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The Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality (Mr. Tony McNulty):
An action plan containing all 54 recommendations from the investigation carried out by Stephen Shaw into the allegations contained in the BBC documentary, "Detention Undercover: the Real Story" has been compiled and is being published today. The recommendations are aimed at strengthening management, improving the monitoring of people at centres across the detention estate and improving staff attitude towards detainees.
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We have now implemented 30 of the recommendations and any outstanding recommendations relating specifically to Oakington will be implemented by March 2006. All contractors who operate centres under contract to the immigration and nationality directorate have taken on board those recommendations not aimed specifically at Oakington to ensure consistency across the detention estate. All remaining recommendations will be implemented by October 2006.
We have always made it clear that there is absolutely no place for racism anywhere in our society, and particularly within the immigration system. Immigration staff will continue to work closely with the contractors to ensure that all those who are detained are treated with dignity and respect.
The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): I have today placed a copy of the current list of Cabinet Committees, their full membership and terms of reference in the Libraries of both Houses. Details have also been updated on the Cabinet Office website.
The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): I am today publishing the Government's response to the Tenth Report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, "Getting the Balance Right: Implementing Standards of Conduct in Public Life". The Government have considered the Committee's report with great care, and I would like to place on record my thanks to the Committee for its thorough consideration of these issues. Our response to the main recommendations is as follows:
We consider that a move to a more locally based process for considering misconduct allegations against local government members, along the lines recommended by the Committee, would be the most appropriate way of addressing local issues and ensuring the local ownership of standards.
To maintain a culture of good conduct and provide strategic support to enable councillors to manage conduct issues effectively, we feel there is an essential, continuing role for the Standards Board for England in supporting high standards locally, as also recommended by the Committee.
The Government accept the Committee's recommendation that more systematic information should be published by departments on their overall policy and approach to public appointments. The Cabinet Office will work with Departments to ensure a more consistent approach.
The Government also recognise the important role of independent assessors in the process and believes that the accreditation of independent assessors should be given further consideration by the Commissioner in consultation with the Cabinet Office and departments.
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The Government are also attracted to the Committee's recommendation for a Board of Public Appointments Commissioners, and for individual Commissioners to each be linked to a small number of departments. However, such a proposal will have cost implications and the Government would therefore welcome the views of the Public Administration Select Committee who are currently carrying out an Inquiry into the role and independence of the ethical regulators of Government.
The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): The Government have received advice from the Interception of Communications Commissioner, Sir. Swinton Thomas, on the possible implications for the Wilson Doctrine of the regulatory framework for the interception of communications, under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000.
The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): I announced in my written statement of 21 July that I was setting up an independent external review of the handling of the Department's coal health compensation schemes. This followed a series of press articles raising concerns about various aspects of the schemes.
To review the integrity of the administration of the scheme for dealing with coal health claims; and to identify any specific measures needed to improve the administration of the scheme; to consider whether there are adequate safeguards in place to prevent, detect and pursue fraud while ensuring the fair and timely settlement of claims; and to make recommendations accordingly to Ministers and/or the accounting officer.
The Coal Schemes were initially set up to discharge very substantial liabilities, inherited by my Department from British Coal, for industrial injuries suffered by miners. In total we estimate they will result in payment to miners and their estates of up to £5 billion in compensation. We are about halfway through the schemes and more than £2.8 billion has been paid out in compensation so far. As the report notes, and as Members in coal mining constituencies will be aware, significant sums have been paid out in the coal areas equivalent to around 3.5 per cent. of local annual income. Current expenditure is nearly £2 million a day.
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In short, I think that the Government are fully facing up to their obligations to discharge these liabilities. Given the scale of the task, it is important that there is confidence that the schemes are being well run. I am therefore pleased to take from the report the assurance that:
The report also rejects the argument that the Union of Democratic Mineworkers were granted more favourable terms over other parties and confirms that arrangements with the UDM effectively provided identical compensation to that under the "Agreements with the Claimants Group".
The report also makes a number of specific recommendations. The Department fully accepts those recommendations which are directed at it and will follow them through in the months ahead. I will report to the House as appropriate on this.
I wish to comment at this point, however, on the report's specific conclusions and recommendations in three areas, namely the initial design of the scheme; the issue of the costs of administering the scheme, including legal costs; and the issue of transparency.
