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Written Ministerial Statements

Monday 29 November 2004

CONSTITUTIONAL AFFAIRS

Freedom of Information Act 2000

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Mr. Christopher Leslie): Earlier today my right hon. and noble Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, Baroness Ashton of Upholland, made a statement in the other place reporting that she has today laid before Parliament, in accordance with section 87(5) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the fourth and final report on proposals for bringing fully into force those provisions of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 which have yet to be implemented.

The report details what action has been taken by my Department in the final year before full implementation of the Freedom of Information Act. It also details the actions taken by other departments and public authorities across the public sector in preparation for full implementation of the Freedom of Information Act on 1 January 2005.

A great deal of work has been done in this final year before full implementation and the report contains many examples of best practice in implementation. The Government are confident that the substantial programme of work reflected in this report will enable public authorities to make a success of the Freedom of Information Act and to realise the benefits of greater openness to both Government and the citizen.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER

Temporary Stop Notices

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Keith Hill): Following the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's review of the planning enforcement system in England we took the opportunity to introduce a new enforcement power—the temporary stop notice—in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act. There was overwhelming support for the introduction of these new provisions from local authorities. I am today announcing a period of consultation with a view to commencing these new powers in spring 2005.

Temporary stop notices provide a new power to local planning authorities and the means to prevent unauthorised development at an early stage without first having to issue an enforcement notice.

The temporary stop notice provides the local authority with a discretionary power to stop a breach of planning control for a limited period of time to enable it to decide whether further enforcement is appropriate and what action should be taken.
 
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The Act provides that temporary stop notices may not be used against dwelling houses. During the passage of the Bill the issue of the treatment of caravans was raised. The Government responded that it would introduce regulations that would mirror the exemption for buildings.

The draft regulations set out the circumstances in which temporary stop notices may not be used. The temporary stop notice may not be used against caravans which are occupied as a sole or main residence on site and their immediate removal won't be required until any follow-up enforcement action is taken. Any further associated works will be subject to the temporary stop notice.

However, in circumstances where the effect of allowing the caravans to remain on the site for even a limited period would cause serious harm to the local amenity that would outweigh the benefit to the occupiers of the caravans, a temporary stop notice can be used immediately. This approach strikes an appropriate balance between the needs of gypsies and travellers and rights of local authorities to take action against unauthorised development in those particular circumstances where this is causing serious and immediate harm.

ENVIRONMENT, FOOD AND RURAL AFFAIRS

State Veterinary Service

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): In July this year my Department published a consultation document, setting out proposals to turn the state veterinary service into an executive agency on 1 April 2005. The consultation followed an earlier review to identify options for improved efficiency and effectiveness in the delivery of veterinary services across the Department.

The consultation has now concluded. Comments and observations were received from a cross section of customers, including veterinary experts, livestock owners and the farming community. These responses have been analysed and have been valuable in helping us to decide on the best way forward for the state veterinary service.

The decision to create an executive agency was generally supported by consultees and I have therefore decided to continue with the programme to launch the new agency on 1 April 2005.

I believe this will help further the aims of the animal health and welfare strategy towards developing a new partnership in which we can make a lasting and continuous improvement in the health and welfare of kept animals while protecting society, the economy and the environment from the effect of animal diseases. We are pledged to working with all customers and stakeholders, listening to their concerns and their counsel and taking their views into account as the agency takes shape.

The move to agency status for the state veterinary service will provide the flexibilities needed to create an organisation focussed on delivery with stronger systems and controls; business management expertise; working in partnership with other delivery bodies on the ground
 
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and with policy colleagues in Defra to play its full part in the implementation of the animal health and welfare strategy.

FOREIGN AND COMMONWEALTH OFFICE

Afghanistan: Counter Narcotics

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Bill Rammell): The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released its Afghanistan opium survey 2004 on 18 November. The survey showed that opium poppy cultivation increased by 64 per cent. from 80,000 hectares in 2003 to 131,000 hectares in 2004 while production rose by 17 per cent. from 3,600 tonnes in 2003 to 4,200 tonnes. The report is available on the UNODC website at www.unodc.org.

The UK uses the UN results and the trends they demonstrate as a reference point for Afghanistan, as we do for the rest of the world. This has been the case since UNODC started its surveys in Afghanistan in the 1993–94 growing season.

The UK recognises that the Afghan Government are working in very difficult circumstances. The security situation remains serious. Drugs are deeply embedded in all levels of society. The establishment of governance, delivery of development aid and the establishment of law and order cannot proceed as quickly as Afghanistan and her partners would like to see. The 2004 UN survey results make clear the scale of the task ahead but the Afghans' strategy and the practical measures they are putting in place remain right.
 
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As lead co-ordinating nation on counter-narcotics in Afghanistan, the UK Government are already taking forward with the Afghans a comprehensive programme that sets the conditions for more visible results in the future. It covers: alternative livelihoods; eradication; criminal justice; law enforcement and information and treatment campaigns to raise awareness and tackle the problems of addiction in Afghanistan itself.

With the Afghan Government and the international community, we recognise that we must and will do more in the coming year across each of the five main pillars of the strategy. By securing wider international support, the UK will increase its support for Afghanistan's national drug control strategy in the coming year.

TRANSPORT

Rail Proposals (Disability Discrimination Bill)

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Charlotte Atkins): The Government have today announced that their preferred end date by which all rail vehicles will have to meet the Rail Vehicle Accessibility Regulations 1998 (RVAR) is 2020. It has also announced that it intends to require access improvements to those features which are included in plans when rail vehicles are being refurbished.

The announcement follows the introduction of the Disability Discrimination Bill in the House of Lords on Thursday 25 November. The Bill includes powers to give effect to these measures.

Draft regulations covering these proposals, which apply to England, Scotland and Wales, will be the subject of a public consultation process during the passage of the Bill. Northern Ireland will be holding their own separate consultation process on these issues in due course.