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Written Statements

Volume 401: debated on Tuesday 18 March 2003

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Written Ministerial Statements

Tuesday 18 March 2003

International Development

Pakistan (Poverty Reduction Strategy)

:We are committed to supporting Pakistan's economic and social reforms. The ambition is to eliminate poverty in Pakistan that currently condemns over 40 million of its people to live on less than $1 per day.In October 2001, I pledged £105 million to Pakistan over three years (to December 2004) to support Pakistan's Poverty Reduction Strategy (PRS). Payments under this pledge are linked to the IMF reviews under the Poverty Reduction and Growth Facility (PRGF) and to the Government of Pakistan's commitment to poverty reduction.The first tranche of £20 million against this pledge was disbursed in March 2002, as notified to Parliament. Following Pakistan's elections, and in view of continued progress against the PRGF, we plan to disburse a further £85 million between now and March 2005, including a second tranche of £20 million to be disbursed this month. Up to £55 million will be provided as support to the PRGF, and £30 million will be for the National Health Facility (NHF). Disbursements will be conditional on continued and concerted progress with the PRS and with the implementation of the NHF.UK financial aid supports additional spending on poverty reduction in Pakistan, particularly in health and education. The Government of Pakistan, which is committed to sustained reforms in the health and education sectors, has agreed to increase public spending in those sectors by 20 per cent. in 2002–03 as against a general increase in public spending of 8 per cent. UK financial support underpins this trend.PRS support will be disbursed against Pakistan's debt payments to the IMF, World Bank and the ADB, as this is the most efficient method of disbursing our financial aid.

Transport

Light Dues

I am pleased to announce that there will be no changes to the light dues rates for 2003–04. Current rates were set last year, when the rate was reduced to 40 pence per ton and a 40,000 tonnage ceiling was introduced to reduce the burden of light dues falling on the largest vessels. Rates were last increased in 1993. Efficiency savings have funded two replacement ships and met the costs of redeveloping the Oban depot. Rates were reduced in 1997 and 2002. We shall continue to work closely with the General Lighthouse Authorities to secure cost effective provision of GLA services and to keep future requirements for marine aids to navigation under review.Additional investment is required to further reduce running costs. A review of the operation and management of the GLAs' 5 ships will be completed shortly. The replacement of two vessels over the next four years will reduce costs. Trinity House has already announced a depot rationalisation scheme. The Northern Lighthouse Board will close the Stromness depot in 2004. We are considering options to redevelop the Commissioners of Irish Lights depot at Dun Laoghaire. We believe that this work can be carried out within the existing income levels.The Government remain committed to a cost recovery system. Taxpayers generally should not meet the costs of providing aids to navigation for shipping. It was disappointing that only 160 responses were received to our consultation exercise on the review of light dues. The results were inconclusive with no consensus on the way forward.I therefore propose to carry out further work on a number of key areas. These include:

an economic study on arrangements for funding aids to navigation and the possible economic effect on commercial trading patterns, in consultation with the shipping and ports industry;
development of an electronic collection system to come into operation during 2004 which will remove some of the practical restrictions on charging patterns and would, for example, permit the introduction of a flatter charging structure;
working with the GLAs to review the future requirements for marine aids to navigation;
further work on the use of navigational aids by each sector—commercial, fishing and pleasure craft; and
seeking further discussions with the Irish Government to negotiate the full costs of provision of navigational aids in Ireland.

We will also publish a fuller response to the consultation exercise as soon as possible.

Deputy Prime Minister

Home Ownership Taskforce

The Home Ownership taskforce, which I announced to the House on 5 February, will meet for the first time today, chaired by the right hon. the Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde. It will consider schemes currently available to potential homeowners on low or modest incomes and identify the most effective ways of promoting home ownership.The terms of reference for the Task Force are as follows:

Sustainable Communities: building for the future marks a step change in housing. Resources have been increased substantially to deliver sustainable communities but more needs to be done to help tenants and those on waiting lists to move into home ownership, without the loss of social housing. New ideas and a new approach is vital in helping people on low or modest incomes into home ownership.
The taskforce is to examine the routes and methods by which those in housing need can be helped to meet their home ownership aspirations in a way that ensures the sustainability of that ownership and is cost effective. It will examine who is being helped through current initiatives, to what extent these initiatives free up social tenancies for other occupants, and the scope for better targeting and design. It will also take account of the work being undertaken by Government Departments and others to review issues in relation to existing homeowners.
The taskforce will develop a more rational and straightforward suite of programmes to allow social tenants and those on waiting lists to purchase either their own home or another home, whilst recognising the many different circumstances of aspiring homeowners.
The taskforce will build on 'Evaluation of the low cost home ownership programme' and other recent ODPM research, consider a wide range of innovative funding proposals and take into account proposals on single tenure, commonhold, flexible tenure, equity shares and new forms of public and private low cost home ownership schemes.
Throughout its work the taskforce will take into account the difficulties faced by traditionally disadvantaged groups such as disabled people, and BME communities, in accessing home ownership and look at the different problems faced by people wishing to access home ownership in areas of low demand and the growth areas.
The existing programmes that will be considered are:
  • Right to Buy
  • Rent to Mortgage
  • Right to Acquire
  • Cash Incentive Scheme
  • Voluntary Purchase Grant
  • Shared Ownership
  • Do-it-yourself Shared Ownership
  • Homebuy
  • Self Build
The taskforce will report with recommendations on how the above home ownership objectives can be most effectively delivered.'

