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Written Statements

Volume 696: debated on Wednesday 5 December 2007

Written Statements

Wednesday 5 December 2007

Animals (Scientific Procedures) Inspectorate

My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Identity (Meg Hillier) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

I am pleased to announce that Dr Judy MacArthur Clark CBE DVMS DLAS DipLAM FIBiol MRCVS has been appointed as the next chief inspector of the Home Office Animals (Scientific Procedures) Inspectorate. She will succeed Dr Derek Fry BA MA DPhil BM BCh, who is retiring. Dr MacArthur Clark is a distinguished veterinary surgeon whose past appointments include chair of the Farm Animals Welfare Council and president of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. I would also like to record my thanks to Dr Fry for his many years of dedicated service to the inspectorate. Dr MacArthur Clark will take up appointment on 10 December 2007.

EU: Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council

My right honourable friend the Minister of State, Department of Health (Dawn Primarolo), has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

The Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council will meet on 5 and 6 December 2007. The health and consumer affairs part of the council will be taken on 6 December.

Items on the main agenda are: health and migration in the European Union; the EU health strategy; a Commission communication on organ donation and transplantation; an EU strategy on nutrition, overweight and obesity; and a progress report on combating HIV/AIDS within the EU and in the neighbouring countries.

Ministers will have a policy debate on the EU health strategy and will be asked to adopt draft council conclusions on this. The Commission’s proposals aim to develop a strategy for 2008-13 for actions at EU level which will add most value to member states’ health priorities. The UK is broadly supportive of the strategy, which focuses on many of the UK's own priorities for EU action, and can support the conclusions.

There will also be a debate on health and migration in the EU and the presidency will ask Ministers to adopt draft council conclusions on this issue. The Portuguese presidency chose health and migration as its theme in recognition of the fact that migrant populations are often exposed to health inequalities. The UK broadly supports the conclusions.

Also tabled for adoption are council conclusions on a Commission White Paper on a strategy for Europe on nutrition, overweight and obesity-related issues, and a Commission communication on organ donation and transplantation. The UK is fully supportive of these conclusions as drafted. There will also be a presidency progress report on combating HIV/AIDS within the EU and in the neighbouring countries.

Over lunch, the presidency will chair an informal ministerial discussion on the Commission’s forthcoming proposals for a community framework on health services.

Under any other business, there will be information from the presidency on its health conferences and on draft council conclusions on environment and health, which are to be discussed in the Environmental Council later this month. There will also be information items from the Commission on a community framework on health services, a strategy for Europe on mental health, health security related matters, the Commission’s high-level group on health services and medical care and the framework convention on tobacco control; and the Slovenian delegation will provide information on the work programme for its forthcoming presidency.

EU: Justice and Home Affairs Council

The final Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) Council under the Portuguese presidency will be held in Brussels on 6 and 7 December 2007. My right honourable friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Jack Straw), my right honourable friend the Home Secretary (Jacqui Smith), my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Bridget Prentice), the Solicitor-General for Scotland (Frank Mulholland) and my honourable friend the Parliamentary-Under Secretary of State, Home Office (Meg Hillier), will represent the United Kingdom. The following issues will be discussed at the council.

The council will begin with a joint meeting of the JHA and Employment Councils looking at migration, employment and the Lisbon strategy. The Lisbon strategy aims at making the EU the most competitive economy in the world and achieving full employment by 2010. The strategy is based on three pillars: economic, social and environmental. The focus of the Lisbon strategy is therefore growth and jobs. The Government support this approach but want to emphasise that a balance needs to be struck between stimulating labour migration and the management of integration and cohesion, enforcement of the rules and combating illegal migration.

It will then move into mixed committee with Iceland, Switzerland and Norway. That session will begin with a discussion on the full application of the provisions of the Schengen acquis to the member states that joined the European Union in 2004. A formal decision will be made on lifting the internal borders of nine of the 10 countries involved. There will also be updates on the Schengen information system (SIS) communication network and the SIS II programme.

There will also be a state-of-play report on the directive on common standards and procedures in member states for illegally staying third-country nationals. The directive is based on the premise that an effective returns policy is a crucial part in the fight against illegal immigration. The UK has not opted into this as we are not yet convinced of the need for common standards in this area.

