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Written Statements

Volume 519: debated on Thursday 25 November 2010

Written Ministerial Statements

Thursday 25 November 2010

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

General Affairs Council/Foreign Affairs Council

The General Affairs Council and Foreign Affairs Council were held on 22 October in Brussels. I represented the UK.

The agenda items covered were as follows:

General Affairs Council (GAC)

The Belgian presidency (Foreign Minister Vanackere) chaired the meeting. The full text of all conclusions adopted can be found at:

http://www.consilium.europa.eu/uedocs/cms_data/docs/pressdata/EN/genaff/117939.pdf

Follow-up to the October European Council and preparations for the December Council

The discussion was dominated by economic issues, in particular the establishment of a permanent crisis mechanism, treaty change, and the process leading up to any decision by the European Council in December.

Along with others, I stressed the need to keep changes to the treaty to a minimum and ensure that national Parliaments were fully involved. Others also emphasised the importance of careful presentation and handling of economic policy matters, in order to avoid unnecessary market speculation.

On the EU budget, I reiterated our determination that EU expenditure should reflect consolidation efforts being made by member states. The December European Council will discuss how the EU budget can contribute to these efforts.

European Commission 2011 Work Programme

The Commission presented their work programme for 2011. They hoped it would increase the predictability of the discussions in the year to come. They were actively seeking feedback from national Parliaments. The UK (Sir Kim Darroch) said this exercise would aid transparency, and noted that much of the content was useful, especially on sustainable growth. However, the UK also stressed that any proposals needed to be considered against tests on subsidiarity and the avoidance of regulatory burden.

Videoconferencing at Councils

The presidency introduced proposals for a staged upgrade in the Council’s video conferencing capability. These were approved without discussion.

Disaster Response

The Commissioner for International Co-operation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response (Ms Georgieva) presented the Commission’s ideas on European disaster response. She stressed the need to address the increased frequency and intensity of disasters, and to use the EU’s new institutional arrangements. She underscored the primary responsibility of member states, the need to be cost-effective, and the importance of UN leadership externally.

Many speakers welcomed the ideas but made clear they could not accept EU control of national assets. Any legislative proposals had to reflect the different structures in Europe, and the primacy of the UN in humanitarian operations. The UK (Sir Kim Darroch) stressed the need for flexible and pragmatic solutions, noting that future Council conclusions could broadly endorse moving forward but should not prejudge technical discussions. Others emphasised the importance of greater EU visibility and enhanced co-ordination.

The presidency concluded that there was broad agreement to proceed to Council conclusions at the December GAC.

Transparency Register

Under AOB, the European Commission informed the GAC that they had reached agreement with the European Parliament on a transparency register covering all lobbyists and NGOs who sought to influence the two institutions. The text of the agreement would be forwarded to the Council.

Foreign Affairs Council (FAC)

The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Baroness Ashton, chaired the meeting. The full text of all conclusions adopted, including “A” points, can be found at:

http://www.consilium.europa.eu/uedocs/cms_data/docs/pressdata/EN/foraff/117948.pdf

Middle East Peace Process (MEPP) - Gaza/Lebanon

Over lunch, Ministers focused on the efforts to encourage Israel and the Palestinians to restart direct talks. Many speakers emphasised the need for the EU to support the efforts of the US. There was also concern about continuing settlement activity, particularly in East Jerusalem. Baroness Ashton said that it was important to maintain momentum to improve conditions in Gaza, reiterating the EU’s readiness to contribute to this. She added that the EU would continue to work with the international quartet. On Lebanon, a number of Ministers argued that the EU should support the special tribunal. Conclusions were agreed.

Iran

Baroness Ashton updated the FAC on the latest developments on the nuclear dossier.

Sudan

Baroness Ashton invited me to lead discussion on Sudan, following the special session of the UN Security Council on Sudan on 16 November chaired by the Foreign Secretary. I highlighted that this was a defining period for Sudan: the EU needed to work energetically to support a peaceful outcome. The EU should ensure that contingency preparations were ready to be signed off at the next FAC on 13 December. The EU also needed to consider how to engage Khartoum, to complement the US package, and to strengthen the role of moderates in the north. I argued that debt relief might be an important element. Additionally, we should not lose sight of Darfur.

Other speakers echoed these themes, particularly on the need to explore quickly options on debt relief. Assistance for the three kidnapped Latvians and one Hungarian in Sudan was also raised.

Baroness Ashton announced that she was setting up a Sudan taskforce headed up by Dame Rosalind Marsden, the EU Special Representative for Sudan. Conclusions were agreed.

