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Written Ministerial Statements

Monday 15 May 2006


Court of Directors of the Bank of England

The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Gordon Brown): The Queen has been pleased to approve the appointment as non-executive directors to the Bank of England's court of directors of James Strachan, Robert Wigley and David Rhind.

The Queen has also been pleased to approve the reappointment as non-executive directors to the court of directors for a second term of Peter Jay, David Potter, Heather Rabbatts and Brendan Barber.

The new appointments are in place of Sir Bill Morris, Sir Brian Moffatt and Laurel Powers-Freeling. I thank them for the contribution they have made to the court.

Education and Skills

Informal Meeting of Education Ministers 17 March 2006

The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): The Scottish Executive Deputy Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning, (Mr. Allan Wilson), and Steven Effingham, Divisional Manager of the European Union Division of the DWP/DfES Joint International Unit represented the UK during the informal meeting of EU Education Ministers in Vienna.

Ministers discussed the European Commission's recent consultation on the European Qualifications Framework. They broadly welcomed the Commission's outline of the EQF, with many seeing the wide consultation process as the correct way to ensure that the proposal is developed in a bottom-up way with the support of all relevant stakeholders.

Ministers agreed that the EQF should provide a lightweight and flexible mechanism for supporting comparability—not automatic recognition—of qualifications in different member states. They supported the idea of establishing a European framework of eight qualification levels to which national authorities could relate their qualifications.

Ministers also supported the idea that the EQF levels would be accompanied by descriptors of skills and competences that learners should have acquired. They were concerned, however, that these descriptors should not be too detailed, with many calling for a simplification and refinement of the Commission's draft descriptors.

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The UK believed that the EQF could make a real contribution to the Lisbon process, particularly if developed in consultation with stakeholders, and if the needs of citizens were kept at the forefront. UK noted the link to sectoral qualifications, and the potential for sectoral skills frameworks also to be aligned to the EQF.

Most countries flagged up the need for the EQF to be complementary to the qualifications framework being developed for the European higher education area under the Bologna process.

There was general agreement that the EQF should undergo an extended phase of piloting and testing before being fully rolled out. The Commission agreed to present a paper summarising the main areas of agreement between member states as a basis for moving forwards. The Commission would then set up a technical working group with representatives of all member states in order to work up the specifications of the EQF (in particular the levels descriptors). The Commission intends to come forward with a formal proposal for the EQF in the autumn of 2006.

On the European Institute of Technology, Ministers all agreed with the Commission's analysis concerning the so-called “knowledge triangle” of education-research-innovation, and Europe's poor performance in connecting these elements and exploiting the economic value of research outcomes. Most delegations welcomed the Commission's communication on the European Institute of Technology as a contribution to this debate. Most had questions concerning, inter alia.

Some countries signalled strong scepticism. The UK, while enthusiastic about the Commission's efforts to take forward the Hampton Court agenda, stressed the need for more work with stakeholders, especially the universities and business sectors. Setting up a new institution may not be the best way forward. “The” UK stressed the need to build on existing partnerships, and suggested setting up an expert group to look at this issue, and to produce recommendations on issues such as funding, greater institutional autonomy and closer collaboration with business.

The Commission concluded the discussion by assuring Ministers that stakeholders would be consulted before the Commission came forward with a proposal. The Commission confirmed that the legal basis would cover education, research and competitiveness. Postgraduate degrees would in fact be awarded by the participating institutions (possibly jointly between member states), rather than by the BIT itself. Secondment of resources would not mean amputation—there would have to be clear added value for the “home” institution. It was too early to have a debate about location or financing, but there should be no conflict with the European Research
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Council (which was a financing mechanism rather than a legal entity as the EIT would be).

The EU financial contribution would be discussed at the next revision of the financial perspectives in 2008; however, the EIT would have to rely heavily on private funding.

The Austrian presidency placed particular emphasis on discussions with the Western Balkans and widening the European area of education.

Ministers stressed the importance of the Lisbon agenda for the Western Balkans noting that their participation in programmes such as the Lifelong Learning Programme, Tempus and Erasmus Mundus, would support essential educational reforms in those countries. The European Training Foundation had an important role in facilitating cooperation between the Western Balkans and the EU in the field of education and training.

The UK supported EU enlargement and welcomed bilateral cooperation with Western Balkan countries on education issues. Qualification frameworks in the UK devolved nations, for example the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework, were a particular issue of interest where we might share good practice.

The Western Balkan Ministers expressed a strong interest in participating in the work on the European Qualifications Framework as a means of supporting reforms and the development of lifelong learning strategies. The Western Balkan Ministers also shared the EU's priorities for higher education reform, and were actively implementing the Bologna process in their countries. The Ministers stressed the need for continued dialogue between the EU and the Western Balkans on European education policy matters and adopted a declaration setting out the key messages of their discussions

Informal Meeting of Youth Ministers 29-31 March 2006

The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): Simon Foster, European Union Division, DWP/DfES Joint International Unit and Suzanne Chisholm, Youth Policy Officer, Welsh Assembly Government represented the UK during the informal meeting of EU Youth Ministers in Bad Ischl.

The ministerial meeting ran alongside a youth event which started in Vienna on 27 March with the young people moving to Bad Ischl on 29 March to join the ministerial delegations for joint seminars and social events. The UK sent a delegation of young people representing the different nations.

