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Written Statements

Volume 454: debated on Thursday 14 December 2006

Written MinisterialStatements

Thursday 14 December 2006

Treasury

ECOFIN (28 November)

At its meeting of 28 November 2006 the Economic and Financial Affairs Council (ECOFIN) adopted a 104(8) Council Decision regarding Poland's Excessive Deficit Procedure.

ECOFIN adopted Conclusions on multilateral surveillance of the first progress reports on the Lisbon National Reform Programmes and on Global Factor Flows, in preparation for the European Council on 14-15th December.

Ministers adopted Conclusions on reducing the administrative burdens caused by statistics in the EU.

ECOFIN adopted Conclusions on the review of the Facility for Euro-Mediterranean Investment Partnership and agreed a general approach on the future of the European Investment Bank External Lending Mandates.

ECOFIN agreed Conclusions on future work to combat tax fraud.

Ministers discussed further issues relating to the minimum excise rates on alcoholic beverages.

ECOFIN reached agreement on the Travellers' Allowance Directive, providing for an increase in duty-free allowances.

Ministers agreed on a general approach to extend the 2003 e-commerce arrangements and agreed Council Conclusions on continuing work to modernise and simplify the VAT system.

ECOFIN took note of a progress report from the Code of Conduct Group on Business Taxation and adopted Conclusions on the future work of the Group.

Ministers heard an oral progress report from the Commission on company tax obstacles hindering the function of the internal market.

ECOFIN took note of a progress report from the Finnish Presidency on the Directive on Payment Services in the Internal Market.

Ministers received a presentation from the Commission on its approach to tackling barriers in the clearing and settlement industry and adopted Conclusions on this approach.

The Paymaster General represented the UK.

Constitutional Affairs

Freedom of Information and Data Protection

My right hon. and noble Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State has made the following written ministerial statement.

“The Government are today publishing for consultation the draft Freedom of Information and Data Protection (Appropriate Limit and Fees) Regulations 2007, which give effect to the changes the Government announced they were minded to make on 16 October 2006.

The draft regulations will extend the existing provisions by allowing public authorities to include reading time, consideration time, and consultation time in the calculation of the appropriate limit, above which requests could be refused on cost grounds; and aggregate all requests made by a person or persons who appear to be acting in concert or pursuance of a campaign to each public authority within a period of sixty working days for the purposes of calculating the appropriate limit.

An independent economic review of the operation of the Freedom of Information Act commissioned by my Department and published on 16 October 2006 found that a small percentage of requests and requestors were placing disproportionately large burdens on public authorities in terms of the costs of officials' time.

Whilst the Government believe it is entirely right that a reasonable amount of resource is spent dealing with requests for information we believe, in light of experience, that the existing provisions need to be amended in order to provide the right balance between access to information for all and the delivery of other public services.

The draft regulations will allow public authorities to take into account more accurately the work involved in dealing with an FOI request.

The draft regulations are being published for a 12-week consultation with responses being invited by 8 March 2007. The consultation paper, which includes a partial regulatory impact assessment, will be sent to key stakeholders. The consultation paper is available on my Department's website at www.dca.gov.uk”.

Culture, Media and Sport

Horserace Betting Levy Board

The Government have decided, after much consultation and deliberation, to retain the Horserace Betting Levy Board (Levy Board) and the associated horserace betting levy scheme. They are doing so on the basis that the scheme continues to reflect and balance the legitimate needs of racing against the ability of bookmakers to pay in accordance with the prevailing economic position.

The Government announced their intention to abolish the levy board and the levy mechanism in March 2000. This policy was approved on the basis that the horseracing industry was confident that a commercially-based alternative funding mechanism was available and requested that the Government abolish the levy board in order that it could fully exploit these new commercial opportunities.

The sport proposed to substitute the statutory levy income with a commercial arrangement based on the sale of pre-race data (runners, riders etc), primarily to bookmakers both here and abroad. The Government, preferring commercial arrangements between industries, brought forward legislation in the form of the Horserace Betting and Olympic Lottery Act 2004 to achieve this.

