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Written Ministerial Statements

Thursday 13 November 2008


Anti-avoidance Measures (Leasing)

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Stephen Timms): The Government are taking action today to counter tax avoidance schemes involving the leasing of plant or machinery.

Action is being taken against schemes that have been disclosed to HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) under the avoidance disclosure regulations and which:

In addition, the Government are taking action to remedy a technical defect in the Capital Allowances Act which could lead to a loss of tax when a long funding lease ends.

The Government have also become aware that partnerships that have in the past invested in films are attempting to avoid tax by means of converting existing leases into long funding leases of plant or machinery.

This continued abuse of the tax rules on leased plant and machinery and by film partnerships is unfair on the majority of taxpayers who comply fully with their tax obligations, and can undermine the funding of public services. The Government are determined to act to ensure that tax avoidance is effectively countered and will therefore introduce appropriate legislation in the 2009 Finance Bill which will be effective from today.

Technical notes explaining the material that will be contained in Finance Bill 2009 will be published on HMRC’s website today.

Copies of today’s HMRC technical notes have been deposited in the Libraries of both Houses and are accessible on the HMRC web site at http://www.hmrc .gov.uk.

Children, Schools and Families

Secondary School Improvement

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): I would like to update the House on progress on our school improvement strategy for secondary schools, and the next steps in ensuring that every child has the chance to achieve their potential and enjoy their time in education.

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In June we launched the National Challenge, backed with new resources of £400 million to transform schools where less than 30 per cent. of young people gain five or more higher level GCSEs, including English and mathematics. I would like to pay tribute to the way local authorities and schools have drawn up plans to support sustainable improvements in individual schools. I am pleased to announce that I have today agreed proposals for National Challenge improvement plans in 48 local authorities. Two local authorities, Bristol and Lincolnshire, are already in a position to outline their plans today.

I welcome the way that many local authorities, in consultation with school heads and governors, are now bringing forward imaginative and ambitious proposals including transformational plans for new academies and national challenge trusts. These plans also include support for improvements in teaching; for more high level teaching assistants; for individual help to meet children’s learning needs; and to support stronger middle and senior leadership. They are all designed to meet particular schools’ needs according to their particular context. We are continuing discussions with other authorities about the funding packages necessary to support their National Challenge schools, and I will update the House in due course.

While it is right that we give extra support to those schools with the lowest results and facing the most challenging circumstances, there are also other schools where despite higher GCSE results, their pupils do not fulfil their earlier promise, and could achieve much more. Such “coasting” schools have not yet done enough to realise their pupils’ potential.

Every child has the right to a good education that stretches them and helps them realise their full potential. That is why today I am publishing a strategy to help these schools raise their game and to kick-start improvement in schools that are coasting. This strategy will be supported by funding of up to £40 million to bring about improvements in these schools.

We will be asking local authorities to identify and work with the schools they consider to be “coasting”. These are schools that have shown too little improvement in attainment and progression over a period of years. They are schools that may be achieving good enough GCSE results to earn a reasonable reputation, but whose performance conceals poor progress, sometimes among its more able pupils and sometimes among those who face additional barriers to learning such as SEN. Schools like this need and respond well to challenge, but have not always had it. They are not performing badly enough to receive an inadequate judgment from Ofsted, or to risk significant numbers of parents choosing to send their children to another school. Nonetheless they should be achieving better outcomes for all of their pupils and providing a more exciting and challenging learning experience.

We know what the very best schools do to make significant improvements. They do not rest on their laurels; they are characterised by a “we can do better than this” attitude. They set ambitious targets for their pupils and monitor their progress, and if pupils fall off trajectory they intervene to put them back on course. This focus on progression is backed up by a personalised approach to teaching and learning and focused feedback to each pupil so that each child knows what they are aiming for and what they have to do to get there.

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Every partner will have their role to play in this strategy and we want to focus the attention of parents, governors, heads and local authorities on what they should be expecting their school to achieve. We want to raise expectations of parents and empower them to challenge schools to deliver the very best for their child. We will work with local authorities to identify the schools which could benefit from this programme and engage with parents, head teachers and governing bodies to take the action needed to challenge these schools to improve. If schools do not improve we will step up the level of challenge and expect local authorities to use their existing intervention powers.

We will be offering these schools support from other schools and leaders who have the experience of raising performance in their own schools to help them unlock their potential. Schools in the programme will also have access to additional funding to form trusts and federations should they want to formalise the benefits of collaborative working. Extra funding for schools to draw down additional resource will also be made available as will training to improve their Assessment for Learning, tracking pupils’ progress in order to inform future planning and teaching. We will also support schools to provide high quality after-school study to re-engage those pupils, particularly those with SEN, who have become bored and demotivated. All this will be brokered by School Improvement Partners, further empowered through additional training and an extra four days per year to drive improvement in these schools.

This strategy is a key part of the Children’s Plan’s 10-year vision to make this country the best place in the world for children and young people to grow up. It is part of our drive to deliver the ambition that we outlined in the Children’s Plan and continued with the National Challenge: the ambition to raise attainment and aspirations, narrow the gap and ensure educational excellence for everyone.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Agriculture and Fisheries Council

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): The Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) and I represented the United Kingdom at October’s Agriculture and Fisheries Council in Luxembourg. Richard Lochhead also attended.

All of the ‘A’ points were adopted.

