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Written Ministerial Statements

Wednesday 26 November 2008

Children, Schools and Families

Youth Crime Action Plan (Family Support)

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): I am pleased to announce, together with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Justice and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Office, our intention to provide a £22 million funding package to 83 local authorities over 2009-10 and 2010-11 to implement family intervention projects and the “Think Family” reforms as set out in the youth crime action plan. This will improve services for families at risk to help prevent children and young people offending and experiencing other poor outcomes.

I am placing the list of 83 local authorities and their funding allocations in the Libraries of both Houses. We will write to the 83 local authorities by 19 December setting out the process for agreeing the use of these funds.

Education Maintenance Allowance

The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): I would like to update the House on the figures that have previously been quoted in regard to the delivery of education maintenance allowances (EMAs).

In my statement of 19 November about delivery of learner support schemes I indicated that as of the day before there were 12,016 applications for EMA in the process of being finalised. This information was drawn from statistics provided to the LSC by Liberata.

Since then, in response to emerging concerns about the methodology being used by Liberata to calculate the work in progress statistics, and to ensure that the figures were accurate in advance of the transfer of the contract to Capita, the LSC commissioned a full count of the outstanding applications. This analysis was made possible by the relatively small number of applications still remaining.

Liberata’s physical count on 21 November recorded that there were around 26,000 applications in the process of being finalised. The LSC advises me that the new figure represents a more accurate reflection of the outstanding number of applications. However, once the contract has transferred, Capita will review these figures in more detail.

Clearly this is unsatisfactory. I have therefore today written to Mark Haysom, chief executive of the LSC, asking for a full explanation as to why the issue with the methodology for calculating the statistics had not been revealed sooner.

I have written to the Chairman of the Children, Schools and Families Select Committee to update him on this matter. I am placing a copy of this letter in the Library of the House, along with a copy of my letter to Mark Haysom.

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Communities and Local Government

Supporting People

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Sadiq Khan): The Government are today announcing that the Supporting People programme funding of £1.66 billion will be paid as a named unringfenced grant to administering authorities for 2009-10 and will be included in area-based grants from 2010-11. This is the largest single grant to authorities to help millions of people live independently in their homes and this means that authorities will have the flexibility to spend this money as they see fit to help some of the most vulnerable people in their communities.

This year Government have been working with 15 administering authorities, providers, service users, and stakeholders to gather views and evidence about the potential impact of removing the ring fence for Supporting People. During this period, there have not been any serious concerns raised and the feedback from the 15 administering authorities has shown that the kind of innovation they are delivering has been positive and is enabling the delivery of jointly commissioned services which provide better outcomes for service users.

The transition to a non-ringfenced funding stream needs to be managed carefully and Government will continue to work with the sector and build on the success of the programme. Today Government are also announcing a number of measures to support the transition of delivery through an unringfenced grant which will include:

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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Sadiq Khan): I wish to inform the House about the progress of the FiReControl project, which will establish a linked network of highly resilient fire control rooms across England to replace the current stand-alone facilities.

Major emergencies in recent years have shown us the very real challenges we face in today’s world. The fire and rescue service is central to our ability to be able to respond to these and the Government are determined to support it by investing around £1 billion to ensure that it has the necessary capabilities and resilience. The FiReControl project is an important part of this investment.

FiReControl will give all fire and rescue services access to systems and technology that only a few currently benefit from. It will result in greater resilience and collaboration, better information and incident support for firefighters, and a better service to the public—both day to-day and during major incidents.

The Government are investing £380 million in FiReControl and remain strongly committed to it. Good progress has been made on a number of fronts, including the completion of eight new highly resilient regional control centre buildings, the establishment of eight local authority controlled companies which bring together all relevant local partners, and the development of a strong network of regional project teams working to ensure the project is a success in their areas.

However, FiReControl is a complex and demanding project and as such is subject to rigorous ongoing review. Since I took up my post as fire Minister a thorough review of all aspects of the FiReControl project has been completed, and a number of difficulties with the ICT and other dimensions of the project were identified. These issues will result in some delay, and the FRS rightly expects us to address these in full.

As a result I can announce today that the project is now aiming to achieve cut-over to the first three regional control centres in the North East, East Midlands and South West in summer 2010—nine months later than previously expected, with the full system expected to be in place by spring 2012—five months later than originally planned. I want to emphasise however that, as with any project of this nature, we will only have certainty about the timing of these later stages of the project once earlier stages have been completed successfully.

Our updated plans are being delivered in close partnership with the fire and rescue service, fire and rescue authorities and our suppliers, EADS Defence and Security Systems Ltd. Shorter-term milestones will be monitored very carefully and progress shared with our partners. Longer-term milestones will be reviewed as the project progresses. Members of the fire and rescue service are being given more opportunities to contribute to the development of the project so that they can have full confidence in the new systems being developed, with staff embedded in national and local project teams and playing a full part in joint working groups.

I am also committed to ensuring transparency around the project wherever practical. So I am today publishing Part 2 of the ‘FiReControl Business Case’, and seeking views during a period of consultation. Part 1 of the
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business case was published on 8 July 2008 and was placed in the Library of the House. Part 2 will be placed in the Library of the House later today.

Local Government

The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): Earlier this year, Parliament debated and approved Structural Change Orders to create from 1 April 2009 nine new unitary councils—Bedford borough council, Cheshire East council, Cheshire West and Chester council, Central Bedfordshire council, Cornwall council, County Durham council, Northumberland council, Shropshire council and Wiltshire council.

