Written Ministerial Statements
Thursday 24 March 2011
Rebalancing the Northern Ireland Economy
The Treasury has today published a consultation paper on rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy.
The paper, which meets a coalition programme for Government commitment, has been produced in consultation with the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland Executive (NIE). It reflects the joint commitment towards meeting the economic challenges Northern Ireland faces, in particular; increasing the size of the private sector while reducing dependency on the public sector, improving productivity, raising growth and increasing employment.
The Government have developed a range of UK-wide policies to rebalance the economy which will benefit Northern Ireland. The 2011 Budget announces new measures, including the Government’s enterprise zone policy and its plan for growth. The paper draws on these policies and describes devolved policies for rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy, bearing in mind that many of the key economic policy levers are already devolved.
The paper also discusses the option of devolving the power to vary the rate of corporation tax to the Northern Ireland Executive, given the unique circumstances in Northern Ireland, including its large public sector, the economic legacy of the troubles and the land border with Ireland. This includes discussion of:
The benefits and costs of devolving corporation tax varying powers to the Northern Ireland Executive;
Other possible tax options.
The consultation will conclude in June 2011. The Government, in consultation with the Northern Ireland Executive, will make decisions in light of the responses received.
Copies of the paper are being placed in the Libraries of both Houses and are available via the Treasury website.
Election and Referendum Guidance
Guidance has today been issued to civil servants in UK Departments on the principles which they should observe in relation to the conduct of Government business in the run up to the forthcoming elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales, to local authorities in England and Northern Ireland, and the voting systems referendum.
The guidance sets out the principles on the need to maintain the political impartiality of the civil service, and the need to ensure that public resources are not used for party political purposes, and sets out the sensitive periods when the guidance comes into force.
Copies of the guidance have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses and on the Cabinet Office website at
Culture, Media and Sport
Advisory Committee on Historic Wreck Sites
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State announced on 26 July 2010 our intention to make a number of changes to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s arm’s length bodies. These changes included the abolition of the Advisory Committee on Historic Wreck Sites (ACHWS), which was set up to advise Government on the designation and licensing of historic wrecks under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973. The ACHWS held its final meeting today, and will cease to exist as of 24 March 2011.
The ACHWS has served a valuable purpose over the years, but we believe that advice on the operation of the 1973 Act can be provided in a more streamlined way. In future such advice will be provided by English Heritage in relation to heritage assets located in UK territorial waters adjacent to England. As the Government’s statutory adviser on the historic environment, English Heritage already provides advice on the protection and conservation of terrestrial heritage assets in England and we believe it makes sense to bring procedures on land and at sea into line. The devolved Administrations will in future source their own advice for Ministers on the operation of the 1973 Act in their respective areas of UK territorial waters.
The Government remain fully committed to ensuring the continued conservation and management of underwater heritage assets in the UK’s territorial waters. We are confident that the new arrangements will ensure the continuation of appropriate advice to Ministers while allowing flexibility to meet the particular needs and circumstances of each country.
UK Youth Parliament
The Government will provide continuing support into 2011-12 to the UK Youth Parliament. Following a limited competitive bidding exercise the Department for Education proposes to award a grant of £335,000 to the British Youth Council to continue the UK Youth Parliament’s key functions and sustain its independence and distinct identity for six months from April 2011. This proposal will be discussed by the trustees of the current host charity for the UK Youth Parliament, Democracy for Young People Ltd, at its meeting on 30 March. The aim of this proposal is to secure continued support for the work of the 600 young people who are members of the Youth Parliament or their deputies. A short-term grant of £65,000 will be offered to Democracy for Young People Ltd to enable it to deliver a smooth transition. The Government are considering what arrangements would be appropriate to sustain the UK Youth Parliament in the longer term. I am pleased that the Speaker of the House of Commons has confirmed continuing support for the UK Youth Parliament in 2011-12 including for the annual debate in the Commons chamber.
Giving young people a voice in public decisions which affect them is a key principle underpinning the Government’s youth policy. Members of the UK Youth Parliament make a valuable contribution to making the voices of young people heard within formal democratic processes and these measures will ensure that their work can continue.
Year 1 Phonics Screening Check
It is vital that all children learn how to read early in their education. Despite the efforts of teachers and parents, 15% of pupils did not reach the expected level in reading at the end of key stage 1 last year. At the end of key stage 2, 16% of pupils were below level 4 in reading, and 8% of pupils were below level 3. These figures show that we need to do more to ensure that our children have the skills as early as possible, to develop into confident, enthusiastic readers.
Research evidence shows that systematic teaching of synthetic phonics is the best way of teaching reading. All children should benefit from high-quality phonics teaching, which will give them the tools to read widely and deeply. Phonics is a prerequisite for children to become effective readers, but it is not an end in itself. Phonics should always be taught alongside comprehension and other wider reading skills. The goal is for children to read fluently for comprehension and pleasure so that they can access the rest of the curriculum and develop a lifelong love of reading.
