9 July 2012 : Column 1WS

Written Ministerial Statements

Monday 9 July 2012

Treasury

Oil and Gas Taxation

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Miss Chloe Smith): At Budget 2012, the Government announced a package of measures on oil and gas taxation to support investment. This package included the introduction of legislation in 2013 giving the Government statutory authority to sign contracts with companies operating in the UK and UK continental shelf (UKCS), to provide assurance on the tax relief they will receive when decommissioning assets.

The Government recognise that, at present, a lack of certainty over how much tax relief companies expect to be able to claim in respect of their future decommissioning costs is making it difficult for oil and gas assets to change hands, limiting the funds available for new ventures and deterring incremental investment.

HM Treasury is today publishing the following document: “Decommissioning Relief Deeds: Increasing tax certainty for oil and gas investment in the UK continental shelf”.

This consultation document seeks views on the Government’s proposals to provide certainty on decommissioning relief through decommissioning relief deeds.

It is proposed that these deeds will provide eligible companies with certainty that, if they do not achieve a specified level of relief under the tax code when they decommission their assets, they will (subject to certain conditions) be entitled to claim a shortfall payment from the Government.

This contractual approach is intended to facilitate further investment and production in the UKCS and is therefore expected to have a positive impact on the Exchequer.

The initial consultation period will last for 12 weeks, closing on 1 October 2012.

A copy of the consultation will be made available from the HM Treasury website: http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk.

ECOFIN

The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr George Osborne): The Economic and Financial Affairs Council will be held in Brussels on 10 July 2012. Ministers will discuss the following items:

Economic governancetwo pack

Ministers will hold an orientation debate on the “two pack” of economic governance proposals, to discuss the European Parliament’s position. This will inform the first working-level trialogue meeting with the European Parliament on 11 July.

9 July 2012 : Column 2WS

The first proposal concerns strengthening surveillance of budgetary policies in euro area member states. It would require euro area countries to present their draft budgets at the same time each year and give the Commission the right to assess and, if necessary, issue an opinion on them. The second proposal concerns strengthening economic and fiscal surveillance of euro area countries facing or threatened with serious financial instability. It aims to ensure that the surveillance of member states under a financial assistance programme, or facing a serious threat of financial instability, is robust, follows clear procedures and is embedded in EU law.

The UK broadly welcomes these proposals, which will be an important part of governance reforms. The proposals will help improve fiscal stability in the euro area, which is in the UK’s national interest. The euro area must put in place governance arrangements to create confidence for the future and ensure fiscal responsibility.

(possible agenda item.) Revised capital requirements rules (CRD4)

The presidency may update Ministers on the latest trialogue negotiations, following the general approach agreed by Ministers at 15 May ECOFIN. The UK continues to support the full implementation of Basel III and for member states to have sufficient flexibility to increase minimum standards in order to protect financial stability in their jurisdiction.

Proposal for Bank Recovery and Resolution Directive

This item was deferred from the 22 June ECOFIN. The Commission will present its new proposals for a directive, following which Ministers may then have an initial exchange of views. The directive will require member states to ensure that their national supervisory and resolution authorities have a set of common tools and powers which will enable them to avert, and where necessary manage, the failure of a financial institution. The proposal seeks to prevent the systemic damage caused by the disorderly failure of such institutions, limiting public sector exposure and preventing wider economic damage.

Presentation of the Cyprus Presidency Work Programme

The new presidency will set out their work programme for the next six months. Ministers will have an exchange of views on Cyprus’ work programme.

Follow-up to the European Council on 28-29 June 2012

Ministers will discuss the follow-up to the European Council, which considered a paper by the four presidents (of the Council, Eurogroup, ECB and Commission), “Towards a Genuine Economic and Monetary Union” and agreed a “Compact for Growth and Jobs”.

Contributions to the European Council Meeting on 28/29 June 2012European Semester

The presidency will ask Ministers to adopt Council recommendations on national reform programmes and stability or convergence programmes. The recommendations were endorsed at June European Council. The UK supports the European semester process and the country specific recommendations.

9 July 2012 : Column 3WS

Education

Children's Commissioner for England

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Sarah Teather): Following John Dunford’s independent review of the role of the Children’s Commissioner, I informed the House that the Government had accepted in principle all of his recommendations and said that we would consult on the legislative changes needed to implement them. Having taken account of the responses to the consultation, I am today laying draft legislation before the House for pre-legislative scrutiny. The Government aim to make the UK the most child-friendly country in Europe. Children are generally more vulnerable than adults and do not have the same opportunities to make their views known or to raise concerns about the impact of new policies or legislation. It is therefore important that they have a strong advocate to represent their interests, particularly when they are in vulnerable situations.

