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Written Ministerial Statements

Tuesday 18 July 2006

Treasury

HMRC Online Services

The Paymaster General (Dawn Primarolo): In his report on the “Review of HMRC Online Services”, published at the Budget in March 2006, Lord Carter of Coles recommended that, for 2007-08 and subsequent returns, the income tax self assessment filing deadline should be brought forward from 31 January to 30 September for paper returns and to 30 November for returns filed over the internet. Lord Carter has since reviewed the responses to the Partial Regulatory Impact Assessment published with his report and has received further representations from tax practitioners. Having reviewed his earlier findings, he has now recommended that, for 2007-08 and subsequent returns, the filing period for paper returns should be reduced to seven months—the new deadline should be 31 October—and the filing period for online returns should remain at ten months—with a deadline of 31 January. He has also suggested that HM Revenue and Customs officials should work with practitioners to explore how in future the practical difficulties in collecting data earlier might be overcome so that taxpayers can complete their returns sooner if they wish. The Government have accepted Lord Carter’s revised recommendation. This updating of the self assessment system takes account of both the views of tax professionals and the operational requirements of HM Revenue and Customs.

Communities and Local Government

Home Information Packs

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Yvette Cooper): I am today setting out further details of the Government’s implementation strategy and dry run for Home Information Packs (HIPs).

The aims of the HIPs programme

The aims of the Government’s reforms to the home buying and selling process are three fold:

(i) To provide home owners with important energy efficiency information about their homes to help them cut fuel bills and carbon emissions. This is vital as homes account for 27 per cent. of Britain’s carbon emissions. Energy Performance Certificates will provide clear information about the energy efficiency of homes and how that can be improved. The Energy Saving Trust estimate that following the advice in Energy Performance Certificates could save the average home owner up to £300 a year on their fuel bills The Government believe it is important to implement these as early as possible given the importance of reducing carbon emissions.


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(ii) To benefit consumers by cutting waste and duplication, speeding up home sales and reducing the number of failed transactions, which at present cost consumers around £350 million a year in wasted costs.

(iii) To encourage and support long term transformation of the home buying and selling industry by introducing greater transparency and competition to drive down costs and incentivise better service and clearer redress for consumers.

Testing

There are three main components to Home Information Packs: searches and other legal documents; Energy Performance Certificates; and the home condition surveys that make up the other component of a fall Home Condition Report. It is essential that all aspects of Home Information Packs are properly tested before fall implementation. We need to be sure that consumers understand, value and can utilise the information that HIPs provide; that the assumed benefits will be realised; and that the different operating systems underpinning HIPs will work effectively.

As part of our ongoing programme of implementation, we have already successfully tested over 14,000 HIPs with searches, but largely without Home Condition Reports, in the dry run so far. Over the course of the summer we propose to undertake farther consumer research on Home Condition Reports; to study in greater detail the 250 HIPs that have been produced to date with some kind of survey; and to look to see what more we can learn from experience in other countries where HIPs have been introduced successfully or are currently being proposed. From the autumn the emphasis of our implementation programme will switch to the testing of Energy Performance Certificates and Home Condition Reports. Working with the industry and with consumers, we are proposing to support a series of area based trials and we will test proposals such as allowing sellers to start marketing their homes if they have already commissioned their HIP rather than having to wait up to 14 days. There will be independent assessment and monitoring of all aspects of the dry run.

Roll out

It is also important that reforms are introduced on a timetable and as part of a programme that maximises the benefits for consumers and the environment.

As part of the development of the dry run we have engaged in detailed consultation with a wide range of stakeholders and have gathered substantial information on the progress of implementation so far. As a result, we have concluded that there would be significant risks and potential disadvantages to consumers from a mandatory “big bang” introduction of full Home Condition Reports on 1 June 2007. In particular:


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Moreover, because of our commitment to addressing climate change we do not want to jeopardise the successful introduction of Energy Performance Certificates at the earliest possible opportunity by pursuing the ‘big bang’ mandatory introduction of full Home Condition Reports at the same time.

