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Written Statements

Volume 448: debated on Tuesday 11 July 2006

Written Ministerial Statements

Tuesday 11 July 2006

Treasury

Public-Private Forum on Identity Management

I have appointed Sir. James Crosby to chair the Public-Private Forum on Identity Management.

The Forum will examine the evolving technologies used for identity management and consider how public and private sectors can work together to maximise efficiency and effectiveness. The Forum will be a key part of the identity management architecture across Government, and will build on work underway across Whitehall, which is being led by the Home Office. It will make proposals to me and the Ministerial Committee on identity management early next year.

I proposed the creation of a Forum on identity in my speech on security to the Royal United Services Institute in February of this year.

The Forum's terms of reference are to:

Review the current and emerging use of identity management in the private and public sectors and identify best practice.

Consider how public and private sectors can work together, harnessing the best identity technology to maximise efficiency and effectiveness.

Produce a preliminary report for the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Ministerial Committee on identity management by Easter 2007.

Constitutional Affairs

Family Courts

I am pleased to inform the House that I have today laid before Parliament and placed in the Libraries of both Houses the consultation paper, “Confidence and Confidentiality: Improving Transparency and Privacy in Family Courts”. It is also available on the Department's website at http://www.dca.gov.uk/consult/confr.htm

Family courts make decisions that have important effects on people's lives and that affect people's lives forever and they make judgments in the most difficult of circumstances.

Many more people are affected by decisions of the family courts than used to be the case—over 400,000 family court applications every year. And the comfortable certainties which used to be the context in which the family courts did their work have gone. Change in family structures, change in social attitudes, greater cultural diversity, new reproductive technologies and global mobility bring new challenges to the family courts. But what has not changed is the need for the courts to protect children from cruelty and neglect and to make judgments when parents cannot agree about the care of the child.

The greater the importance of the work of the court, the greater the need for public confidence. The current operation of the family courts attracts criticism to the family justice system as a whole and lays it open to accusations of bias and injustice which cannot be satisfactorily refuted.

In order to ensure that the public can have confidence in the work of the family courts, we make proposals in the consultation document to make the family courts more open and accountable while ensuring that we protect the privacy of the personal lives of those involved in family proceedings—particularly children.

We make firm proposals to allow the press into the courts and how we plan to protect anonymity. We invite further consideration on whether the courts should be accountable to the children who are affected by their judgments by keeping a record for them to obtain, if they want when they become an adult of what the court decided and why. We propose no change on the access to the courts by the inspectorates—HMICA and the Commission for Social Care Inspection—and for those who have democratic accountability for the family justice system—lead local authority members responsible for children's services and Members of Parliament. But we invite further consideration of that.

I believe these proposals are a step forward towards our dual objective of confidence and confidentiality.

Defence

Armed Forces Invaliding Pensions

The House will be aware that the Ministry of Defence has been engaged in correcting a number of armed forces pension awards to both ex-service personnel and widows. These exercises, known, as Projects Haven and Scribe, flowed from the uncovering in 1998 of a systemic pensions and tax error, and from a Court of Appeal judgement in 2003 in the case of Hulme v MOD. My predecessors have made a number of statements to the House on these matters. I am please to report that the last of these Projects, Project Scribe, is now nearing completion and that as a result of both projects some 5500 corrections to pension awards have been made at a cost to date of £32.4 million plus some £18.2 million in compensation.

However, I have to tell the House, that during this work, teams from the Armed Forces Pay and Administration Agency and the Veterans Agency have uncovered a further error. Our initial estimate is that this may mean that a number of awards (our initial estimate is about 1800) to those invalided for causes due to service may not have been consistently up-rated as they should have been, in line with the acceptance by the Veterans Agency of deterioration claims. Widows' pensions are not affected. I apologise unreservedly for this further error. Beginning next month officials will identify and correct these pensions with the payment of any interest due. I will be considering, as a matter of priority, whether additional recompense is appropriate.

