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Written Statements

Volume 456: debated on Thursday 1 February 2007

Written Ministerial Statements

Thursday 1 February 2007

Constitutional Affairs

Divisions of General Commissioners

My right hon. Friend Baroness Ashton, the Parliamentary Under- Secretary of State has made the following statement in the other place.

“I have made an Order under Section 2 (6) of the Taxes Management Act 1970 amalgamating a number of Divisions in Dorset, Hampshire, London, West Sussex, Gwent and the Tees Valley as follows:

with effect from 1 February 2007,

New Forest East Division and Wessex Division are merged into New Forest East and Wessex Division;

St Paul Covent Garden Division and St Giles in the Fields and St George Bloomsbury Division are merged into Bloomsbury and Covent Garden Division;

North Dorset Division and West Dorset and Weymouth Division are merged into North Dorset, West Dorset and Weymouth Division;

Bedwellty Division, Monmouth Division, Newport Division and Pontypool Division are merged into Gwent Division.

Part of the West Sussex Western Division (that part being the area which formerly constituted the Shoreham Division) is merged into the West Sussex Northern Division

Aldershot Division and Basingstoke Division are merged into Aldershot and Basingstoke Division;

And with effect from 25 April 2007,

Hartlepool with Stockton Division and Teeside South with Langbaurgh Division are merged into Tees Valley Division

“All the amalgamations were made at the request of the General Commissioners in all the Divisions with the aim of improving the organisational efficiency of the Divisions concerned. I have placed copies of the Order amalgamating the Divisions in the Libraries of both Houses”.

Defence

Afghanistan: Roulement

As with any military operation, those forces assigned to operations in Afghanistan are subject to periodic rotation. Preparations for the next such rotation are underway now. These build on the progress we have made in Helmand in the six months since 10 July 2006 when I informed the House of our current deployments in Afghanistan. Our military effort is a part of the United Nations' authorised and NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

The UK will hand over command of the ISAF on 4 February 2007 and the Command Group of the Allied Rapid Reaction Corps, will then return to their base at Rheindalen. In their place, the UK will provide some 140 personnel for the new ISAF Headquarters now forming in Kabul, leading to an overall reduction of the UK presence in the city of around 500 troops.

In the South, 3 Commando Brigade, Royal Marines, will complete their tour in April 2007. They will be replaced by units drawn principally from 12 Mechanised Brigade. We have also decided to maintain until April 2009 some capabilities already deployed, including the Harrier GR7/GR9s, the Apache Attack Helicopters, Viking all-terrain vehicles, and Royal Engineers to support reconstruction activities. By the late summer, personnel numbers in Southern Afghanistan should settle at around 5,800.

The principal units to deploy are: the Brigade Headquarters and its Signal Squadron, the Light Dragoons, the 1st Battalion The Grenadier Guards, the 1st Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment, The 1st Battalion The Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters, 26 Engineer Regiment Royal Engineers, 19 Regiment Royal Artillery, 2 Signal Regiment Royal Signals, 4 Logistic Support Regiment Royal Logistic Corps, and 4 General Support Medical Regiment Royal Army Medical Corps.

Elements of other units are also deploying to provide niche capabilities. These include: the Armoured Support Group of the Royal Marines, the Light Dragoons, the Second Royal Tank Regiment; 3 Regiment, Army Air Corps; 9 Regiment, Army Air Corps; 1 (Fighter), IV (Army Co-Operation), 18, 24, 27, 30, 47 and 70 Squadrons of the Royal Air Force, 3, 5 and 7 Force Protection Wing Headquarters, Royal Air Force, and 2, 51 and 15 Squadrons of the Royal Air Force Regiment.

As with previous deployments to Afghanistan, there will be a requirement to deploy reservists to serve in theatre. Current plans indicate that around 600 Call Out Notices are to be served on individual reservists in order to fill approximately 420 posts (including nine Sponsored Reserve).

All military operations are subject to regular review. Work on the balance of NATO's commitment in Afghanistan is underway and I intend to discuss this with my NATO colleagues when we next meet on 8-9 February. I shall keep the House informed of progress and any implications for the UK's own force structures.

Education and Skills

Draft School Admissions Code

On Monday 8 January, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Skills laid before Parliament the new school admissions code in draft form for 40 days as required by section 85 of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998.

This statement brings to the attention of the House the correction slip which has been issued in respect of the penultimate sentence of paragraph 3 of the Introduction (page 7). This currently states that:

“This code has been made following a consultation under section 85(2) of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, as provided by section 40(9) of the Education and Inspections Act 2006, and has been approved by Parliament as required under section 85(3) of the 1998 Act.”

This statement is inaccurate in relation to its description of the prescribed Parliamentary procedure as the draft code in fact attracts the negative procedure. The sentence as corrected should state:

“This code has been made following a consultation under section 85(2) of the School Standards and Framework Act 1998, as provided by section 40(9) of the Education and Inspections Act 2006, and has been laid before each House of Parliament as provided by section 85(3) of the 1998 Act.”

