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Written Statements

Volume 447: debated on Tuesday 13 June 2006

Written Ministerial Statements

Tuesday 13 June 2006

Education and Skills

Higher Education Research Assessment and Funding

The Department has published for consultation proposals for a new higher education research assessment and funding system after 2008.

On 22 March, my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced the Government's intention to consult on replacing the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), whose outcomes are based on the judgments of expert peer review panels, with a new system based mainly on metrics. Such a change is intended to bring savings of both time and cost to universities and higher education funding bodies, while continuing to recognise and reward research excellence.

The consultation proposals have been developed by a working group led jointly by Professor Sir Alan Wilson FBA FRS, Director-General for Higher Education in the Department for Education and Skills, and Professor David Eastwood, Vice-Chancellor of the University of East Anglia and Chief Executive-designate of the Higher Education Funding Council for England. Members of the working group comprised officials of HM Treasury, the Department for Employment and Learning Northern Ireland and the Department of Trade and Industry, together with representatives of the Higher Education Funding Councils for England and Wales and the Scottish Funding Council.

The consultation closes on 13 October 2006. The full text of our proposals is available at www.dfes.gov.uk/consultations/.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Government Contamination Service

I have set the Government Decontamination Service (GDS) the following Performance Targets for 2006-07.

To strengthen relationships with specialist suppliers by

Agreeing suppliers' work programmes by 30 March 2007

Testing or assessing at least three suppliers in practical decontamination situations

Holding a conference for specialist suppliers by the end of September 2006

To put in place and agree operational structures by September 2006, including

Validation of the Emergency Operations Centre within two months of occupying the new site

Putting in place a fully revised Business Continuity Plan within three months of occupying the new site

Enabling Responsible Authorities to validate their plans for decontamination by March 2007

To ensure that technical knowledge and expertise continues to improve by

Building on working relationships with centres of excellence through memoranda of understanding and other agreements

Consulting across government to avoid duplication of work

Hosting jointly with the Home Office, a workshop on decontamination issues by December 2006

To put in place and induct the GDS workforce including

Occupying the refurbished headquarters building in Stafford by September 2006

Completing the recruitment of staff by November 2006

Formally closing the GDS project and deploying remaining staff elsewhere by December 2006

To lay the foundations for effective relationships with stakeholders and partners by

Putting in place memoranda of understanding with key partners and holding a conference by March 2007

Putting in place a communications strategy by March 2007

Establishing a baseline of stakeholder/partner satisfaction by March 2007

To operate within financial requirements, including

Producing and implementing an Efficiency Delivery Plan by July 2006

Securing funding for the year 2007-08 to ensure a smooth continuation of operations

Remaining within budget and balancing the GDS's books for the financial year 2006-07 within Government guidelines

Further details are given in the GDS Business Plan for 2006-07 a copy of which will be placed in the Libraries of the House.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Republic of Montenegro

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I have today written to our Montenegrin counterparts, formally recognising Montenegro as an independent sovereign state. This follows a legitimate, free and fair referendum, in which the Montenegrin people expressed a clear desire for an independent state.

I also made clear to Montenegro's Foreign Minister our desire to establish diplomatic relations with Montenegro, including by changing our office in Podgorica to an embassy as soon as practicable. The ambassador in Belgrade will be responsible for relations with Montenegro until a resident ambassador is appointed.

We look forward to working with the government of Montenegro and I take this opportunity to add my best wishes to those of the many British people who have warm feelings of friendship for the people of Montenegro and share their hopes for peace and prosperity in the future.

Health

Pharmacies “Control of Entry” Reforms

On 17 July 2003, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry announced the Government's response for England to the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) report “The control of entry regulations and retail pharmacy services in the UK” 17 July 2003, Official Report, columns 76-79WS.

This set out a balanced package of reform measures which we have introduced largely by amending secondary legislation effective from April 2005.

Two remaining measures are in the Health Bill currently before Parliament. These are charging for pharmacy applications and including provision for NHS Primary Care Trusts to take into account, when assessing competing applications, the improvements they would bring to the provision of, or access to, over-the-counter medicines and other healthcare products and advice.

The announcement in 2003 also committed the Government to review the progress made by these reforms in mid-2006 and to publish the findings.

I have decided the review should go ahead as promised. The terms of reference are:

To review and to report: progress in implementing the balanced package of reform measures introduced in England from April 2005 on the control of entry system for NHS pharmaceutical services;

their effect on access to and the choice of, NHS pharmaceutical services for patients, taking account of the new contractual framework in place since April 2005;

their impact for consumers and the retail pharmacy market; the extent to which the operation of the new regulatory system is proportionate to the aims and objectives of the reforms; and to publish the findings.

The review will be led by Department of Health officials in conjunction with colleagues in the NHS and other Government Departments.