A judgment by the European Court of Justice in November 2004 cast serious doubt over the sport’s ability to enforce substantial payments for the use of its data and, as a result, the viability of the proposed replacement funding model. The Government have since engaged in lengthy discussions with the racing and betting industries on future funding arrangements, resulting in the establishment of an independent Future Funding of Racing Review Group (FFRRG), chaired by Lord Donoughue.

The FFRRG reported earlier this year, concluding that a secure alternative funding mechanism to the levy, which at £90 million to £100 million per annum represents a significant proportion of the sport’s income, was not presently available. The loss of the levy, without a commercial replacement of comparable value, would have serious and immediate adverse consequences for the racing industry, as well as knock-on effects to other related businesses, notably the betting industry and those within the rural economy.

Given the importance of the present statutory system, the Government have decided to retain the levy until such time as a secure and adequate alternative commercial funding arrangement can be identified. They also intend to repeal the sections of the existing legislation providing for the levy board’s abolition, to ensure that Parliament may be permitted to debate such a measure in light of the prevailing circumstances at the time.

In the meantime, the Government propose to modernise the existing levy mechanism with a view to removing as many of the unnecessary administrative burdens as possible and will consult stakeholders on the form and content of those changes in the new year. The Government also welcome the horseracing industry’s commitment to modernise and establish a new governing and regulatory body from 1 January 2007.

Defence

Combined Aerial Target Service

I am pleased to announce that QinetiQ have been awarded the contract to operate the subsonic target element of the Combined Aerial Target Service (CATS) programme worth £364.7 million.

This contract marks a significant step forward towards the delivery of the CATS project. In line with Defence Industrial Strategy it will provide a rationalised supplier base for MOD and will produce savings in the order of 10 per cent. of the total cost over the 20-year life of the contract. It will also mean we have a single service provider for subsonic aerial targets.

This contract is a Public-Private Partnership (PPP) arrangement within which QinetiQ will supply and operate subsonic aerial targets for the armed forces.

Supersonic aerial targets will be procured by the Ministry of Defence from the US because they are the only country that currently produces supersonic targets that are available to the UK.

Defence Training Review

The Defence Training Review (DTR) Programme aims to improve, modernise and rationalise the delivery of phase 2 and phase 3 specialist training. A PPP solution is being considered to deliver training on a defence rather than single service basis, and seeks to bring about the necessary modernisation and flexibility required to accommodate the Department's changing training requirements. The programme also aims to rationalise the existing training estate and provide investment in key sites to create centres of training excellence.

Bidders' proposals were received for package 1 on 17 October 2005, and package 2 on 14 November 2005, and a period of robust evaluation has concluded, with recommendations now being considered. Ministers have not yet made a decision. This is an extremely complex programme and we are committed to obtaining the best outcome for defence. However, I can confirm that an announcement of preferred bidders will now be delayed to the New Year, although the precise timing of the announcement cannot be given at this stage.

Autumn Performance Report

I have today placed in the Library of the House copies of the Ministry of Defence's autumn performance report. This shows that defence continues to deliver on its primary objectives in challenging circumstances. In particular, the armed forces, supported by their civilian colleagues, continue to succeed on current operations and have made a significant contribution towards the Government's wider conflict prevention goals.

Cabinet Office

Regulatory Impact Assessments

The Government are committed to ensuring that regulations are necessary, give effective protection, balance cost and risk, are fair and command public confidence.

In accordance with this, we require Departments to produce and publish “Impact Assessments” for all regulatory proposals likely to have an impact on business, charities or voluntary bodies and the public sector.

I have today presented to Parliament Command Papers listing “Impact Assessments” published between July and December 2005 and January to 30 June 2006. These are the 24th and 25th such Command Papers.

