meet commitments until the supplementary estimate receives Royal Assent, at which point the Home Office will be able to draw down the cash from the Consolidated Fund in the usual way, to repay the Contingencies Fund advance.

Parliamentary approval for additional resources of £1,250,000,000 will be sought in a supplementary estimate for the Home Office. Pending that approval, urgent expenditure estimated at £1,250,000,000 will be met by repayable cash advances from the Contingencies Fund.

[HCWS821]

Changes in Immigration Rules

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department is today laying before the House a statement of changes in immigration rules.

We have made a change to the immigration rules which will open the new graduate route to enable international students to remain in the UK to work, or look for work, for two years (three years for doctoral students) after they have completed their studies. The route will open on 1 July 2021. All international students who have successfully completed a degree (or other qualifying course) at undergraduate level or above at a higher education provider with a track record of compliance, and who have valid student (or tier 4) permission, will be able to apply. The doctorate extension scheme (DES) will close when the graduate route opens. The introduction of this route, which was announced in September 2019, will significantly improve the UK’s offer to international students.

We are making changes to accommodate the launch of the new graduate route. The first change is to expand the definition of a new entrant to include those switching from the graduate route. Time spent in the graduate route will count towards the maximum period of four years for which a person can be considered a new entrant. We are also making a change so those previously on the student or graduate routes, who make a short visit to the UK, do not disqualify themselves from being considered a new entrant.

We are also giving effect to some of the recommendations made by the Migration Advisory Committee in its review of the shortage occupation list (SOL) in September 2020. We are adding eight occupations in the health and care sector as well as modern language teachers to the UK-wide SOL. We are removing chefs from the SOL, although they will continue to be eligible for the skilled worker route due to the expanded skills threshold.

In addition, we are accepting the recommendation to add deck hands on large fishing vessels and vent chicken sexers, where those occupations meet experience requirements, to the list of occupations which are eligible for the skilled worker route.

We are updating the salary thresholds to include a minimum hourly rate to safeguard against employers who may require employees to work longer hours to make up for the lower rates of pay. We are including a transitional arrangement for those already on the skilled worker route in a job paying less than the minimum (£10.10 per hour) to avoid anyone losing their job as a result of the change.

We are making a change to prevent employers from reducing their skilled worker salaries below the level of tradeable points which have been assessed and awarded by the Home Office. If a sponsor wishes to reduce a salary based on a different set of tradeable points, a new application will be required. This ensures the Home Office has assessed and confirmed that the skilled worker continues to meet the requirement of the route.

We are expanding the academic technology approval scheme to include those coming to the UK under a sponsored work route to work in an occupation which includes postgraduate research in an academic environment, in certain sensitive subjects where an individual’s knowledge could be used in programmes to develop advanced conventional weapon technology, weapons of mass destruction (WMD), or their means of delivery. This change is designed to protect UK research from exploitation and from inadvertently supporting the proliferation of WMD or advanced conventional weapon technologies.

Some adjustments are being made to the EU settlement scheme (EUSS) and the EUSS family permit. These will ensure their continued operability and the full implementation of the citizens’ rights agreements beyond the 30 June 2021 deadline for applications to the EUSS by those EEA citizens and their family members resident in the UK by the end of the transition period. By 31 January 2021, more than 5 million applications to the EUSS had been received and more than 4.5 million grants of status had been issued.

We are making changes to the global talent route to enable applicants who have reached the pinnacle of their careers to bypass the endorsement requirement and instead qualify if they have received a prestigious prize. An initial list of prizes have been identified and agreed by the endorsing bodies for the route based on their expert opinion and represent the leading awards in their respective fields.

Applicants meeting this requirement will not be required to apply for endorsement, which should expedite the application process. In all other aspects, the requirements and conditions applying to individuals relying on a prestigious prize will be consistent with those who qualify using an exceptional talent endorsement, including having a three year qualifying period for settlement and identical conditions applied to their permission.

