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House of Commons Hansard
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Written Statements
16 October 2012
Volume 551

Written Ministerial Statements

Tuesday 16 October 2012

Attorney-General

Hillsborough

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Following the publication of the Hillsborough panel report I have been considering whether to apply to the High Court for an order quashing the original inquests and ordering new inquests to be held. The High Court will have the power to grant such an order if I place before it evidence that persuades the Court that new inquests are necessary or desirable in the interests of justice.

My consideration of the evidence is far from complete but, given the anxiety further delay may cause the families affected by the Hillsborough disaster, I have decided to take an exceptional course and state at this stage that, on the basis of what I have already seen, I have determined that I must make an application to the Court.

In doing so I should make it clear that further work will need to be done before any application can be made. In particular, there was not one inquest but 96. My current view is that I will apply to have every one of those 96 inquests quashed. I believe that these deaths, arising as they do from a common chain of events, should all be considered afresh. However, before reaching any final view on the scope of the application, I want to give the families affected the opportunity to make any representations in respect of the family member or members they lost. I will therefore be in contact with each family seeking views.

The application is not simply a matter of putting the Hillsborough panel report before the Court. The application will need to be fully prepared and the evidence that underpins the report’s findings will need to be carefully considered. I want the application that is made to be as persuasive as it can be. While I make this statement at this stage to reassure the families that an application will be made, it must be understood that there are legal as well as evidential issues to be considered. Although this work is being given a high priority, further time will be needed to prepare the application.

The Freedom of Information Ministerial Veto

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I have today given the Information Commissioner a certificate under section 53 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (“the Act”) both as it applies for the purposes of the Act itself, and as it applies to the Environmental Information Regulations 2004 (“the Regulations”) by reason of Regulation 18(6). This certificate relates to the Upper Tribunal’s judgment dated 18 September 2012—Evans v (1) Information Commissioner (2) Seven Government Departments [2012] UKUT 313 (AAC). It is my view, as an accountable person under the Act, that there was no failure by the seven Departments1 joined as additional parties to this appeal at the tribunal to comply with section 1(1 )(b) of the Act, or to comply with any obligation under the regulations, as a result of those Departments withholding the correspondence between the Prince of Wales and Ministers in the previous Administration.

The consequence of my giving the Information Commissioner this certificate is that the tribunal’s judgment, which anticipates that the Information Commissioner’s decision notices will be amended so that the documents identified in the tribunal’s judgment be disclosed, ceases to have effect.

A copy of the certificate has been laid before each House of Parliament. I have additionally placed a copy of the certificate and a detailed statement of the reasons for my decision in the Libraries of both Houses, the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office.

My decision to exercise the veto in this case was not taken lightly. I have taken into account the statement of Government policy on the use of the executive override as it relates to information falling within the scope of section 35(1) of the Act. Although that policy is not directly applicable to this case I have applied the principles in it in coming to my decision.

I have taken into account the views of Cabinet, former Ministers and the Information Commissioner, in considering both the balance of the public interest in disclosure and nondisclosure and whether this is an exceptional case. My view is that the public interest favours nondisclosure. I have also concluded that this constitutes an exceptional case and that the exercise of the veto is warranted.

In summary, my decision is based on my view that the correspondence was undertaken as part of the Prince of Wales’ preparation for becoming King. The Prince of Wales engaged in this correspondence with Ministers with the expectation that it would be confidential. Disclosure of the correspondence could damage the Prince of Wales’ ability to perform his duties when he becomes King. It is a matter of the highest importance within our constitutional framework that the Monarch is a politically neutral figure able to engage in confidence with the Government of the day, whatever its political colour. In my view, there is nothing in the nature or content of this particular correspondence which outweighs that strong public interest against disclosure.

A detailed explanation of the basis on which I arrived at the conclusion that the veto should be used is set out in my statement of reasons.

1Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, Department of Health, Department of Children Schools and Families, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Northern Ireland Office and the Cabinet Office.