Preparations for forthcoming Summits and relations with strategic partners

The FAC discussed preparations for the forthcoming EU summits with Africa (29-30 November), Russia (7 December) and India (10 December), and for the OSCE summit (1-2 December). The discussion also covered the EU’s strategic relations with the US, Russia and China.

Much of the discussion focused on relations with Russia, specifically visa liberalisation and Russia’s WTO membership. Baroness Ashton proposed that Ministers discuss these issues further on 13 December ahead of her presentation to the December European Council.

Burma

Ministers discussed developments in Burma, including deeply flawed elections and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi. Strong concern was expressed at the continued detention of 2,200 political prisoners, and there was agreement on the need for caution in the EU’s response to recent events, and on the need to co-ordinate with other key partners, including the US.

Iraq

There was a brief exchange of views on the political situation and recent developments in Iraq. A number of speakers emphasised the need to pay close attention to the situation of religious minorities. Conclusions were agreed.

Belarus

The FAC was briefed by the Polish Foreign Minister on his joint visit with the German Foreign Minister to Minsk on 2 November. The Lithuanian Foreign Minister reported on the recent visit to Minsk by the Lithuanian President.

Women, Peace and Security

I wish to inform the House that, today, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, together with the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development, will publicly launch the UK’s national action plan on women, peace and security.

Ten years ago, the UN Security Council agreed Resolution 1325 and we committed to reduce the impact of conflict on women and girls and to promote their inclusion in conflict resolution. Ten years on, there is clearly more to do. Our new national action plan sets out how we will pursue progress through a range of initiatives and through incorporating our commitments into our diplomatic, defence and development activity.

The key commitments are:

to make “Women, Peace and Security” an integral part of our conflict policy, including through providing specialised training to civilian and military staff; placing women at the front and centre of our development policy; and the deployment of female military personnel as “Female Engagement Officers” in support of UK battle groups to improve military engagement with female Afghan civilians;

to implement specific action plans for priority countries, starting with Afghanistan, Nepal and DRC;

to strengthen the action taken by the international community, including by taking a strong advocacy role at the United Nations and supporting the enhancement of UN structures that assist women in conflict.

Revision of the national action plan has been carried out by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development, in consultation with civil society, particularly the civil society coalition group: Gender Action for Peace and Security (GAPS).

The plan will be reviewed annually, incorporating feedback from civil society focus groups. Progress will be reported to Parliament and civil society through the Associate Parliamentary Group on Women, Peace and Security. A full evaluation of the plan will be carried out after three years.

I am placing a copy of the national action plan in the Library of the House. It will also be published on the FCO website (www.fco.gov.uk).

Health

Violence Against Women and Children Action Plan

Today, I formally launch the Department of Health action plan, improving services for women and child victims of violence. This document sets out how the Department, in partnership with others, will take action in response to the findings of the independent taskforce on the health aspects of violence against women and children (VAWC), which were published in March 2010.

The work programme aims to lay the foundations for embedding high-quality evidence-based practice within the national health service in response to violence and abuse and is set around four key themes: awareness-raising; workforce, education and training; improving quality of services; and evidence and information.

The action plan takes into account the key findings from the independent taskforce, which were informed by focus groups with women and children service users. An NHS implementation group on violence against women and children, established in June, will oversee progress of the implementation work.

The Department’s work in this important area also feeds into the cross-Government programme on violence against women and girls. This highlights the importance of partnership-working at both a national and local level to tackle violence and abuse.

I am placing a copy of the report in the Library and copies are available to hon. Members from the Vote Office.

Carers Strategy

We are today publishing a cross-Government strategy—“Recognised, valued and supported: next steps for the Carers Strategy”. This sets out the Government’s priority areas for the next four years to ensure the best possible outcomes for carers and those they support. The strategy recognises the vital role that carers already play in providing support and care to people, and the importance of having a life outside the caring role. It also recognises the importance of a “whole family” approach to supporting young carers, so that they do not take on inappropriate caring roles.

The strategy sets out how the Government will reciprocate the support carers provide with measures that support the responsibilities of caring:

supporting those with caring responsibilities to identify themselves as carers at an early stage, recognising the value of their contribution and involving them from the outset both in designing local care provision and in planning individual care packages;

enabling those with caring responsibilities to fulfil their educational and employment potential;

personalised support both for carers and those they support, enabling them to have a family and community life; and

supporting carers to remain mentally and physically well.

