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Written Statements

Volume 523: debated on Friday 11 February 2011

Written Ministerial Statements

Friday 11 February 2011

Communities and Local Government

Local Authority Publicity

Last year I consulted local government and other interested parties on a proposed new code of recommended practice on local authority publicity. On 27 January the Communities and Local Government Select Committee issued a report on the proposals. Having now carefully considered the responses received from the consultation and the Select Committee’s report, I am today laying before Parliament a draft “Code of Recommended Practice on Local Authority Publicity”. If Parliament approves the draft, the Secretary of State will issue the code which will replace, in relation to English local authorities and certain other bodies, the existing code of practice.

The new code sets out the principles for local authority publicity. It makes clear that principal councils should not publish newspapers more frequently than quarterly and that such publications should only include material directly related to local services. It provides for a more flexible regime for parish councils given parish newsletters are not in competition with local newspapers.

The new code also makes clear that councils should not spend taxpayers’ money to lobby Government through private sector lobbyists or other forms of publicity.

I have also placed a copy of the Government’s response to the consultation and the Select Committee’s report in the Library of the House.

Deputy Prime Minister

Government Response to the House of Lords Constitution Committee's Report (Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill)

The House of Lords Constitution Committee published its report on the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill on 11 November 2010, immediately prior to Committee stage in this House.

I am pleased to inform the House that I have today laid before Parliament the Government’s response to the Committee’s report (Cm 8016). Copies are available in the Vote Office and Printed Paper Office.

Education

Building Schools for the Future

Mr Justice Holman has today handed down his judgment on the judicial review brought against me by Luton borough council and Nottingham city council; Waltham Forest London borough council; Newham London borough council; Kent county council; and Sandwell Metropolitan borough council, following my decision in July 2010 to cancel Building Schools for the Future projects in their areas.

The judge said that he was

“absolutely clear that the decision is not open to legal challenge on a discrete ground of irrationality, however that argument is developed or put”;

and he agreed that nothing which the Department for Education or Partnerships for Schools had done in respect of these local authorities went

“so far as to create a substantive legitimate expectation that any given project would definitely proceed”.

These were the substantive points in this case and I am delighted that the judge has ruled in my favour.

There were further, procedural, grounds on which the claimants made their case, in particular on a duty to consult; and on the duty to have due regard to equalities duties.

I acknowledge that, on these procedural grounds, the judge has ruled in favour of the claimants. In essence, his view is that my consultation with 14 local authorities (in relation to 32 sample schools) and a further 119 individual academy projects on their particular circumstances, did not go far enough and that I should have included the six claimant authorities in my consultation. And he judges that I should have had rigorous regard to equalities considerations in reaching my decision.

The judge has not ordered a reinstatement of funding for any BSF project. Nor has he ordered me to pay compensation to any of the claimants. Instead, he has concluded that I

“must now, after giving each of them a reasonable opportunity to make representations, reconsider [my] decision in so far as it affects the claimants and each of the projects in relation to which they have claimed, with an open mind, paying due regard to any representations they may make, and rigorously discharging [my] equalities duties”.

I am happy to do so. He has made clear that provided I discharge my duties in this way,

“the final decision on any given school or project still rests with [me]”;

and that I

“may save all, some, a few, or none”.

He concluded by saying that

“no one should gain false hope from this decision”.

The judge has made clear that any other local authority, outside of the claimant group, would be far too late to apply for a separate judicial review on this matter.

My Department will shortly make contact with the claimant local authorities to set out a process through which they can make their representations to me.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Forestry Commission England (2011-12 Asset Sales Programme)

As in previous years, the selection criteria for land in the Forestry Commission England’s forthcoming assets sales programme were published on 27 January. In the light of the Government commitment to increase protection for access and public benefit in our woodlands, the criteria for these sales will be reviewed so that protections are significantly strengthened following the inadequate measures that were applied to sales under the previous Administration. Pending this review, no individual woodland site will be put on the market.

