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The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Alan Johnson): I am today publishing the report of the Independent Adviser for Criminality Information Management, Mrs. Sunita Mason, into the arrangements for retaining and disclosing records on the police national computer (PNC), together with the Government's response. I am placing copies in the Libraries of both Houses and in the Vote Office.
In looking at retention Mrs. Mason had regard to the recent Court of Appeal judgment in the "Five Constables Case" and in the light of the findings has recommended that the current retention arrangements should continue. We agree with that view.
On disclosure of records, while Mrs. Mason considers that the current arrangements for sending information to the Independent Safeguarding Authority (ISA) should be maintained, she is not persuaded that employers always need to see old and minor records. She suggests that some rules are developed to filter out such cases and that a non-statutory panel be established to provide Ministers with further advice in this area. This impacts on the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act (ROA) and cannot be considered in isolation from that legislation.
Mrs. Mason also recommends wider reform of the ROA. The Government agree that the Act needs to be looked at afresh to see what might best be considered in today's context, and that work should include public consultation, before moving to introduce any reforming legislation.
The other major recommendation in the review is that further work should be done around the disclosure of soft intelligence as part of enhanced criminal record checks. Mrs. Mason is concerned that soft intelligence is disclosed too routinely in such circumstances and wonders whether the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) disclosure should be limited to conviction data. This is a complex area, but once again I am anxious to ensure that the disclosure process is proportionate and I will be asking officials to look at this further.
The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): The Government are committed to ensuring that everyone has access to justice and that justice is provided locally. We need to ensure that we have a modern court estate that is properly aligned to where services are needed, that the estate is efficiently utilised and that courts have the necessary facilities for victims and witnesses and to allow proper access for court users with disabilities. On 13 October I announced full public consultations on the closure of a number of under-used courts.
The Government must always look to ensure there is an effective and efficient system to deliver justice so that we can continue to provide these vital public services at a level that offers real value for money for the taxpayer. Therefore, after careful consideration and following the public consultations, I am today announcing the closure of the following under-used courts:
Bourne Magistrates Court
Bridport Magistrates Court
Cheshunt Magistrates Court
Cullompton Magistrates Court
Dorking Magistrates Court
Eastleigh Magistrates Court
Gainsborough Magistrates Court
Havant Magistrates Court
Launceston Magistrates Court
Louth Magistrates Court
Mildenhall Magistrates Court
Minehead Magistrates Court
Sherborne Magistrates Court
Sleaford Magistrates Court
Stamford Magistrates Court
Wantage Magistrates Court
Wareham Magistrates Court
Wells Magistrates Court
Whitby Magistrates Court
Widnes Magistrates Court
It is right that going to court should not place undue stress on the victims and witnesses of crime. Her Majesty's Courts Service has made significant improvements in the facilities for these court users over recent years. These improvements have helped to make giving evidence in court less stressful. We need to ensure that court buildings have suitable facilities for all court users. Many of the courts listed above are significantly under-utilised and do not have adequate facilities for victims and witnesses. In addition, a number of the buildings do not allow adequate access for disabled court users. Due to the low utilisation rates and in some courts, physical constraints, I do not believe it would provide good value for money to spend taxpayers' money to bring these buildings up to the required standard.
Magistrates courts developed in certain locations in the late 19th and early 20th centuries when areas of local government (then responsible for these courts) were much smaller and transport links were elementary. It is no longer necessary to have a court in every small town. This was recognised by many of the former Magistrates Courts Committees who made a very significant number of closures. Successive Governments have in recent decades had to undertake closure programmes. Since 1997, the Government, with this announcement, will have closed 171 courts, compared with 450 courts which were closed between 1979 to 1997. Our plans ensure that communities have access to good quality local courts within a reasonable travelling distance. We have considered the suitability and proximity of nearby courts which can meet the needs of the community. Most of the courts affected are not currently hearing
cases. Therefore, cases in that area have been heard at a nearby court which has not caused significant disruption to court users. In many cases the better facilities available have improved their experience at court.
The consultation papers asked respondents to comment on any impacts that closure may have. In the light of the responses received, I am confident that the closures will not have a significant adverse impact on the provision of local justice. Indeed, as many respondents noted, these closures will assist the delivery of modern justice services and provide communities with better, more efficient facilities.
The Prime Minister (Mr. Gordon Brown): I have today laid before the House the Intelligence and Security Committee's Annual Report 2009-2010 (Cm 7844). This follows consultation with the Committee over matters that could not be published without prejudicing the work of the intelligence and security agencies.
The Government are today publishing a consultation document and accompanying impact assessment on the European Commission proposal for a regulation on the carbon dioxide emissions of new vans.
We strongly support the principle of regulating van CO2. This sector of road transport accounts for a growing proportion of transport emissions, and we estimate this regulation would save millions of tonnes of CO2 emissions within the next decade. It would also improve the fuel economy of vehicles, thereby substantially reducing the running costs of those using vans as part of their business.
Our priority for this regulation is to set an ambitious but realistic long-term framework for the reduction of emissions from this sector. The regulation must respect the realities of the sector to ensure that it does not reduce the diversity of the van market. In some areas we believe that the Commission is broadly right, for example in making separate provision for manufacturers selling below a certain volume of vans, and in encouraging new emission-lowering technologies. For other aspects we believe the approach should be modified.
We are already taking an active part in discussions with the European Commission and other member states on this issue and outcome of the consultation will feed into our evolving position.
A copy of the consultation document and accompanying impact assessment has been placed in the Libraries of both Houses and will be available from: http://www.dft.gov.uk/consultations/open.
The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mr. Sadiq Khan): The first Transport Council of the Spanish presidency was held in Brussels on 11 March. The United Kingdom was represented by Andy Lebrecht, Deputy Permanent Representative to the EU.
