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Written Statements

Volume 707: debated on Monday 2 February 2009

Written Statements

Monday 2 February 2009

Armed Forces

Statement

My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Bridget Prentice) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

My right honourable friend the Minister for the Armed Forces and I wish to make the following Statement to the House about the inquests of service personnel who have died overseas. We recognise that every inquest represents the death of someone fighting for this country, and a story of great pain for a bereaved family. We cannot praise enough the job that our personnel do nor pay high enough tribute to the sacrifice which some of them have made.

Today, we are announcing the progress that has been made since the Written Ministerial Statement on 30 October 2008 (Official Report, cols. 36-38WS), with information about the conduct of inquests by the Wiltshire and Swindon and other coroners. This statement gives the position at 27 January, but does not reflect the 17 January death on operations in Afghanistan of Acting Corporal Robinson as the inquest has not yet been opened.

The tables which accompany this Statement again include information about those cases which involve a board of inquiry or a service inquiry (boards of inquiry were replaced on 1 October 2008 by a new system of service inquiries).

Progress with inquests

At the time of the last Statement, our departments reported that 209 inquests had been held since June 2006: 195 into the overseas deaths of service personnel and 14 into the deaths of civilians in Iraq whose bodies were repatriated via RAF Brize Norton or RAF Lyneham.

Since October, a further 11 inquests have been held into the deaths of service personnel who died in operations in Iraq or Afghanistan. This makes a total of 220 inquests held since June 2006.

Since operations commenced in 2001 there have been a total of 244 inquests into the deaths of service personnel who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, including four servicemen who died in the UK of their injuries. In two further cases, no formal inquest was held, but the deaths were taken into consideration during inquest proceedings for those who died in the same incident.

We remain very grateful for the efforts of all the coroners involved in conducting these inquests and unswerving in our support of the independent coronial system.

The Coroners and Justice Bill will make additional provisions for the transfer of cases from one coroner to another in England and Wales—with the chief coroner having a power to transfer cases without the agreement of the coroners concerned—although the approach will remain that only single deaths are subject to transfer.

The improvements to the coroner system contained in the Bill will lead to a better service for all bereaved families, including service families. Improvements include the Charter for Bereaved Families, which sets out the services they should receive from coroners; and a new appeal system to which families will have access.

Open inquests

i Pre-31 March 2007 Fatalities

The Statement in October reported that there were three inquests to be held into the deaths of service personnel in Iraq and Afghanistan whose bodies were repatriated via RAF Brize Norton prior to 31 March 2007. As at 27 January, there is one such inquest remaining; that into the death of Marine Wigley, which will be held in May 2009.

ii Post-1 April 2007 Fatalities

Since October 2007, additional resources have been provided by the Government to ensure that a backlog of inquests will not build up in the Wiltshire and Swindon jurisdiction (since 1 April 2007 fatalities are repatriated via RAF Lyneham). The coroner, Mr Masters, transfers inquests for service personnel to a coroner closer to the bereaved family, where possible.

There are 71 inquests to be concluded into the deaths of service personnel who died in Iraq and Afghanistan whose bodies were repatriated after 1 April 2007 (46 involving deaths in the past six months). Of these, Mr Masters has retained 37 inquests, while 30 inquests are being conducted by coroners closer to the next of kin. Four inquests are awaiting transfer to coroners closer to the next of kin. Inquest hearing dates have been set in two of these cases.

iii. Inquests into the deaths of service personnel who returned home injured

There remain two inquests to be held of service personnel who returned home injured and subsequently died of their injuries.

We shall continue to keep the House informed about progress with the remaining inquests. I have placed tables in the Libraries of both Houses which outline the status of all cases and date of death of each case. Copies are also available in the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office.

Liaison with the Next of Kin

It is of the greatest importance that the next of kin have full information about the progress of the inquest into the death of their loved one.

We remain committed to providing the best possible support to bereaved service families. The Written Ministerial Statement issued on 7 June 2007 by my right honourable friend the then Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Adam Ingram) gave details of the support which was then being provided. Since then, we have increased the number of family members who can travel and stay overnight if necessary, at public expense, to attend the repatriation ceremony; and three family members may attend any pre-inquest hearings, as well as the inquest itself, again at public expense.

Visiting officers, who are appointed to provide liaison between families and the services, fulfil a crucial role, and we continue to give close attention to their selection, training and support.