Treasury

ECOFIN

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The Economic and Financial Affairs Council was held in Luxembourg on 9 October 2012; the informal Economic and Financial Affairs Council was held in Nicosia on 14 and 15 September.

On 14 and 15 September Ministers discussed the following items:

Fiscal implications of the implementation of banking union

There was a presentation on this topic by the Bruegel think tank, followed by an exchange of views by Ministers.

Economic situation and recent developments in banking and sovereign markets

There was a de-brief to Ministers on issues discussed at the earlier Eurogroup discussion. The European Banking Authority then presented on progress made with the recent banking recapitalisation exercise and looked forward to the next stress test exercise. Following this, Ollie Rehn, Commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs, gave a summary of the economic outlook and ongoing structural adjustment.

IMF Board representation

Ministers discussed taking forward the 2010 IMF quota and governance reform agreement, whereby advanced European countries are required to reduce by two their number of seats on the IMF board. The reduction does not directly affect the UK, which continues to have its own single seat.

Facility for Euro-Mediterranean Investment and Partnership (FEMIP)

There was a presentation by the European Investment Bank on this subject, followed by an exchange of views.

Follow-up to June European Council (JEC) on banking union in general and the establishment of an effective single supervisory mechanism

The Commissioner for Internal Market and Services, Michel Barnier, introduced the European Commission’s recently published proposals on banking union and plans for the European Central Bank to take on a supervisory role for banks in the euro area. Representatives from the European Banking Authority, the European Central Bank, the chair of the Economic and Financial Affairs Committee, and member states responded. The discussion raised a number of issues that would need to be addressed going forward, including the viability of the time line.

I intervened to set out the UK view, emphasising the principles behind the Government’s approach and their commitment to work with European partners to help resolve the euro area crisis and support the single market. The UK supports measures that are designed to break the link between sovereign debt and instability in the financial sector, provided the single market is preserved as the new structure is implemented. I stressed the importance of ensuring that this objective is integrated into the single supervisory mechanism and banking union as a whole and raised concerns on the impact on the functioning of the European Banking Authority (EBA) under the new arrangements including in relation to voting arrangements in the EBA. In particular, we must ensure that and the European Central Bank’s relationship with the EBA is the same as for national supervisors in non-participating member states.

Ministers also had a discussion on how to best reform the shadow banking sector and it was agreed that further work needs to be undertaken.

On 9 October Ministers discussed the following items:

Financial Transactions Tax

Ministers were updated on developments since this was discussed at ECOFIN in June. The June European Council had suggested adoption of the enhanced co-operation proposal by the end of the year, and the presidency suggested it would be helpful if those member states willing to participate would indicate their intentions and for the Commission to set out a time line for next steps. Eleven member states indicated their willingness to participate: formal representations in writing are required, after which the European Commission will assess the request.

I intervened to confirm that the UK would not be joining. I stressed that the UK is not against taxation of the sector and already has a bank levy. We would not seek to stand in the way of enhanced co-operation: however this must be done in the context of a clear proposal and in line with the treaty. Currently there remains uncertainty over the likely scope and the purpose for which the revenues would be used. I pointed out that the Commission’s own original assessment had foreseen a GDP reduction of between 0.5% and 3.5% for the European economy: the impact on all 27 member states must be considered and therefore we want to see a specific proposal.

Revised capital requirements rules (CRDIV)

The presidency stressed the importance of making progress but noted there are some key outstanding issues for negotiation with the European Parliament. A vote of the European Parliament plenary has been scheduled for November. The presidency undertook to work to get political agreement to full compliance with the Basel III agreement by the end of the year.

Proposal for a Directive on the fight against fraud to the Unions financial interests by means of criminal law

The Commission provided information on the proposals. The proposal has three objectives: to harmonise definitions of fraud and related offences; to set minimum sanctions in order to render fraud more unattractive; and to address different statutory limitation periods. I intervened to support the overall idea of tackling fraud but also to express strong concerns about the inclusion in the proposal of VAT administration, as the application of VAT rules and investigation of fraud falls solely under member states’ control and competence. I also questioned the choice of legal base and warned that we might want to assert our opt-in right. Others shared our concern regarding the legal base; the Council legal service expressed a view which supports our position.

