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The highly skilled tier will replace eight current immigration routes. This tier is designed to admit highly skilled individuals who wish to come here to work, to set up or join a business, investors, and international students who have studied here and wish to seek employment. It will embrace:



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general—incorporating the highly skilled migrants programme;entrepreneurs—combining the current businesspeople and innovators categories;investors—incorporating the current investors category; and post-study work—bringing together two staying-on schemes for international graduates who have studied in Scotland and the rest of the UK. This will boost the UK's attractiveness as a place to study, bringing benefits to our educational establishments.

The points system replaces subjective decision-making with an objective, transparent process that is more robust against abuse. Highly skilled applicants will need to show they have enough points to qualify to enter or remain in the UK. Highly skilled applicants will earn points for their skills and potential for economic success, competence in English language and ability to support themselves and their dependants. The points pass mark for the highly skilled tier of the points system will be informed by the work of the Migration Advisory Committee on economic needs and that of the Migration Impacts Forum on the wider effects of migration.

We are publishing this document today so that those affected can prepare. The document explains the transitional arrangements that will be put in place to handle the transfer from old to new systems. We are also giving people the opportunity to comment on them. Statements of intent about skilled, temporary and student migrants will follow next year.

Marriage to partners from overseas

The consultations on proposals to tackle forced marriage and to introduce a pre-entry English-language requirement for spouses fulfil the promises made in our strategy Securing the UK Border, published in March 2007, to consult on new arrangements for marriage visas, including an English-language requirement. Copies of the consultation documents have been placed in the House Library.

Forced marriage is a form of aggression that puts women in particular at risk of harm and of being exploited. The Home Office, together with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, has already made progress in tackling forced marriage by creating the Forced Marriage Unit in 2005. The unit handles up to 300 cases per year.

Around a third of the cases involve children, some as young as 13. We believe that increased protection against coercion and potentially violent or abusive situations is called for. The problem of forced marriage has not disappeared so we feel it right to take measures to protect vulnerable people from these pressures.

The Government are aware that this is a topic with many sensitive aspects, but three principles stand out as important. First, no one should be pressurised into sponsoring a marriage visa. Secondly, those who wish to sponsor a marriage partner from overseas should be encouraged to establish an independent adult life here first and to see that as an important way of helping their partner integrate. Thirdly, spouses who

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are abandoned by a person they have sponsored are entitled to an assurance that their sponsorship will not be abused for further advantages.

We recognise that forced marriage is not the same as arranged marriage. The Government are not expressing any concern about arranged marriages, which we know to be a part of many cultural traditions, and which involve the consent of both parties. But young British citizens must never be forced into relationships they do not want at a time in their lives when they could be establishing themselves as adults through further education or through work.

For this reason, one of the proposals we are suggesting is that the minimum age at which a person can sponsor a marriage partner from overseas should be raised from 18 to 21. The same minimum age would apply to the person being sponsored.

We are also considering introducing a code of practice, which would say how an application for a marriage visa should progress if one of the parties is identified as vulnerable. This would build on work carried out by entry clearance officers in relation to in-depth interviews with couples. It would enable views to be given in confidence and assess whether sufficient scope had been given to protect the potentially vulnerable party.

We are also looking at whether we should do more to investigate allegations of abuse of marriage for immigration advantage after entry—how this might be investigated and what other provisions might be necessary for safeguarding women in particular after the entry of a sponsored spouse.

The consultation on the proposal to introduce a pre-entry English-language requirement for spouses discusses the key issues around how a requirement of this nature might work in practice. People who apply for a marriage visa principally do so with the intention of joining their loved ones in the UK on a permanent basis. They are given full access to the labour market on arrival and are able to apply for full settlement after two years providing they meet the criteria in the Immigration Rules. It is right therefore that we should consider ways to assist a spouse integrate into life here, which includes promoting the development of English-language skills at an early stage.

We are seeking views on the proficiency level at which the requirement would be set, on how we would make language learning accessible universally and on how the spouse might demonstrate that a language requirement had been met.

The consultation periods will run for 12 weeks and the final date for responses is 27 February 2008. Once the process has concluded and views have been considered, we will report on the results of both consultations and any proposed changes to the Immigration Rules relating to marriage.

Simplification

In June 2007 my honourable friend the Minister of State for Borders and Immigration (Liam Byrne) published an initial consultation paper on simplifying immigration law. Simplification of the legal framework will support the wider development and transformation of the

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Border and Immigration Agency, and assist in the achievement of its strategic objectives.

Detailed analytical work is now under way to examine the existing law and the options for change. Next year we will consult on more specific issues and publish proposals for pre-legislative scrutiny.

Copies of the statement of intent, the consultations on tackling forced marriage and introducing a pre-entry English-language requirement for spouses, and responses to the simplification consultation have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses. The documents are also available on the Border and Immigration Agency's website at:

www.ind.homeoffice.gov.uk/6353/aboutus/ (statement of intent);

www.bia.homeoffice.gov.uk/lawandpolicy/consultationdocuments/(marriageconsultation documents);

www.bia.homeoffice.gov.uk/lawandpolicy/consultationdocuments/closedconsultations (simplification responses).

Learning Disability

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Darzi of Denham): My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health (Alan Johnson) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

The department has published the consultation document Valuing People NowFrom Progress to Transformation. The document has been placed in the Library and copies are available for honourable Members in the Vote Office.

