The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable): I am today announcing further improvements to the proposed package of reforms to higher education funding and student finance in England.
Our proposed reforms were announced by the Minister for Universities and Science on 3 November. They will introduce a significantly fairer and more progressive new system in which no eligible student has to pay upfront fees, there is a better deal for students while they are studying, and a fairer system of repayments for those who have completed their studies and are realising the benefits of a university education.
Since that announcement, we have continued to discuss the proposals in detail with Members of Parliament, universities, students and other stakeholders. In the light of those discussions, we have decided to make three further enhancements to the package to ensure that the package is as progressive as we can make it for full-time students, while at the same time providing better support for part-time students.
First, the proposals announced on 3 November already make significant steps to improve the support available for part-time students. For the first time, eligible part-time students would qualify for loan support for their tuition costs on the same basis as full-time students. These changes have been welcomed by many as a critical measure in redressing long-standing discrimination against part-time students. However, discussion with the higher education sector has highlighted that the proposed threshold of 33% intensity for full loan entitlement may inadvertently deprive a significant number of learners from receiving support. We therefore propose that the level of intensity be reduced to 25%-that is, any eligible student studying for more than a quarter of their time will be eligible for full loan support for their tuition costs. This will better reflect the way that many part time courses are structured.
Secondly, we have been keen to ensure that there is adequate protection for lower earning graduates in our new system. One critical component of this protection is the income threshold at which graduates start repaying, and the way that threshold is then uprated in future years. As announced on 3 November, that income threshold will be £21,000 as from 2016, compared with the current threshold of £15,000. Our modelling to date has assumed that that threshold should be uprated every five years in line with earnings. In order to give better protection for those on lower incomes, we now propose that the uprating should instead be made every year. Around a quarter of graduates will be better off in this new, more progressive regime than under the current regime.
Thirdly, we have reviewed the repayment position of students and graduates under the existing student finance system. The current income threshold for repayments was first announced by the previous Government in 2004, and has never since been uprated. The effect is that the value of that threshold has been declining with inflation, with graduates required to start paying at relatively lower levels of income. That is not fair to existing students and graduates. So we have decided that the £15,000 income threshold for those in the existing system should be uprated annually in line with inflation from 2012 to 2016.
These improvements further enhance a reform package which will put higher education funding and student finance on a sustainable footing, improve the quality and viability of our university system, offer more progressive support to those on lower incomes both while studying in higher education and when repaying as graduates, and contribute to paying down the deficit.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Andrew Robathan): Please find the agenda of discussion points for the Foreign Affairs Council in Defence Formation on 9 December 2010 detailed below. I am writing as Duty Minister. The Under-Secretary of State with responsibility for international security strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr Howarth), will attend.
Informal meeting with NATO Secretary-General Rasmussen: Ministers will be accompanied by the NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen for an informal discussion of EU-NATO relations. No firm agenda has been released for this session, but it is likely to encompass capability development in the form of "quick win" projects, and ongoing contact between the European Defence Agency and the Allied Command Transformation. The UK's objectives are to welcome the renewed focus on EU/NATO relations under Ashton and Rasmussen and to continue to press for improved co-operation.
Formal working session on military capabilities: This formal discussion of capabilities will follow on from the informal meeting in Ghent in September. Again, no agenda has been issued, but we expect the discussion to concentrate on initiatives for pooling and sharing capabilities, and on bilateral and multilateral co-operation in capability development. This will highlight the UK-France defence agreement. The UK will welcome the continued emphasis on capability development, but resist calls for the creation of any additional institutions or processes.
EDA Steering Board: Ministers will discuss the work programme for 2011, the nomination of the new chief executive, the level playing field, Single European Sky, defence research, and pooling and sharing. The UK will work with the agency and its member states to develop and improve the agency effectiveness and performance, but will urge the EDA to be realistic about its budget requirements. Unless postponed, the EDA budget will
be discussed as an agenda item in the Council meeting. On current plans, we intend to oppose any budget increase for the agency in 2011.
Informal working lunch discussing operations: Ministers will be accompanied over lunch by the three EU operational commanders (Op ATALANTA/ Op ALTHEA/ EUTM Somalia) in an informal discussion of progress. Some member states will also wish to discuss possible future operations, likely to focus on the Sahel and the Sudan. The UK supports the ongoing operations, and will stress the urgency of developing an internationally recognised strategy for Somalia.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Andrew Robathan): In July the Prime Minister asked Professor Hew Strachan of Oxford University to lead an independent taskforce to develop innovative ideas to help rebuild the military covenant.
His report, published today, looks at support that can be provided across Government and throughout society and makes many recommendations for the Government to consider. A copy of the taskforce report will be placed in the Library of the House.
