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Written Statements

Volume 745: debated on Monday 19 February 2024

Written Statements

Monday 19 February 2024

Business and Trade

UK-Gulf Co-operation Council Free Trade Agreement

The sixth round of negotiations for a free trade agreement (FTA) between the UK and the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) took place between 29 January and 9 February.

The round was hosted in London and held in a hybrid fashion. A number of GCC negotiators travelled to London for in-person discussions, with others attending virtually.

Draft treaty text was advanced across the majority of chapters. Technical discussions were held across 21 policy areas over 30 sessions. Good progress was made and both sides remain committed to securing an ambitious, comprehensive and modern agreement fit for the 21st century. The next round of negotiations will be scheduled shortly.

An FTA will be a substantial economic opportunity and a significant moment in the UK-GCC relationship. Total trade was worth £59 billion according to latest figures.

His Majesty’s Government remain clear that any deal signed will be in the best interests of the British people and the United Kingdom economy. We will not compromise on our high environmental, public health, animal welfare and food standards, and we will maintain our right to regulate in the public interest. We are also clear that during these negotiations, the national health service and the services it provides are not on the table.


Cabinet Office

Covid-19 Inquiry Response: Costs

The Minister of State, Baroness Neville-Rolfe DBE CMG, on 9 February 2024, made the following statement:

Throughout the pandemic, the Government acted to save lives and livelihoods, prevent the NHS being overwhelmed, and deliver a world-leading vaccine rollout which protected the nation. In establishing the UK covid-19 inquiry, the Government recognised the unprecedented and wholly exceptional circumstances of the pandemic, and the importance of examining as rigorously as possible the actions the state took in response, in order to learn lessons for the future.

As such, the inquiry is unprecedented in its scope, complexity and profile, looking at recent events that have profoundly impacted everyone’s lives.

Following the publication by the covid-19 inquiry of its costs for Quarter 3 of the 2023-24 financial year on 5 February 2024, I would like to update Parliament on the UK Government costs associated with responding to the UK covid-19 inquiry.

The figures provided below include input from a number of Government Departments, including the Cabinet Office, the Department for Health and Social Care, the UK Health Security Agency, the Home Office and HM Treasury, many of which are supported by the Government Legal Department (GLD).

The figures we are publishing reflect those that the inquiry publishes—legal counsel and solicitors costs, and secretariat staff costs. The figures are based upon a sample of departmental costs, and are not a precise figure for accounting purposes and are therefore subject to change. While every effort has been made to ensure a robust methodology, complexities remain in trying to quantify the time and costs dedicated to the inquiry alone.

Total inquiry response unit legal costs (April-December 2023).

Inquiry response units across Government Departments are supported by the Government Legal Department, co-partnering firms of solicitors, and counsel. Associated legal costs—excluding internal departmental advisory legal costs—for April-December 2023 are below.

Total legal costs: £20,900,000

Breakdown of staff and costs (April-December 2023).

The Government’s response to the UK covid-19 Inquiry is led by Inquiry Response Units across Departments.

Number of UK covid-19 Inquiry Response Unit staff: 249 Full Time Equivalents (as of Q3).

Cost of Inquiry Response Unit staff: £12,900,000

It should be noted that alongside full time resource within Departments, inquiry response teams draw on expertise from across their organisations. The Senior Civil Servant staff costs associated with appearing as witnesses, preparing witnesses and associated policy development work on the Covid inquiry are significant. Early estimations place these at least £120,000 for Cabinet Office for preparatory work for Modules 1 and 2, but further work is under way to produce a more accurate figure. Those costs are not included in the figures above.


Culture, Media and Sport

Short-term Lets: Registration Scheme

Following consultation on a registration scheme for short-term lets in England, today the Government set out further details on how the scheme will operate.

Short-term lets are an integral part of the UK’s visitor accommodation offer, and the Government are clear that they bring a range of benefits—from extra income for ordinary homeowners and local economies through increased visitor spend, to increased choice for consumers, to supporting our ability to host world-class events such as the Commonwealth Games and Eurovision by providing additional accommodation capacity. We understand, however, that the growth in short-term lets has brought challenges, such as difficulty monitoring compliance with existing health and safety regulations, and the impact on the availability and affordability of homes in areas with higher numbers of short-term lets.

