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Written Statements

Volume 467: debated on Tuesday 13 November 2007

Written Ministerial Statements

Tuesday 13 November 2007

Treasury

National Insurance Contributions Bill

I have published today the Impact Assessment for the National Insurance Contributions Bill. Copies are available in the Vote Office, Printed Paper Office and have also been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

The National Insurance Contributions Bill will ensure that the Government can implement one of the reforms announced in the Budget 07 personal tax package, creating by 2009-10 a personal tax system which has two income bands covering both income tax and NICs.

The Bill will also include changes to the State Second Pension following the announcement by the Chancellor in the pre-Budget report. It was announced that the Government will bring forward the introduction of the Upper Accruals Point in 2009.

Culture, Media and Sport

Education, Youth and Culture Council

The Education, Youth and Culture Council will be held on 15-16 November in Brussels. Anne Lambert, UK Deputy Permanent Representative, will be representing the UK on 16 November when Culture issues will be taken. Education issues will be taken on 15 November.

The first item on the agenda will be a report from the presidency on the first meeting of the EU-Russia Permanent Partnership Council on Culture which was held on 25 October 2007. This meeting was to discuss the future priorities for cultural co-operation between the two partners. The presidency is expected to present the outcome of the meeting to the Council and the Declaration that was agreed.

The presidency will then seek the adoption of the Council Resolution on a European agenda for culture in a globalising world. The Commission published a Communication in June of this year which examined the role of culture in Europe and how the European Union can add value to this. Following the publication of this Communication, the Portuguese presidency proposed a draft Council Resolution setting out the member states' response to the issues raised by the Commission. Working Group discussions have resolved the UK's concerns with the Resolution, notably, acknowledging that culture is essentially a matter for member states, that participation in the Open Method of Co-ordination on any given work strand will be voluntary and that the results will be non-binding. The Council is expected to adopt the Resolution and I intend to endorse this course of action.

The Council will then be invited to adopt a decision on the selection of two cities to host the European Capital of Culture event for 2011. Estonia and Finland are the EU member states nominating cites for this event and have put forward Tallinn and Turku respectively. I intend to support this proposal.

Under Any Other Business, the presidency will provide feedback on expert conferences in the field of culture and information on forthcoming events. The Commission will give information on the EU-China declaration in the field of culture and education. I do not foresee any need to intervene on any of these items.

Defence

Afghanistan

With the expiry of the call-out order made last October, a new order has been made under Section 54 of the Reserve Forces Act 1996 to enable Reservists to continue to be called out into service to support operations in Afghanistan. The new order is effective until 11 November 2008. Reservists are making a valuable contribution to operations in that country and some 700 reservists are currently called out in support of the operation.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Tidal Surge

Further to my report to the House last Thursday, 8 November 2007, column 365, volume 467, I would like to provide an update on the significant tidal surge which affected the coast of Eastern England last week.

On 5 November, the Met Office's storm tide forecasting service alerted us to a possible tidal surge in the North Sea later on in the week. By Thursday, it had become clear that there was a significant risk of potentially serious flooding in coastal areas of eastern England during the next 48 hours and the Environment Agency issued a number of severe flood warnings. Police Gold Commands were established in Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex to co-ordinate the emergency response to any flooding, including evacuation where necessary and in line with the standing emergency arrangements, the Government's COBR committee was convened to ensure that all preparations were in place.

The Thames Barrier was closed as a precaution. High volume pumps were sent to the area and 21 water rescue teams were on stand-by to carry out rescue if needed. The Environment Agency also moved temporary barriers across country overnight from Worcestershire and erected them to protect an electricity sub-station in Great Yarmouth.

The peak of the surge passed down the eastern coast on Friday morning. Tides at Great Yarmouth were the highest they have been since the dreadful flooding of 1953. Fortunately, however, the surge levels were around 20cm lower than originally predicted and the wind direction more favourable than anticipated. While there were some relatively minor breaches and overtopping at individual locations along the coast, the defences performed well, few homes were flooded and thankfully no lives were lost. People have now returned to their homes.

A similar picture is emerging from other southern North Sea countries which were also affected by the surge.

We will need time to assess the impact of the flooding on the natural environment and biodiversity, notably the flooding of coastal marshes and saline intrusion into the Norfolk Broads and sensitive sites on the Suffolk coast. The Environment Agency are working with Natural England and the RSPB, but the full extent of any impact will not be known for some weeks.

That we did not witness similar scenes to 1953 is in no small part due to the commitment of successive Governments, over many years, which have invested considerable sums of money in strengthening both coastal and inland flood defences and established the sophisticated flood forecasting and warning systems which gave us crucial time to prepare. That investment included the Thames Barrier which provides a high degree of protection—and hence confidence—to London.

The operational handling of any event is vital, and the emergency services, local authorities, Environment Agency, Met Office, and others acted swiftly to warn those at risk and initiate precautionary evacuation. This is testament to the effective emergency planning arrangements we have in place which are tested regularly at local, regional and national level.

