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Written Ministerial Statements

Monday 3 September 2012

Attorney-General

Freedom of Information

The Attorney-General (Mr Dominic Grieve): On 31 July, I gave the Information Commissioner a certificate under section 53(2) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (“the Act”). The certificate relates to the Commissioner’s Decision Notice dated 4 July 2012 (FS50417514). It is my view, as the accountable person for the purposes of section 53 of the Act in this case, that there was no failure by the Cabinet Office to comply with section 1(1 )(b) of the Act by withholding information contained in the minutes of the Cabinet discussions on 13 and 17 March 2003 concerning the military invasion of Iraq.

The consequence of my giving the Information Commissioner this certificate is that the Commissioner’s Decision Notice, which ordered disclosure of extracts of these minutes, ceases to have effect.

I was required to reach a decision in this case during the summer recess as a result of the statutory deadlines set out in the Freedom of Information Act. A copy of the certificate was laid before each House of Parliament on 31 July. I am making this statement to the House at the first available opportunity.

My decision to exercise the veto in this case was taken in accordance with the Act and the published Statement of Government Policy on the use of the Executive override as it relates to information falling within the scope of section 35(1) of the Act. In reaching my decision, I assessed the balance of the public interests in disclosure and non-disclosure of the extracts of the minutes and I considered whether this case met the criteria set out in that policy for determining whether or not this was an exceptional case.

It was my opinion as the “accountable person” in this case, as well as the collective view of the Cabinet, that (1) disclosure of this information would be damaging to the doctrine of collective Cabinet responsibility and detrimental to the effective operation of Cabinet government; (2) the balance of public interest favoured the continued non-disclosure of the information; and (3) this was an exceptional case and met the criteria set out in the policy on the use of the veto.

Having reached that conclusion, I decided to exercise the power in section 53(2) of the Act.

A detailed explanation of the basis on which I arrived at the conclusion that the veto should be used is set out in a statement of reasons which has been deposited in the Libraries of both Houses.

This is the fifth time the veto power under section 53 of the Freedom of Information Act has been exercised since the Act came into force in 2005, although this veto and another recent one (8 February 2012) followed previous vetoes by the last Government in respect of the same information. Since the Act came into force,

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central Government have released an enormous amount of information in response to FOI requests—including in July and October 2010 when the Government published Cabinet Office papers on the miners’ strike and the minutes of the Cabinet discussion of the Westland affair.

Communities and Local Government

DCLG (Summer Recess Work)

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr Eric Pickles): I would like to update hon. Members on the main items of business undertaken by my Department since the House rose on 17 July 2012.

Reviving the nations high streets

Our high streets are at the centre of our communities, hubs of local businesses and drivers of growth. The coalition Government are determined to support them and create the best possible conditions to allow businesses to thrive and communities to prosper.

On 20 July, my Department published proposals to scrap restrictions that deter start-up businesses from using empty high street shops. Removing these restrictions on a temporary basis for empty buildings would open up premises, which otherwise would make no contribution to the local economy. This will boost high street and local area regeneration helping encourage start up businesses.

On 25 July, my Department announced a further 15 Portas pilot areas, which will be given a share of a £1.5 million fund along with dedicated advice and free support from established businesses to bring their ideas about the development of their high streets to fruition. This takes the total number of Portas pilots to 27.

To ensure that no high street is left behind my Department has also announced a £5.5 million package of support for 393 town teams to revitalise their high streets. All town teams from across the country will also be able to bid for a £1 million future high street X-fund to reward the most effective and creative schemes to encourage people back to the town centres in 2013, and a £0.5 million fund to help access set-up loans for new business improvement districts. Applications opened on 30 August.

On 1 September, my Department announced new planning rights that will allow more flats to be created above shops without the need for planning permission. The change further streamlines the planning system, making it easier, quicker and cheaper for people to create new homes in existing underused space. It has the potential to help increase the amount of affordable housing and ensures better use is made of existing developed land. Relaxing planning restrictions on creating flats above shops can also help increase the vitality of town centres by increasing footfall and providing a boost to high street regeneration.