Current legislative proposalseconomic governance, Deposit Guarantee Schemes Directive (DGSD) and bank resolution and recovery (RRD)

The presidency said the DGSD and RRD proposals are vital elements of the single rulebook for financial services and should be adopted as soon as possible. They will seek a general approach on the RRD by December; informal negotiations with the European Parliament on DGSD will continue in parallel with the RRD, as they are closely linked.

On economic governance, the Commission noted the importance of the so-called “two-pack” legislation for the euro area to strengthen fiscal governance: agreement needs to be reached with the European Parliament on outstanding issues including the scope of the regulation and the role of independent bodies.

Follow-up to the Informal ECOFIN held 14-15 September 2012

The presidency summarised the exchange of views on the single supervisory mechanism at the informal meeting. They had taken note of the concerns expressed, including the balance of powers between national supervisors and the ECB, the strict separation of the ECB’s supervisory and monetary functions, accountability mechanisms, and EBA voting rules. The presidency noted that meeting the proposed 1 January 2013 deadline will require everyone, including the European Parliament, to co-operate.

European Semester 2012

Ministers considered possible changes to the European semester process. The presidency highlighted some issues for consideration including time constraints, implementation of the “comply or explain rule” introduced by the “six pack” economic governance legislation, how to ensure that country specific recommendations (CSRs) are robust while allowing member states to make their own policy choices, and strengthening member states’ ownership of CSRs.

Implementation of the Stability and Growth Pact

The presidency asked ECOFIN to endorse a recommendation to extend by one year the deadline given to Portugal for reducing its excessive deficit. The Commission advised that unforeseen circumstances including the rebalancing of the economy and a Constitutional Court ruling had given rise to the need for the extension.

The UK intervened to say that while we supported the changes to the Portuguese programme, we had concerns about the process. The decision to amend the conditionality underlying the programme required the consent of the Council in accordance with the regulations governing the use of the European financial stabilisation mechanism (EFSM), but the decision was announced publically without first seeking Council’s agreement. For this reason, the UK abstained, though the Government remains supportive of Portugal’s reform programme and efforts to address its deficit. In addition, the Government raised their concern at the insufficient time made available, between Council being asked to consider the decision and the ECOFIN meeting, to allow for proper parliamentary scrutiny. The presidency concluded that Council endorsed the decision and noted the UK abstention.

International meetings: follow-up to the G20 Finance Deputies meeting on 23-24 September and preparation of the G20 Finance Ministers and Governors meeting on 4 and 5 November; and preparation of the annual meeting of the IMF and World Bank Group on 12-14 October

Ministers endorsed the terms of reference document for the G20 meeting in Mexico and the draft EU presidency statement for the IMF meeting.

Communities and Local Government

Local Government Finance

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In the 2010 spending review, the Government announced plans to localise council tax benefit and this is being taken forward through the Local Government Finance Bill currently before Parliament. From April 2013, these reforms will localise council tax support and give councils stronger incentives to support local firms, cut fraud, promote local enterprise and get people back into work.

These reforms contribute to the Government’s deficit reduction programme, delivering savings of £470 million a year of taxpayers’ money in Great Britain from 2013-14. Welfare reform is vital to tackle the budget deficit, as council tax benefit expenditure in England increased from £2 billion to £4.3 billion from 1997-98 by 2010-11.

Localisation will give local authorities the flexibility to design council tax support schemes for working-age claimants in their area. We have been clear that councils have the scope to help manage the impact of the reduction in council tax support funding through securing sensible savings. To help the transition to these changes, my Department has already provided £30 million of funding to help councils draw up local support schemes.

There is a real incentive for councils to make savings in the new localised system from cutting fraud and error, where an estimated £200 million was paid out unnecessarily in 2011-12. However, we appreciate that these savings may not be delivered immediately in the first year.

