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Written Ministerial Statements

Tuesday 27 February 2007

Communities and Local Government

Local Authority Business Growth Incentive Scheme

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): I am pleased to announce details of the allocation of grant to be awarded to authorities under the Local Authority Business Growth Incentive scheme (LABGI) for 2006-07; the second year of a three-year initiative. LABGI is an incentive scheme that aims to encourage local authorities to increase business growth in their areas. The scheme generates a greater opportunity for local government and business to work together to deliver economic success and prosperity to their local community. The scheme is set to run for three years (2005-06 to 2007-08) and will allocate up to £1 billion to eligible local authorities in England and Wales. The money is genuinely additional and unringfenced for authorities to spend on their needs as they see fit.

Last year £126 million was paid to 278 eligible local authorities. This year I expect a total of £316 million to be shared between 328 local authorities, more than two and a half times the amount of unringfenced grant as last year and to 50 more authorities across the country who have boosted businesses in their areas. We expect £1 billion to be spent on LABGI over the three years of the scheme.

In September 2006 the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government and the Financial Secretary to the Treasury announced plans to remove the scaling factor and ceiling in LABGI to make the scheme simpler and more rewarding for local authorities. However, due to the Judicial Reviews brought by Corby and Slough Borough Councils, we have had to retain the scaling factor for Year 2 payments to protect the important incentive this scheme creates for authorities in this year and next year. We remain committed to the principle of removing the scaling factor but because of these authorities we cannot rule out retaining it to deal with the conclusions of the Judicial Reviews.

Qualifying local authorities are being advised today on the level of grant they can expect to receive from a total allocation of £316 million. These payments will be made on 26 March, later than planned due to the added complication to the calculation methodology required to address this threat of litigation from Corby and Slough borough councils. John Healey and I are also writing separately to those members of the House whose constituent local authorities have qualified for LABGI grant. Detailed allocations are attached and being placed in the House Libraries.

We are considering the future of LABGI as part of the Comprehensive Spending Review 2007.

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Constitutional Affairs

Draft Coroner's Bill Consultation

The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): I am publishing two reports today. Firstly, a summary report of responses received as part of the consultation on the draft Coroner’s Bill and the action the Government intends to take as a result. Copies of the report have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses. It will also be made available on the Department for Constitutional Affairs website.

In the Bill we aim to do three things. Firstly we will improve the way that the system serves the public interest and meet bereaved families' concerns. The Bill will give families involved in the inquest process a clear legal standing in the system. For the first time, they will have rights through a new appeals system, enabling them to challenge a coroner's decision, and a Charter for Bereaved People will set out the level of service in relation to information and consultation they can expect more generally. Secondly we will strengthen coroners' work. The Bill will establish a transparent appointments system for a new cadre of whole-time coroners, who will have to be legally qualified, and will provide them with improved powers of investigation and local medical support. Thirdly, we will create a national structure for coroners' work. For the first time there will be a Chief Coroner, supported by a Chief Medical Adviser, who will provide national leadership for coroners, as the Lord Chief Justice does for judges. This will be supported by national standards, a coronial advisory council, a proper inspection system and national training for coroners and their officers.

Over 150 organisations and individuals responded to the consultation, with further feedback received from regional conferences for those involved in delivering or funding the service, such as coroners, their staff, police and local authorities, and from a number of meetings held with voluntary sector organisations.

As well as support for many of the proposals, such as creating a Chief Coroner and having a new appeals system for bereaved families, the responses have offered constructive additional suggestions for refining the proposals or for improving the service more generally. For example, as I announced on 30 January, coroners will be given stronger powers to enhance their lesser known public protection role. Bereaved families often express the wish that something positive might come out of a coroner's inquiry, and want relevant agencies to take preventative action so that the death of their family member is not in vain. For the first time, a legal obligation will be placed on organisations to respond to coroners' recommendations saying what steps they will take to prevent future deaths. Additionally, the Lord Chancellor will report to Parliament on the recommendations made to the Chief Coroner and the responses received.

Other changes we have made include being clearer about the circumstances in which deaths of our citizens abroad should be investigated. To support this, coroners will be given greater powers to secure information from overseas authorities.

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The criteria for the types of case that require a jury inquest will remain as at present. Inquests into deaths at work will therefore remain one of those for which a jury is summoned.

We have identified other policy areas where we will consult further before a Bill is brought before Parliament, for example, the exceptional circumstances when coroners may have powers to impose restrictions on the reporting of the names of parties to inquests, new coroner area boundaries, the sharing of information between coroners and other authorities, disclosure of material to bereaved people, and improved support for families at inquests.