There will be a discussion on the weapons directive in both the mixed committee and subsequently under the main agenda. The presidency will be seeking a political agreement on a first reading deal with the European Parliament. The Government are happy with the text as it stands, having secured some important amendments, particularly in relation to the application of criminal sanctions and the arrangements for allowing young persons under 18 to continue to shoot with parental permission or at approved centres. We are aware that the House of Lords Select Committee on the European Union has yet to clear this from scrutiny, but hope it will be able to do so on the basis of the further information we have recently provided.

Under the main council agenda, the presidency is hoping to adopt council conclusions on mobility partnerships and circular migration in the context of the global approach to migration. The Government support the council conclusions and are keen for progress to be made under the EU's global approach to migration. We believe it is important to build effective partnerships with third countries to help manage migration issues more effectively. These partnerships should cover all aspects of migration—legal, illegal, and migration and development. Mobility partnerships and circular migration are only two aspects of the global approach to migration.

There will be a package of counterterrorism items discussed in the main agenda at the council. In particular, there will be an opportunity for Ministers to consider the EU counterterrorism co-ordinator's discussion paper on implementation of the EU counterterrorism strategy. The Government have welcomed his proposals, particularly for a common EU policy on data sharing, but will wish to explore in more detail some of the ideas raised, for example, about future work on the use of special investigative techniques. Draft council conclusions will also be agreed on enhancing the security of explosives. The UK welcomes the Portuguese presidency's continued drive to finalise these wide-ranging and complex pieces of work on explosives. There will also be a presentation and first exchange of views on the amending framework decision on combating terrorism. The Government support the Commission's proposals and look forward to working with the Commission to develop complementary measures against terrorist use of the internet.

The presidency will seek to draw a line under the initial discussions on chapters 6, 7 and 9 of the draft Europol council decision, which deal with organisational issues, confidentiality rules and miscellaneous provisions respectively. The Europol working group will now focus its attention on the remaining chapters of the draft council decision. The Government support the proposed drafts, which include helpful revisions that strengthen the Europol management board and provide more oversight. However, these chapters will need to be revisited and revised again at working-group level early next year once the work of three expert groups dealing with staffing and budgetary issues has been completed. This will provide the opportunity for further discussion before the entire council decision is taken to the council for agreement.

There will be a state of play report on e-justice and an exchange of views on work planned for the first half of 2008. The UK supports the overall initiative and the priorities which have been identified for next year.

Rome 1 (applicable law in contractual obligations) is on the agenda for a presidency report on the First Reading agreement with the European Parliament. The UK did not opt into this dossier at the start of the negotiations. We therefore have no vote in council. We have, however, negotiated significant improvements to the text which deal satisfactorily with the points which gave rise to our decision not to opt in, and acknowledge the good co-operation with our European partners that has made this possible. The Government will shortly embark on a process of consultation before deciding whether the UK should now signify its wish to accept the measure, under the terms of our protocol to title IV of the treaty.

The proposed directive on protection of the environment through criminal law is on the agenda for a possible general approach, although this is considered premature by some member states. The UK supports the presidency's desire to progress this dossier, but considers that further detailed work is required.

The presidency is hoping to agree council conclusions with a view to work next year on the development of Eurojust. The Government support the conclusions in recognising the value of Eurojust's work, but have made clear that any future proposals should focus on ensuring that Eurojust fulfils its potential within its current powers. The Government have made clear that we would not therefore support some of the more far-reaching proposals in the recent Commission communication on the future of Eurojust and the European judicial network.

The presidency proposes to seek a general approach on the draft framework decision on the recognition and supervision of suspended sentences, alternative sanctions and conditional sentences. The Government welcome the work done on this instrument, though some fundamental issues remain outstanding and agreement will be conditional on finding a satisfactory outcome on the entire instrument.

The presidency will give an update about the state of play of the European supervision order proposal, and is likely to present the revised draft text. No substantive discussion is expected at the meeting. The first working group to consider this revised version is to take place on 11 December.

There will be a report on the outcome of the EU-Russia JHA ministerial held in Brussels on 22 and 23 November.

There will, also, be a report on the outcome of the Hague diplomatic conference which concluded work on a draft convention on the international recovery of child support and other forms of family maintenance. The Government welcome the outcome of that conference.