In order to address these challenges, the Government took action by legislating to deliver the legal framework for a registration scheme through the Levelling Up and Regeneration Act 2023. The details of how a scheme should operate were explored through consultation, held last year. The analysis of this consultation has demonstrated support for a mandatory registration scheme across all of England—61% of those who responded supported this option. A mandatory, national approach will promote a level playing field in the guest accommodation sector across England, particularly in the application of existing health and safety regulations. It will provide clarity to all short-term let providers on the existing rules they should be following, and promote greater consistency across providers in applying these rules. A mandatory, national registration scheme will also provide valuable data at a local level in all areas of England: this will give all local authorities the information they need to identify short-term lets in their area and help them address community and housing impacts. The Government will separately be introducing planning measures to provide local areas with more control over the future growth of short term lets. We will be introducing a new use class for short term lets, associated permitted development rights and flexibility and certainty for homeowners to let out their own main or sole home for up to 90 nights a year.

The Government have also decided that the registration scheme should be designed to be as light touch, low cost and simple to use as possible—this will underpin all our decisions on how to deliver. For example, we do not wish to disproportionately apply new regulation on property owners that let out their home infrequently. We will continue to consider the case for the potential application of a threshold in finalising the register.

Work will now begin at pace to establish the scheme, which will be delivered primarily online. We will begin by conducting an initial phase of digital development which will test how the scheme is best delivered and administered. The findings will inform the detailed design of a scheme—such as who should administer it, frequency of registration and which information should be collected. We will set out further detail on how the scheme will work later in the year, including a full response to the questions we sought views on in our consultation, the full analysis of responses, and further information on the legislative process that will bring the scheme to life.

In the meantime, it is vital that we work with the sector to get this right and ensure the scheme delivers for everyone in the simplest way. For that reason we will be reaching out to representatives of the visitor economy and likely users of the scheme—such as local authorities, operators and platforms—in the next phase of our work to develop it.



Mobile Phones in Schools: Guidance

Today, the Department for Education published new guidance to ban the use of mobile phones in schools. This guidance provides advice to school leaders on how to develop, implement and maintain a policy that prohibits the use of mobile phones throughout the school day.

There is an increasing body of evidence that shows the unnecessary distraction, disruption and diversion caused by mobile phones in schools. Ofcom’s report found that by the age of 12, 97% of children own a mobile phone. The National Behaviour Survey (2021-2022) found that 29% of secondary school pupils reported mobile phones being used without permission in most of their lessons.

This is why we are determined that all schools should prohibit the use of mobile phones throughout the school day—not only during lessons but break and lunchtimes as well. This will create an environment where pupils can focus on learning and socialising, while ensuring that cyberbullying is never tolerated. We know that that there is large variation in how different schools are managing the use of mobile phones. We also know that schools with exemplary behaviour cultures already prohibit their use. This guidance will allow us to achieve consistency and share best practice to ensure that all pupils are protected from online harms in schools and their teaching time is not disturbed by the use of mobile phones.

This is part of the Government’s plan to continue to improve educational standards and give children the skills they need, something we have done successfully since 2010.


Home Department

Changes in Immigration Rules

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary (James Cleverly) is today laying before the House a statement of changes in immigration rules.

Changes to the Ukraine schemes

Almost two years on from the start of the conflict, we continue to stand firm with the people of Ukraine and show that those who need our help are still warmly welcomed in the UK. We have extended that welcome to nearly 230,000 people who have come to the UK—or had their existing permission in the UK extended—under the Ukraine schemes. The British people have shown incredible generosity and solidarity with the Ukrainian people, opening their homes up to those seeking sanctuary.

Today, we are making changes to the Ukraine schemes to ensure they remain sustainable and meet the needs of those seeking temporary sanctuary in the UK.