John Dunford’s independent review concluded that there was a continuing need for a Children’s Commissioner, who could act as a champion for children and young people—ensuring that their voices were heard and that new policies and legislation were designed in a way that took account of their rights. However, he said that the current legislative framework had prevented the Commissioner from fulfilling that role effectively, and that changes were needed to ensure that the Commissioner would, in future, have greater impact on children and young people’s lives.

The draft legislation laid before the House today would create a new role for the Children’s Commissioner, focused on promoting and protecting the rights of children, in line with the articles of the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which the Government are a committed signatory. In order to carry out the role effectively, the Children’s Commissioner would have powers to:

carry out investigations;

carry out assessments of the impact of new policies and legislation on children’s rights;

undertake research;

monitor the effectiveness of complaints and advocacy services for children and young people;

access places where children are cared for or accommodated away from home, so that their concerns can be heard;

request the information needed to carry out full and robust investigations;

require those to whom recommendations are made to set out how they intend to respond.

The draft legislation would make the Children’s Commissioner more independent from Government and more directly accountable to Parliament, in particular through an annual report to Parliament that will allow for more effective scrutiny of the impact that the Children’s Commissioner’s activities have had on the promotion and protection of children’s rights. The draft legislation also includes measures designed to make the Commissioner’s business planning processes more transparent, by making it a requirement for the Commissioner to consult on his or her future priorities and to appoint an advisory board.

In line with John Dunford’s recommendations, the draft legislation would also result in the functions of the children’s rights director in Ofsted being incorporated

9 July 2012 : Column 4WS

within the remit of the Children’s Commissioner, but with safeguards to ensure that the current levels of support provided to this vulnerable group of children were not diluted.

Under the draft legislation, the Children’s Commissioner for England would retain responsibility for non-devolved matters, but would be able to delegate his or her powers of investigation to the Children’s Commissioners in the devolved Administrations. The Children’s Commissioner for England would also be required to consult the Children’s Commissioners in the devolved Administrations before conducting an investigation on a non-devolved matter within their jurisdictions or across the UK.

Copies of the draft legislation will be placed in the House Libraries.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Flooding

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mrs Caroline Spelman): Following my written ministerial statement to the House on 3 July 2012, Official Report, column 48WS concerning the flooding events in the midlands and north-east of England on 28 June, I would like to provide a further update on the significant flooding events that have taken place over this weekend on 6 to 8 July in England following further periods of extremely high rainfall.

I would also like to acknowledge the tragic events which have taken place in the Krasnodar region of Russia over the weekend and to express our sympathies for the communities and individuals involved.

During Friday and Saturday there was heavy and persistent rainfall across England and Wales, which on top of the already saturated ground has caused serious flooding in some areas and disruption to many more. There were widespread local impacts including to property, transport networks, sporting and cultural events, and agricultural land.

I can confirm that on the latest count a total of 391 properties were flooded across England from rivers and surface water flooding. One hundred and forty-seven properties flooded in the south-west; two-thirds of which were flooded due to rivers overflowing their banks and the rest from surface water. Eighty properties were flooded in the midlands and a further 86 in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and the north.

Nationally it is estimated that about 3,000 properties have been protected from flooding over this weekend as a result of flood defences in place. The Met Office and the Environment Agency have been providing flood and weather warnings and over 200 flood warnings and alerts were sent to communities at risk of flooding across the country, including three warnings of severe river flooding.

Following the wettest June since records began across England and Wales, the rainfall in July falling in East Devon was over 100 mm—three times the rain normally expected for the whole of July—and across the south Pennines over 60 mm of rain fell which is 75% of the rain expected for the whole month. These rainfall figures demonstrate how severe and unusual the conditions have been but despite this we are determined to carry on improving our resilience to deal with this type of weather in the future.

9 July 2012 : Column 5WS

On Sunday I visited the town of Ottery St Mary in the south-west and saw for myself the damage and disruption to people’s lives that this flooding has caused. I would like to thank the local authorities and other agencies in the area for their efforts to protect lives and properties in Ottery and other affected communities and now to help them begin to clear up.