Consequently, to further assist the transition process, my Department is today announcing an additional £100 million of funding for councils to help support them in developing well-designed council tax support schemes and maintain positive incentives to work. This is new and additional funding for local government.

As councils draw up their local schemes, it is clear that many are delivering savings using their local flexibilities and discretion, without unfairly increasing the burden on those who are currently on benefits. Equally, there are some councils which are asking for very large additional contributions from those on benefits.

The new £100 million transition grant will seek to encourage best practice. The voluntary grant will be available to councils (billing and major precepting authorities) who choose to design their local schemes so that:

Those who would be on 100% support under current council tax benefit arrangements pay between zero and no more than 8.5% of their council tax liability;

The taper rate does not increase above 25%; and

There is no sharp reduction in support for those entering work—for claimants currently entitled to less than 100%, support, the taper will be applied to an amount at least equal to their maximum eligible award.

In allowing flexibility over aspects of the scheme, we would not expect local authorities to impose large additional increases in non-dependant deductions. Councils will rightly want to avoid collecting small payments, and it may consequently be better value for money for councils to avoid designing schemes which seek to do so.

The amount of funding for which councils will be eligible to apply and the time scales and process for making an application will be published shortly. We anticipate that councils will make applications after 31 January 2013, and that funding will be paid in March 2013. The grant will be a simple one, easy to apply for and swiftly paid out, to help those councils who choose to do the right thing.

The Government have a clear goal in tackling the deficit, and reducing spending on benefits. This measured, transitional approach will help deliver an important programme of welfare reform, while still protecting taxpayers’ broader interests.

Defence

Armed Forces Pension Scheme

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On 31 July 2012, I published the outline scheme design of the new armed forces pension scheme and invited comments from service personnel and interested external organisations by 7 September. This followed an initial consultation exercise between March and May. Over 25,000 members of the armed forces have participated overall in the consultation process, which included presentations, focus groups and questionnaires.

Having considered the response to both periods of consultation, I am announcing today the final agreement on the new armed forces pension scheme. This sets out the Government’s final position, which will form the basis for detailed implementation. The new pension scheme will remain among the very best available in either public or private sectors.

The main parameters of the new scheme design are set out below:

a. Members will continue making no contributions;

b. A pension calculated on career average revalued earnings (CARE);

c. An early departure payment (EDP) scheme, available to members who leave before normal pension age (NPA), on completion of 20 years service having reached a minimum age of 40 years, comprising an annual income of at least 34% of the value of the deferred pension and a tax-free lump sum of 2.25 times the value of the deferred pension service personnel will also have the option to convert their total EDP lump sum into additional monthly income payments.

d. A NPA of 60 and a deferred pension age (DPA) linked to the state pension age (SPA);

e. A pension accrual rate of 1/47th of pensionable earnings each year;

f. Revaluation of active members’ benefits will be in line with average earnings;

g. Pensions in payment and deferred benefits to increase by CPI;

h. The option to convert pension income into a tax-free lump sum at transfer rate of £12 lump sum for £1 per annum pension income up to HM Revenue and Customs limits;

i. The option for scheme members to pay additional voluntary contributions calculated on an actuarially fair basis;

j. Abatement will not apply to service in the new scheme. Abatement rules for the current scheme will remain unchanged;

k. No maximum service and no upper age limit for the earning of benefits;

l. Members transferring between public service schemes to be treated as having continuous service;

m. Members rejoining after a period of deferment of less than five years can link new service with previous service;

n. Early retirements from age 55, with benefits to be actuarially reduced;

o. EDP monthly income ceases at the deferred pension age, when it will be replaced by the deferred pension in full;

p. Ill-health, death and survivors’ benefits (ancillary benefits) based on those currently provided in AFPS 05;

q. No additional transitional arrangements beyond the Government’s 10-year promise; and

r. An employer cost cap to provide backstop protection to the taxpayer against unforeseen costs and risks.