The Government’s intention to introduce a simple, light-touch assessment of phonic decoding was included in the recent schools White Paper “The Importance of Teaching”. The Government have been consulting on plans to introduce a year 1 phonics screening check. The consultation document proposed the check should be designed to confirm that children are able to decode using phonics by the end of year 1, and to identify those pupils who need additional support.
Over 1,000 responses to the year 1 phonics screening check public consultation were submitted. Having considered all these responses, alongside other evidence such as the pre-trialling of sample assessment materials and reviews of academic research, the Government will develop the phonics screening check for this purpose. The check will provide parents and teachers with the reassurance they need that each child has grasped the basic code of the language. In a recent Nation Council for Parent Teacher Associations survey, 73% of parents, from a representative sample of 460, supported the policy.
The phonics check will contain some non-words. Non-words are already used in many schools, and they are the quickest and fairest way to assess phonic decoding. Non-words are new to all children, and their inclusion in the phonics check is designed to ensure children have the skill to read any new word, rather than simply a good sight memory for whole words.
The responses to the consultation repeatedly emphasised that the check must be manageable for schools to administer, and appropriate for children in year 1. We have therefore made a number of adjustments to our proposals to give schools and teachers greater flexibility, including allowing a week long window for the screening check to take place across the whole year group, and allowing more than one teacher in each school to administer the check. We intend to include the data from the check in RAISEOnline for use by schools, to monitor their own performance, local authorities and Ofsted. Although schools and other education professionals will consider their pupils’ performance on this check in light of national benchmarks, this is not a “high stakes” test. We will therefore not be publishing school by school results in performance tables.
In November and December last year, the Department pre-trialled sample screening check materials in 16 schools. Pupils and teachers responded well to the materials. Pupils were not confused by the use of non-words, and the check of 20 real words and 20 non-words took an average of just 2-3 minutes to administer.
The screening check will be piloted in a representative sample of approximately 300 schools this June. We will continue to gather evidence and take advice from schools about the policy during the pilot stage before finalising the assessment arrangements. Subject to the pilot’s success, the year 1 phonics screening check will become a statutory assessment from 2012.
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change and I represented the United Kingdom at the Environment Council on 14 March in Brussels.
At the beginning of the Council, Environment Commissioner Potocnik updated Ministers on the situation in Japan and was joined by member states in offering condolences and support.
The Council reached political agreement on the first reading of the recast of the directive on waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE), agreeing more ambitious collection and recycling targets for these materials (to be introduced over time and subject to full impact assessment) and measures to reduce red tape. In discussions I stressed the importance of clarity for industry on the scope of the directive and the importance of reviews and impact assessments before any changes were made in this area. I also supported improvements to the methodology for calculating recovery targets to ensure greater certainty.
Ministers then exchanged views on the proposal for a regulation regarding the possibility for member states to restrict or prohibit the cultivation of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) within their own territory. The main focus of the debate was on the Commission’s proposed list of possible justifications for prohibiting cultivation. I argued that any agreement would need to improve the operation of the decision-making process in a legally sound, proportionate and pragmatic way. Like other member states, I stressed the need for a clear legal view of the compatibility of the proposals with EU internal market rules and our WTO obligations. I was also concerned that some of the suggested grounds for national bans were inconsistent with the existing robust EU system that takes a science-based approach in evaluating the health and environmental effects of proposed GMOs. Other grounds risked unintended consequences. I concluded it was not clear that the Commission proposal would improve the system and it could set an unwelcome precedent for other areas in moving away from a science-based approach.
The Council agreed conclusions on the review of the Community strategy concerning mercury. These welcome progress made in the EU and call for a successful conclusion to the international negotiations on a global legally binding instrument on mercury.
Ministers exchanged views on the common agricultural policy towards 2020. I welcomed the presidency decision to hold a discussion on this among Environment Ministers. I underlined the need for the CAP to have a greater focus on confronting the challenges of climate change, protecting natural resources and preventing environmental degradation. These challenges are well analysed in the recent UK Foresight report on global food and farming futures. I commended this report to colleagues in the Council and circulated copies for their information. I argued that the CAP is a key mechanism to achieve our environmental goals and explained that the UK sees pillar 2 of the CAP as the primary tool for doing this. The debate sent a strong message that the future CAP should contribute more to our environmental and climate objectives in line with the EU 2020 strategy.
I also spoke in the discussion on the Environment Council’s “Contribution to the EU Semester” (i.e. review of the annual growth survey) in advance of consideration by the European Council. I stressed the importance of moving early to a resource-efficient, climate-resilient, low-carbon economy if we are to achieve a sustainable economic recovery. Many member states intervened on comparable lines. The presidency noted that resource efficiency and climate change were integral elements in this process.