There are currently two separate schemes to assist current and former locally employed staff (LES) in Afghanistan: the ex-gratia scheme (EGS) and the intimidation policy. The existing intimidation policy is available to any current or former Afghan LES who have been employed directly by the UK Government in Afghanistan since 2001, from the first day of their employment, regardless of their role, job or length of service. This is being replaced with the Afghan relocation and assistance policy (ARAP) for current and former Afghan LES to reflect the changing security situation in Afghanistan and the risk faced by current and former LES there. The EGS will continue to operate without change until the closing date of 30 November 2022 already set out in the immigration rules.

The ARAP moves away from the present policy model which is based on the investigation of alleged cases of intimidation and requires discrete evidence, and into an assessment-oriented approach. This will be grounded in a recognition that the situation in Afghanistan has evolved and poses a latent threat to many current and former LES in particular roles. Other assistance, e.g. internal moves in-country and bespoke security advice, will still be available where appropriate and reflects that not all LES are able or willing to relocate.

An amendment is being made to clarify the grounds for refusal policy intention that permission may only be refused or cancelled on the basis of rough sleeping where the person has repeatedly refused offers of support and engaged in persistent antisocial behaviour.

Finally, a change is being made to Appendix Hong Kong British national (Overseas) which will allow those on the British national (Overseas) route to apply to vary their conditions to have their no recourse to public funds condition lifted where they are able to demonstrate they are destitute or at imminent risk of destitution.

[HCWS822]

Work and Pensions

State Pension Correction Exercise

This statement provides an update to the House on uplifts to the state pension, which has been a matter of parliamentary interest since 2020.

We are committed to making sure that those people found to have been underpaid state pension receive the money they are rightly entitled to.

We became aware of issues with state pension under-payments in 2020 and we took immediate action to investigate the extent of the problem. This is an issue that dates back many years across successive Governments.

Rectifying these cases is a priority for the Department and we will do it as quickly as possible.

From August 2020 to January 2021 the Department carried out a number of complex scans of legacy computer systems that analysed many millions of state pension records. The scans identified cases requiring further investigation.

These cases can be categorised into the following groups:

People who are married or in a civil partnership who reached state pension age before 6 April 2016 and may be entitled to a category BL uplift based on their partner’s national insurance contributions.

Following a change in the law in 2008, when their spouse became entitled to a state pension, some people should have had their basic state pension automatically reviewed and uplifted. Underpayments occurred in cases when this did not happen.

People who have been widowed and their state pension was not uplifted to include amounts they are entitled to inherit from their late husband, wife or civil partner.

People who have not been paid category D state pension uplift as they should have been from age 80.

For each group of individuals affected, DWP IT systems produce an electronic prompt to consider if an individual’s state pension amount should be increased. The prompt requires DWP staff to take further manual action and, in some cases, this did not take place.

Following the scan activity, the Department formally commenced a correction exercise on 11 January 2021, clerically examining each of the cases identified through the scans. We have already reallocated a number of staff onto this work and are exploring urgently what else we can do to speed up the process.

Given the complexity of the work, it can take time to assess the most complex cases. This work involves a thorough examination of the state pension payments, and consideration of any changes to the individual’s circumstances since the original state pension award was made, to establish if an underpayment has occurred.

Where underpayments are identified, the Department will contact the individual to inform them of the changes to their state pension amount and of any arrears payment they will receive in accordance with the law.

The Department’s current estimate of the total costs of repaying these arrears is £2.7 billion. There will also be increased expenditure on corrected live cases of around £90 million per year on average in the coming years. This estimate is based on the system scans and analysis of DWP administrative data. As more information becomes available from the correction exercise, we will refine our estimates.

In addition to the formal correction exercise, the Department is continuing to review thoroughly all state pension records where an individual has contacted the Pension Service.

The Government are fully committed to ensuring that any historical errors, unaddressed by previous Governments, are put right as quickly as possible.

I will update Parliament as the correction exercise progresses.

[HCWS824]