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Written Statements

Volume 689: debated on Tuesday 30 January 2007

Written Statements

Tuesday 30 January 2007

Coroners Bill

My right honourable friend the Minister of State has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

I am announcing today my intention to strengthen the public protection role of coroners in England and Wales. In the draft Coroners Bill, published last June, there was provision for coroners to make reports to organisations which had the power to take action to prevent future deaths. Arising from the consultation process on the draft Bill, I have strengthened this proposal. I plan to:

ensure that organisations are required to respond to such reports;

provide that the chief coroner, who will be appointed under the Bill, will monitor the reports made and the responses received; and

require that the chief coroner provide a summary in his or her annual report to the Lord Chancellor, who will lay the report before this House.

Families often express their wish that something positive might come out of a coroner's inquiry and hope that relevant agencies will take preventive action so that the death of their family member is not in vain. The increased focus on the ability to learn lessons, and to share information and best practice, will help families to achieve closure, as well as prevent future deaths, and address public interest issues about health and safety.

These new powers will also build on the steps that coroners are already taking, in advance of legislation, to improve the public protection aspect of their role and will assist organisations to identify and remedy problems.

Elections: Guidance for Civil Servants

My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in the Cabinet Office is today issuing guidance to civil servants in UK departments on the principles which they should observe in relation to the conduct of government business before the forthcoming elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales, and to local authorities in England and Scotland.

The guidance sets out the principles on the need to maintain the political impartiality of the Civil Service, and the need to ensure that public resources are not used for party-political purposes, and sets out the sensitive periods when the guidance comes into force for each election.

Copies of the guidance will be placed in the Library for the reference of noble Lords. It will also be available on the Cabinet Office website at www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/propriety_and_ethics/publications/pdf/2007electionguidance.pdf.

EU: Justice and Home Affairs Informal Council

The Informal Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) Council was held in Dresden on 15 and 16 January 2007. Joan Ryan and I attended on behalf of the UK. I thought it would be useful if I were to outline the main issues that were discussed at the council. Since it was an informal council, no formal decisions were taken.

The German presidency opened the council by outlining briefly its JHA programme plans for the duration of its tenure.

The presidency then invited discussion on the possible incorporation of the Prüm treaty into EU law. The treaty, signed by seven member states on 27 May 2005, is designed to intensify cross-border police co-operation, especially in the fight against terrorism, cross-border crime and illegal immigration. It offers a model for information exchange in three areas: DNA, fingerprints and vehicle registration. The presidency has made it clear that it attaches significant importance to the incorporation of Prüm and sought views at the informal on such incorporation and whether it should be in whole or limited to only parts of the treaty.

There was consensus among member states that work should be taken forward on incorporating the third pillar elements of the Prüm Treaty (essentially the information-sharing parts) into EU law. The UK made clear that it supported practical co-operation in the areas of law enforcement and that it saw considerable value in transposing the Third-Pillar elements into EU law, subject to further consideration of whether this should be on an exact one-to-one basis. The UK stressed that whatever mechanism was agreed for incorporation, sufficient time needed to be allowed for national parliaments to scrutinise arrangements. It would be important, too, to consider fully the cost implications. The presidency noted that there was consensus to take work forward and that, in the light of the discussion, it would bring forward a proposal in advance of the February formal council.

The presidency then invited views on ideas for developing the post-2009 home affairs JHA programme and suggested that the next multi-annual work programme should be prepared by an informal group made up of the six member states holding the presidency between 2007 and 2009, together with the Commission and the European Parliament. In addition, such an advisory group could be assisted by specific experts designated ad personam. Other member states would be able to submit input to the group at all stages, and the presidency highlighted the value it attached to the views of all in the process. The views of the advisory group would be fed into the formal discussions that would take place among all member states within the council.

In discussion, member states were generally positive, in principle, subject to the need for full transparency and openness with other member states throughout the process. The Commission and the UK both noted that work on the post-2009 programme should not detract from the ongoing work that the EU has to do in implementing the existing Hague programme and the need for any such group to reflect the different legal models (such as the common law) which existed in member states. The presidency concluded that it would consider the way ahead with the Commission, and return to the issues at the February JHA council.

