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The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Alan Johnson): Protecting the safety of the UK and our interests overseas is the primary duty of Government. International terrorism remains the pre-eminent threat to the security of the United Kingdom.
I have today published the first annual report of the Government's strategy for countering international terrorism, Contest (Cm 7833). This report provides a written account of our progress against the objectives set out in our strategy over the last year. The report has been developed to be read alongside the 2009 publication of Contest (Cm 7547) which remains one of the most comprehensive and wide-ranging approaches to tackling this threat in the world. Copies of the annual report will be made available in the Vote Office.
The greatest security threat we face continues to come from al-Qaeda and related groups and individuals. The nature of this threat has changed over the last 12 months. Al-Qaeda's leadership has come under severe pressure in Pakistan and NATO's presence across the border continues to deny them a safe haven in Afghanistan. However, an increase in the capability of some al-Qaeda affiliates and associated groups, highlighted by the attempted Detroit airline attack, demonstrates the evolving and diffuse threat we continue to face.
Contest explains how contemporary terrorist organisations aspire to use chemical, biological, radiological and even nuclear (CBRN) weapons. The availability of information on the internet, changing technology and the theft and smuggling of CBRN materials make this aspiration more realistic than it may have been in the past. To support delivering our response, I have also published today the United Kingdom's Strategy for Countering Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Terrorism which addresses the specific threat posed by terrorist use of CBRN materials. A copy of the strategy will be placed in the House Library.
During 2009 thousands of people, including British citizens, have been killed or injured in terrorist attacks around the world. There have been no attacks, successful or unsuccessful, by international terrorist groups or individuals associated with them in the UK over the past 12 months. This reflects the resources and capabilities that we have put in place to deal with the threat. The Joint Terrorism Analysis Centre, responsible for setting the UK threat level, currently assess that the UK threat level is severe meaning an attack is highly likely and could happen without warning at any time.
Our response continues to be based at all times on principles that reflect the core values of the UK including human rights, the rule of law, legitimate and accountable government, justice, freedom, tolerance and opportunity for all.
We recognise that our response must continue to be founded on partnerships across the spectrum from local, national to international. Communities, local authorities, Departments, agencies, devolved Administrations, and overseas partners all play vital roles in the successful delivery of Contest.
We judge that to date Contest has achieved its aim-to reduce the risk to the UK and to its interests overseas from international terrorism, so that people can go about their lives freely and with confidence.
The Minister of State, Department for International Development (Mr. Gareth Thomas): In partnership with the African Union Commission, the African Development Bank, the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, the World Bank, the Infrastructure Consortium for Africa, the European Commission and UK Trade and Investment, we organised a conference on African Regional Integration on 4 March 2010 in London. Around 200 representatives of African regional economic communities (RECs), African and development partner Governments, multilateral organisations, business and commercial bodies and civil society attended.
Regional integration is an important political and economic priority for Africa increasingly supported by its development partners. For example, last year the UK supported the North-South Corridor Conference in Lusaka where several African leaders announced plans to improve cross-border trade, reduce transport delays and costs, and promote investment. At that event donors agreed to provide over $2.5 billion of funding to upgrade road, rail, port and energy infrastructure.
The Joining up Africa event aimed to help maintain momentum and support for regional integration, and looked at how African institutions, donors, business and other investors can work better together.
I opened the conference and the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs also addressed conference guests. Some 30 eminent speakers from a range of backgrounds spoke during discussions on how we can collectively overcome the political, economic and bureaucratic obstacles to greater regional integration. The major organisations represented at the conference agreed to sign an "Outcomes Statement", which can be found at: http://www.dfid.gov.uk/Documents/publications/ Joining%20Africa%20-%20Final%20Outcomes%20 Statement.pdf. Other development partners are being invited to sign this statement as well.