A lunch for Interior Ministers will also be held on 6 December with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. A possible topic for discussion will be the new Green Paper on the second phase of the common European asylum system and the next steps, but it may also focus on ongoing/protracted refugee situations.

Health: Stroke Patients

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health (Alan Johnson) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

The department is publishing today a new national strategy to modernise service provision and deliver the newest treatments for stroke. Between 9 July and 12 October 2007, a consultation on a draft document was held, and over 1,000 responses were made, of which more than 800 were from individuals who had experienced stroke and their carers. These responses have helped to shape the development of the new strategy.

The strategy is constructed around 20 “quality markers” of a good stroke service covering four key areas: raising awareness and prevention; the importance of rapid assessment and treatment; provision of rehabilitation and care after stroke; and developing the workforce to meet these markers.

Awareness

A push on raising awareness of stroke symptoms among the public and the medical profession to ensure they know to react quickly—alongside wider work to encourage and support healthy lifestyles and manage risk indicators such as high blood pressure and cholesterol.

Acting on the warnings

Transient ischaemic attacks (TIA)—also known as “minor strokes”—are a clear warning sign that a further stroke may occur, and the time window for action is very short. In about half of cases this is a matter of days. Stroke as a medical emergency: getting people to the right hospital quickly—where there are specialists who can deliver acute treatments including thrombolysis—will save lives. This means immediate transfer of suspected stroke patients to specialist centre—offering clinical assessment, scans and thrombolysis. Stroke unit quality: stroke unit care is the single biggest factor that can improve a person’s outcomes following a stroke. Successful stroke units are those which are able to meet the needs of the individuals. People must get there on day one and spend the majority of their time on a stroke unit.

Improving support long term in the community

This focuses particularly on intensive rehabilitation immediately after stroke, which can limit disability and improve recovery. Health, social care and voluntary services need to work together to provide the long-term support people need, as well as access to advocacy, care navigation, practical and peer support.

Workforce

People with stroke need to be treated by a skilled and competent workforce. Resources to assist services in planning their workforce requirements are signposted in this strategy. Central funding will be made available for more stroke physician training places and training packages, particularly for specialist nurses and allied health professionals. Service improvement: this new vision for stroke care demands services working together in networks, looking across all aspects of the care pathway.

The strategy has been placed in the Library and copies are available for honourable Members in the Vote Office.

ICL Plastics Ltd/ICL Tech Ltd Inquiry

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Peter Hain) has made the following Statement.

The Lord Advocate, Elish Angiolini QC, and I announced on 1 October 2007 a joint public inquiry under the Inquires Act 2005 into the explosion on 11 May 2004 at a plastics factory operated by ICL Plastics Ltd and ICL Tech Ltd in Maryhill Glasgow, which killed nine people and injured 33 others.

I am today announcing that Lord Gill, the Lord Justice Clerk, has been appointed as chairman of the inquiry and Roy Martin QC as leading counsel. I can confirm that the chairman has been consulted on the terms of reference for the inquiry and we have agreed that these are:

to inquire into the circumstances leading up to the incident on 11 May 2004 at the premises occupied by the ICL group of companies, Grovepark Mills, Maryhill, Glasgow;

to consider the safety and related issues arising from such an inquiry, including the regulation of the activities at Grovepark Mills;

to make recommendations in the light of the lessons identified from the causation and circumstances leading up to the incident; and

to report as soon as practicable.

The Lord Advocate and I have agreed that there will be no other appointments to the inquiry panel.

Immigration: Migration Reform

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department (Jacqui Smith) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

Over the next year, the Government will bring in the biggest shake-up of the immigration system for over 40 years. As part of this, key aspects of our migration reform programme are being announced today, including: a statement of intent which sets out how the points system will work for highly skilled migrants; two consultation documents, one on proposals to tackle forced marriage and another on proposals to introduce a pre-entry English-language requirement for spouses; and the results of an initial consultation on simplifying immigration law.

Statement of intent for highly skilled migrants

One of the key changes to reform migration will include a firmer, faster and fairer Australian-style points system. The new system will be simpler and more transparent, ensuring that only those migrants Britain needs can come to work or study in the UK. We are creating a Unified Border Force, bringing together the Border and Immigration Agency, Customs and UK Visas. The new agency will provide tougher policing at ports and airports with a highly visible, uniformed presence, counting all migrants in and out of the UK; and we are introducing compulsory identity cards for foreign nationals, meaning that we will know who is here and what they are entitled to do.