Supporting local enterprise

By promoting enterprise, investing in research, creating jobs and giving people more skills we are sending a powerful signal that Britain is a top choice for inward investment and bringing local growth.

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On 24 July, my Department announced £3.5 million of Government investment for manufacturing innovation for the new High Speed Sustainable Manufacturing Institute in Essex. The institute will develop new and innovative ways to improve manufacturing techniques and increase productivity that will ensure Britain remains a top choice for investment. It is expected to generate £80 million to the local economy.

The creation of a UK-wide coastal communities fund was announced by the Government last year to provide grants to support the economic development of coastal communities and help pay for projects that can transform and diversify seaside economies. On 14 August my Department announced six seaside towns in the first round of successful schemes in England that will receive grants of up to £2 million each to use on projects that create local jobs, support coastal tourism and development and boost the inshore fisheries industry.

Kick-starting stalled development

Many section 106 agreements negotiated between councils and developers at the height of the housing boom have become unviable, stalling development to the detriment of regeneration and the prosperity of local communities who would benefit.

Stalled sites mean no new homes, no new jobs and no community benefits. On 13 August, my Department announced that teams of expert intermediaries will be available to councils and developers, offering free-of-charge advice and support to prevent these agreements acting as a barrier to getting building under way.

In addition, my Department launched a consultation that proposes giving developers the option to ask councils to renegotiate section 106 obligations if they were agreed prior to April 2010. Currently these obligations cannot be renegotiated for five years once a council refuses a request for voluntary renegotiation by a developer. Opening up the renegotiation process further will provide another new opportunity to help get developments back on track, provide affordable housing and bring wider benefits for communities.

On 29 August, alongside the Department for Transport and Kent county council and Dartford and Gravesham borough councils, my Department announced a deal to unlock the development of 22,600 much-needed homes in eastern Quarry over the next 20 years, delivering as many as 60,000 jobs and bringing a brownfield site back into use. Builders could be on site as early as next summer with the first homes set to be completed by December 2013.

Building more and better quality homes

The design of an area has a significant and lasting impact on the quality of life for residents. This Government believe it is vital that local people have a say over how their communities look and feel.

On 22 August, my Department, along with Sir Terence Conran, British designer and entrepreneur, announced a competition launching in the autumn, to give communities a chance to design their own neighbourhoods. Communities will be invited to submit their designs in front of an expert judging panel.

On 23 August, my Department welcomed a report by Sir Adrian Montague recommending measures to boost professional investment in good quality, privately rented homes to help meet the nation’s housing demand.

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In April, my Department launched a reinvigorated right to buy offering eligible tenants discounts of up to £75,000 off the value of their home, accompanied by a new commitment to build replacement homes on a one-for-one basis. To assist tenants in their right to buy on 23 July, we launched a new website and dedicated call centre to provide more advice, information and support.

Strong, united communities

This Government are committed to turning around the lives of 120,000 troubled families. On 18 July, we published a report highlighting the real life accounts of troubled families that underline our approach to tackling the root causes of the problems faced by these families and bring about real and lasting change.

The 6 August 2012 marked the anniversary of last year’s riots. One year on coalition Ministers highlighted the ongoing work to restore communities. Millions of pounds have been made available to councils to quickly help reopen shops and rebuild affected neighbourhoods and we have ensured that the police continue to build positive relationships with those areas.

In February 2012, my Department announced a £10 million investment in Youth United—a coalition of the major youth volunteering organisations. Over the next two and a half years over 2,500 volunteers will be recruited to run 400 youth groups in communities across the country. Six months on, my Department has noted the quick and enthusiastic take up and continues to encourage work to support young people who want to have a real stake in the future of their communities.

The expertise and excellence of the nation’s voluntary and community sector supporting in the delivery of high quality local services are valued by the local communities they serve. On 24 July, my Department noted their huge contribution and wrote to councils to express gratitude for the positive way the majority are working with the sector and reminded local authorities of the ongoing need to ensure that the sector is not left behind when it comes to funding allocations.