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government is activating the Bellwin scheme of emergency financial assistance to help local authorities with their immediate costs associated with protecting life and property in their areas. Exceptionally, the scheme will reimburse local authorities for 100% of their eligible costs above threshold. This is in recognition of the particular circumstances around these floods and will give the affected local authorities assurance that such costs will be reimbursed. Government officials will also be discussing the recovery arrangements with local authorities in the areas affected.

The Government recognise the importance which flood insurance plays in these circumstances and are working closely with the insurance industry to secure the future availability and affordability of flood insurance following the expiry of the statement of principles next year.

I am pleased to be able to report that the situation in the south-west and other parts of England worst hit by the floods continues to slowly improve. There are no longer any severe flood warnings in force. I would like once again to take the opportunity to praise the excellent response from our front-line emergency services, local authorities and the diligent work by Met Office and Environment Agency staff in the Flood Forecasting Centre. With the forecast indicating continuing unsettled weather, we will all need to remain alert to the risk of further flooding in the coming weeks.

It is my intention to hold a technical briefing for flood affected constituencies in the early part of next week to enable MPs to be made aware of the full range of tools at their disposal to help their constituents.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

P5 Conference of Nuclear Disarmament

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Alistair Burt): I would like to update the House on the outcomes of the Washington conference of the five nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) recognised nuclear weapon states (P5) on nuclear disarmament, which took place 27-29 June.

This was the third such conference at senior official level. It followed conferences in the UK (September 2009) and Paris (June 2011), which brought together policy officials, military staff and nuclear scientists from all five nuclear weapons states.

The conference was an important part of the international dialogue on nuclear disarmament demonstrating a shared determination to make progress on the commitments set out in the 2010 NPT action plan.

The P5 issued the following statement after the meeting:

“The five nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) nuclear-weapon states, or “P5”, met in Washington on June 27-29, 2012, in the wake of the 2009 London and 2011 Paris P5 conferences to review progress towards fulfilling the commitments made at the 2010 NPT review conference, and to continue discussions on

9 July 2012 : Column 6WS

issues related to all three pillars of the NPT—non-proliferation, the peaceful uses of nuclear energy and disarmament, including confidence-building, transparency, and verification experiences.

The P5 reaffirmed their commitment to the shared goal of nuclear disarmament and emphasized the importance of working together in implementing the 2010 NPT review conference action plan. The P5 reviewed significant developments in the context of the NPT since the 2011 Paris P5 conference. In particular, the P5 reviewed the outcome of the 2012 preparatory committee for the 2015 NPT review conference, continued their discussion of how to report on their relevant activities, and shared views, across all three pillars of the NPT, on objectives for the 2013 preparatory committee and the intersessional period. The 2012 PrepCom outcome included issuance of a P5 statement comprehensively addressing issues in all three pillars (NPT/CONF.2015/PC.I/12).

The P5 continued their previous discussions on the issues of transparency, mutual confidence, and verification, and considered proposals for a standard reporting form. The P5 recognise the importance of establishing a firm foundation for mutual confidence and further disarmament efforts, and the P5 will continue their discussions in multiple ways within the P5, with a view to reporting to the 2014 PrepCom, consistent with their commitments under actions 5, 20, and 21 of the 2010 RevCon final document.

Participants received a briefing from the United States on US activities at the Nevada National Security Site. This was offered with a view to demonstrate ideas for additional approaches to transparency.

Another unilateral measure was a tour of the US Nuclear Risk Reduction Center located at the US Department of State, where the P5 representatives have observed how the United States maintains a communications center to simultaneously implement notification regimes, including under the new strategic arms reduction treaty (New START), Hague Code of Conduct Against Ballistic Missile Proliferation (HCOC), and Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) Vienna document.

The P5 agreed on the work plan for a P5 working group led by China, assigned to develop a glossary of definitions for key nuclear terms that will increase P5 mutual understanding and facilitate further P5 discussions on nuclear matters.

The P5 again shared information on their respective bilateral and multilateral experiences in verification, including information on the P5 expert level meeting hosted by the UK in April, at which the UK shared the outcomes and lessons from the UK/Norway Initiative disarmament verification research project. The P5 heard presentations on lessons learned from New START treaty implementation, were given an overview of US/UK verification work, and agreed to consider attending a follow-up P5 briefing on this work to be hosted by the United States.