I can assure the House that the cause of the error has been corrected and mechanisms put in place to ensure it will not recur. The proposed merger of the Armed Forces Personnel Administration Agency and the Veterans Agency, would be a positive step, aimed at reducing the risk of further errors and providing a better service to both current and former members of the armed forces, their families and dependants. I will provide more information to the House on this work soon.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Vaccine Supply Tender

Defra has today invited tenders to supply a further 10 million doses of avian influenza vaccine for potential use in poultry and other captive birds. The Government have decided to take this step, on the advice of the UK Chief Veterinary Officer, as a precaution.

This does not change our policy and the CVO's advice remains that we should not vaccinate poultry in advance of an avian influenza outbreak because of the well documented limitations of the vaccines currently available. These vaccines are not the most effective defence against avian influenza. A high standard of biosecurity, separation of poultry from wild birds and careful surveillance for signs of disease are the most effective means of protection.

The vaccine would also not be used as an immediate disease control response. Early reporting, rapid action, biosecurity, culling and surveillance remain the most effective ways of controlling an avian influenza outbreak.

However, the CVO has recommended securing access to a supply of vaccine. This is part of sensible contingency planning in the light of uncertainties about the future spread and nature of the virus and the possibility of as yet unforeseen circumstances. This will only be used if a risk assessment and scientific evidence indicated it would help to prevent disease spread.

In order to have a wider range of disease control tools available to us, we have tendered for vaccine which could be used against both H5 and H7 strains of the disease. It will not be available to the public for general use. This will be in addition to the 2.3 million doses of vaccine bought earlier this year for a possible risk based preventive vaccination of zoo birds.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Israel and the Occupied Territories

We have deep concerns about the current situation, its effects on the Palestinian and Israeli people, and the consequences for the Middle East Peace Process. The escalation in violence since the 25 June attack at the Kerem Shalom crossing has caused great suffering on both sides; 6 July was the most violent day of the conflict since Israeli disengagement from Gaza last year with 21 Palestinians and one Israeli solider killed. We condemn the 25 June attack, and call for the immediate and unconditional release of Corporal Shalit. We also condemn the continued rocket attacks on Israeli towns like Sderot and Ashkelon, including the rocket that hit a school in Ashkelon on 4 July. We have called on the Palestinian Authority to prevent all terrorist attacks, including these rocket attacks, and to work for the release of Corporal Shalit. We welcome the work President Abbas is doing to achieve this.

While Israel has the right to defend itself and secure the release of Corporal Shalit, its actions should be proportionate and in accordance with international law as we, the G8, and the EU have made clear. We call on Israel to exercise restraint, and to do everything possible to avoid civilian casualties. The Israeli Prime Minister has said that Israel has no intention of reoccupying Gaza.

We have serious concerns regarding the current humanitarian situation in Gaza. Israeli military actions have targeted key roads and bridges and have disabled the Gaza power station and water supplies. The UN reported on 28 June that 40 per cent. of Gaza was without power and 130,000 people are without water. Restoring electricity and water supplies and access for humanitarian organisations is a vital priority. The Israeli Cabinet agreed on 2 July to take steps to ease the humanitarian situation, including by opening the Kami commercial crossing point between Gaza and Israel for 150 trucks a day carrying food, fuel and medical supplies and providing power through Israeli grids. We urge Israel to take further such action and allow the full provision of basic services to the Palestinian people.

We also continue to have concerns about the detention of members of the Palestinian Government and Legislature on 29 June. Those detained should be accorded their full legal rights and either be charged or released.

Since the crisis began, we have been in close contact with the Israeli government and with Palestinian President Abbas. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary spoke to Israeli Foreign Minister Livni and President Abbas on the first day of the crisis, 25 June, and again on 6 July. Our Ambassador in Tel Aviv, Consul-General in Jerusalem, and officials in London remain in close contact with both sides. We are also in close contact with the Quartet members as well as with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. We fully support Egyptian efforts to mediate between Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the militants currently holding Corporal Shalit and we have offered our assistance. Egypt plays a key role in the peace process and we will continue to work with them. We have also pressed Syria to use its influence on Hamas. I can assure the House that the UK will continue to work to resolve this crisis.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minster has made clear our commitment to continue helping the Palestinian people. Although donors have stopped direct budgetary support to the Palestinian Authority, we continue to provide other support directly to the Palestinian people.

