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Written Ministerial Statements

Thursday 23 November 2006


EU Finance

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (John Healey): The European Court of Justice (ECJ) has today ruled on a Dutch case known as Joustra, which concerns the rules on cross-border purchasing of excise products. The ECJ ruled that only products acquired and transported personally by private individuals are exempt from excise duty in the member state of importation.

This is the right and common-sense decision that upholds the existing laws on cross-border shopping and national rates of taxation. The UK’s rules on cross-border shopping will remain unchanged as a result of this judgment.

Consumers will still be able to travel to the EU and purchase goods for private consumption without paying UK duty. The UK continues to have the highest indicative levels for determining own use in the EU set at: 3,200 for cigarettes; 3 kg for hand-rolling tobacco; 110 litres for beer; 90 litres for wine and 10 litres for spirits.

The Government continue to support strongly the right of individuals to benefit from the freedoms of the EU single market when purchases are brought back for own use, with the individual present, and that are within the law.

Communities and Local Government

Local Government Pensions Scheme

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): The Government’s objective for the Local Government Pension Scheme in England and Wales is to ensure it is viable, affordable to both scheme members and employers, and fair to the taxpayers who ultimately provide its security.

The local government workforce, and the other employees who are eligible for scheme membership, need access to a good quality pension scheme to provide for their retirement. All stakeholders believe the scheme is an essential component of the reward strategies for local government’s and certain associated employers’ workforces. The scheme, therefore, should be as flexible and accessible as possible for both employees and employers, and provide a modern, equality-proofed range of defined benefits both now and in the future. It must meet the challenge of being
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attractive to existing and future employees, and to their employers, in and around local government. However, in meeting these objectives, an equitable and proportionate balance must be struck between the level of pension benefits provided by the scheme, and the actual cost of providing those benefits.

Principles and propositions for the long-term reform of the scheme were first circulated to all scheme stakeholders in October 2004. Subsequent regulatory amendments were made to the scheme to reflect changes in taxation legislation, to improve its governance and deficit management, to achieve cost-stability linked to the outcome of the 2004 actuarial valuation exercise and to further the Government’s objective of ending employment discrimination on grounds of age. A number of lawful and affordable protections for existing scheme members were also introduced, linked to the final removal of an age discriminatory provision, the rule of 85, with effect from 1 October 2006.

To begin the final stages towards introducing, from 1 April 2008, a new-look Local Government Pension Scheme, a national consultation exercise, “Where Next? -Options for a New-look Local Government Pension Scheme in England and Wales”, took place between 30 June and 29 September this year. It invited stakeholders’ views on four costed options: an updated current scheme with benefit improvements; a new final salary scheme with an improved accrual rate; a new career average scheme; and a new hybrid scheme combining a career average core with a final salary top-up option. A range of benefit structure changes was proposed, along with several propositions to address future scheme costs, levels of contributions by both members and employers, greater benefit flexibility, new early retirement provisions and targeted ill health benefits.

Careful consideration has now been given to the outcome of that consultation exercise; the responses received have been helpful and informative. Some scheme administering authorities, in particular, conducted helpful, detailed costing assessments of their position in relation to the range of options put forward. An analysis of the responses received to the consultation exercise has now been completed and is available at: www.communities.gov.uk/lgps

Against that background, I am announcing that the Government’s regulatory intentions for the future structure of the Local Government Pension Scheme’s benefit package will be shortly circulated to interested parties for detailed analysis and comment. The consultation package will propose that the scheme remain as a final salary pension arrangement and be based on an accrual of 1/60th of salary for each year of membership. It will continue to have a normal pension age of 65, and will move towards providing, by 2010, for pensions to be paid no earlier than age 55, rather than the current minimum age of 50, except on grounds of ill-health. A revised and better targeted ill-health retirement package is to be proposed, and survivor benefits, which are available for spouses, civil partners and children, will be extended to include other co-habiting partners. In order to help equality-proof the scheme, tiered employee contribution rates, linked to salary, will be introduced, as well as more
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flexible retirement provisions. Arrangements will be included which protect the accrued rights of all existing scheme members up to 31 March 2008. All present and future members of the scheme will build up rights in the new-look scheme from 1 April 2008. In addition, the protections already provided in the current scheme for eligible members, at no cost to taxpayers, following the final removal of the rule of 85 from the scheme from 1 October 2006, will be retained.