As a further follow-up to the 2010 NPT review conference, the P5 shared their views on how to discourage abuse of the NPT withdrawal provision (Article X), and how to respond to notifications made consistent with the provisions of that article. The discussion included modalities under which NPT states party could respond collectively and individually to a notification of withdrawal, including through arrangements regarding the disposition of equipment and materials acquired or derived under safeguards during NPT membership. The P5 agreed that states remain responsible under international law for violations of the treaty committed prior to withdrawal.

The P5 underlined the fundamental importance of an effective International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards system in preventing nuclear proliferation and facilitating co-operation in the peaceful uses of nuclear energy. The P5 discussed concrete proposals for strengthening IAEA safeguards, including through promoting the universal adoption of the additional protocol; and the reinforcement of the IAEA’s resources and capabilities for effective safeguards implementation, including verification of declarations by states.

The P5 reiterated their commitment to promote and ensure the swift entry into force of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) and its universalisation. The P5 reviewed progress in developing the CTBT’s verification regime in all its aspects and efforts towards entry into force. Ways to enhance the momentum

9 July 2012 : Column 7WS

for completing the verification regime, including the on-site inspection component, were explored. The P5 called upon all states to uphold their national moratoria on nuclear weapons test explosions or any other nuclear explosion, and to refrain from acts that would defeat the object and purpose of the treaty pending its entry into force. The moratoria, though important, are not substitutes for legally binding obligations under the CTBT.

The P5 discussed ways to advance a mutual goal of achieving a legally binding, verifiable international ban on the production of fissile material for use in nuclear weapons. The P5 reiterated their support for the immediate start of negotiations on a treaty encompassing such a ban in the conference on disarmament (CD), building on CD/1864, and exchanged perspectives on ways to break the current impasse in the CD, including by continuing their efforts with other relevant partners to promote such negotiations within the CD.

The P5 remain concerned about serious challenges to the non-proliferation regime and in this connection, recalled their joint statement of May 3 at the preparatory committee of the NPT.

An exchange of views on how to support a successful conference in 2012 on a middle east zone free of weapons of mass destruction was continued.

The P5 agreed to continue to meet at all appropriate levels on nuclear issues to further promote dialogue and mutual confidence. The P5 will follow on their discussions and hold a fourth P5 conference in the context of the next NPT preparatory committee”.

Home Department

Access to Elected Office for Disabled People

The Minister for Equalities (Lynne Featherstone): The Government are today launching a £2.6 million fund to support disabled people who wish to stand for elected office. This proposal forms part of the Government’s strategy to provide support for disabled people—the access to elected office strategy. Following public consultation, the strategy has been developed by the Home Office, working with the Cabinet Office and the Department for Work and Pensions.

Disabled people are under-represented in public life, as the Speaker’s conference report and the parliamentary debate on 12 January recognised. Following public consultation, the Government last year published proposals to provide extra support for disabled people who wish to stand for elected office.

The fund we are launching today will support disabled people with some of the additional costs that a disabled person may face in standing for elections, compared to a non-disabled person.

This will not, however, replace existing obligations for parties, which is why I have published guidance for political parties on their legal responsibilities under the Equality Act 2010, particularly on the reasonable adjustments they should make for disabled people.

The fund will be open until March 2014 and will be available to support disabled people seeking elected positions in the following polls, including byelections: Police and Crime Commissioners; English local and English mayoral; Greater London Authority; and UK Parliament. The impact of the fund and the strategy overall will be evaluated to inform any decision about any further support beyond the current spending period. We will also continue to work with colleagues in the devolved Administrations to share our learning from this strategy.

9 July 2012 : Column 8WS

The fund will be complemented by an introductory online training course on standing for elections, launched today. It will be of interest to anyone without previous experience who wishes to stand for elections but is aimed particularly at disabled people. It includes contributions from disabled politicians and others to encourage disabled people to stand for elected office.

As I have already announced to the Speaker in my letter of 16 March, I am also pleased to say that, as part of the access to elected office’s commitment to provide support to disabled people, I am funding up to three additional placements specifically for disabled people as part of the Speaker’s parliamentary placement scheme.

Further details of all these initiatives can be found on the Home Office website at: http://homeoffice.gov.uk/equalities/equality-public-political/.

Student Visas

The Minister for Immigration (Damian Green): My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is today laying before the House a statement of changes in the immigration rules. The changes support the introduction of a new targeted interview programme by the UK Border Agency, to ensure students seeking to abuse the immigration system are identified and refused a visa for the UK. The UK Border Agency plans to interview between 10,000 and 14,000 student visa applicants over the coming year.

