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Written Ministerial Statements

Monday 8 December 2003


Baton Rounds

The Minister for Crime Reduction, Policing and Community Safety (Ms Hazel Blears): On 1 August 1999, new operational guidelines on the use of baton rounds were issued by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) and replaced previous Home Office guidance. ACPO have now put forward revised guidelines to take account of developments in the weapon system, training and procedures for deployment which are designed to reduce the potential for serious injury and life threatening injuries.

The guidelines now include specific reference to the implications of the European Convention on Human Rights and also highlights that every effort should be made to ensure children are not placed at risk.

The revised guidance also takes account of the Defence Scientific Advisory Council statement on the use of the L21Al baton round at ranges from 1 to 19 metres, announced by the then Minister of State at the Home Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Denham), 6 November 2002, Official Report, Column 312W.

A copy of this new guidance has been placed in the House Library.

Immigration Control

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Beverley Hughes): The Government are firmly committed to maintaining effective immigration controls while at the same time ensuring that genuine passengers are able to pass through our ports with the least possible inconvenience.

Visa regimes play an important part in the operation of our immigration controls. They allow for checks to be undertaken before a person embarks for the UK to confirm whether they qualify for admission. But we recognise that visa regimes do represent an inconvenience for some passengers and we will therefore only maintain them where the immigration threat is such as to justify doing so. At present Slovak nationals require a visa in order to visit the UK. However, we judge that there is no longer any significant threat to our immigration controls from Slovak nationals and therefore we have decided that the visa regime should be lifted and standard on-entry immigration controls will continue to be applied. Changes to the immigration rules will be made on 17 December and the visa regime will be lifted from 00.01 hours on 18 December.

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Butterfield Review

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (John Healey): On 15 July 2003 the Government published in full the independent report of Mr. Justice Butterfield on the current practices and procedures relating to disclosure, associated investigation techniques and case management in HM Customs and Excise's criminal cases. The Attorney-General and I had asked Mr. Justice Butterfield to examine the circumstances that led to the termination of the London City Bond prosecutions in Liverpool Crown Court on 25 November 2002, the changes in practice within Customs since the time of the cases to which those prosecutions related, and Customs' compliance with best practice in the use of investigation techniques. Mr. Justice Butterfield also examined the preparation for and presentation of cases for Court on behalf of Customs.

On publication of the report, as I said in my written statement on 15 July, Official Report, Columns 18–20WS, the Government accepted in full a number of Mr. Justice Butterfield's recommendations, many of which have now been implemented. On the recommendation that—in order to make its independence from Customs even more transparent—the Customs and Excise Prosecution Office (CEPO) should become an entirely separate prosecuting authority accountable to the Attorney-General, the Government undertook to provide a response in the autumn.

In his report, Mr. Justice Butterfield acknowledged the revitalisation of CEPO following the injection of additional resources and the improvement in the engagement with investigators. He referred to a palpable and detectable improvement in morale in CEPO. He went on to recommend that the Solicitor for Customs and Excise should relinquish responsibility for prosecutions resulting from Customs investigations.

The Government agree that, to be most effective, these prosecutors must be independent, and be seen to be independent by judges, barristers and solicitors in the wider criminal justice system. The Government consider it essential that there should be full confidence in prosecutors acting on behalf of Customs and accept the case for radical change.

The Government accordingly accept the recommendation of Mr. Justice Butterfield to separate the prosecution and investigation functions in Customs, and to create an independent Customs and Excise Prosecutions Office during the course of 2004, led by a Director accountable directly to the Attorney-General. The Office will be subject to a regular, independent and thorough inspection regime.

The Government intend to move to appoint a Director as soon as practicable, who will be closely involved in the creation of an independent CEPO.

The Government also accept the recommendation that Investigation Legal Advisers should now move to become the responsibility of HM Commissioners of Customs and Excise, and that these advisers will not be involved in the prosecution process. This arrangement will be reviewed after two years.