Copies have been placed in the Library for the reference of Members and will be available in the Vote Office

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Autumn Performance Report

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will publish the “2006 Autumn Performance Report”, which highlights progress since the publication of the departmental report in May towards the Department’s outstanding public service agreement targets, on Friday 15 December. Copies will be placed in the Libraries of the House. The report will also be available on the DEFRA website at: http://www.defra.gov.uk/corporate/deprep/default.htm

Agriculture and Fisheries Council

I will be representing the United Kingdom at this month’s Agriculture and Fisheries Council in Brussels. The Scottish Environment and Rural Affairs Minister, Ross Finnie, will also attend.

The presidency will seek political agreements on the total allowable catches (TACS) and quotas and related measures fixing fishing opportunities for certain fish stocks for 2007 and on a management plan for plaice and sole in the North Sea.

The Council will adopt the fisheries partnership agreement between the European Community, the Government of Denmark and the Home Rule Government of Greenland.

The presidency will seek a “general approach” from Council on a proposal to simplify and improve the current regulation on organic farming, (“general approach” being the term for an agreement reached before the European Parliament has issued its opinion).

The presidency will give a report on Community Animal Health Policy for 2007-13.

Under any other business, the Agriculture Commissioner will give a presentation on the common organisation of agricultural markets and agricultural products.

The Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner will give a progress report on the Commission’s proposal on marketing of plant protection products and on the EC -Russian Federation veterinary and phytosanitary agreement negotiations. He will also provide an update on the developments on avian influenza H5N1.

The presidency will also update the Council on the progress of the Commission’s Communication on a thematic strategy and accompanying proposal on the sustainable use of pesticides.

Over lunch, the Austrian and Finnish Ministers will share experiences gained from managing their joint presidency programmes over the past year.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

General Affairs and External Relations Council

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary (Margaret Beckett), Sir John Grant (UK Permanent Representative to the EU) and I represented the UK at the General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC) in Brussels.

The agenda items covered were as follows:

General Affairs

Council's 18-month Programme. January 2007-June 2008

Ministers took note of a presentation by the incoming German and future Portuguese and Slovenian Presidencies on the Council's draft operational programme for the next 18 months.

The priorities include: the future of the Union; the Lisbon strategy for jobs and growth; strengthening the EU's area of freedom, security and justice; and enhancing the role of the EU externally in the areas of security, development and economic relations.

Preparation of the European Council on 14/15 December 2006

Ministers discussed the draft European Council Conclusions covering EU enlargement; Justice and Home Affairs; Innovation, energy and climate change; and external relations with Africa, Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Enlargement/Turkey

The Council agreed Conclusions on Turkey such that eight chapters of the negotiations would not be opened and no chapter would be provisionally closed until the Commission verifies that Turkey has fulfilled its commitments related to the Additional Protocol to the Association Agreement. It also invited the Commission to report on this in its forthcoming annual reports, in particular in 2007, 2008 and 2009, as appropriate.

The Council also adopted Conclusions on Bulgaria and Romania, welcoming their accession on 1 January 2007, and on Croatia, welcoming the recommendations contained in the Commission's report of 8 November 2006.

Civil Protection Financial Instrument

The Council agreed a draft regulation to establish an instrument for the financing of Community action in the field of civil protection for 2007-2013.

External Relations

Middle East Peace Process

High Representative Solana briefed the Council on his recent visit to the region.

External Relations Commissioner, Ferrero-Waldner, noted the three-month extension of the Temporary International Mechanism for aid to the Palestinian people.

Lebanon

High Representative Solana briefed the Council on his visit.

Western Balkans

The Council agreed Conclusions on the Commission's progress reports on the Western Balkans and reaffirmed the EU's policy based on conditionality as set out in the Stabilisation and Association Process. This includes full cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Iran

High Representative Solana briefed the Council on recent discussions between the E3 and 3 (France, Germany, UK and China, Russia, US) on Iran's nuclear programme.

Code of Conduct

The Council discussed a draft common position defining common rules governing the control of exports of military technology and equipment. The draft common position builds on the EU code of conduct on arms exports introduced in 1998.

China arms embargo

The Council exchanged views on the China arms embargo.