The Government apologise for the error. The timing of this new school admissions code is crucial. Admission authorities for all schools must complete consultation on their proposed admission arrangements by 1 March, and make a final determination of what these arrangements will be by 15 April in the calendar year before the academic year in which they will apply. The new code must therefore be in force before 1 March 2007 if it is to apply to admissions in September 2008. The Government consider that it would be unacceptable for the unfair practices and criteria that will be prohibited by this new school admissions code to be permitted for another year. As the school admissions code must be issued in the form of the draft, my Department has therefore issued a correction slip to the draft currently laid before both Houses which I have placed in the House Libraries.

If neither House resolves to reject the code (as corrected), I intend to bring it into force on 28 February 2007. It first affects school admission arrangements currently being determined for entry in the 2008 academic year. The code sets out a strong framework for setting fair and equitable admission arrangements and prohibits the use of unfair criteria so that no child is disadvantaged compared to another in admissions.

Home Department

Deportation with Assurances (Lebanon)

As the House is aware, the Government have been negotiating bilateral international instruments on deportation with assurances (DWA) with a number of countries in North Africa and the Middle East. To date Memoranda of Understanding (MoUs) have been signed with Jordan (10 August 2005), Libya (18 October 2005) and Lebanon (23 December 2005). We have reached agreement on separate arrangements with Algeria.

These MoUs on DWA provide a framework for assurances to be sought to facilitate the deportation of foreign nationals who pose a threat to the national security of the United Kingdom to their countries of origin in accordance with internationally accepted standards, in particular Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights (prohibition of torture or inhuman or degrading treatment).

Monitoring is one element of these arrangements aimed at providing effective safeguards against ill treatment of those being returned. Monitoring bodies have already been appointed in respect of returns to Jordan and Libya under the MoUs agreed with those countries. I am now pleased to inform the House of the appointment of the Institute of Human Rights (IHR) as the monitoring body in relation to returns to Lebanon. The contract for this appointment was signed on Friday 5 January 2007.

The Institute for Human Rights is a non-governmental body within the independent Beirut Bar Association. The IHR has experience in the monitoring of human rights and we believe that it will carry out its monitoring role under the MoU fully and robustly. We have offered the IHR capacity building support as it prepares for its role as monitor.

Northern Ireland

Policing Board

The Northern Ireland Policing Board is required to be reconstituted on the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly, in accordance with the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000. In preparation for this I am announcing today my intention to launch a recruitment competition for independent members of the Policing Board and also the introduction of legislation to provide for the running of the competition.

I would like to take this opportunity also to pay tribute to Board members past and present for the significant contributions they have made to policing in Northern Ireland.

Prime Minister

Surveillance Commissioner

I am pleased to announce that I have re-appointed the right hon. Sir Philip Otton as a surveillance commissioner in accordance with Section 91 of the Police Act 1997.

The appointment will be from 1 February 2007 to 31 January 2010. The remit of each surveillance commissioner covers the whole of the United Kingdom so that any surveillance commissioner can act in jurisdictions other than his own.

Trade and Industry

Oil and Gas Licensing (24th Round)

After thorough consideration of 147 applications made in the 24th offshore licensing round, I have decided to offer 150 production licences. This makes the 24th round one of the most successful in history, which demonstrates the continuing attractiveness both of the United Kingdom continental shelf as an oil-producing province and of DTI's licensing system. In addition to the strategic environmental assessment (SEA), which I described in my Statement to the House when I invited applications for the 24th licensing round, my officials have conducted an appropriate assessment (AA) as required by the habitats and birds directives. I have accepted the conclusions of this AA which concerns those blocks offered as part of the 24th licensing round excluding blocks 17/3, 106/30, 107/21 and 107/22. These four blocks were excluded because the consultation on the draft AA raised questions about the impact of possible oil and gas related activities on marine mammals within particular areas close to the blocks. In considering these issues it became apparent that more time should be taken to consider the issues and I have therefore instructed my officials to commission further work on the sensitivities of these areas and to prepare a second AA for them. This second AA will then be subject to a further period of public consultation before I make a final decision on the four blocks concerned. The awards to be made now are summarised in the table that has been placed in the Library of the House.

Regional Development Agencies' Output Results

I have published the reported mid-year output results for 2006-07 for England's Regional Development Agencies.

The data show the progress made by the Regional Development Agencies between April and September 2006 in delivering against the core output targets set in RDA Corporate Plans for 2005-2008. The figures cover employment creation and support, business creation and support, leverage of public and private sector infrastructure investment, brownfield land reclamation/ redevelopment, and skills development.

Copies of the mid-year output results have been placed in the House Library and the results have also been placed on the DTI website at

http://www.dti.gov.uk/regional/regional-dev-agencies/rda-performance/page24205.html.