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Written Ministerial Statements

Wednesday 5 July 2006


Children and Young People's Review

The Economic Secretary to the Treasury (Ed Balls): In July 2005, the Government announced that a second Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) would be undertaken, reporting in 2007. Ten years after the first CSR, the Government have shown that a strong economy and sound public finances can be delivered at the same time as sustained and substantial growth in investment in public services. Looking forward, there are new challenges Britain will need to address in order to lock in these benefits for the decade to come, including:

These changes will have fundamental and far reaching implications for public services and will require innovative policy responses, co-ordination of activity across Departmental boundaries and sustained investment in key areas. Budget 2006 therefore announced that the CSR would be informed by a series of policy reviews. One of the reviews announced at the Budget was a joint HM Treasury and Department for Education and Skills policy review of children and young people.

The Government’s approach since 1997 has improved the lives of children:

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These successes have transformed the life chances of children since 1997. However, in Support for parents: the best start for children, published at the pre-Budget report, HM Treasury and the Department for Education and Skills identified further steps to be taken to improve the outcomes for children and young people. To take forward these conclusions and inform the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review, the policy review of children and young people will consider:

Under the umbrella of the children and young people review, sub-reviews will focus on:

Submissions from interested organisations and members of the public to inform the review can be sent to: cypreview@hm-treasury.gov.uk

The terms of reference covering each component of the children and young people’s review are available in the Libraries of both Houses.

The Government will report on the Comprehensive Spending Review in 2007.

Communities and Local Government

Housing Act 2004

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Yvette Cooper): Further steps in delivering our commitment to help communities tackle bad landlords and long term abandoned empty properties come into force tomorrow.

We continue to encourage councils to work with residents and landlords to ensure that local communities are not being blighted by the actions of a minority. We also want to see a thriving private rented sector offering good quality and well managed homes. We have already required councils to implement a national licensing scheme for Houses in Multiple Occupation and to consider the benefit of discretionary licensing within their locality. As part of the implementation of provisions in sections 72 and 95 of the Housing Act 2004, from tomorrow, councils will be able to prosecute landlords or other persons managing or in control of licensable houses in multiple occupation who have failed to apply for their licence. Operating without a licence is a criminal offence and can result in a fine of up to £20,000. Tenants and councils will also have the opportunity of recovering any rent or housing benefit paid over the previous 12 months.

Also from tomorrow councils will be able to apply to residential property tribunals for an interim Empty Dwelling Management Order on long term abandoned
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or derelict properties. Some 300,000 private sector homes in Britain have been empty for more than six months and many lie empty and abandoned for years at a time, causing considerable distress for neighbours and local communities. Empty Dwelling Management Orders can only be granted where there is no reasonable prospect of it being occupied and where other routes have been tried, to work with the property owner to bring it back into use. Exceptions are in place to protect owners who have good reason to keep their dwelling unoccupied, for example temporary absence, second homes, properties on the market and inherited properties, which are exempt for a further six months after grant of representation (probate) is obtained. The tribunal must also consider the effect the order would have on the rights of the property owner and take into account the interests of the community.

The Department will tomorrow also publish guidance to local authorities on the use of empty dwelling management orders on the departmental website at http://www.communities.gov.uk/index.asp?id=l501339 and has previously published an advisory booklet for property owners.

Culture, Media and Sport

Village Halls (Temporary Event Notice)

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Shaun Woodward): I am pleased to inform the House that I have carefully considered the responses to the public consultation which took place between 9 August and 5 October 2005 about the temporary event notice regulations made under the Licensing Act 2003. I have also taken into account the second stage research paper on village halls and licensing published on 28 June by action with communities in rural England.

I have concluded that there is no consensus in favour of a further increase of the temporary event notice limits in respect of village halls or similar community premises. In particular, I have noted that residents' associations and local authorities are generally opposed to any further relaxation of these arrangements. The Secretary of State does not therefore plan to change the relevant regulations in the immediate future. For the time being, the limits will remain those approved by Parliament prior to the 2003 Act receiving Royal Assent.

