Thursday 29 March 2018
Article 121 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union (TFEU) requires the UK to send an annual convergence programme to the European Commission reporting upon its fiscal situation and policies. The UK’s convergence programme will be sent to the European Commission by 30 April. This deadline was set in accordance with the European semester timetable for both convergence and national reform programmes. The UK will continue to have all of the rights, obligations and benefits that membership brings up until the point we leave the EU, and as such the Government will continue to submit the UK’s convergence programme until that time.
Section 5 of the European communities (Amendment) Act 1993 requires that the content of the convergence programme must be drawn from an assessment of the UK’s economic and budgetary position which has been presented to Parliament by the Government for its approval. This assessment is based on the Autumn Budget 2017 report and the most recent Office for Budget Responsibility’s “Economic and Fiscal Outlook” and it is this content, not the convergence programme itself, which requires the approval of the House for the purposes of the Act.
Article 121, along with Article 126 of the TFEU, is the legal basis for the stability and growth pact, which is the co-ordination mechanism for EU fiscal policies and requires member states to avoid excessive government deficits. Although the UK participates in the stability and growth pact, by virtue of its protocol to the treaty opting out of the euro, it is only required to "endeavour to avoid" excessive deficits. Unlike the euro area member states, the UK is not subject to sanctions at any stage of the European semester process.
Subject to the progress of parliamentary business, debates will be held soon in both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, in order for both Houses to approve this assessment before the convergence programme is sent to the Commission. While the convergence programme itself is not subject to Parliamentary approval or amendment, I will deposit a copy of the document in the Libraries of both Houses and copies will be available through the Vote Office and Printed Paper Office in advance of the debates.
The UK's convergence programme will be available electronically via HM Treasury’s website prior to it being sent to the European Commission.
Employer Supported Childcare
This Government are providing more help with the cost of childcare to working parents than ever before. As well as introducing Tax-Free Childcare in April 2017, they have doubled the free childcare available to working parents of 3 and 4 year olds in England to 30 hours a week, and increased the support available through universal credit to cover up to 85% of childcare costs. In 2019-20 the government will spend around £6 billion on childcare support—a record amount.
Since opening the childcare choices service through which parents apply for 30 hours free childcare and Tax-Free Childcare more than 370,000 customers have successfully applied and are now using the service. Of these, more than 335,000 parents are eligible for 30 hours free childcare. Over 210,000 have a Tax-Free Childcare account. The Government will encourage more parents to take up the offer they are entitled to.
Parents can apply via the childcare choices service for both 30 hours free childcare and Tax- Free Childcare. The application is straightforward and can be accessed via: https://www.childcarechoices.gov.uk
Tax-Free Childcare is a fairer and better targeted system than childcare vouchers. Through Tax-Free Childcare all families who are eligible can get support regardless of who their employer is, or whether they are self-employed, and support is based on the number of children in a family, rather than the number of parents. Tax-Free Childcare is targeted at a similar income population as childcare vouchers but will provide support to nearly 1 million more families compared to the number currently using vouchers.
The decision to phase out childcare vouchers and directly contracted childcare, and replace this support with Tax-Free Childcare was made in 2013, and received parliamentary approval through the Childcare Payments Act 2014.
Today the Government have made The Income Tax (Limited Exemptions for Qualifying Childcare Vouchers and other Childcare) (Relevant Day) Regulations 2018 (SI 2018/450). These Regulations set 4 October 2018 as the date when childcare vouchers and directly contracted childcare, part of employer supported childcare, will close to new entrants. After that date, parents who are already using vouchers can continue to do so for as long as they remain with their employer, and their employer continues to offer the scheme.
To reflect concerns about the timing of the closure of childcare vouchers and the transition to Tax-Free Childcare, the Government have decided to keep childcare vouchers open for a further six months until October. This will allow more time for Tax-Free Childcare to bed in, for awareness to increase and for families to understand the support they can receive under the scheme. Now that Tax-Free Childcare is fully rolled out, the Government will keep it under review to ensure it is delivering the support needed for working families.
Overseas Deaths Investigations (Royal Military Police)
The Armed Forces Act 2011 requires Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire & Rescue Services (HMICFRS) to inspect, and report to the Secretary of State, on the independence and effectiveness of investigations carried out by each of the three service police forces. Its most recent inspection considered the effectiveness, oversight and governance of the Royal Military Police investigations into overseas deaths. I have laid a copy of its report in the House today.
I consider this report to be positive as providing assurance from an independent civilian authority that the Royal Military Police investigates overseas deaths effectively. HMICFRS has made four recommendations and identified a number of areas for improvement. The Ministry of Defence and the Royal Military Police will continue to develop a plan to address these.
Digital, Culture, Media and Sport
Independent Review of S4C
Last year the Government appointed Euryn Ogwen Williams to lead an independent review of the Welsh language broadcaster, S4C. We commissioned this independent review to ensure that S4C has a strong and successful future in delivering high-quality content for Welsh-speaking audiences.