We will launch the points system in under 100 days, beginning with highly skilled migrants and sponsor registration. The statement of intent sets out how the points system will work for highly skilled migrants, showing how points will be awarded and the robust checks that will be made on applications.

The economic benefits of migration are clear. Migrants put far more into the Treasury purse than they take out. Migrants contributed an estimated 15 per cent to 20 per cent to the UK's growth in 2001-05, worth around £6 billion to output growth in 2006. Highly skilled migrants are key to Britain winning these benefits, filling crucial roles in financial and public services, education and health, ICT and business. Following the success of the existing highly skilled migrant programme, the purpose of the high-skilled tier of the points system is to attract and retain the most talented migrants who have the most to contribute economically.

The points system will simplify around 80 immigration routes into just five tiers:

Tier 1—Highly skilled individuals to contribute to growth and productivity;

Tier 2—Skilled workers with a job offer to fill gaps in the UK labour force;

Tier 3—Low-skilled workers to fill specific temporary labour shortages. This tier will be introduced only if there is a specific need;

Tier 4—Students; and

Tier 5—Youth mobility and temporary workers: people coming to the UK to satisfy primarily non-economic objectives.

The highly skilled tier will replace eight current immigration routes. This tier is designed to admit highly skilled individuals who wish to come here to work, to set up or join a business, investors, and international students who have studied here and wish to seek employment. It will embrace:

general—incorporating the highly skilled migrants programme;

entrepreneurs—combining the current businesspeople and innovators categories;

investors—incorporating the current investors category; and

post-study work—bringing together two staying-on schemes for international graduates who have studied in Scotland and the rest of the UK. This will boost the UK's attractiveness as a place to study, bringing benefits to our educational establishments.

The points system replaces subjective decision-making with an objective, transparent process that is more robust against abuse. Highly skilled applicants will need to show they have enough points to qualify to enter or remain in the UK. Highly skilled applicants will earn points for their skills and potential for economic success, competence in English language and ability to support themselves and their dependants. The points pass mark for the highly skilled tier of the points system will be informed by the work of the Migration Advisory Committee on economic needs and that of the Migration Impacts Forum on the wider effects of migration.

We are publishing this document today so that those affected can prepare. The document explains the transitional arrangements that will be put in place to handle the transfer from old to new systems. We are also giving people the opportunity to comment on them. Statements of intent about skilled, temporary and student migrants will follow next year.

Marriage to partners from overseas

The consultations on proposals to tackle forced marriage and to introduce a pre-entry English-language requirement for spouses fulfil the promises made in our strategy Securing the UK Border, published in March 2007, to consult on new arrangements for marriage visas, including an English-language requirement. Copies of the consultation documents have been placed in the House Library.

Forced marriage is a form of aggression that puts women in particular at risk of harm and of being exploited. The Home Office, together with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, has already made progress in tackling forced marriage by creating the Forced Marriage Unit in 2005. The unit handles up to 300 cases per year.

Around a third of the cases involve children, some as young as 13. We believe that increased protection against coercion and potentially violent or abusive situations is called for. The problem of forced marriage has not disappeared so we feel it right to take measures to protect vulnerable people from these pressures.

The Government are aware that this is a topic with many sensitive aspects, but three principles stand out as important. First, no one should be pressurised into sponsoring a marriage visa. Secondly, those who wish to sponsor a marriage partner from overseas should be encouraged to establish an independent adult life here first and to see that as an important way of helping their partner integrate. Thirdly, spouses who are abandoned by a person they have sponsored are entitled to an assurance that their sponsorship will not be abused for further advantages.

We recognise that forced marriage is not the same as arranged marriage. The Government are not expressing any concern about arranged marriages, which we know to be a part of many cultural traditions, and which involve the consent of both parties. But young British citizens must never be forced into relationships they do not want at a time in their lives when they could be establishing themselves as adults through further education or through work.

For this reason, one of the proposals we are suggesting is that the minimum age at which a person can sponsor a marriage partner from overseas should be raised from 18 to 21. The same minimum age would apply to the person being sponsored.

