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Written Statements

Volume 461: debated on Friday 15 June 2007

Written Ministerial Statements

Friday 15 June 2007

Communities and Local Government

Local Government Pension Scheme

In previous statements to the House I have made clear the Government's commitment not only to provide decent final salary pensions for those employed by local authorities and other organisations associated with local government but also to ensure that Members' pensions are secure, affordable and viable, and fair to the taxpayers who guarantee their continued security.

In regulating the Scheme and ensuring its long term future, the Government remain committed to providing equality-proofed benefits which are flexible and attractive to employers and employees both now, and in the future.

The Government see it as critical to maintain stability of costs in the Scheme going forward, particularly when the new-look Local Government Pension Scheme in England and Wales takes full effect from 1 April 2008. Throughout the reform process of the past few years, the Government's intention has been to ensure that no additional costs are imposed on taxpayers or employers. This objective remains central to any considerations surrounding amendments to the Scheme's regulatory framework and it is reinforced by the Government's wish to only consider such changes within the agreed Scheme cost-envelope.

Against that background, and in the light of representations and discussions with employee representatives, I am announcing today a forthcoming statutory consultation on proposals to extend the current levels of protection in the Scheme for older employers originally introduced by the Local Government Pension Scheme (Amendment) and (Amendment No.2) Regulations 2006 and which took effect from 1 October 2006. The draft proposals would involve amending those regulations to provide a full, rather than a tapered, protection to 2020 with appropriate offsetting savings for the estimated cost of this (some £25 million a year) being made from elsewhere in the Scheme. The necessary national consultation with all Scheme stakeholders in England and Wales, required by the Superannuation Act 1972, will begin shortly and extend for a 12-week period.

I am grateful for the range of responses from Scheme stakeholders received to the recent informal consultation exercise which closed on 13 June. They build on the representations made previously and provide support for an assessment of the current levels of protection at 2016. The new consultation will provide a fresh and longer opportunity for Scheme stakeholders to consider the terms of the proposition, in the context both of equality considerations and of identification of means to offset additional costs within the existing cost envelope.

To ensure the continuing solvency of the Scheme and to meet the Government's longstanding policy towards ensuring no adverse effects on taxpayers, the costs of implementing any Scheme amendments to improve the level of protections would need to be provided from within the Scheme. This could be achieved either by increases in employee contributions, or from further amendments which will reduce a specific element of the new 2008 benefit structure. Alternatively, some other means could be sought from within the existing Scheme regulatory framework which will also expressly offset the specific estimated total additional costs imposed to pay for the improved protections, as determined by the Government Actuary's Department.

If no statutory and agreed means of providing the necessary resources to extend the proposed level of protection emerge from the consultation, then it will be necessary to retain the present level of protection.

Education and Skills

Children Act 2004 (Section 58 Review)

The Government are today commencing a review of section 58 of the Children Act 2004, which limits the availability of the “reasonable punishment” defence in cases involving alleged assaults by parents on their children. There will be two main elements to the review. First, the review will seek parents' views on physical punishment through a parental opinion survey which will be undertaken this summer. Secondly, the review is consulting those working with children and families and parents' organisations to gain views and evidence from professionals and practitioners on the practical effects and working of section 58. This consultation is being published today on the Department for Education and Skills website. The findings from the parental survey, as well as responses and evidence submitted during the consultation will inform the outcome of the review and a review report will be laid before Parliament in the autumn. There are no current plans to change the legislation.

The review is being undertaken in line with the commitment made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Margaret Hodge) during the passage of the Children Bill to review the section's practical effects two years after it came into effect and also to seek parents' views about physical punishment.

Copies of the consultation have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Veterinary Medicines Directorate

The 2006-07 Annual Report and Accounts for the Veterinary Medicines Directorate will be laid before Parliament today.

Copies will be available in the Libraries of both Houses.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Consular Fees

The Government are today announcing new fees to be charged under this Order with effect from 4 October 2007.

