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Written Ministerial Statements

Tuesday 29 November 2005

CULTURE, MEDIA AND SPORT

New Opportunities and Communities Funds

The Minister for Sport and Tourism (Mr. Richard Caborn): I am pleased to inform the House that on 24 November 2005 I formally issued the New Opportunities Fund (NOF) and the Community Fund—now operating jointly under the name of the Big Lottery Fund—with policy directions to enable the fund to launch its new programmes.

The policy directions and the programmes which will be launched as a result have been subject to an unprecedented level of public consultation and input from stakeholders. Underpinning all the programmes will be the fund's mission to improve communities and the lives of people most in need.

The planned programmes include up to £155 million to support voluntary and community sector infrastructure; £155 million for children's play; up to £354 million for environmental projects; and up to £165 million for well-being programmes. These initiatives will benefit communities the length and breadth of the UK.

I have placed a copy of the policy directions in the Libraries of both Houses.

DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER

Firefighters' Pensions

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): The Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has today announced new financial arrangements for firefighters' pensions.

The firefighters' pension scheme is currently financed on a pay-as-you-go system. This means that employees' contributions are paid into Fire and Rescue Authorities' operating accounts, from which pensions awards are made. At present, as part of formula grant, authorities receive funding from central Government to support pension payments.

The current system for financing firefighters' pensions can cause volatility in pension expenditure as a result of lump-sum retirement payments. It can also be difficult to establish what proportion of budget and council tax increases is the result of rising pension costs as opposed to the cost of running the service. Further, over time the forecast growth in pension costs would see pension expenditure rise as a proportion of authorities' budgets.

The new financial arrangements are based on employer contributions and are similar to those used for other unfunded public service pension schemes such as those for teachers, civil servants, NHS staff and the armed forces.
 
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The new arrangements will mean that employee contributions and a new employer's contribution will be paid into a new local pension account, from which pensions payments will be made. Government will make up the shortfall. At the outset, appropriate adjustments will be made in the level of grant so that neither local nor national taxpayers will be disadvantaged.

The new arrangements are for both the existing and proposed new firefighter pension schemes, but have no impact on the terms and conditions of either scheme.

ODPM conducted a thorough consultation on the proposals for new financial arrangements for firefighters' pensions between 8 February 2005 and 3 May 2005. The proposals were broadly welcomed by Fire and Rescue Authorities. A formal and detailed ODPM response to the consultation can be found in the Libraries of both Houses.

Home Office Ministers, having considered responses to a parallel consultation with Police Authorities, have today announced a similar reform of the financing of police pensions.

The new financial arrangements for Fire and Rescue Authorities will be introduced in April 2006 and, subject to parliamentary approval, will take affect immediately. Fire and Rescue Authorities have been provided with detailed guidance, copies of which can also be found in the Libraries of both Houses.

Residential Boats (Security of Tenure)

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Yvette Cooper): My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister will publish for public consultation on 29 November, a paper discussing security of tenure for residential boats.

During the passage of the Bill which became the Housing Act 2004, the Government received representations that the Bill should be amended to provide similar protection for those living on boats as the Bill provided (and the Act now provides) for owners of park homes.

The Government agreed to explore possible options with stakeholders and publish a consultation paper in 2005.

In the consultation paper we have examined how residential moorings are managed particularly with regard to security of tenure; highlighted some problems that exist with these arrangements; and outlined possible solutions.

Copies of the paper are being sent to a wide range of interested parties including local authorities, trade and resident associations, and others with an interest in this issue. The closing date for responses is 21 February 2006.

Copies of the paper will also be placed in the Libraries of both Houses, and will be available on the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister's website at www.odpm.gov.uk.

A summary of the responses to the consultation will be published on the ODPM website and copies of the responses will be made available for inspection through the ODPM library.
 
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EDUCATION AND SKILLS

Learning and Skills Council

The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): I would inform the House that the Learning and Skills Council for England has today published its annual report and accounts for the period to 31 March 2005. Copies have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

ENVIRONMENT, FOOD AND RURAL AFFAIRS

Initial Regulatory Simplification Plan

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Knight): DEFRA is today publishing an initial regulatory simplification plan.

In its March 2005 report "less is more", the Better Regulation Task Force recommended that by September 2006 all Government Departments, in consultation with stakeholders, should develop a rolling programme of simplification to identify regulations that can be repealed, reformed and/or coordinated. DEFRA's plan is a public statement against which our stakeholders can measure progress.

The plan is fully in keeping with DEFRA's strategic objectives set out in our five-year strategy. Measures in it will help to improve outcomes and compliance rates while recognising the need to protect the environment and enhance animal health and welfare.

The plan identifies some significant progress that has already been made in helping to reduce red tape and improve outcomes across a number of sectors. The whole farm approach, which goes live in 2006, will offer farmers integration in the delivery of regulation and advice so that those who sign-up will be able to reduce time spent form-filling and having inspections undertaken on their farms. It also looks forward to other simplification work, such as amending the Waste Management Licensing Regulations 1994 which, it is expected, will result in cost savings of around £10 million from June 2006.

An updated plan, which will include further information on steps that DEFRA is taking to regulate more effectively, will be formally scrutinised by a Cabinet Committee and the Better Regulation Commission in the New Year. It should be viewed as an evolving document which will be updated on a regular basis. It is a major contribution to DEFRA's aim of reducing the overall administrative burden imposed on the business sectors we cover by 25 per cent. by 2009.

Copies of the plan are available in the Libraries of both Houses.

FOREIGN AND COMMONWEALTH AFFAIRS

Azerbaijan and Armenia (Arms Embargo)

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Douglas Alexander): The Government remain committed to the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe arms embargo against both Azerbaijan and Armenia, which we interpret as covering all goods and technology
 
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controlled under entries in part III of schedule 1 to the Export of Goods (Control) Order 1994 (commonly known as the military list).

In November 2005, the Government approved an export licence application for bomb disposal clothing and equipment for the special state protection service in Azerbaijan.

The decision was made in accordance with our practice occasionally to make an exemption to our interpretation of the embargo by approving exports of non-lethal military goods where it is clear that the embargo was not intended to prevent those exports. The Government believe that this export is justifiable on humanitarian grounds.


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