The strategy identifies the actions that the Government will take to support these priorities. These include:

providing £400 million additional funding over the next four years for breaks, and further resources for GP training, to increase GPs’ awareness and understanding of carers’ needs for support. The Department for Education has already announced that additional funding recycled from the child trust fund will be used to support short breaks services. The legislative process to place a duty on councils to commission a short breaks service should be completed in the new year;

the Department for Education will make a new early intervention grant available to local government from April 2011-12, bringing together a range of funding streams for early intervention services for young people and families, including young carers;

the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will issue a consultation document next year to consult with business on how best to take forward the coalition commitment to extend to all employees the right to request flexible working;

the Department of Health and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will examine how small local enterprises can be encouraged to provide good quality, reliable and consistent replacement care either to give carers a break from caring responsibilities or to enable them to work alongside caring responsibilities; and

the Department of Health and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will work with industry and statutory and voluntary sector stakeholders to identify the barriers and enablers to market growth in assisted living technologies, and to support further uptake and boost innovation.

The Department of Health is also publishing a guide on emerging evidence—“Carers and personalisation: improving outcomes”. This includes examples to illustrate how the principles of personalisation have been applied, emphasising the value of finding ways forward that make sense and work best locally.

A copy of “Recognised, valued and supported: next steps for the Carers Strategy” has been placed in the Library and copies are available to hon. Members from the Vote Office.

Home Department

“Call to End Violence against Women and Girls”

The Government’s ambition is nothing less than ending all forms of violence against women and girls. This is a key priority for us and today, on the international day for the elimination of violence against women, we have set out our guiding principles for this over the coming spending review period. This includes a commitment to provide more than £28 million for specialist services for victims of domestic and sexual violence over the next four years.

We will take a cross-departmental integrated approach to ending violence against women and girls by tackling its root causes and dealing fully with its effects. For the first time we have also included the work that we do at an international level to promote women’s rights globally and reduce the impact of conflict on women and girls.

We will publish the detail of the supporting actions in the spring.

The “Call to End Violence Against Women and Girls” strategic narrative is available on the Home Office website at http://www.homeoffice.gov.uk/vawg and a copy will be placed in the House Library.

Transport

Rail Investment

This statement sets out the Government’s plans for investment in rail infrastructure and rolling stock. It builds on the announcement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer of the outcome of the spending review.

Over the next four years, we will provide £14 billion of funding to Network Rail to support capital maintenance and infrastructure investment; and £750 million for high speed rail. We will also fund the Crossrail project, the tube upgrade programme, light rail projects in Birmingham, Tyneside, Nottingham and Sheffield; and provide additional funding to franchisees for extra rolling stock.

Today, I can confirm we will fund and deliver the Thameslink programme in its entirety, virtually doubling the number of north-south trains running through central London at peak times. But the original programme for the rebuilding of London Bridge was always ambitious, with substantial risks around delivery, and operation of existing services, during construction. To reduce these risks, we have re-profiled the delivery of the programme to achieve completion in 2018. This will enable Network Rail to make further efficiencies to their design and delivery programme.

As part of the Thameslink programme, we will procure a new fleet of trains—up to 1,200 new carriages. This is in addition to around 600 new carriages which will be provided for the Crossrail project. The new Thameslink and Crossrail rolling stock will enable the redeployment of hundreds of serviceable electric carriages currently used on Thameslink services. These carriages belong to rolling-stock leasing companies, but we expect they will be available at competitive leasing prices for re-use elsewhere, thus justifying further electrification of our network.

As a first step. Network Rail will electrify the commuter services on the great western main line from London to Didcot, Oxford and Newbury over the next six years. Electric trains will speed up journeys, improve reliability and reduce the impact on the environment. Network Rail will also electrify the lines between Liverpool, Manchester, Preston and Blackpool—an investment of up to £300 million. Work is expected to begin next year and to be finished in 2016. As with Thameslink, we expect Network Rail to keep a tight rein on costs.

The redeployment of electric rolling stock to these routes will, in turn, free up hundreds of diesel units which will be available to train operators to lease as they become available in the period after 2015.

I can also today confirm that an additional 650 carriages will have been delivered to the network between 6 May 2010 and March 2014. This is in addition to the Thameslink and Crossrail carriages I have already mentioned.

We have funding confirmed for developments at Reading, Birmingham, London Kings Cross and Gatwick Airport. In addition, investments on the east coast main line and midland main line and improvements in Yorkshire, on trans-Pennine routes, around Manchester and in South Wales will improve line speed, reliability and capacity of services.