The Home Ownership task force is due to report in the Autumn.

We are also publishing today the report, "Equity Shares for Social Housing". in fulfilment of our 2001 manifesto commitment to consider equity shares. Equity shares are one way to deliver our objectives to promote home ownership, increase asset ownership, and improve the image of social housing. The report concludes that the costs of introducing equity shares are likely to be substantial, while the scale of benefits is highly uncertain. We will continue to keep this issue under review.

Environment, Food And Rural Affairs

Welfare Of Laying Hens

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
(Mr. Elliot Morley)

We have recently completed a public consultation exercise on whether to ban enriched cages for laying hens in England at the same time as conventional barren cages are banned in 2012. I am pleased that some 1,000 people responded to this consultation.

After a thorough consideration of the comments received and the available scientific and other evidence, I have concluded that as there is a lack of definitive evidence currently available there are insufficient grounds at present to justify a unilateral ban on enriched cages from 2012.

Because there are a range of issues to consider, not least the current stocking density set by the directive, I consider that a better approach would be to review the future of enriched cages on an EU basis, when the welfare of laying hens directive is next considered by the Agriculture Council in 2005.

By then it is hoped we will be in a stronger position to address some of the questions on the welfare concerns of enriched cages, as research programmes are completed. It is clear however, that it would be premature for producers to consider that existing cages could be adapted to meet the standards of enriched ones.

Quality Parish And Town Council Initiative

In November 2001 the Government issued a consultation paper on their proposals to develop the concept of quality town and parish councils first outlined in the Rural White Paper in November 2000. The proposals aimed to develop a framework for partnership working and equip local councils to take on a stronger role for the benefit of the local community.I am pleased to announce the details of the quality parish initiative which the Government have developed in the light of the responses to consultation. The scheme has been developed jointly by DEFRA and ODPM with the collaboration of key stakeholders such as the Local Government Association, the National Association of Local Councils and the Countryside Agency.The scheme sets some straightforward tests that parish and town councils have to pass before they are awarded quality parish or town council status. These tests for accreditation require a quality council to

(a) have initially at least 80 per cent. of its seats filled by candidates who stood for election (rising to 100 per cent. for re-accreditation), (b) have a suitably qualified clerk (c) hold at least six council meetings each year, (d) publish annual reports (e) provide regular information to residents on parish activities; and (f) produce properly prepared and audited accounts. Applications will be assessed by county panels including people with experience of both principal authorities and town and parish councils.

The scheme also includes a model charter where all parish councils are encouraged to negotiate with principal authorities to set out how these tiers of local government can promote partnership working. Once granted quality status, local councils will be in a position to give their communities a better deal on local services and a stronger voice in decisions affecting peoples day to day lives.

Copies of the summary will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

Agriculture In The Uk 2002

Agriculture in the United Kingdom 2002 has been published today. Copies of this report are available from the Libraries of the House. It is also available in electronic form from DEFRA'S website at http://www.defra.gov.uk/esq/m_publications.htm.

Work And Pensions

British Sign Language

The Government recognise that British Sign Language (BSL) is a language in its own right regularly used by a significant number of people. For an estimated 70,000 deaf people it is their preferred language for participation in everyday life. BSL is a visual-gestural language with its own vocabulary, grammar and syntax.The Government understand that people who use BSL want their language to be protected and promoted in the same way some minority languages are by the Council of Europe's Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. The Council is considering how that might be achieved for indigenous sign languages. The Government will give careful consideration to any proposals which the Council might make.The Government have already taken action to improve access to BSL, for example by identifying situations where it might be reasonable for employers and service providers to engage the services of a BSL/ English interpreter.The Government will be funding a discrete programme of initiatives to support this statement.

Home Department

Nationality, Immigration And Asylum Act 2002

I have today published a public consultation document seeking comments on some practical issues surrounding the implementation of new powers in sections 134 to 139 of the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002. The provisions in question will enable the immigration authorities to require employers and financial institutions to supply information in respect of specified individuals who we reasonably suspect have committed certain immigration offences, including fraud against the national asylum support arrangements. The deadline for responses to the consultation document is 9 June 2003. I have arranged for copies of the document to be placed in the Library and on the Immigration and Nationality Directorate website.

Asylum Claims

A new fast track pilot scheme to be introduced in April will radically reduce the time taken to process asylum claims from arrival to removal.The pilot will operate at the Harmondsworth Removal Centre and will build upon the reforms in the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002 and the success of the Oakington fast track process. This new pilot will enable us to deal rapidly with straightforward asylum claimants and to remove those with unfounded claims within four weeks of their arrival.The new Fast Track Procedure Rules to be laid before Parliament later this week will enable us to pilot fast-track decisions and appeals based upon co-location of key elements of the asylum process. For this to work effectively, we will be detaining at Harmondsworth Removal Centre asylum seekers whose claims appear to be straightforward, pending a decision on their claim. Detention will initially be for about two to five days to enable claimants to be interviewed and an initial decision made. This new process will have bulletin access to legal advice. Detention of asylum seekers for a short period of time for the purposes of making a speedy decision on their claim was upheld last October as lawful by the House of Lords. If the claim is refused or for any reason cannot be dealt with in accordance with the pilot timescales, a decision about further detention will be made in accordance with existing detention criteria. Detention in this category of cases will therefore normally be where it has become apparent that the person would be likely to fail to keep in contact with the Immigration Service or to effect removal.