We believe that progressive market-led take-up of full HCRs could strongly benefit consumers. Bearing in mind our commitment to the early introduction of Energy Performance Certificates, combining an Energy Performance Certificate and a full Home Condition Report at the same time is likely to offer significant additional benefits to buyers and sellers. In particular, sellers offering full Home Condition Reports should be more likely to benefit from swifter sales and suffer fewer transaction failures, as accepted offers are much less likely to be re-opened as a result of new information coming to light. In addition, once Automated Valuation Models are in place, Home Condition Reports should mean buyers get cheaper and swifter valuations and mortgage offers. We therefore believe that there will be a significant incentive for consumers to top up their HIPs voluntarily to include full Home Condition Reports and that this is a product that the market can and should deliver.

Therefore we have concluded that:

As part of the next phase of reform of we will also be setting out our plans for an ombudsman scheme for estate agents to strengthen consumer protection as well as further proposals to review competition and transparency in the industry to the benefit of consumers.

We believe that these arrangements will ensure that Home Information Packs are implemented in a way that maximises benefits for consumers and the environment and successfully enables the long term transformation of the home buying and selling market.

Constitutional Affairs

Court of Protection Rules and Lasting Powers of Attorney

The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): My noble Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State has made the following written ministerial statement:


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Defence

Nimrod MRA4

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): I can announce that the contract for foil production of 12 Nimrod MRA4 aircraft has been placed with BAE Systems. This is the culmination of many years of hard work by BAE Systems and its supply chain, and builds upon the considerable investment already made by the Ministry of Defence and BAE Systems. Nimrod MRA4 has had a troubled and well publicised history of time delays and cost overruns. The contract restructuring introduced since early 2003 has been successful in stabilising costs and with three aircraft participating in the flight trials programme, the design has now reached a level of maturity which permits a commitment to foil production.

The greater transparency offered by the revised contracting arrangements and the development of an effective partnering relationship between MOD and BAE Systems and its supply chain have been essential to restoring confidence in the programme. These are key elements of the Defence Industrial Strategy (DIS) and progress on Nimrod MRA4 demonstrates the benefits that will accrue to MOD and industry as these and other features of the DIS are put into effect across the defence industrial base.

The programme will provide the RAF with a maritime patrol aircraft capability second to none. Nimrod MRA4 will offer greater capability and improved availability when compared with the current MR2 maritime patrol aircraft which it replaces.

This contract will secure some 1,000 jobs at BAE Systems sites in the north-west of England, including around 700 at the Woodford site where the aircraft is manufactured. A further 300 or so jobs associated with production will also be secured at other BAE Systems’ sites.


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Military Low Flying

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Tom Watson): It is normal practice for Ministry of Defence to publish before the summer recess a report giving a detailed account of the low flying training that has taken place in the UK Low Flying System for the previous training year April 2005 to March 2006.

In the preparation of the report for this year an error in the method of attribution of hours from night areas into day areas has been discovered which also affects information reported in prior years. This has delayed analysis of data and production of the 2005-06 report.

The corrected prior year figures will be shown in the 2005-06 report, and copies will be placed in the Library of the House.

November 2006 Roulement

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): I would like to confirm the details of the force package that we currently plan to deploy to Iraq at the next routine roulement of UK forces in November 2006.

The lead UK formation, currently 20 Armoured Brigade, will be replaced by 19 Light Brigade, which will take over command of UK forces in early November. In addition to 19 Light Brigade’s Headquarters and Signals Squadron, the other major units currently in Iraq will be replaced as follows:

Unit deploying for Operation TEL1C 9

Unit currently in theatre (Operation Telic)