The statement highlights how essential greater regional integration is for Africa's growth and development. It recognises the urgent need to strengthen and increase support for regional integration as well as the need for more co-operation by all the relevant African stakeholders. The statement calls for action to:
speed up progress with transport, trade, energy and other infrastructure programmes at a regional level and to resolve the obstacles and non-tariff barriers to trade;
involve the private sector more effectively in support of regional integration;
make support for regional integration more effective by applying the key principles of the Paris Declaration and Accra Agenda for Action regionally for the first time; and
give more support to the COMESA, EAC and SADC tripartite process and to encourage similar arrangements by the African Union and other RECs as steps to establishing an African Economic Community.
The Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor (Mr. Jack Straw): The Ministry of Justice is publishing today outline proposals for restructuring of the delivery of publicly funded criminal defence services. This follows the announcement in December 2009 that the Ministry would work closely with the Legal Services Commission (LSC), the Law Society and individual practitioners to develop such proposals by the end of March 2010, and that these would replace the LSC's planned pilots for best value tendering. Even with the necessary savings and reforms, our system of legal aid-civil and criminal-will still be far and away the best funded in the world.
The Government strongly believe that there must be a significant restructuring of the provision of criminal defence services in order to achieve greater value for money from legal aid, while still ensuring fair access to justice and enabling legal aid providers to remain profitable and sustainable. The Ministry of Justice policy statement proposes that this would be achieved by creating a more consolidated market, in which larger contracts are let to a smaller number of more efficient providers, enabling them to take advantage of economies of scale.
contracts tendered across a whole criminal justice system area, and for the full range of services including higher value Crown court work;
opportunities for a range of providers to win contracts, including barristers chambers;
retaining the ability for individuals to choose a solicitor from among those firms that hold contracts; and
fostering innovation and efficiency on the part of providers by minimising contractual burdens, but balanced with strong financial audit controls.
The Ministry of Justice intends to undertake a consultation later this year on more detailed proposals, including a tendering model capable of delivering this restructured market. The Government will wish to consider the views expressed by respondents, including on any alternative options that would ensure the sustainability of criminal legal aid at reduced overall expenditure, before making final decisions.
Copies of the policy statement, "Restructuring the delivery of criminal defence services", will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses. The document will also be available from the publications section of the Ministry of Justice website at: www.justice.gov.uk.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): In May 2009, the Law Commission of England and Wales published its report: Capital and Income in Trusts: Classification and Apportionment (Law Com no 315). The report makes three legislative recommendations to reform aspects of the law on the classification and apportionment of income and capital in trusts.
The purpose of these reforms is to simplify and modernise trust law rules that create unnecessary expense, litigation and difficulty to trustees of both private and charitable trusts; to decrease the regulatory burden on the Charity Commission; and to facilitate total return investment by charities.
The Government have carefully considered the report and are pleased to announce that they accept the Law Commission's recommendations. It is now intended to consult on these reforms and the proposed draft legislation.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): Today, Land Registry is launching a formal consultation exercise to seek views on proposals to allow for electronic transfers and to extend the possible use of electronic legal charges (a form of mortgage).
The overarching aim of Land Registry's e-conveyancing programme is to make conveyancing easier for everyone, with an electronic system that makes buying and selling property less stressful for the public, conveyancing professionals and the other parties involved.
Proposed new land registration rules would prescribe an electronic transfer as an additional kind of electronic disposition of registered land in England and Wales. Existing rules made in 2008 provide for the creation of "standalone" electronic legal charges: the proposed new
rules would revoke the 2008 rules and allow for both standalone electronic legal charges and electronic charges accompanying a transfer. There is already provision for electronic discharges. The proposed new rules would, therefore, make it possible, for the first time, to carry out electronically each of the principal conveyancing steps in the typical sale and purchase of a house.
Land Registry has today published a consultation paper "E-Conveyancing Secondary Legislation-part 3", copies of which have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses and are available in the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office.
