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Written Ministerial StatementsMonday 19 January 2004

HOME DEPARTMENT

Overseas Surveillance Officers

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Caroline Flint): Article 40 of the Schengen Convention sets out the basis for cross border surveillance by police officers from member states. Subject to a Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) Council decision authorising the United Kingdom to begin applying the relevant provisions of the Schengen Acquis, we have decided that in strictly pre-planned operations, and on a basis of full reciprocity, overseas surveillance officers should be able to travel armed by sea or rail to the UK, but not by air.

Foreign Officers would not be able to carry their firearms beyond the confines of the port or rail station at which they arrive. The purpose of this agreement is to allow for continuing, without putting officers at additional risk, the surveillance of a dangerous individual leaving the UK or of one coming to the UK who will then be followed from the port by armed UK surveillance teams.

Each foreign officer will require authority from the Home Secretary to carry firearms under section 5 of the Firearms Act 1968, and an import licence. Before an authorisation is given to allow the carriage of firearms, the operation will be risk assessed by a UK police officer of at least Assistant Chief Constable rank.

Foreign officers on urgent operations under Article 40(2) of the Schengen Convention will not be able to carry firearms in any circumstances.

HEALTH

NHS Foundation Trusts

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. John Hutton): The Secretary of State has decided to support the applications of 24 NHS trusts in becoming NHS foundation trusts.

The applications will now be sent to the office of the independent regulator. The final decision on whether a trust can become an NHS foundation trust rests with the independent regulator.

The NHS trusts concerned are:


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CABINET OFFICE

Government Communications Review

The Minister for the Cabinet Office and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. Douglas Alexander): The full report of the independent review of Government communications, chaired by Bob Phillis, has been published today. The Minister for the Cabinet Office is grateful to the review for its work and consideration of these issues.

The Report builds on the Review Team's interim report published in the summer. The Government accepted the interim report's recommendations. Central to the process is the appointment of a new Permanent Secretary, Government Communications, which the Cabinet Office is currently in the process of recruiting.

Departments have the responsibility to devise and implement communications operations and strategies appropriate to their needs. Bearing this in mind, the new Permanent Secretary will take forward, in consultation with Departments, recommendations relating to a redefinition of the overall role of Government communications, the structures necessary to deliver this activity and the improved training and development of all communications specialists.

The Permanent Secretary will also consider whether the existing rules and guidance are fit for purpose and whether any additional clarification is required. We note the Committee's conclusion on ministerial involvement in the selection processes for communications professionals which will be taken forward in discussions already underway with the Civil Service Commissioners.

The Government also agree that it must communicate with the public in the widest possible way, including greater use of regional briefings and electronic communications. It will look at how Departments' websites could be better coordinated and structured to encourage greater public participation in the development and communication of Government policies.

The Government remain committed to the principle, reflected in the Ministerial Code, that when the House is sitting announcements of Government policy should, in the first instance, be made in Parliament. It agrees that

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more Ministers should host lobby briefings and that these should be open and televised. The Government will now enter into discussions with the relevant public authorities, including Parliament, and the Parliamentary Lobby, on how best to pursue these proposals.

The Government also note the review's recommendations on the implementation of the Freedom of Information Act. A great deal of work is going on to ensure that departments are fully prepared for the legislation which comes into force on 1 January 2005 and the Government are fully committed to ensuring full and effective implementation of the Act across the whole of the public sector. The review's recommendations will be taken into account as part of this implementation process.

On the use of statistics, the Government welcome the review's acknowledgement that some important steps have been taken to reinforce the independence of the statistical service. The Government note the review's recommendations on access to pre-release national statistics. Under the National Statistics Code of Practice and its associated protocol on release practices, issued in September 2002, there are already long-established and effective procedures in place to restrict early access to certain data to a small number of Ministers and officials, so that they are able to provide an authoritative response when questions arise at the time of release. There are no plans to change this.

FOREIGN AND COMMONWEALTH AFFAIRS

Falkland Islands

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Bill Rammell): Air links between the Falkland Islands and the South American mainland are the subject of two understandings reached between HMG and the Argentine Government, under a sovereignty umbrella (which protects both sides' positions on the question of sovereignty). Following the UK/Argentine Joint Statement of July 1999, LAN Chile resumed their weekly flight between Punta Arenas (in southern Chile) and the Falkland Islands. Once a month this flight makes a stopover in each direction in Rio Gallegos (in southern Argentina). In February 2001 a further understanding was signed to permit private flights. Under these arrangements aircraft, including Argentine aircraft, can undertake private flights between Argentina and the Falkland Islands. These arrangements continue in place and are unaffected by developments set out below.

In recent years there have also been a number of charter flights to the Falkland Islands, mostly originating in Chile and servicing tourist cruise ships. These charter flights are not covered by either of the two understandings described above. They require permission to use Argentine airspace between Chile and the Falkland Islands. Until this season Argentina has not raised any difficulties with these charter flight authorisations, though it had periodically indicated that it would wish to review the situation at some point.

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On 3 November 2003, without warning, Argentina announced the suspension of permission for charter flights to use Argentine airspace and proposed that a scheduled air service between Argentina and the Falkland Islands by an Argentine carrier be put in place. The weekly LAN Chile scheduled flight was not affected by this announcement.

We made clear to Argentina that while we were prepared to enter into discussions about ways of building on existing arrangements for air links between the Falkland Islands and the South American mainland, any future arrangements must be acceptable to the Falkland Islanders, and that the Falkland Islanders were not prepared to accept a scheduled service by an Argentine carrier. We also made clear that such discussions needed to take place against the backdrop of charter flight authorisations proceeding normally.

Regrettably, despite considerable efforts it has not been possible to reach agreement with the Argentine Government on opening talks on air services on acceptable terms. This means that there is little prospect of charter flights to the Falkland Islands being authorised to overfly Argentine airspace for the rest of this tourist season. Unless such an understanding can be reached with the Argentine Government, it seems likely that charters for the next tourist season will also be affected. Falkland Island Councillors have been kept fully informed of our exchanges with the Argentine Government.

The cancellation of the charter flights will obviously have some negative impact on the tourist industry in the Falkland Islands. However, Falkland Islanders believe that there are principles at stake here which outweigh short term economic costs. We respect and agree with that view. Argentina is fully aware of our position and we hope that an acceptable arrangement can be reached in the interests of all parties to resolve the charter flight issue.


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