Agriculture and Fisheries Council

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Agriculture and Food represented the United Kingdom at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council in Brussels on 24 January.

The presidency presented its work programme highlighting its priorities as CAP reform, the dairy file, the quality package, and reaching agreement on the 1,100 pages of Lisbon alignment legislation. It intended to complete the evaluation of the EU animal welfare policy, and make progress on cloning. It would also make efforts to reach a binding agreement on forests at the Oslo Ministerial at the back end of its presidency. The debate on CFP reform would be a further central feature.

The Commission presented its communication on the health of honey bees outlining the key issues and the main actions that the Commission intended to take to address them. Member states supported the communication and called for further evidence on the possible causes of the increased bee mortalities. The UK welcomed the work, and drew attention to the action being taken in the UK to address bee health problems, and drew attention to recent evidence on possible involvement of neonicotinoid insecticides.

The debate on CAP reform was prepared on the basis of a presidency questionnaire exploring links to the delivery of environmental public goods, green growth and innovation, and agriculture’s contribution to addressing climate security concerns. All member states agreed with the Commission that that the objective was sound but most delegations wished to examine the relative contribution of the two CAP pillars to the Commission’s objective. A number suggested that pursuing green outcomes through pillar 1, either in the form of a top-up payments for areas with natural handicaps or by greening, was inadvisable and would result in administrative burdens. The UK called for additional resources for pillar 2, which could be better targeted at environmental objectives than pillar 1. Others, such as France, were more open to the proposal of a green pillar 1, provided it was mandatory and simple. A large number of member states insisted that the Commission ensure that its proposals delivered on the CAP simplification agenda.

The Commission stressed that the three objectives it had identified in its communication—food security, sustainable management of resources and territorial balance—were interlinked and that a green pillar 1 was necessary in order to achieve EU-wide environmental outcomes from agriculture. The Commission also responded to widespread concerns about CAP simplification, noting that an ad hoc expert group had been established, and would act as a filter for CAP reform proposals. CAP debate would continue at the February Council with a discussion of the Commission’s third objective for CAP reform, territorial balance.

The first item under any other business was the UK presentation of the foresight report, published by the chef scientific adviser, on the future of food and farming. The UK stressed that the report was an important lens through which to study the Commission’s CAP reform proposals. The UK also noted that an event would be organised in Brussels to disseminate and discuss the report’s findings.

Belgium, with the support of Ireland, France, the Netherlands, Germany, Poland, Austria, Slovenia, Portugal, Finland, Romania, Cyprus, Spain, Malta and Hungary, rehearsed its concerns about a crisis in the pigmeat sector, calling once more for the introduction of private storage aid (PSA), and the creation of a high-level group. Taking a more accommodating line than previously, the Commission agreed to open PSA but remained reluctant to raise expectations in the sector by establishing a high-level group. It would continue with plans for discussion in the enlarged advisory group, urging the presidency to discuss the group’s findings at SCA in April, with a view to recommending an appropriate policy response to the Commission in advance of its adopting CAP reform proposals.

The Commission gave a brief tour of the situation on international markets. It noted on the DDA negotiations that there was a positive mood in WTO circles for attempting once more to conclude the round. The Commission also put forward a number of suggestions for addressing price volatility in the context of the French presidency of the G20. Instruments were needed to address price volatility, as experienced showed that prices remained volatile even where there was no shortage of physical stocks. The Commission wanted more transparency in terms of market data, improved quality of data, and a forum for discussion. It wanted to have more reliability about the availability of emergency stocks, and wanted to press for improved international governance of crises and increased investment in agricultural research. A communication on commodities, dealing with some of the issues, would be adopted by the Commission in the coming days.

France noted that a number of the issues would be picked up at the G20 Agriculture Ministers meeting 22-23 June, which would lead to the adoption of an action plan at the Cannes Ministerial at the end of the French presidency.