The right to vote is the basis of our political system. Strengthening our democracy requires the removal of barriers to the exercise of that right, so the system for delivering elections must be accessible and responsive to the needs of voters. To this end, the Government committed to consult on whether moving elections to the weekend might help to make voting more accessible and so potentially raise levels of turnout at elections. The consultation provided a further opportunity for debate about how the democratic process might better be shaped to the needs and preferences of citizens.
The "Election Day: Weekend Voting" consultation paper, published in June 2008, invited views on the merits of moving the voting day from the traditional Thursday to one or both days of the weekend for parliamentary and European parliamentary elections, and local elections in England and Wales; and on the best way to do this. The paper set out a range of issues that would need to be taken into account and invited views and evidence. These included the importance of ensuring that religious groups would continue to have opportunities to vote in a manner consistent with their beliefs, and the practical and resource considerations.
The Government launched the weekend voting consultation with an open mind on whether moving polling day could be expected to support greater participation. I am grateful that many people and organisations responded to the consultation. We have considered carefully the views expressed. It is clear that there is no simple or single solution to raising participation and addressing the issues of low or falling turnout, and the responses reveal that there is a wide range of views on the proposals that were put forward.
An overall majority of respondents favoured retaining election day on a weekday. Evidence provided by local authorities and electoral administrators suggested that a weekend poll, particularly one held over two days, would add considerably to the logistical complexity of running elections, particularly in terms of finding appropriate staff and premises. While a small majority of those members of the public who responded to the
consultation supported proposals for weekend voting, there was no evidence that its introduction would have a significant positive impact on participation rates.
Overall, given the lack of consensus in favour of a moving election day, the Government do not propose to move forward with weekend voting at this time. However, recognising that there is some evidence of support among electors-albeit not conclusive here-we believe the issue should be further considered if additional evidence or a stronger view in favour of weekend voting were to become apparent in the future.
The results from the consultation suggest there is continued popular support for remote voting-whether by postal means as now, or potential electronic means in the future. But it is clear from the responses that people wish to be reassured that such methods are secure, transparent and cost-effective. This is an issue that will be kept under review.
The Government are committed to approaching change to the administration of elections in a balanced way to support accessibility and increased engagement but also to ensure that the security and integrity of the ballot is protected. Maintaining public confidence in elections is paramount and it is right that any proposal for change is taken forward only where there is broad support.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Mr. Michael Wills): The Ministry of Justice is publishing today guidance for all candidates at the forthcoming general election to assist them in issuing a declaration of their employment and other interests. The guidance has been produced in response to one of the recommendations contained in the twelfth report of the Committee on Standards in Public Life (CSPL) on MPs' expenses and allowances. The report said:
All candidates at parliamentary elections should publish, at nomination, a register of interests including the existence of other paid jobs and whether they intend to continue to hold them, if elected. The Ministry of Justice should issue guidance on this in time for the next general election. Following the election, consideration should be given as to whether the process should become a statutory part of the nominations process.(1)
The guidance recommends that candidates issue a declaration of their interests against a number of categories. These are largely based on the categories of interest that sitting MPs are required to declare in the Register of Members' Financial Interests, with appropriate modifications and additions. These reflect the broader purpose of the candidate declaration of interests, as envisaged by the CSPL report, which is to enable the public to find out more about the background of candidates.
In line with the report's recommendation, the guidance is advisory only. It makes recommendations of best practice which candidates are encouraged to follow in making a declaration. However, candidates are under no obligation to issue a declaration or to follow the guidance in doing so. Candidates will face no legal
sanction should they choose not to publish a declaration, or as a result of the information that they do or do not declare.
Copies of the guidance have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses, the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office. The guidance has been published on the Ministry of Justice website. The Electoral Commission has also agreed to make a copy of the guidance available through its website. I will be writing to the leaders of all major parties to alert them to publication of the guidance. Separately, officials within the Ministry of Justice will contact directly those prospective parliamentary candidates for whom details are known at the point of publication of the guidance. However, it will ultimately be for candidates to make themselves aware of this guidance.
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