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Leader of the House

Topical Debates

The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): The House agreed on 25 October to the introduction of topical debates on an experimental basis for the 2007-08 Session, following the recommendations of the Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons in “Revitalising the Chamber: The Role of the Backbench Member”(1).

I am today announcing that I will be conducting a review into the operation of topical debates. The results of the review will be published before the House rises for the summer recess. Any Member wishing to submit their views is asked to do so by 23 May 2008.

While the review is ongoing, I encourage Members to continue to propose subjects for debate, either in writing, via the email link on the home page of the website of the Leader of the House of Commons at: during weekly business questions or in person.

The criteria used to choose debates have previously been announced to the House: the subject should be topical; the House has not had an opportunity to debate it; it is a matter of public policy; it is a matter of public concern; and it is of international, national or regional importance.

The Select Committee on Modernisation of the House of Commons has also stated its intention to conduct its own review into the operation of topical debates after their first year of operation. The Government intend to submit the outcomes of their own review to the Modernisation Committee for consideration.

I am also proposing that a new system be introduced to improve the openness of the system. I intend on a quarterly basis to issue a written ministerial statement that lists all subjects that have been proposed for debate, other than those discussed at weekly business questions, which are already a matter of public record. The attached table gives such information from the beginning of the process until the end of December.

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Subjects Proposed (Other than in Business Questions) for Topical Debates (7 November - 7 December)

Week commencing 12 Nov 2007:

UK relations with Iran (letter)

Climate change (letter)

Barnett formula (email)

Rape and domestic violence (email)

Medal for injured members of the armed forces (email)

Week commencing 19 Nov 2007:

Public food procurement (letter)

Western Balkans (other)

Farepak (email)

Annapolis peace talks (letter)

Animal disease (letter)

Medal for injured members of the armed forces (letter)

Data protection (other)

Week commencing 26 Nov 2007:

Heathrow (other)

Medal for injured members of the armed forces (letters)

Availability of cheap alcohol (email)

Identity fraud (email)

Week commencing 10 Dec 2007:

Farepak (email)

Week commencing 17 Dec 2007:

Families at risk (email).

To note: The list includes all requests and whether they have been submitted by letter, email or another method. The list does not include requests made during business questions, or otherwise on the Floor of the House, and that are already a matter of public record. Weeks where there were no requests are not included.

(1) HC337 of 13 June 2007

Innovation, Universities and Skills

Education (Student Support) Regulations

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): I have today laid amended Education (Student Support) Regulations, making changes in the way we support prisoners undertaking full-time higher education courses.

The education of offenders is an integral part of strategies to reduce reoffending. Improving the skills of offenders, helping them to move into jobs, is likely to help break the cycle of reoffending.

Offenders are encouraged to study at all levels, including courses offered by Higher Education Institutions (HEIs). We estimate about 590 prisoners are currently studying on part-time distance learning courses, usually provided by the Open University. A smaller number of students study full-time in higher education. They must satisfy attendance criteria agreed by the HEI and the prison governor by, for example, securing release on temporary licence (day release). All prisoners released on temporary licence are subject to regular and rigorous risk assessment by the governor.

Financial support for students attending full-time higher education courses is provided through the Student Loans Company (SLC), in conjunction with relevant local authorities which assess entitlement in accordance with the student support regulations. Support comprises loans for tuition fees and loans and grants for maintenance. Payments for tuition fees are paid by the SLC directly to HEIs.

It has been brought to Ministers’ attention that there is a long-established but unjustifiable provision in the student support regulations that has allowed prisoners
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on full-time courses in higher education to receive financial support in the form of loans and grants for maintenance.

Payments properly made under the student support regulations will have been in compliance with the law. However, I do not believe that it has ever been the intention of Parliament that prisoners, who are accommodated at public expense, should receive any additional form of financial support for maintenance. Nor do I believe that it is an appropriate use of public money.

Last week, I suspended all student support payments to prisoners with immediate effect. While I am examining this further, I am laying amended Education (Student Support) Regulations today to enable me to prevent any further payments of maintenance support being made. These regulations will come into force on 28 February 2008.

I have taken a number of further immediate steps to ensure that no further successful applications for maintenance support can be made by prisoners.

The permanent secretary of my Department is today writing to higher education providers, requesting that they immediately inform the SLC when offering a prisoner a full-time place at their institution. With the support of the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, the Deputy Director-General of the Prison Service has instructed prison governors to identify all prisoners currently undertaking full-time higher education and to inform any such prisoners that they must not apply for maintenance support. In addition, as soon as the amended regulations come into force, all prison governors will be instructed to inform the SLC if an offender within their establishment is offered a place to study full time in higher education, or is currently a full-time student. These measures will enable the SLC to identify all future applications from prisoners, and assess them in accordance with the amended regulations.

I have also instructed the SLC to continue to identify and review all current and past applications, as well as live cases. We will then provide a complete estimate of the number and cost of payments and our investigations will ensure that all legal requirements were properly complied with.

The decisions of HEIs to accept prisoners as students, and the decision of prison governors to allow their attendance, are taken at local level. The student support regulations do not require an applicant to identify themselves as a prisoner. Nor do regulations provide explicitly for the circumstances of a student who is subsequently subject to a custodial sentence. Individuals may also successfully apply for student support while in prison, for courses that they take up upon release. In addition, since full-time student support was introduced in 1962, prisoners have not been specifically excluded from these regulations. As a result, there is no central list of offenders studying full-time HE courses. Current estimates of the amount of support received are therefore provisional. We have identified 91 prisoners who have received a total of £250,000 of repayable maintenance loans, and £120,000 in maintenance grants in the 2007 calendar year.