Several points were discussed under other business on non-climate environment issues, during which I introduced a joint note with Austria, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Slovenia and Spain on whaling. We emphasised the need for the EU to express its existing strong position of opposition to commercial whaling wherever appropriate, including the next round of International Whaling Commission discussions in July and also when negotiating the proposed accession of new member states. A number of member states spoke on a point raised by Austria on measures taken to reduce the usage of single-use carrier bags; other member states took the opportunity to describe a variety of successful actions taken for this purpose.
During the lunch discussion my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State led member states in welcoming the Commission’s 2050 low-carbon road map. There will be further detailed discussion of the road map at the informal Environment Council at the end of the month.
Under climate items, the Council adopted conclusions on the follow-up to the meeting of the UN framework convention on climate change at Cancun in December 2010. These welcome the progress made at Cancun and call for early action in taking forward the agreed work streams and outstanding technical issues. Discussion focused mainly on the legal form of a future comprehensive agreement and the EU’s position on a second commitment period of the Kyoto protocol. My right hon. Friend was supported by other member states in calling for the EU to maintain its position of being open to this, which had been well received at Cancun. Conclusions were agreed which reiterate the position adopted at the October Environment Council.
Under other business on climate change issues, the Council received updates from the Commission on the state of the EU emissions trading system registry and the joint procurement agreement for the single auction monitor; and information from Denmark on the use of industrial gas credits under the effort sharing decision.
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Foreign Affairs Council and General Affairs Council
The Foreign Affairs Council and General Affairs Council were held on 21 March in Brussels. I represented the UK.
Foreign Affairs Council (FAC)
The FAC was chaired by Baroness Ashton. A provisional report of the meeting, and all conclusions adopted, can be found at:
The agenda items covered were as follows:
Ministers reviewed the EU’s response to the crisis in Japan. Commissioners Georgieva (International Co- operation, Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Response) and Piebalgs (Development) briefed Ministers on the public health situation and the requirement for humanitarian assistance. A key focus for current EU efforts would probably be temporary housing. (See also record of GAC discussion.)
Ministers agreed conclusions (see link above) which:
Called on Gaddafi to relinquish power immediately;
Expressed satisfaction with the adoption of UNSCR 1973;
Agreed further restrictive measures against the Libyan regime and agreed to work up further measures on the basis of UNSCR 1973;
Committed to support action provided under UNSCR 1973—noting that the EU would continue to provide humanitarian assistance to those affected;
Called for the High Representative to develop planning for assistance for humanitarian assistance in close co-ordination with the UN and NATO.
During discussions, I set out how military action under UNSCR 1973 had helped avoid a catastrophe in Benghazi. This action had been broad-based; a coming together of western and regional actors.
Libya was also discussed in the GAC in the context of the text of European Council conclusions which will be presented to the European Council on 24-25 March—see below.
Developments in the Southern Neighbourhood
Ministers agreed conclusions on both Bahrain and Yemen (see link above) expressing concern with the situation in both countries. In both cases, the Council urged all concerned—including the respective Governments—to engage in constructive dialogue. They expressed concern about reports of the arrest of opposition figures in Bahrain. And stressed the need for the authorities in Yemen to ensure respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.
On EU assistance to the region, I stressed the need for conditionality, or, what others termed “mutual accountability”: a lot of money had been spent to limited effect in terms of economic development or political reform. The European neighbourhood policy (ENP) needed ambitious re-shaping to focus on supporting states pursuing reforms.
Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH)
Ministers agreed conclusions (see link) that endorsed the external action service’s (EAS) proposals for a reconfigured EU presence in BiH. The conclusions raised concerns about the political situation in BiH and called on BiH leaders to form Governments which can address the reform agenda. The conclusions outlined the Council’s continued support for the Office of the High Representative (OHR), EUFOR (EU military mission) and EUPM (EU police mission). They also outlined the package of instruments, including restrictive measures, which would be available to the new EU representative and looked forward to further discussions on the reconfiguration of the international presence.
Council conclusions on a strategy for security and development in the Sahel were adopted (see link). The strategy’s primary focus will be on Mali, Mauritania and Niger, but it also builds on complementary activity in the Maghreb. Proposals made by the High Representative and Commission on the basis of this strategy will be considered by Brussels working groups before implementation. Action would be directed to development, good governance, and internal conflict resolution; security and rule of law; and countering violent extremism.
Conclusions were agreed (see link above) which:
Confirmed the EU’s continuing support for the Djibouti peace process;
Stressed the need for the transitional federal institutions (TFIs) to help advance the peace process;
Expressed regret over the Somali transitional federal Parliament’s decision to extend its mandate;
Agreed that any future EU support to the TFIs, including stipends for parliamentarians, should be based on progress on reform;
Reaffirmed support for the AMISOM peacekeeping mission.
