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Written Statements

Volume 489: debated on Friday 13 March 2009

Written Ministerial Statements

Friday 13 March 2009

Communities and Local Government

Housing Authorities

The Housing (Service Charge Loans) (Amendment) (England) Regulations 2009 (SI 2009/0602) and The Housing (Purchase of Equitable Interests) (England) Regulations 2009 (SI 2009/0601) have today been laid before Parliament.

The regulations have been made under sections 450B, C and D of the Housing Act 1985 following amendments introduced by sections 308 and 309 of the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008. They empower housing authorities—ie, local authorities and housing associations—to offer interest-free equity loans to the owners (‘leaseholders’) of flats leased from those housing authorities, or to buy equitable interests in such flats. In both cases, this must be for the purpose of assisting leaseholders with the payment of service charges.

Tenants who buy flats from housing authorities and people who subsequently buy such flats on the open market are responsible for contributing towards the cost of repairing, maintaining and improving the properties in which those flats are situated. Some current works of repair, maintenance and improvement to local authority properties are generating high major works bills, particularly in London. The Government have reviewed the issues raised by these bills, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), the former Minister for Housing and Planning made a written statement to the House on 29 March 2007, Official Report, columns 118-119WS reporting progress and setting out further steps that the Government intended to take to address these issues. In that statement, we said that we intended to legislate to enable housing authorities to offer equity loans to leaseholders and to buy shares in properties to assist leaseholders in difficulties.

The Government are today using the new powers they introduced in the Housing and Regeneration Act 2008 to enable housing authorities to offer equity loans and to purchase equitable interests in properties. It recognises that offering such help will involve administrative costs that housing authorities may wish to recoup by charging fees. We are also aware that high administrative fees might act as a barrier to leaseholders from taking up this offer. We therefore propose to consult in the next few weeks on whether there should be a statutory upper limit on such fees and, if so, what this limit might be.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

General Affairs and External Relations Council

The General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC) will be held on 16 March in Brussels. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I will represent the UK.

The agenda items are as follows:

General Affairs

Preparation of the European Council, 19-20 March

The GAERC will discuss the presidency’s agenda for the Spring European Council (SEC). The SEC will once again focus on the EU’s response to the economic downturn, continuing the discussions from the Informal European Council on 1 March and advancing the EU position ahead of the G20 summit. There will also be reference to the de Larosière report on financial supervision in the EU.

The SEC will also discuss options for the climate finance offer ahead of the Copenhagen Climate Change conference in December and an action plan for EU energy security in accordance with the second strategic energy review. In addition, the SEC will examine the Eastern partnership, with a view to launching the initiative at a summit in May, while taking stock of the union for the Mediterranean.

The Government support the presidency’s priorities for the SEC. We welcome a continued co-ordinated response to the economic and financial crisis and look forward to the SEC providing credible options for an ambitious climate finance offer and securing agreement on a practical action plan on EU energy security.

European Economic Recovery Plan

The Council will discuss elements of the European economic recovery plan (EERP) and will return, we expect, to discussion of potential means of financing the Commission’s proposals for energy and broadband infrastructure projects. The Government will continue to scrutinise the Commission proposals in detail.

External Relations

Western Balkans

We expect Ministers to focus on Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH). There will be Conclusions.

Discussion will review progress towards meeting the conditions for closure of the Office of the High Representative (OHR). Ministers may consider how to strengthen the role of the EU Special Representative (EUSR) following eventual OHR closure, in order to tackle effectively the political challenges in BiH. We want to reinforce the messages sent by EU Foreign Ministers at the November 2008 GAERC on the need for BiH leaders to focus on the reforms that will be necessary for OHR closure. We will also underline the need for a robust EUSR mandate as and when OHR closes. Ministers may also discuss the EU’s military mission in BiH, operation ALTHEA. Subject to completion of the selection procedure, Ministers are also likely to be asked to endorse CFSP High Representative Solana’s nomination of a candidate to succeed Miroslav Lajcak in his double-hatted role as High Representative and EUSR.


The Council will review progress made by Belarus since the temporary suspension of travel restrictions for six months in October 2008. The Council will decide whether to renew the suspension of restrictions for a further six month period and adopt Conclusions accordingly. During the past six months, the Belarusians have introduced a number of small reforms. However, we are concerned by the recent detention of three activists, two of whom were internationally recognised as political prisoners when detained previously, and the refusal to register the human rights non-governmental organisation (NGO) Nasha Vyasna. The UK’s decision on whether to support renewal of the suspension will depend upon our assessment of the most effective way of supporting reform.

Sudan-International Criminal Court

The scope and content of any debate will depend on further developments following the 4 March ICC decision to issue an arrest warrant for President Bashir, and the Sudanese government’s subsequent decision to expel 13 international humanitarian NGOs. The Czech presidency made a statement on the ICC decision on 5 March and on the NGO situation on 9 March. If the situation on the ground deteriorates, the Council may need to discuss options for further action.

Transatlantic Relations

The Council will discuss an EU agenda and objectives for the EU-US summit in Prague on 5 April, to which President Obama, Secretary Clinton and the leaders and Foreign Ministers of all EU member states will be invited. That meeting is likely to focus on foreign policy issues not covered at the London summit on 2 April and the NATO summit on 3-4 April, including climate change and energy. We will continue to reiterate our line at the Gymnich discussions in September and November 2008, namely that the EU should set out what it can do for the US, rather than just a list of expectations or hopes for US action.

Middle East Peace Process (MEPP)

Since the GAERC in February, the Gaza reconstruction conference has been held in Sharm where $4.5 billion was pledged by the international community. The key issues on the ground remain the same and there is continuing uncertainty over the make-up of the future government of Israel.

