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Written Statements

Volume 474: debated on Wednesday 26 March 2008

Written Ministerial Statements

Wednesday 26 March 2008

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

DEFRA's Central Science Laboratory and Pesticides Safety

My hon. Friend the Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw) made a written statement on 20 June 2006, Official Report, column 91WS on DEFRA’s Laboratory Strategy. I am now able to announce the decision on the future of DEFRA’s Central Science Agency (CSL). I am also taking this opportunity to report to the House changes to DEFRA’s Pesticides Safety Directorate.

These decisions pursue the aim of securing a long-term sustainable future for DEFRA’s laboratories, in the case of CSL, and the earlier decision to consolidate a number of regulators as part of the Government’s implementation of the Hampton review of regulatory inspections and enforcement of March 2005. These regulators include PSD and also DEFRA’s Plant Health and Seeds Inspectorate (PHSI) and Plant Variety Rights Office and Seeds Division (PVS).

As part of the work to develop a new business plan for CSL which better reflects DEFRA’s future changing demand requirements and wider Government needs referred to in my earlier statement, we recognised there might be potential benefits to customers and to Government from creating a new regulatory science agency from PSD, PVS, PHSI and DEFRA’s Plant Health Division (PHD), and combining them with CSL.

Having considered the detailed business case for the new agency last year alongside an alternative option for PSD of merger with one of Hampton’s seven thematic regulators, the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), we concluded that the best option for the future of PSD was for it to join the HSE. The principal reasons were:

the regulatory scientific synergies that exist between PSD and HSE are much stronger than between PSD and those other bodies in the new agency;

the preference expressed by PSD’s customers as part of an informal high level stakeholder engagement exercise we undertook in 2007; and

concerns over conflicts of interest if PSD joined the proposed RSA, which would inevitably result in some loss of business for both CSL and PSD.

Accordingly, in the case of CSL, a new DEFRA executive agency will be created from CSL, PHSI/PHD and PVS. It will be established formally on 1 April 2009, but will operate in shadow form from 1 April 2008 under a newly appointed chief executive, Adrian Belton. This organisation will benefit customers of the respective constituent parts and taxpayers through improved effectiveness and compliance with the Hampton principles of better regulation and overall value for money.

Following a public consultation that ended on 14 January 2008, PSD will become part of the HSE from 1 April 2008.

In joining HSE, PSD will become part of an organisation that is already responsible for the regulation of both biocides and chemicals. This will enable further exploration of the potential synergies between regulatory science and policy in order to identify options for further improvements in customer service and efficiencies. In the meantime PSD will retain its distinct identity within HSE.

Strategic policy responsibility for pesticides will remain with DEFRA Ministers and sit alongside strategic policy responsibility which DEFRA has for chemicals under the EU chemicals assessment and approval regime REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of Chemicals). Governance arrangements are being put in place to ensure that all departmental and cross-departmental interests are fully represented.

A summary of responses to the consultation on PSD and the Government’s detailed response to these will be made available on the DEFRA website.

Food from Britain

In reaching decisions on allocations to individual budgets arising out of DEFRA’s CSR settlement it has been decided to reduce the amount of grant-in-aid available to Food from Britain (FFB) for 2008-09 to £4 million, with the expectation that the funding will come to an end before the conclusion of the CSR period. We concluded that maintaining a subsidised consultancy service for British food exporters was a lower priority than ensuring adequate funds were available for dealing with the consequences of animal diseases, providing for a full programme of food and farming research (including work on identifying animal disease strains and vaccines) and continuing to improve the service the Rural Payments Agency provides to farmers.

In taking the decision to reduce DEFRA’s grant-in-aid to FFB we were conscious of the extent to which the organisation is dependent on that source of funds to pay for its operations. Following consideration of these matters by FFB’s Council, we have therefore agreed with the Council that subject to formal confirmation by Ministers in the devolved Administrations, FFB should wind down its activities over the coming year with a view to it ceasing operations by 31 March 2009 in anticipation of its formal dissolution in law when a suitable legislative vehicle can be found.

Over the years FFB has provided excellent support to exporters for food and drink and I would like to pay tribute to the staff, Council members and office holders who have made this possible. We are considering with FFB, the devolved Administrations and other interested parties whether there is scope for alternative arrangements for dedicated export support for the food and drink sector. This might, for example, involve the licensing of the FFB brand, or transfer of certain elements of the FFB business to the private sector. We would welcome any expressions of interest from organisations which might wish to take over elements of FFB’s business. In the meantime, FFB will continue to provide support over the coming year. Support for food and drink exporters will also continue be available from UKTI. UKTI provide services to all types of businesses including those in the food and drink sector. Over many years, UKTI have funded FFB to take groups of companies to exhibitions and trade fairs—this will continue.

Transport

Royal and Ministerial Air Travel

Every year members of the royal family and senior Government Ministers undertake a number of journeys to fulfil a wide range of important public engagements and other essential commitments. The large majority of that travel is undertaken by road, rail and scheduled flights. However, there are times when these parties need to use non-scheduled or dedicated flights, for example when these engagements involve several commitments in different parts of the country on the same day.

In 2006, Sir Peter Gershon, in his review of the royal and ministerial air travel service, recommended that the existing arrangements—currently provided by 32 (The Royal) Squadron of the RAF and, where RAF planes are unavailable, the charter market—be replaced with a new dedicated service. Over the last 12 months the Department has worked closely with the Royal Household, Number 10 and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office on plans to establish this new service.

The Department has now completed an outline business case for the new service, in line with Government procurement guidelines. This supports the analysis carried out by Sir Peter Gershon two years ago and its assessment of the need to improve the existing service. It also identifies a number of recent developments, some of which have significantly affected the nature of the service required.

In particular, the new Ministerial Code, published in July 2007, contains a clear presumption in favour of using scheduled flights rather than using RAF or chartered aircraft. An increasing proportion of overseas journeys, including a number of those undertaken by the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister, are now routinely made on scheduled flights. Since 2006, more use has been made of the charter market in place of RAF aircraft provided by 32 (The Royal) Squadron. In addition, a number of concerns highlighted by Sir Peter Gershon’s team in relation to charter provision—such as value for money—have now been addressed. Over the same period, there have been substantial above-inflation increases in the cost of buying and operating commercial aircraft, with high price premiums currently being demanded and paid for early delivery.

The Department is today recommending that the needs of these users can best be met through procuring a small aircraft for official travel within the UK, chartered air services for longer journeys involving small parties and a continuation of existing arrangements with UK airlines for journeys involving large parties. This approach provides the best solution for all users whilst minimising the financial cost and environmental impact of the new service.

The Royal Household will be responsible for taking forward any procurement activity to support these recommendations separately. The new arrangements are expected to be in place when the service currently provided by 32 (The Royal) Squadron is withdrawn on 1 April 2009.

I would like to thank Sir Peter Gershon and his team for their work on the review and for the officials, industry experts and service suppliers who have supported completion of the business case. I also wish, on behalf of the Government, to thank 32 (The Royal) Squadron for the service that they have provided to the Royal Household and Ministers for the last 70 years.

Work and Pensions

Luton Borough Council (Benefit Fraud Inspectorate Report)

On behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the BFI inspection report on Luton borough council was published today. Copies will be placed in the Library of the House.

The BFI report details a range of strengths and weaknesses in the housing benefit service provided by the council and makes recommendations to improve the security and efficiency of benefit delivery.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, is considering the report and may ask the council for proposals in response to BFI's findings.