HQ 19 Light Brigade

HQ 20 Armoured Brigade

1 x squadron from 2(nd) Royal Tank Regiment

The Queen’s Royal Hussars

The Queen’s Royal Lancers

l(st) The Queens’s Dragoon Guards

1(st) Battalion The King’s Regiment

1(st) Battalion The Light Infantry

1(st) Battalion The Yorkshire Regiment

1(st) Battalion The Princess of Wales’s Royal Regiment

1(st) Battalion The Royal Green Jackets

1(st) Battalion The Devonshire and Dorset Light Infantry

1(st) Battalion The Staffordshire Regiment

2(nd) Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment

1 x company from the Joint CBRN Regiment and 1 x company from The Black Watch 3(rd) Battalion The Royal Regiment of Scotland

1 x company from the 51(st) Highland. 7(th) Battalion the Royal Regiment of Scotland (Territorial Army)

1 x company from each of The King’s and Cheshire Regiment (Territorial Army) and The Lancastrian and Cumbrian Volunteers (Territorial Army)

40(th) Regiment Royal Artillery

26(th) Regiment Roval Artillery

2 x companies of the 2(nd) Battalion The Light Infantry (to deploy in September)

1(st) Battalion The Grenadier Guards (to return in September)

38 Engineer Regiment

35 Engineer Regiment

19 Lt Bde Combat Service Support Battalion

1 Logistics Corps


Following the completion of the roulement in November, the total number of UK troops in Iraq will be broadly the same as currently deployed, approximately 7,100 servicemen and women.


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Members of the reserve forces will continue to deploy to Iraq as part of this force package, and we shall shortly start to serve approximately 600 call-out notices in order to fill some 500 posts. On completion of their mobilisation procedures, the reservists will undertake a period of training and integration into their respective receiving units. For the majority their deployment to theatre will also commence in November and most will serve there for six to seven months, although some may have shorter tours. The reservists will perform a wide range of activities including force protection duties, logistics, medical support and individual reinforcements to units. In addition, we expect some 20 members of the sponsored reserves to be in theatre at any one time.

I emphasise that the force package we deploy in October/November will depend on the conditions on the ground, in particular the security situation in the south and progress on handover of security responsibility to the Iraqi civil authorities over the months to come. I very much hope that positive progress in these areas will enable adjustments to the force package we deploy, and we will continue to keep UK force levels in Iraq under review. I will, of course, aim to inform Parliament of any changes to these plans at the earliest opportunity.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Access to the English Coast

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Barry Gardiner): In July 2005 DEFRA asked the Countryside Agency, working with English Nature and the Rural Development Service, to advise the Government on ways to improve access to the English coast. We asked for that advice to be provided by the end of July 2006 in advance of the publication of a consultation document in October this year.

I have now decided that in view of Natural England assuming responsibility from the Countryside Agency in this area in October this year, Natural England should take forward the work which the Countryside Agency, English Nature and the Rural Development Service have carried out on coastal access. I am today announcing that I have asked the Natural England board to come forward with its recommendations on coastal access to the Government before the end of December this year. In line with these changes I am proposing that the public consultation should now be issued in early 2007.

Health

Audiology Services

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Mr. Ivan Lewis): We acknowledge that there are pressures with regard to the waiting times for audiology services. Considerable progress has been made in improving the provision of audiology services although we accept that there is still some way to go.


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Between 2000-05, this Government invested £125 million in the Modernising Hearing Aids Service programme (MHAS), which was managed by the Royal National Institute for the Deaf (RNID), on behalf of the Department of Health. The outcomes of the programme have been significant and have ensured that by 2005 all NHS hearing aid services met the Government target of routinely fitting modern digital hearing aids.

There have been other significant improvements:

A key area of challenge to delivering the 18-week waiting target outlined in section 2 of the publication “Tackling hospital waiting: the 18 week patient pathway—An implementation framework” was audiology. Work is underway at official level to scope a national action plan for audiology, to be published in due course. The intention is to develop and take the work forward in partnership with stakeholders. This will involve working with eight physiological measurement sites to test ideas and to improve access to physiological measurement diagnostic services including audiology. These sites will be critical to inform the action plan and its eventual implementation.

The Government’s investment, through the work of MHAS, has improved outcomes for patients. Medical Research Council research shows that patients have reported a 40 per cent. increase in benefit with the new service.


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