The second report is a summary of the public pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Bill which took place on 9 November. The discussion provided an opportunity to hear what bereaved relatives with recent experience of the coroner service thought of the changes proposed in the draft Bill. A key aim of the Bill is to ensure that the system serves bereaved relatives better. The objective of the public scrutiny was to satisfy ourselves that the proposals in the Bill will indeed achieve that objective. The findings of the panel will enable us to have a fully informed debate when a Bill is introduced, and emerge with better final plans as a result.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Ship Recycling Strategy

The Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): We have today published the UK's Ship Recycling Strategy following consultation with stakeholders. The Government committed to the development of such a Strategy in their response to the EFRA Committee Report “Dismantling Defunct Ships in the UK” in January 2005. The Strategy establishes domestic policy for the recycling of UK Government owned vessels, sets out information on relevant controls for those wishing to establish dismantling facilities in the UK, provides recommendations for ships registered to the UK flag and informs the UK position for international negotiations on ship recycling. The EFRA Committee's report also highlighted the need to provide clear guidance to those wishing to recycle ships in the UK. In response to this we are publishing alongside the Strategy, guidance to provide an overview of the technical and regulatory requirements to operate ship recycling in the UK as well as a non-exhaustive list of potential sources of assistance.

The Strategy encourages other countries, to consider drafting their own Strategies, to examine their own national fleets' needs and domestic ship recycling capability. However, international developments continue mainly through the International Maritime Organisation with the involvement of the Basel Convention and the International Labour Organisation.


M11 Improvements

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Douglas Alexander): I am today announcing a Highways Agency consultation on plans for widening the M11 between
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junctions 6-8. Copies of the consultation documents have been placed in the Libraries of the House.

Over the next two decades, the east of England is set to grow substantially in terms of both housing and jobs. The draft East of England plan, which is currently out to consultation on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government's proposed modifications, contains full details.

This growth can only be accommodated by providing the necessary infrastructure in terms of effective road and rail links within the region and to London. In this context, my Department has been working with the Government Office for the East of England and developers to identify what road improvements might be needed in the region. Our analysis indicates that the M11 between junctions 6-8 will become very congested in the period before 2021 unless improvements are implemented. The expected growth of Stansted airport, including the possibility of a second runway, will add to that congestion.

Regional growth and the expansion of Stansted airport will also impact on the West Anglia Main Line in the next two decades. The Eastern Regional Planning Assessment for the Railway, published in February 2006, took account of these factors in identifying the priorities and options for further development on this route up to 2021.

My announcement today demonstrates the Government's commitment to the longer term development and economic prosperity of the east of England region and the need for strong transport links Widening of the M11 is also important to the growth of Stansted airport and this consultation fits with BAA's parallel announcement today on its surface access strategy for a second runway. In line with the policies in the “Future of Air Transport” White Paper, BAA will pay a contribution to the costs of these improvements to the extent that the airport will benefit.

In addition to options for widening the M11, the Highways Agency is also consulting on plans to improve the junction access to the airport from the M11 and A120. The airport is expected to fully fund this development.

Further detailed work on M11 widening and junction access will be undertaken in light of the public consultations.

MSC Napoli

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): This statement is to update the House on the progress of the salvage operation for the MSC Napoli and follows on from my previous written statement, issued on 25 January, as well as the oral statement I made on 1 February.

Since my last statement, work has continued on removing oil and containers from the MSC Napoli, Virtually all the heavy fuel oil has now been removed, with only small residual amounts left in hard-to-reach spaces. Removal of diesel oil continues. The risk of a major oil pollution incident with the potential to cause widespread environmental damage has therefore passed.

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Work on removing containers from the ship is continuing as quickly as the prevailing weather conditions will allow. As of the evening of Monday 26 February, all 853 deck containers have now been removed and work has commenced on removing containers from the holds. Some 114 containers have fallen overboard since the Napoli was grounded. We do not believe that the contents of any of these present a significant risk to either human health or the environment. It is likely that a small number of additional containers could be lost, depending on future weather conditions and plans are in place for their recovery should this occur.

Where containers are found on the beach, Coastguard Rescue Teams and contractors go on site with security officers and the Police to ensure the area is completely shut off to the public. The Police are warning the public that they will use their powers of arrest of anyone attempting to remove articles from beaches. The normal arrangements in terms of recovery of wreck material through voluntary salvage do not apply in the case of the MSC Napoli, now that comprehensive salvage contracts have been placed by the owners of the ship (and the consignors) to recover all items from the vessel, including those lost overboard and washed ashore.

On 23 February, reports were received that some debris from the cargo of the MSC Napoli had washed ashore along the coastline from Bournemouth through to the Isle of Wight. Local authorities are being advised to contact the ship owner's contractor for shoreline clean-up.

Vessels equipped with side-scan sonar continue to search for those containers that were lost overboard
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and are believed to have sunk. Despite some disruption from severe weather, this work is proceeding well and several containers have already been located.

I would like to express once again my gratitude to Robin Middleton, the Secretary of State's Representative for Maritime Salvage and Intervention, as well as all of those who were involved in the rescue, salvage and recovery operations. It is thanks to their efforts that there has been no loss of human life and that the impact on the environment has been far less severe than could otherwise have been the case.

Work and Pensions

Occupational Pensions

The Minister for Pensions Reform (James Purnell): I have received representations from trustees of a small number of pension schemes who are in negotiation with employers in relation to insolvency and qualification for the Financial Assistance Scheme that they would like some further time to complete this process.

I therefore intend to extend the cut-off date for insolvency events to 31 August 2007. I will bring forward appropriate amendments in due course. In the meantime I will not give effect to the current cut-off date and I will consider whether any further extension beyond 31 August 2007 may be required.

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