Beyond these investments in the commuter railway, there are far-reaching decisions to be made about intercity services. The Intercity Express programme, launched by the previous Government, identified the Agility Trains consortium as preferred bidder to build a new fleet of intercity trains. This February, my predecessors invited Sir Andrew Foster, to provide an independent assessment of the programme. Sir Andrew recommended work on the Agility Trains proposal and a detailed study of the alternatives. Following this work, the four options Sir Andrew identified, have been narrowed down to two. I have ruled out the option of requiring passengers to interchange from electric to diesel trains, recognising the value to passengers of preserving through-journeys. I have also ruled out the option of a wholesale refurbishment of the existing diesel “Intercity 125” fleet, some of which dates back to the 1970s.

The remaining options are, on the one hand a revised, lower-cost Agility Trains proposal, which envisages a mixed fleet: some all-electric trains, and some electric trains which are also equipped with under-floor diesel engines. And on the other, a fleet of new all-electric trains which could be coupled to new diesel locomotives where the overhead electric power lines end. Both these options would allow us to preserve through-journeys between London and parts of the rail network which are not electrified. Both of them would deliver faster journey times. For example, we expect to see a time saving of at least 15 minutes, for the journey between Cardiff and London bringing it below two hours.

This is a major decision which will affect intercity rail travel for decades, and we must get it right. To address outstanding issues on choice of train type and further electrification on the great western main line, additional work will be required within the Department, with Agility Trains, and with the Welsh Assembly Government on the business case for electrification into Wales. I expect to announce a final decision on IEP, and on further great western electrification, in the new year.

This package I have announced today has only been possible because this Government have been prepared to take the tough decisions to protect investment in Britain’s future. I will make a further oral statement to the House on the issues raised in this statement later today.

Work and Pensions

Opposition Day Debate Clarification (Housing Benefit)

In the course of the Opposition day debate on housing benefit, 9 November 2010, I stated that:

“We now know that, according to the Office for National Statistics, the private marketplace in housing—Labour Members are completely wrong about this—fell by around 5% last year. At the same time, LHA rates, which the previous Government had set and left to us, had risen by 3%”.— [Official Report, 9 November 2010; Vol. 518, c. 167].

The correct answer should have been:

“We now know that, according to national statistics, the private marketplace in housing—Labour Members are completely wrong about this—fell by around 5% between November 2008 and February 2010. At the same time, national LHA rates, the system the previous Government left us, had risen by 3%”.

The source of this statistic, as published in DWP’s analytical supplement to the Work and Pensions Select Committee inquiry of 3 November, is the Find a Property private rental index. This source for rental data has been used by the Department and wider Government since 2008 when the Department for Communities and Local Government stopped producing their own private rental index. The Find A Property index is the biggest national private rental property website with an extensive amount of nationwide data.

“For where problems do arise, we have tripled the discretionary housing payment to £140 million".—[Official Report, 9 November 2010; Vol. 518 c. 174].

I am happy to clarify that discretionary housing payment funding will be £130 million and that £10 million will be available from Communities and Local Government funding for homelessness prevention, hence totalling £140 million over the spending review period. Funding on discretionary housing payments will indeed triple in year from 2012-13.

“Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman would like to explain how the figures show that the real-terms increase over the past five years was 50%, not 18%”.—[Official Report, 9 November 2010; Vol. 518, c. 149].

I can confirm that housing benefit expenditure has increased by 50% in real terms from £14 billion in 2000-01 to a forecast £21.5 billion in 2010-11.

Work Programme (Framework Providers)

The Government have previously announced their plans for radical reforms of the welfare-to-work system and the implementation of the Work programme.

Work to deliver the programme is progressing quickly and we are on track to deliver nationwide by the summer of 2011.

Today we announce the providers who will be invited to bid to deliver the Work programme and subsequent employment-related support initiatives. These providers have been named on our framework for employment-related support services, which is the commercial vehicle through which the Work programme will be delivered. The list of suppliers will be released at 1pm today, and can be found here:

http://www.dwp.gov.uk/supplying-DWP/what- we-buy/welfare-to-work-services/work-programme

We are delighted that we received so much interest in the framework and we had strong competition from the market. The providers we have selected represent the very best of organisations from both the private and voluntary sectors. There is a good mix of existing suppliers and new entrants to the market, including innovative partnerships.

The Work programme is the Government’s flagship welfare-to-work programme, and will be built around the needs of individuals: we will give providers longer to work with customers and greater freedom to decide the appropriate support for them. We will also offer stronger incentives for providers to work with harder-to-help customers, and to get people into sustained jobs.