I would like to place on record my personal appreciation to all those who worked so hard during this incident, and for the public's co-operation at what have must been a very distressing time for those affected.

In contrast to the devastating impact of the 1953 floods, widespread flooding was avoided on this occasion. However we must remain vigilant to the risk of further such events.

Foot and Mouth/Blue Tongue Disease

I would like to update the House on the Foot and Mouth and Bluetongue outbreaks further to my oral statement to the House on 8 October 2007, column 39, volume 464.

A number of changes have been made to the measures put in place as a result of Foot and Mouth disease and restrictions have been significantly relaxed.

On 17 October, following extensive surveillance work and veterinary risk assessment, the Protection Zone around the infected premises and all movement restrictions outside the Risk Area were lifted, resulting in the removal of all movement restrictions for most parts of the country. This was extended further when on 21October the Risk Area was reduced and became a 10km Restricted Zone around the areas where surveillance was continuing. Finally, on 5 November the Surveillance Zone was lifted, and while the Restricted Zone remains in place, the movement restrictions within the zone have been relaxed.

These changes have taken place as part of a plan to phase out restrictions as soon as possible once the disease situation and risk assessment allows. Extensive surveillance has now been carried out in a large area surrounding Pirbright and the infected premises and no further cases of foot and mouth have been found. This has resulted in a return to pre 3 August movement rules in most of the country.

I am also able to confirm that the restrictions on intra-community trade have been significantly relaxed. On 12 October the European Commission supported a Decision which allowed meat and meat products to be exported from a significant portion of Great Britain to other EU Member States, subject to conditions. The area from which these exports could take place was subsequently increased on 19 October and the conditions for exporting meat and meat products were eased slightly. These decisions were a welcome relief for many in the farming and exporting industries and demonstrated the confidence the Commission have in the measures we have taken to eradicate foot and mouth through our extensive surveillance and epidemiological work.

On 6 November, the EU agreed a further Decision relating to the export of meat and meat product from Great Britain. This new Decision will further relax the restrictions on exports for a large proportion of Great Britain much earlier than expected. This is a significant step in returning to business as usual and will go some way to relieve the pressures on our farming industries at this difficult time. It will also allow some of the industry to take advantage of seasonal export opportunities.

This Decision is expected to come into force later in November, and the current FMD Restricted Zone will fall when this occurs. The decision will split the country into three areas; an area in the south-east where no exports will be allowed, an area around this where exports will be restricted and the rest of Great Britain, where pre-foot and mouth conditions will be restored provided exporters supply certification.

I welcome the new Commission Decision. However, in order to comply with the decision, and to preserve the status of those animals that are eligible for export, it will be necessary to apply conditions to live animal movements out of the area where exports are banned or restricted. Live animal movements will continue to be allowed from this area, but we will have to apply a level of control that protects our export status in the rest of Great Britain. We are very much aware of the impact of re-imposing conditions on movements and are working closely with the Industry Stakeholder Core Group and other stakeholders to ensure that an effective solution can be implemented. We will make every effort to minimise the impact of these changes on the farming industries and limit the red tape. The Commission Decision will remain in force until the end of the year.

I understand the difficulties that this may pose for some; however these changes will have overall benefits for farming businesses across the country, particularly on market prices. We will continue to work with the EU to ensure that the export market remains open and that the remaining restrictions are removed as soon as is practicable. Maintaining the support of the Commission and other Member States is crucial as we work towards securing FMD disease freedom at international (OIE) level.

In my last statement I announced a package of assistance worth £12.5 million aimed at supporting those most severely affected by the recent events. Implementation of all elements of the package is well underway and some are almost completed.

The bulk of the assistance to hill farmers has now been paid. Approximately £7.4 million had been paid out by the end of October, with the total now processed standing at £8.3 million. The rest of the payments are expected to be made by the end of December. Also, the arrangements for Fallen Stock Scheme for farmers in the risk area have been put in place. Take up of the Scheme has been limited, suggesting that farmers in the Restricted Zone have found alternative outlets for their stock. The scheme is due to close when the current Restricted Zone is lifted, which is expected to be on 15 November at the earliest.

The Arthur Rank Centre has started disbursing the funds I allocated to the farming charities (up to £1 million) to help those struggling to cope. The money is going to the charities in the Farming Help Partnership and, via the Farm Crisis Network, to local support groups doing similar work alongside them in certain areas of the country. A sum of £500,000 has already been transferred to the Arthur Rank Centre. A report on activities and the impact of this funding will come forward in mid-December.

We have received proposals from the Meat and Livestock Commission (MLC) regarding the £2 million for promotion and marketing of lamb, beef and pork. The first payment of £250,000 has been made and lamb promotion additional to that already being carried out using levy payers' funds has started. In this context the demand for lamb from our European colleagues is proving strong. Additional beef promotion will start later this month. Preparatory work has started for promoting third country exports of pork once we have regained OIE freedom, and additional domestic pork promotion will start in January as the current levy funded campaign ends.