I have also considered the question, raised in response to the consultation, of whether it should be made easier for temporary event notices to be given in bulk, for example, at the start of the calendar year.

I have concluded that it would not be appropriate to encourage bulk applications. Temporary event notices may only be subject to challenge by the police on crime prevention grounds.

If applications were to be made in bulk in January, the police would have to decide then that they had no objection to a whole series of events stretching many months into the future. If the second or third event resulted in disorder, the police would have lost their
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right to intervene to stop the fourth and subsequent events from taking place. Against the background of an already liberal regime, I do not consider that it would be right to promote bulk applications.

However, I have also noted carefully what has been said by respondents to the consultation and other correspondents about the perceived burden of having to specify a designated premises supervisor on a premises licence granted under the 2003 Act. This individual is required to hold a personal licence. It has been suggested that this is particularly difficult for volunteers involved in village hall and community work. Removing the requirement to specify a designated premises supervisor would require changes to primary legislation. With the approval of Parliament, appropriates change might be made to the primary legislation using a regulatory reform order to be made in due course under the terms of the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill which is currently being scrutinised by the other place.

After careful consideration, I am prepared to consider bringing forward such a proposal for Parliamentary consideration subject to the outcome of the public consultation that would form part of regulatory reform order procedures. In anticipation of that public consultation, the Government are not able to give a guarantee now that we would proceed by laying such an order. A great deal will depend on the nature of the responses received.

I expect the Independent Fees Review Panel, which is currently considering a broad range of issues relating to the Licensing Act 2003, to make recommendations in its final report in November this year which may relate to village halls and similar community premises.

I intend to consider any such recommendations with an entirely open mind and if appropriate, would consider expanding the scope of any regulatory reform order that might be proposed.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Environment Council

The Minister for Climate Change and the Environment (Ian Pearson): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, represented the UK at the Environment Council in Luxembourg on 27 June.

The Council adopted a political agreement on the proposed directive on the assessment and management of flood risks. Discussion focused mainly on the dates and deadlines to be included in the text, and, briefly, on resolving the circumstances under which a member state must obtain the agreement of affected neighbours, before taking measures which could have transboundary effects. On dates, the UK was successful in obtaining longer (until 22 December 2010) for the completion of existing work that will be used to satisfy the requirements of the directive on a transitional basis. Council also agreed changes to the deadlines for completion of the first preliminary risk assessments (2012), and for the first review of flood risk maps
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(2019). Flood management measures that have a ‘significant’ effect on flood risk in neighbouring states will be subject to prior agreement between the member states concerned. Most member states endorsed the scope proposed by the European Commission, namely coverage of all rivers and coastal zones within the EU; a matter on which the UK has expressed misgivings at each stage of the negotiation on grounds of proportionality and subsidiarity. Given that the final text provides much greater flexibility for member states than the original Commission proposal, and that the burdens are consequently much lighter, the UK was on balance able to support the agreement reached in Council, along with all other member states.

Pending the opinion of the European Parliament at first reading, the Council agreed a general approach on the proposed directive on ambient air quality and cleaner air for Europe, the first legal measure to be brought forward under the Commission’s Air Thematic Strategy of September 2005. Two major outstanding issues were the focus of debate at the Council; the new standards for fine particles and the extra flexibility that may be allowed for compliance with existing limit values. The general approach includes a new two-part approach to regulating fine particles, combining a non-binding exposure reduction target with a binding limit value. It also gives limited extra time for member states to comply with existing limit values for larger particles. The UK supported the general approach.

The Council unanimously adopted conclusions on the thematic strategy on the prevention and recycling of waste which addresses several waste management issues at EU level, including rising levels of waste generation, over-complex legislation, and the need for more recycling. The Council also unanimously adopted conclusions on the thematic strategy on the urban environment which encourages member states to adopt policies and processes that will promote sustainable development and better, cleaner environments in their towns and cities.

