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The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): In this written Ministerial Statement I announce a review of the basis of the FCO's travel advice, and an internal review of the FCO's security strategy for its posts abroad. Terms of reference are annexed. The conclusion of the travel advice review will be placed before both Houses.
Since September 11 2001, it has been increasingly clear that we face a form of international terrorism which aims not only to take life randomly by suicide attack, but which seeks to use fear and instability to undermine the freedom and prosperity which the terrorists hate.
Our policy must be to deny the terrorists any advantage. We must take prudent precautions, while minimising the disruption which terrorists want to cause. Some disruption is, of course, inevitable if we are to make likely targets as secure as we can. But we must all be clear that total security is not possible. Everybody who goes about their business in a modern city and elsewhere makes a balanced judgment of risk against security. People continue to go about their daily lives
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vigilantly, amid sound precautionsbecause they are not prepared to give the terrorists satisfaction. Our determination to maintain as normal a life as possible is a weapon against terrorism.
It is important that British citizens travelling abroad should have the best possible information on risk, from the Government. We have extensively reviewed and improved our travel advice since Bali. But I have asked officials to look again at some of the underlying issues, in light of recent experience. What is the right balance between information, warning and advice? I am clear that our advice should give the most detailed and timely factual information possible, but in what circumstances should this information be complemented, where appropriate, with advice not to travel? What is the impact and the cost of our warnings not to travel? And what would be the implications of a different approach? We may conclude that the nature of our advice is as good as we can make it, or we may find that improvements are necessary. We will be seeking as many views as possible including, of course, that of Members of both Houses.
Security is always at the top of our agenda. We keep the security of all our posts under constant review and frequently re-assess the risks and the measures needed to manage them in the light of changing threat levels. Funds have been authorised for the most urgent expenditure. Following the attack on our consulate in Istanbul, which showed that our overseas missions and staff are in the front line, we immediately asked all posts to check their security measures. We are also looking at additional measures we can take at high-risk posts. In addition, we have instigated an internal review of the FCO's security strategy, in particular the balance between security and operational effectiveness.
What should be the balance in our Travel Advice between information, warning and advice (ie between description of risks in particular countries and prescription of action in response)?
How far can risk analysis and its presentation be made more objective (eg through statistical analysis and comparison with non-terrorist hazards)?
What would be the implications of variations in this balance for the FCO, others in HMG who help produce the Advice, and its users?
How do we link threat level assessments and public information?
How far should we take into consideration the capabilities of host governments in reaching decisions on Travel Advice?
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Users of Travel Advice, including the travel industry, the insurance industry, the public (via website feedback), and Non Governmental Organisations;
Analogous governments, including the US, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and European partners;
Governments of destination countries.
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): I am pleased to be able to announce that, today, the UK will ratify the Optional Protocol to the UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT) when our permanent representative to the UN will deposit the instrument of ratification with the UN Secretary General.
The UK will become the first member of the European Union and the third country in the world to ratify the Optional Protocol. The UK believes that the Protocol will promote a more intensive and concerted approach to eradicate torture through a preventive system of regular, independent visits to places of detention. We will now undertake a campaign urging other countries to sign, ratify and implement both the Convention Against Torture and the Optional Protocol. The Protocol will come into force when 20 countries have ratified it.
The UK is committed to the fight against torture. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office's anti-torture initiative, launched in 1998, continues to provide a focus for us on this issue. The UK played an important role in securing the adoption of the Optional Protocol in 2002 by undertaking extensive lobbying of countries around the world to support the Protocol. The follow-up to our ratification of the OPCAT will be an important part of the current phase of the initiative.
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Ms Rosie Winterton): The Mental Health Act Commission's 10th biennial report, entitled "Placed Amongst Strangers", has been published today. Copies have been placed in the Library.
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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): The Department has received new advice from the Committee on Safety of Medicines (CSM) about the use of selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors (SSRIs) in children under the age of 18 for the treatment of major depressive disorder (MDD). An expert working group of the CSM was established earlier this year to look at the safety of the whole class of SSRIs. The group has already advised on paroxetine and the related anti-depressant venlafaxine. They have now concluded that the balance of risks and benefits for the treatment of major depressive disorder (MDD) in under 18s is unfavourable for the SSRIs sertraline, citalopram and escitalopram and unassessable for fluvoxamine.
This new advice follows announcements in June and September that paroxetine and venlafaxine should not be used in children and adolescents under the age of 18 years to treat depressive illness. Like paroxetine and venlafaxine, none of these drugs has ever been licensed for use in under 18s, but we know they are used in this age group outside licensed indications, where prescribers make a judgment on their own responsibility that it is the right treatment for a particular patient.
Only fluoxetine (Prozac) was shown in clinical trials to have a positive balance of risks and benefits in the treatment of MDD in under 18s. There is no evidence to date to suggest that the risks of treatment outweigh the benefits in adults. The CSM expert group has delivered comprehensive advice on the use of SSRIs in children and young people following a thorough review of all the evidence available. This represents the most detailed review to be completed so far and gives parents, young people and those who treat these serious illnesses the information they need to make informed decisions about treatment. The expert group will now focus their attention on finishing a compete review of the safely of the entire class of medicines in adults and young adults.
Communications to patients and prescribers are taking place today and copies of these materials have been placed in the Library. The benefits of taking these drugs are well established, but we know that some patients suffer significant side effects. Patients over 18 and patients who are benefiting from SSRIs should not be frightened into stopping their medication abruptly. Patients who are experiencing any side effects or are concerned about their treatment should discuss these with their doctor. The Government are committed to ensuring that the wider aspects of suicide prevention remain at the top of the agenda and the National Institute for Mental Health in England has made suicide prevention one of its core policy programmes.
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