Any MEPP discussion is likely to focus on the Egyptian-led Palestinian reconciliation talks in Cairo. Ministers should receive an update on progress following an EU Troika (High Representative Solana, Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner and Czech Foreign Minister Schwarzenburg) dinner with the Egyptian, Jordanian and Palestinian Foreign Ministers on 15 March.


We expect Ministers to adopt without discussion Conclusions reaffirming the EU’s long-term commitment to the people and government of Afghanistan to promote stability, reconstruction and development, in particular through providing assistance with the 2009 elections and strengthening the EUPOL police reform mission.

EU Foreign Ministers will then discuss Afghanistan and the wider region at the Spring European Council, where we also hope to see Conclusions.


We expect Ministers to adopt without discussion Conclusions welcoming the successful transition from the EU military mission, EUFOR Chad, to the UN peacekeeping mission MINURCAT, due to take place on 15 March; and noting the contribution of EUFOR Chad to the protection of civilians during the mission’s one-year mandate.

Information on the G8 presidency programme

We expect Foreign Minister Frattini to update the Council on the Italian G8 presidency priorities for the La Maddalena Summit and G8 Foreign Ministers’ meeting in June. The key issues on the summit agenda will be the global economy, climate change and international development. The Italian G8 presidency has also been active in promoting the co-ordination of humanitarian assistance to Gaza.


Ministers may also discuss how best to handle Montenegros application for EU membership. We believe that the Council should forward the application to the European Commission in a timely manner. The Commission should then produce an Avis (‘Opinion’) on the merits of the application, based on the rigorous criteria governing the conditions-based accession process.


Cervical Cancer Screening

We are very proud of our cancer screening programmes in the National Health Service, which are internationally recognised as world-class. Experts predict that cervical screening saves around 4,500 lives every year in England and we want to ensure that our programme remains in the best interests of young women.

Cervical screening in England starts at 25 years—this is in line with World Health Organisation recommendations and is supported by advice from leading scientists in this country.

However, it is five years since we last reviewed the evidence and recent events, including the death of Claire Walker, have brought to light conflicting views on the issue of screening women aged under 25. We are aware of new evidence published in peer reviewed journals, and the National Cancer Intelligence Network has provided data on the effects of the age change on cervical cancer incidence and mortality. We want to ensure that the policy on starting screening at age 25 remains in the best interests of young women and is based on the latest available clinical evidence.

We have therefore asked the independent Advisory Committee on Cervical Screening (ACCS) to formally review the evidence relating to risks and benefits of cervical screening in women under 25 years, including current evidence regarding incidence and mortality in young women.

The evidence review will be led by Professor Henry Kitchener, Chair of the ACCS, with National Cancer Director Professor Mike Richards and the Director of NHS Cancer Screening Programmes Julietta Patnick. The review will include representatives from the key cancer charities, and will consider any evidence they present to ACCS members.

The review is likely to take place at a specially convened meeting of the ACCS in late spring once we and other interested parties have had a chance to gather the appropriate evidence. The ACCS will make recommendations to Ministers shortly after the meeting.

The ACCS will review the latest available evidence in this area as well as consider how we can increase awareness of the importance of screening and encourage more women to decide to take up this important service.


Renewable Transport Fuel Obligations

My Noble Friend the Minister of State Department for Transport has made the following ministerial statement.

Further to my statement of 28 January 2009 about the outcome of the recent consultation on the draft Renewable Transport Fuel Obligations (Amendment) Order 2009, I have today published the Government’s response to the second part of the consultation. Part two sought views on longer term issues concerning the future transposition of the renewable energy directive and the fuel quality directive. It is intended that a further consultation will be held later this year in order to seek views on detailed proposals for implementation of these directives.

Copies of the Government’s response to part two of the consultation have been placed in the Library of the House and are available in the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office.

Work and Pensions

Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council

The Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council was held on 9 March 2009 in Brussels. I represented the UK for the first item of the agenda (Preparation for the Spring European Council) while all other agenda items were represented by my right hon. Friend the Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs (Mr. Pat McFadden). There were no health or consumer affairs issues.

This was a straightforward Council with the main agenda item being input to the spring European Council. Ministers adopted key messages, the Joint Employment Report 2008-09 and the Joint Report on Social Protection, and reached a general approach on a decision on the employment guidelines. The Commission outlined its communication of 4 March on driving european recovery, and the chairs of the Employment Committee and Social Protection Committee outlined their views of what was needed.

In the policy debate that followed, I intervened to stress that some European labour markets had not helped all groups sufficiently and we all need to strengthen employment and welfare policies, maintaining efforts for the most disadvantaged and also avoiding protectionism. Most interventions from other member states concentrated on these themes, with also calls for the London summit not to overlook employment and social issues, and some discussion of handling of the EU Jobs and Social summit on 7 May, on which the presidency will update member states shortly. The Council also adopted related conclusions on new skills for new jobs, and on worker mobility and free movement.

The Council also held a general policy debate based on revision of the directive on pregnant workers. For the UK, my right hon. Friend stressed that the UK had made significant improvements to maternity pay and leave in recent years and that any change to raise the European minimum standards should not undermine national policies. The UK’s experience showed the success of a system developed in consultation with employers and workers. The Commission concluded on the need for further work and the presidency agreed to take forward.

The presidency presented a progress report on the negotiations on Commission proposals to revise the Regulation on the European Globalisation (Adjustment) Fund, noting that further discussion are needed in COREPER.

Under other business, the chairs of the Employment Committee and Social Protection Committee outlined their work plans for 2009. The presidency also summarised three of their recent conferences: Childcare and Employment; Potential of Migrants; and Enlargement Five Years After.

At the lunch, the presidency gave Ministers an update on preparations for working time conciliation. The Council also formally rejected the European Parliament’s Second Reading amendments as an “A” point.