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Environment Council

The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change (Edward Miliband): My noble Friend Lord Hunt, the Minister for Sustainable Development and Energy Innovation, and I represented the UK at the Environment Council in Brussels on 4 December.

At this Council, member states set out their views on the Integrated Pollution Prevention Control (IPPC) Directive. Several member states raised concerns about the large combustion plant provision with most asking to postpone these provisions until 2020. The UK intervened to welcome the proposal but also to stress some concerns about the large combustion provisions.

Member states also discussed the action plan for Sustainable Consumption and Production and a Sustainable Industrial Policy (SCP-SIP). The UK intervened to welcome the action plan, in particular the proposal to extend the scope of the eco-design directive but highlighted concerns about the energy labelling directive. Council conclusions were adopted without amendment.

Council conclusions on the preparation for the 25th session of the UNEP Governing Council were adopted unanimously.

On genetically modified organisms (GMOs), the UK expressed its support for evidence based, case-by-case decision making and argued strongly against setting seed labelling thresholds at the lowest possible level. Instead these levels should be science based, proportionate and workable in practice. In response to the interventions made by many member states the presidency proposed some changes to the conclusions, including a satisfactory formulation on seed thresholds. These were agreed unanimously.

Over lunch member states discussed the climate and energy package and preparations for the December European Council.

There was a discussion of the Council conclusions on deforestation and forest degradation to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss. The UK argued in favour of maintaining the flexibility to recognise afforestation and reforestation credits in order to maintain the confidence of both rainforest countries and potential investors. Following negotiation facilitated by the presidency, a compromise was achieved which both retains the flexibility around recognition of forestry credits for Government compliance and expresses openness to considering their recognition for ETS compliance in the medium to long term and subject to thorough review/experience.

The proposal for a regulation setting emission performance standards for new passenger cars as part of the community’s integrated approach to reduce CO2 emissions from light-duty vehicles (CO2 from cars regulation) originally scheduled as a main agenda item—was not formally discussed at the Council as good progress was being made at discussions at COREPER.

Under ‘any other business’, the European Commission presented communications on: the dismantling of ships; the EU strategy on invasive alien species; the EU and the Arctic region; and the implementation of European Community environmental law. Additionally, the European Commission presented a Green Paper on biowaste management in the European Union, the preparations of the EUROMED conference and the
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EU-Africa Climate Change summit. Finally, the Irish delegation discussed the fall in demand for recycled materials. All AOB items were noted by member states without substantial discussion.

Health

Independent Mental Health Advocate

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Phil Hope): As a result of the Government’s Mental Health Act 2007, from 1 April 2009 statutory access to an Independent Mental Health Advocate (IMHA) will be available to qualifying patients in England under the Mental Health Act 1983. IMHAs will help patients to understand the way the Mental Health Act applies to them, and what can and cannot be done as a result. They will also help patients to understand their rights under the Act, and to support them in exercising those rights.

At the end of last year, the Department consulted on draft regulations in relation to IMHA services. In doing so, we specifically sought views on who should commission IMHA services locally. It was clear from responses to the public consultation exercise that there were conflicting views on who should commission and provide advocacy services.

Having carefully considered these responses, the Government have decided that primary care trusts (PCTs) will be responsible for commissioning IMHA services, although to ensure local flexibility, we intend to allow them to exercise their duty with other PCTs and to include commissioning of IMHA services within the scope of partnership arrangements with local social services authorities under section 75 of the National Health Service Act 2006.

I have laid regulations today to direct PCTs to commission IMHA services and set appointment requirements for IMHAs. Comprehensive commissioning guidance will be published shortly, to assist PCTs in meeting their statutory duty. PCTs’ new duty has been reflected in PCT baseline allocations for 2009-10 and 2010-11.