The Defence Inquests Unit, which was established by the Ministry of Defence on 1 May 2008, now acts as the focal point for all coroners' inquests into the deaths of service personnel and Ministry of Defence civilian personnel who die on, or as a result of injuries sustained during, operations; and those who die as a result of training activity. The unit's principal role is to assist coroners so that they can complete inquests satisfactorily and as quickly as possible. The establishment of this dedicated unit reflects our firm commitment to providing full support of coroners and bereaved families and to learning and implementing all appropriate lessons which emerge from inquests.

Army Nationality Policy

Statement

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence (John Hutton) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

I should like to inform the House that with effect from today the MoD will be introducing an upper limit of 15 per cent on the number of citizens of foreign1 and Commonwealth countries serving in the Royal Logistic Corps (RLC), the Royal Army Dental Corps (RADC) and the Queen Alexandra’s Royal Army Nursing Corps (QARANC).

In making this Statement, I should like to record my regret at the unfortunate handling of this issue in this House last week. The unauthorised leak to the media of this story went directly against our intention that this House should be the first to hear of the issue. Following the delay to the Armed Forces personnel debate, we should have reviewed the timing of this Statement. It was certainly not our intent in any way to fail to give this House the proper opportunity to learn of and consider this issue.

We have concluded that in the interests of operational effectiveness, a 15 per cent limit on foreign and Commonwealth nationals in these areas of the Army is both necessary and proportionate. The three corps are the only ones where the current proportion of foreign and Commonwealth personnel is at or approaching that level. There will be an option to apply the same limit to other parts of the Armed Forces if, at any time in the future, the percentages merit it. The purpose of the measure is to limit the number of personnel whose foreign citizenship could leave them potentially subject to legislation contrary to our own decisions; on, for example, operational deployments. We have also borne in mind the importance of ensuring that the Armed Forces continue to be identified with and representative of the UK.  These arrangements do not extend to Gurkhas who serve as a discrete formed unit to which only Nepalese nationals can apply.

The Race Relations Act provides for arrangements to legitimise measures such as this. These arrangements are made having due regard to the need to eliminate unlawful racial discrimination and to promote racial equality of opportunity. In this case, the restriction is based on nationality and not race. The MoD and the Armed Forces remain wholeheartedly committed to removing unlawful discrimination and promoting equality.

The MoD is very proud of the historic links with Commonwealth countries, which provide high-quality recruits and have made a valuable contribution to the Armed Forces for many years. We hope they will continue to do so in the future and we will continue to recruit foreign and Commonwealth personnel to join the Armed Forces.

1. In this context “foreign” means citizens of the Republic of Ireland; the percentage of aliens (defined in Section 50(1) of the British Nationality Act 1981 as persons who are neither Commonwealth citizens nor British protected persons nor citizens of the Republic of Ireland who may serve in the regular forces is stringently limited by Section 21(1) of the Army Act 1955 and Section 21(1) of the Air Force Act 1955. Similar restrictions are also contained in Section 340 of the Armed Forces Act 2006, which is not yet in force.

Banking: Contingencies Fund

Statement

My honourable friend the Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Angela Eagle) has today made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

A Treasury minute dated 6 November 2008 informed Parliament that the Bank of England had provided a short-term loan facility to the Financial Services Compensation Scheme (FSCS) to enable the FSCS to pay out to eligible UK retail depositors in Icesave, the internet product made available by the UK branch of Landsbanki.

That minute also informed Parliament that this loan will be replaced with a loan from the Government at a time to be negotiated between the Bank of England and the Treasury. The Treasury and Bank of England have agreed that this loan transfer should take place on 29 January 2009 and as a result the Treasury made a payment to the Bank of England of £3,109,742,000 (three billion, one hundred and nine million, seven hundred and forty-two thousand pounds).

Part of this loan will be paid back by the FSCS on an interest-only basis for the first three years, plus any recoveries made through a claim on Landsbanki in that time. The FSCS will then use levies to repay the remaining balance. The remaining part of the loan is expected to be repaid by the Icelandic Depositors' and Investors' Guarantee Fund (DIGF). The Treasury is in negotiation with the Icelandic authorities with a view to their guaranteeing this repayment in line with their responsibilities under EEA law and the deposit guarantee scheme directive.

On 1 December 2008, the Government announced that they had put in place arrangements to ensure that all eligible retail depositors (that is, those depositors who are eligible to claim under the FSCS) in London Scottish Bank plc will receive their money in full, including those with balances above the £50,000 FSCS limit.

