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Written Ministerial Statements

Friday 14 October 2005

DEFENCE

Helicopter Low Flying Training Review

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Don Touhig): In October 2004 the Inquest was held into the tragic death of Mrs Heather Bell, who died in June 2003 when she was thrown from her horse which had been startled by a low flying Chinook helicopter. Following the Inquest, the Coroner wrote to the Ministry of Defence in November 2004 under Rule 43 of the Coroners rules, with recommendations of actions to be taken to reduce the possibility of such an accident happening again. On receipt of the letter a comprehensive review was begun into the conduct of Low Flying Training in Helicopters.

The conclusions of the review were published in a report on 14 September 2005. While it has not been possible to accept all of the recommendations, the Ministry of Defence has responded positively and constructively. Consequently, major changes have been introduced in the way in which low flying training by military helicopters is administered which will improve the information available to the public about this essential training activity through the MOD freephone advisory service. In addition, the Ministry of Defence has launched a joint safety campaign with the British Horse Society offering practical advice to horse riders.

I have placed the report of the review in the Library of the House.

ENVIRONMENT, FOOD AND RURAL AFFAIRS

Avian Influenza

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): On 13 October the European Commission announced that an H5 virus of avian influenza has been found in ducks and chickens in a back-yard flock in Romania. The precise strain of virus is not yet known. The Commission also announced that H5N1 had been confirmed in a flock of turkeys in Turkey. This is the first time that this particular flu strain—which is the one found in Asia and known to be transmissible in rare cases between birds and humans—has been found so close to Europe.

Imports of poultry, poultry meat and products into the EU from both Turkey and Romania have ceased. Member states are considering whether further precautionary steps could be appropriate.

The Government have taken a number of steps to tighten arrangements for detection of the disease and to stop it spreading. With key bird experts bodies we have put in place new arrangements for wild bird surveillance and are carrying out an immediate assessment of any
 
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revised risk of H5N1 coming to the UK in the light of the new circumstances. We will publish that risk assessment on our website today.

We already have comprehensive biosecurity guidance to keepers on the Defra website and we have been working with stakeholders to draw up fuller guidance to keepers on assessing their risks, biosecurity and worker protection which we are issuing to poultry groups and publishing on our website today. The Government also have a full public contingency plan for tackling an outbreak which has been used and tested during the recent Newcastle Disease outbreak.

Avian influenza is a notifiable disease and we are reminding poultry keepers to report any suspicion of disease immediately. We are calling on them to strengthen their biosecurity and make a plan to protect the health of their birds.

TRANSPORT

Transport Council

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): My letters of 4 October to the Chairmen of the Lords and Commons Scrutiny Committees, placed in the Library of each House, outlined prospects for the Transport Council on 6 October which I chaired and which Stephen Ladyman attended for the UK. This statement summarises the outcome of that Council.

The Council had an exchange of views on the proposed Directive extending market access to international rail passenger services (part of the Third Rail Package). This would allow licensed rail companies to run such services, including carrying passengers between stations in the same country (cabotage). A large majority of Member States supported the principle of opening the market for such services. Most also supported the proposition that market access should only be limited where necessary to safeguard public services, as the Commission proposal envisages. Most Member States supported the proposed date of 1 January 2010 for opening the market. A large majority supported the principle of including cabotage, though some felt that cabotage should be phased in later.

The Council also considered the relationship between the rail market access proposal and the Commission's recent proposal for a Regulation on Public Service Obligations (PSOs) in Land Transport. There was general acknowledgement that certain provisions of the PSO proposal were closely linked to the rail market access proposal and that these needed further clarification. However, very few Member States considered that the two dossiers needed to be agreed at the same time.

Following this useful exchange of views, I informed the Council that the UK Presidency would. work on the basis of the views expressed, noting that agreement of the rail market access proposal might be possible at the 5 December Transport Council.

On EU-US aviation, the Commissioner reported to the Council on progress made in recent technical talks with the US. He requested the Council's support for an early resumption of formal negotiations. In the interventions which followed, several Member States restated the need for significant improvements in the
 
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June 2004 offer. I concluded for the Presidency that there was unanimous support for resuming talks. However, there could be no guarantee of success, and an agreement would have to deliver real benefits to both sides. An agreement could be in stages, but if so there would have to be a commitment on both sides to completion. The Council and the Presidency would work closely with the Commission to achieve a good outcome.

Also in the field of aviation external relations, the Commissioner reported on progress in the negotiations with third countries on inclusion of Community designation clauses in their bilateral air service agreements with Member States.

The Council reached a general approach on a regulation on the rights of disabled persons and persons with reduced mobility when travelling by air. The aim of this proposal is two-fold: to prevent persons being refused carriage on the basis of disability or reduced mobility; and to guarantee the provision, without additional charge, of the assistance needed by disabled persons and those with reduced mobility to have effective opportunities for air travel. I expressed the hope that early agreement with the European Parliament might be possible.

Discussion over lunch revealed general support from Member States for the continuation of work on inclusion of aviation emissions within the EU Emissions Trading Scheme.

Also discussed over lunch was the innovative electronic Ministerial consultation recently staged by the UK Presidency on the mid-term review of the Commission White Paper. Our initiative was well received. The Commission said that the review would issue in 2006, to give time for more input from Member States, and noted agreement on 3 main areas for EU-level action; infrastructure TENs to support mobility and EU competitiveness; safety; and sustainable development. The main comments of Member States focussed on the need to manage the further inevitable increase in road traffic. Modal shift should be about encouraging all alternative modes—i.e. diversity and
 
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interoperability. The closing statement, together with the opening statement, are publicly available on the Department for Transport website

www.dft.gov.uk/stellent/groups/df–tabout/documents/page/dft–about–038723.hcsp

and the UK presidency website at

www.eu2005.gov.uk/servlet/Front?pagename=OpenMarket%2FXcelerate%2F ShowPage&c=Page&cid=1079979819948&action =search&sf=mini&referrer=EUPres&stq=0& pubId=1079979670810&q=transport+white+ paper.

There were a number of statements under Any Other Business.

Italy drew the Council's attention to the Informal Ministerial conference on road safety to be held in Verona on 4 and 5 November. Stephen Ladyman will co-chair the meeting.

France presented a paper on the impact on road transport of the rise in the price of fuel, on which there was no substantive discussion.

The Commission, in its report under AOB on aviation safety said that effective safety would require work on several fronts, including: developing the role of EASA (European Aviation Safety Agency); work to develop and manage a Community blacklist of carriers banned from operating in the EU; development of the SAFA (safety assessment of foreign aircraft) programme; and effective engagement with ICAO to improve international safety standards.

The Commission noted that its report on aviation security had shown that although overall standards were high, there were several areas for improvement. There was scope for Community standards to be applied more flexibly. The Commission had therefore proposed a new regulation (to replace Regulation 2320/2002).

The Commission made a statement on state aid for regional airports, introducing its new guidelines on funding of regional airports. The guidelines reflected an ECJ ruling which said that provision of infrastructure should not be to the detriment of competitors. There should be no funding for services which might compete with high speed rail services.