We are also considering introducing a code of practice, which would say how an application for a marriage visa should progress if one of the parties is identified as vulnerable. This would build on work carried out by entry clearance officers in relation to in-depth interviews with couples. It would enable views to be given in confidence and assess whether sufficient scope had been given to protect the potentially vulnerable party.

We are also looking at whether we should do more to investigate allegations of abuse of marriage for immigration advantage after entry—how this might be investigated and what other provisions might be necessary for safeguarding women in particular after the entry of a sponsored spouse.

The consultation on the proposal to introduce a pre-entry English-language requirement for spouses discusses the key issues around how a requirement of this nature might work in practice. People who apply for a marriage visa principally do so with the intention of joining their loved ones in the UK on a permanent basis. They are given full access to the labour market on arrival and are able to apply for full settlement after two years providing they meet the criteria in the Immigration Rules. It is right therefore that we should consider ways to assist a spouse integrate into life here, which includes promoting the development of English-language skills at an early stage.

We are seeking views on the proficiency level at which the requirement would be set, on how we would make language learning accessible universally and on how the spouse might demonstrate that a language requirement had been met.

The consultation periods will run for 12 weeks and the final date for responses is 27 February 2008. Once the process has concluded and views have been considered, we will report on the results of both consultations and any proposed changes to the Immigration Rules relating to marriage.

Simplification

In June 2007 my honourable friend the Minister of State for Borders and Immigration (Liam Byrne) published an initial consultation paper on simplifying immigration law. Simplification of the legal framework will support the wider development and transformation of the Border and Immigration Agency, and assist in the achievement of its strategic objectives.

Detailed analytical work is now under way to examine the existing law and the options for change. Next year we will consult on more specific issues and publish proposals for pre-legislative scrutiny.

Copies of the statement of intent, the consultations on tackling forced marriage and introducing a pre-entry English-language requirement for spouses, and responses to the simplification consultation have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses. The documents are also available on the Border and Immigration Agency's website at:

www.ind.homeoffice.gov.uk/6353/aboutus/ (statement of intent);

www.bia.homeoffice.gov.uk/lawandpolicy/consultationdocuments/(marriageconsultation documents);

www.bia.homeoffice.gov.uk/lawandpolicy/consultationdocuments/closedconsultations (simplification responses).

Learning Disability

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health (Alan Johnson) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

The department has published the consultation document Valuing People NowFrom Progress to Transformation. The document has been placed in the Library and copies are available for honourable Members in the Vote Office.

The document seeks people’s views on the priorities for learning disability for the next three years, 2008 to 2011. It builds on the vision set out in Valuing People (2001), which was the first White Paper on learning disability for 30 years—a vision based on the four main principles of rights, independence, choice and inclusion. The consultation document recognises that the vision set out in Valuing People was right; it also recognises that consideration needs to be given to new issues that were not covered in Valuing People and how we keep the agenda moving in the right direction as we move to tackle some of the key challenges in reaching equality of access and citizenship.

Valuing People Now—From Progress to Transformation is a cross-government consultation setting out the agenda across a range of issues including health and well-being, housing, employment, education and community inclusion. The House is aware of some of the deeply disturbing and unacceptable reports that there have been about the treatment of people with learning disabilities, and the failure to ensure their fundamental rights and choices as members of our society. It is vital not only that we see an end to cases such as those, but that real change is achieved to ensure that people with learning disabilities have equality of citizenship through independent living. This consultation seeks people’s views on what the priorities should be over the next three years, how we can deliver on those priorities and how we will know that we are achieving change.

The consultation will run until 11 March 2008 with a view to my department setting out proposals for the next three years, based on the responses that we receive to the consultation, in a document to be published by summer 2008.

Local Government: Future Unitary Structures

My honourable friend the Minister for Local Government (John Healey) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

On 25 July 2007 I announced to the House the nine unitary proposals that the Secretary of State was minded to implement, having considered all the available relevant information, if and when the necessary provisions of the then Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill were enacted. In four cases—proposals from Bedford Borough Council, Chester City Council, Exeter City Council and Ipswich Borough Council—we recognised that there were risks to their achieving the outcomes specified by the affordability criterion. We asked these councils to undertake further work and submit additional information on the financial viability of their proposals.