The first change makes provision for an entry clearance officer to be satisfied that an applicant is a genuine student before granting entry clearance under tier 4 of the points-based system. The second change makes provision for an entry clearance officer to refuse to issue entry clearance where the applicant fails to attend an interview without providing a reasonable explanation. Both changes will be effective from 30 July 2012.

From December 2011 to the end of February 2012 the UK Border Agency ran an interviewing pilot. The pilot assessed the effectiveness of interviewing more student visa applicants. It also considered the requirement for and potential impact of a new power to refuse entry clearance on grounds of genuineness. Over 2,300 visa applicants from 47 countries were interviewed. Seventeen per cent of those interviewed were refused a visa under existing powers. Entry clearance officers indicated they could have refused up to 32% of the remainder on grounds of genuineness. The full evaluation report of the pilot is being published today, and a copy has been placed in the Library of the House.

Since 2011 the Government have overhauled the student visa system to tackle abuse while continuing to attract and retain the brightest and best students who will help drive growth in the economy. It has introduced a range of measures to tighten controls on institutions sponsoring international students, remove the entitlements that provided false incentives to those motivated by work not study, and ensure only those with the most to offer remain in the UK at the end of their course. Over 450 colleges have now lost their right to bring international students to the UK, and the number of student visas issued in the year to March 2012 fell by 21%.

While these changes have significantly strengthened the student visa regime, the pilot study identified some residual abuse. The findings indicate that targeted overseas interviews, supported by new powers of refusal, are useful

9 July 2012 : Column 9WS

additional tools to support entry clearance officers to identify and tackle it. These risk-based controls will be used alongside the wide range of other checks already operated by the UK Border Agency.

These measures do not alter the duty on tier 4 sponsors to satisfy themselves that an applicant is able and intends to follow the course of study. They are designed to protect reputable providers that have made offers to students in good faith, and would otherwise risk UK Border Agency compliance action. Providers often undertake recruitment activity remotely, through agents.

Interviewing will provide an additional layer of scrutiny, where needed, to help safeguard institutions. Interviews also will provide applicants with every opportunity to demonstrate how they meet the genuine student rule. Students from low-risk countries who already benefit from a streamlined visa application process will be exempt from the genuineness test.

Further details on the application of these provisions will be set out in UK Border Agency guidance.

Justice

Justice and Security Bill

The Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Kenneth Clarke): Today I have laid before Parliament the Government’s response to the House of Lords Select Committee on the constitution’s report on the Justice and Security Bill, which was published on 15 June. We have sought to respond promptly in order to help inform the upcoming debates on the Bill.

Transport

Personal Independence Payment and Blue Badge Eligibility

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Norman Baker): I am today publishing a consultation document on personal independence payment and eligibility for a blue badge. The consultation period closes on Tuesday 2 October 2012.

9 July 2012 : Column 10WS

The coalition Government are taking forward important reforms to the welfare system. One of these reforms will involve changes to disability living allowance and will affect eligibility for a disabled person’s parking permit or blue badge. About a third of all badges are currently issued to people who receive the higher rate of the mobility component of disability living allowance. My Department is therefore consulting on the options we have for dealing with the impact of the changes. The consultation covers arrangements for England only.

I am committed to ensuring that the blue badge scheme continues to be focused on those people who will benefit most from the parking concessions that it offers, and that it is sustainable in the future. The Government have identified three main options for responding to the implementation of personal independence payments. The three main options are:

Option 1no legislative link between eligibility for a blue badge and eligibility to personal independence payment;

Option 2establishing a legislative link between blue badge eligibility and the enhanced mobility component of personal independence payment;

Option 3establishing a legislative link between blue badge eligibility and those who score eight points or more within the “Moving Around” activity within personal independence payment. This assesses a person’s physical ability to get around.

The Government’s preferred option is option 3 as it would mean that eligibility for a blue badge would be most similar to the current scheme and the potential impacts of this option are minimal. We will, however, consider this in light of views and comments sent in as part of the consultation. The Government are also asking for other suggestions for other practical and sustainable solutions.

The consultation concludes on 2 October 2012. Personal independence payments will be introduced for new claimants aged between 16 and 64 from April 2013 onwards. It will begin to replace disability living allowance for existing recipients aged between 16 and 64 from October 2013 onwards. Any consequential changes to the blue badge scheme will also be phased in and will affect existing badge holders when an existing badge expires and they need to apply for a new one.

A copy of the consultation document has been placed in the Library of the House.