On 17 June the Quartet endorsed the “Temporary International Mechanism.” The mechanism will ensure that basic health care continues to be provided in the Occupied Territories. It will also work to provide the poorest segments of Palestinian society with basic needs allowances and should help ensure the uninterrupted supply of utilities, including fuel. First payments through the mechanism should be made this month. The UK will contribute up to £12 million.

The UK has a strong record of support for the Palestinian people. On 25 April the Department for International Development announced a £15 million payment to the UN Relief and Works Agency. The UK has given £147 million to the Palestinian people since 2001. We also contribute through the EU, which is the biggest donor to the Palestinian people.

Whilst we need an urgent end to the current crisis, real peace can only come through a lasting settlement. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made clear, our priority is negotiations. These are manifestly the best way to move this process forward. It is the role of the international community to give negotiations the best chance of success. We welcome Prime Minister Olmert's and President Abbas's commitment to negotiations and urge both sides to resume talks as soon as possible. This will require great effort and courage from both sides.

We were seriously concerned about the situation on the ground even before the current crisis. We hope that Israel can ease restrictions on movement and access to Gaza and the West Bank by implementing the 15 November Agreement. This includes dismantling checkpoints and roadblocks.

We also have concerns about the routing of the barrier, and Israeli settlement activity. We understand why Israel wishes to build the barrier, but it needs to be on or behind the Green Line. It is illegal for the barrier to be built on occupied land. We have raised our concerns on many occasions with the Israeli Government and we will continue to do so.

The road map is clear that Israel should freeze all settlement activity including the natural growth of existing settlements, and dismantle all outposts built since March 2001. Settlement building is contrary to international law and is an obstacle to peace. We welcome the Israeli Government's commitment to dismantling outposts, and hope it will act as soon as possible.

We have also raised our concerns with the Government of Israel concerning Israeli policies in Jerusalem. These policies include the routing of the barrier in and around Jerusalem; settlement activity in and around East Jerusalem; and, increasingly, restricted access to Jerusalem for Palestinian residents who have blue Israeli identity cards but who live east of the barrier. These practices fuel Palestinian anger, threaten to cut East Jerusalem off from the West Bank and make it more difficult for there to be a viable Palestinian state.

There is also much the Palestinians need to do. It is essential that the Palestinian Authority makes every effort to prevent terrorism, as set out in the road map. We will continue to work with President Abbas to take the peace process forward. We welcome President Abbas' recent efforts to improve the security situation in Gaza, promote intra-Palestinian reconciliation through the National Dialogue and his commitment to negotiations. Our policy on Hamas remains unchanged. We recognise Hamas's democratic mandate as a result of free and fair elections. But with this mandate comes responsibilities. It is essential that the Hamas-led Government commits to the 30 January Quartet principles: renunciation of violence; recognition of Israel; and acceptance of previous agreements and obligations, including the road map. Hamas needs to start implementing these principles and make clear the path they intend to take. If they do this, then we are ready to take the peace process forward with them.

Our goal remains a negotiated two state solution, which is best achieved through the road map. We must all work to find a way through the current crisis to achieve a just, viable and lasting peace.

Health

NHS Litigation Authority

The annual report and accounts of the NHS Litigation Authority 2005-06 and any accompanying comptroller and auditor general reports have today been laid before Parliament pursuant to section 98(1C) of the National Health Service Act 1977.

Copies have been placed in the Library.

Northern Ireland

Northern Ireland Prison Service

I have placed copies of the Northern Ireland Prison Service's Annual Report and Accounts for 2005-06 in the Libraries of both Houses.

The annual report details that the Service met 10 of its 11 key targets. It also outlines that of the comprehensive programme of development objectives set for the Service, 17 were achieved, 16 were partially achieved and substantial progress made towards meeting the remaining five.