On the basic design of the schemes, the report concludes that the arrangements put in place in the late 1990s were not the best way to administer compensation for so many people; and it goes on to recommend that, were a similar case to arise in future, the Government "should very carefully examine alternative ways of proceeding".
When the basic groundwork for the current schemes was put in place in the late 1990s, no one knew that we would have anything like as many as 700,000 claims under the schemes; and, in particular, that we would have so many relatively low value claims. The existing schemes are now well established and we have introduced radical changes to the lung disease scheme in the last twelve months to speed up the processing of significant numbers of claims.
Any further substantive changes to the existing schemes would run the risk of delaying the payment of claims which would be to no one's benefit. Moreover, given that we are in the last few years of the current schemes now is not the time for further redesign. But were we to face such circumstances again, we would undoubtedly want to think long and hard about whether there are better alternatives.
In commenting on this, I should first make clear the considerable contribution to the running of the scheme that has been made by the various firms of solicitors involved. The schemes are complex; and it is entirely right and proper that miners and their families should have professional legal support through this process, funded by the Government under the legal obligations we inherited from British Coal.
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But the report nonetheless points out that the legal cost structures were largely negotiated, along with the agreements themselves, at a time when the anticipated volumes of cases under the schemes were considerably lower than has proved to be the case. It would be wrong not to recognise that higher than anticipated volumes of cases undoubtedly bring opportunities for batch processing and reduced costs per case. The report also notes that not every claim will always require the assistance of qualified legal professionals and that the cost to public funds "does not now necessarily reflect the more routine nature of the work". The report recommends, therefore, that we consider whether there is more to be done in this area, with the aim of ensuring that legal costs more accurately reflect the nature of the work actually undertaken.
This is an issue the Department is already actively pursuing. In particular, we believe that the new "fast-track" approach we have implemented this year for the lung disease scheme should require significantly less input by solicitors and should therefore incur considerably reduced costs.
We have argued that case with the solicitors' representatives and, indeed, before the High Court. We have now taken the issue to the Court of Appeal. I do not think it appropriate to comment in detail at this stage. But significant sums in legal costsperhaps up to £200 million of taxpayers moneyare at stake.
There are also other areas where we have yet to reach agreement with the claimants' solicitors on costs and we will be pursuing these equally vigorously to ensure they reflect work done and a reasonable level of return.
More generally, I regret that legal costs have become the source of such contention. It is right that solicitors are properly rewarded for the work they have done. But claimants representatives will recognise that it does no good whatsoever to the reputation of themselves or their profession if they are perceived in the press and elsewhere, rightly or wrongly, as being primarily motivated by fee earning opportunities.
In this context, the report also discusses the concern that in some cases solicitors have taken money from claimants' compensation to cover costs even though legal costs are met by the Government, and that, again in some cases, union fees have been deducted from compensation. Both issues are discussed in the report in some detail.
Clearly, it would be wholly unacceptable for deductions to be made from any compensation payment without the claimant's agreement, though the report notes that, as far as they were aware, there were no examples of that happening. But the report equally suggests that in some cases, claimants appear to have been invited to agree to make such contributions without it being crystal clear to them that such donations were a matter for their choice and that other solicitors would not seek to make them. That would strike me, to say the least, as questionable.
These are essentially matters about conduct within the legal profession and the Department has no direct role. We have, however, raised the issues with the Law Society in the past and will continue to make clear to them the importance of taking these issues forward rigorously and proactively. There is again legal action in prospect, though not involving the Department. The
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report does however make a specific recommendation that, subject to the outcome of any legal action in this area, the legal profession should take forward the issue of claimants who were not made fully aware that they were free to use solicitors who did not make any deductions. The report calls on the legal profession to take this forward. I urge them to do soand I will follow up this issue with the Law Society.
Third, we have also taken steps immediately to address the recommendation about greater availably of information about the schemes. We have already put on the website: http://www.dti.gov.uk/coalhealth/ the claims handling agreements, including the UDM agreements, and the latest reports to the courts on progress of the schemeswhich cover a lot of detail. We will consider what further information might be added and would welcome input from interested parties about what additional information they would find helpful.
Although it is not dealt with within the report, I can also report separately to the House that the Serious Fraud Office has now confirmed to my Department that, while their investigations are continuing, their investigation is not now focusing on any suspected fraud against the Department.
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