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Written Statements

Volume 476: debated on Monday 19 May 2008

Written Ministerial Statements

Monday 19 May 2008

Children, Schools and Families

School Teachers' Review Body

Following the publication of the 17th Report Part 1 of the School Teachers' Review Body (STRB) (Cm 7252) on 15 January 2008, to which I responded in a statement of that date, I have today written to consultees with the outcomes of my consultation on the report and my response. Copies of the letter are available in the Vote Office, the Printed Paper Office and in the Libraries of the House and at http://www.teachernet.gov.uk/pay.

I have also considered the outcomes of the consultation on the 17th Report Part 2 of the STRB (Cm 7352), published together with my statement on 9 April 2008. I shall be following up a number of recommendations from that report concerning teachers’ professional responsibilities and leadership in the context of the next remit which I set for the STRB. I shall also be taking forward the recommendations regarding short-notice teachers’ pay arrangements as set out in my 9 April statement, and seeking to ensure that account is taken of the particular position of unattached teachers in both the pay and the wider policy agenda.

I have today also written to the social partners, inviting them to consider what improvements we could make to the experience of teachers in the early years of their career. I believe that such teachers are in particular need of support and that we should together look at ways in which their careers can be given the best possible start. I have placed copies of this letter in the Library of the House.

Culture, Media and Sport

Education, Youth and Culture Council

The Education, Youth and Culture Council will be held on 21 and 22 May in Brussels. Rhodri Glyn Thomas, Minister for Heritage for Wales, will be representing the UK on 21 May when Culture and Audiovisual issues will be taken. Education and Youth issues will be taken on 22 May.

The first item on the agenda concerns the Council conclusions on a European approach to media literacy in the digital environment. The new audiovisual media services directive calls for the “development of media literacy in all sections of society” and for close inspection of progress in media literacy. It sets out a reporting obligation for the Commission to measure levels of media literacy in all the member states. In January this year the Commission adopted a communication on the development and promotion of media literacy. The UK’s main proposals on the text have been incorporated in to the conclusions that reflect the UK view that it will be appropriate to assess recent developments in this area and monitor the extent of media literacy in member states—as required under the new AVMS directive—before coming forward with proposals for a recommendation. The Council is expected to adopt the conclusions and the Government intend to endorse this course of action.

The presidency will then seek to reach a general approach on the proposal establishing a multi-annual Community programme on protecting children using the internet and other communication technologies. This proposal is a renewal of the existing safer internet plus programme and will run from 2009-13. The programme promotes the safer use, particularly by children, of the internet and other online technologies, fighting illegal and harmful internet content ranging from child pornography to incitement to racial hatred. It carries out this aim by a combination of funding for various programmes and by fostering co-operation between a wide range of organisations from business to child welfare NGO’s. The Government intend to support this proposal.

There will then be an exchange of views on the communication on creative content online in the single market which was adopted by the Commission in January this year after consultation with stakeholders in Government and industry. The Communication establishes a “Content Online Platform” that would bring together experts from across Europe in a forum for discussion. It also outlines the Commission’s plan for a recommendation of the Council and Parliament on this area, due in the autumn. The scope of this recommendation is currently not defined, but it is likely to cover Digital Rights Management Systems, Multi-Territory Rights Licensing and Legal Offers and Piracy. The UK’s response to the Communication stated that we are not convinced that regulatory action at the European level at such an early stage in the development of this sector is the correct approach; work on Digital Rights Management (DRM) is already being undertaken in several member states; the Commission’s evaluation of this issue would benefit from greater use of a more rigorous evidence base; engaging with stakeholders is the right approach but the Commission needs to ensure that their views are incorporated into any future proposals. The Presidency is now asking two questions of Ministers at the Council: What are the challenges facing creative content online? And where would an EU-level initiative add value? Our contribution to the exchange of views will be similar to our original response.

The Council will then be invited to adopt conclusions on intercultural competences. The conclusions recognise, in this the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue, the importance of such dialogue as a key tool in addressing some of the challenges Europe currently faces. Intercultural competences are defined as communication in foreign languages, social and civic skills and cultural awareness and expression. Member states and the Commission are invited to promote intercultural competences through existing initiatives in the fields of culture, education and youth and audiovisual policy.

The conclusions on Intercultural Competences have been discussed and finalised at official level and the Council is now expected to adopt the conclusions at this meeting. The Government intend to support the adoption of these conclusions.