We have today announced the intention to create a new Ukraine Permission Extension scheme (UPE) which will provide a new route for Ukrainians to apply for a further 18 months’ permission to stay in the UK on expiry of their current visa. We are also today reducing the length of new visas issued under the Homes for Ukraine sponsorship scheme (HFU) from 36 months to 18 months. The change to the HFU permission period is made to align with the period which will be offered to those who choose to extend their permission under the UPE. This will mean that those initially granted a visa for 36 months under the Ukraine schemes will be able to stay in the UK for a total of up to 54 months.

To ensure that visa holders have appropriate accommodation as well as the necessary in-country support to help them assimilate and thrive independently in the UK, we are also changing the sponsor eligibility under the HFU through updates to HMG guidance. Sponsors for new visas will need to be British or Irish citizens or settled in the UK—which means they have the right to live permanently in the UK. Previously, a sponsor only needed to hold at least six months’ permission to stay in the UK from the date of the visa application.

The changes to the rules and HMG guidance being made today will also apply to the eligible minor’s route for unaccompanied children, which is part of the HFU sponsorship scheme.

We are rationalising the offer for Ukrainians coming to the UK to provide one single out-of-country route (HFU) for all Ukrainians to apply to when seeking to come to the UK. Under HFU, there are accommodation checks, a minimum accommodation commitment from the sponsor and safeguarding checks, none of which feature in the Ukraine Family Scheme (UFS). The UFS was created as an immediate response to the Russian invasion and allowed UK-based British citizens and settled persons to act as sponsors for their Ukrainian family members. We are, therefore, closing the Ukraine Family Scheme (UFS) to new applications from today. This will strengthen and improve the sustainability of the schemes we provide.

Ukrainian nationals who may have previously been eligible to apply to come to the UK under the UFS will remain eligible to apply to the HFU sponsorship scheme.

To ensure Ukrainian parents who have permission to stay in the UK under the Ukraine schemes can regularise the immigration status of their UK-born children, we are also amending the rules for the Ukraine Extension Scheme (UES) to ensure it remains open beyond the current closure date of 16 May 2024 for those children.

In order to ensure the integrity of the Ukraine schemes, we are reinstating a number of the general grounds for refusal provisions, which were temporarily disapplied from the Appendix Ukraine scheme.

Changes relating to care workers and senior care workers in the skilled worker route

On 4 December 2023, the Prime Minister and Home Secretary announced a plan to curb immigration abuse and cut net migration. This plan, alongside the package we have already introduced to restrict student dependants, is expected to mean around 300,000 people who would have been eligible to come to the UK under last year’s rules would not be able to.

These changes include some of the measures announced in that package, namely preventing overseas care workers and senior care workers from bringing their dependants to the UK and requiring care providers in England who wish to sponsor migrant workers to be registered by the Care Quality Commission (CQC).

These measures will ensure we continue to protect our NHS and social care systems, while addressing significant concerns that have emerged since the introduction of the visa about high levels of non-compliance and worker exploitation and abuse within the adult social care sector, particularly for overseas workers employed within care occupations.

Care workers and senior care workers who are already in the route will be able to extend their permission with the same sponsor, and settle, without the CQC regulation requirement applying to them. They will also be able to bring dependants, including in cases where they change jobs to another sponsor who meets the CQC regulation requirement.

The changes to the Immigration Rules are being laid on 19 February 2024. The changes to close the Ukraine Family Scheme and provide one single out-of-country route for Ukrainians to come to the UK under HFU will come into effect on 19 February 2024. All other changes will come into effect on 11 March 2024.



Progress Report on the Implementation of the Rape Review Action Plan

My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary (James Cleverly) and I have published on 14 February 2024 a progress report on the end-to-end rape review action plan—published June 2021. This is the fifth progress report on implementation and demonstrates the Government’s ongoing commitment to transparency on our progress in delivering the ambitions of the rape review.

The report details the improvements we made over the last six months, including:

Implemented the national rollout of Operation Soteria across all 43 forces in England and Wales, the highly effective police investigation model pioneered by the Avon and Somerset Police where investigations focus on the behaviour of the alleged perpetrator, not the victim.

Supported police and prosecutors as they implement this new approach, including by establishing a Joint Home Office, College of Policing and National Police Chief's Council Soteria Unit.

Ensured that police officers have the right skills and knowledge to respond effectively to these offences. We have commenced specialist training for 2,000 investigators in rape and serious sexual offences, and are on track to complete these by April 2024 with appropriate specialism in all 43 forces.

Introducing legislation to strengthen support for victims and build victim trust in the system, including ensuring police requests for third party material are necessary and proportionate, and introducing statutory guidance to embed vital roles like Independent Sexual Violence and Domestic Violence Advisors (ISVAs and IDVAs) through our Victims and Prisoners Bill.

Further improving the victim experience at the Crown Court through our specialist sexual violence support project, introducing additional measures to make sure that victims feel informed and comfortable, and are treated sensitively, through best practice in communication, trauma informed training for court staff and additional facilities.

Introducing the Sentencing Bill, which will ensure that convicted rapists spend the entirety of their custodial sentence in jail, with no possibility of early release. This builds on the Conservative Government’s strong track record of tough sentencing for rape. We previously raised the release point to two thirds of the custodial term after the previous Labour Government lowered it to the halfway point in 2003.

We are now exceeding all three of our initial ambitions to return volumes of cases being referred to the police, charged by the CPS and received in court to at least 2016 levels by the end of this Parliament. In practice, this means we have more than doubled the numbers of these metrics from the levels at which they stood when the end-to-end rape review was commissioned in 2019. The volumes of adult rape cases reaching court have continued to increase quarter on quarter, with the latest data—July-September 2023—showing that:

Adult rape cases referred by the police to the CPS—for either early advice or a charging decision—continue to increase. There were 1,470 police referrals in this period, which exceeds our ambition of 766 by 91% and is up by 219% from the quarterly average in 2019, when the rape review was commissioned.

Adult rape cases charged by the CPS stand at 668, exceeding our ambition of 538 by 24% and up by 174% from the quarterly average in 2019.

The number of adult rape Crown Court receipts has increased to 665, exceeding our ambition of 553 by 20% and up by 188% from the quarterly average in 2019.

The number of people prosecuted for an adult rape offence went up by 54% in the latest year of data—12 months to June—rising from 1,410 to 2,165. This is more than double the number recorded in 2019. Adult rape prosecutions are also up by 32% compared to 2010—2,165 prosecutions in year ending June 2023, compared to 1,644 in 2010.

While strong progress has been made, we made clear in our last progress report that we recognise that this is only a start and there is much more to do. This is why we extended our action plan until December 2024.

Beyond our action plan we are committed to addressing the remaining challenges, particularly in regard to victim attrition and court timeliness. We need to ensure that victims remain engaged in the process and feel confident that they will be supported at every stage.

To assist us in driving improvements in the criminal justice system, we have recruited a new Independent Advisor to the rape review, Professor Katrin Hohl. Professor Hohl is an internationally recognised academic specialising in serious sexual offences and domestic abuse. She was the joint academic lead behind Operation Soteria and her work with victims and frontline services will be invaluable in unlocking the most challenging issues that remain.

The action set out in this publication forms part of the Government’s ambition to improve the experience and ensure justice for victims.


Levelling Up, Housing and Communities

Long-term Plan for Housing

Last week I set out the next step in this Government’s long-term plan for housing, announcing a package of measures to ensure that more homes get built where they are needed most—in our inner cities—while ensuring that the green belt and environmentally sensitive site are able to be protected from inappropriate development.

The Government have a strong record of housing delivery: we have delivered over 2.5 million homes since 2010; over a quarter of these have been affordable homes; more than 876,000 households have been supported into home ownership through Government-backed schemes, including the right to buy and shared ownership; and we are on track to meet our commitment to build 1 million homes over this Parliament.

In December of last year, we made changes to national planning policy designed to support housing delivery by addressing legitimate concerns about weaknesses in the planning system, and to facilitate the adoption of up-to-date plans with clear pipelines of delivery. The further, targeted action that the Government announced on Tuesday 13 February builds on those changes by making it easier to pursue the right kind of development on brownfield land.