The Government are mindful of the need to maintain stability of costs in the new-look scheme and a fair and equitable balance in its long-term resourcing between members, employers and taxpayers. The Government’s intention throughout this reform process has been to ensure that no additional costs are imposed on taxpayers. It is intended, therefore, to establish an appropriate mechanism for sharing future cost pressures and to have the arrangements in place by March 2009. These will both inform and take account of the 2010 actuarial valuation of the scheme. The new arrangements can be taken into account when individual fund actuaries set new employer contribution rates in the valuations, which will take effect from 1 April 2011. This important timetable will be reflected in the new scheme regulatory framework programmed to take effect from 1 April 2008.

The package, as a whole, is both workable and affordable. Overall, it meets the balance of responses received to the recent consultation exercise and complies with the Government’s central policy objectives for the scheme’s reform, particularly in terms of its viability, affordability and fairness to members and taxpayers.

To assist in the on-going monitoring of the scheme’s regulatory and policy development, the Department for Communities and Local Government will establish a policy review group of key interested parties. The group will focus on strategic issues, establish common ground between stakeholders and monitor demographic experience in the scheme as a basis for co-operative decision-making on scheme developments, regulatory changes and scheme cost-sharing. The work of the group will be reported regularly to Ministers and will complement the usual statutory and non-statutory consultation arrangements which already exist within the current regulatory framework of the scheme.

For the new-look scheme to be fully available and operational for all categories of members and prospective members from 1 April 2008, the Government’s timetable and programme of reform requires regulations to be in place for 1 April 2007. Accordingly, draft regulations which set out in detail the proposed benefit package for the new scheme will be circulated next month to interested parties in England and Wales to reflect the terms of this statement, as well as setting out the actual regulatory framework necessary to give full effect to the new scheme. This will allow the terms of the new arrangements to be taken into account as part of the 2007 actuarial valuation exercise. As a first step in the consultation process, further details of the proposed new-look scheme regulatory framework and this statement are being circulated to interested parties in England and Wales today as part of the required statutory consultation process.

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In addition, these regulations will be followed shortly by associated draft regulatory changes in a separate draft statutory instrument, dealing with the administration aspects of the new scheme and to a similar implementation timetable.

Constitutional Affairs

Legal Services Reform

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): My right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State and Lord Chancellor has made the following written ministerial statement:

Education and Skills

Communication Aids Project (CAP)

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Mr. Parmjit Dhanda): It is normal practice when a Government Department proposes to make a gift of a value exceeding £250,000 for the Department concerned to present to the House of Commons a Minute giving particulars of the gift and explaining the circumstances; and to refrain from making the gift until 14 days (exclusive of Saturdays and Sundays) after the issue of the Minute, except in cases of special urgency.

The Department for Education and Skills wishes to gift communication aid equipment to 4,193 children in England with significant communication difficulties and/or disabilities, purchased and loaned to them as part of the Communication Aids Project (CAP), which commenced in April 2002 and ceased in March 2006. CAP was designed to improve the children’s access to
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the curriculum and other educational opportunities, help their social interaction, and help them at points of transition (moving school or moving from school into further studies or employment).

The specialist assistive technology equipment purchased and loaned under CAP was tailored to the individual child’s assessed needs. It was therefore ‘personal’ to the individual child, and intended to remain with them as they progressed through and beyond the education system. The equipment also forms part of a wider package of support provided under CAP which included specialised assessment, training and instruction, designed to ensure that the potential and application of the equipment was fully understood and realised.

Following the closure of CAP in March, the equipment in question remains with the children to whom it was allocated. In order to ensure that they can continue to draw benefit from assistive technology geared to their particular needs, the Government intend to permanently gift the equipment to the recipients. The total value of the gift being made, taking account of depreciation, is £3,457,575.

The Treasury has approved the proposed gift in principle. If during the period of 14 days (exclusive of Saturdays and Sundays) beginning on the date on which this Minute was laid before the House of Commons a Member signifies an objection by giving notice of a Parliamentary Question or of a Motion relating to the Minute, or by otherwise raising the matter in the House, final approval of the gift will be withheld pending an examination of the objection.

International Development

Development Partnership with Pakistan

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): During his recent visit to Pakistan, the Prime Minister signed a new 10-year Development Partnership Arrangement (DPA) between the UK and Pakistan. The Prime Minister also announced a doubling of UK aid to Pakistan, from £236 million for the period 2005 to 2008, and up to £480 million for the period 2008 to 2011. This new development partnership reaffirms our resolve to help Pakistan and its people to achieve the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The Government of Pakistan has made progress in fighting extreme poverty and hunger, but very real needs remain. One in ten children die before their fifth birthday; around eight million children do not go to school; approximately 50 per cent. of the adult population are illiterate, two thirds of whom are women; and at the last count in 2005, some 38 million were living below the poverty line. As part of the DPA, the Government of Pakistan has made specific commitments to work towards achieving the MDGs, including in health and education.