The methodology will comprise:

a quantitative analysis of NHS Primary Care Trust (PCT) and other centrally sourced statistical data on community pharmacies, their applications to provide NHS services to PCTs, PCT decisions and appeals. This will also explore what discernible effect the reforms have had on pharmacy services in rural and socially deprived areas. It will be augmented as necessary by follow-up with PCTs;

as a sub-set of this quantitative analysis, a further review of applications to PCTs and their decisions on pharmacies exempted since April 2005 from the control of entry requirements and their provision of NHS services;

comparative analysis of summary historical data on NHS dispensing by community pharmacies, openings and closures, distances between pharmacies and, where available, opening hours;

taking account of the new contractual framework, a review of the extent of the reforms' economic impact to date, including discernible effects on services and their provision, competition, market structure, concentration and, if time series data are available for these, medicines pricing strategies;

a qualitative review of the reforms. Building on recent patient satisfaction consultations and surveys, the Department will consult and invite PCTs, contractors, patients and consumer groups, health professionals and other interested parties to feed back views on the operation of the reformed procedures. This will examine: what impact there has been on access to services, particularly for those without transport or in more socially deprived areas; the quality of the services provided by community pharmacies following these reforms; how innovative they are and developments respondents may wish to see in future;

a series of public regional "listening" events to complement the consultation and further meetings with representative bodies and other organisations as required to consider the impact of the reforms in more detail.

I intend the report should be completed and published by the end of October 2006.

Further details of the consultation, which begins on Tuesday 13 June and ends on Tuesday 12 September are available on the Department of Health’s website at

www.dh.gov.uk/PolicyAndGuidance/MedicinesPharmacyAnd Industry/NHSPharmaceuticalRegulations/fs/en.

Copies of the consultation document have been placed in the Library.

Trade and Industry

Holiday Entitlement

The Government are today launching a consultation on implementing its manifesto commitment to make paid leave for bank and public holidays additional to the existing four-week statutory entitlement. Up to 2 million workers stand to benefit from the proposals covered by this consultation, with the lowest paid most likely to receive an increase in their holiday entitlement.

The consultation, which will run until 22 September, will seek the views of business, unions, representative groups, individual members of staff and others on a range of issues, including flexibilities on the management of holiday and the timetable for the introduction of the additional holiday.

Copies of the consultation document have been placed in the Library.

Work and Pensions

Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council (Luxembourg)

The Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council was held on 1 June in Luxembourg. The Minister with responsibility for disabled people, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Anne McGuire), represented the UK, except for the item on the Working Time directive, where the UK was represented by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. Health and Consumer Affairs issues were taken on 2 June.

There was a policy debate on the review of the EU Sustainable Development Strategy. The presidency noted a consensus that there should be a synergy between work on social inclusion and poverty and the Lisbon Agenda for growth and jobs. Child poverty and the global dimension were particularly important features. My hon. Friend the Minister stressed the importance of the agenda for growth and jobs. This offered the best route out of poverty; but we must be sure to give people the tools they need to take it and overcome poverty of ambition. She agreed with several ministerial colleagues that there was no need for a new process or elaborate new indicators.

The Commission gave a presentation on its recent Communication on Social Services of General Interest and explained that the next stage is consultation with Member States and stakeholders.

The Council reached agreement on a partial general approach on the first part of a new Implementing Regulation for 883/04 on Social Security for Migrant Workers. The UK maintained its Parliamentary Scrutiny reserve. A partial general approach was also agreed on amendments to Annex XI Regulation 883/04.

The Council reached political agreement on a Regulation establishing a European Institute for Gender Equality. The Commission made a declaration to the minutes stating that it would have preferred a smaller administrative board. The UK lifted its Parliamentary Scrutiny reserve.

The Council adopted conclusions on Women's Health as part of the follow up to the Beijing Platform for Action. The conclusions invite Member States and the Commission to integrate gender health considerations into health policies with particular emphasis on the three indicators (Healthy life years, Access to health care (unmet demand) and Cardio-Vascular Diseases) proposed by the Austrian presidency.

The joint contribution of the Employment Committee and the Social Protection Committee on the concept of ‘Flexicurity' (balance between flexibility and security) was endorsed by the Council.

The presidency gave a progress report on the proposal for a directive on improving the portability of supplementary pension rights. A number of delegations intervened and my hon. Friend the Minister stated that there is a need to strike the right balance between mobility and maintaining the viability of pension provisions and supporting the view that there should be a broad application of any directive

The Council reached political agreement on the amended proposal for a decision establishing a Community Programme for Employment and Social Solidarity—PROGRESS. This is the EU-level spending programme for the period 2007-13, which will provide financial support for the implementation of the Community's objectives for employment and social affairs and the achievement of Lisbon goals.

The Council reached political agreement without discussion on the annual Employment Guidelines on the proposal for a Council Decision on Guidelines for the Employment Policies of the Member States.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry represented the UK for discussions on the amended proposal for a directive concerning certain aspects of the organisation of working time. Negotiations revolved around the opt-out from the 48 hour working week. The presidency sought views at the lunchtime discussion on a presidency text. In the second session, it tabled a revised compromise proposal which was not agreed. The presidency introduced its final compromise in the final session, which many Member States argued they could not support, some because the text did not phase out the opt out and some, including the UK, who felt proposals for restrictions and limitations on the opt out went too far. The Council failed to reach political agreement.

The Council received information from the presidency about a Regulation on the Globalisation Adjustment Fund and about various presidency conferences. The Council also received information on Commission Communications on the Posting of Workers, Corporate Social Responsibility, Decent Work and the European Year of Equal Opportunities in 2007.