Litvinenko

The Foreign Secretary gave a brief readout of developments in the Alexander Litvinenko case, including related public health issues.

Afghanistan

High Representative Solana noted that a joint Council Secretariat/Commission Fact Finding Mission was in Afghanistan to consider possible future EU activities in the Rule of Law sector.

The Commission reaffirmed its long-term commitment to reconstruction: it would pledge 150 million Euros per year for the period 2007-13.

The Council adopted Conclusions reaffirming the EU's ongoing support for Afghan reform and encouraging the Government of Afghanistan to fulfil their commitments under the Afghanistan Compact.

China Council Conclusions

The Commission welcomed the Council's endorsement of the recent Communication on China Negotiations with China on a Partnership and Cooperation Agreement would start in January 2007.

The Council adopted Conclusions on the EU's strategic partnership with China including collaboration on climate change and non-proliferation.

ATHENA review

The Council agreed a draft decision amending ATHENA, the mechanism administering common costs of EU operations with military or defence implications.

AOB: Belarus

The Council exchanged views under AOB, at Lithuania's request, on the proposal to temporarily withdraw Generalised System of Preferences from Belarus.

Health

Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act

The Government have today laid before Parliament a Command Paper (Cm 6989) detailing proposals for revision of the law on assisted reproduction and embryo research. Copies have been placed in the Library.

The proposals are the outcome of a wide-ranging review, which included a public consultation in 2005. The paper also provides more details on the proposed Regulatory Authority for Tissue and Embryos (RATE) which will replace existing regulatory bodies (the Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority, and the Human Tissue Authority).

These proposals will go on to form a Bill to be published in draft for pre-legislative scrutiny.

National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence- Good Practice Guidance

“The Good Practice Guidance on Managing the Introduction of New Healthcare Interventions and Links to NICE Technology Appraisal Guidance” has been placed in the Library.

This good practice guidance responds to a number of requests received by the Department to update guidance originally issued in 1999 (HSC 1999/176). As it is no longer possible to issue health service circulars, this refreshed guidance is being issued as good practice guidance.

The updated guidance clarifies the intent of the advice originally published in HSC 1999/176 and expands on the advice that the National Health Service use existing arrangements to access the publicly available evidence by providing a list of available evidence resources. This list of resources provides a broad selection of different organisations that provide information on new healthcare interventions. By clarifying what these sources of evidence are, the NHS should be able to use this guidance as the starting point when making decisions on the use of new healthcare interventions.

Finally, and most importantly, the refreshed guidance makes clear that primary care trusts should not refuse to provide treatments simply because guidance from NICE is awaited and explains that the role of NICE is not to assess every healthcare technology intended for use in the NHS.

The purpose of the section on the three month funding direction is to clarify the original intention of the direction, which was recognition of the fact that it can take some time to put the necessary funding arrangements in place to make a health care intervention available to NHS patients. However, this direction does not intend for the three months to be used as a waiting period prior to implementing NICE guidance.

Home Department

Immigration and Nationality Directorate

I am pleased to announce the publication of the independent Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) Complaints Audit Committee (CAC) annual report for the year 2005 to 2006. Copies are available in the House and on the Immigration and Nationality Directorate website.

This is CAC’s 12th report. Its role is to monitor the effectiveness of IND’s procedures for handling complaints. The annual report highlights a number of areas where IND needs to improve its performance, supported by a number of specific recommendations, many of which confirm findings of the IND review in July.

We very much welcome the report and its findings, which chime with July’s IND review.

For the first time this year IND’s response, which includes full details of the work it is doing to improve its complaint-handling procedures, has been published at the same time. Copies of this are available with the CAC’s report.

Animal (Scientific Procedures) Inspectorate

I am pleased to inform the House that I have today placed in the Library the annual report of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Inspectorate for the year 2005. This is the second annual report published by the Inspectorate.

Publication of the report honours a commitment given by the Government in response to a recommendation of the House of Lords Select Committee on Animals in Scientific Procedures in July 2002 that more information should be made available about the work of the inspectorate.