The document seeks people’s views on the priorities for learning disability for the next three years, 2008 to 2011. It builds on the vision set out in Valuing People (2001), which was the first White Paper on learning disability for 30 years—a vision based on the four main principles of rights, independence, choice and inclusion. The consultation document recognises that the vision set out in Valuing People was right; it also recognises that consideration needs to be given to new issues that were not covered in Valuing People and how we keep the agenda moving in the right direction as we move to tackle some of the key challenges in reaching equality of access and citizenship.

Valuing People Now—From Progress to Transformation is a cross-government consultation setting out the agenda across a range of issues including health and well-being, housing, employment, education and community inclusion. The House is aware of some of the deeply disturbing and unacceptable reports that there have been about the treatment of people with learning disabilities, and the failure to ensure their fundamental rights and choices as members of our society. It is vital not only that we see an end to cases such as those, but that real change is achieved to ensure that people with learning disabilities have equality of citizenship through independent living. This consultation seeks people’s views on what the priorities

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should be over the next three years, how we can deliver on those priorities and how we will know that we are achieving change.

The consultation will run until 11 March 2008 with a view to my department setting out proposals for the next three years, based on the responses that we receive to the consultation, in a document to be published by summer 2008.

Local Government: Future Unitary Structures

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My honourable friend the Minister for Local Government (John Healey) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

On 25 July 2007 I announced to the House the nine unitary proposals that the Secretary of State was minded to implement, having considered all the available relevant information, if and when the necessary provisions of the then Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill were enacted. In four cases—proposals from Bedford Borough Council, Chester City Council, Exeter City Council and Ipswich Borough Council—we recognised that there were risks to their achieving the outcomes specified by the affordability criterion. We asked these councils to undertake further work and submit additional information on the financial viability of their proposals.

I also announced that the Secretary of State was minded to request the Boundary Committee of the Electoral Commission to advise on Norwich City Council’s proposal, and not to implement the remaining 16 unitary proposals that we had received in response to our invitation to councils issued on 26 October 2006.

That invitation reflected our belief that introducing unitary local government is a way of removing the weaknesses found in many existing council structures based on county, district and parish tiers. Those existing structures often add to public confusion, create fragmented and sometimes competing local leadership, and lead to duplication, inefficiency and co-ordination failures in service delivery.

Since July we have received a range of further information and representations about the unitary proposals, including in the case of the four proposals on which we sought additional financial information. The relevant provisions of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 came into effect on 1 November.

The Secretary of State is therefore now able to take her decisions as to which unitary proposals to implement under her statutory powers. The basis of these decisions is the Secretary of State’s assessment of the proposals against the five criteria set out in the original invitation, and which now have the status under the 2007 Act of guidance to which councils should have had regard when making their proposals.



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These five criteria are that if change is made and new unitary structures are implemented, then that change should be affordable (first criterion); and be supported by a broad cross-section of partners and stakeholders (second criterion); and that the future structures should provide strong, effective and accountable strategic leadership (third criterion); deliver genuine opportunities for neighbourhood flexibility and empowerment (fourth criterion); and deliver value for money and equity on public services (fifth criterion).

On this basis, having considered all the information and representations now available to her, including all the additional material that she has received since July, the Secretary of State has decided to confirm her earlier “minded to” decisions in all cases, except, as explained below, for the unitary proposals from Exeter City Council and Ipswich Borough Council. In the cases of the Bedfordshire and Cheshire proposals we plan to take decisions in the near future.

Accordingly, she has decided to implement without modification the five unitary proposals listed in Table 1 below. Her judgment is that there is a reasonable likelihood that all these proposals, if implemented, will achieve the outcomes specified by the five criteria.

Table 1—Unitary proposals to be implemented
Councils submitting proposalsProposed unitary structure

Cornwall County Council

County Unitary

Durham County Council

County Unitary

Northumberland County Council

County Unitary

Shropshire County Council

County Unitary

Wiltshire County Council

County Unitary

We believe that these proposals provide for new and innovative local governance in each of the areas concerned, combining both strong strategic councils and effective arrangements for empowering communities at the most local level. They thus take further the concept of unitary local government developed in the 1990s. They open the door to the creation of new flagship councils which can lead the way on empowering citizens and communities, promoting prosperity and modernising local service delivery to achieve both greater efficiencies and better outcomes. In the areas concerned the number of councils will be reduced from 33 to five. On the basis of councils’ current estimates, the savings from these five proposals, once implemented, will be over £75 million annually, giving councils opportunities for improved services or lower council taxes.

Further, the Secretary of State has decided to take no action on the 14 unitary proposals listed in Table 2 below which were received in response to the original invitation. Her judgment is that there is not a reasonable likelihood of these proposals, if implemented, achieving the outcomes specified by all the five criteria.



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Table 2—Unitary Proposals on which no action is to be taken
Councils submitting proposalsProposed unitary structure

Burnley BC and Pendle BC

Burnley and Pendle Unitary

Cornwall Districts

County Unitary

Cumbria Council

County Unitary

Durham Districts

County Unitary

East Riding Districts

East Riding and Selby Unitary

Ellesmere Port and Neston

3 Unitary Cheshire

Lancaster City Council

Lancaster Unitary

Mid Beds DC and South Beds DC

Unitary covering both Districts

North Yorkshire County Council

County Unitary

Northumberland Districts

2 unitary Northumberland

Oxford City Council

3 Unitary Oxfordshire

Preston City Council

Preston Unitary

Somerset County Council

County Unitary

South Somerset DC

East Somerset Unitary


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