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Written Ministerial Statements

Tuesday 31 January 2006

TREASURY

ECOFIN: 24 January 2006

The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Gordon Brown): At its meeting of 24 January 2006 the Economic and Financial Affairs Council took note of a presentation from the current Austrian and future Finnish presidencies on a work programme for ECOFIN for 2006.

The Council adopted opinions on the stability and convergence programmes for Finland, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Hungary, Slovakia and Sweden and adopted a decision under article 104(6) and a recommendation under article 104(7) of the EC Treaty with regard to the UK.

The Council discussed procedures for following up matters relating to the forthcoming Commission annual progress report on the Lisbon Strategy in the run-up to the spring European Council.

The Council adopted conclusions on an Economic Policy Committee report regarding the quality of public finances in the EU.

The Austrian presidency concluded that, subject to confirmation by the Czech Republic, Poland and Cyprus, political agreement could be reached on an extension of the arrangements for reduced rates of VAT for labour intensive services until 2010. The presidency subsequently announced on 30 January that the Czech Republic and Cyprus had agreed the proposal. Discussions are ongoing between the presidency and Poland.

The Council held an exchange of views on issues related to energy markets.

My right hon. Friend the Paymaster General, represented the UK.

CONSTITUTIONAL AFFAIRS

Judicial Appointments

The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): My noble Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Baroness Ashton of Upholland, has made the following written ministerial statement.

"The Judicial Appointments Annual Report, covering the period 1 April 2004 to 30 September 2005, is published today, 31 January. This year the report continues to focus on developments and achievements within the judicial appointments process and the work undertaken ahead of the new Judicial Appointments Commission. We have placed the full statistical tables, which give the results of the various competitions held
 
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within the period of the report and their supporting narrative, on the departmental website at: www.dca.gov.uk. The report also shows that:

Copies of the report will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses and is also available on the Department's website at: www.dca.gov.uk".

DEFENCE

Met Office

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Don Touhig): I am pleased to announce to Parliament my decision on the future of the Met Office forecast production network.

The Met Office has a responsibility to provide value for money to the taxpayer, to deliver the UK's public weather service in the most efficient and effective manner and to provide the best possible service to all its customers. A thorough review and analysis of the Met Office's production network has been carried out. This included an extensive consultation exercise which took place between July and November 2005 involving customers, parliamentarians, trades unions, staff and other interested parties.

I am grateful to the many individuals and groups who took part in this consultation. It generated a great deal of useful feedback. Indeed, based on a number of the constructive comments received, the Met Office was able to produce an additional option for consultation, as a result of which I agreed an extension to the consultation period.

Having carefully weighed the various issues and arguments, I have decided that the best solution for the future of the Met Office and its customers is to centralise more forecast production at the Met Office HQ in Exeter, while retaining production capability in Aberdeen and a reduced regional network focusing primarily on service delivery. Forecast advisers within the regional network will take a proactive role with customers to identify regional weather impacts, and deliver the Met Office's open road, marine and public weather services.

I am confident that this decision will deliver significant benefits to the Met Office, the UK taxpayer and all the Met Office's customers.
 
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EDUCATION AND SKILLS

Higher Education (Student Finance)

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Ruth Kelly): The Department is today publishing the report of the end to end review of the arrangements for the delivery of financial support to higher education students, and its collection from borrowers, in England. The start of the review was announced on 7 June. Copies of the report are being placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

The Department welcomes the report. Its initial response is set out below.

The principles underpinning the report are that student finance delivery arrangements must meet demand from customers for clear information about their entitlement to support; faster decisions once applications have been made; timely payments upon starting a course; and accurate repayments when these come to be made. They must also meet taxpayers' expectations that value for money is being achieved. While much has been achieved in recent years, the report makes clear that significant further improvements in performance are required. The Department agrees with this analysis and with the challenging new objectives and targets the report recommends.

The report makes 44 specific recommendations. The Department accepts these in principle, subject to the further detailed work on costs and practicalities which some will require. In particular the Department supports the report's vision of a future in which a large majority of students will apply for financial support online, and the changes which will be needed to achieve this. It welcomes the report's identification of changes which will increase repayments, and it will respond actively to the report's call for DfES leadership to ensure accessible, accurate and consistent information, advice and guidance at national and local level.

The report also sets out options for a new delivery structure. In the case of assessments and payment, delivery will need to reflect the move to online applications. It will also need to improve the current variability of customer service, and to achieve efficiencies. For these reasons the Department is attracted to the option of a centrally-provided service for which a single organisation would be responsible., working with others to ensure we meet the needs of individuals requiring local assistance. However, this needs to be discussed with local authority representatives given the impact on their staff.

The report offers three options for the national organisation: an NDPB, a private sector contractor chosen through procurement, and a new relationship with the Student Loans Company. In considering these the Department will focus not only on delivery capability and value for money, but also on which option is most likely to produce the significant cultural shift which the report rightly calls for if the service is to become truly customer-focused. The Department will consider the options in the report for the collections process.

The Department will now discuss the report with key stakeholders and will make a detailed response in the spring.
 
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ENVIRONMENT, FOOD AND RURAL AFFAIRS

Single Payment Scheme

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jim Knight): On 19 January 2005 the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) announced that payments under the new CAP Single Payment Scheme (SPS) were expected to commence in February 2006, well within the EU regulatory window of 1 December 2005 to 30 June 2006. Over the past year, staff at the RPA have worked exceedingly hard to ensure that this expectation was turned into a reality.

At the EFRA Select Committee hearing on 11 January my noble Friend Lord Bach made it clear that payments would begin, in line with the RPA's forecast, before the end of February and that an announcement would be made by the end of this month on whether they would be full or partial payments. Having considered the latest progress reports on the processing of farmers' claims I am pleased to confirm today that the RPA will now proceed to make full payments. The contingency system to make partial payments will not, therefore, be invoked.

The RPA will now proceed to definitively establish entitlements on 14 February, details of which will be communicated to individual farmers within two weeks of that date. This will allow for the trading of entitlements to commence in preparation for the 2006 scheme.

Where 2005 SPS applications have been fully validated, payments will start before the end of February, with the bulk being made in March. In the minority of cases where queries remain unresolved, the validation process will continue beyond March, but farmers may be assured that the RPA will make every effort to complete the task in the shortest possible timeframe.

I hope this statement will provide some reassurance to the farming industry about the progress of the scheme. I want to acknowledge the co-operation and patience of everyone who has made a claim.


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