Ahead of the European Court of Auditors (ECA) qualified report on the EU's 2004 Budget, published today, the Council agreed Conclusions in response to the European Commission's 'roadmap to an integrated internal control framework'. This is the eleventh successive year in which the ECA has been unable to give a positive opinion on the EU's annual budget reflecting long-term, systemic problems with financial management and control systems. It is unacceptable that European taxpayers cannot have confidence in the way in which public money is managed and spent. The Council, led by the UK Presidency, has for the first time taken action, agreeing conclusions that will contribute to bringing about a step change in financial management and control.
The Council agreed conclusions on a common methodology for measuring the administrative burden that existing and proposed EU legislation place on businesses. In line with the better regulation priorities of our Presidency, the methodology will ensure that such costs are fully accounted for in impact assessments and, over time, reduced through simplification initiatives with quantitative targets.
The Council agreed Conclusions on a package of statistical measures including political agreement to an amended Regulation on the quality of statistics for excessive deficit monitoring and evaluation and improvement in the governance of Eurostat.
The Council noted progress on developing a One Stop Scheme for simplifying cross-border business relating to Value-Added Tax obligations (VAT), and discussed existing proposals to extend reduced rates of VAT.
The Council was briefed by the Commission on work underway to improve the regulatory framework for cross-border mergers and acquisitions in the financial services industry. Presidency conclusions welcoming the Commission's work were adopted.
The Secretary of State for Defence (John Reid): I am pleased to announce that a contract has been awarded for the MOD's Housing Prime Contract covering England and Wales. The seven year contract is worth in the region of £690 million, and has been awarded to Modern Housing Solutionsa joint venture company between Carillion, Atkins and Enterprise. This follows the successful conclusion of discussions with the company, which was appointed as Designated Contractor in April 2005.
This contract will provide for full property maintenance, including facilities management services encompassing initially around 45,000 properties. The award of the Housing Prime Contract represents the continuation of the MOD's initiative to modernise its estate and coincides with the completion of the awards for the Department's five Regional Prime Contracts across the estate in Great Britain.
Prime Contracting is a key initiative that aims to improve the value for money MOD obtains from its expenditure on both the construction and maintenance of the estate, by encouraging innovation and efficiency through suitably incentivised contracts and conforming with the principles of 'Smart Acquisition'.
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): In my statement on 26 October regarding the incident of H5N1 avian influenza in the quarantine facility in Essex I made clear my intention to bring to the attention of the House as early as possible the findings of my Department's investigations. I have today placed in the House Libraries copies of the epidemiology report which make clear the virological examination results and conclusions which experts have drawn.
Within the species documented as coming from Taiwan only the Mesias were infected with H5N1 and 53 out of 101 birds had died. This is consistent with DEFRA's working hypothesis of 23 October that the likeliest origin of the infection was the birds from Taiwan.
The report will be fed into the independent review of avian quarantine procedures I announced on 31 October led by Professor Dimmock, and to Essex County Council who are conducting an investigation into events at the quarantine facility.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Cabinet Office (Mr. Jim Murphy):
The report "Analysis of Sickness Absence in the Home Civil Service 2004" prepared for my Department by RED Scientific Ltd.
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shows that the headline figure for the average level of sickness absence was 9.1 days per staff year. This represents a 0.9 days per staff year decrease over the equivalent figure of 10.0 days set out in the report for 2003. The report contains a comprehensive analysis of the 2004 figures by Department/agency. Copies of the report are available in the Library.
The Cabinet Office is continuing to work with other Departments and agencies as they take forward their plans to reduce sickness absence and implement the recommendations of the Managing Attendance in the Public Sector report published by the Ministerial Task Force on Health, Safety and Productivity.
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The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): I am pleased to announce that I have approved the appointment of the right hon. Lord Justice Rose as the Chief Surveillance Commissioner under the terms of Section 91 of the Police Act 1997.