We will set out our priorities for the increased aid allocation in a new Country Assistance Plan (CAP) for Pakistan. DFID officials are now preparing for the consultation process. We will seek as wide a variety of
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views as possible and ensure they are fed into our CAP thinking and planning. We will explore with Government of Pakistan partners how we can provide more support to their plan to reduce poverty, including increasing support for education and doing more on health, water and sanitation. We also anticipate extending the geographic coverage of our programme to all provinces. We will consult Pakistan civil society, Pakistan Provincial Governments, other key donors, the Pakistan Diaspora in the UK, and other UK Government Departments.

Our development assistance for Pakistan, including the significant increase just announced, is separate from the support we are providing for post-earthquake relief and reconstruction, which totals some £124 million following this major natural disaster in which over 70,000 people were killed.

Increased UK and International Aid to Yemen

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): On 15 November the UK Government announced a major scaling-up of its development assistance to Yemen. At the same time I also signalled DFID’s intention to seek a 10-year Development Partnership Agreement with Yemen. This will support and help sustain the Government of Yemen’s commitment to reform and poverty reduction over the long-term. These announcements were made at the Yemen Consultative Group (CG) meeting on 15 and 16 November, hosted by the UK Government at Lancaster House. At this meeting a total of £2.6 billion in future development assistance was pledged from international donors, a significant proportion of which came from the Arab states.

The Consultative Group meeting was attended by the President of Yemen, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and Finance and Foreign Ministers from several Gulf states. The meeting was a unique opportunity for the UK to strengthen our relationship and collaboration with Gulf states and major Arab donors. The meeting also followed my visit to Yemen earlier this month and intensive work by DFID and FCO over the past six months. The outcome exceeded our expectations and those of the Government of Yemen. DFID is now working to build on this success and take forward the challenging agenda for poverty reduction and reform set out by the Yemeni Government.

Yemen is a fragile state facing considerable challenges: high poverty levels; decreasing oil revenue; serious water scarcity; high population growth; and weak Government capacity. Yemen is an important partner in the UK’s anti-terrorism efforts, and ensuring stability is important. The Government’s plans for scaling up our assistance to Yemen will see a substantive increase in the UK’s commitment—to £50 million per year by 2010-11. This marks a five-fold increase on current aid levels, and a total allocation of £117 million over the next four years. As DFID scales up, the programme will concentrate upon strengthening governance, increasing economic opportunities for the poor and investing in people, with a priority of education for girls.

Currently DFID is providing support for basic education and maternal health, public financial
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management, security sector reform and justice reform. DFID will maintain our programmes in these areas. We also intend to work with the Government of Yemen and other donors to expand our involvement in the water sector and broaden our support for secondary and vocational education. Both water and education are crucial areas for Yemen’s long-term development.

To deliver on this agenda DFID is working closely with the Foreign Office and with the Ministry of Defence to link our poverty and development objectives to the achievement of long-term peace and stability for Yemen.

Northern Ireland

Delay Action Team

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): The Government established a Delay Action Team (DAT) in May of this year in response to an inspection report on avoidable delay in the criminal process by Kit Chivers, Chief Inspector of Criminal Justice in Northern Ireland and the Government wish to ensure improvements in the Criminal Justice System. The team is made up of members of the police, prosecution, courts and youth justice services. Its responsibility is to find ways of bringing criminal cases in Northern Ireland, before the courts more quickly. Drawing on experience in England and Wales as well as addressing the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, the team has developed a detailed cross-agency strategy to eliminate avoidable delay in processing criminal cases; set out a plan to devise end-to-end targets for different categories of criminal cases; produced a timed action plan; and produced specific proposals to deal with youth cases. The Government will announce the targets early next year.

The report highlights the considerable existing efforts to bear down on delays, including the joint
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protocol between the Public Prosecution Service and PSNI, the training of police officers responsible for file preparation, the introduction of trial status reports and pre-trial reviews in the Crown Court, and the establishment of youth case managers and champions in the PSNI and PPS respectively. It also points to work in the pipeline, including the reform of the transfer of cases to the Crown Court and the Causeway Electronic Case Management System. It recommends specific improvements to the oversight of case processing and the serving of summonses.

Delays are too long. They impose a real strain on victims and witnesses and risk undermining the chances of justice being done. We are confident that as the strategy is implemented there will be a measurable improvement in the time it takes to see justice done. The whole of the Northern Ireland Criminal Justice System is working together to address the issue.

Copies of the Delay Action Team’s report have been placed in the Library. It is available on the NIO and CJSNI websites.

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