I supported the conclusions, stressing the importance of maintaining pressure on the TFIs, supporting AMISOM and greater EAS engagement in Puntland.
Council conclusions were adopted (see above link) without discussion on Iran/human rights. These gave agreement to introduce targeted sanctions against human rights violators while at the same time making it clear that the EU remains ready to discuss human rights issues with Iran. Work will now proceed in Brussels to draw up the sanctions legal act and list of individuals to be targeted.
Under AOB, France raised recent developments in Côte d’Ivoire. There was broad agreement that the EU needed to continue to apply its targeted measures against Mr. Gbagbo and those that sustain his illegitimate regime. On the 18 March, the Foreign Secretary issued a statement:
“I utterly condemn the indiscriminate killing of more than 25 people in Abobo yesterday by forces loyal to former President Gbagbo. The launching of mortars into a market place and bus station is abhorrent and the UN should conduct a full investigation.
I call on all parties in Côte d’Ivoire to cease violence, to seek a peaceful resolution to the ongoing crisis and for President Ouattara to take his rightful position in line with the will of the Ivorian people”.
General Affairs Council (GAC)
The GAC was chaired by the presidency, Hungarian Foreign Minister Martonyi. A provisional report of the meeting can be found at:
Preparation for the March European Council
Ministers examined draft Council conclusions for the European Council to be held on 24-25 March. The European Council will discuss:
Economic policy: adoption of a comprehensive package of measures to strengthen EU economic governance and ensure the stability of the euro area.
Developments in Libya and elsewhere in the EU’s southern neighbourhood: follow-up to UNSCR 1973 and latest developments as regards Libya; implementation of measures agreed by the European Council on 4 February.
Crisis in Japan: assessment of the humanitarian aid effort, the situation in the energy sector and the broader economic implications.
On economic policy, I emphasised the need to focus on economic growth, building on the Commission’s annual growth survey. The European Council conclusions needed to have language promoting smarter regulation, reducing the regulatory burden on businesses and SMEs in particular, and improving the internal market for services. The EU also had to reflect on the importance of trade for future EU growth, delivering this through a conclusion to the Doha round this year and taking forward negotiations on free trade agreements (FTAs) with India, Canada and Singapore.
Libya and the Southern Neighbourhood
Following on from the earlier discussion in the FAC, Ministers focused on the detail of proposed short-term measures, including raising the ceiling of the European Investment Bank (EIB) operations in the region by EUR 1 billion. A number of member states emphasised the conditions that would need to accompany any such rise.
I also made a more general call for a set of ambitious European Council conclusions, reflecting our offer of a new partnership and a deeper coalition with the region in return for greater reform. To that end, we needed to better reflect the commitment set at the European Council of 11 March—which my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out for the House on 14 March.
Ministers briefly took stock of the EU’s response following discussions in the FAC. They noted that Energy Ministers were meeting separately in Brussels on the same day to discuss the nuclear crisis.
On the proposed European Council conclusions language, I stressed that while we wanted to ensure the highest safety standards in nuclear plants, we should remember that there was already much legislation in place and very capable national authorities were taking action. We should not do anything that undermined the clear responsibility which rested with member states in this area.
Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong
The latest report on the implementation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration on Hong Kong was published today. Copies have been placed in the Library of the House. A copy of the report is also available on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website (www.fco.gov.uk). The report covers the period from 1 July to 31 December 2010. I commend the report to the House.
Entry Clearance Decisions (Removal of Full Appeal Rights)
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is today laying before the House a copy of the United Kingdom Border Agency report on removal of full appeal rights against refusal of entry clearance decisions under the points-based system. Copies will be available in the Vote Office and online at http://www.official-documents.gov.uk/.
Section 4(3) of the Immigration, Asylum and Nationality Act 2006 requires provision of a report on the effects of section 4(1) of the 2006 Act, which is the mechanism by which appeal rights against refusal of entry clearance decisions overseas were removed for those applying under the points-based system.
The report is required within the period of three years from the commencement of section 4(1) on 1 April 2008, when the points-based system was first implemented overseas. Full appeal rights against such refusals were removed as each tier of the points-based system was implemented overseas. A new process of administrative review was introduced overseas under the points-based system to enable refused applicants to challenge any factual errors made in the decision-making process.
To meet the requirements as set out in the Act, the report provides statistical data on entry clearance decisions and administrative review requests made, it details the processes and criteria in place under the points-based system and records opinions made by the UK Border Agency independent chief inspector. To report on the effects of removal of full appeal rights, some comparisons have been made between the appeal system and administrative review process.