In order to enable the FSCS to make these payouts, the Treasury has advanced £100,000,000 (one hundred million pounds) to the FSCS on 29 January 2009. Part of this advance will be paid back by the FSCS on an interest-only basis for the first three years, plus any recoveries made through a claim on London Scottish Bank plc in that time. The FSCS will then use levies to repay the remaining balance. The remaining part of the advance will be recovered from the rights which HM Treasury has acquired in respect of the proceeds of the wind-down and realisation of the assets of London Scottish Bank plc, which is in administration.

GAERC

Statement

My right honourable friend the Minister for Europe (Ms Caroline Flint) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary (David Miliband) represented the UK at the General Affairs and External Relations Council in Brussels.

The agenda items covered were as follows:

General Affairs

Presentation of the Czech Presidency’s Priorities

The presidency said that its three priorities would be the economy, energy and external relations, especially in the context of its preparations for the spring European Council on 19 and 20 March; the Eastern Partnership would be the main focus of work on external relations.

The Government support the Czech presidency’s priorities, including the Eastern Partnership.

Energy Security

The presidency and Commission briefed Ministers on the Russia-Ukraine gas crisis and called for work on the Second Strategic Energy Review (SEER2) and energy project proposals under the Economic Recovery Plan to be accelerated so that decisions could be taken at the spring European Council; to that end, the GAERC should adopt a list of priority projects at its next meeting. The Commission said that it would shortly identify and propose a number of projects. Ministers agreed that these should focus on the internal market, infrastructure, crisis response and diversification.

External Relations

Middle East Peace Process (MEPP)

Ministers discussed Gaza with the Egyptian, Palestinian, Jordanian, Turkish and Norwegian Foreign Ministers on 25 January. Egypt briefed on its efforts to promote a durable ceasefire and Palestinian reconciliation, and on the proposed donors’ conference on reconstruction.

Following the meeting, the presidency publicly expressed support for the efforts of Egypt and other regional actors in brokering the ceasefire and facilitating negotiations; voiced its concern at the humanitarian situation in Gaza and wish to see aid reach those who needed it; reaffirmed the EU’s willingness to help with the humanitarian effort and political process; and recalled the EU’s support for the Arab peace initiative.

At the GAERC, Ministers agreed conclusions, which the Government welcome. They called on all parties to make the current ceasefire permanent through full implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1860; urged a sustained halt of rocket launches towards Israel, the urgent opening of the Gaza crossings and an effective mechanism to prevent arms and ammunition smuggling to the Gaza Strip; called for the unimpeded provision and distribution of humanitarian assistance to Gaza; expressed the EU’s readiness to reactivate the EU Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM Rafah), as soon as conditions allow; and strongly encouraged inter-Palestinian reconciliation.

Russia/Ukraine

The presidency briefed the council on the state of negotiations on a new partnership and co-operation agreement with Russia and an enhanced association agreement with Ukraine. Many Ministers expressed concern at the behaviour of Russia and Ukraine during the recent gas dispute. The Commission pointed out that the dispute had highlighted the importance of energy for the EU’s ongoing dialogues with both countries. The presidency agreed that Ministers should return to this issue in due course.

Guantanamo Bay

Ministers welcomed President Obama's executive order to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility within a year, and noted that work on closure was ongoing. They acknowledged it was likely that the US would ask allies to assist by resettling some of those detainees who did not represent a major security threat, but who could not be returned to their own countries owing to security or human rights concerns.

Zimbabwe

Ministers adopted conclusions, which underscored EU concerns about the continuing collapse of the country, the intransigence of the regime and the role of diamonds in generating revenue to sustain it. The conclusions also renewed EU sanctions for a further year and added 63 individuals and companies to the sanctions list. The Government strongly support this decision.

Terrorism

The council removed the People's Mujaheddin Organisation of Iran (PMOI) from the list of terrorist organisations subject to restrictive measures at EU level. If new information is made available, the council could decide to reinclude the group in accordance with applicable procedures. The Government support the council’s decision.

House of Lords: Police Access

Statement

At my request, the Clerk of the Parliaments has prepared a paper setting out the current position in respect of police access to the precincts of the House of Lords for the purpose of searching a Member's office.

I have today placed the Clerk of the Parliaments’s paper in the Library of the House and copies are available in the Printed Paper Office. I believe that this report is a full and useful analysis of the current position, which I hope will provide clarity to Members.