There will be full protection for accrued rights for all members as follows:

a. All benefits accrued under final salary arrangements will be linked to the member’s final salary when they exit service, in accordance with the rules of the members’ current schemes as follows:

The armed forces pension scheme 2005:

The armed forces pension scheme 1975;

The reserve forces pension scheme;

The full-time reserve service pension scheme 1997 (Full commitment and limited or home commitment);

The non-regular permanent staff pension scheme.

b. Members will be able to access their benefits from these schemes when they expected to do so based on current rules.

There will also be statutory-based transitional protection for those closest to retirement in these schemes:

a. All active scheme members who, as at 1 April 2012, had 10 years or less to their current normal pension age, will see no change in when they can retire, nor any decrease in the amount of pension they receive at their current normal pension age. This protection will be achieved by the member remaining in their current scheme until they retire or leave the armed forces.

There is a requirement for further work on accrued rights and transitional arrangements for the Gurkha pension scheme and Gibraltar regiment pension scheme.

The design of the new scheme has been the subject of an equalities impact analysis and equality issues will continue to be considered as the implementation details are progressed.

I believe this final agreement represents a generous outcome for service personnel and a fair solution for the taxpayer and meets the operational requirements of the armed forces. In particular, the EDP will continue to meet the need for a predominantly young work force. The new scheme will remain among the very best available in the public or private sector in recognition of the unique commitment which the armed forces make to the defence of the nation.

Copies of the final agreement, the scheme costing and the equalities impact analysis have been deposited in the Library of the House.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Agricultural Wages Board and Associated Bodies

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DEFRA is today launching a consultation exercise on proposals to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales and the 15 agricultural wages committees and 16 agricultural dwelling house advisory committees in England. The removal of the agricultural wage regime imposed by the Agricultural Wages Board and the introduction of the national minimum wage in the agriculture sector will be an important step forward in achieving the Government’s objective of harmonising and simplifying employment law, and removing regulatory burdens from businesses. The abolition of these bodies will also contribute significantly to the Government’s programme of public body reform and support the Government’s growth agenda.

The Agricultural Wages Board and its related English committees are now outdated and obsolete bodies, dating back to the beginning of the last century. The existence of the Agricultural Wages Board adds administrative burdens to farm businesses, hampers the introduction of flexible modern working practices and causes confusion with the national minimum wage. Abolition of the board and the agricultural minimum wage will mean that there is a single employment regime across all sectors of the economy. It will make it easier for farmers to employ workers and will encourage growth and employment in the agricultural sector. Existing workers will retain contractual rights in place at the time of the abolition of the board and will have the same level of employment protection as workers in all other sectors of the economy. The majority of farm workers are already paid above the agricultural minimum wage and farmers will need to continue to offer competitive and rewarding packages to attract and retain workers with the right skills and qualifications.

With the challenges of feeding the rapidly growing world population, there are huge opportunities for British agriculture to prosper. The changes which we are proposing to introduce will free-up farmers from unnecessary administrative burdens, allowing them to invest in their businesses and support the economy. I am determined to ensure that those who work in farm businesses can share in that success with the benefit of modern contractual arrangements.

The functions of the agricultural wages committees are now largely redundant, and following changes to housing legislation in the 1980s the number of requests for advice from agricultural dwelling house advisory committees (ADHACs) has fallen significantly. The abolition of ADHACs will not remove statutory protection from tenants in tied accommodation, nor will it remove the ability of a farmer to apply to a local authority for a tenant to be re-housed where there is a need to provide accommodation for an incoming worker. In making a decision on a re-housing application, the local authority will still need into account whether it is in the interests of efficient agriculture to re-house the worker and the urgency of the application. Given their reduced and limited functions, it is difficult to justify the continued public resource in retaining these 31 regional committees.

