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Written Statements

Volume 711: debated on Thursday 11 June 2009

Written Statements

Thursday 11 June 2009

Belarus

Statement

My honourable friend the Minister of State for Borders and Immigration (Phil Woolas) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

The Government are today announcing the conclusion of an agreement between the United Kingdom and the Government of Belarus in respect of the travel of children affected by the Chernobyl incident to the United Kingdom on charity-sponsored respite visits.

On 13 October 2008 President Lukashenko of Belarus issued a decree which suspended permission for children affected by the Chernobyl incident to travel abroad for respite visits. Since this date the UK Border Agency and the British ambassador in Minsk have been in close contact with the Belarusian Government to negotiate an agreement to see this ban lifted in respect of children travelling to the United Kingdom. The Belarus request that the United Kingdom should enter into such a written agreement was not related to any specific concerns in relation to previous United Kingdom visits.

The agreement, which entered into force on 22 May, allows for the immediate resumption of visits by Belarusian children under the age of 14. It will remain in force for the next five years and will be automatically extended by five-year periods thereafter.

The agreement will enable the highly worthwhile work by UK charities in this area to continue and for many thousands more children to visit the United Kingdom in the years to come and to receive the benefits of a temporary period of rest and recuperation.

Department of Health: Annual Report

Statement

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health (Andy Burnham) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

The department’s annual report for 2009 (Cm 7593) was laid before Parliament today.

Copies are in the Library and are available for honourable Members from the Vote Office.

Disabled People: Equality

Statement

My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Jonathan Shaw) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

In 2005, the Government made public their commitment to work towards equality for disabled people by 2025. Since then we have come a long way but, as many disabled people know, we still have a long way to go. Part of this ongoing commitment is our plan to legislate for a right to control for disabled people. Disabled people have told us that many of them do not have the choice or control over their lives that non disabled people take for granted. This lack of choice and control is a key barrier to participating and contributing as equal citizens. Powers contained in the Welfare Reform Bill, which is currently going through Parliament, recognises that disabled people are the experts in their own lives. We have worked closely with disabled people and their organisations to develop this right, including with our advisory group, chaired by Baroness Jane Campbell.

Today, with the publication of the consultation paper Making Choice and Control a Reality for Disabled People: Consultation on the Right to Control, we are launching our consultation on the right to control. This paper has been co-produced with input from disabled people, independent living experts and other stakeholders. The consultation exercise will ensure that the trailblazers are designed to reflect the challenges of local implementation, while delivering real choice and control for disabled people.

The consultation will end on Wednesday, 30 September 2009.

The consultation documents are available on the Office for Disability Issues website at www.odi.gov.uk/right-to-control. Copies of the document will be placed in the House Library.

Education: Home Schooling

Statement

My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

On 19 January 2009 I asked Graham Badman to carry out a review of elective home education in England. The terms of reference for the review emphasised the Government’s recognition of parents’ well established right to educate their children at home. They also set out our commitment to keeping home educated children safe, and ensuring that they receive a suitable education. I am grateful to Graham Badman and the review team for conducting a thorough review which carefully considered extensive evidence provided by home educators; local authorities (LAs); and representatives from a wide range of organisations and individuals working with children and parents involved in home education.

The terms of reference commissioned Graham Badman to investigate the barriers to LAs and other public agencies in carrying out their safeguarding responsibilities; whether LAs were providing effective and appropriate support; and whether there was evidence of home education being used to cover child abuse. From this evidence, he was asked to identify whether any changes were needed to the current regime of monitoring home education.

The review makes a compelling case for substantial changes to the arrangements for supporting and monitoring home education. It recognises the wide range of philosophical and practical reasons that lie behind parents’ decisions to home educate. It acknowledges that in some cases home educated children have been withdrawn from school under a range of difficult circumstances: this is reflected in the relatively high proportion of children with special educational needs who are home educated, and other cases where children have been bullied or had other experiences that leave them unable to attend school. These children and families need support from their local authorities in a way that enables them to access appropriate advice and guidance, receive specialist services, and use extended school provision and facilities such as leisure centres and libraries. The review argues for fresh thinking and further consultation with children, their families, local authorities and others involved in home education to identify ways to commission services for this very diverse sector in order to support the best possible outcomes for the children concerned.

The review also found evidence that there are a small number of cases where home educated children have suffered harm because safeguarding concerns were not picked up, or not treated with sufficient urgency, particularly where parents were unco-operative or obstructed local authority investigations. It sets out specific steps that should be taken to address these risks as well as improving the monitoring of the education provided: a compulsory registration scheme; a discretion to local authorities to prohibit home education where there are safeguarding concerns; and the right for LA representatives to interview home educated children to establish whether they are safe and receiving a suitable education. I am today launching a public consultation on these proposals so that they can be introduced to Parliament at the earliest possible opportunity.