Home Department

Independent Complaints Audit Committee (UK Border Agency)

The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Phil Woolas): I am pleased to announce that the independent Complaints Audit Committee (CAC) annual report for the year 2007 to 2008 has been published today. The UK Border Agency’s response to this report will be published in two day’s time, on 18 December. Copies of both reports will be placed in the House Library and on the Home Office website from the respective dates of publication.

This is the CAC’s fourteenth and final report. Their role has been to monitor the effectiveness of the Agency’s procedures for handling complaints and this report provides details of their findings. The Agency response provides full details of the positive action taken on the
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recommendations made by the CAC and highlights the significant improvements which have been made to the complaints system over the past year, as well as continuing work to further improve performance.

Justice

Correction of Statement

The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): On 28 October 2008, Official Report, column 720, in answer to an oral supplementary question from my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) about voting systems I said that

This was incorrect. The 1997 Labour party manifesto commitment was for the introduction of proportional representation for European elections, and did not detail that a closed list system should be used. It was agreed subsequent to the 1997 election that a closed list system should be used.

Freedom of Information Quarterly

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): Today I have deposited copies of “The Freedom of Information Act 2000 - Statistics on implementation in Central Government: Q3 - July - September 2008” in the Libraries of both Houses. Copies are also available in the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office.

This is the quarterly monitoring statistics report analysing the performance of central Government in the fourth full year of freedom of information.

Intestate Succession

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): On 28 August 2008, the Ministry of Justice published its response to its consultation paper, “Administration of Estates - Review of the Statutory Legacy” (CP(R) 11/05) and announced that the levels of the statutory legacy would be increased from £125,000 to £250,000 where the deceased leaves a surviving spouse or civil partner and children and from £200,000 to £450,000 in other cases. The Department also announced that the actuarial tables for converting a surviving spouse’s or civil partner’s life interest on intestacy into a capital sum were to be updated.

Subject to parliamentary approval, these changes will come into force on 1 February 2009. They will be effected by two statutory instruments. The first, the Family Provision (Intestate Succession) Order 2008 will increase the statutory legacy. It was laid in draft on Wednesday 12 November. The second, the Intestate Succession (Interest and Capitalisation) (Amendment) Order 2008 will update the actuarial tables. It was laid on Thursday 11 December 2089.

The statutory legacy is the fixed net sum payable to a surviving spouse or civil partner from the estate of a person dying intestate—without leaving a valid will. If the estate is of sufficient value, the surviving spouse or civil partner is entitled to a life interest in one half of
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the balance of the remainder once the statutory legacy has been settled. The surviving spouse or civil partner will receive any income generated from the life interest for the rest of his or her life or can choose to convert it into capital. The conversion is calculated by reference to the actuarial tables.

Duchy of Lancaster

Guaranteed Minimum Pension Calculations

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Liam Byrne): My right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Health, the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families, the Secretary of State for Defence, the Secretary of State for Justice and I wish to alert the House to new checks which have uncovered a problem with payments to an estimated 5 per cent. of public service pensioners paid, by successive administrations dating back as much as 30 years, by the NHS, Teachers, Armed Forces, Judicial and Civil Service pension schemes, as a result of the incorrect indexation of an element known as the Guaranteed Minimum Pension or GMP.

The problem dates back to 1978 when public service occupational pension schemes contracted out of the State Earnings Related Pensions Scheme (SERPS). As a condition of contracting out members had a guarantee of a minimum amount of occupational pension. This GMP applied to those who were members of a contracted out scheme between 1978 and 1997 and who would otherwise have been entitled to SERPS.

Public service pensions are uprated in April each year in line with the retail price index. The occupational pension scheme pays for all the uprating before state pension is claimed, but thereafter part of the uprating is paid with the state pension, depending on the GMP entitlement.

To enable the correct pension increases to be applied, pension scheme administrators need accurate GMP information derived from the individual’s National Insurance contribution record. Our investigations have revealed that in 95 per cent. of cases this information is correctly recorded. But, in some cases it is not. In those cases schemes have paid the annual increase on the full pension each year instead of on an amount adjusted to reflect the GMP entitlement.