The Olympics brought together communities in celebration and sense of pride and support behind team Great Britain and indeed all other participants. This continues during the Paralympic games. Over the recess period my Department and took an active role in supporting the games raising the flag outside the Department and through ministerial visits and attendance at the games.

Empowering local communities

On 28 August, my Department announced that £1.3 million will be made available from the £8 million tenant empowerment programme, help to give more power to communities over their social homes including through helping tenants learn the skills they need to engage and negotiate confidently with their landlords; forming tenant panels to come together to demand the best value-for-money services; or even to take control of local services themselves if they feel that they could deliver more for less.

On 29 August, my Department made available a £10 million fund to help councils ensure their communities are able to finalise neighbourhood plans for homes, businesses and facilities in their local area. Already more than 200 communities are using the new planning powers introduced in the Localism Act. Councils can now apply for grants of up to £30,000 for each scheme

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to help pay for the costs of getting plans in place. Payments will be paid to councils to help them support and advise.

On 22 August, my Department published guidance that gives local people practical advice on new ways to get access to less conventional sources of land and green space to grow their own food to take greater control of their local area.

Abolishing regional planning

Revoking regional strategies outside of London formed part of the coalition agreement. The Localism Act 2011 provides for the abolition of regional strategies in a two-stage process. The first stage is to remove the regional planning framework and prevent further strategies from being created, and the second stage to abolish the existing regional strategies by secondary legislation.

The strategic environmental assessment process is set out in an EU directive (Directive 2001/42/EC). In March 2012, the European Court of Justice issued a significant ruling on the interpretation and application of the directive (Inter-Environnement Bruxelles ASBL and Others v Government of the Brussels-Capital Region). Following the decision of the European Court of Justice, in the light of planning policy and legislation that have been put in place since January 2012, in the light of the earlier consultation responses, and in order to be meticulous in observing the requirements of the directive, the Government are now updating the environmental reports and undertaking additional consultation.

On 25 July, we published the first of the updated environmental reports for consultation. In the coming weeks my Department will publish updated environmental reports relating to the proposals on each of the other regional strategies, so that those proposals too can be the subject of additional consultation. A full statement is published the House of Lords, Official Report,25 July 2012, column 66WS.

Tackling repossessions and preventing homelessness

Tackling the record deficit and ensuring that interest rates are kept down and mortgages are affordable remain top priorities of this Government. On 9 August, latest figures from the Council of Mortgage Lenders show that the number of homes taken into possession in quarter two 2012 (April to June) had gone down by 11% on the previous quarter to 8,500. This is the lowest figure since the final quarter of 2010.

We have some of the strongest protections in the world to safeguard people from homelessness. No single voluntary service, Government agency, council or Government Department can prevent homelessness alone, but by working together we can make a big impact.

On 16 August, my Department published “Making Everyone Contact Count” report giving councils, charities, health services and the police a blueprint to work together to ensure that families and vulnerable people at risk of homelessness are offered help early, no matter who they turn to first.

In addition, my Department announced a further £3.5 million to 21 homelessness charities to support help and accommodation schemes for rough sleepers and extend the No Second Night Out initiative to eight more areas—Manchester, Plymouth, Great Yarmouth, North Devon, Taunton, Gloucestershire, Chichester and Worcestershire.

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On 31 August, my Department announced £160 million over the next two years in homelessness prevention grants—offering certainty that homelessness services will be funded to the end of this Parliament.

This is in addition to the £160 million that has been allocated to councils over this and last year, which has been used to offer support to those facing the threat of homelessness.

Ensuring fair play on housing and planning

On 28 August, my Department published new guidance for local authorities highlighting the range of legal powers they have to tackle unauthorised encampments and development. It is often thought that local authorities and other enforcement bodies have limited powers available to tackle illegal and unauthorised encampments and the nuisance that they can cause. In fact there are extensive powers, and timely action by local authorities can save time and money down the line before such encampments become established.

On 31 August, in partnership with the Home Office, my Department launched new guidance to councils making clear the wide range of powers at their disposal to clamp down on rogue landlords. Thousands of unauthorised sheds and outbuildings are being rented out illegally to vulnerable migrants by landlords who charge them extortionate rents to live in cramped conditions. Councils in the worst affected areas have at their disposal £1.8 million of central funding to help tackle the problem of rogue landlords.