Annexed to the paper is a draft protocol for the House of Lords on the execution of a police search in the precincts of the House, which is in similar terms to an interim protocol which the Speaker of the House of Commons has issued for comment in the Commons.

I would welcome views which Members may have on the draft protocol set out in annexe B to the paper by the end of February.

Improving Access to Taxis: Consultation Publication

Statement

My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Clark) has made the following Ministerial Statement.

The Department for Transport has today published a consultation document which explores ways of improving access to taxis by disabled people. The document looks at a number of approaches and is accompanied by an impact assessment.

Taxis are an important part of the public transport system and provide many people with a way of accessing employment, educational and social opportunities that otherwise may not be available. This consultation looks at ways of improving access, so that disabled people can make the most of these opportunities.

The document is available on the department’s website. Copies have been placed in the House library.

National Curriculum Tests 2008

Statement

Last December, Lord Sutherland completed his independent inquiry into the delivery of national curriculum tests in 2008. On 16 December I laid a copy of his report before the House and made a Statement accepting all his recommendations in full.

Lord Sutherland’s report made recommendations covering the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority (QCA); the Department for Children, Schools and Families officials and Ministers; and Ofqual, the independent qualifications regulator.  In December I set out the actions my department was already taking to implement his recommendations, and committed to a further detailed response—which I am publishing today. I have laid a copy of this in the Libraries of the House.

Where Lord Sutherland’s recommendations included specific actions for my department to take forward, all have been completed or are under way. Prior to Lord Sutherland's December report I established an expert group to advise on future testing and assessment arrangements and their delivery. I have taken steps to clarify further the reporting lines, information sharing and risk escalation arrangements between the QCA and my department and the role of DCSF observers. My department will ensure that the legislation that establishes Ofqual and the QCDA gives Ofqual the powers to regulate national curriculum assessments effectively. In the interim period, my department is developing and agreeing a protocol on the reporting arrangements for Ofqual. My officials will discuss with QCA possible technological advances, such as on-screen marking and data capture, for possible use from 2010 onwards.

While Lord Sutherland made no specific recommendations in relation to the Office of Government Commerce (OGC) Gateway process, I asked my officials to liaise with the OGC to consider whether there were wider lessons from the report for Gateway reviews. OGC has identified some areas where aspects of current guidance and practice can be improved, and these are included in our detailed response.

On 16 December I wrote to the new chair of the QCA board, Chris Trinick, asking him to implement all Lord Sutherland’s recommendations relating to the QCA in full and to provide me with a full report on progress by 16 January.  He has done this, and I have laid a copy of his letter to me including the QCA’s action plan and update on implementation in the Libraries of the House, together with my reply to him. My officials will work closely with QCA in the coming months to monitor progress against its action plan.

Following its initial response to Lord Sutherland’s recommendations on 16th December 2008, Ofqual has also published its action plan detailing how it intends to implement the recommendations relating to it as the independent regulator, and I am placing a copy in the Library of the House.

I made clear in December that where we have national tests, they must be delivered successfully and on time, as they have been in the past. I am very grateful to Lord Sutherland for his detailed and comprehensive work, which will significantly strengthen the future delivery of national curriculum tests. His report, and the measures set out in this Statement and accompanying action plans, will help ensure that we achieve this in 2009 and in future years, so that children and young people, and their parents and teachers, all benefit from the testing and assessment system they deserve.

Public Bodies

Statement

My honourable friend the Parliamentary Secretary at the Cabinet Office (Tom Watson) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

The Cabinet Office has today published Public Bodies 2008, which lists all non-departmental public bodies (NDPB) sponsored by the UK Government as at 31 March 2008. Public Bodies 2008 also provides summary information on the size and expenditure of the NDPB sector and statistical information on public appointments.

Public Bodies 2008 can be downloaded from the civil service website at: http://www.civilservice.gov.uk/about/public/bodies.asp. Copies have been placed in the Libraries of the House.

Saving Gateway Accounts Bill

Statement

My honourable friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Ian Pearson) has today made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

Today, in advance of the consideration of clauses of the Saving Gateway Accounts Bill by the Public Bill Committee, I am publishing draft Saving Gateway Accounts Regulations.

These draft regulations have been published for the information of Members, and remain subject to discussion and consideration.

These draft regulations incorporate the draft regulations in relation to eligibility for Saving Gateway accounts, which were published on 12 January.

Copies have been deposited in the Libraries of the House and will be available on the HM Treasury website.