In the discussion on migration, the presidency sought discussion on how best to react to the current migratory challenges facing the EU, building on the joint paper submitted by the G6 member states following their meeting in Stratford-upon-Avon in October 2006 and the European Council conclusions of December 2006. In particular, it highlighted the need to focus on closer co-operation with regard to return measures and border protection; the strengthening of Frontex (the borders agency); improved information-sharing; and the more extensive use of biometrics. In addition, it sought views on further work in relation to readmission agreements; bilateral partnerships between EU member states and third countries; circular migration; and the promotion of information-sharing between asylum authorities.

All member states supported the implementation of the December 2006 European Council conclusions and the global approach to migration. A number called for more resources to be given to Frontex.

Under the item on e-justice, the presidency introduced its pilot project on the exchange of criminal records. It noted that a key question was whether any centralised system or network was needed, or whether it might be better simply to join up existing member-state databases. The UK said that it favoured the use of existing systems, as did a significant number of other member states. I pressed other member states to look hard at their procedures for sharing conviction data at the moment, and at including fingerprints, while recognising that the UK was far from perfect itself. I also indicated that the UK strongly supported the development of e-justice, especially in the order for payment and was looking positively at joining the presidency pilot project on the exchange of criminal records. The presidency concluded that there was clear support for further work in this area and that it would consider the setting up of a working group to take this forward.

On violent video games, the presidency showed one recently banned in Germany. The Commission undertook to come forward with a communication setting out ideas, such as a forum for producers and Governments. The presidency suggested looking at better European co-ordination of restrictions, better information exchange on banned games and a discussion of the procedures for classifying and banning games.

On family law, the presidency argued for applicable law rules for divorce and inheritance. The UK, supported by five other member states, maintained its position that applicable law rules would bring significant problems of applying foreign law rules in EU courts, and pressed for mutual recognition, better focused legislation and more use of non-legislative measures.

Local Government: Future Unitary Structures

My honourable friend the Minister for Local Government has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

Our local government White Paper, Strong and Prosperous Communities, made clear that the status quo in two-tier areas is not an option. Accordingly, in parallel with the White Paper’s publication in October 2006 we invited councils in two-tier areas to submit by 25 January 2007 proposals for unitary status. We also invited bids from councils to pioneer as pathfinders new two-tier models.

We have now received 26 bids for unitary status and five pathfinder bids. These are:

Unitary Bids

Councils Submitting Proposals

Proposed Unitary Structure

1. Bedford Borough Council

Bedford unitary

2. Bedfordshire County Council

County unitary

3. Cheshire County Council

County unitary

4. Chester City Council

2 unitary option for Cheshire

5. Cornwall County Council

County unitary

6. Cornwall districts

County unitary

7. Cumbria County Council

County unitary

8. Durham County Council

County unitary

9. Durham districts

Future unitary status for county area

10. East Riding District (an existing unitary)

East Riding and Selby

11. Ellesmere Port and Neston Borough Council

3 unitary option for Cheshire

12. Exeter City Council

Exeter unitary

13. Ipswich Borough Council

Ipswich unitary

14. Lancaster City Council

Lancaster unitary

15. Mid Bedfordshire District Council & South Bedfordshire District Council

Unitary covering both districts

16. North Yorkshire County Council

County unitary

17. Northumberland County Council

County unitary

18. Northumberland districts councils

2 unitary option for Northumberland

19. Norwich City Council

Norwich unitary 

20. Oxford City Council

3 unitary option for Oxfordshire

21. Pendle Borough Council & Burnley Borough Council

Burnley and Pendle unitary

22. Preston City Council

Preston unitary

23. Shropshire County Council

County unitary 

24. Somerset County Council

County unitary 

25. South Somerset District Council

East Somerset unitary 

26. Wiltshire County Council

County Unitary

Pathfinder Proposals

1. Buckinghamshire

2. Dorset

3. Hertfordshire

4. Lincolnshire

5. Suffolk

All bids will now be carefully considered. Unitary proposals will be assessed against the criteria specified in the invitation to decide which proposals will go forward for stakeholder consultation. We intend to announce our decisions in March, and launch the consultation at the end of March with a 12-week consultation period.