In the Government’s response, published in January 2003, we welcomed the Select Committee’s endorsement of the integrity of the inspectorate and of the important contribution that it has made to the welfare of animals in designated establishments. We also recognised that public awareness of the valuable job done by the inspectorate needed to be improved and concluded that this could be remedied, at least in part, by the publication of an annual report on its work.

The inspectorate’s second annual report published today provides an account of how the inspectorate has carried out its main tasks and other work in 2005, and contains a particular focus on two important areas.

First, it gives a brief introduction to the issue of the acquisition of non-human primates for use in scientific procedures and details the acceptance process and criteria used to determine the suitability of overseas centres that propose to supply UK laboratories with such animals.

Secondly, it addresses in detail the growing use of fish in scientific procedures and explains their major uses during the year. This focus on fish includes information on the role of genetically altered fish, the types of housing required, water quality and other general issues to explain handling, methods of identification and how behaviour is judged as well as environmental enrichment.

The report explains what the inspectors do and how they do it, and provides details of the inspectorate’s staffing and structure, ways of working, professional background and skills, and training and development.

The report also explains the inspectorate’s key role in assessing and advising Home Office Ministers and officials on applications for personal and project licences and certificates of designation under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986. It also provides details of the inspection system, through which compliance with licence authorities granted under the 1986 Act is monitored and provides information about visiting patterns and practice and the number of visits carried out during the year.

I commend the report to Members.

Northern Ireland

Salmon and Inland Fisheries (Annual Report 2005)

Copies of the Salmon and Inland Fisheries Annual Report of the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure for 2005 have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

The document provides details of the Department’s activities to conserve, protect and develop salmon and inland fisheries under the provisions of the Fisheries Act (Northern Ireland) 1966, as amended, and includes statistical information and income and expenditure details for the 2005-06 financial year.

Prime Minister

Cabinet Committees/Policy Review Working Groups

I have placed a copy of the current list of Cabinet Committees, their full membership and terms of reference in the Libraries of both Houses. I have also placed the membership of the Policy Review Working Groups in the Libraries of both Houses. Details are also available on the Cabinet Office website.

Transport

Dartford-Thurrock River Crossing

The Government are today launching a 12-week consultation on their proposals for changes to the charging regime at the Dartford-Thurrock River Crossing (the Crossing). A draft charging order, consultation document and regulatory impact assessment have been drawn up and are available for inspection.

The Department has been reviewing the charging regime in the light of current traffic levels, likely future demand and broader transport policy considerations. The proposed charging regime sets charges for cash payment and discounts for those who pay by an electronic ‘Dart-Tag’ and pre-pay account.

Cash Charge

Tag Charge

Day charges (6am-10pm)

Night charges (10pm-6am)

Day charges (6pm-10pm)

Night charges (10pm-6am)

Cars

£1.50

Free

£1.00

Free

2 Axle Goods

£2.00

Free

£1.75

Free

Multi Axle Goods

£4.00

Free

£3.20

Free

The Government are also seeking comments on suggestions from local Members of Parliament that discounts be made available for local residents, and comments on proposals for reinvestment of the revenue collected through the charging scheme.

The draft charging order authorises the exemption from the charging regime of certain motor vehicles as set out in schedule 4 to the draft charging order and enables variations to be made to the regime in line with the retail price index.

Notice of the consultation has today been given in the London Gazette. Notices will follow in the appropriate local newspapers. Consultation documents are available on the Department for Transport’s website at: www.dft.gov.uk/roads/dartfordconsultation, and at Dartford borough council and Thurrock council offices. Copies will be placed in the House Library. Respondents to the consultation can send their views to the:

Secretary of State

c/o Julian Smith

Dartford Consultation

Zone 3/05

Great Minster House

76 Marsham Street

London SW1P 4DR or by email to: dartford.consultation@dft.gsi.gov.uk

The Dartford-Thurrock Crossing Road User Charging Scheme accounts for 2005-06 are published today under section 3 (1) (d) of the Trunk Road Charging Schemes (Bridges and Tunnels) (Keeping of Accounts) (England) Regulations 2003. A copy of the accounts will be placed in the House Library.