I will publish a full response to this report's recommendations on behalf of the Government in spring 2011. However, we intend to take forward work on two of the report's recommendations in advance of that. The first is for an armed forces community covenant, which will encourage communities across the UK to volunteer support for their local armed forces. The second is for a chief of defence staff commendation scheme, which will allow the head of the UK's armed forces to thank individuals or bodies who give exceptional support to our armed forces.
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Paul Burstow): I am today publishing the "Valuing People Now: Summary Report March 2009 - September 2010" along with the easy read summary and good practice examples.
The report includes findings from all the 152 learning disability partnership board self-assessments in 2009-10. It shows that good progress has been made in improving outcomes for people with learning disabilities and their family carers over the 18 months to September 2010. It includes many examples of good practice which show how to drive forward efficiencies while improving the lives of individuals.
Achieving genuine equality and tackling disadvantage requires continued engagement across the health and social care system and across the community and voluntary sector in the three priority areas of health, housing and employment to improve outcomes for people with learning disabilities and their families.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Lynne Featherstone): The 2009-10 Independent Complaints Monitor annual report for the Criminal Records Bureau has been published today. It is available on the CRB website and a copy has been placed in the House Library.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (James Brokenshire): I am pleased to announce that we are today publishing the cross-Government drug strategy "Reducing Demand, Restricting Supply, Building Recovery-Supporting People to live a Drug Free Life". The strategy sets out a fundamentally different approach to preventing drug use in our communities and in supporting recovery from drug and alcohol dependence.
In a major change to Government policy, the strategy puts recovery at the heart of our response, with more responsibility on individuals to seek help and overcome their dependency. The strategy sets out a more holistic approach to supporting people dependent on drugs or alcohol, not just through treatment, but also by addressing offending, employment and housing issues, all of which are critical to overcoming drug or alcohol abuse.
This is an ambitious strategy aimed at reducing demand. It takes an uncompromising approach to cracking down on those involved in drug supply, both at home and abroad. There will be renewed focus on seizing the assets of those involved in the drugs trade and we will strengthen our ability to respond swiftly to so-called "legal highs".
Power and accountability to tackle drugs and the harms they cause will be passed to local areas. With the introduction of police and crime commissioners, the reform of the NHS and the creation of Public Health England, local partnerships will be responsible for designing and commissioning services that meet the needs of their communities.
The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr Andrew Mitchell): The Foreign Affairs Council (Development) will meet in Brussels on 9 December. The meeting will be chaired by the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security, and Vice-President of the European Commission, Baroness Ashton.
Due to priority parliamentary business that day, I regret that my ministerial colleagues and I will not be able to attend. The UK will be represented by the UK's Permanent Representative to the EU (Kim Darroch). The expected agenda items are as follows:
There will be an initial discussion on the main issues presented in the Commission's recent Green Paper on inclusive growth and sustainable development. This wide-ranging paper is currently the subject of a public consultation. Discussion topics include governance, security and fragility, the co-ordination of aid, budget support, growth, regional integration, climate change and biodiversity, energy and development and agriculture and food security. This is a welcome initiative and a chance to put forward our broader views on the future of EU development policy, albeit with a specific focus on growth.
EU Special Representative to Afghanistan, Ambassador Usackas, will give a report and update the Council about the latest situation in Afghanistan. Afghanistan is a key UK development priority and we look forward to a productive discussion about how best to co-ordinate efforts in the context of the EU action plan on Afghanistan and the Kabul conference. Afghanistan is also on the agenda for Foreign Ministers at the Foreign Affairs Council on 13 December.
Given the desperate humanitarian crisis in Haiti, and the recent cholera outbreak, this discussion will focus on how to best deliver support to the Haitian people. This is particularly poignant as we are approaching the first anniversary of the Haitian earthquake on 12 January. The post-earthquake humanitarian support provided by the UK has funded vital work by UN agencies and international NGOs, and helped to provide 380,000 people with food, clean water and medical care.
In response to the cholera crisis I have announced additional help to supply clean water and improve sanitation and hygiene for up to 340,000 people in the north of the country. UK support will also bring in emergency supplies and more than a thousand trained medical practitioners to staff up to 12 major cholera
treatment centres and 60 subsidiary cholera treatment units, capable of treating several thousands of cholera victims over the next two months and helping to stop the outbreak spreading across the region.
My Swedish counterpart will lead a discussion focused on transparency as a prerequisite for better accountability and more effective development results. This is a UK priority, and we are working hard to encourage other EU member states to agree steps to improve transparency and to ensure EU aid information is published in comprehensive, accessible and comparable ways. We are also working towards an international standard in aid transparency, which will help us to bring aid information closer to user needs as well as meeting our international transparency commitments. We are also supportive of work to encourage greater accountability between those receiving and those providing aid, and their respective citizens.