The five schemes mentioned are administered by central Government departments. Scheme administrators and HMRC have now checked more than 2 million pension records.

An estimated 95,000 people are currently affected across the five schemes. This represents around 5 per cent. of the total number of pensioners in those schemes. The total amount of overpayments made by successive administrations over the 30 years since 1978 to these pensioners is estimated at £126 million. There are separate NHS and teachers schemes in Scotland and Northern Ireland and a separate civil service scheme in Northern Ireland. Separate statements are being made in respect of these schemes by the Scottish and Northern Ireland executives today.

The advice of the accounting officers of the five schemes is that it is unlikely to be cost-effective to attempt recovery of these monies from individuals.
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Correct pension payments will be ordered immediately from April 2009. This means that some pensioners will have their payments reduced and others will see increases in their payments in 2009 which are less than the annual inflation uprating.

Scheme administrators for the five schemes mentioned have written to all those pensioners affected and will write again with full details in the new year. Helplines to respond to their questions and concerns have been set up and advice and guidance has been placed on scheme websites. Support will include advising people to enquire what additional state benefits they may be entitled to.

The causes of the overpayments have been investigated by the pension scheme administrators, HMRC and DWP. There is no single cause. I have asked the National Audit Office to carry out a review of the end to end process to pinpoint accountabilities, and the House will be updated further.

Transport

Bus Service Operators Group

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The Chancellor’s pre-Budget report on 24 November announced that, following consultation earlier this year, the Government will be introducing changes to the Department for Transport’s Bus Service Operators Grant (BSOG) to incentivise the use of low-carbon buses and buses with smartcard and global positioning systems and that we would also be challenging the industry to improve its fuel efficiency. I am now announcing further details of these, and a number of other, measures and the steps we are taking to implement them in consultation with the industry and other stakeholders. A summary of the responses to our consultation document “Local Bus Service Support—Options for Reform” is today being placed on the Department’s website and in the Libraries of both Houses.

An important element of the measures is a change to the present arrangement under which changes in the rate of fuel duty are matched by changes in BSOG rates. Given the challenge of the Climate Change Act to reduce UK carbon emissions, automatic uprating of BSOG is no longer appropriate. It is important, however, to give bus operators time to adjust to this change and to put in place action to improve fuel efficiency.

Accordingly, I have decided that BSOG rates in England should be increased to match the 2p increase in fuel duty which was implemented on 1 December. There will then be no further increases in BSOG rates which will apply automatically to all claimants of the grant. Instead, in April 2010, BSOG rates will be uprated for those operators who have achieved an improvement in fuel efficiency equivalent to 3 per cent. per annum for each of the two previous years; we will be reviewing the figure annually to consider the scope for increasing the efficiency requirements. This is an achievable target as has been shown by studies into the improvements in fuel efficiency that can be brought about by improved driving techniques. Final arrangements on this—and on the measures below—will follow detailed discussions between officials and the bus industry.


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The other measures we will be taking forward in discussion with stakeholders will be:

I have decided, given the potential impact on the industry’s cash flow, not to take forward the proposal in the consultation document that BSOG should be changed to a payment in arrears basis.

Further announcements on the details of changes will be made as our discussions with stakeholders and other Departments progress.

EU Transport Council

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I attended the EU Transport Council in Brussels on 9 December.

The Council discussed the regulation amending the four regulations adopted in 2004 which established the Single European Sky (SES). The amending regulation consolidates and strengthens the earlier regulations, with the aim of improving the performance and sustainability of the European aviation system: Ministers were in agreement on the technical elements of the new proposal. I joined several other Ministers in expressing strong support for the package. It was not however possible for member states to reach a general approach, as an issue regarding applicability of the new legislation to Gibraltar was raised just before the Council. I and the Spanish Minister undertook to resolve this issue bilaterally, so that Council agreement on this important proposal can be achieved soon.


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