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Written Statements

Volume 684: debated on Thursday 13 July 2006

Written Statements

Thursday 13 July 2006

Afghanistan: Counter-narcotics

Following the launch of the national drug control strategy at the London Conference on Afghanistan in January, the UK continues, as partner nation, to support the Government of Afghanistan's counter-narcotics effort. This year's planting season predated the launch of that strategy and, although last year saw a 21 per cent decline in opium poppy cultivation across Afghanistan, this year it is likely that there will be a significant rise in cultivation. This is worrying and is due, in part, to a substantial increase in planting of opium poppy in the south of Afghanistan, including in Helmand province. But in areas where governance, security and levels of development have improved, there are signs that last year's cultivation reductions will be sustained. At the same time, the Government of Afghanistan's eradication effort has been more effective than in previous years.

The Government of Afghanistan's national drug control strategy offers the best means to tackle the opium trade at its source. We are determined to work with the Government and people of Afghanistan to sharpen delivery in order to achieve sustained impact on the ground. In particular they will be focusing their efforts on targeting the traffickers and their accomplices who profit most from the trade. We will be assisting by helping to establish the rule of law across Afghanistan, which is essential to counter-narcotics efforts and to the success of the broader reconstruction process. The UK is working with the Government of Afghanistan and with other donors to develop new intelligence structures and to build the capacity of counter-narcotics law enforcement and criminal justice agencies. These efforts are starting to show results. Since August 2005 we have seen the conviction of over 190 traffickers, and a significant increase in drugs-related seizures and the destruction of laboratories. These actions are helping to disrupt the trade, forcing traffickers to move and store drugs in smaller quantities.

The Department for International Development also continues to support Afghan national programmes focused on strengthening and diversifying legal rural livelihoods, including in Helmand province where my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Development (Hilary Benn) recently announced that the UK would contribute £30 million to livelihoods activity over the next three years. Since April 2003 more than 12 million labour days have been provided and more than 8,000 kilometres of roads rehabilitated. Almost $70 million micro-finance loans have been disbursed over the past two years and $180 million in grants approved to some 10,000 community development councils. In addition, since September 2005, more than 500,000 farmers have been provided with seeds and fertiliser.

On 5 September last year my honourable friend the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Dr Kim Howells) announced, in a jointpress conference with Afghan Counter-Narcotics Minister Qaderi, that the UK would spend a total of £270 million in support of the Afghan nationaldrug control strategy between 2005-08. This includes £130 million of DfID funding. In 2005-06 the UK spent the following in support of the eight pillars in the national drugs control strategy:

Pillar 1: Public Awareness—£649,000 in support of Afghan efforts to inform members of the population about counter-narcotics policies, legislation, operations and alternatives to poppy cultivation and to persuade farmers not to grow poppy.

Pillar 2: Demand Reduction—£1,112,000 on treatment, rehabilitation and harm reduction programmes.

Pillar 3: Law Enforcement—£20,787,000 on building the capacity and equipping the Counter-Narcotics Police of Afghanistan and the Afghan Special Narcotics Force.

Pillar 4: Criminal Justice—£1,112,000 to establisha counter-narcotics criminal justice task force of84 judges, prosecutors and investigators and high-security detention facilities.

Pillar 5: Institution Building—£5,177,000 to establish and staff a fully operational ministry of counter-narcotics (MCN) and to build capacity within the counter-narcotics division of the Ministry of Interior.

Pillar 6: Alternative Livelihoods—£37,520,000 to strengthen and diversify legal rural livelihoods.

Pillar 7: Eradication—£5,709,000 to support survey, monitoring, and verification of eradication; to target it where legal livelihoods exist.

Pillar 8: International and Regional Co-operation—£2,006,000 to support border control and other regional projects focused on disrupting the flow of illicit drugs and precursor materials across Afghanistan's borders.