Germany provided an update on the dioxin situation. It estimated that 2,256 tonnes of feed fat had been contaminated, and said that 589 holdings were currently under restriction. Germany also presented its 10-point action plan to improve consumer protection in the animal feed chain, and called for certain actions to be considered at EU level.

The Commission clarified that the current system had worked and that any further measures should remain proportionate. The measures under consideration were the compulsory approval of establishments manufacturing, treating and marketing fats, the strict separation of production streams, reinforced dioxin monitoring, and the extension of reporting obligations to private laboratories. The Commission rejected the positive list and the mandatory liability insurance actions proposed by Germany. Member states felt that there were lessons to be learnt from the incident and supported the Commission’s proposed approach.

Latvia requested EU co-financing to support the cleansing and disinfection of livestock vehicles returning from the Russian Federation, to prevent the introduction of African swine fever. Most member states supported the request made. The Commission would consider different options to provide support and these would be discussed further at expert level.

Home Department

G6 Meeting (Krakow)

The informal G6 group of Ministers of the Interior from the UK, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, and Poland held their most recent meeting in Krakow, Poland on 3-4 February 2011. The meeting had been postponed from September 2010. The meeting was chaired by the Polish Minister for the Interior, Jerzy Miller.

The meeting was divided into two working sessions over one day, both of which were attended by G6 Ministers of the Interior (I represented the UK; Thomas de Maizière—Germany; Brice Hortefeux—France; Roberto Maroni—Italy), with the additional guest attendance of the US Attorney-General, Eric Holder and the US Deputy Secretary for Homeland Security, Jane Lute. Spain was represented by the Minister of State for Security, Antonio Camacho Vizcaíno.

The first working session was on cyberspace security. Ministers considered the need to inform the public on how to keep safe in cyberspace. I noted that the Government had allocated £650 million to fund national cyber-security, including £63 million on cybercrime and that the Government would be publishing a cyber-security strategy in the spring. The approach of the UK was for more effective self-regulation rather than formal regulation. To this end, there was frequent consultation between Government and internet security providers. The US Attorney-General noted that his Government had recently issued a cyberspace policy review and created an office for cyber-security co-ordination. There were discussions around data retention and protection.

The second session focused on the issue of information policy in countering terrorism. The Poles were particularly keen to gather expertise from other states in advance of the Euro 2012 football championships which they will jointly host with Ukraine—in particular how to ensure that the accurate messages get to citizens rapidly. I offered to work closely with Poland noting that the championship will take place only a month before the London Olympics.

I also held separate bilateral meetings with other heads of delegations.

The next meeting of the G6 is expected to be held in Spain in June.

Work and Pensions

Uprating Private Sector Occupational Pensions (Revised Impact Assessment)

Today, the Government will publish an updated version of their impact assessment for the move to the consumer prices index (CPI) for uprating private sector occupational pensions. A further update is anticipated when the Government respond to the consultation on this issue.

On 8 July, Government announced the move to using the CPI as the basis for the statutory minimum uprating of occupational pensions. On 8 December, the Department published a consultation document on the impact of using the CPI for revaluation and indexation of private sector occupational pensions, and an initial impact assessment was published to accompany the consultation document.

Following publication, an error in the calculations has been identified. Additionally the Regulatory Policy Committee (RPC) has reviewed the calculations underpinning the impact assessment. Acting on the feedback from the RPC, the Government have made a change to the method used to calculate the net present value (the value expressed in today’s money) of the reductions to scheme liabilities. The version to be published later today takes account of these two changes.

The Government are currently undertaking research into private pension schemes rules and the likely reaction of employers to the decision to use the CPI which will extend our evidence base for calculating the impact on scheme liabilities. The outcome of this analysis will feature in the next edition of the impact assessment.

A copy of the revised impact assessment will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses, and is available on the Department’s website at: http://www.dwp.gov.uk/docs/cpi-private-pensions-consultation-ia.pdf