The Chief Secretary to the Treasury (Yvette Cooper): The Government are committed to doing everything possible to help ensure that the right framework is in place to support vulnerable mortgage borrowers facing repossession.
Repossessions are low by historical standards. And while the numbers have been rising recently, the proportion of people affected remains small. But for the individual, repossession can have major financial, social and emotional consequences.
The Government announced a comprehensive package in September this year, including support for 6,000 of the most vulnerable homeowners facing repossession through a Government mortgage rescue scheme, and also further investment in reforms of support for mortgage interest (SMI).
I am pleased to report today that the Government, the Financial Services Authority (FSA) and the Civil Justice Council (CJC) are taking further steps in two areas to help ensure a fair deal for vulnerable homeowners: the sale and rent back market, and repossession cases in the courts.
The sale and rent back market offers homeowners the option of selling their property at discounted rates in exchange for tenancy arrangements. We have listened to concerns that in some cases vulnerable individuals facing repossession may be selling their houses for much less than they are worth in exchange for limited tenancy arrangements.
In March this year, the Government asked the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) to consider options to strengthen consumer protections in the sale and rent back market. The OFT reported last week, and recommended action in several areas, including new regulation to protect borrowers considering entering into these arrangements, action to raise consumer awareness of their potential risks, and new guidance on the interaction between these arrangements and housing benefit eligibility.
I am pleased to confirm that the Government accept the OFTs recommendations in full. The Treasury will consult shortly on bringing these arrangements within the scope of Financial Services Authority (FSA) regulation. The Treasury will take into account the OFTs findings, and engage stakeholders closely in its consultation.
And I am also pleased to confirm that today the Master of the Rolls has approved the Civil Justice Councils protocol for mortgage possession cases, which complements existing regulation, and sets out clear standards that judges may expect of lenders bringing repossessions cases in the courts.
The new protocol makes clear that repossessions should be a last resort. Where possible lenders are expected to try to discuss and agree with borrowers alternatives to repossession. Where a case subsequently comes to court, lenders will be expected to be able to tell the court precisely what they have done to comply with the protocol.
The protocol will take effect for all cases issued from November 19. This means that lenders will have to begin complying with it immediately ensuring that it can bring benefits to borrowers as soon as possible.
Copies of the Governments response to the OFTs market study have been deposited in the Libraries of both Houses and the Civil Justice Councils protocol for mortgage possession cases will be deposited and available shortly.
The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): Keeping children and young people safe is a top priority for this Government. We will do all we can to make the safeguarding system as robust as possible.
One of the commitments informing the Governments Staying Safe: Action Plan published earlier this year was to carry out a stocktake of local safeguarding children boards which play a vital statutory role in safeguarding children and young people. This is part of our continuing programme of work to support these boards and identify further ways of improving their effectiveness. I am today announcing the terms of reference for this stocktake that will be conducted in close collaboration with local authority and other partners and will report in spring 2009.
Alongside this stocktake, we will also carry out a study to examine the processes of commissioning, conducting and implementing serious case reviews. The overarching objective of this study is to establish what more can be done to improve the quality, consistency and impact of serious case reviews as part of the overall system for safeguarding children and young people. In particular, the study will seek to identify ways in which the learning from these reviews can be acted upon more effectively to strengthen local arrangements to protect children and inform national policy. This study will report in summer 2009.
I have also asked Sir Roger Singleton, chair of the Independent Safeguarding Authority, to lead a review of safeguarding arrangements in independent schools, non-maintained special schools and boarding schools. The current arrangements for independent schools have been in place for several years and we believe a review now would be helpful to establish whether any further improvements are needed. The review will examine the practical operation of the current statutory and non-statutory safeguarding arrangements that apply to independent schools, non-maintained special schools and boarding schools in the maintained, non-maintained and independent sectors in England. Sir Roger expects to conclude his work in February 2009.
I am placing in the House Library copies of the terms of reference for the Local Safeguarding Children Boards stocktake, the serious case review study and the review of safeguarding arrangements in independent schools, non-maintained special schools and boarding schools. The reports resulting from these pieces of work will be made public and I shall report to Parliament in due course on any recommendations arising and our response to them.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe): In my ministerial written statement on 21 July I said that, while the Government remained of the view that they should remove themselves from detailed involvement in the affairs of the racing and bookmaking industries, the Government would need to be satisfied that it was right to proceed with a sale of the Tote in the light of prevailing market conditions.
After further work over the summer, I have now concluded that it is not appropriate to pursue a sale in these market conditions. I have therefore decided that the Tote should be retained in public ownership for the medium-term, and brought to the market when conditions are likely to deliver value for the taxpayer and racing.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. David Hanson): I am pleased to be able to provide further information about the implementation of probation trusts following the successful establishment of the first wave of probation trusts from April 2008. These have provided much valuable insight and learning that I am sure will continue into the future and continue to inform the development of further trusts.
The Government are committed to the delivery of high quality probation services that meet local need. However, the challenges facing the public sector have evolved. It is vital that providers of probation services are able to demonstrate that they are as effective and efficient as possible.
My intention is for all suitable areas to have completed the transition process to trust status by April 2010, as originally set out to Parliament. If services wish to secure trust status and are assessed as suitable, I am content to see further trusts established in April 2009. Areas will be required to apply for trust status and to demonstrate that they can deliver effective and locally tailored offender management services within budget. I also anticipate bringing forward additional freedoms to allow trusts, once established, to exercise a range of additional responsibilities.
The probation service is going through a significant period of change and one which I anticipate will bring significant benefits. The leadership shown by our committed and professional probation staff at all levels will be critical in making the changes a real success.