The UK also contributed £9 million to the Government of Afghanistan's Counter-Narcotics Trust Fund and a further £1,500,000 to the Law and Order Trust Fund established to cover the cost of police salaries and equipment. A further £2,970,000 was spent on strategy, research and reviews, including support to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime’s annual poppy survey.

Buncefield Explosion

The independent Major Incident Investigation Board—appointed by the Health and Safety Commission (HSC) to supervise the investigation into the explosions and fires at the Buncefield oil storage depot, Hemel Hempstead, on 11 December 2005—will today publish its initial report. The report has been received by the HSC and the board of the Environment Agency who have endorsed its publication. Copies of the report will be placed in the Libraries of each House.

The report indicates that good progress has been made in identifying the root causes of the Buncefield incident. This is in spite of the widespread damage to forensic evidence caused by the explosions and fires, and the dangers posed by the site to the investigation teams until well after the incident. The investigation board considers that enough is known to set out with reasonable confidence the sequence of events leading to the incident, though uncertainty remains about why the explosion was so violent.

It is of paramount importance to ensure that all the lessons of Buncefield are learnt to prevent recurrence of such an incident, and to ensure the maximum effectiveness of emergency arrangements if an incident does occur. The board's initial report identifies several areas of concern, while noting the extent of the work already underway to address them. In particular, the board welcomes the post-Buncefield programme of inspections being undertaken by the Health and Safety Executive and the Environment Agency as the competent authority regulating Buncefield. The safety alerts issued on matters of immediate concern, and the industry-chaired task group convened by the competent authority to review the results of these initiatives, are also noted. The board makes clear that it intends to focus on several broad areas of concern, and pay close attention to the preliminary conclusions from the different strands of work as they emerge.

The board also draws attention to the process of incremental development around Buncefield and expresses an interest in the cross-government work addressing the implications of new information about major hazard sites recently gathered by HSE. This work has been underway since before the Buncefield incident, but will take account of information and analysis arising from the investigation. Once clear conclusions emerge, the work will be the subject of consultation with stakeholders. Information about this was set out in a previous parliamentary Statement on the 15 May.

The investigation is continuing. Many people, not least the local residents and businesses directly affected by the incident, need answers to resolve the uncertainties caused by Buncefield. The investigation board is keenly aware of their needs, while ensuring the investigation is thorough and fully considers the implications of its findings. The board is also conscious that in doing so it must not prejudice any future criminal proceedings, should it be decided that there be grounds to pursue them. The HSC and Environment Agency are now considering the initial report and the board's early conclusions, and will ensure that actions identified are taken forward without delay.

Democratic Republic of Congo

My right honourable friend the Minister of State (Ian McCartney) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

The All-Party Parliamentary Group on the Great Lakes Region and Genocide Prevention (APPG) reported in February 2005 on the effectiveness of the application of the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises (guidelines) to the Democratic Republic of Congo.

It made a number of recommendations, and in response the Government committed to consult on possible improvements to the UK National Contact Point's (NCP) promotion and implementation of the guidelines.

The Government received 10 written responses to the consultation document by the deadline of 6 January 2006. In addition, a joint working group (JWG), established under the aegis of the APPG to explore the scope for common ground between businesses and non-governmental organisations on frameworks for business conduct in areas of conflict and weak governance, requested and was granted further time to submit a response. It did so on 23 June 2006.

The Government are grateful to all interested parties who took the time and effort to meet the NCP and/or submit written responses to the consultation document. They are particularly grateful to the members of the JWG for their willingness to discuss and make recommendations that commanded broad support from both the businesses and the NGOs involved. The Government believe that the similarities between their own, evolving considerations since the publication of the consultation document and the views expressed by businesses and NGOs reflects an emerging consensus over practical and effective steps that can be taken to improve the promotion and implementation of the guidelines.