On 1 September, new laws came into effect in England and Wales to make squatting in residential buildings a criminal offence. My Department has worked with the Ministry of Justice to highlight these new provisions. For too long, squatters have had the justice system on the run and have caused homeowners untold misery in eviction, repair and clean-up costs. Hardworking homeowners need and deserve a justice system where their rights come first—this new offence will ensure the police and other agencies can take quick and decisive action to deal with the misery of squatting.

Saving taxpayer’ money: Increasing transparency

The Department continues in its drive for open and transparent government. Following the introduction of a new localist standards regime, councillors are now required to register certain pecuniary interests, including trade union dealings on a publicly available register. Deliberate failure to declare interests could result in a criminal conviction.

To help make sure the new approach is properly understood, on 1 August my Department published a practical guide to implementing the new system and demonstrating how the new local standards strike a common-sense balance between electoral accountability and personal privacy. It clarifies specific issues like urgency of declarations; personal information safety; handling spouse or partner interests and gold plating.

The coalition Government’s transparency code for councils has already seen all local authorities publish their spending over £500 online and open every aspect of business up to public scrutiny including, tenders, contracts senior pay, councillor expenses and voluntary sector funding. On 15 August, my Department announced it is now publishing all of its spend data over £250, a new low threshold in central Government.

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On 23 August, my Department put forward new regulations before Parliament that will come into force on 10 September 2012 to extend the rights of people to attend all meetings of a council's executive, its committees and subcommittees. The changes will result in greater public scrutiny opening up councils to local online news outlets and disallowing councils from citing political advice as justification for closing a meeting to the public and press.

Saving taxpayers money: Tackling council tax fraud and error

The coalition Government have worked with councils to freeze council tax for two years, cutting council tax in real terms. Since 2006 council benefit fraud and error has cost the taxpayer an estimated £1.1 billion—an average of around £3 million per council. On 28 August, I reminded councils of the urgent need to get to grips with council tax fraud to ensure they can fully support hard working families and genuinely vulnerable people and deliver value for money to taxpayers.

Government reforms are localising council tax support, putting councils in charge of the discount and giving them a stronger incentive to support local firms, cut fraud and promote local enterprise. Councils will be expected to save over £400 million a year when they begin running local council tax support schemes next year. Councils will keep all savings they can make from reducing fraud and error.

In addition, on 28 August, my Department published a consultation document which seeks views on proposals to provide funding certainty for local precepting authorities (such as town and parish councils), as part of the process for localising support for council tax.

Saving taxpayers' money: Legacy FireControl assets

On 25 July, my Department updated Parliament on the status of the legacy of FiReControl and the launch of a marketing campaign to ensure that the remaining FiReControl buildings are utilised to ensure value for taxpayers’ money and achieve a localist approach to improvements in resilience. The full statement can be found in the House of Lords, Official Report, 25 July 2012, column 62WS.

Saving taxpayers money: Departmental savings

I would like to update the House on the administrative savings being made by my Department. Latest estimates suggest that the DCLG Group (i.e. the Department and its agencies) is making a 44% real terms saving against its running costs over this spending review period by 2014-15. This equates to savings of over £570 million by 2014-15, of which £420 million is from the closure of the Government offices for the regions.

This £570 million figure is an increase from the previous estimates of a £390 million saving. These savings reflect the coalition Government’s agenda of decentralisation, ending the micromanagement of local government, the abolition of regional government, and the broader need to tackle the deficit left by the last Administration.

Ministerial correspondence

I would like to put on the record my thanks to Lord Lexden for undertaking an informal review of departmental correspondence, providing advice on how we can improve the quality and style of ministerial and official replies to correspondence.

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Copies of the press notices and documents associated with these announcements have been placed in the Library of the House.

