29 Jun 2006 : Column 13WS

Written Ministerial Statements

Thursday 29 June 2006


UK Covered Bonds Regime

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Ed Balls): The Treasury has been working closely with the Financial Services Authority and industry on the development of a UK covered bonds regime. UK covered bonds are based on well-accepted market standards and benefit from a high level of legal certainty. The object of Treasury and FSA work is to ensure compliance with the Undertakings for Collective Investment in Transferable Securities ('UCITS') Directive. To this end, the Treasury intends to consult on secondary legislation at the earliest possible opportunity, with implementation by the end of 2007, earlier if possible. Such compliance creates a level playing field for UK covered bonds in the EU and delivers the best possible risk weight for UK covered bonds under the Capital Requirements Directive. Covered bonds have the benefit of:

Communities and Local Government

Council Tax Capping

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): On 27 March I made a statement to the House on council tax capping. In this, I set out the action that the Government proposed to take, under the Local Government Finance Act 1992, against two local authorities which had set excessive budgets for 2006-07 according to the principles that I announced, 27 March 2006, Official Report, columns 567-69. Those two authorities were York city council and Medway borough council, which were both “designated”, with a view to capping them in year. I am making a statement today about the decisions on both cases.

York and Medway were given 21 days in which to challenge the maximum budgets the Government proposed to set them in 2006-07, and to provide the information we had requested. Both authorities challenged their proposed maximum budgets and I met delegations from each of them to hear their cases in person.

29 Jun 2006 : Column 14WS

The vast majority of authorities now appreciate the seriousness with which the Government view the need to protect council tax payers against excessive increases. The average band D council tax increase in England for 2006-07, without the council-tax element of the Olympics, is 4.2 per cent. (with the Olympics, it is 4.5 per cent.). Over 99 per cent., of authorities have responded well to our message and have not set excessive budgets. Despite the fact that the principles which the Secretary of State used to determine excessiveness were tighter this year than last, only two authorities exceeded them by more than trivial amounts.

I can now announce how my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, intends to proceed, having carefully considered the representations York and Medway have made, both orally and in writing, and having taken into account all relevant information. These decisions have been based not only on the individual cases of these particular councils, but also on the need, as a matter of public policy, for authorities to restrain the demands on their council-tax payers.

In putting forward their challenges, neither authority has, in the Secretary of State’s view, presented strong arguments as to why an excessive increase was necessary, or demonstrated that the pressures identified acted disproportionately upon them to any significant extent compared to other authorities. We intend therefore to take action in both cases.

After careful consideration, we have decided to cancel the designation of the two authorities and to “nominate” them instead with a proposed notional budget for each authority at the level of the maximum budget originally proposed when they were designated. For York city council, the proposed notional budget for 2006-07 is therefore £97,484,000 and for Medway Borough Council £148,101,000.

By nominating the authorities in this way, the councils will be able to avoid re-billing for this year, but it reduces their capacity to increase council tax in the subsequent year and beyond. The notional budgets which we propose setting will be used in future capping comparisons. The authorities will have their budget increases next year measured against the notional budgets rather than their actual, higher budgets. This will provide their council-tax payers with extra protection next year.

We are writing to both authorities today informing them of these decisions. Each authority will have 21 days from receipt of the notification of nomination in which to challenge its proposed notional budget. The Secretary of State will, of course, consider any challenge that they make fully and carefully.

The Government are continuing to deliver on their promise to take action against excessive council tax increases. By 2007-08, Government grant for local services will have increased by more than the rate of inflation for 10 years in succession. That represents an increase of 39 per cent., in real terms since 1997.

The Government have already made it clear that they expect an average council tax increase in England of less than 5 per cent., in 2007-08. Authorities should remain in no doubt that the Government will not hesitate to use their capping powers to deal with excessive increases in future years, including requiring them to rebill, if this proves necessary.

29 Jun 2006 : Column 15WS


Support Vehicle Programme

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): I am pleased to announce that following the successful completion of an internal review the Ministry of Defence has decided to take up an option with MAN ERF UK Ltd. to buy a further 2,077 cargo vehicles as part of the support vehicle contract which we announced last year.

The award of this option, which brings the value of the programme to £1.3 billion, will see the delivery of further tranche of modern, more effective and more efficient fleet of trucks and trailers—a vital support capability—to our armed forces. This is in addition to the 5,000 vehicles we announced we were buying last year—the largest vehicle buy made by the MOD in over half a century.

The support vehicle programme includes a contractor logistic support package which will lead to a long term partnering arrangement consistent with the DIS published last December. Importantly the vehicles are specially designed so they can be quickly fitted with ‘armour kits’, which will help protect drivers and crew from blast and small arms attacks.

The contract secures some 400 jobs in the automotive sector across the UK, and is an excellent deal for both UK industry and the British armed forces.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Agriculture and Fisheries Council

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (David Miliband): I represented the United Kingdom at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council meeting in Luxembourg on 19 June 2006.

The Council adopted a proposal confirming the overall rural development budget for 2007-13, and the annual breakdown including the minimum amount to be concentrated in regions eligible under the convergence objective. I supported the Council decision while expressing the UK’s disappointment at the Commission's allocation method which based future funding on historic records.