In relation to the Pirbright site, since 7 September the Health and Safety Executive and DEFRA have carried out further joint inspections, and work on the Improvement Plan is well underway. All essential work will need to be completed at the Pirbright site before full operations can recommence at all its facilities. However, remedial work has been carried out at the site and extensively tested including work on the effluent pipes identified in the HSE report. HSE and DEFRA inspectors have reviewed the results together with other improvements at the site (including operating procedures) and have concluded that it is safe for vaccine production to recommence.

Therefore, on 6 November, DEFRA restored the Specified Animal Pathogens Order (SAPO) licence to Merial Animal Health to permit the use of FMD and Bluetongue viruses for vaccine production, following further extensive inspections, tests and documentary evidence. DEFRA and HSE inspectors were satisfied that Merial can comply with all of the required licence conditions and have in place all the necessary measures to ensure strict biosecurity throughout the site.

Turning to the situation on bluetongue, current evidence suggests that the disease is broadly contained within the Protection Zone. Up until winter we can expect to continue to see further cases in this area due to local animal movements and spread via midges, as well as sporadic cases outside this zone. These cases will continue to be reflected where necessary with adjustments to the boundaries of the zones.

We are continuing to monitor our approach to the control of this disease as well as decisions on zones and movement controls in discussion with industry. This disease is quite different to FMD and it is important that decisions on control are taken by the industry, and not just by Ministers. Our objective, agreed with the industry, remains to contain the disease within the currently affected areas.

I very much recognise the growing economic pressures on those farmers caught within the zones. Animals are allowed to move within the zones. From 14 October, in discussion with industry, we allowed markets to take place within the zones and animals to go to slaughter at specified slaughterhouses outside the zones. Animals have been allowed to move through the zones since 18 October

New EU rules came into force on 1 November which created a clearer and more harmonised approach to dealing with this disease. One immediate effect was to change the name of the zones, so that they now mirror the zones used for other diseases. The new rules required us to apply some new conditions to permitted movements. We accepted the views of the industry that the requirement for pre-notification of movements was administratively burdensome and have taken this up with the Commission. In the meantime we are not applying this condition.

We continue to discuss with industry on a regular basis, whether we should move to the next stage of our control strategy which would see the UK as a single large zone. However, current analysis of the epidemiology and cost benefit of such a move indicates that the potential benefits of trying to control the spread of disease still outweigh the costs. We are working with delivery partners and the industry to seek urgent solutions to problems that are occurring with welfare and movements to winter grazing out of the Protection Zone.

We are developing our surveillance strategy to determine disease spread and to plan for the possibility that the disease may re-emerge next year. With that in mind, on 1 November DEFRA issued a tender for between 10 to 20 million doses of bluetongue vaccine. No suitable vaccine is currently available for the strain of bluetongue circulating in England. However, several companies have vaccines under development and these are expected to be available from next summer. In keeping with the principles of our control strategy which we published in August, we are developing a detailed vaccination plan for approval by the European Commission and livestock keepers will be offered the opportunity to purchase vaccine from the bank. I am sure the benefits of vaccination will make real economic sense to many farmers. The vaccination plan is being developed with scientific experts (including those external to DEFRA), representatives of the farming industry and others. Discussions are also continuing on possible approaches to vaccination with the European Commission and other Member States affected by bluetongue.

Although we are approaching the end of the vector season, it is vital that farmers in the zones continue to be vigilant, and for the sake of their industry, continue to report all suspicion of disease.

This has been an especially difficult period for the farming industry, as well as individual farmers and their families. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to all those from Government bodies, charities, and the farming community who have gone to great lengths to control these outbreaks. I would also like to thank Debby Reynolds, the Chief Veterinary Officer, who has decided to take early retirement. I am extremely grateful for Debby's advice and hard work on behalf of the Department both during the recent animal disease outbreaks and over the years. I wish her all the very best in her future career. Fred Landeg has been appointed as CVO in the interim.

I will continue to keep the House informed of developments.

Women and Equality

Equality

I am pleased to announce that the Government are publishing today, and making copies available in both Houses, their response to the report on equality of the House of Commons Communities and Local Government Committee, published on 2 August 2007.

I am determined to carry forward, with my colleagues in Government, an equality strategy that builds on the substantial advances we have already achieved: for example, closing the gender pay gap from 17.4 per cent. in 1997 to 12.6 per cent. in 2007; enabling 18,000 civil partnerships to be formed in the first year following legislation; banning discrimination against people of any sexual orientation and people of different religions or who do not have a religion, when they want to buy or access goods or services and when they are at work; banning age discrimination in the workplace; establishing the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Yet persistent inequalities remain. In responding to the Committee's report and specific recommendations, the Government also set out their direction of travel on equality, including progress on the Equalities Public Service Agreement, the Equality Bill, women's priorities and their intention to develop an equality strategy that builds on the findings of the Equalities Review.