The presidency will seek the adoption of Council conclusions on the Work Plan for Culture 2008-10. In February this year the Presidency drafted a discussion paper for member states on the Work Plan for Culture 2008-10 based on the five priority areas for action set out in the resolution on a European Agenda for Culture adopted by the Council in November 2007. Working groups set up under each priority and chaired by member states will be consulted on the preparation of the studies relevant to their field of competence. These conclusions, which have been negotiated and agreed at official level, outline the objectives for each priority area. The UK has interests in all these areas, in particular the groups on the creative economy and on improving the mobility of collections. The Government intend to support the adoption of these conclusions.

Under Any Other Business, the Presidency and Commission will provide information on the state of play of proposals on the review of the EU regulatory framework for electronic communications networks and services. The Commission will present the Communication on the protection of consumers, in particular minors, in respect of the use of video games. Belgium will raise concerns about satellite television channels from outside the EU which broadcast anti-Semitic material and incitement to hatred and terrorism and which can be received within the EU. The Council may invite the Commission and the Presidency to consider what measures can be taken to deal with such channels. Also under Any Other Business will be an information item from the Swedish delegation raising concerns on the definition of the concept of books with regard to reduced VAT, The Government do not foresee any need to intervene on any of these items.

Defence

National Recognition Study

I wish to acknowledge the publication today of the report of the independent inquiry into the national recognition of the armed forces carried out by my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stafford (Mr Quentin Davies). My hon. Friend was invited by the Government last December to examine ways of improving the nation’s understanding and appreciation of the Armed Forces.

The Government warmly welcome this report which is both comprehensive in its coverage, and is based on extensive consultation including with members of the royal family and both Houses of Parliament, devolved Assemblies, civic leaders, serving and retired military personnel, Armed Forces support organisations and charities, religious leaders, business and the media.

The report makes many recommendations. Many of these will require detailed consideration or further work. But I am pleased to announce that the Government accept immediately a number of them and these will be implemented as soon as possible. They include greater encouragement on the wider use of uniforms in public, the creation of a British Armed Forces And Veterans’ day, more systematic arrangements for homecoming parades and ceremonies for the award of campaign medals and veterans’ badges, and an examination of the options to strengthen cadet forces and on other education-related measures. The Government will engage with other organisations on those recommendations that are beyond the sole responsibility of Government—for example, on the proposals to improve relations with Parliament, local government, the business community and the media. We will be responding fully to all the recommendations as soon as possible.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend and his team—Mr Bill Clark and Air Commodore Martin Sharpe from the Ministry of Defence—for producing this report. It provides firm foundations to ensure that the work of our service personnel is better understood and recognised by the nation they serve.

Copies of the report are being placed in the Library of the House, the Vote Office and Printed Paper Office.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Departmental Report

My 2008 departmental report, which contains information on progress against the Department’s strategic priorities, public service agreement targets, the challenges ahead and summary expenditure plans for 2007-08, will be laid before Parliament today. Copies will be placed in the Libraries of the House. The report is also available on DEFRA’s website.

Agriculture and Fisheries Council

I will be representing the United Kingdom at this month’s Agriculture and Fisheries Council in Brussels.

There is only one substantive item on this month’s agenda, concerning the placing of plant protection products on the market, on which the presidency is seeking political agreement on a Commission proposal.

The following issues will be raised under any other business:

The Agriculture Commissioner will provide an update on the WTO-DDA negotiations.

Romania will highlight the role small scale farms have to play in the future of European agriculture.

The presidency will make a presentation to Council on the agricultural market situation and the evolution of agricultural and food prices.

Lithuania will request the renewal of export refunds for skimmed milk powder, butter, cheese and preserved milk products.

The Czech Republic will draw the Council’s attention to its concerns regarding the Commission’s draft general block exemption regulation (GBER) which sets up horizontal rules of national public funding for undertakings linked to agricultural activities.

Health

Departmental Annual Report

The Department’s annual report for 2008 (Cm 7393) was laid before Parliament today.

The report is in the Library and copies are available to hon. Members from the Vote Office.

Home Department

UK Border Agency Detention Estate

The UK Border Agency now removes an immigration offender every eight minutes. This includes failed asylum seekers, overstayers and a record number of foreign prisoners.

We have set ourselves further aggressive targets to continue to increase the rate of removals, backed up with a doubling of enforcement resources.