It was acknowledged that a start has been made on implementing the objectives of the European Youth Pact, primarily under the employment guidelines and the European strategy for social inclusion, ensuring that the concerns of young people were incorporated into other policy areas. However, the European Council emphasized in its spring meeting 2006that further progress is needed regarding the implementation of the European Pact for Youth. The
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emphasis of this conference was on what concrete action could be taken to make sure that vision became reality.

In the morning session, European Youth Ministers discussed issues of information, participation in democratic life and active participation of youth at local, national and European levels. There was an exchange of views on strategies for an improved implementation of youth policy objectives under the White Paper “A New Impetus for European Youth”, under the European Youth Pact, and within the open method of coordination.

The Youth Ministers agreed that young people's voices must be heard at all levels with all stakeholders involved. There was considerable discussion on how to reach those young people who are currently disengaged from the political sphere or not part of a formal organisation. The UK gave examples of good practice at local level using local initiatives and at national level through the diverse representation on the Children and Youth Board set up to advise the Minister for Children, Young People and Families and officials in the Department on policy development.

The European Youth Pact emphasises that young people and youth organisations must be involved in European and national policy design in such key areas as employment, education, social inclusion and reconciliation of work and life. Active participation requires proper access to quality information at all levels. The European Youth Portal and the national youth portals were seen as well-suited for the provision of youth-related information by many delegations.

Joint working groups, with reports jointly presented by one minister and one young person, were formed in the afternoon to discuss the topics of:

The participating youth representatives adopted a special Youth Declaration that was welcomed by the Ministers.

To continue the participatory dialogue at EU level, the presidency has submitted a proposal for creating an informal forum composed of the current EU presidency, the two subsequent presidencies, the European Commission and the European Youth Forum. This informal dialogue-based forum should meet regularly, in particular before the Education, Youth and Culture Council in autumn and in spring in Brussels to promote an exchange of views and ideas between young people and the presidency.

Home Department

Deportation and Removal of Foreign Nationals

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (John Reid): I would like to provide an update on the issue of foreign national prisoners.

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The House will understand that I can only provide the information available to me at this time. Very detailed consideration of the casefiles and other records by all agencies continues and further amendments may need to be made to the figures. Thus, it remains subject to change.

I am placing in the Library of the House a detailed note on the data that are now available in relation to the 1,023 prisoners released from prison without the consideration of deportation they should have received.

Progress continues to be made in the operation to deal with the released foreign prisoners. The operation is prioritising the serious cases first.

I have widened the definition of serious offences to include all cases where there has been any conviction for offences involving violence or a sexual element. This includes armed robbery. As the operation has progressed, detailed examination of the casefiles and other records has to date identified 179 offenders who had previously been convicted of a serious offence.

Of these 179 offenders, 35 have been convicted of the most serious offences, defined as murder, manslaughter, rape and child sex offences. Of the four who had committed murder, three are now within our control. Of the other 31 most serious cases which include rapists and child sex offenders, 23 are now within our control or deported. Some eight of these 35 had re-offended since release and had committed crimes that did not involve violence or a sexual element.

Some 55 of the 144 other serious offenders are now under our control or deported. Of these 144, nine are where a person has re-offended following release and committed a crime involving violence or a sexual element. A further 40 of the other serious offenders have also re-offended since release, ten of the offences involving violence or a sexual element.

All of the 1,023 have now been assessed and consideration of the case for deportation has started in 880 of the 1,023 cases, of which there was an initial decision to deport in 649 of these. Some 203 are now under either our control or have been deported or removed.

A number of hon. Members have asked for a detailed breakdown of cases by the prison from which they were released or by constituency. We intend to be able to provide this information in due course but we are currently prioritising the operational work on the consideration of the cases and, where deportations orders have been made, detentions. I hope hon. Members will understand.

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Work and Pensions

Major Hazard Sites

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): The Major Incident Investigation Board, set up by the Health and Safety Commission to supervise the investigation into the explosion and fire at Buncefield oil storage depot, published a progress report on 9 May. The investigation will include consideration of off-site and on-site risks, both of which will be taken into account by the board when making recommendations for future action.

Work has been under way, since before the Buncefield incident, to consider the implications of new information about major hazard sites which HSE has gathered in compliance with the Control of Major Accident Hazard Regulations (COMAH). The analysis of this information does not suggest that there is an increased likelihood of an accident occurring at any of these sites. It has, however, allowed HSE to understand the risks with more precision.

The Cabinet Office had been co-ordinating the process. Information and analysis from the Buncefield investigation will be taken account of in this work, which will be the subject of consultation with stakeholders as soon as clear conclusions emerge, which is expected to be later this year.

Benefit Fraud Inspectorate

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): On behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, the BFI inspection reports on the following councils were published today: Brentwood borough council, Isle of Anglesey county council, Neath Port Talbot county borough council, Newport city council, North East Derbyshire district council, Rother district council, St. Edmundsbury borough council, London Borough of Tower Hamlets and Woking borough council. Copies have been placed in the Library.

The BFI reports detail a range of strengths and weaknesses in the housing benefit services provided by councils and make recommendations to improve the security and efficiency of benefit delivery.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is considering the reports and may ask the councils for proposals in response to BFIs findings.

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