Copies of the review and our initial response have been placed in the House of Libraries.

Equality Duty

Statement

My honourable friend the Minister of State, Government Equalities Office (Maria Eagle) has made the following Statement.

The Equality Bill, currently before Parliament, will introduce a new single equality duty which will bring together the three existing race, disability and gender equality duties and extend to cover age, sexual orientation, religion or belief and gender reassignment in full. The equality duty will be supported by a number of specific duties, to be set out in secondary legislation, which will help public authorities in the better performance of the duty.

In June 2008, the Government said we would consult on our policy proposals for specific duties. The document we are publishing today sets out our proposals and asks for comments. The consultation period will run until September 2009.

I am placing copies of this document in the Libraries of the House. Copies will also be available on the Government Equalities Office website at www.equalities. gov.uk.

EU: Competitiveness Council

Statement

My right honourable friend the Minister of State for Higher Education and Intellectual Property (David Lammy) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

The following Statement provides information on the Competitiveness Council which took place in Brussels on 28 and 29 May 2009. The industry session of the council took place on 28 May, and was chaired by Vladimir Tošovský, Czech Industry Minister. The research session of the council was held on 29 May and was chaired by Miroslava Kopicova, Czech Minister of Education, Youth and Sports. The UK was represented by David Lammy, both for the intellectual property items in the afternoon of 28 May, and for several research items on 29 May. The Deputy Permanent Representative to the European Union, Andrew Lebrecht, represented the UK when the Minister was not in attendance.

The first item that David Lammy covered on 28 May was the Community patent and single patent court. The council discussed a progress report on these issues under the Czech presidency and took a decision on whether to refer legal questions concerning the court’s structure to the European Court of Justice. The UK advocated referring these questions to the Court of Justice as soon as possible and urged a rapid reply from the court. Doing so would allow us to make progress on creating a more efficient, affordable and responsive European patent system, which would help boost European innovation and competitiveness.

The council agreed to consult the European Court of Justice. This creates a good starting point for Swedish presidency ambitions for strong progress on a Community patent and single patent court.

Under any other business, Germany raised copyright and competition concerns with the Google books search service. The UK recognised these concerns, but noted that new technologies present opportunities as well as risks for copyright owners and society and a measured approach should be taken. The presidency invited the Commission to explore impacts on EU authors and propose action, if required, to protect their rights.

The Competitiveness Council on 29 May was preceded by the Space Council (an informal meeting of EU and ESA Ministers) which discussed the importance of innovation for the space sector as well as how innovation in the space sector could boost European competitiveness. The Space Council agreed a resolution on this (which was subsequently formally adopted by the ESA and Competitiveness Councils). The Commission presented its proposal for a regulation providing community funding and setting up a governance structure for the initial phase of the global monitoring for environment and security (GMES)—an initiative to provide and pool data relating to environmental monitoring, up to now funded by EU research framework programme and ESA.

The Competitiveness Council reached a political agreement on a regulation providing a legal framework for large-scale research facilities supported by a number of countries (European Research Infrastructure Consortia or ERICs). All member states that had reservations on the tax exemptions point lifted them at council. However, Spain and Portugal said they intended to vote against the draft regulation as they felt an ERIC should initially be allowed to operate with only two member states (rather than needing three at all times as in the Commission's proposal).

Ministers welcomed the emphasis being placed by the presidency on evaluation and impact assessment and there was consensus on the need to strengthen evaluation and impact assessment for both European and national research funding programmes. The council also adopted conclusions on this subject. In the debate the UK said that a much better understanding of results achieved and impact assessment were needed to allow research funding programmes to be more effectively geared towards supporting the development of the European Research Area, boost European competitiveness and tackle major societal challenges.

The council also adopted conclusions on the first steps towards realising the vision for the European Research Area in 2020 and on the development of the regional dimension of research infrastructures.

Under any other business, the presidency highlighted its recent conference on issues relating to researcher careers and mobility. The Commission announced it planned to launch a feasibility study for a pan-European pension fund for researchers.

The Commission updated Ministers on plans to deepen European research ties with Russia through association to FP7 and provided an update on the ITER fusion research project.