I have today published the Government's response to the consultation. A copy will be made available in the Libraries of both Houses and will be accessibleon the DTI website. Among a number of commitments, the Government will:

launch a refocused NCP by September 2006 to include officials from the Department for International Development and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office as well as the Department of Trade and Industry;

establish a steering board to oversee the operation of the NCP. It will include representatives of all government departments with an interest in the guidelines as well as independent members selected for their expertise in relevant issues; and

tighten criteria and timescales and improve transparency when the NCP considers allegations that the guidelines have not been followed.

The Government will review the effectiveness of the changes, in consultation with stakeholders, in a year's time.

The Government want the new NCP to work with businesses, employees and other parties to deal with issues raised under the guidelines. I believe that this approach, allied with the changes set out in the Government's response, will deliver a more openand transparent system in which all organisations can put their faith in encouraging responsible business activities overseas.

Disability: Equality

My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Anne McGuire) has made the following Statement.

The Government's Office for Disability Issues (ODI) has today published its first annual report to the Prime Minister, which details the progress that is being made towards realising the Government's ambitious vision for real equality for disabled people by 2025. Copies of the report are available in the Vote Office and Printed Paper Office.

The ODI was launched in December 2005 to deliver the strategy set out in the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit report, Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People. Since then, the ODI has successfully formed partnerships with internal and external stakeholders and driven forward an ambitious programme of work.

This first report highlights a broad range of initiatives that are starting to address the barriers disabled people experience in accessing services, including housing, transport, justice and leisure. For example, through the individual budgets pilots, we are testing out new ways of giving people more choice and control over the way they are supported. Three pilot sites in Oldham, Essex and West Sussex are already testing this new way of working, with the remaining 10 sites to come on stream this month.

The report provides an update on action against all the recommendations in the Life Chances report and makes clear what further activity is necessary to deliver improved outcomes for disabled people. One key area where Government need to do much more is in involving disabled people in the design and delivery of services which impact on their lives. The ODI's report provides information on our progress in developing a UK advisory network on disability equality, which will be established from later this year.

I commend this report to the House.

Disability: Housing

My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Anne McGuire) has made the following Statement.

As my Statement of 1 February said, the Government set up the Review Group on Common Parts, during the passage of the Disability Discrimination Act 2005, to review the legal position in relation to alterations to the common parts of let residential premises and of residential commonholds and to make recommendations. The Government are very grateful for Members' work on this and have published the group's report on my department's website at

This is an initial response to the report and covers the five non-legislative recommendations made by the review group. We are continuing to consider the complexities of the legislative recommendations, including with the devolved Administrations, and will issue a further response as that work develops.

The review group considered disabled facilities grants (DFG) to be an important source of assistance for disabled people who need alterations made to their home. We agree and have recently increased resources in England so that we could end the means testing of families where alterations are for children. DFG funding is already available for alterations to the common parts of residential premises, and this will continue. DFG resources have been increased significantly by this Government (in England from £56 million in 1997-98 to £121 million in 2006-07). The review group called for more money to be made available for DFGs and we will consider this further as an integral part of the cross-government spending review.

In addition, a government review of DFGs is currently under way following independent research and recommendations made by Bristol University. This review is looking to make the DFG process easier and quicker to use in respect of all alterations, including those to the common parts of let residential premises. As recommended by the review group, we are also considering, in the context of the review of DFGs, the merits of an increased role for regional housing boards in the provision of accessible housing and housing adaptations.

The review group recommended that guidance should be made available on making alterations to the common parts of let residential premises and of residential commonholds. This would inform landlords, commonhold associations and disabled people about the current law and other relevant issues, and help them resolve potential disputes. The inclusion of appropriate guidance in housing organisations' publications about housing-related issues would be an effective way of disseminating good practice and, in particular, such guidance could encourage the use of alternative dispute resolution procedures rather than automatic resort to the courts where disputes arise. We will prepare such guidance in consultation with the devolved Administrations and will discuss it with appropriate organisations. And, as the review group recommended, in considering responses to our consultation on proposals for a code for sustainable homes for England, we will consider the extent to which it would be appropriate to incorporate guidance on improving the accessibility of common parts of premises in new builds.