Defence

Armed Forces (Pay Review Body Appointment)

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Philip Hammond): I am pleased to announce that I have reappointed Ms Judy McKnight CBE as a member of the armed forces’ pay review body for a second term for three years and six months, commencing September 2012. This reappointment was conducted in accordance with the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments’ guidance on reappointments to public bodies.

Framework Agreement for Technical Support

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Philip Hammond): I wish to inform the House that one element of the current Framework Agreement for Technical Support (FATS) contract signed in April 2012 will need to be re-competed.

The Ministry of Defence (MOD) uses FATS to procure specialist technical support to its defence equipment programmes and it is also used on a limited basis by other Government Departments. Suppliers compete to become members of the framework; users then place specific tasks through the framework, as and when they arise, preferably by running further competitions between member suppliers. The first iteration of FATS was instituted in 2006.

The fourth iteration of the framework, FATS4, was competed and companies selected to be members, with the framework commencing on 26 April 2012. The framework is broken into two lots. Lot one covers general support relating to materials, electrical/mechanical, power plants, IT, health, medical and transport requirements. Lot two relates to safety and duty of care areas such as airworthiness management, safety management, maritime safety, and technical support to platforms and weapons.

Technical deficiencies have been discovered in the way that lot two of FATS4 was awarded. Errors have been found in the way the assessment of suppliers’ technical capability, for lot two, was conducted and recorded. Some suppliers are therefore on the framework who should not have qualified and others, who should have qualified, were wrongly excluded from the process.

As a result, I have directed that MOD and other Government Departments must stop using lot two with immediate effect. The current situation is not fair and equitable to suppliers who bid to be included on this framework and, given that the areas affected relate to duty of care and safety, no risk can be taken over supplier capability. Contracts already placed under lot two will remain in place as none has been placed with a supplier in respect of whom any irregularity has occurred. Lot one is unaffected and will continue in use.

Despite this setback, FATS continues to represent a useful and efficient route for procuring specialist technical services and a replacement framework to cover these requirements will be put in place, which we estimate will take around six months. During this time, the MOD and other customers will place their own contracts

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individually for their specific needs following normal procurement process. This process will be managed so that it does not cause any delay in delivering equipment to our armed forces. The renewed competition and interim arrangements mean that the effect on any one supplier’s business is likely to be negligible.

The MOD has written to all affected suppliers to apologise for this failure of process and to inform them of the action being taken. I have asked the Director Commercial of the Department for Work and Pensions to conduct an external investigation to identify how and why this happened and to make recommendations as to how to prevent similar issues in the future. If evidence is brought to light that proper processes have not been followed, then disciplinary action will be taken as appropriate.

Education

Special Education Needs Reform

The Minister of State, Department for Education (Sarah Teather): The proposals to reform provision for children and young people with special educational needs were first set out in the “Special Educational Needs and Disability Green Paper Support and Aspiration”, published in March 2011, and the subsequent “Next Steps” document published in May this year. The reforms are being tested in 20 pathfinder areas, covering 31 local authorities and their health partners.

We have today published draft provisions to improve the support provided to those children and young people, and to their parents. These provide for:

New education, health and care plans which will ensure more streamlined and integrated support for children, young people and families than the current statement and learning difficulty assessment.

A new duty for joint commissioning which will require local authorities and health bodies to take joint responsibility for providing services.

A requirement on local authorities to publish a local offer of services for disabled children and young people and those with special educational needs.

New protections for young people aged 16 to 25 in further education and a stronger focus on preparing them for adulthood.

Parents and young people, for the first time, to be entitled to have a personal budget, extending their choice and control over their support.

Further education colleges for the first time and all academies, including free schools, to have the same duties as maintained schools to safeguard the education of children and young people with special educational needs (SEN).

Previously further education colleges had not been subject to SEN duties. The provisions relating to academies reflect the requirements currently in the majority of funding agreements signed since the introduction of the Academies Act 2010. Placing these requirements on the face of the legislation will give greater clarity to academies, parents and young people and will ensure further education colleges face the same requirements for the first time. The draft provisions would ensure that parents, young people and children are on the same footing whether they attend (or wish to attend) a maintained school, an academy, or a further education or sixth form college.