The Council took note of an update from the Commission on the latest state of play on the WTO agricultural negotiations and held an exchange of views. The Commissioner said that the EU was looking for an outcome that would be manageable for European farming and that the EU offer from last October still stands. I said that getting a deal was in the interest of EU citizens and stressed the importance of unity to achieving a successful outcome.

The Council took note of a presentation by the Agriculture Commissioner of the proposed EU forest action plan and held its first exchange of views. The plan is designed to improve implementation of the EU’s
29 Jun 2006 : Column 16WS
existing forest strategy. Finland would aim for Council conclusions on the subject during its upcoming presidency.

The Council held a public debate on the Commission's animal welfare action plan. I stressed the importance of a strategic framework for both the industry and consumers and urged the Commission not to view legislation as the only option to raising welfare standards but to consider other ways as well, such as codes of practice and assurance schemes.

The Council held a policy debate on the presidency’s work plan on the welfare of chickens reared for meat production, aiming to tackle outstanding issues on the Commission’s proposal. I called for a firm commitment to the establishment of a maximum stocking density of 38 kg per square metre within a specified timetable to ensure a level playing field across the EU for producers and achieve real welfare improvements. The presidency said that further work would be undertaken by the incoming Finnish presidency.

Under any other business, the Council took note of the presidency conclusions following the May Informal Agriculture Council discussions, on “Land, Life and the Future of European Farmers”.

The Council also took note of an update on avian influenza by the Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection and of the written information provided by the Austrian presidency on the sixth UN forum on forests.

The Czech Republic called on member states to support the UN Universal Declaration on Animal Welfare which had been drawn up by a five-nation Government Steering Committee (Costa Rica, Kenya, Czech Republic, India, and the Philippines.).

Latvia, supported by the Netherlands, queried an element of the Commission's sugar reform implementation scheme which would require sugar companies to pay securities in order to access the restructuring scheme. The Commission pointed out that the rules enabled member states to make payments in advance and for securities to be released gradually as measures in the plan were carried out.


Informal Meeting of EU Health Ministers

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Ms Rosie Winterton): The informal meeting of EU Health Ministers took place on 25-26 April in Vienna. I represented the UK. Items on the agenda were; Type 2 Diabetes; Pandemic Influenza Preparedness; and Women's Health.

On Type 2 Diabetes, there was a general discussion covering prevention and links to wider health determinants (such as diet and physical activity) and approaches to disease management, including national diabetes plans. Member states outlined their experiences in developing and implementing diabetes policies at national level, and in wider health promotion policies.

On pandemic preparedness, there was a discussion on the suggested development of a proposal on an EU stockpile of antivirals.

29 Jun 2006 : Column 17WS

On Women's Health, there was a further general discussion on the need to the need to take gender differences into account in healthcare, including research. The Commission outlined their plans to produce a report on women's health in the EU for publication during 2007.

European Court of Human Rights (Bournewood Judgment)

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Ms Rosie Winterton): I should like to set out the Government's proposals for ensuring that the law for England and Wales on the treatment and care of people suffering from a disorder or disability of mind, who lack capacity and who need to be deprived of liberty, is compliant with the European convention on human rights. Our proposals will strengthen the rights of patients and those in care, as well as ensuring compliance with the European convention on human rights (ECHR).

People who suffer from a disorder or disability of the mind—such as dementia or autism—and who lack the mental capacity to consent should be cared for in the least restrictive regime possible. In some cases, members of this vulnerable group need to be deprived of their liberty for treatment or care because this is necessary in their best interests in order to protect them from harm.

The proposals are in response to the 2004 European Court of Human Rights judgment involving an autistic man who lacked the capacity to consent and who was kept at Bournewood hospital by doctors against the wishes of his carers. The court found that he had been deprived of his liberty unlawfully, and the Department of Health committed to introducing new legislation to close the “Bournewood gap”.

In order to inform our response I published a consultation document in March last year that invited comments on options for closing the “Bournewood” gap. I am grateful to all those individuals and organisations who responded. Those who commented on the document were broadly in favour of the Government's proposals.

I am today publishing a report on the outcome of the public consultation and a copy has been placed in the Library.

People likely to be affected by the Bournewood proposals are mainly those with significant learning disabilities, or elderly people suffering from dementia, but include a minority of others who have suffered for example a brain injury. The proposals will apply to those in hospitals or care homes, whether placed under public or private arrangements.

Key features of our proposals are:

29 Jun 2006 : Column 18WS

We believe that these proposals will ensure compliance with the European convention on human rights and strengthen the safeguards for those who lack capacity. Society is judged on how it treats its most vulnerable, and it is imperative that we have robust legal safeguards in place to ensure that those people who lack capacity are properly protected. The provisions will be introduced into the Mental Capacity Act 2005 through a Bill that will also amend the Mental Health Act 1983.

Home Department

Deportation and Removal of Foreign Nationals

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (John Reid): Following my corrected written statement of 25 May I asked my Department to recheck all the figures provided to the House in my statement of the 23 May, Official Report, column 77WS.

The director general of the immigration and nationality directorate subsequently set out her approach to this exercise in her evidence to the Home Affairs Select Committee on the 6 June and undertook to provide the most accurate data available by the end of June.

The director general has today written to the Home Affairs Select Committee accordingly and I am placing a copy of her letter in the House Library.

Next Section Index Home Page