Brownfield development

Last July, our long-term plan for housing drew attention to the poor record of housing delivery in London, where housing affordability challenges are most acute. Only 35,000 new homes were delivered in the capital last year, just over half the 66,000 homes the Mayor of London’s own plan identifies as needed each year. That is why I urged the Mayor to take urgent action. When he failed to do so, I commissioned an independent review of the London plan led by Christopher Katkowski KC. The review was published on 13 February and recommended a presumption in favour of brownfield development be introduced into the London plan.

The Government intend to deliver this recommendation —and believe it is important to ensure delivery not just in London, but in our other major towns and cities that serve as engines of jobs and growth. We have therefore launched a consultation on proposals for a new “brownfield presumption” in the 20 most populous cities and urban centres in England, where housing delivery has dropped below expected levels. These 20 places, which include London most conspicuously, are areas to which an “urban uplift” already applies when determining the need for homes. They already have the infrastructure and services for new residents, and they are where we can best maximise productivity through increasing housing delivery. The more we can focus efforts in the heart of these urban centres, the better for our ambitions to level up.

The new presumption in favour of brownfield development will apply where an authority fails to meet at least 95% of its housing requirement. It has strong support from the development sector and will make it easier to get permission for new homes. It will raise the bar for refusing applications and ultimately help more young families to find a home. Analysis in the “London Plan Review” report indicates that these changes could lead to up to 11,500 more homes in the capital each year. By extending the reforms across the country, even more homes will be unlocked.

We also want to support brownfield development more widely, by making it clear to every local authority in England that they need to be more flexible in approving planning applications on brownfield land. To make this happen, the consultation proposes a change to national planning policy that would require councils to give significant weight to the benefits of delivering as many homes as possible where there is a shortage of land for homes. This change would also require councils to be more pragmatic in applying policies on the internal layout of developments—cutting through what can sometimes prove too complex a web of constraints that misses the prize of building new homes.

Using brownfield sites will reduce the need for development on greenfield land and help protect the green belt. Neither of the policies out for consultation affects the definition of previously developed land in national policy and so would not alter existing protections, including for residential gardens, nor amend other relevant policies on the character of suburban neighbourhoods.

Permitted development rights

Complementing these changes on brownfield development, I am also delivering new planning freedoms to enable more commercial buildings to be converted into new homes. Following a consultation last year, we have now amended the existing permitted development right for conversion to residential such that commercial buildings of any size will have the freedom to be converted into new homes, resulting in thousands of new homes by 2030.

I have also launched a consultation proposing changes to make it easier for homeowners to extend their homes. I want to ensure permitted development rights reflect current aspirations for how we use our homes. Our proposals would allow larger loft conversions, bike stores and more flexible extensions. They would free homeowners from the arduous process of going through planning permission for additions helpful to all. The proposals balance flexibility for homeowners with respect for neighbours’ amenity. These proposals will also allow homeowners greater freedoms on installing heat pumps and electric vehicle charging points and will ensure these rights deliver what people want for their homes.

It is important to reiterate that new homes created via permitted development rights must not sacrifice quality. Permitted development rights require new homes to meet national space standards, provide for natural light, and must always comply with building regulations, ensuring that these are quality homes that make the best use of our building stock.

London delivery

In London, we want to go even further to make sure that our capital city has the housing it needs, so our changes in policy are accompanied by additional funding: £50 million of investment to unlock new homes and improve the quality of life for existing residents through estate regeneration in London; working closely with the London Borough of Camden, a new Euston Housing Delivery Group to explore maximum regeneration and housing at Euston, backed by £4 million; and £125 million loan funding from the home building fund infrastructure loans portfolio and long-term fund for sites in east and south London, which will unlock 8,000 new homes. To help tackle undersupply in the medium term, we also confirmed our intention to legislate at the earliest opportunity to remove the current block on Homes England’s role in London.

Support for SME housebuilders

Our changes ensure more homes are built—but we are determined in particular to support the SME housebuilders who play such a vital role in our communities. To that end, we have expanded the £1 billion ENABLE Build guarantee scheme to increase the amount of finance available to SMEs by covering loans issued by non-bank lenders and seeded portfolios. We are also helping to tackle SME access to land by introducing SME-only sales of Homes England land, with pilots starting in the south-east and midlands later this year, and developing a pipeline of future small sites by parcelling Homes England land.

