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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): Local authorities use the magistrates courts to enforce non-payment of council tax. This process begins with an application (called a "complaint") for the court to issue a summons informing the individual that the local authority is seeking unpaid council tax and asking the individual to attend court if they wish to challenge the court making a liability order for that amount. The issue of a summons for non-payment of council tax or non-domestic rates must be authorised by a justice of the peace or legal adviser with delegated powers from a justices' clerk. Fees are chargeable and the decision of the court at the hearing must be recorded in a court register.
Investigations by HMCS staff has identified examples of a small number of magistrates courts failing to follow the correct procedures. In particular HMCS has identified examples of fees not being charged to local authorities for issuing proceedings and some examples of a failure at Salford magistrates court to enter the results of applications for liability orders on the court register. More seriously two magistrates courts, Rochdale and Salford permitted the local authorities to issue summonses requiring attendance at court without the authorisation of the court.
This was a clear procedural failing and was immediately stopped when it came to light. Individuals and the magistrates concerned in subsequent hearing cases would not have been aware of this irregularity.
In all such cases individuals would have had ample opportunity to attend court if they wished to challenge the liability to have the non-payment enforced against them. However they would not have been aware that the summons had not been properly issued. Had the summonses been correctly issued, there is no reason to think the consequences would have been any different in practice. Individuals should pay their council tax and this House would expect non-payment to be properly enforced.
Given the paucity of information available it is not practicable to identify the individuals concerned. The issues identified in Rochdale and Salford have been fully investigated and I am satisfied that correct procedures are now in place. A national check was carried out that revealed no similar practices and all courts have been reminded of the importance of following the correct procedures.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): Land Registry is today announcing a five-year programme of reorganisation and transformation that will cut its costs and put it in the best possible position to continue to deliver effectively the service its customers need.
Land Registry believes that the proposals will help create an organisation that can meet the challenges of a developing property market, that can live within its means and that can continue to provide an outstanding service to its customers. Having looked at a range of possibilities it is proposing to close five local offices and to reduce staff numbers to reflect more efficient working practices. It also intends to embark on a programme of outsourcing some of its support functions and to decrease outgoings further by selling surplus property. These changes will be accompanied by a new customer strategy to ensure Land Registry continues to deliver services that make property transactions easier for all its customers and will also develop additional services to generate extra revenue.
The "Blueprint for Land Registry's Future" published in 2006 recognised the need for it to change to become a smaller, leaner, more flexible organisation. Since then Land Registry has steadily reduced staff numbers but it now needs to move much faster.
Land Registry is proposing, in the first phase of its programme, the closure of its offices in Croydon, Peterborough, Portsmouth, Stevenage and Tunbridge Wells, outsourcing some of its support functions and the sale of surplus property, including its current head office building in central London. Combined with a redundancy scheme for some clerical staff, Land Registry aim to reduce their total staff numbers by a further 1,500 people over the next year and a half. Land Registry will review progress in 2011. Subject to the outcome of that review they envisage the need to reduce staff numbers further resulting in the closure of two further offices in the second phase of the programme.
The proposals announced today, which have been developed by the Land Registry working with the Operational Efficiency Programme, have been accelerated by the property slump-which drastically cut Land Registry's work and lead to a £129.9 million loss including restructuring costs in 2008-09-but they are not a knee-jerk response to it. They will however allow Land Registry to respond faster and more efficiently to future fluctuations in the market. Building as robust and sustainable an organisation as possible will allow Land Registry to be proactive rather than passive in the face of market changes and to be in good shape for a recovery in the property market.
The proposed closure of the five offices will be very unwelcome news for Land Registry staff. Land Registry will do whatever it can to ameliorate the impact on their exceptionally loyal, dedicated and hardworking workforce. Unfortunately however compulsory redundancies will undoubtedly be necessary if the proposals put forward are confirmed.
Land Registry believes that the proposals will allow it to make far better use of its buildings and to create significant efficiency savings. Land Registry makes no call on taxpayers' money but they expect cutting their costs to allow their fees to be significantly reduced over the next five years.
Looking ahead, Land Registry will continue to work with the Operational Efficiency Programme to identify additional opportunities to involve the private sector in its business whilst recognising that the creation, recording and guaranteeing of registered titles should remain a responsibility of Government. There will be a further statement in the pre-Budget report.
Land Registry have today published "Land Registry's Accelerated Transformation Programme: Consultation on Office Closures", copies of which have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses and are available in the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office.
The Leader of the House of Commons (Ms Harriet Harman): I am pleased to announce the publication of the "Guide to Parliamentary Work". The aim of the guide is to aid the understanding of parliamentary business and to promote best practice across Government Departments. The guide responds to recommendations contained in the Procedure Committee report on written parliamentary questions suggesting greater accessibility to central guidance in this area.
The guide will be accessible to all through the Cabinet Office website at: http://www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/parliamentary-clerk-guide.aspx
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward): At the start of September I received a report from the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD). I have placed a copy of the report in the Library.
The IICD report that they have overseen a decommissioning event by the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) and Red Hand Commando (RHC). The IICD believe that they have now completed the decommissioning of UVF/RHC arms.
The IICD also report that they have overseen an act of decommissioning by the Ulster Defence Association (UDA). They have received assurances that this is the first in a series of acts and that the UDA has committed to decommission the remainder of its arms before the expiry of the IICD's mandate.
This is a significant report that confirms that substantial practical progress has been made on decommissioning loyalist paramilitary weapons. This is a tremendous achievement that reflects the hard work of the IICD. They are to be congratulated.
In February I committed to bring the decommissioning amnesty period to an early end if there had not been substantial progress within the six months that followed extension. In the light of this report I have therefore decided to let the decommissioning amnesty period continue to run until February 2010. I urge all paramilitary groups to continue to show leadership and complete the decommissioning process.
The Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Peter Hain): I am pleased to inform the House that the proposed National Assembly for Wales (Legislative Competence) (Education) Order 2010 has been laid today, as Command Paper (Cm 7728). Copies of this can be found in the Vote Office and will be placed in the Library from 12 noon. I have written to the Welsh Affairs Committee and to the House of Lords Constitutional Committee to request they undertake pre-legislative scrutiny.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Helen Goodman): I am pleased to announce that Karamjit Singh CBE has been appointed the new Social Fund Commissioner for Great Britain and Northern Ireland following an open recruitment exercise. Karamjit will take up the post from 1 December 2009 for a three-year term.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Helen Goodman): I am pleased to announce that, following advice from the Meteorological Office, the annual review of the Cold Weather Payments scheme has now been completed. Amending regulations were laid on 5 October and will come into force on 1 November 2009, in time for the beginning of the winter period.
For winter 2009-10 nine new weather stations will be included as part of the scheme. Consequently, some postcodes from existing weather stations for winter 2008-09 will be redistributed and assigned to the following weather stations: Fylingdales, Gravesend, Leek, Little Rissington, North Wyke, Sheffield, St Bees Head, Stonyhurst, and Strathallan.
The alternative weather stations have been chosen to provide weather station to postcode linkages that are at least as representative as the previous arrangements-the changes are expected to either have a neutral effect or indeed provide a more accurate assessment for those eligible.
I am writing separately to each Member whose constituency will be affected by these changes. I am also writing to each Member who made representations last winter to inform them of the advice from the Meteorological Office.