Key Business Area

Key Targets

Outturn

Security

No escape for top and high-risk prisoners

NOT MET – on 7 June 2005, a high risk prisoner escaped from the custody of Maybin Security Services at Lisburn Magistrates Court. (The prisoner has since been recaptured).

No more than 3 escapes per 1000 medium and low risk prisoners

MET – No escapes in this category

Safety

The number of staff assaulted by prisoners is less than a ratio of 5 per 100 prisoners

MET – Outturn for the year was 0.5 per cent.

The number of prisoners assaulted by prisoners is less than a ratio of 6 per 100 prisoners

MET – Outturn for the year was 0.4 per cent.

Regimes and Reducing Re-Offending

An average of at least 18 hours constructive activity per week for each sentenced prisoner.

MET – 20.3 hours per week achieved.

An average of at least 9 hours constructive activity per week for each remand prisoner.

MET – 13.5 hours per week achieved.

To ensure 82.5 per cent. of prisoners serving six months or more are working to a resettlement plan and that 95 per cent. of lifers work to a resettlement plan, including preparation of the plan, in the first six months from sentence.

MET – Outturn of 94 per cent. for determinate prisoners and 98.9 per cent. for life sentence prisoners.

Staff and Developing the Service

Deliver at least 85 per cent. of the planned training days associated with the agreed corporate priorities.

MET – The actual average training days delivered was 5.9 per member of staff.

Reduce the rate of absenteeism to an annual average of no more than 19 days head.

MET – A total of 14.2 days per officer was achieved, bettering target of 14.5 days.

Finance Corporate Governance and Improving Business Performance

Ensure the average cost per prisoner place does nor exceed £86,290

MET – The actual cost per prisoner place in 2005-06 was £85,900

Lay the annual report and audited accounts before Parliament prior to the summer recess.

MET – Annual report and audited accounts laid before Parliament on 19 July 2005.

Solicitor-General

Craig Sweeney

My right hon. Friend the Attorney- General has made the following written ministerial statement:

“Craig Sweeney committed terrible crimes against a young child, for which he was sentenced to life imprisonment with a minimum term of six years less time served on remand. It is my responsibility as Attorney-General to consider whether to refer this sentence to the Court of Appeal as being unduly lenient.

My power to refer sentences to the Court of Appeal is one I exercise in my public interest capacity. Before I decide whether or not to refer a case, I give very careful consideration to the facts and surrounding circumstances of it, and receive advice from independent, specialist lawyers on the sentence imposed. I have approached this case in this way, and am satisfied that as the law stands and on current sentencing guidelines, the Court of Appeal would not interfere with this sentence. Accordingly, I cannot refer his case to the Court of Appeal.

The judge did what he could to protect the public from this dangerous man by passing a life sentence on him. This means he will not be released unless and until the Parole Board is satisfied that it would be safe to do so. It will now be their responsibility to make that judgement. The judge was however also required to set a "minimum term", that is to say a term before the Parole Board could even consider that question. In setting that term, he acted within existing sentencing guidance and law. Given his past history, Sweeney may never be released.

Like the case of Webster and French, this case raises a number of more general issues about the current sentencing framework—both the statutory requirements and the guidelines issued by the SGC.

I have already made clear my views that judges should have more discretion over the discount they give for an early guilty plea, and that the way discounts apply when a case is referred to the Court of Appeal needs to be re-examined. It is also plain that there is a need to re-examine the automatic 50 per cent. reduction in fixing the minimum term.

The Home Secretary, the Lord Chancellor and I are in complete agreement that we need a criminal justice system which protects the public, particularly vulnerable children, and in which the public has confidence. We will be making a further announcement on sentencing issues before the summer recess”.

Prime Minister

Intelligence and Security Committee's Annual Report (Government Response)

I have today laid before the House the Government's Response to the Intelligence and Security Committee's Annual Report 2005-06. Copies have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

Trade and Industry

Energy Supply (Winter 2006-07)

The National Grid Winter 2006-07 Consultation Update published by Ofgem today continues to indicate the possibility of a tight supply-demand balance for gas for winter 2006-07. This situation has led to concerns about high prices, and Government recognise the impact of high prices on domestic and industrial users. The Government are therefore keen to ensure that early action is taken to maximise supplies of gas to the UK for next winter.