I am pleased today to announce the publication of the S4C independent review, “Building an S4C for the future”. I would like to record my thanks to Euryn for his excellent work in considering S4C’s remit, governance and funding in accordance with the terms of reference.
I am today laying before Parliament the independent review, together with the Government’s response to the review, which states that we accept all of the review’s recommendations for Government.
Condition Improvement Fund
My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the school system (Lord Agnew) has made the following written statement.
Today, I am announcing the allocation of £514 million for 1,556 condition improvement fund (CIF) projects across 1,299 academies and sixth-form colleges, to maintain and improve the condition of the education estate. This investment forms part of the Government’s plan to ensure that every child has the opportunity of a place at a good school, whatever their background.
This announcement includes £38 million in specific projects supported by the healthy pupils capital fund (HPCF). This is additional funding provided from the revenue generated from the soft drinks industry levy (SDIL). These projects will facilitate an improvement in children’s physical and mental health by increasing and improving access to and use of relevant facilities, such as: kitchen refurbishment, dining halls, changing rooms, repairs and improvements to sports facilities like sports halls, swimming pools and hydrotherapy pools.
Details of today’s announcement are being sent to all applicants and a list of successful projects will be published on GOV.UK. Copies will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses.
Housing, Communities and Local Government
Social Housing Update
Nearly 2 million households have been helped to realise aspirations to own their homes through the right to buy since 1980. The right to buy gives more people the opportunity to own their home, improves social mobility and provides greater financial security. It brings the benefits of home ownership to those who would otherwise not have the opportunity.
In 2012 the right-to-buy scheme was reinvigorated and the maximum discounts were increased to realistic levels. Of the 90,730 sales since April 2010, 83,272 were under the reinvigorated scheme, demonstrating there is a continued substantial demand for the right to buy.
Our record on the provision of affordable housing is a strong one with over 357,000 affordable homes delivered since 2010. This included 257,000 homes for rent. While 69,000 local authority homes have been sold since 2010, there have been 127,000 new homes provided for social rent during the same period.
The Government are committed to a step change in council house building. However, statistics released today show that while the number of homes available for social rent has increased, some local authorities have not been building enough right-to-buy replacements to match the pace of their sales. It is clear that local authorities need to increase their rate of delivery of new homes.
Helping to support this, the Chancellor announced in the autumn Budget that we will raise the housing revenue account borrowing cap by a total of up to £1 billion in areas of high affordability pressure for local authorities who are ready to start building new homes. This will offer local authorities in such areas the opportunity to increase council house building to meet the needs of local communities.
Additionally, local authorities are able to bid alongside housing associations, or in partnership with them, for £9 billion affordable homes programme grant funding (2016-21) to deliver a wide range of affordable homes. This includes £2 billion of additional funding announced at autumn Budget to deliver affordable housing with funding also being made available for social rent in areas of acute affordability pressure. Alongside these programmes, we have also announced that local authorities and housing associations will be able to increase rents by up to CPI +1% from 2020. This will provide a stable investment environment to deliver new affordable homes.
In the spring statement we also announced a £1.67 billion funding package for London, to build 26,000 more affordable homes that the capital desperately needs. This deal, as part of the Government’s commitment to actively boost affordable housing supply, will overall see 116,000 more affordable homes in London and bring the total funding for affordable housing in London to £4.8 billion. This move is a key part of supporting councils and housing associations in the city to build more homes at rents that are affordable to local people. This additional funding was granted on the condition that some of it will be used to deliver high-quality homes for social rent. This will be in addition to continuing to deliver homes for London affordable rent, flexible shared ownership and rent to buy. At least two thirds of the homes built with this additional funding must be for rent.
As well as increasing investment in new social housing we remain committed to the right to buy, helping people into home ownership and replacing the homes sold. This year we will be rolling out a pilot of the right to buy for housing association tenants in the midlands. We have engaged with local authorities to get a better understanding of the barriers to delivering new homes. To help councils build more homes, we believe there is a case for greater flexibility on the use of receipts from right-to-buy sales. We will consult further with the sector on providing greater flexibility around how local authorities can use their right-to-buy receipts, and how to ensure that we continue to support local authorities to build more council homes. We will consider social housing issues as part of our work on the forthcoming Green Paper.
Rohingya Crisis: Flood and Cyclone Preparedness
We have all been appalled by the terrible violence and ethnic cleansing that have taken place in Burma’s Rakhine State. Nearly a million Rohingya have now fled to Bangladesh from Burma. I visited the camps where most of them are living last year and witnessed for myself the precarious conditions there.
The annual monsoon and cyclone season begins imminently, and heavy rainfall is expected over the coming months. The Rohingya refugee camps are extremely vulnerable; the latest humanitarian response plan estimates that up to 200,000 Rohingya are living in areas at risk of flooding and collapse with the rainy season. I would like to assure the House that the UK Government are doing everything they can to press for and support preparedness.