London: GLA

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

The Government are today publishing a Statement setting out final proposals for additional powers and responsibilities for the Greater London Authority (GLA)—the Mayor of London and the London Assembly.

In November 2005 we launched a consultation exercise which looked at options for giving the Mayor a greater say in the planning and delivery of London's strategic services. The consultation exercise stimulated a great deal of interest and debate about the future strategic governance of London. We have carefully considered all the responses to consultation in deciding the final package of new powers published today.

The Mayor will have new lead roles in housing and adult skills in London, a strengthened role over planning in the capital, a stronger strategic role on waste and additional strategic powers in a wide range of policy areas including culture and sport, health, energy and climate change and appointments to the boards of the GLA's functional bodies.

On housing, the Mayor will prepare and publish a London housing strategy and a strategic housing investment plan, setting out the priorities to meet the housing needs of all Londoners. The Mayor will decide the broad allocation of the affordable housing part of the regional housing pot in London in line with the strategy.

On skills, the Mayor will chair a new skills and employment board, in partnership with London's key business leaders, which will prepare an adult skills strategy for London. The board will be supported by the learning and skills council (LSC) for London, which will sit within the national LSC structure and spend its adult skills budget in line with the priorities set out in the strategy.

The Mayor's planning powers will be enhanced to give him a greater strategic say on planning in London. He will be able to direct changes to boroughs' programmes for the local development plans they produce. The Mayor will also have a stronger say on whether draft development plan documents are in general conformity with his London Plan. Furthermore, the Mayor will have discretion to determine planning applications of strategic importance.

The Mayor will work closely with the boroughs in a new, London-wide waste and recycling forum, which will manage a new fund to improve performance and promote collaboration in waste and recycling. The Mayor will make appointments to the boards of key London cultural organisations. His health role will be enhanced. He will promote the reduction of health inequalities in London, and prepare a strategy to tackle those inequalities.

Finally, the Mayor will have a new lead role in tackling climate change. The GLA will be subject to a new duty to take action to mitigate the effects of climate change and adapt to its unavoidable impacts. The Mayor will publish a climate change and energy strategy setting out his plans for minimising emissions of carbon dioxide caused by the use of energy in the capital, helping eradicate fuel poverty and harnessing economic opportunities for London from investment and innovation in energy technologies and energy efficiency. He will also publish a climate change adaptation strategy setting out how the capital should adapt to the effects of climate change.

We are strengthening the London Assembly's role. The Assembly will be able to set its own budget, publish an annual report highlighting its work and achievements and hold hearings with candidates for key appointments the Mayor proposes to make. The Mayor will be required to have specific regard to the views of the Assembly and the GLA's functional bodies when preparing or revising his statutory strategies.

Arrangements for appointing GLA employees will change so that most appointments will be made by the head of paid service. The Mayor and Assembly will jointly appoint the authority's three statutory posts.

This package devolves powers from Whitehall to London wherever feasible. In specific cases it strengthens the Mayor's powers in relation to the boroughs where we are convinced this will deliver better co-ordinated strategic services.

It provides a robust and coherent set of strategic powers for the Mayor and Assembly, fulfilling the Government's manifesto commitment. It ensures the capital has the strong leadership it needs as a successful world city to meet future challenges, including hosting the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. It builds on the success of the GLA to date, providing the authority with additional powers to make a real difference to the quality of Londoners' lives.

We plan to implement the changes as quickly as possible. We will introduce a GLA Bill as soon as parliamentary time allows to enact any changes requiring primary legislation. Other changes will be made through secondary legislation or by agreement.

Copies of the policy statement, an accompanying regulatory impact assessment, a summary of responses to consultation and the responses to the consultation exercise have been placed in the Library of the House.