The Government’s proposal to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board and the regional English agricultural wages committees and agricultural dwelling house advisory committees has been known for some time and stakeholders and interested parties have already been able to make their views known. However, they now have the opportunity to respond to the formal consultation exercise. An impact assessment and equality impact assessment on the abolition of the agricultural wages board are published as part of the consultation package. The consultation documents are available on the Gov.uk website

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Iraq Network Strategic Review

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Today the Government are publishing a new Iraq strategy, a copy of which I will place in the Library of the House.

Iraq is changing. After years of conflict and uncertainty, it has a democratically elected Government and is becoming gradually more stable, although a serious threat from terrorism remains.

Our Government are committed to a broad and enduring relationship with Iraq. We want to support a stable, prosperous and democratic Iraq that is a positive and influential regional actor in a region that is vital to UK security and prosperity. We wish to strengthen our commercial ties with a regional economy of growing importance.

To that end we have taken several steps to strengthen the UK’s partnership with Iraq.

Over the past 18 months, there have been 15 ministerial visits between the UK and Iraq, covering our foreign policy, security and commercial interests, including a visit I made in September.

The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has supported visits to the United Kingdom by the Iraqi Parliament’s committees for security and defence, human rights, finance, and foreign affairs. This has helped to develop links between the United Kingdom and Iraqi Parliaments and to support Iraqi democracy.

We have taken steps to increase our economic relationship with Iraq. Our embassy in Baghdad has supported numerous delegations of British businesses seeking to re-enter the Iraqi market. We will shortly open a new visa application centre in Baghdad, meaning that Iraqis will no longer need to travel outside of the country to obtain a UK visa, which will make it easier for British businesses to do business with Iraq. During my recent visit to Baghdad, I also agreed to establish a ministerial trade council of British and Iraqi Ministers and business leaders to increase trade and investment links between our two countries.

Following my visit to Iraq in September I have reviewed our diplomatic presence across the country. I have decided to focus staff and resources where they will support the United Kingdom’s partnership with Iraq as efficiently and cost-effectively as possible, and with the greatest impact in the areas of our relationship of the most importance. We will do this by strengthening our embassy in Baghdad, increasing our diplomatic presence in Erbil and moving our representation in Basra onto a different footing.

First, we need to increase the amount of diplomatic resources we are able to concentrate in Iraq’s capital Bagdad. We are therefore expanding our political section to increase its reach across all of Iraq’s 18 governorates and help address some of the main issues preventing British businesses from entering into the Iraqi markets. We are recruiting additional staff in Baghdad to strengthen our UKTI office and help British businesses access markets throughout Iraq.

Secondly, the review of our resources in Iraq has confirmed that the Kurdistan region continues to attract significant interest from British businesses. I am therefore increasing our staffing levels in Erbil. Today, for example, over 40 British companies are attending the Erbil international trade fair, with support from UK Trade and Investment (UKTI). We will recruit a new UKTI commercial attache to expand the consulate-general’s already successful commercial section. I have also made clear my firm intention that the Government should maintain the British consulate-general Erbil on a permanent footing.

Thirdly, we will maintain a British embassy office in Basra to support our work with all of Iraq’s central and southern governorates. However, this will not be staffed permanently.

Because of the improving security situation, it is now easier and safer for staff to travel from Baghdad to Basra and around the country more generally. In particular, embassy staff can now fly direct to Basra airport in one hour, rather than having to undertake a 48-hour trip as was the case previously. This means that we can support UK interests in Basra effectively without the need for staff to be permanently based there. In turn, this allows us to reduce the cost of our presence in Basra, currently £6.5 million per annum. This is significantly more than the cost of, for example, our much larger embassy in Kuwait City.

Her Majesty’s ambassador, his deputy and other diplomatic staff will continue to make frequent visits across Iraq, including to Basra, to ensure that we continue to maintain the strength and depth of our relationship with Iraq.

I am confident that these are the right decisions. They will enable the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Iraq network to achieve the Government’s ambitious strategy for improving commercial ties with Iraq and supporting a stable, secure, democratic Iraq that is a positive and influential regional actor.