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The creation of an independent CEPO will require the resolution of a number of practical issues, to which the Attorney-General and I are giving careful consideration.


Employment Tribunal Regulations

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): This consultation covers the Government's proposals for revisions to the Employment Tribunals (Constitution and Rules of Procedure) Regulations. Views are being invited from stakeholders on these proposed changes.

It is intended that the new regulations will be laid in spring 2004 and come into force in October 2004.

The aim of the revisions is to streamline procedures in order to promote the early settlement of cases through ACAS conciliation and, where that fails, to expedite the passage of cases through the Tribunal system.

The changes arise from provisions of the Employment Act 2002, from recommendations of the Employment Tribunal System Taskforce, and from suggestions offered by the Employment Tribunal Presidents—for England and Wales and for Scotland—to help make the system run more smoothly. The revisions are designed to deliver a better service and swifter justice for all, and include, amongst other things, the adoption of a new pre-acceptance procedure for both claimants and respondents, and a re-structuring and re-writing of the Rules in plain English.

These proposed tribunal regulations form part of an overall package of measures. They take account of, and dovetail with, the new dispute resolution regulations being introduced by the Government to encourage settlement of disputes in the workplace. The Government also intends to revise the Employment Appeal Tribunal rules to a similar timescale.

In preparing the revised Regulations, DTI has been working closely with a wide range of stakeholders, including the judicial Presidents, the Employment Tribunals Service and ACAS. Representatives of businesses and the trade unions have also been involved in the preliminary consultation process. These and other bodies will now, through this formal public consultation, have a further opportunity to offer views on the way the revised regulations are to be taken forward and to ensure that the procedures of the Employment Tribunals deliver fairness and justice to all.

Consumer Credit

The Minister for Women and Equality (Ms Patricia Hewitt): I have today published a White Paper "Fair, Clear and Competitive: A Consumer Credit Market for the 21st Century", setting out the Government's proposals for reform of the legislation governing consumer credit. The White Paper sets out the conclusions of the review of the Consumer Credit Act 1974 launched in July 2001 and is based on extensive consultation with stakeholders.

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As part of the White Paper package, I have also today published for consultation detailed proposals—including draft legislation—for changes to the rules governing the early settlement of credit agreements; the advertising of consumer credit; and the form and content of credit agreements. The consultation also sets out new proposals on the calculation of credit card APRs and on facilitating the conclusion of credit agreements by electronic means.

Britain has the most energetic and competitive consumer credit market in Europe. However, the legislation regulating it is almost thirty years old. Although it has generally stood the test of time extremely well, the credit market has developed to an extent never envisaged in the early 1970s.

The time is right for a thorough-going modernisation of the consumer credit framework; one that encourages and enables innovation and competition in the marketplace, yet still provides appropriate protection for today's consumers.

Credit has become an integral part of our daily lives. For many, it is the lifeline that enables them to deal with the emergencies that arise, helping match regular income against the irregular demands and risks of modern life.

But credit, of course, can also introduce risks of its own. Some consumers take out loans that are inappropriate and expensive. Others are tipped into debt by a sudden change in circumstance. But there are also consumers that are preyed upon by loan-sharks, whose activities often exploit the socially deprived sections of our community. It is simply not possible to escape from poverty if what little people have is asset-stripped by predatory lenders. And this White Paper sets out tough measures to police and crack down on loan-sharks and other such rogue lenders.

But it is also about providing consumers with the right information at the right time, so they can make informed decisions. Consumers need to be able to consider the key factors of a loan before they take it out. To do this they need clear, understandable information.

New protections will go hand in hand with a series of changes to promote a more open, competitive market, offering more choice and less restriction.

This White Paper proposes a range of legislative changes relevant to the credit market of today. It will be regulated in a way that provides consumers with choice, information and protection at the right time. It also outlines our plans for a strategic approach to minimising over-indebtedness and improving financial inclusion by educating consumers; providing easier access to financial advice; and ensuring access to affordable credit.

I have placed copies of the White Paper and other related documents in the Libraries of the House.

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