We are working closely with those responsible locally for implementing these new unitary councils to complete the legislative framework needed to support the transition to these new councils. We have already made and laid before Parliament Staffing Regulations (June 2008), Transfer of Functions Regulations (August 2008), and two sets of Transitional Regulations (August and November 2008).

Today, I have laid before the House the Local Government (Structural Changes) (Finance) Regulations 2008, which represent a further significant milestone towards the completion of the legislative framework.

These regulations, made under part 1 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, make transitional, supplementary and consequential provision in relation to finance, including in particular the following matters:

I am confident that these regulations will ensure that the new unitary councils will have the powers they need to set their budget and council tax for 2009-10, and to bill and collect both their council tax and non-domestic rates for that year. They will also ensure that the new councils are able to fulfil their responsibilities, including enforcement activity, relating to earlier financial years.

No one underestimates the scale of the task those leading the changes in these areas face over the coming months. A key measure of success for the new unitary councils will be that, from the outset, their council tax is affordable and that they adopt a budget which both reflects the savings proposed in their original unitary bid and delivers efficient and quality local services. The framework the regulations put in place will enable them to do this.

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Culture, Media and Sport

State Aid Notification

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Andy Burnham): In June 2007, my right hon. Friend the Member for Dulwich and West Norwood (Tessa Jowell), who was then the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, announced that the Government proposed to ask the BBC to make up to £14 million of licence fee funding available to assist Channel 4 with the capital costs of digital switchover. The announcement made clear that the assistance was subject to state aid approval from the European Commission and a formal notification seeking that approval was submitted to the Commission in October 2007.

In March this year, the Commission opened a formal investigation procedure in respect of the notification. The Government submitted a response to the Commission, as did two interested third parties.

In the period since the notification was made, the debate on the future of public service broadcasting in the UK has moved on significantly. Furthermore, the structural challenges that traditional commercially funded public service broadcasters face have been exacerbated by current cyclical conditions.

The Government have therefore brought forward their timeline for decisions and are now committed to take a more comprehensive view on the future institutional and financial framework of public service broadcasting, including the future of Channel 4, early in 2009 within the framework of the Digital Britain project. The Digital Britain project was launched in October to look at innovation, investment and quality in the digital and communications sectors. The Digital Britain report will be a comprehensive analysis of the United Kingdom’s digital economy and will bring forward proposals to support the development of these sectors.

The emerging proposals are likely to be more wide-ranging than a proposition relating specifically to Channel 4’s switchover costs. The Government will of course ensure that any new proposals for potential state aid arising from this wider consideration process are properly notified to the Commission in advance of implementation.

Against this background the Government have decided against proceeding with the notified proposals to provide assistance for Channel 4 in respect of its switchover costs. The Government have accordingly informed the Commission that they wish to withdraw the current state aid notification.

Energy and Climate Change

EU Energy Council

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Edward Miliband): I am pleased to outline the agenda items for the forthcoming Energy Council in Brussels on 8 December where I plan to represent the UK.

The first item on the agenda is the EU climate and energy package—a directive on the improvement and extension of the EU Emissions Trading Scheme; a directive covering greenhouse gas emissions from sectors
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not covered by the EU ETS; a directive on regulatory storage of carbon dioxide; and a directive on the promotion of the use of energy from renewable sources. We expect the presidency to provide information on progress.

The presidency will report on progress in implementation of the current energy labelling and eco-design for energy-using products directive and we expect a debate on the proposal for a directive establishing a framework for the setting of eco-design requirements for energy related products.

Ministers will discuss the Second Strategic Energy Review (SEER2) on the basis of questions from the presidency. Member States are likely to welcome its publication and to express initial views on priorities. There will be further discussion at February’s energy council, with a view to adopting an action plan at the March 2009 spring Council.

Finally, the presidency and Commission will report on the EU-Russia Permanent Partnership Council and the Ministerial Council of the Energy Community.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Bluetongue Serotype One

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): On 25 November 2008 evidence of Bluetongue Serotype One infection was found in five imported cattle on a premises near Blackpool in Lancashire.

The animals were imported from within the BTV1 and BTV 8 restricted zone in the south-west of France and were detected as a result of post-import testing carried out by DEFRA on 19 November. These tests are carried out on all bluetongue susceptible animals arriving in the UK from continental Europe.

This is the first case of BTV1 infection in animals imported into the UK and the five animals have been culled as they may pose a disease threat to other animals. A further animal from the same consignment tested positive for bluetongue virus, though the serotype for this animal could not be confirmed after initial tests. This animal was also culled to prevent any further risk of disease spread.

There is no evidence to suggest that this import was illegal. The documentation for this livestock movement appears to be in accordance with the requirements of the EU legislation. Early investigations indicate that these animals were vaccinated, and had waited the 60 days as required before movement. The tests indicate that despite this some of the livestock may present a disease risk to UK livestock. We have therefore culled all six animals on a precautionary basis.

The premises are now under restriction while an epidemiological investigation takes place. This will include further checks on the other animals present on the premises.

There is no evidence that BTV1 is circulating in the UK and no additional control zones have been declared.

This response is in accordance with DEFRA’s bluetongue control strategy, and with the full support of our core group of industry stakeholders and the devolved Administrations.

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