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The Government look forward to receiving views and feedback on the draft clauses, while they continue to learn from their pathfinder programme, before introducing legislation at a later date.

With the Ministry of Justice, we are also publishing a number of draft clauses relating to family justice and will make a further statement after the close of the current consultation on co-operative parenting.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Julian Assange (Extradition Proceedings)

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr William Hague): I am writing to update the House about developments in the extradition proceedings against Mr Julian Assange, and discussions on that matter between the United Kingdom and Ecuador.

On 20 November 2010, the office of the Swedish Prosecutor-General issued a European arrest warrant for the arrest and extradition of Mr Assange, who is alleged to have committed serious sexual offences against two women during a visit to Sweden in August 2010.

Pursuant to the European arrest warrant, police officers arrested Mr Assange on 7 December 2010, who was at that time living in the United Kingdom.

On 24 February 2011, a district judge ruled that Mr Assange should be extradited to face proceedings in Sweden concerning allegations of sexual offences. Mr Assange appealed against the ruling, but on 2 November 2011 two judges at the High Court upheld the decision to extradite Mr Assange to Sweden. Mr Assange appealed again, but the Supreme Court ruled on 30 May 2012 that Mr Assange should be extradited to Sweden.

Following the ruling of the Supreme Court, Mr Assange was given two weeks to seek to reopen the appeal. On 14 June, the Supreme Court dismissed Mr Assange’s bid to reopen his appeal, and conferred a two-week grace period before Her Majesty’s Government could begin extradition proceedings.

Over this 15-month period, Mr Assange exercised fully his legal right to challenge the extradition procedure, with competent legal representation. Mr Assange took his case through successive independent judicial hearings to the highest court in the United Kingdom and in the process exhausted all options of appeal in the UK.

On 19 June Mr Assange entered the embassy of Ecuador from where he asked for the protection of the Government of Ecuador. The same day, the Government of Ecuador informed Her Majesty’s Government by Diplomatic Note that it was considering Mr Assange’s request.

Following this, I asked my officials to initiate a formal, regular, dialogue with the Government of Ecuador. This included seven formal discussions as well as many other conversations and written exchanges, in order to seek an acceptable resolution to this situation.

Throughout our exchanges, we have noted that the rights of diplomatic missions conferred by the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations come with responsibilities. Article 41 of the Vienna convention sets out the obligations of diplomatic missions to respect

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the laws and regulations of the receiving state—in this case the United Kingdom. These include the duty not to impede the due legal process of that state.

Furthermore, Her Majesty’s Government have made it clear to Ecuador that we recognise that Ecuador and a number of countries in Latin America are party to the Caracas Convention on Diplomatic Asylum of 1954, and that that convention provides the right, between its state parties, to grant diplomatic asylum in certain circumstances. The United Kingdom is not party to that convention and there is no legal basis for the United Kingdom to meet the request of the Government of Ecuador to grant safe passage for Mr Assange out of the United Kingdom.

The Government of Ecuador have also sought guarantees regarding the possible onward extradition of Mr Assange to a third country, and has pointed to concerns about possible human rights implications if Mr Assange were to be extradited from the United Kingdom. In our discussions with Ecuador, we have been clear that the safeguards in place under the European Convention on Human Rights, international law, European Union law and United Kingdom law fully address the concerns raised by Mr Assange and by the Government of Ecuador.

The suggestion that there would be a risk of a breach of Mr Assange’s human rights on extradition to Sweden is completely unfounded. An argument to this effect was comprehensively rejected by the courts in the United Kingdom. Both the United Kingdom and Sweden are signatories to the European Convention on Human Rights and the British Government have complete confidence in the independence and fairness of the Swedish judicial system. As we have discussed with the Government of Ecuador, the United Kingdom and Sweden robustly implement and adhere to the highest standards of human rights protection.

