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Written Ministerial Statements

Tuesday 7 February 2006


Higher Education (Deregulation of Governance)

The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): I have today written to heads of all English higher education institutions explaining how the Government is taking forward our commitment outlined in paragraph 7.10 of the 2003 White Paper "The Future of Higher Education". Copies of my letter have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses of Parliament.

Chapter 7 of the White Paper focused on freeing up higher education institutions from bureaucracy and questioned how far regulation of universities through the Privy Council was necessary. Currently, the legal position is that all changes to institutions' Charters and Statutes or Instruments and Articles of Government have to be approved by the Privy Council and can delay institutional changes. The White Paper concluded that the Privy Council did not need to approve minor changes in the way universities go about their business. Subsequently, we have been working to decide what should count as a "minor change".

My letter explains how our proposals for de-regulation of governance arrangements will mean that in future only core issues of public interest will be monitored by the Privy Council.

The approach to drawing up key areas of public interest that still need protecting has been agreed by the Department, the Privy Council Office and our stakeholder bodies—Universities UK, the Standing Conference of Principals, the Association of Heads of University Administration, the Committee of University Chairmen, the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education, the Higher Education Funding Council for England and the devolved administrations.

The Department has identified the key areas where there is a continuing "public interest" in university governance. These include degree awarding powers and university title, powers and objects, academic freedom and governance structures, particularly the functions and constitution of the governing body. Non-key areas include provisions on membership, internal structures and detailed roles and constitution bodies such as the Senate and Court.

My letter explains that while the Government cannot require institutions to liberalise their governance arrangements, we very much hope that they will bring forward proposals that will relieve them of the obligation of having all amendments to their governance arrangements agreed by the Privy Council.

This is just one of the steps we are taking to demonstrate the Government are serious about reducing unnecessary bureaucracy to the absolute
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minimum compatible with effective regulation and quality assurance, not just in higher education, but more broadly across education and the economy as a whole. Light touch, risk-based and proportionate regulation is essential for the success of any sector in our 21st century economy and this is especially vital for higher education, to help ensure our universities remain world class.


Agriculture and Fisheries Council

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): I represented the United Kingdom at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council meeting in Brussels on 23 January 2006.

The Chairman of the Council began by setting out the Austrian presidency work programme for the next six months. It includes progressing the WTO negotiations, work on rural development financing, avian influenza, sustainable development and renewable energy, genetically modified crops, and the European Fisheries Fund.

The Energy Commissioner and the Agriculture Commissioner jointly presented their Biomass Action Plan. The Energy Commissioner stressed the need to address the changes in the EU's energy situation caused by the increased price of oil and gas and the recent gas crisis in Russia and the Ukraine. The Agriculture Commissioner stressed the importance of the biomass plan being demand driven. I welcomed the action plan's integrated approach and its focus on energy for heating.

The Agriculture Commissioner presented a proposal to update and simplify the EU legislation governing organic farming and the labelling and sale of organic products. She also presented her proposals on changes to the rules for protected geographical indications and traditional specialties for agriculture products.

The Council agreed a request from Cyprus for approval to pay a national state aid to cover long-standing agricultural debts. The UK abstained.

The Council took note of the presentation by the Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection of the Community Action Plan on the Protection and Welfare of Animals for the period 2006–10. The plan is intended as an overarching strategy paper containing a number of options for future legislation and focused on five main themes: simplifying and updating existing animal welfare legislation; promoting research and alternative approaches to animal testing; introducing standardised animal welfare indicators; improving communication of welfare issues to animal handlers and the general public; and, supporting international activities for the protection of animals.

Under any other business: the Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection updated the Council on the outbreak of avian influenza and on the outcome of the recent International Pledging Conference on Avian Influenza in Beijing.
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Germany supported by Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium and France drew attention to need for emergency measures for stabilising the EU market in order to cope with a likely sugar surplus of at least 2 million tonnes in the 2006–07 marketing year which would make the transition to the newly reformed Sugar regime problematic.

Italy supported by Greece, Cyprus, Poland, France, Spain, Malta and Hungary called for emergency market measures to support the poultry sector following a drop in sales caused by the recent outbreaks of avian influenza.

