Written Ministerial Statements
Friday 27 February 2009
Asset Protection Scheme (Lloyds Banking Group)
Following announcements about the design of the Asset Protection Scheme yesterday, HM Treasury confirms that discussions with Lloyds Banking Group regarding their participation in the Scheme (APS) are well advanced. A further update will be provided once negotiations have been completed.
Communities and Local Government
I would like to inform the House that further investigations have revealed that the answer given to Question 196589 in the 2007-08 session was incomplete. Question 196589 was tabled by the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban), and answered by my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), on 3 April 2008, Official Report, column 1250W.
The response to Question 196589 should be as follows:
Contracts awarded to the five named companies in the last 12 months are detailed as follows.
(i) Independent audit advice to the Supporting People Programme.
(i) Consultancy support to Internal Audit Service
(i) Economic support to Communities’ Capability Review Commitments.
(c) Ernst and Young
(i) No Contracts awarded
(i) Support for Communities’ High Level Seminar.
(i) No Contracts awarded
Costs exclude VAT. Details of contracts awarded to other consultancy firms could be provided only at disproportionate cost.
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
General Affairs and External Relations Council
I represented the UK at the General Affairs and External Relations Council in Brussels.
The agenda items covered were as follows:
Preparation of the European Council, 19-20 March
The presidency presented the draft agenda for the Spring European Council. First, on the economic and financial situation, EU heads would look at short-term measures such as the European Economic Recovery Plan and the conclusions of the de Larosiere high level group on cross-border financial supervision, but also at the longer term, in particular the Lisbon Strategy. The meeting will also look ahead to the 2 April London summit. Second, on energy and climate change, leaders would look at energy security and preparations for the December Copenhagen climate change conference. There was also widespread support for the presidency’s decision to focus the external relations discussion on the eastern partnership.
As I said in my letter of 18 February to the Chairs of the European Scrutiny Committee and the Select Committee on European Union, the Government support the presidency’s priorities for the Spring European Council.
The presidency also outlined their plans for the 1 March Informal European Council. Four issues would be addressed: the functioning of the banking sector (including impaired assets); the implementation of the European Economic Recovery Plan; how to stimulate employment, and prevent and limit job losses; and London summit preparations, on which Chancellor Merkel and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will give a joint presentation.
European Economic Recovery Plan
The Council assessed the list of energy, agriculture and broadband projects proposed by the European Commission, to be funded by an additional €5 billion contribution from the Community budget. Ministers also discussed how to finance the package. There was a consensus that the Commission’s preferred option, to use the margin from the 2008 budget, was not acceptable. The presidency therefore concluded that that more work on an alternative solution was required.
The presidency said the EU needed to deliver on its commitments to Afghanistan, working alongside the US. The Commission agreed: they would decide whether to deploy a full election observer mission following an exploratory mission next month. The main concern was the security situation—it was clear that EU observers would need security support from NATO and ISAF (International Security Assistance Force). They had already committed €25million to support the election process.
High Representative Solana noted the importance of a strong police sector in Afghanistan and stressed the importance of the EU meeting its existing commitments on the EUPOL police reform mission, particularly by providing personnel.
I said that prioritisation was key; the EU needed to take a closer look at where it could really add value and increase its effectiveness; its priorities should include support to the elections, policing, financial assistance and regional engagement.
The presidency concluded that Foreign Ministers would continue the debate next month, including at the Spring European Council, focusing on how to: increase EU engagement and effectiveness; support the elections; complement NATO activities; and be instrumental in the regional dimension.
The presidency outlined its main messages for the Gaza reconstruction conference in Sharm el-Sheikh on 2 March: humanitarian aid delivery and relief remained a priority; importance of opening the crossings; support to Egypt’s ceasefire and reconciliation efforts; support to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and President Abbas; donor assistance should be channelled through the PA and or existing international funding mechanisms; the need for a durable ceasefire. High Representative Solana noted that ceasefire talks in Cairo had stalled; he would return to the region shortly and remain there until 2 March.
The presidency said that this was a priority for them. The Commission presented the proposals in line with its communication of 3 December 2008. Stability, prosperity and security to our east were important for the EU. There was broad agreement on the importance and principles of the initiative, including that financing should not be at the expense of the EU’s southern neighbours. Ministers and discussed the eastern partnership launch summit to be held on 7 May, including the question of Russian and Belarusian participation. With support from a range of other member states, I expressed caution about Belarus: it was up to the regime to deliver the necessary political reform in order to take part in the initiative.
Ministers discussed how best to handle Montenegro’s application for EU membership. With support from most member states, I argued that we should maintain the momentum of enlargement to ensure stability in the Balkans and that we should ask the Commission for its detailed advice on the reforms needed before we could open accession negotiations. This would help focus action on priority reforms and strengthen the conditions-based enlargement process. The presidency stated their intention that the Council should revert to the issue at the March GAERC.
On Bosnia and Herzegovina there was an inconclusive discussion of progress towards meeting the conditions for closure of the office of the High Representative (OHR). I reiterated UK support for maintaining clear conditionality for a decision on OHR closure.
There was an inconclusive discussion on the possibility of implementing Serbia’s “Interim Agreement” with the EU. I confirmed that, while the UK would be ready for the EU to recognise Serbia’s significantly improved co-operation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague by allowing entry into force of Serbia’s “Interim Agreement”, full co-operation with ICTY remains the condition set by the EU for ratification of Serbia’s Stabilisation and Association Agreement with the EU.