This extra budget, made available in part by higher visa fees, will enable the agency to:

conduct 5,000 illegal working operations in 2008-09—on average twenty operations every working day;

deport 5,000 foreign prisoners by the end of the year;

conclude the majority of new asylum cases within six months by the end of the year; and

clear outstanding “legacy” asylum claims by summer 2011.

This increased activity will require the detention prior to removal of larger numbers of people.

Detention is necessary to ensure that immigration offenders do not abscond while the final stages of their removal are being arranged. Detention can also be used to “fast track” new asylum claims by housing applicants in centres with dedicated teams of case workers. This allows their cases to be decided quickly leading either to faster integration in the UK for successful applicants, or faster removal for those whose claims are refused.

To underpin the increased activity we are increasing the capacity of the detention estate by an extra 900 places on existing sites before the end of 2009:

New spaces at both Dover and Oakington will add around 100 spaces this year.

Brook House near Gatwick airport will contribute more than 420 places when it opens in February 2009.

New wings at Harmondsworth removal centre, near Heathrow airport, will contribute a further 370 beds by December 2009.

We are also announcing today feasibility studies into two new secure sites where planning permission will be sought:

The site already owned by the Home Office outside Bicester, Oxfordshire.

The site adjacent to the existing Home Office-owned centre at Yarl’s Wood in Bedfordshire.

Plans for the centres will be presented to local councils in the coming months. Subject to obtaining the necessary planning consents, at least one of these sites will be progressed within the next year, leading to a further 400-600 detention places being available by 2012.

This will increase capacity against today’s total by between 1300 and 1500 spaces.

All new centres will be built to Prison Service category B/C standard and will offer high quality and secure accommodation for detainees and staff.

Justice

Tribunals

I have today published the Government response to the “Transforming Tribunals, Implementing Part 1 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007” consultation paper. Copies have been made available in the Libraries of both Houses and are available on the internet at http://www.justice.gov.uk/publications/cp3007.htm.

On behalf of the Government, I would like to thank all those who took the time to contribute to this extremely important debate on the future of tribunals delivery. Their insight and knowledge has proved invaluable in writing this response. The Government would also like to thank its Ministers and officials in other Government Departments for engagement and support in the implementation of the Act. In addition the Government are grateful to the Tribunal’s Service senior judiciary for their contribution and guidance throughout the consultation period.

Part 1 of the Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act 2007 is a continuation of the reforms set into motion by Sir Andrew Leggatt in his paper “Tribunals for users: One System, One Service”1. The 2007 Act creates a two-tier tribunal structure, the first-tier tribunal and upper tribunal, which will bring together existing Ministry of Justice tribunals and tribunals in other Government Departments. The first-tier tribunal will be the natural starting place for most jurisdictions, with onward appeal to the upper tribunal, which will also have the power to deal with judicial review work delegated from the High Court.

The response paper confirms that there will be social entitlement; general regulatory; health, education and social care; taxation and land, property and housing chambers in the first-tier tribunal and administrative appeals; finance and tax and lands chambers in the upper tribunal. Each of the chambers will be lead by chamber presidents under the supervision of the Tribunal Service senior president, Lord Justice Carnwath. All existing jurisdictions will be transferred into these chambers along with their judges and members. The Act allows for judges and members to sit in additional jurisdictions within their own or another chamber, if they satisfy the eligibility criteria for that chamber, and subject to training.

The Act also creates a “Tribunals Procedure Committee” that will be responsible for making tribunal procedure rules, and will bring greater consistency and simplicity to rules across jurisdictions. Appointments have been made to the Committee and it will shortly begin consultation on procedure rules for the new tribunals.

The Government are committed to ongoing transformation of the tribunal environment, placing the user at the very heart of the service. In addition to the statutory changes introduced by the Act, the Tribunals Service is also undertaking a programme of work creating a network of multi-jurisdictional hearing centres, re-engineering administrative processes to improve case management, and exploring alternatives to standard hearings such as mediation, conciliation, and support and advice services. The implementation of the Act works alongside this transformation and is a vital part of it.

1 “Tribunals for Users: One System, One Service—Report of the Review of Tribunals” by Sir Andrew Leggatt, The Stationary Office, March 2000.

Departmental Annual Report

I have today laid before Parliament the 2007-08 departmental annual report for the Ministry of Justice (CM 7397).