In addition, a number of community infrastructure levy (CIL) charging authorities have set higher rates for minor sites (of less than 10 units, and lower in designated rural areas) to reflect the fact that affordable housing is not sought on these sites. This is not within the spirit of the Government’s policy on small sites. The Government will be updating CIL guidance to make it clear that CIL-charging authorities should consider the impact of CIL rates on SME developers and should not set higher residential CIL rates on minor development. This will apply to new and revised charging schedules.

Public sector land

It is also crucial for the Government to release more land for housing development. That is why we are working with the three main landowning departments—the Department for Transport, the Ministry of Defence and the Department for Health and Social Care, as well as Homes England—which have pledged to set aside suitable unused or unwanted land for housing. So far Departments have pledged to release Government-owned land for at least 15,000 homes before the end of March 2025, and we have set up a ministerial taskforce to assure and accelerate delivery over the longer term.

Short-term lets

All of these actions will help further bolster the supply of new homes—but the Government are also as committed to making the best use of our current housing stock. While short-term lets are an integral part of the UK’s visitor accommodation offer and bring a range of benefits, in too many of our communities uncontrolled growth of short-term lets is causing concern. This is particularly, but not exclusively, where they are concentrated in coastal and tourist areas; affecting the availability and affordability of homes for local people, and contributing as a result to wider homelessness pressures; making it difficult to monitor compliance with key health and safety regulations; and in some instances causing nuisance to local residents and a broader “hollowing out” of communities.

In recognition of these challenges, the Culture Secretary and I consulted on interlinked proposals last year to establish a register of short-term lets and introduce planning measures to provide local areas with more control over future growth. Our aim with these measures has been to get the balance right between protecting local communities and enabling our visitor economy to continue to thrive.

Today I can confirm that the Government will introduce a mandatory national register of short-term lets. That will help local authorities understand which properties are being let out in their area. We will also create a new planning use class for short-term lets. That will apply to properties that are not someone’s sole or main home. We will implement associated permitted development rights allowing for a property to be changed from a standard residential dwelling to this new use class and vice versa. Local authorities will be able to remove these rights and require full planning permission, as they can with any permitted development right.

Separately, where people want to let out their main home for short periods of time, we will provide flexibility and certainty to homeowners that they can do so without the need to apply for planning permission.

Further details of these measures will be set out when the Government formally respond to the respective consultations—including the timeline for implementation of the register, the use class, and the individual permitted development rights. The changes will be introduced from this summer. The Government want a light-touch, low-cost and simple registration scheme and do not wish to disproportionately apply new regulation on property owners that let out their home infrequently. As such, we will continue to consider the case for the potential application of a threshold in finalising the register.

Second staircases guidance

Finally, our focus is of course not just on building more but on building safely. In October last year I announced intended transitional arrangements to accompany new guidance relating to second staircases in new residential buildings in England above 18 metres. As I said then, this is the latest step in a continuing effort to ensure that new buildings are constructed, managed and maintained to the very highest standards.

The Building Safety Regulator will publish the new guidance on second staircases before the end of March, making clear the need for a second staircase in new multi-occupancy residential buildings that have a top occupied storey above 18 metres, and confirming that evacuation lifts will not be called for as a matter of course, providing housebuilders with the clarity they need to progress developments.

The revised statutory guidance, known as approved document B, represents general guidance: it will not be exhaustive, and the design of each high-rise building will continue to receive individual scrutiny from experts, now via the Building Safety Regulator. The fire safety design for any higher risk buildings above 18 metres will be subject to review at planning gateway 1 by fire safety professionals, and by a multi-disciplinary team at gateway 2, who must be satisfied that the final fire safety provisions are appropriate to the requirements of each individual building. It remains the responsibility of the owners and those carrying out building works, including developers, to demonstrate that the functional requirements of the building regulations have been met.

A second staircase will provide new buildings with additional resilience to support exit from the building and enhanced options for firefighting in the rare event of a catastrophic incident. This evolution of safety standards will be a helpful addition to existing building safety measures that we have already introduced and, alongside the enhanced scrutiny of the new building safety regime, will provide people with further confidence in the safety of new homes.