EU: Justice and Home Affairs Council

Statement

A Justice and Home Affairs Council was held in Luxembourg on 4 and 5 June 2009. My noble friend Admiral Lord West, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Security and Counter-Terrorism, Kenny MacAskill, Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Justice, and I  attended on behalf of the United Kingdom. The following issues were discussed:

The council, starting in mixed committee with Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein, adopted conclusions on the future direction of the second generation of the Schengen information system. These conclusions propose that the development of SIS II continues on the basis of the current SIS II platform with stronger project management in place and milestones to assess progress.  The conclusions propose that a contingency plan based on the current SIS I platform be retained until tests defined in the project milestones are successfully completed.  It was also agreed that any future decision on a move to the contingency plan would be taken by a qualified majority in the council. The UK supported the continued development of SIS II, noting the challenge always posed by such large scale IT projects to Governments and the necessity for clear project management and milestones, as outlined in the conclusions.

The Commission then provided an update on the implementation of the visa information system (VIS), reminding Ministers that VIS could not start until all participating member states were ready to connect (the UK does not participate in VIS).   The Commission also provided an update on the geographical deployment of VIS, noting that it would prepare a draft decision, to be presented later in June. Dates for commencement would be established by the Commission, on the basis of member states' readiness to transmit the relevant data.

Ministers adopted conclusions on a co-ordinated EU approach to the closing of the Guantanamo Bay detention centre.  The conclusions put in place a framework for information sharing to facilitate member states’ acceptance of former detainees from Guantanamo Bay. The conclusions also outline that it is for individual member states to decide whether they accept ex-detainees.  The council noted that primary responsibility for the closure of Guantanamo rests with the US, but the EU should do its part to assist this process. The UK supported the conclusions, highlighting that closure of Guantanamo was a key issue not only for transatlantic relations but also for the radicalisation and recruitment of potential terrorists. Getting the message right was important in adding to the safety and security of citizens by countering extremism and the conclusions were a step forward in that regard.

After the mixed committee there was a political debate on the package of proposals presented by the Commission this year to take forward development of the common asylum system.  The package includes proposals on the Dublin and Eurodac regulations, the asylum reception conditions directive, a European support office and refugee fund.  The UK has opted in to all of the proposals except the one on asylum reception conditions.  The Commission said that more work and discussion was needed to establish the right direction for this package and this would be taken forward at working group level. The UK outlined its vision on what the EU should be doing in this area, stressing that the key aim had to be the protection of genuine refugees, by deciding their claims as swiftly as possible, and the prevention of abuse of the asylum system by people making false claims to be refugees.  External efforts were vital too: to improve protection beyond the EU's shores and tackle illegal immigration more effectively with source and transit countries.

In council and then continuing over lunch, Ministers held a debate on illegal immigration in the southern Mediterranean.  The Commission expressed its view that the EU had to act and member states must be ready to assist each other, including through a pilot internal relocation project. The work of the EU Borders Agency (FRONTEX) work should be enhanced through a local office in the Mediterranean and more involvement on returns. Enhanced dialogue with third countries was vital too: co-operation with Libya was already delivering results. The EU needed to ensure protection was improved throughout the world; and a second Tripoli conference on tackling illegal immigration through East Africa should be held. 

The Commission provided an update on the guidelines on the implementation and application of the free movement directive (2004/38/EC) advising that they would be adopted on 2 July.  Follow-up work would continue at expert level to help tackle abuse. The UK supported the view that these guidelines would be crucial in assisting member states and their courts to interpret the legislative framework and welcomed the inclusion of criminality and abuse of residence rights in the guidelines. The UK also emphasised the need for better monitoring, to inform future decisions on action to tackle abuse.

The EU counterterrorism co-ordinator, Gilles de Kerchove, gave oral reports on the implementation of the EU strategy and action plan to combat terrorism, progress made over the past six months and priorities for the future.  These highlighted the need to continue working closely together to maintain the momentum of co-operation at EU level. He outlined three key regions where focus was needed going forward; Pakistan, the Sahel and the Arabian Peninsula, stressing the importance of the Commission's stability instrument funding in supporting work in these regions.

The presidency updated the council on three EU external relations meetings held recently between the troika of the current and incoming presidency and the Commission and the US, Russian Federation and Ukraine. Outcomes of these meetings would continue to be discussed in relevant working parties.

Under any other business, the Commission presented a report on visa liberalisation in the western Balkans. A full evaluation would be undertaken in July by the Commission and proposals then made. Attention was also drawn to a recent Commission communication on disaster prevention, along with a parallel communication on disaster prevention in developing countries. The communication supplemented those activities carried out at national level, by improving knowledge, creating links between stakeholders, and increasing the efficiency of existing mechanisms.  Finally, the incoming Swedish presidency noted that Home Affairs Ministers would be invited to meet in October at Europol to celebrate its 10th anniversary and consider the future of EU police co-operation in the context of the next five-year JHA work programme.