Ministers adopted conclusions without discussion, which called for an “immediate ceasefire” to allow humanitarian access; condemned the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam’s use of violence and terrorism, and urged the Government of Sri Lanka to engage in an inclusive political process that would address the legitimate concerns of all communities, in order to find a lasting political solution to the conflict.
Ministers adopted conclusions without discussion, which welcomed the provincial elections of 31 January as an important step towards democratisation and reconciliation, and reaffirmed the EU’s support to Iraq, in co-operation with international organisations.
Meningitis C Vaccine
On 25 February, and in consultation with the Medicines and Healthcare products regulatory Agency (MHRA), Novartis Vaccines and Diagnostics issued a precautionary recall of two batches with a total of 17,000 doses of a meningitis C vaccine “Menjugate Kit”. A potential problem has arisen with the solvent that is used to reconstitute the vaccine before it is administered. This follows the detection of the Staphylococcus aureus bacteria in part of a batch manufactured in Italy but which did not reach the UK. All batches of the vaccine that have come into the United Kingdom have passed all their tests including sterility.
The MHRA has reassured me that parents need not be concerned over this recall, as there is currently no evidence to show that UK children have been put at risk. However, if parents are in any way concerned, then they should consult their doctor about the issue or contact NHS Direct.
The MHRA has received no reports of infections following vaccinations. There is also no current evidence to suggest that UK children have been given a contaminated vaccine.
Further investigations into the incident are underway by Novartis. Tests have also begun on batches in the UK.
We will provide a further statement to the House when the necessary investigations have been completed.
Breach of Community Order Pilots
On 2 April 2001, the then Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Social Security, my hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey, (Angela Eagle), debated the Social Security (Breach of Community Order) Regulations 2001. These were subsequently approved by the House of Commons on 4 April 2001, Official Report, column 479. My noble Friend Baroness Hollis of Heigham, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, also successfully moved, Official Report, column 639, that the draft order laid before both Houses on 20 March, to enable the establishment of the benefit sanctions pilots for offenders in breach of their community order, be agreed. Following this, the pilots in four areas, by which social security benefit would be withdrawn for offenders in breach of community orders imposed by the courts, were commenced. The pilots covered Derbyshire, Hertfordshire, Teesside and West Midlands. They involved joint working between the Department for Work and Pensions, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice. This statement announces that, subject to Parliament’s approval, we now intend to end these pilots and explains the reasons why.
The original objective of the pilots was to link the receipt of benefit more closely to the fulfilment of responsibilities to society and to encourage greater compliance with community sentences.
Initial evaluation research showed a modest 1.8 per cent. improvement in compliance by sanctioned offenders, directly attributable to the impact of the policy. However over a longer period research has not shown the advantages expected. Overall, when the administrative costs for the scheme were balanced against the likely savings, the pilots have not been found to provide sufficient value for money to justify their continuation. Improvements in compliance of 5 per cent. could be expected to deliver savings in the pilot areas of about £9,500 a year. However, once all costs had been factored in, the overall sum for continuing the scheme would be in the region of £652,000, or £5.60p for every £1 of savings made under the scheme.
In consultation with the DWP, we plan to end the benefit sanction pilots subject to parliamentary approval. The regulations to end the pilots will be laid shortly. The decision has been made following evaluation that showed the pilots did not provide sufficient value for money to justify their continuation.
It remains the Government’s intention to continue to take a rigorous approach to sentencing for breach of a community order. With the introduction of the Criminal Justice Act 2003 measures on compliance and enforcement have been strengthened. Courts must now respond to a breach either by amending the order to make it more demanding or by revoking it altogether and dealing with the offence afresh, which includes the power to send the offender to prison for up to 51 weeks. Courts must hold offenders to account in all cases where they do not comply with their order.
The Probation Service now has a strong record of enforcing orders promptly. In 90 per cent. of cases, offender managers take enforcement action for breaches of community orders within 10 days. Compliance with community orders is at a record level and increasing, with 75 per cent. of cases reaching the 6 month stage of an order without the need for breach action.
The learning from the pilots will be carried forward into the DWP’s benefits sanctions initiative for drugs misusers who fail to attend for employment interviews. These will combine sanction with support in a carefully constructed package designed to improve compliance. They will be monitored and evaluated throughout to ensure value for money and effectiveness in meeting their original aim of getting more drugs misusers into employment or training. We remain committed to the principle that entitlement must be balanced against a responsible attitude to obligations. The public should have every right to feel confident in tough, effective and visible community sentences that are rigorously enforced.
Work and Pensions
UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities
Further to my statement of 3 February 2009, I am pleased to announce that yesterday the United Kingdom Ambassador to the United Nations, Sir John Sawers, signed the optional protocol to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities on behalf of the United Kingdom, and in doing so we joined over 80 other UN member states who have so far signed.
The decision to sign this optional protocol was reached in the light of our work towards ratification of the convention itself. We are now close to starting the parliamentary procedures required for ratification, and I hope to be able to make a separate announcement on that soon.
Signature of the optional protocol is an important step and underlines the messages in the convention about respect for the human rights of disabled people. We will now be working towards ratification of the optional protocol as soon as is practicable.
As my 3 February statement indicated, the optional protocol builds on the convention by establishing two additional procedures in respect of implementation and monitoring of the convention itself.
The first is a procedural avenue that, subject to meeting conditions set out in the optional protocol, will enable individuals or groups of individuals to bring petitions to the UN Committee that has been established to monitor implementation of the Disability Convention if they believe that their rights under that convention have been breached. The second is an inquiry procedure giving the Committee authority to undertake inquiries when reliable information is received into allegations of grave or systematic violations of convention rights.