The Order increases the level of the consular premium charged on passports issued in the UK by the Identity and Passport Service (IPS). This premium is the element in the cost of a passport which pays for the provision of consular assistance to British nationals overseas and which is collected in the UK by IPS on behalf of the FCO. The amount of the premium varies for different categories of passport. For the most commonly issued of passport—the 32 page adult passport issued by post—the consular premium will rise from £9.65 to £15.12. The consular premium charged by the FCO on its passports, issued overseas, was increased in April 2007 by the Consular Fees Order 2007. A separate Order was required to implement this change to passports issued in the UK by IPS.

This Order also increases the minimum fee for making or verifying (including certifying where necessary) a copy of a document by photographic process, if the copy is made in the consular premises. It further introduces a fee for making searches in the naturalisation or registration records kept by a consular officer in posts where, prior to 1983, naturalisations and registrations were done by Governors or High Commissioners.

It is right that those who benefit from consular assistance overseas should help meet the cost of this service, rather than the UK taxpayer in general. The new fees represent the full economic cost of what we do, and will ensure that British missions overseas continue to provide a high standard of consular service to British nationals.

A full list of the new fees, and the individual increases, is included in the tables below.

£

Fee No.

Description

Previous fee

New fee

Increase

For applications made in the United Kingdom, issuing a passport of 32 pages which includes replacing an expired passport, issuing a new passport of full validity when an original passport of restricted validity is unavailable and issuing a new passport with amended personal details

For applications made by post

12(a)(i)

where the applicant is aged 16 years or over

66.00

72.00

6.00

12(a)(ii)

where the applicant is under 16 years old (for a passport valid for 5 years)

45.00

46.00

1.00

For applications made in person

12(b)(i)

where the applicant is aged 16 years or over using the fast-track service

91.00

97.00

6.00

12(b)(ii)

where the applicant is under 16 years old (for a passport valid for 5 years) using the fast-track service

80.00

81.00

1.00

12(b)(iii)

where the applicant is aged 16 years or over using the fast-track collect service

103.00

109.00

6.00

12(b)(iv)

where the applicant is under 16 years old (for a passport valid for 5 years) using the fast-track collect service

90.00

91.00

1.00

12(b)(v)

where the applicant is aged 16 years or over using the premium service

108.00

114.00

6.00

12(b)(vi)

where the applicant is under 16 years old (for a passport valid for 5 years) using the premium service

93.00

94.00

1.00

For applications made in the United Kingdom, issuing a passport of 48 pages which includes replacing an expired passport, issuing a new passport of full validity when an original passport of restricted validity is unavailable and issuing a new passport with amended personal details

13(a)

for applications made by post in the United Kingdom

77.00

85.00

8.00

for applications made in person in the United Kingdom

13(b)(i)

using the fast-track service

97.00

105.00

8.00

13(b)(ii)

using the fast-track collect service

100.50

109.00

8.50

13(b)(iii)

using the premium service

114.50

123.00

8.50

Part 4 Fee 30(d)

search of naturalisation or registration records kept by a consular officer

n/a

72.00

New fee

£

Fee No.

Description

Previous minimum charge

New minimum charge

Increase

Making or verifying (including certifying where necessary, a copy of a document

Part 1 6(b)

by photographic process, if the copy is made in the consular premises, for each page - £5.00

£17.50

£25.00

£7.50

General Affairs and External Relations Council

The General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC) will be held on 17-18 June in Luxembourg, My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs will represent the UK.

The agenda items are as follows:

General Affairs

Treaty Reform Process

The Council is expected to discuss the Presidency's report on the state of discussions on EU institutional reform, including the issues raised during consultations with Member States. The Government believe that the way forward should be on the basis of an amending rather than a constitutional Treaty.

Preparation of the European Council

The Council is expected to look ahead to the European Council on 21 -22 June, at which we expect Treaty Reform to be the main item.