UK Vehicle Register

In my statement of 24 July 2006, Official Report, columns 94-96WS, I promised that the Department would carry out a review of progress on implementing new measures in respect to the release of data from the UK vehicle register.

The report of that review has now been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

The Future of Air Transport

I am today publishing a progress report on “The Future of Air Transport” White Paper, 2003. Copies are available in the Libraries of both Houses and Vote Office. This document fulfils a commitment to report on progress made in implementing the White Paper by the end of 2006.

The progress report confirms the detailed strategy set out in 2003 for the sustainable development of air travel to 2030, balancing the growing aspirations to travel and the economic benefits that it brings with the need to protect the environment. The progress report confirms our earlier assessment that demand for air travel will continue to grow strongly. In line with the conclusions of Sir Rod Eddington’s recent study on transport infrastructure, it acknowledges the benefits that meeting this demand brings to business and to individuals across the UK.

The Government reaffirm their commitment to the development of the aviation sector, predominantly through making the best use of existing capacity, and ensuring that where new capacity is required its provision is in line with our environmental obligations.

In 2003, the White Paper made clear the importance of taking effective international action to tackle aviation’s contribution to the global challenge of climate change. The report demonstrates the action that we are taking to ensure that the aviation sector meets its external climate change costs. The Government intend to introduce a new emissions cost assessment, which will be an assessment of whether the aviation sector is meeting its external costs of climate change. This will inform Ministers’ decisions on major increases in aviation capacity. We intend to consult on this proposal next year.

The report confirms our continued strong support for the inclusion of aviation in the EU emissions trading scheme. We are committed to achieving this as soon as practicable. Since aviation is excluded from the Kyoto protocol we will push hard for the modernisation of the Chicago convention and the International Civil Aviation Organisation, to make it easier for negotiations there to deliver international progress on this issue.

The document clearly sets out our intended next steps in delivering the Government’s aviation policy. We are committed to reporting again on our progress in implementing these policies in three to five years’ time.

Work and Pensions

Autumn Performance Report

I am publishing today the “Autumn Performance Report” of the Department for Work and Pensions. The report is intended to supplement the Department’s annual report published in May 2006 (Cm 6829).

The report provides the latest account of how the Department is performing against its public service agreement targets and its efficiency challenge.

For the first time, this publication has been specifically designed to be accessed online and is available on the Department’s website. For the convenience of Members, some printed copies have been placed in the Library. Copies are also available from the Vote Office and Printed Paper Office.

Benefit Fraud Inspectorate (Programme of Work)

On behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the Benefit Fraud Inspectorate (BFI) has today announced its phase 18 programme of work.

The authorities that will be inspected are: Amber Valley borough council, Basildon district council, Broadland district council, Colchester borough council, London Borough of Haringey, North Shropshire district council, South Lakeland district council.

BFI is an independent unit within the Department for Work and Pensions that inspects and reports directly to the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions on the standard of benefit administration and counter-fraud activity in local authorities and the Department itself.

Occupational Pension Schemes

I have today placed a copy of the pensions regulator’s latest discussion document “Abandonment of Defined Benefit Pension Schemes” in the Library of the House. The pensions regulator’s statutory objectives require it to take steps to tackle threats to pension scheme members’ benefits. This consultation document sets out how the regulator proposes to regulate situations in which employers seek to transfer pension schemes to less secure arrangements in order to reduce their financial liabilities. In particular, the regulator considers that it is unlikely to be in the best interests of members for the link with an employer of substance to be broken without the employer meeting the cost of buying out the benefits with a regulated insurer.

The Government are determined that members of defined benefit pension schemes should have confidence that their pensions are secure, and that their employers will meet their commitments. Effective action by the pensions regulator makes a major contribution to member confidence and the security of their pensions, and I welcome this discussion document setting out the regulator’s plans in this important area.