The suggestion that Mr Assange’s human rights would be put at risk by the possibility of onward extradition from Sweden to a third country is also without foundation. Not only would Sweden—as a signatory to the European Convention on Human Rights—be required to refuse extradition in circumstances which would breach his human rights, but the authorities in Sweden would also be legally obliged to seek the United Kingdom’s consent before any extradition to a non-EU member state could proceed. Our consent may only be given in accordance with the international conventions by which the UK is bound, including the European Convention on Human Rights, and also our domestic law. In practice, this means that the United Kingdom could only consent to Mr Assange’s onward extradition from Sweden to a third country if satisfied that extradition would be compatible with his human rights, and that there was no prospect of a death sentence being imposed or carried out.

We have used our discussions with the Government of Ecuador to explain the issues in detail. In the context of widespread speculation that a decision to grant asylum by the Ecuadorean Government was imminent, and as part of these exchanges, on 15 August the British embassy in Quito shared with the Government of Ecuador an informal note, or aide-mémoire, to set out key points of our position and ensure that the Ecuadorean authorities had a complete understanding of the full legal context. Ecuador reacted to this communication claiming that a reference to the UK’s Diplomatic and Consular Premises

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Act 1987 constituted a threat to its embassy in London. I have been consistently clear that we are not threatening the embassy of Ecuador and that we are absolutely committed to the principles of the 1961 Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations and always act in accordance with it.

It is a matter of regret that instead of continuing our discussions, the Foreign Minister of Ecuador announced on 16 August that Ecuador had decided to grant diplomatic asylum to Mr Assange. This was confirmed to us in a Diplomatic Note of 16 August.

We wish to continue our dialogue with the Government of Ecuador. We believe that our two countries should be able to find a diplomatic solution. We have invited the Government of Ecuador to resume, as early as possible, the discussions we have held on this matter to date. I confirmed that in a meeting with Ecuador’s Vice-President Moreno on 29 August in London, during his visit to the Paralympics.

We continue also to discuss the matter with the Swedish authorities, which retain an interest in the completion of Mr Assange’s extradition proceedings.

Justice

“Transforming Services in the Office of the Public Guardian: A Consultation”

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): On 27 July, the Government published a consultation paper seeking views on our proposals to digitise the services provided by the Office of the Public Guardian (OPG). This consultation reinforces our commitment to implementing the “digital by default” approach in public services.

The OPG is currently undertaking a programme of reform that is designed to meet two key challenges. First, to reform its systems and processes in order to deal effectively and consistently with ever increasing demand to register lasting powers of attorney—a trend that is set to continue with the country’s ageing demographic. Secondly, to transform the way its services are delivered to the public in order to reduce bureaucracy, making its services to customers simpler, more efficient and more accessible. This will be achieved by making the majority of its services accessible online.

Our consultation paper, therefore, seeks views on the following issues:

The forms and application process for lasting powers of attorney;

The language used to explain legal responsibilities;

The role of certificate providers;

The process for registering lasting powers of attorney;

The role of named persons;

How confirmation is given that a lasting power of attorney has been registered;

The statutory waiting period for lasting powers of attorney;

Supervision of deputies;

Changing security bond provider;

Online payment of fees;

Access to the registers; and

Providing an “assisted digital” service.

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The consultation will run until 19 October. Following this, it is our intention to make the necessary changes to enable the provisions to come into force in April 2013.

Copies of the consultation paper are available in the Libraries of both Houses, as well as in the Vote Office and Printed Paper Office. Copies are also available on the internet at: www.justice.gov.uk.

Transport

Rail Franchising

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mrs Theresa Villiers): On 15 August 2012 the Department for Transport announced to the London stock exchange that it intended to award the intercity west coast franchise to First West Coast Limited, a subsidiary of First Group.

Bids were received from Abellio InterCity West Coast Limited—NV Nederlandse Spoorwegen; First West Coast Limited—FirstGroup plc; Keolis/SNCF West Coast Limited—Keolis SA and SNCF; and Virgin Trains Limited—Virgin Group Holdings Limited.

The new franchise is planned to begin operation on Sunday 9 December 2012. The franchise will operate for a core term of 13 years and four months, with an option to be extended to operate for up to 15 years. The winning bid from First West Coast Limited provides for a premium of £5.5 billion net present value (NPV) over the core franchise term.