Global Approach to Migration

The Council is expected to adopt Conclusions on the basis of a Commission Communication on extending the global approach to migration to the east and south-east of the EU, and on circular migration and mobility packages.

External Relations

Doha Development Round

The Commission is expected to brief the Council on preparations for the meeting of the G4 (EU, US, Brazil and India) on 19-23 June in Potsdam. Discussion at the Council is likely to focus on the importance of a balanced deal, and the role of the G4 Members and the Commission in the process. The Government wants to see an ambitious, pro-development outcome to the World Trade Organisation Round.

European Neighbourhood Policy

The Council is expected to adopt Conclusions on the European Neighbourhood Policy acknowledging and building on the Presidency Progress Report. The Government support a strengthened ENP offering improved incentives to reform and a Neighbourhood Investment Fund that improves the effectiveness of financial assistance in the Neighbourhood.

Central Asia Strategy

The Presidency is expected to present its strategy for the development of EU relations with Central Asia, which the Government support.

Western Balkans

The Council is expected to discuss Serbia and Kosovo. The Council is also likely to adopt Conclusions on Serbia and Schengen visa facilitation. The Government support Enlargement Commissioner Rehn's decision to restart negotiations with Serbia on its Stabilisation and Association Agreement (SAA) on the basis that full cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia will remain a requirement for SAA conclusion.

Middle East Peace Process

The Council is expected to discuss the forthcoming Quartet meetings at the end of June with the parties and the Arab League; the continuing insecurity in Gaza; and the political situation in Israel following the Labour Party Primaries on 12 June. The Council may also discuss economic development and capacity building. The Government believe the EU must continue to play a role in support of the political horizon talks between Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas, including through building Palestinian institutional capacity.

The Council is expected to adopt Conclusions on the situation in Nahr Al-Bared, which has seen a series of violent clashes between the Lebanese Army and the Sunni extremist group, Fatah Al-Islam. The Conclusions underline support for the Lebanese Government's efforts to bring the situation under control, condemn Fatah Al-Islam and stress the need to respect humanitarian needs.

Arab League Initiative

The Presidency has proposed an EU troika meeting at senior official level with representatives from the Arab League. The Government support this proposal in so far as it does not duplicate existing EU structures for dialogue with Middle East partners, for example the EuroMed Partnership.

Iran

The High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana, is expected to brief the Council on his recent discussions with Ali Larijani, Iran's chief nuclear negotiator and secretary of the Supreme National Security Council. The Council is also expected to adopt Conclusions.

Sudan

The Council is expected to discuss the importance of securing Sudanese acceptance for the third phase of the UN support for the African Union peacekeeping force, a hybrid African Union/UN force and to consider possible next steps. The Government believe the EU has an important role to play in maintaining pressure on the parties, supporting the UN and African Union, and in financing the African Union Mission in Sudan until a UN force arrives.

Death Penalty Initiative

The Presidency is expected to brief partners on its proposal for the Council to endorse a decision in principle for the EU to introduce an anti-death penalty resolution at a forthcoming session of the UN General Assembly. The Government support this approach on the basis that any proposal will be carefully planned to ensure the best chance of success.

Libya

External Relations Commissioner, Benita Ferrero-Waldner, is expected to update the Council on progress towards securing the release of the Bulgarian and Palestinian medical staff imprisoned in Libya, including her visit to Libya with Foreign Minister Steinmeier on 10 - 11 June.

Work and Pensions

Health and Safety Framework Directive

The European Court of Justice has today delivered its judgment in the long running infraction case (C-127/05) against the United Kingdom concerning the UK's alleged under-implementation of the EC's Health and Safety Framework Directive (89/39 I/EEC) by the use of the qualifier "so far as is reasonably practicable" (SFAIRP) on an employer's duty to safeguard his or her workers. The Court has dismissed the European Commission's case and awarded the UK costs.

I welcome this decision. It enables us to maintain our proportionate and risk-based approach to protecting employees and others effectively, whilst allowing common sense to be applied when deciding on what protective measures to adopt.