Our preliminary investigations suggest that, since current SLC operational systems were put into place in
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1998, approximately 250 prisoners have received up to £250,000 in maintenance grants. Where prisoners have received loans, these will be repayable in the usual way. These cases will be examined on a case-by-case basis.

I am minded to conclude that support for offenders studying in higher education, which remains a proper Government objective, should be provided through regulations made specifically for that purpose. In consultation with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor, I have asked the Permanent Secretaries of my Department and the Ministry of Justice, drawing upon the wider resources of the civil service, to oversee the SLC’s review of cases, in conjunction with relevant local authorities, officials from my Department, the Ministry of Justice and the Prison Service, and to make recommendations to me about the management of support for offenders in full-time higher education.

Although this long-established anomaly applies to full-time higher education in England, I have also informed the Devolved Administrations, further education providers and the Learning and Skills Council on a precautionary basis, in case there are implications for them.

I will endeavour to make further relevant information available to the House prior to any debate on the revised regulations.


General Commissioners (Amalgamation of Divisions)

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): I have made an Order under Section 2(6) of the Taxes Management Act 1970 amalgamating a number of Divisions as follows:

The amalgamation was made at the request of the general commissioners in all the Divisions with the aim of improving the organisational efficiency of the Divisions concerned. Copies of the amalgamation of Divisions of general commissioners have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses, the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office.

Prison Service Pay Review Body Report (England and Wales)

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): I have today laid before Parliament the seventh report of the independent Prison Service Pay Review Body (PSPRB) on the pay of governing governors and other operational managers, prison officers and related support grades in England and Wales in
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2008 (Cm 7325). I would like to thank the Chair and members of the PSPRB for their hard work in producing these recommendations.

The recommendations include a 2.2 per cent. consolidated increase to the minimum and maximum of the operational support grade and prison officer and the maxima of other operational support staff and other operational managerial pay scales.

The PSPRB also recommended a restructuring of the operational support grades pay scale and a 2.7 per cent. increase to the minimum of the principal officer pay scale, the senior officer single salary point and the maximum of the highest paid operational managers.

The Government remain committed to the independent Pay Review Body process. This award is consistent with the achievement of the Government’s 2 per cent. CPI inflation target which helps contribute to low and stable inflation, macroeconomic stability and economic growth. I am pleased to confirm that the PSPRB’s recommendations will be implemented in full from 1 April 2008. The cost of the award will be met from within the delegated budget allocation for the Prison Service.

The key Pay Review Body recommendations are:

Support Grades

Prison Officers

Senior Officers

Principal Officers

Operational Managers


Dartford Crossing

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Ms Rosie Winterton): In December 2006, the Department consulted on proposals to revise the charges for use of the Dartford—Thurrock River Crossing. The consultation noted that: without any charges traffic levels would be substantially higher than they are now, leading to extensive congestion; that even with the
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current charge levels, usage levels are leading to regular congestion and occasional very severe congestion; and that without action the likelihood of severe congestion will increase.

The consultation document proposed: an increase in tolls for those paying by cash; substantial reductions for those choosing to pay on account using a DART—Tag to register their charge; and the removal of night time charges for all vehicles, when congestion is less of a problem. The intention was to continue to apply an effective pricing signal given growing congestion pressures while at the same time providing an incentive for more people to opt for alternatives to paying cash, thereby easing flow through the charging booths.

In the run-up to the consultation exercise suggestions were put forward that local residents should benefit from a substantial discount for use of the crossing. The Government invited views on these suggestions.

Substantial numbers of people expressed a desire to see a local discount scheme. Details are set out in the summary of responses to that consultation, which is published on the DfT website at:

On 2 April 2007 the Department announced that it would develop a local discount scheme for further consultation, noting that any scheme had to be fair to both local residents and the tax payer.

I am announcing today our proposals. These are that:

(i) Private cars should be eligible for discounts when used by residents of Dartford and Thurrock local authority areas.

(ii) There will be a £10 annual registration fee which will entitle residents of these areas to 50 free one-way journeys per year. Thereafter journeys will be charged at 20p each. (London charges the same annual £10 fee for those who make use of their residents’ discount scheme).

(iii) To benefit from the discount residents will need to register annually and apply for an electronic “tag” that is fitted in the windscreen of the nominated vehicle. The tag will be provided free of charge but a £10 charge will be levied for replacement of lost or damaged tags.

The Government’s intention is that the discount scheme should be implemented alongside the other changes to the charging regime on which we consulted in December 2006. This includes the possibility for any car user, regardless of where they live, to use the Crossing for the current £1 rate if they opt to use a tag and open an account.

Our December 2006 consultation document made clear that if a local discount scheme were introduced then all revenues would go towards national transport projects. Therefore the current arrangement, under which a proportion of revenues from the crossing (£1.75 million) is made available to help deliver integrated transport policies in the Dartford and Thurrock areas, would be discontinued.

The consultation document will be published next week and copies will be placed in the Library of the House. The consultation exercise will run for 12 weeks from the date of publication.

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