The west coast main line is one of the most important intercity rail passenger routes in the country and it is also a valuable public asset. Over the last decade and more, taxpayers have invested £9 billion to upgrade the infrastructure. It is a profitable franchise for the current operator and after significant public investment in the line the Government are rightly seeking to get a substantial return for passengers and taxpayers.

The First West Coast bid provides: more trains on the route, with 12,000 extra seats per day provided by 11 new six-carriage electric trains from December 2016 (in addition to the 106 extra Pendolino carriages currently being introduced); refurbishing the existing Pendolino and Voyager train fleets, more capacity on services between Birmingham and Scotland, and faster journey times between London Euston and Glasgow; new services to Blackpool, Bolton and Shrewsbury, subject to approval of the Office of Rail Regulation (ORR); lower standard anytime fares over the first two years; £22 million in station improvements; Oyster-style smart ticketing; and, for the first time in an intercity franchise, better customer satisfaction as measured by the national passenger survey.

When a new franchise begins, employees of the current franchise operator, including drivers, guards and back-office staff will be transferred to the new operator, protected by TUPE regulations. All of the rolling stock used by the incumbent operator will also transfer across.

Taken together, I believe that the commitments in First West Coast’s bid represent significant improvements for passengers and will provide a good return for the taxpayer.

As a result of a legal challenge, which the Government intend to defend robustly, we have not yet signed the contract with First West Coast, and consequently the competition remains live. I cannot give the full commercial

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details of the winning bid, or indeed of the other bids. Nor is it usual or appropriate—once litigation proceedings have commenced—for the Government to comment on the detail of that, other than to say that our legal advisers are fully engaged in addressing and responding to those proceedings.

I will continue to keep the House updated, subject to the constraints of legal or commercial privilege.

Work and Pensions

Social Security Schemes (Co-ordination)

The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Chris Grayling): The European Commission has presented a package of four draft Council decisions amending the provisions for the co-ordination of social security systems with Albania, Montenegro, San Marino and Turkey. The content of the proposals relating to the first three countries is similar and is based on an earlier 2010 package of amendments to the agreements with the six countries of Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia, Croatia, the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Israel. As with the 2010 package, the proposals are based on article 79(2)(b) of the treaty on the functioning of the EU (TFEU), which enables the UK to decide whether to opt-in to such proposals. In line with our approach to the 2010 package, the Government have decided not to opt in to the proposals with Albania, Montenegro and San Marino.

The Government are committed to the free movement of workers within the European Union, and also to protecting the sustainability and affordability of our welfare systems. As such, the Government maintain the position that they do not wish to extend social security rights to third-country nationals.

The proposal to amend the association agreement with Turkey is based on article 48 TFEU, which governs social security co-ordination for migrant workers within the EU and which is subject to qualified majority voting. The UK has consistently contested proposals with an article 48 legal base in relation to third-countries agreements, maintaining that the correct legal base for such proposals is article 79(2)(b) TFEU which allows the EU to adopt measures concerning the free movement rights of third-country nationals.

The Turkey draft decision follows on from similar measures based on article 48 to amend social security provisions in the EU agreements with the European economic area (EEA) and Switzerland. Then, as now, we took the view that these proposals would have the effect of extending social security co-ordination rights to people moving between the EU and a third country and that the article 48 legal base was inappropriate as it related only to free movement within the EU.

The UK is currently seeking to annul in the Court of Justice of the EU the Council decisions based on article 48 in the EEA and Switzerland cases. A ruling is not expected until late in 2013. In the meantime, the Government intend to maintain a consistent approach to the proposals on Turkey, in line with the action taken in the EEA and Switzerland cases. We will continue to press for the correct title V legal base to be applied to the Turkey proposals, and should the draft Council decision on Turkey be adopted on the basis of a qualified majority before the Court has ruled

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on the EEA and Switzerland cases, we will take appropriate action including a further legal challenge if appropriate.

The Government believe that a consistent approach is necessary in order to underline an important point of

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principle concerning the interpretation of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union and to affirm the Government’s commitment to protect our rights under the treaty.