Over lunch the Agriculture Commissioner updated the Council on the outcome of the WTO agricultural negotiations in Hong Kong and outlined the next steps aimed at securing the adoption of modalities in the WTO negotiations by the end of April.


Nuclear Materials Balance

The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): The Department of Trade and Industry is today publishing, on behalf of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, British Nuclear Fuels plc and Urenco (Capenhurst) Ltd., details of "material unaccounted for" (MUF) arising from the use of plutonium and/or uranium in civil nuclear programmes during 2004–05. The figures, which are available on the DTI website at www.dti.gov.uk/non-proliferation/ukso/nuclear–materials–balance.htm aggregate the various operations at each site and follow the practice introduced in 1977. Copies of the report are also being placed in the Libraries of the House.

All of the figures are within internationally accepted standards published by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for expected measurement uncertainty associated with nuclear materials accountancy. The 2004–05 figures conform to the pattern over previous years and give no rise to concern over either the safety or the security of the operation of the plants.

The Nuclear Materials Balance in future years will also be published on the DTI website.


Urban Congestion Target

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): The Public Service Agreement target published in July last year is based on the congestion targets in the Local Transport Plans (LTPs) of the 10 largest urban areas (London, Greater Manchester, West Midlands, Tyne and Wear, Merseyside, Greater Bristol, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, Leicester and Nottingham). Local congestion targets were to be included in the Local Transport Plans which will be published in March.
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In December a problem was discovered with some of the data being used to set the congestion targets. Corrected data will not be available in time to set targets in March. The March Local Transport Plans will contain congestion tackling strategies, but the targets consistent with those strategies will now be set by July at the same time as the Public Service Agreement.


Disability Discrimination Act (Definition of Disability)

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): I am today submitting to Parliament, on behalf of the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the draft revised "Guidance on matters to be taken into account when determining questions relating to the definition of disability" (hereafter referred to as the "Guidance").

The Disability Discrimination Act 1995 (DDA), as amended, prohibits discrimination against disabled people in a range of circumstances, including in employment and occupation, education, transport, and the provision of goods, facilities and services. Only those people who are defined as disabled in accordance with section 1 of the Act, and associated schedules and regulations, are entitled to the protection that the Act provides. Under section 3 of the Act, the Secretary of State has the power to issue guidance on matters to be taken into account in determining whether a person is a disabled person for the purposes of the Act.

The Guidance does not impose any legal obligations of itself, nor is it an authoritative statement of the law. However, section 3(3) of the Act requires that an adjudicating body (such as a court or tribunal) which is determining whether a person is a disabled person for the purposes of the Act, must take into account any aspect of the guidance which appears to it to be relevant.

The original Guidance was published in 1996 (when the Act first came into force), and has not been amended since. As a result of various legislative changes since 1996, including the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 (which provides automatic coverage for people with HIV, cancer and MS from the point of diagnosis, and removes the requirement for a mental illness to be "clinically well-recognised"), the Guidance now needs to be updated. It also needs to take account of developments in case law to reflect key court and tribunal cases, which have helped to improve understanding of how the definition works in practice. Finally, it needs to take account of commitments that the Government gave during the passage of the Disability Discrimination Act 2005 through Parliament that it would consider how the Guidance might be revised in order to make clear how people with a mental impairment can be covered by the Act.

With these aims in mind, the Guidance has been redrafted. The revised text was subject to a consultation exercise, aimed at the primary users of the Guidance, but also including organisations representing disabled people, business and employee interests, and the legal and medical professions. The consultation document was also made available to the public through the Stationery Office and via the internet. The consultation took place between 5 September and 31 October 2005
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and we have carefully considered the comments received. As a consequence, a number of amendments have been made to the draft to clarify the Guidance and the illustrative examples that it contains. An evaluation report on the consultation exercise has been produced and I have arranged for copies to be placed in the Library of both Houses.
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In accordance with section 3(6) of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, I am today laying a copy of the draft revised Guidance before both Houses. Subject to Parliamentary approval, the Secretary of State aims to bring this revised Guidance into force on 20 April 2006.