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Written Ministerial Statements

Wednesday 11 December 2002


Access Radio

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Tessa Jowell): I have agreed with the Radio Authority that the current pilot access radio stations should be allowed an extension to their licence, subject to frequency availability and to satisfactory performance to date, for as long as is necessary in order to allow for the possibility that the pilot stations would not be stopped from broadcasting in the event that an access radio regime is set up following the completion of the Radio Authority's evaluation and the passage of the Communications Bill.

Current access radio licence holders are aware that they will not automatically be awarded a licence if a new tier of access radio is introduced; they will need to be considered alongside other applicants at the appropriate time.


Comprehensive Performance Assessment

The Minister for Local Government and the Regions (Mr. Nick Raynsford): The Audit Commission announce the outcome of comprehensive performance assessments (CPA) for London boroughs, unitary, metropolitan and county councils on 12 December. These assessments will provide the basis for better local decision making, inform relations between central and local government, and give local people a clear understanding of how well their council is serving them. It is a key stage in one of the most ambitious exercises in performance management ever undertaken by central and local government. But CPA results are not the end of the process, they are the starting point for improvement planning that will demonstrate the Government's public sector reform agenda in action.

The services included in CPA have a significant impact on the quality of all our lives: education, social services, housing, transport, welfare benefits, waste, planning and library and leisure facilities. CPA also delivers a picture of the council as a corporate entity, recognising the importance of councils as community leaders, forging effective partnerships and delivering on national and local priorities. We will build on the connections CPA has made through a collective central Government response, applying the measures announced on the 26 November to devolve power, increase support where it is needed and work directly with councils to ensure local people receive the quality of services to which they are entitled.

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We want to see all councils aiming to be XExcellent". Our vision is one where local government takes ownership of the improvement agenda, with those who do so successfully encouraged to innovate by the removal of controls. There is a great deal that can be learned from the best performing councils, and it is vital that we build on as well as celebrate their achievements.

We are reducing red tape and unnecessary controls that distract councils from improving services. For the very best councils we are going further. These are councils with a strong focus on improvement who are delivering high quality services. They come in all shapes and sizes, including councils working in the most challenging circumstances. For high achievers CPA will bring new flexibility to expand or to change the way they deliver services, and significant additional freedoms to go much further and trailblaze innovative and new practices.

We are making it clear that Xgetting by" will not be enough. There is no room for those in the middle to simply stay there. They will have to raise their game or fall behind. CPA will clearly identify the service priorities for the underperforming and the corporate Xobstacles" to innovation and better services. It will indicate where these councils will have to focus their efforts and where central Government should be prioritising support. Government are working with the LGA to identify a range of support and improvement activities in response to CPA. But it is clear that the skills needed to realise continuous improvement will be found primarily within local government. Securing long term and sustained improvement will only be achieved through building a greater capacity across the whole local government sector. There will be an immediate focus on the poor and weak councils, informed by the corporate assessment element of CPA.

Government will work in a spirit of co-operation with those councils who are doing poorly. Wherever possible an authority should be given the opportunity to tackle its own problems and weaknesses. The Government will nevertheless seek to engage directly with poor performers and provide appropriate support. We recognise that even overall poor performers have some good services, and we are determined to build on good practice. CPA will deliver the challenge that some councils have needed to address complacency and take a radical look at the way they currently work. For others it will initiate the process of identifying the measures needed to turn around failing services. In all cases the message will be that we will not tolerate poor performance or failing councils. They let down the people they are elected to represent and serve. They tarnish the reputation of the rest of local government. Where necessary, Government will not shirk from taking decisive and tough action.

CPA scores will be the launch-pad for action for central and local government. The overarching aim is to secure the foundation for genuine and long-lasting improvement in council services. Freedoms and flexibilities will enable the highest performers to do more. They will also provide a strong incentive for others to change. Where improvements are needed CPA will be the basis for better focused and more determined improvement planning. Ownership of improvement planning and strong local leadership at member and

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officer level will be vital, as will delivering against realistic but challenging targets. We expect CPA and the improvement planning process to deliver rapid and tangible benefits to local government and to the people they serve.


Local Housing Allowance

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Andrew Smith): In October, my Department invited 10 local authorities to become Pathfinders.

So far, we have had acceptances from:

Due to other commitments, Tendring are unable to participate in the scheme. We have been approached by Blackpool Borough Council to become a Pathfinder. Blackpool meets the criteria set by the Department to become a Pathfinder and I am pleased to inform the House that I have today accepted Blackpool's offer.

The other authorities invited to the pathfinders are:

My hon friend the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks) is in the process of visiting each of these authorities before Christmas to discuss the invitation.


Guatanamo Bay Detainees

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Mike O'Brien): British officials paid a fourth visit to Guantanamo Bay between 11–15 November. The purpose of the visit was to ask questions relevant to national security, to check on the welfare of the seven British detainees last seen in May, and to establish the identity and nationality of two further detainees believed to have British nationality. As a result of these inquiries, one was identified as British. The other detainee did not have British nationality. The officials were from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Security Service.

The FCO official met the detainees individually. US officials were able to observe the interviews. The official saw no visible signs of mistreatment. Some detainees reported minor medical problems, and the official subsequently raised a number of these with the camp authorities.

The official passed to the camp authorities some personal letters for some of the detainees and was able to give oral messages to others. We have passed on to the

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families oral messages which where received and have briefed them on details of the detainees' circumstances. For reasons of privacy these details are not disclosed in this statement. Detainees continue to be able to send and receive letters through the camp authorities and through the ICRC, although there is some concern about delays.