The criteria are that any change to future unitary structures must be affordable, and be supported by a broad cross-section of partners and stakeholders; and that the future structures must provide strong, effective and accountable leadership, deliver genuine opportunities for neighbourhood flexibility and empowerment, and deliver value for money and equity on public services.

Following the stakeholder consultation on proposals, the Government will reassess those proposals and intend to announce by the end of July 2007 which proposals will proceed to implementation.

We will also assess the pathfinder bids, and intend to announce after the March announcement on unitary proposals which pathfinders we will be working with as they develop their innovative two-tier models.

The period for submitting bids has now ended, and we have no plans to issue any further invitations. Councils everywhere need to ensure that their focus remains on delivering improved outcomes for their communities by working effectively with all partners and stakeholders.

In those areas for which there are one or more unitary proposals, all councils should now avoid any action that might prejudice the future, whatever the outcome of the bid. In all other areas, where it is already clear that the two-tier structure will continue, we expect councils to pursue improved ways of working together, delivering for their communities that strong local leadership, increased efficiency, better value for money, and reduced council tax potentially offered by unitary options.

National Asset Register

My right honourable friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Stephen Timms) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

I have today laid before Parliament an updated National Asset Register. A decade on from its first publication, this revised and updated edition highlights the Government's commitment to transparency, accountability and good asset management. The register includes information on over 370 different government bodies, is the most comprehensive list of central government assets and maintains the UK's position at the forefront of international best practice in public sector asset management.

The past decade has seen substantial growth in public sector investment. In the Comprehensive Spending Review we are seeking to improve asset management practice within the public sector, and the National Asset Register is a key tool in helping to achieve this. By providing a clear and comprehensive picture of the current asset base, it will encourage departments to make the best possible use of the assets they own and to make better informed decisions over future acquisitions and disposals. The improvement of asset management practices will enhance the efficiency and effectiveness of the UK public sector.

Northern Ireland: Independent Monitoring Commission

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Peter Hain) has made the following Ministerial Statement.

I have received the thirteenth report of the Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC). This report has been made under Articles 4 and 7 of the international agreement that established the commission and it reports on levels of paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland. I have considered the content of the report and I am today bringing it before Parliament. I have placed copies in the Library of the House.

With regard to PIRA, the IMC has identified a significant number of developments in the three months under review since its last report; all these developments have been positive and have provided further confirmation of its view that the leadership is fully committed to a political path and the successful implementation of that strategy.

As the IMC notes, the decision taken by the Sinn Fein ard fheis on 28 January to support policing and criminal justice was “a very major development” and achieved through the commitment and efforts of the Sinn Fein leadership. While it notes that opposing opinions were expressed during the course of the ard fheis, it praises the fact that such differences were expressed by political means and democratic debate. It concludes that,

“the efforts invested by the leadership of the republican movement in presenting the arguments in favour of the change were further substantial evidence of their commitment to the democratic process”.

In terms of terrorist activities, the IMC has noted a,

“continued deterioration of terrorist capability”.

It has also noted that members who had previously shown interest in acquiring small arms,

“appear not to have followed their inclination through”,

in order to obey the instructions of the leadership. It has further noted that PIRA has not been responsible for any shootings or assaults and has not conducted intelligence-gathering for any unlawful purposes; neither has it engaged in any sectarian violence, intimidation nor other forms of crime. In all the above areas, the IMC states that:

“The directions from the PIRA leadership to members have remained clear and consistent. Terrorism and violence have been abandoned”.

On loyalism, the IMC concludes that individuals have continued to show leadership in attempting to,

“guide the respective organisations away from criminality and towards both involvement in community development and democratic politics”.

However, it characterises progress across the loyalist organisations as “patchy” and urges that all should work to quicken the pace of change.

The Government believe that this report removes the final, major impediment to the restoration of stable and lasting devolution in Northern Ireland. It is now for the politicians to grasp the historic opportunity which lies before them in the coming weeks.

Once again, I am grateful to the commission for its submission of this report and for its careful analysis.