We have been struck by the magnitude of the generosity of the Government of Bangladesh in providing refuge for so many people in desperate need. It has an excellent track record in disaster preparedness and protecting the vulnerable from the impacts of floods and cyclones. It is important that such preparedness is extended to Rohingya people currently hosted in Bangladesh. We are encouraging Bangladesh to take as many measures to save lives as possible, such as allocating additional land that is at lower risk of flooding and landslides, reducing density in the existing camps and having evacuation plans in place including to safe places such as cyclone shelters.
We and Bangladesh’s other friends are committed to supporting them with this. UK Government Ministers and officials have been in close contact with their Government of Bangladesh counterparts on this issue. Most recently, the Foreign Secretary and I wrote jointly to Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on 20 March, urging the government of Bangladesh to fully harness their expertise in this area and reaffirming our strong support.
I am proud of the role the UK is playing in response to the Rohingya crisis. The UK is a leading donor to the humanitarian effort in Bangladesh. We have committed an additional £59 million since last August, including matching £5 million of public donations to the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) appeal. We will remain a leading donor going forward. As part of our response, we are taking a wide range of measures to improve flood and cyclone preparedness, including:
Water, sanitation and hygiene—DFID is working with a range of agencies to ensure that up to 250,000 people continue to have access to safe drinking water throughout the rainy season, and that latrines are constructed, maintained and relocated if necessary. More than 5,000 new latrines are being constructed and will be strategically placed throughout the camps on safe ground, and more than 6,700 unsafe latrines will be decommissioned.
Health—UK-supported cholera, measles and diphtheria vaccination campaigns will provide protection against some of the most common diseases in the camps, and healthcare workers are being trained and provided with technical support to ensure better coverage is in place ahead of the rainy season. Some 791,000 children under the age of seven will have been vaccinated by the end of March.
Infrastructure and access—UN agencies, with UK support, have started mitigation works, including site improvements. Given the topography and recent deforestation of the land, this will not be sufficient to guard against all landslide risk or prevent flooding everywhere in the camps. The focus is on ensuring sustained access for the delivery of aid throughout the rainy season by improving drainage, maintaining access roads, and reinforcing embankments and walkways.
Shelter improvements—the UK is working with the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) to ensure that the most at-risk households—more than 158,000 people—are provided with reinforced shelter materials and sandbags, to protect from high winds and flood water.
Pre-positioning of relief supplies—DFID made use of contingency stockpiles in the early stages of this humanitarian response. DFID has successfully supported previous cyclone responses in Bangladesh using prepositioned supplies and maintains humanitarian stockpiles with ready access to Bangladesh in both India and Dubai.
Rohingya women and children are also vulnerable to gender-based violence and sexual exploitation. The UK is leading the way in supporting a range of organisations providing specialised help to survivors of sexual violence in Bangladesh. This includes 19 women’s centres offering a safe space, psycho-social support and activities to women and girls, 30 Child Friendly Spaces supporting children with protective services and psychological support, case management for nearly 2,200 survivors of sexual violence and 13 sexual and reproductive health clinics.
Machinery of Government Changes
This written statement confirms that the data policy and governance functions of the Government Digital Service (GDS) will transfer from the Cabinet Office to the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS). The transfer includes responsibility for data sharing (including co-ordination of part 5 of the Digital Economy Act 2017), data ethics, open data and data governance. At the same time policy responsibility for digital signatures will move from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) to DCMS, which will also jointly lead with BEIS on the relationship with the Open Data Institute, Digital Catapult and the Alan Turing Institute.
These changes will be effective from 1 April. The expanded Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport brings together in one place data policy for both government and the wider economy. This will support work, led by DCMS, to ensure the UK is fully realising the benefits of the data economy for all.
GDS will continue its work supporting the ongoing digital transformation of government, building digital capability in the civil service and championing service design across government to meet user needs.
Further to the Budget announcement last autumn, strategic geospatial data policy initiatives from BEIS and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are being consolidated into the Cabinet Office from 1 April to support the work of the Geospatial Commission.
Work and Pensions
This Government are committed to providing young people with the support they need to get started with their working lives. We do this through providing financial support when it is needed, and support to either “earn or learn”—delivered through the simplified universal credit (UC) benefits system. In line with this aim, I am today announcing that the Government will amend regulations so that all 18 to 21 year olds will be entitled to claim support for housing costs in UC.
Currently, 18 to 21 year-olds who make a new claim to UC in UC full service areas need to meet certain requirements in order to receive housing support. The change I am announcing today means that young people on benefits will be assured that if they secure a tenancy, they will have support towards their housing costs in the normal way.
Young people in return will have a youth obligation—an intensive package of labour market support for 18 to 21 year-olds looking to get into work. We are committed to providing targeted support for young people so that everyone, no matter what their start in life, is given the very best chance of getting into work.
This decision ensures that there are no unintended barriers to young people accessing housing on the basis of their age alone and getting into work, and is in line with the Government’s launch of the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017 and our commitment to eradicating rough sleeping by 2027.