The Ministry of Justice was established on 9 May 2007. It brought together the former responsibilities of the Department for Constitutional Affairs with the National Offender Management Service from the Home Office and the trilateral Office of Criminal Justice Reform. The new Department has a wide-ranging remit with major responsibilities for prisons and probation, the courts and tribunals, legal aid and more, as well as important policy responsibilities ranging from constitutional reform and devolution, democracy and human rights to the justice system. When the Department was set up, the then permanent secretary commissioned a review to develop proposals for a new structure and ways of working to equip the Department better to deliver on its aims and objectives.

Two other pieces of work have further improved the Department’s focus on its aims and objectives: Lord Carter’s report on prisons and the partnership between the Lord Chief Justice and me in the operation of the courts. The new top structure of the Department came into place on 1 April with more detailed changes being implemented over the next few months to provide a coherent structure for managing the Department’s key challenges on public protection and reducing reoffending, constitutional reform and access to justice. This streamlined top structure and new ways of working will help the Department to implement Lord Carter’s recommendations on offender management services, to ensure the successful operation of new arrangements for the courts and to focus more clearly on its key policy and delivery challenges.

The new structure will allow the National Offender Management Service (NOMS) to build on its success and take forward Lord Carter’s proposals for nationalising management structures and reducing overhead costs. It will also bring NOMS and the Prison Service together and streamline its headquarters so as to improve the focus on frontline delivery of prisons and probation and improve efficiency.

This report highlights the achievements made by the Ministry of Justice and looks to the future at how the new structure aims to provide the department with a sharper focus on its key priorities. This includes public protection and reoffending and improving relations with the judiciary while streamlining leadership across the whole of the Department’s agenda. It will ensure a much more joined up approach to issues of justice and constitutional reform, with a clearer focus on efficiency through the removal of duplication and overlapping responsibilities.

The report is also available on the Ministry of Justice website at:

http://www.justice.gov.uk/publications/annual-report-2008.htm

Transport

I have today published my Department’s annual report for 2008 (CM 7395). Copies have been laid before Parliament and placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

The report sets out the Department’s activities and achievements over the last year. It also describes the Department’s future expenditure plans for the period of the spending review 2007.

Work and Pensions

Government Equalities Office

Last summer, we set out the Government’s priorities for women. These included increasing the number of black and Asian and minority ethnic women on local councils.

A report produced by Simon Woolley, head of Operation Black Vote, has today been published on the Government Equalities Office website, highlighting the scale of under-representation in our democracy.

Black, Asian and minority ethnic women account for less than 1 per cent. of England’s 20,000 councillors. To be more representative of society as a whole, the number of black, Asian and ethnic minority women councillors needs to be increased more than fivefold—from 168 of all councillors in England to nearer a thousand.

At Westminster, the under-representation is even more marked. Only 19.5 per cent. of Members of the House of Commons are women and of these only two come from minority ethnic communities. There has never been an Asian woman MP.

To make local councils more representative, we are today setting up a taskforce that will be chaired by Baroness Uddin of Bethnal Green. The taskforce will last for 12 months, with an option to review and extend this.

The taskforce members will include black and Asian and minority ethnic women councillors and former councillors from every region in England and from Scotland and Wales. The taskforce will identify and take practical action to increase awareness and build confidence and skills; reach out into communities to encourage women to step forward to become local councillors; identify and tackle barriers within political parties; and reduce disadvantage and stereotyping from within and outside the communities.

The taskforce will be supported in its work by the Ministers for Women and Equality and a secretariat will be provided by the Government Equalities Office. Full details of the taskforce, its membership and terms of reference are available on the Government Equalities Office website.

The Prime Minister has proposed to the Speaker that he call a Speaker’s conference to consider, against the backdrop of a decline in turnout, a number of important issues including the representation of women and ethnic minorities in the House of Commons. The Speaker’s conference and the taskforce we are announcing today will play a vital role in ensuring that we take steps to make progress.

The taskforce will be working closely with the Department of Communities and Local Government, who will soon be responding to the Councillors Commission report “Representing the Future” which made recommendations aimed at reducing barriers and increasing the incentives for people to stand and serve as councillors. The report looked at the wider issues of widening the pool of local councillors to increase representation from all under represented groups—women, people from black and minority ethnic communities, people of working age, young people and disabled people.

The Government do not consider that the time is right to take legislative measures to permit all-BAME election shortlists.

Departmental Annual Report

I am today able to announce the publication of the Department for Work and Pensions departmental annual report. The report provides details of the Department’s performance in 2007-08 against its public service agreement targets and sets out the Department’s expenditure plans for 2008-09. Copies of the report are available in the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office.