All the detainees continue to be housed in accommodation which includes individual sleeping, washing and toilet facilities. They continue to be able to practise their religion freely, to take exercise, and to have access to reading material.

The visiting officials found the US camp authorities to be open and co-operative.


Northern Ireland Departments

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Ian Pearson): In light of the consultation exercise on the draft Programme for Government and the Draft Budget launched by the Northern Ireland Executive in September 2002, we are today setting out policies, priorities and spending plans for the Northern Ireland Departments for 2003–04 and beyond.

When devolution was suspended we made clear our determination to do two things. We pledged that we would work tirelessly to rebuild trust across political parties and to bring about an early return of devolved government. We also explained that for as long as direct rule continued we would govern in an open, active and fair way.

The Northern Ireland Office ministerial team is determined to build on the progress that was being made by the Executive and continue the good work they had started to improve public services in Northern Ireland.

In setting priorities and plans for 2003–04 and beyond, we have considered carefully the challenges, policy issues and priorities identified in the draft Programme for Government. Many of these remain very relevant and we have decided to continue with these priorities as the basis for action over the coming year. These priorities are:

We have also retained, at the centrepiece of our policies the emphasis on the Reinvestment and Reform Initiative (RRI) which was agreed between the Prime Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the then First Minister and Deputy First Minister in May 2002. This was the focus of the draft Programme for Government and draft Budget agreed by the Northern Ireland Executive in September. The plans we have agreed recognise that investment in Northern Ireland's infrastructure is hugely important to both economic and social development. Roads and public transport, hospital and school buildings and the water and

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sewerage system all need significant new investment if they are to be capable of sustaining the quality of life that everyone wants to see, to correct the pattern of under-investment which we also found in other parts of the UK when we came to office in 1997.

As a key part of the RRI, we are moving towards the appropriate use of Public Private Partnerships. In doing this we believe that there are areas where such mechanisms are the best way to draw the expertise and resources of the private sector into the delivery of public services, bringing new skills and ideas into this important work.

In order to achieve the best balance of investment, using traditional public expenditure, borrowing and PPPs, we are pressing forward with the development of the Strategic Investment Board (SIB), subject to parliamentary approval of the necessary legislation—which has recently been issued in draft for consultation. The proposal is that the SIB should be an expert body to advise in future both the Executive as a whole and Departments and agencies individually on both the best means of financing and organising major projects and on their successful implementation.

To take forward the process of re-investment, we have taken some initial steps to access the borrowing power which was agreed as part of the Reinvestment and Reform Initiative. This is triggered by actions which increase the relative levels of revenue raised in Northern Ireland: such self-financed borrowing can be used for investment over and above the Departmental Expenditure Limit for the Northern Ireland Departments. In the short term we are making a start on this by introducing rating of vacant properties and by phasing out industrial derating. In the longer term we have indicated our intention to replace the existing domestic regional rate with a new scheme based on the capital value of properties. All these changes arise from the Executive's Review of Rating Policy.

These measures will provide the vital additional resources necessary to support our policy priorities and plans. In due course proposals will also be developed to ensure that the water industry becomes self-financing.

By bringing together mainstream capital expenditure, borrowing and the use of PPPs in this way, we have been able to announce today a Strategic Investment Programme that will enable around #2 billion of new investment in schools and colleges, hospitals, road transport and water services to start in the next three years. I am placing a table in the Library today which sets out an indication of the plans that we are now developing. We will be looking to the new Strategic Investment Board to advise on priorities and value for money and to work with all Departments to take the programme forward so that it makes the best possible use of all available resources, and addresses the top priorities for investment as effectively as possible.

Aside from these major increases in capital investment, we have been able to confirm all the proposals in the Executive's draft Budget, and make some improvements, on a relatively modest scale (about 1 per cent. of the resource DEL in each year). We have been able to make greater provision for some mainstream services at a better level than in the draft

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Budget, as well as augmenting the capacity to build up the investment programme. In total we have been able to allocate an additional #76 million in 2003–04, #106 million in 2004–05 and #76 million in 2005–06 beyond what the Executive had planned in the draft Budget.

We have used this to meet some essential new issues which have emerged since the draft Budget was agreed, and to provide for the development of services in some priority areas.

We have allocated some additional provision to enable DHSSPS to develop services in the acute, community care, children, mental health and disability sectors. We have provided for increased support for university research. Elsewhere in the education sector, further provision has been made to improve pupil performance in schools, to provide additional youth workers and to support a cross-border initiative to provide better support for children with special educational needs.

Other allocations will promote arts and sport; deliver new targeted initiatives recommend by the Employability Task Force and enhance concessionary fare schemes for the disabled. For social development we are increasing provision to reduce fuel poverty, promote neighbourhood renewal and to develop better community relations.

In agreeing the spending plans we have sought to strike a balance between allocating resources so that public services may be properly planned and delivered, while leaving flexibility and scope for revised decision making by the devolved institutions when they return.

The spending plans fully reflect our determination to see a radical change in the approach to investment in public services, with new funding linked to strategic reform, and with an emphasis on using private sector finance and expertise where that can help deliver better services.

I have placed copies of the XBuilding on Progress" document, the accompanying Budget for 2003–04 to 2005–06 and details of the Strategic Investment Programme in the Library.

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