The Council held an exchange of views on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on the basis of a presidency discussion paper setting out recent EU level developments, and raising questions regarding the EU decision-making process. The UK intervened to support the current decision-making process and to express its support for the work of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), noting that its work was still improving and that more could be done on risk communication and transparency.

The Council also held an exchange of views on the strategy for biofuels and the biomass action plan on the basis of a presidency discussion paper focusing on the contribution of these to the European energy policy and to achieving wider environmental objectives such as those relating to climate change. The UK had submitted a written response to the Council, highlighting our key policy objectives of ensuring: that the European energy policy and wider environmental objectives are mutually supportive; and that sustainable production and use of biomass and biofuels should be promoted.

Over lunch, Ministers discussed the environmental technologies action plan (ETAP). The Commission urged more action to increase market take-up of environmental technologies and supported the exchange of best practice between member states. In
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addition, Ministers discussed the use of structural funds for environmental policies. A number of member states spoke of the importance of using cohesion funds to pay for implementation of EU legislation.

Under “Any Other Business”, the Council discussed Euro V, the proposed regulation calling for harmonised vehicle emissions reductions, and the inclusion of a second stage of stricter NOx emissions limits in Euro VI. Several member states, including the UK, intervened to support the inclusion of Euro VI in the Euro V discussions. In addition, the North sea conference, management of biowaste, import of wild birds, and waste prevention were raised by member states. The presidency updated Ministers on conferences on the chemicals Regulation (REACH), the European sustainable development network and green public procurement; and on the outcomes from international meetings on the Cartagena protocol on biosafety, the convention on biological diversity and the Stockholm convention on persistent organic pollutants. The Commission updated Ministers on water scarcity and drought.

The Council also adopted the common positions on LIFE+ and REACH. LIFE+ is a financial instrument to provide support at community level for the implementation, updating and development of environment policy and legislation from 2007-13. REACH (Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals) is a proposed Regulation designed to improve chemical management in the EU.

Rural Payments Agency

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (David Miliband): In my oral statement of 22 June, I promised to keep the House informed of the Rural Payment Agency’s (RPA) progress in making payments under the 2005 Single Payment Scheme (SPS.) I can report now on the position at the end of the EU regulatory payment window on 30 June.

As was the case in previous years with the old CAP schemes, the total amount to be paid by the RPA under the 2005 SPS will not be known for certain until the last claim is completely validated. However, the latest estimate puts the figure at £1.515 billion of which over £1.438 billion (94.9 per cent.) was paid by 30 June. 91,720 claimants had received a full payment and a further 16,168 had received a partial payment and are awaiting their ‘top up’. The combined total of 107,888 represents over 92 per cent. of the revised estimated total claimant population entitled to a payment of 116,474, which now takes account of merged multiple claims from the same business and discounts duplicate claims, voluntary withdrawals and those where the claim was only to establish entitlements and not claim payment against them.

Of the estimated 8,500 claimants who have yet to receive a payment, approximately 460 currently have a claim value of more than €1,000. Some of these are in a category that it is not possible to pay at present, for example because RPA is awaiting information from claimants. However, the majority require further action from the RPA and those cases will remain the agency’s number one priority to resolve as quickly as possible.

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Discussions are now underway with the devolved Administrations to determine whether, for the UK as a whole, sufficient payments have been made to avoid triggering the normal EU rules on withholding EU funding of payments after the end of the 30 June payment window. Those rules allow for 4 per cent. of value payments made before the end of the window to be made after it with full EU funding. After that, a sliding scale of reductions applies, depending on timing, to payments after the 4 per cent. threshold has been exhausted. The indications are that the UK is likely to have paid between 95 per cent. and 96 per cent. of payments by 30 June. If this is confirmed, we will, as previously indicated, have further discussions with the European Commission about the application of the payment reduction rules.

In the meantime, the RPA will continue to pay the remaining claims and progress work under the 2006 scheme in line with my 22 June statement.

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