I also announced that the Secretary of State was minded to request the Boundary Committee of the Electoral Commission to advise on Norwich City Council’s proposal, and not to implement the remaining 16 unitary proposals that we had received in response to our invitation to councils issued on 26 October 2006.

That invitation reflected our belief that introducing unitary local government is a way of removing the weaknesses found in many existing council structures based on county, district and parish tiers. Those existing structures often add to public confusion, create fragmented and sometimes competing local leadership, and lead to duplication, inefficiency and co-ordination failures in service delivery.

Since July we have received a range of further information and representations about the unitary proposals, including in the case of the four proposals on which we sought additional financial information. The relevant provisions of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 came into effect on 1 November.

The Secretary of State is therefore now able to take her decisions as to which unitary proposals to implement under her statutory powers. The basis of these decisions is the Secretary of State’s assessment of the proposals against the five criteria set out in the original invitation, and which now have the status under the 2007 Act of guidance to which councils should have had regard when making their proposals.

These five criteria are that if change is made and new unitary structures are implemented, then that change should be affordable (first criterion); and be supported by a broad cross-section of partners and stakeholders (second criterion); and that the future structures should provide strong, effective and accountable strategic leadership (third criterion); deliver genuine opportunities for neighbourhood flexibility and empowerment (fourth criterion); and deliver value for money and equity on public services (fifth criterion).

On this basis, having considered all the information and representations now available to her, including all the additional material that she has received since July, the Secretary of State has decided to confirm her earlier “minded to” decisions in all cases, except, as explained below, for the unitary proposals from Exeter City Council and Ipswich Borough Council. In the cases of the Bedfordshire and Cheshire proposals we plan to take decisions in the near future.

Accordingly, she has decided to implement without modification the five unitary proposals listed in Table 1 below. Her judgment is that there is a reasonable likelihood that all these proposals, if implemented, will achieve the outcomes specified by the five criteria.

Table 1—Unitary proposals to be implemented

Councils submitting proposals

Proposed unitary structure

Cornwall County Council

County Unitary

Durham County Council

County Unitary

Northumberland County Council

County Unitary

Shropshire County Council

County Unitary

Wiltshire County Council

County Unitary

We believe that these proposals provide for new and innovative local governance in each of the areas concerned, combining both strong strategic councils and effective arrangements for empowering communities at the most local level. They thus take further the concept of unitary local government developed in the 1990s. They open the door to the creation of new flagship councils which can lead the way on empowering citizens and communities, promoting prosperity and modernising local service delivery to achieve both greater efficiencies and better outcomes. In the areas concerned the number of councils will be reduced from 33 to five. On the basis of councils’ current estimates, the savings from these five proposals, once implemented, will be over £75 million annually, giving councils opportunities for improved services or lower council taxes.

Further, the Secretary of State has decided to take no action on the 14 unitary proposals listed in Table 2 below which were received in response to the original invitation. Her judgment is that there is not a reasonable likelihood of these proposals, if implemented, achieving the outcomes specified by all the five criteria.

Table 2—Unitary Proposals on which no action is to be taken

Councils submitting proposals

Proposed unitary structure

Burnley BC and Pendle BC

Burnley and Pendle Unitary

Cornwall Districts

County Unitary

Cumbria Council

County Unitary

Durham Districts

County Unitary

East Riding Districts

East Riding and Selby Unitary

Ellesmere Port and Neston

3 Unitary Cheshire

Lancaster City Council

Lancaster Unitary

Mid Beds DC and South Beds DC

Unitary covering both Districts

North Yorkshire County Council

County Unitary

Northumberland Districts

2 unitary Northumberland

Oxford City Council

3 Unitary Oxfordshire

Preston City Council

Preston Unitary

Somerset County Council

County Unitary

South Somerset DC

East Somerset Unitary

In addition, the Secretary of State has decided under the 2007 Act to request the Boundary Committee of the Electoral Commission to advise on Norwich City Council’s proposal. She judges that there is not a reasonable likelihood of that proposal, based on the city’s current boundaries, if implemented, achieving all the outcomes specified by the five criteria.