The savings we make from a more efficient Iraq network will also allow us to strengthen the United Kingdom’s presence in key emerging powers. This involves opening 11 new British embassies and eight new consulates by 2015 and deploying 300 extra staff to 22 countries, including Burma, Thailand, South Korea, North Korea, Mongolia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Angola, Botswana, Chile, Argentina, Columbia, Panama, Peru, Pakistan, Vietnam and the Philippines with the biggest increases in China and India. This is in line with the statement I made to Parliament on “The Future Diplomatic Network” in May 2011.

Health

Report on Sport and Exercise Science and Medicine (Government Response)

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My noble Friend Earl Howe, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health, has made the following written ministerial statement:

We have today laid before Parliament the “Government Response to the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee Report of Session 2012-13: Sport and exercise science and medicine—building on the Olympic legacy to improve the nation’s health” (Cm 8452).

We welcome the Committee’s report and its focus upon the quality and application of sports and exercise science and medicine. The effective translation of scientific breakthroughs in this area into health benefits for patients and the public represents a major opportunity as a legacy of the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games. We are therefore targeting investment to support the translation of biomedical research.

Today’s publication is in the Library. Copies are available to hon. Members from the Vote Office and to noble Lords from the Printed Paper Office.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Report on Desinewed Meat (Government Response)

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We have today laid before Parliament the Government’s response (Cm 8462) to the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Report on Desinewed Meat, which was published on 24 July 2012.

On 28 March 2012, the European Commission issued demands, in accordance with its interpretation of European Union (EU) food law, that the production of desinewed meat from ruminant bones in the UK should cease. Desinewed meat produced from non-ruminant bones should be categorised and labelled as mechanically separated meat (MSM), which has significantly less commercial value and cannot count towards the meat content of products in which it is used.

In response to these demands, which required the UK to take action within five working days, the UK Government decided to implement a moratorium to achieve compliance with the Commission’s interpretation of EU food law. The alternative was to face the prospect of emergency safeguard measures which would have prohibited UK-produced meat preparations, meat products, minced meat and MSM from being placed on EU and domestic markets. This would have had significant negative economic and reputational impact on the UK meat industry and supply chain.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee launched an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the moratorium. The report of this inquiry was published on 24 July 2012, providing a detailed assessment of the chain of events and the implications of the Commission’s decision.

The Government welcome the Committee’s report and its recommendations. Some of the issues that have been raised by the Committee are specific to the Food Standards Agency (FSA) while others are wider in scope. The Food Standards Agency has liaised closely with the Department of Health, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and counterparts in the devolved countries in considering the Committee’s recommendations and developing the overall response.

The Committee rightly highlights the need to continue to press the Commission on this matter. The Food Standards Agency has been working and will continue to work closely with other Government Departments and with industry to press for the Commission to ensure a level playing field across the European market. The European Food Safety Authority has been mandated to provide an opinion on MSM which is due at the end of March 2013 and, in light of this, the FSA will push for discussions with the Commission and member states to be re-opened with a view to developing a more proportionate and risk-based approach to the production of desinewed meat and MSM.

Today’s publication is in the Library and copies are available to hon. Members from the Vote Office.

Nursing and Midwifery Council Grant

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The Government have made an offer to the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) of a one-off grant of £20 million to support it in improving its performance in dealing with fitness to practise cases.

The NMC is an important organisation with a vital role to play in protecting patients. The offer comes after a period when the NMC has experienced many years of financial and performance difficulties. This year, under new leadership, the NMC has already begun to make improvements to its operations and financial management, but much more still needs to be done.

The NMC has recently consulted on increasing its annual fee to £120. This would mean nurses and midwives would have to pay an extra £44 every year, at a time of significant pay restraint in the public sector.

The Government expect that this grant will provide the extra financial support required for the NMC to properly tackle a backlog of fitness to practise cases, as well as to allow it to reduce the effect of a fee rise for hard-working nurses and midwives.

It is a decision for the NMC Council whether or not to accept the Government’s offer of a grant.