The Council agreed the annual total allowable catch (TAC) for fish stocks in the Baltic sea for 2009 as follows:

In addition, they also endorsed the Commission’s proposal to reduce effort in the eastern Baltic by 10 per cent.

The 2009 and 2010 TAC for deep-sea species—long life cycle and depleted—were also agreed. This represents a balance to protect vulnerable stocks and minimise discards. In particular, the deep-sea sharks TAC will
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reduce to zero by 2010, while providing for a 10 per cent. reduction for by-catch to avoid discards. Other aspects were:

The UK secured commitments from the Commission about appropriate complementary effort limitation measures for deep-sea stocks being included in the main TAC regulation for decision at December Council.

The Council also reached agreement on the Commission’s proposal for the Black sea before having an exchange of views on the annual negotiations to conclude the EU-Norway fisheries agreement, scheduled for November. This is a significant UK interest, with roughly half of UK fisheries governed by the agreement. The UK emphasised in particular the need for appropriate balance on access to arctic cod, and the need for cod TACs to be increased while reducing mortality rates. No decisions should be reached that prejudged decisions on the EU cod recovery plan, and that agreements on haddock, whiting and mackerel were also important.

Finally on fisheries, the Council agreed a mandate for the Commission to negotiate on behalf of the EU in the forthcoming ICCAT (International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna) annual meeting. The mandate focuses on over-capacity, reducing the length of the fishing seasons, and identifying specific measures that can reinforce control throughout the market chain. The UK and other member states spoke to support the Commission.

On agriculture items, the Chair of the high-level group set out for Ministers the presidency’s conclusions following discussions during October on the draft health check regulations:

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The Commission also dismissed calls for the abolition of the sugar production levy. Further discussion on the health check was conducted with the presidency and Commission in trilateral sessions.

The Agriculture Commissioner introduced a proposed regulation requiring those placing timber on the market to ensure that the timber has been legally logged. The UK welcomed the regulation but said that effective enforcement was very important. In particular, the UK and the Netherlands urged quick progress to be made in negotiating the proposal before the European Parliament was dissolved.

The presidency held a discussion on the Community co-financed school fruit scheme, and outlined the areas on which it thought a compromise had been reached:

A number of member states are broadly supportive of the compromise but have asked for the budget for the scheme to be increased; the UK and Sweden urged restraint on financing.

The Commission informed member states that €56 million had been made available for the purchase of Bluetongue vaccine. Member states were urged to make good use of the additional funds and to recognise that vaccination alone was not sufficient to fight Bluetongue. The Netherlands provided an update of its discovery of a new strain of Bluetongue; a voluntary movement ban had been put in place and chief veterinary officers had been notified.

Poland and Hungary tabled a note about the problems being faced by their producers due to low prices for processed apples. The Agriculture Commissioner stated there was no basis for the Community to take trade measures. The Commissioner urged the sector to restructure and to work collectively in the face of the bargaining power of retailers.

Slovenia briefly presented its report on a conference of member state paying agencies.

With regard to the Green Paper on quality in agricultural products, the Commission remarked that the paper was intended to open a debate on how the EU agriculture sector could make the most of the quality of its produce. The presidency said this issue would be debated at the December Council.

Poland sought the Commission’s views on raising the intervention price for cereals and developing new instruments to deal with future market crises. The Commission stated the CAP health check was the appropriate place to discuss reform of the intervention regime. The presidency noted the seriousness of the problem and asked the Commissioner to explore ways to deal with the issue.


Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 - Relevant Third Party

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): Today the Government is publishing the response to the consultation Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007— Relevant Third Party. A relevant
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third party (RTP) is someone who can make an application on behalf of a victim of forced marriage without first requiring the permission of the court. Other applicants on behalf of a forced marriage victim must obtain the permission of the court.

Responses to the consultation generally supported the use of local authorities in England and Wales to act as the RTP for victims of forced marriage under the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007. The Government agree with this view. When designated, local authorities will be able to make applications without the court’s permission for forced marriage protection orders on behalf of someone who is or who has been forced into marriage.

While we believe that local authorities are best placed to serve as RTPs we recognise the role that the voluntary sector plays is an important one and should be explored further. The success of the independent domestic violence advisors (IDVAs) has shown how the voluntary sector can play a strong support role in helping those who are the subject of domestic violence in the criminal courts. While IDVAs are currently limited to the criminal court, they have expertise in dealing with issues like forced marriage, are experienced multi-agency workers and work under an accredited scheme. Therefore we will also carry out a pilot using a local IDVA scheme as an RTP. If this proves successful, we would look at extending the RTP provisions more widely across IDVAs as well as other voluntary sector organisations.

The Lord Chancellor may make an order specifying a person or description of persons who may act as a RTP under section 63C of the Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007. An order will not be made until local authorities are sufficiently prepared to act as RTPs, having ensured that they will operate within an appropriate framework and in accordance with guidelines that help to safeguard the best interests of the victim.

During the time it will take for this to occur it will be possible for anyone, including local authorities, to apply on behalf of a victim if they obtain the court’s permission. This will ensure that victims of forced marriage can obtain the protection of the court where they cannot apply for a forced marriage protection order themselves. The court’s scrutiny of an application for permission to apply for an order will ensure that the victim’s best interests are safeguarded.

I have placed copies of the Government response to the consultation Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007 - Relevant Third Party in the Libraries of both Houses.

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