The Council agreed a general approach on a directive on transportable pressure equipment. The directive aims to revoke obsolete directives on pressure equipment and therefore remove conflicts between EU law and international rules on the transport of dangerous goods. It will align with the changes to the international agreements on the carriage of dangerous goods by rail and road (RID and ADR) which form the annexes of Directive 2009/68/EC. The United Kingdom supports this general approach.
There was a progress report on the proposal for a directive on aviation security charges. The Commission noted that the subject, and notably the question of who should pay for any more stringent security measures, was complex and that there were no obvious solutions. The first reading and vote from the European Parliament is scheduled to take place in April. Following that vote the presidency will examine the proposal and decide how it should be taken forward. The Council agreed to the presidency approach and took note of the progress report. The United Kingdom is content with this approach.
The Council reached a general approach on a regulation on investigation and prevention of accidents and incidents in civil aviation. The regulation seeks to facilitate the standardisation of legislation and co-operation in the investigation of accidents and incidents in civil aviation. A number of interventions were made by the majority of delegations (including the UK) in support of the presidency text, with comments being made on the independence of the network, the participation of the European Aviation Safety Agency in safety investigations, the role of judicial authorities, the protection of sensitive safety information and release of passenger lists following an accident. There was general consensus that these issues could be addressed as the European Parliament proceeds with its consideration of the proposal. The United Kingdom supports this general approach.
There was an update from the Commission on progress in the negotiations on a second stage EU-US Air Transport Agreement. The Commission noted the good progress made in widening the scope of the agreement to include environmental, labour and regulatory issues. While the US Congress was currently unwilling to relax investment and ownership in US airlines, it was felt that the US had conceded some useful points that would make the agreement mutually beneficial. The Commission raised the three outstanding issues of liberalisation, noise and commercial rights. Member states were broadly supportive of the Commission's approach and welcomed the recent progress on environmental matters. However, there were several interventions by delegations seeking to ensure that the final agreement strikes the right balance. The Council urged the Commission to continue negotiations on this basis.
There was a brief discussion on electric cars under AOB during which the United Kingdom reiterated that electric vehicles were only part of the solution to decarbonising transport and that any solution must be technologically neutral.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Helen Goodman): The Secretary of State will be making changes to the discretionary social fund in relation to direction 17, with effect from 1 April 2010.
With effect from 1 April a new benefit sanction for all first offences of benefit fraud, "One Strike", will be introduced along with a sanction for those jobseeker's allowance claimants who fail to attend their fortnightly reviews. Direction 17 of the discretionary social fund will be amended to take account of these new sanctions. This will ensure that all healthy childless people with no caring responsibilities who apply for a crisis loan, regardless of which benefit they receive, will not be able to counter a benefit sanction by applying for a crisis loan for living expenses. As now, they will be able to apply for a crisis loan to alleviate the consequences of a disaster or for the expenses for items for cooking or heating when there is a proven risk to their health or safety.
The Government's response (CM 7849) has been laid before Parliament and will be published later today. In publishing the response I would like to once again extend my condolences to the families and friends of those killed and injured in the factory explosion at ICL Plastics Ltd in Glasgow on 11 May 2004, and thank Lord Gill for his work and his considered recommendations following this tragic-and avoidable-event.
On 16 July, I announced the publication of Lord Gill's report into the underlying causes of the explosion at ICL Plastics, resulting from a leak of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). As part of his report, Lord Gill recommended a four-phase action plan to secure the safe operation of small bulk LPG installations. The plan consisted of:
a systematic replacement of buried metallic service pipes with polyethylene pipes and inspection of buildings with an LPG supply;
the establishment of a new safety regime for small bulk LPG installations including the introduction of an independent verification scheme;
the continuing development of the safety regime with particular reference to polyethylene pipes; and
improvements in knowledge and information sharing between regulators, and LPG suppliers and users.
On 14 September, I announced the publication of House's progress report which set out details of the programme to replace buried metallic pipework with polyethylene pipes, supported by an inspection campaign by HSE and local authority inspectors. This work is now well under way.
The progress report also announced the launch of a consultation exercise seeking stakeholder views on Lord Gill's remaining recommendations. We are grateful to those who responded to the consultation for their helpful comments. Having considered these responses and advice from the HSE board, the Government are now able to publish its full response to the ICL Inquiry.
The Government support the majority of Lord Gill's proposals for a new LPG safety regime including the introduction of installation records for LPG users; registration of LPG suppliers; clearer demarcation of responsibilities between LPG users and suppliers; the production of an asset register by suppliers; and improved guidance for users on meeting their legal obligations. HSE will consult with stakeholders further on the details of implementation.
The Government have decided to not take forward Lord Gill's proposals for an independent verification scheme or for independent audits of workplace risk assessments but will instead take steps to raise awareness among users of their responsibilities within the existing legislative framework, underpinned by appropriate enforcement activity. We believe that this approach will effectively deliver the outcomes that Lord Gill envisaged.
The Government acknowledge the need to ensure that the replacement polyethylene pipes themselves remain safe. We have therefore asked HSE to undertake any additional research needed into the safety of these pipes and to consult the LPG industry and pipe manufacturers on appropriate integrity tests.
Finally, the Government agree with Lord Gill that effective communication is vital to ensuring the continuing safety of small bulk LPG installations. The HSE will work with the LPG industry to develop clear and practical advice for LPG users regarding the fulfilment of their statutory duties.
I hope that the Government response goes some way to addressing the concerns of those have suffered as a result of this tragic event and reassures them that the Government are determined to ensure that similar events do not happen in the future.
An analysis of the responses to the preliminary consultation exercise, and other information used in developing the Government response, is now available on the HSE website at: http://www.hse.gov.uk/iclresponse