In relation to the unitary proposals from Exeter City Council and Ipswich Borough Council, having regard to the additional material received since July, we judge that these proposals are not reasonably likely to achieve the outcomes specified by the affordability criterion. Accordingly, the Secretary of State’s judgment now is that there is not a reasonable likelihood of them, if implemented, achieving the outcomes specified by all the five criteria. We believe, having regard to the circumstances of Exeter and Ipswich, and the strengths of their proposals in other respects, that there could be alternative unitary proposals covering the whole or part of their wider county area which would achieve those outcomes.

The Secretary of State has thus decided under the 2007 Act to request the Boundary Committee to advise on the Exeter City Council and Ipswich Borough Council unitary proposals, along with Norwich City Council’s proposal. She intends to specify in her request that the matters on which the committee’s advice is sought include whether for the areas affected by these proposals—in each case the city or borough area and the remaining county area—there could be alternative unitary solutions, involving boundary changes, that would meet the five criteria set out in the original invitation.

Under the terms of the Act, it is open to the Boundary Committee, if it sees fit, to make alternative proposals that cross existing county boundaries. We intend our guidance under the 2007 Act to highlight the possibility of the committee making alternative proposals, which may cross the existing Norfolk/Suffolk county boundary or involve changes to the boundaries of the existing Devon unitaries—Plymouth City and Torbay Borough.

Under the Act the Boundary Committee may, in respect of unitary proposals referred to it, recommend that they are implemented or not, or make alternative unitary proposals which may cover a wider area. If it considers it appropriate to submit alternative unitary proposals, the committee has the flexibility it may need under the Act to make unitary proposals on different boundaries which are robust and sustainable and that reflect fully the communities and circumstances of the areas concerned.

In the case of the unitary proposals from Bedford Borough Council and Bedfordshire County Council, I explained to the House on 19 November that the Secretary of State was minded to implement the borough council’s proposal and that she had invited the other councils in Bedfordshire by 17 December to make a proposal for future unitary local government structures in the remainder of the county area. Once we have received and, following any appropriate consultation, assessed any responses to this further invitation, we intend to take our statutory decisions about unitary proposals for Bedfordshire. Meanwhile, on the basis of the information currently available to her, the Secretary of State remains minded to implement Bedford Borough Council’s proposal.

In the case of the unitary proposals for Cheshire, these involve particularly complex issues. There are alternative proposals for the whole area concerned which, in July as I confirmed to the House, we judged reasonably likely to achieve the outcomes specified in the five criteria. We have received a very large volume of detailed information and representations about these proposals since July. We are still considering this material, and may need to seek further clarification on certain matters including from those who have submitted the material. Accordingly, we are deferring today any decisions about these proposals, and intend to make those decisions as soon as we can.

To give effect to our decisions to implement unitary proposals, we intend shortly to lay before the House draft orders under the 2007 Act. Subject to both Houses approving the drafts, we will make the orders as soon as practicable which will provide for the establishment of new unitary local government from 1 April 2009 in the areas concerned, and for key transitional arrangements, including first elections to the new unitary councils. Following consultation with each area’s existing councils, our intention is for May 2008 elections in Durham and Northumberland, and May 2009 elections in Cornwall, Shropshire, and Wiltshire. We expect the Electoral Commission to have put in place new electoral divisions or wards prior to any 2009 elections.

We also intend, following further consultation with councils and other stakeholders, including the trade unions, to make regulations under the 2007 Act making further provision about transitional arrangements, including arrangements for staff, the transfer of assets and liabilities, and finance.

We are committed to applying the principles of the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 2006 (TUPE). Our intention is that all the protections that would apply under the TUPE regulations will apply, together with all that the regulations imply in relation to procedure, as if TUPE legally applied. Our aim, therefore, is that employees’ terms and conditions in the new unitary council will be no less favourable than those which would apply under their existing employer. We expect all affected councils to have early discussions with the trade unions on staffing issues arising from restructuring.

We expect that the appointment of the new unitary councils’ chief executives will be by open competition. We also expect all the new unitary councils to approach their senior appointments on the basis of creating a fresh senior management team fit to lead the new council in its new role.

Overall, through the implementation orders and proposed regulations, we intend to create a clear and robust framework for implementation. Within that framework in each area concerned it is now for all the councils—their members and employees—to work constructively and imaginatively together to deliver a new unitary council that will achieve its full potential for local residents. Local people will rightly expect nothing less than its successful delivery. This is the task now for local government.