The Secretary of State for Defence (John Reid): The United Kingdom is committed to helping the Afghan people rebuild their country as a stable, prosperous and democratic nation free from the twin threats of terrorism and the opium industry. We deliver a significant part of that help through the contribution made by our armed forces to both the US-led coalition and the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Since October 2004 that contribution has included a detachment of six Harrier GR7 aircraft based in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. Currently drawn from No. 4 Squadron, Royal Air Force, the detachment provides a rapid and flexible reconnaissance capability, an air presence to reassure the Afghan people of their security and the capacity to strike against the Taliban and the remnants of Al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Throughout its deployment, the detachment has carried out all these tasks with distinction, has produced a disproportionately high operational effect and has deservedly won praise from both the NATO and the coalition authorities.
The detachment was due to withdraw at the end of June. However, we are currently refining, with our allies and partners, the requirements of the international military forces in Afghanistan, including that for air support. I have concluded that it would be premature to withdraw the Harrier detachment at this stage. I have therefore extended the deployment of the Harrier GR7 detachment for a further two months until the end of August 2005.
The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): On 23 March, my right hon. Friend the Member for Greenwich and Woolwich (Mr. Raynsford) made a statement to the House, announcing that the Government was "designating", under the Local Government Finance Act 1992, nine local authorities which had set excessive budgets for 200506, with a view to capping them in year (Official Report, columns 88392).
The authorities were given 21 days in which to challenge the maximum budgets we proposed to set for them in 200506 and to provide us with information we had requested. All nine authorities challenged their proposed maximum budgets and Ministers have met delegations from all nine authorities to hear their cases in person.
In all but one of these cases, the maximum budget is the same as we proposed in March. The exception is South Cambridgeshire, for which we are setting a higher cap than originally proposed to provide the authority with more time in which to end its reliance on surplus balances. Our expectation is that by using a combination of savings and reserves this year and beyond, it will be able to budget prudently in future. I am satisfied that all the authorities will be able to provide a good service and deliver all of their statutory functions within the revised maximum budgets.
I am cancelling the designation of Sedgemoor District Council and nominating the authority instead with a proposed notional budget for 200506 of £11,974,169. This is the authority's actual budget for 200506 less special expenses in the Bridgwater area. We accept that the authority made a genuine mistake in thinking that special expenses did not count against its budget for capping purposes and in believing that its council tax increase was within the "less than five per cent." average which the Government had said that they were expecting nationally. This does not mean that the authority has been "let off". The setting of the proposed notional budget, which is subject to the consideration of any challenge made by the authority, would mean that the authority could not include these special expenses in the baseline against which future increases were measured for capping purposes. This does not set a precedent for our treatment of special expenses in future
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capping rounds and authorities should be in no doubt that these legally form part of an authority's own budget requirement
We are writing to all nine authorities today informing them of our decisions. Subject to approval by the House of the draft order laid before it today, the eight designated authorities will need to set revised budget requirements for 200506 and rebill their council tax payers for a lower council tax for 2005/06. Sedgemoor District Council now has 21 days in which to challenge its notional budget.
We are keeping our promise to act on excessive council tax increases. Given that we have increased funding to local government by 33 per cent. in real terms since 1997, and that all authorities have received formula grant increase either in line with or above inflation in all of the last three years, there is no excuse for excessive council tax increases. We will not hesitate to use our capping powers in future years to deal with excessive increases if this proves necessary.
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Ms Rosie Winterton): Last year Harry Cayton, the national director for patients and the public, led a working group that reviewed charges for National Health Service dental treatment. Representatives of patients and consumers and dentists were among those who made a substantial contribution to the work of the group. We have been considering the group's report against the background of the changing patterns of treatment in personal dental services (PDS) contracts that are being piloted in parts of the country.
fairer, reducing the maximum cost of NHS dental treatment by more than half and maintaining the existing exemptions for children under 18, new mothers and those on income related benefits. (These exemptions cover 25 per cent. of all adult treatments provided by the NHS);
The new system will also provide good oral health for patients and reduce the burdens of administering the dental charge system for dentists. It will not increase the proportion of revenue raised from patients' charges.
I am placing copies of the consultation document in the Library. During October, we will analyse the responses to this consultation. Before the Christmas recess, draft regulations will be presented to both Houses for affirmative resolution. The new system will come into effect in April 2006.
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Alongside the proposed changes to NHS charges, I will be publishing an outline of a new contract for NHS dentists. This will encourage the promotion of good oral health and pay dentists for the overall service they provide to patients, rather than on a "fee for service" basis. I will shortly be making available the draft regulations on these new contractual arrangements. Before laying the regulations before Parliament, we will be discussing their content with the profession, NHS management and other key stakeholdersso that effective, workable local contracts can be agreed in order to deliver our commitment to modernise the general dental services (GDS) contract by April 2006. The regulations will include important changes to the current terms of service including compliance with recent guidelines from the National Institute for Clinical Excellence on recall intervals for patients.
Both the new system of patient charges and the new contract for dentists build on the steps we have already taken to improve dental care for NHS patients, including investing £368 million in dental services in England. In the last six months:
We have recruited the equivalent of 849 dentists towards our target of recruiting the equivalent of 1,000 by October 2005. This has been achieved through domestic and international recruitment and making available additional capacity from existing dentists to NHS patients.
Alongside this, we are funding 170 extra training places for dentists in Englanda 25 per cent. increase compared with 200405, supported by capital investment of £80 million over four years to improve facilities in dental schools.
We have also speeded up the process for people waiting to take the international qualifying exam (IQE), which enables dentists from non-EU countries to practise in England. One hundred and ninety-nine candidates passed the IQE in 2004 compared with 81 in 2003.
PDS pilots have expanded from 3,500 dentists in 1,300 dental practices to over 6,000 dentists in 2,200 practices. The proportion of dentists now in PDS is 30 per cent. These dentists are enjoying new ways of working that are also proving popular with patients.
Against the background of these developments, we have been reviewing the position of PDS contracts. The new ways of working in PDS have benefited patients and dentists alike and from next April will be available to all dentists under the new GDS contract. I have therefore decided that it is best for most of those dentists who have not already moved across to a new contract to do so next April through the new GDS, rather than in piecemeal fashion between now and then. In this way, we can ensure that the lessons of best practice in PDS have been fully learned and that we obtain value for money for the taxpayer under the new GDS contract.
We will be talking to key stakeholders about these developments. The Department of Health will process applications which it has already received and a number of other exceptional applications between now and next April. Significant numbers of dentists will have moved across to PDS before April 2006. However, the majority will still need to transfer to new contractual arrangements at that point. We are looking to primary
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care trusts to engage with those dentists in the coming months and secure their commitment to NHS dentistry under the reformed system.