National Statistics: Annual Report

My honourable friend the Financial Secretary has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

The National Statistics annual report and the Office for National Statistics' annual report and accounts for 2005-06 are being published and laid before the House today. Copies of both documents are available in the Libraries of the House and can be accessed free on the National Statistics website.

NHS: Health Reform

Today we are publishing two publications which will take forward our commitment to place patients and the public at the heart of the way our health services are run: Health reform in England update and commissioning framework; and A Stronger Local Voice, which sets out the Government's plans for the future arrangements to support public involvement in health and social care.

The update on health reform sets out a clear vision: to develop a patient-led NHS that uses available resources as effectively and fairly as possible to promote health, reduce health inequalities and deliver the best and safest possible healthcare.

The centrepiece of today's update publication is a framework for commissioning. It will act as a manual for new primary care trusts to achieve excellence in the way they secure healthcare for their local people.

Commissioning is the means by which we secure the best possible healthcare and outcomes, including reduced health inequalities, within the money made available by the taxpayer. Commissioning itself is not new, but stronger primary care trusts and the acceleration of practice-based commissioning—together with the powerful new set of incentives and mechanisms introduced by the health reforms—provide the opportunity for far more effective commissioning that will benefit patients and taxpayers alike.

Effective commissioning will require:

real community engagement and a stronger voice for patients achieved through increased choice, widespread involvement and greater opportunity to influence changes to services;

clinical engagement through practice-based commissioning;

improved information to support commissioning; and

commissioning levers through choice, payment by results and robust contracts.

The reorganisation of PCTs, the moves towards universal coverage of practice-based commissioning, and the establishment of the specialist commissioning groups will provide the basic architecture for commissioning NHS services.

The Department of Health will be seeking views from the NHS and partner organisations over the summer on the key proposals to inform final decisions. Views are sought on options for contracting in the NHS, a governance and accountability framework for practice-based commissioning and triggers for petitions.

The framework sets out the development programmes we are making available to all PCTs as they build on the good commissioning practice that already exists. We are also issuing an OJEU notice today to procure a framework agreement and call-off contract which will enable PCTs to draw on private sector expertise to support their commissioning. This does not in any way affect or relate to PCT directly provided services. PCT boards will be entirely free to choose to what extent, if any, they make use of the call-off contract. In all cases the PCT board remains accountable and responsible for all commissioning decisions.

This commissioning framework focuses on commissioning NHS services, and in particular commissioning hospital services. This is the first step in making commissioning truly effective. We know that joint commissioning of services with local authorities and commissioning for health and well-being are important too. A second framework covering these wider issues will be published in December.

The commissioning framework is supported by an update on the other elements of the reform programme: choice, provider reform, workforce, system management, tariffs and other financial incentives and information.

Effective commissioning will require real community engagement. The commissioning framework will therefore work alongside A Stronger Local Voice, which sets out the Government's plans for the future arrangements to support public involvement in health and social care.

These include plans to build on patient and public involvement forums through the creation of local involvement networks (LINks). The networks will provide a flexible vehicle for communities and groups to engage with health and social care organisations, and will promote public accountability in health and social care through open and transparent communication with commissioners and providers.

We also plan to simplify and strengthen the legislative requirements currently set out in Section 11 of the Health and Social Care Act 2001, to clarify the duties on all NHS bodies to involve and consult patients and the public on all services they provide or commission. There will be a new duty placed on commissioners to respond to what patients and the public have said.

We believe that the new environment being created by the reforms, using incentives and commissioning, will mean that commissioners become advocates for patients and taxpayers, driving up the quality, fairness, responsiveness and value for money of NHS services.

Copies of all today's publications have been placed in the Library.

Northern Ireland: Sentencing

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Peter Hain) has made the following Ministerial Statement.

I have today arranged for the annual reports ofthe Life Sentence Review Commissioners and the Sentence Review Commissioners to be laid inthe House. Copies of the reports have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.