The High Representative and Belgian presidency will lead a broad discussion about innovative forms of development financing. The UK is supportive of exploring new innovative finance mechanisms, while emphasising that these should complement, and not deflect from, commitments made by member states to meet agreed targets of 0.7% of GNI for official development assistance by 2015.
The least developed countries (LDC) summit will take place in Istanbul from 30 May to 3 June 2011, under the Hungarian EU presidency. We are keen to ensure the outcome of the summit builds on the 2010-15 action agenda agreed at the UN MDG summit in New York in September 2010.
The fourth high-level forum on aid effectiveness will take place in Busan, Korea from 29 November to 1 December 2011 under the Polish EU presidency. The UK is looking forward to working closely with our EU partners in the lead up to the forum, including on strengthening the emphasis on results, value for money, transparency and accountability.
The High Representative will report back on the development discussions that took place at the EU-US summit in Lisbon on 20 November 2010. In the summit statement, the EU and US pledged to continue and strengthen co-operation on food security, climate change and the millennium development goals, including health. Discussions will continue through the EU-US dialogue on development and the UK is supportive of this process.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Mike Penning): I am today announcing a package of measures relating to the maritime industry following the spending review and a recent review I have undertaken of light dues.
Shipping is important to the UK both as the means by which the majority of goods are moved in and out of the country and as a significant contributor to the UK economy in its own right. The Government therefore wish to see a strong and sustainable maritime sector for the future and to minimise the burdens the industry faces.
With this in mind, the Government have listened carefully to the views of both the shipping industry and the general lighthouse authorities on the need for stability in the future level of charges set by the Department for Transport for marine aids to navigation.
In my written ministerial statement of 26 July 2010, Official Report, columns 75-76WS, on marine aids to navigation, I announced that the Government do not intend to change the basis on which light dues are currently charged. I am now pleased to announce a commitment that there will be no increases in light dues for at least the next three years.
I am also inviting the views of the Lights Finance Committee, which includes representatives of the payers of light dues, on what an appropriate level of dues for the future would be that balances the need to reduce demands on the shipping industry with the need to maintain essential aids to navigation. I have asked the committee to report its conclusions to me by February 2011.
Sustainable economic growth also requires investment in training and skills. I am therefore also pleased to be able to announce that, despite the difficult public spending climate, the Government will continue to provide a partial financial contribution towards the cost of training seafarers under the existing support for maritime training scheme, with the remainder of those costs being met by employers.
Within its spending review settlement the Department for Transport has been able to allocate some £12 million to support maritime training in the next financial year. I intend that the majority of this money should be focused on supporting initial training for cadets studying at junior officer level (SMarT 1). I estimate that this will enable the Department to contribute to the training of up to 1,000 new cadets starting their training during the next academic year. In order to provide reassurance, I can also confirm that we will make funding available beyond next year for all cadets starting SMarT 1 training in 2011-12, and those already undergoing SMarT l training, for the duration of their studies to officer of the watch certificate.
In addition, I intend that funding should also remain available next year for ratings training and for ratings to officer conversion training and I anticipate that some
funding should be available to support the first instalment of SMarT 2-helping those SMarT 1 officer cadets who are also working towards foundation and other degrees, higher national diplomas or Scottish diplomas to complete their studies.
For the remaining parts of the SMarT programme, including SMarT 2 training beyond the first instalment, the Government believe that in current circumstances it is more appropriate that the cost of this additional training should be met in full by employers.
During the year I intend to commission a review of the support for maritime training scheme to consider the continuing requirement for Government support for training and skills development in this sector and how best to spend any continuing Government funding. I will report back to the House on the terms of reference for the review in due course.
The current crew relief costs scheme (CRCS) provides limited financial assistance to shipping companies towards the cost of officers or ratings joining or leaving their ships abroad. Shipping companies gain many benefits from the employment of British officers and ratings and, in light of this, the Government have come to the conclusion that continuing to provide commercial shipping companies with a subsidy to meet part of the costs of fares for seafarers can no longer be justified. The current CRCS will therefore cease on 8 March 2011. However, under the Merchant Shipping Act, the Secretary of State, with the consent of the Treasury, will still be able to provide financial assistance in respect of travel and other costs in exceptional cases. I am also inviting those with an interest in CRCS to submit suggestions for how the Department may be able to provide non-monetary assistance to encourage the continued employment of UK seafarers.
The Department for Transport also currently provides a financial contribution towards the costs of the confidential hazardous incident reporting programme for shipping (CHIRP) which provides an outlet for mariners to voice safety concerns. However, the scheme has not gained the traction hoped for in the commercial shipping and fishing sectors and there are other services established by the industry such as the Nautical Institute's mariners' alerting and reporting scheme. I have therefore concluded that the Department should cease to provide financial support for this scheme at the end of this financial year. The Department will work closely with the commercial, fishing and recreational sectors to see how confidential reporting opportunities might be provided in the future without financial assistance from Government.