Production of gas from the UK Continental Shelf, although lower than last winter, will continue to be by far the most important source of supply to the UK. The balance of demand will need to be met through imports and release of gas from storage.

The market is already responding by delivering further new import infrastructure that is due to be available for this winter. This includes the completion of the Langeled Pipeline from Norway and the further expansion of the Belgian interconnector. There are also plans for the Balgzand-Bacton pipeline from the Netherlands to be in place this winter, as well as the new Excelerate LNG ship import facility in Teesside.

The LNG import facility at the Isle of Grain will be available for the full duration of the winter, and the Humbly Grove storage facility is also available to start the winter at full capacity. The Rough storage facility has started injecting gas and should be refilled by the end of October, and should be available for storage withdrawal if needed at the beginning of October.

As reflected by the National Grid Update however, there is uncertainty around the overall position on supply-demand balance. This is partly a result of the risks associated with major infrastructure projects, and commercial uncertainties associated with the utilisation of the infrastructure.

The Government are monitoring closely the situation with regard to availability of import infrastructure, including progress of these new major infrastructure projects. The Government are also working to ensure that imports through the Interconnector and imports of LNG respond to demand from the UK. Interactions between the UK and other markets are growing, and Government are continuing their efforts with Ofgem and the European Commission to press for greater transparency and liberalisation in Continental European markets. The Government remain committed to the liberalised market as the means of delivering security of supply.

The Government are also seeking to encourage maximisation of UK production, and are meeting with key gas production companies, to emphasise the importance to the UK of maximising indigenous gas supply during the winter.

The Government are also working to ensure that the UK market can respond effectively to market conditions, through supply-side and demand-side response. The availability of electricity generation capacity is expected to be similar to last winter. We would expect that during periods of high gas demand, coal generation would again become significant as the base load generator, and some gas-fired generators would switch from gas to distillate as an alternative fuel.

Working within the environmental regulatory regime, the Government are keen to ensure that industry and the power generation sector have the necessary flexibility for fuel-switching and the use of alternative fuels. This recognises that at times of high gas demand last winter, demand-side response and baseload coal generation in the power generation sector was important.

As part of proper contingency and emergency planning, the Government are reviewing energy emergency arrangements, consulting industry and other interested parties. The Government will shortly be carrying out a consultation on gas priority user arrangements. The Government are also examining the role of the Network Emergency Co-ordinator, and reviewing energy emergency powers.

The Government are working to ensure that the best possible information on supply and demand forecasting is available to the industry, and is working closely with National Grid, Ofgem, the Met Office, and other key players.

The first meeting of the Business Energy Forum took place on 5 July. This is a high-level group jointly chaired by myself and Richard Lambert, Director General of the CBI. Its members include representatives from industry bodies including the Engineering Employers Federation, the Energy Intensive Users Group and the Chemical Industries Association, as well as representatives of gas producers and shippers, electricity generators and suppliers, and other user groups. The first meeting of the Group was successful in bringing together key players and focusing on key issues at a strategic level. It was agreed that Government and the business organisations would work together to ensure that efforts are co-ordinated and there is effective and regular communication in preparating for next winter.

Looking beyond next winter, the Government have also recognised the need for additional gas supply infrastructure, and a regulatory environment to allow such infrastructure to be delivered to the market in a timely fashion remains a priority for this Government. I therefore published in May, a Parliamentary Statement of Need for additional gas supply infrastructure, which set out the economic case for our growing need for more infrastructure, and clarified the Government policy context for planning and consent decisions on gas supply infrastructure projects.

The Government recognise that all participants in the market have a role to play, including the gas supply industry, which includes producers, transporters, and suppliers, users including industry, power generators and other energy intensive users, and regulatory bodies. The Government remain committed to ensuring that the UK's strong energy market has the opportunity to deliver to meet the UK's energy needs.