On day two of the Justice and Home Affairs Council the presidency presented two proposed regulations providing mechanisms for negotiation and conclusion of bilateral agreements with third countries in certain areas of civil and family law, where there is external Community competence. The council agreed the texts of both proposals. On behalf of the UK I welcomed these proposals in principle while expressing the hope that the scope of the civil law proposal would be expanded in due course.

The presidency presented the draft report on the setting up of a common frame of reference for European contract law, confirming that the project would create a non-binding “toolkit” for legislators.

The presidency presented their achievements to the council on e-justice over the past six months including work on the e-justice portal and video-conferencing. The Government welcome this work and hope to see it feature as one of the priorities in the work programme in justice and home affairs over the next five years.

The presidency informed the council about the First Reading deal on ship source pollution that had been agreed with the European Parliament on 5 May.

The presidency presented the final report on the mutual evaluation of the operation of the European arrest warrant (EAW). On behalf of the UK I congratulated the presidency on the report, and stressed in particular the importance of taking forward work on proportionality. The EAW had been a real success. However, issuing EAWs for low-level offences had significant operational consequences. The UK looked forward to work being taken under the Swedish presidency and UK officials were ready to assist.

The presidency outlined the progress that had been made during the early stages of negotiations on the Commission’s proposals to combat sexual exploitation of children and human trafficking.

The presidency presented work on the implementation of the non-binding resolution on judicial training, aimed at improving the training of judges in EU law and legal systems.

The presidency reported on the recent conference about succession and wills held in Prague in April. It had been successful in gaining a clearer view of all the issues related to succession and wills in a European context. The Commission expects to bring forward a proposal during the Swedish presidency. 

Under any other business, the presidency drew the council’s attention to the responses that it had received from member states about justice ministries’ experiences of the financial crisis. It also updated the council on the status of negotiations on the free trade agreement between the EU and Korea. Slovenia presented information about the  Beyond Winning project which is being run by the alternative dispute resolution in Rome. The project is intended to facilitate the use of mediation in cross-border cases. Slovenia announced that it had just taken over the chairmanship of the Council of Europe and would be holding a conference on procedural rights in October.

House of Lords: Financial Support for Members

Statement

On 19 May 2009 I informed the House that the House Committee had agreed to commission an independent external review of the financial support available to Members of the House and that detailed proposals relating to the terms of reference and conduct of the review would be discussed at the committee's next meeting on 23 June.

Many Members responded to this announcement by stressing the need to act urgently. On 9 June, therefore, the House Committee agreed by correspondence to seek an external, independent review of financial support for Members conducted by the Senior Salaries Review Body (SSRB) with the following terms of reference:

“To review options for the system of financial support for Members of the House of Lords, given its current role and composition; and to make recommendations.

In conducting the review, SSRB will have regard to:

clarity and transparency;

accountability and public acceptability;

value for money;

differing attendance patterns of Members;

the geographical spread of the membership of the House;

the financial consequences for Members in participating in the work of the House; and

schemes operated in comparable circumstances by other institutions”.

It is expected that the SSRB will complete this review by the end of October 2009.

The Lord Speaker, as chair of the House Committee, wrote to the Prime Minister on 9 June asking him to refer the House Committee proposal to the SSRB. The Prime Minister announced on 10 June that he had now done so.

The SSRB is eager to ensure that Members contribute to the review and it will be putting forward proposals for consultation as soon as possible.

Legal Aid

Statement

On 4 December I announced that I was asking my officials to lead a short study which would bring together the evidence about the issues facing the advice sector on the ground. I asked them to examine:

the impact of the recession and the demand for civil legal advice;

the impact of civil legal advice fixed fees on local providers—financially and in terms of the type of work they are taking on;

the initial experience of community legal advice centres, including the impact on other providers in the area; and

trends in funding from sources other than the community legal service, including local authority funding, national lottery funding, charities, central government departments, and others.

Since my announcement, the study team has held meetings with relevant bodies and interested parties and visited advice providers and funders in Bangor, Bristol, Caernarfon, Cardiff, Cornwall, Cumbria, the East Riding of Yorkshire, the London Boroughs of Camden and Wandsworth, Manchester, Norwich, Plymouth, Portsmouth and Tyne and Wear.  These meetings provided invaluable information about what is happening on the ground and about the views of those whose day to day task is to help those suffering from legal problems.

We have been assisted in this task by a steering group including members of the bodies representing the not for profit advice sector and solicitors in private practice, as well as a range of other interested parties and government departments. I am very grateful for the help we have received from the steering group, and from the helpful and constructive attitude they have taken throughout the study.

I look forward to working with the steering group to identify the steps we should take to implement the study’s recommendations. It is my intention that a full action plan will be prepared and published in September. I shall keep both Houses informed of developments in this very important area of work.

Copies of the report will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses.