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Written Ministerial Statements

Wednesday 17 May 2006

Constitutional Affairs

Judicial Diversity

The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): My noble Friend the Secretary of State and Lord Chancellor has made the following written ministerial statement.

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Education and Skills

EU Education Council

The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): The Scottish Executive Minister for Education and Young People, Mr. Peter Peacock, and the UK Deputy Permanent Representative to the EU, Anne Lambert, will represent the UK during the Council in Brussels. Win Harris (Director of the DWP/DfES Joint International Unit) and Sarah Wingfield (Education Council Team Leader, DFES) will also attend.

This meeting of the Education, Youth and Culture Council will not include any significant youth agenda items, as the new text for the Youth in Action Programme, which was due to be the main item for discussion, is due to be adopted by the Commission on 24 May.

The first item on the agenda of the Education Council is to agree conclusions on the Commission communication on the European Indicator of Language Competence. These conclusions invite the Commission to set up an advisory board, composed of a representative of each member state and one representative of the Council of Europe, to advise on technical matters and the organisational and resource implications for member states of taking part in the survey. The Government support this approach, as we believe it is essential to have further information on how the Indicator would operate in practice as well as costs and burdens before we take a final decision on whether to participate in its implementation. We also support the current compromise position set out in the conclusions, which is to test at the International Standard Classification of Education (ISCED) level 2 (that is, Year 9, ages 13-14 in England), but with the flexibility for member states to test at ISCED level 3 if the second foreign language is not taught before then.

Ministers will then be asked to agree a general approach on the Commission's proposed recommendation on key competences for lifelong learning. The Minister will state that the UK is generally happy with the text but will make it clear that our parliamentary scrutiny reservation still stands. He will suggest that the wording in the description of competence six (social and civic competence) is changed so that the reference to “essential” knowledge
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of European integration, structures, objectives and values is changed to “highly desirable”.

The recommendation for a European quality charter on mobility will then be discussed. I am grateful tothe council for recently clearing scrutiny on this recommendation. The Minister will not intervene as we can support the text as it stands.

The main area for discussion will probably be during the exchange of views over the financial aspects of the Lifelong Learning Programme. A partial political agreement on the lifelong programme was reached under the UK presidency at Education Council in November 2005, but this excluded the financial aspects, as the EU budget had not been set. The overall budget was subsequently agreed in April 2006, giving the Lifelong Learning Programme about half the fundsthe Commission had hoped for. This is the first opportunity that Ministers will have to indicate their priorities for the programme with the reduced funding, and to comment on the balance of how the funding is split. The Officials in the Education Council will then negotiate the detail of the funding breakdown. The Minister will seek to raise the profile of Grundtvig (adult learning) and suggest that this money comes from the much larger Erasmus programme.

The exchange of views will be followed by apolicy debate on the review of the EU Sustainable Development Strategy. Member states were invited to submit a written response to the 3 questions which have been tabled at all Councils, which the UK has done. The Minister will contribute to the debate by stating that education has a role to play in ensuring economic prosperity and social inclusion, but that it is important that we achieve these aims through the existing Lisbon agenda.

The morning will conclude with two information points from the Commission:

I will report back on the outcome of the Councilas usual.

Teachers' Pension Scheme

The Minister for Schools (Jim Knight): I am today launching the statutory consultation on a package of reforms to the Teachers' Pension Scheme (IPS).

The reform proposals reflect an agreement that has been reached following several months of negotiations with union and employer representatives. The key reform objectives of long-term affordability and sustainability have been achieved whilst ensuring that the TPS will continue to be an important and valuable element of the total remuneration package for teachers and lecturers. I am committed to the teaching profession continuing to be an attractive career choice with increasingly flexible career paths. Recruitment, retention and motivation will all be supported by a modernised TPS that will provide scheme members with greater choice and flexibility over the ways in which they can plan and save for their retirement.

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Tough decisions have had to be taken to ensure that the teachers and lecturers of today—and those that will join the profession in future years—can continue to enjoy the benefits of a high-quality, defined benefit occupational pension scheme. I am, therefore, extremely grateful for the positive and constructive approach taken by all parties during the detailed and complex negotiations that have resulted in an agreement on a comprehensive package of reforms to the TPS.

The reform proposals will reduce by £5.4 billion the long-term costs of the TPS over the next 50 years. This is in line with the agreement reached in October 2005 between Government and the TUC on the framework for the reform of the pension schemes covering teaching, the Civil Service and the NHS. These savings will be delivered through the introduction of a pension age of 65 for new entrants from 1 January 2007; changes to the benefit structure for both existing members and new entrants; and an increase from 6 per cent. to 6.4 per cent. in the contribution rate paid by all members of the TPS.

To ensure the long-term affordability and financial sustainability of the TPS, agreement has also been reached with the unions and employers on a cost- sharing arrangement that will see members and employers meeting an equal share of any future cost pressures rather than them falling entirely on the employers as has been the position up until now. The agreement also provides for a ceiling of 14 per cent. on the employer contribution rate that will apply from the next valuation of the TPS in 2008. This agreement provides for much greater certainty and stability in employer costs that, to a significant extent, ultimately fall to the taxpayer.

I very much welcome this package of reforms. I am confident that it will be recognised by the membership as a very good outcome to the review of the TPS in which their long-term interests have been so well represented by their unions and employers. A copy of the consultation document will be placed in the Library. It can also be accessed on the DFES website at www.dfes.gov.uk/consultations.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Departmental Report

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): I am today laying before Parliament the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) Departmental Report for 1 April 2005—31 March 2006 (Cm 6823).

The report is a clear and comprehensive account of what the FCO has done under the leadership of my right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs over the last financial year. It sets out our achievements, including how we performed against our public service agreement targets. It gives details of how we spent public funds. And it shows that the FCO has delivered real successes for the Government and for the British public during the period of the report.

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The most visible way in which the FCO protects the interests of British people is through our public services. Over the past year, our consular network has dealt with major crises from hurricanes in the United States and Mexico to terrorist bombings in Egypt as well as helping tens of thousands of other British people in distress overseas. We also run the fastest large-scale visa operation in the world.

The FCO has continued to deliver increased prosperity through its support for British business. UK Trade and Investment, our joint operation with the Department for Trade and Industry, helped to attract record levels of inward investment. Our network around the world also made a significant contribution to bringing the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games to London.

In addition to these direct services, the FCO delivers real benefits to British people through active diplomacy. We used the twin UK presidencies of the European Union and of the G8 to help us meet strategic objectives, including starting talks on Turkey's accession to the EU, agreeing the EU budget, and taking concrete action to help development in Africa and to manage climate change. We have engaged bilaterally and multilaterally across the globe, most notably in the middle east. We have supported democracy in Iraq, we have built an international consensus over Iran's nuclear ambitions, and we have led the response to fast-moving developments in the middle east peace process.

The FCO played a central role in making sure there was international co-operation following the 7 July attacks in London and was also active in cementing measures to strengthen the international response to terrorism.

Other important achievements included hostingthe London conference on Afghanistan which set the agenda for the next phase of reconstructing the country. During our EU presidency we played a leading role at the UN world summit which, among other things,
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agreed the formation of a new Human Rights Committee and of a new Peace Building Commission.

The FCO remains strong in traditional skills, but continues to adapt and develop new ones. Our trained consular rapid deployment teams are ready to go anywhere at a moment's notice to help British people in trouble. We are further developing skills in project and programme management. Our overseas network won “Investors in People” accreditation in December 2005, which means that the whole of the FCO is now accredited by the scheme.

We deploy our resources where they can add real value to UK interests and the work of other Government Departments. We use information technology to help us work more flexibly and effectively. We are becoming more diverse as we aim for challenging targets for numbers of women, disabled and minority ethnic staff.

The report makes clear the commitment of FCO staff and records the concrete and specific benefits they have delivered over the past financial year. It also sets out how we are learning lessons for the future. The FCO's White Paper, “Active Diplomacy for a Changing World: The UK's International Priorities”, published on 28 March, will provide a firm foundation for maintaining this strong performance for the future. I look forward to the FCO delivering this strong performance under my leadership as Foreign Secretary. I commend this report.

Prime Minister

Cabinet Committee Chairs

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): I have placed an updated list of Cabinet Committees, and of who chairs them, in the Libraries of both Houses.

A full list, including membership and terms of reference will shortly be placed in the Library of the House and on the Cabinet Office website.

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