The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Gordon Brown): At its meeting of 28 November 2006 the Economic and Financial Affairs Council (ECOFIN) adopted a 104(8) Council Decision regarding Poland's Excessive Deficit Procedure.
ECOFIN adopted Conclusions on multilateral surveillance of the first progress reports on the Lisbon National Reform Programmes and on Global Factor Flows, in preparation for the European Council on 14-15th December.
ECOFIN adopted Conclusions on the review of the Facility for Euro-Mediterranean Investment Partnership and agreed a general approach on the future of the European Investment Bank External Lending Mandates.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): My right hon. and noble Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State has made the following written ministerial statement.
The Government are today publishing for consultation the draft Freedom of Information and Data Protection (Appropriate Limit and Fees) Regulations 2007, which give effect to the changes the Government announced they were minded to make on 16 October 2006.
The draft regulations will extend the existing provisions by allowing public authorities to include reading time, consideration time, and consultation time in the calculation of the appropriate limit, above which requests could be refused on cost grounds; and aggregate all requests made by a person or persons who appear to be acting in concert or pursuance of a campaign to each public authority within a period of sixty working days for the purposes of calculating the appropriate limit.
An independent economic review of the operation of the Freedom of Information Act commissioned by my Department and published on 16 October 2006 found that a small percentage of requests and requestors were placing disproportionately large burdens on public authorities in terms of the costs of officials' time.
Whilst the Government believe it is entirely right that a reasonable amount of resource is spent dealing with requests for information we believe, in light of experience, that the existing provisions need to be amended in order to provide the right balance between access to information for all and the delivery of other public services.
The draft regulations will allow public authorities to take into account more accurately the work involved in dealing with an FOI request.
The draft regulations are being published for a 12-week consultation with responses being invited by 8 March 2007. The consultation paper, which includes a partial regulatory impact assessment, will be sent to key stakeholders. The consultation paper is available on my Department's website at www.dca.gov.uk.
The Minister for Sport (Mr. Richard Caborn): The Government have decided, after much consultation and deliberation, to retain the Horserace Betting Levy Board (Levy Board) and the associated horserace betting levy scheme. They are doing so on the basis that the scheme continues to reflect and balance the legitimate needs of racing against the ability of bookmakers to pay in accordance with the prevailing economic position.
The Government announced their intention to abolish the levy board and the levy mechanism in March 2000. This policy was approved on the basis that the horseracing industry was confident that a commercially-based alternative funding mechanism was available and requested that the Government abolish the levy board in order that it could fully exploit these new commercial opportunities.
The sport proposed to substitute the statutory levy income with a commercial arrangement based on the sale of pre-race data (runners, riders etc), primarily to bookmakers both here and abroad. The Government, preferring commercial arrangements between industries, brought forward legislation in the form of the Horserace Betting and Olympic Lottery Act 2004 to achieve this.
A judgment by the European Court of Justice in November 2004 cast serious doubt over the sports ability to enforce substantial payments for the use of its data and, as a result, the viability of the proposed replacement funding model. The Government have since engaged in lengthy discussions with the racing and betting industries on future funding arrangements, resulting in the establishment of an independent Future Funding of Racing Review Group (FFRRG), chaired by Lord Donoughue.
The FFRRG reported earlier this year, concluding that a secure alternative funding mechanism to the levy, which at £90 million to £100 million per annum represents a significant proportion of the sports income, was not presently available. The loss of the levy, without a commercial replacement of comparable value, would have serious and immediate adverse consequences for the racing industry, as well as knock-on effects to other related businesses, notably the betting industry and those within the rural economy.
Given the importance of the present statutory system, the Government have decided to retain the levy until such time as a secure and adequate alternative commercial funding arrangement can be identified. They also intend to repeal the sections of the existing legislation providing for the levy boards abolition, to ensure that Parliament may be permitted to debate such a measure in light of the prevailing circumstances at the time.
In the meantime, the Government propose to modernise the existing levy mechanism with a view to removing as many of the unnecessary administrative burdens as possible and will consult stakeholders on the form and content of those changes in the new year. The Government also welcome the horseracing industrys commitment to modernise and establish a new governing and regulatory body from 1 January 2007.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): I am pleased to announce that QinetiQ have been awarded the contract to operate the subsonic target element of the Combined Aerial Target Service (CATS) programme worth £364.7 million.
This contract marks a significant step forward towards the delivery of the CATS project. In line with Defence Industrial Strategy it will provide a rationalised supplier base for MOD and will produce savings in the order of 10 per cent. of the total cost over the 20-year life of the contract. It will also mean we have a single service provider for subsonic aerial targets.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): The Defence Training Review (DTR) Programme aims to improve, modernise and rationalise the delivery of phase 2 and phase 3 specialist training. A PPP solution is being considered to deliver training on a defence rather than single service basis, and seeks to bring about the necessary modernisation and flexibility required to accommodate the Department's changing training requirements. The programme also aims to rationalise the existing training estate and provide investment in key sites to create centres of training excellence.
Bidders' proposals were received for package 1 on 17 October 2005, and package 2 on 14 November 2005, and a period of robust evaluation has concluded, with recommendations now being considered. Ministers have not yet made a decision. This is an extremely complex programme and we are committed to obtaining the best outcome for defence. However, I can confirm that an announcement of preferred bidders will now be delayed to the New Year, although the precise timing of the announcement cannot be given at this stage.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): I have today placed in the Library of the House copies of the Ministry of Defence's autumn performance report. This shows that defence continues to deliver on its primary objectives in challenging circumstances. In particular, the armed forces, supported by their civilian colleagues, continue to succeed on current operations and have made a significant contribution towards the Government's wider conflict prevention goals.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office (Mr. Pat McFadden): The Government are committed to ensuring that regulations are necessary, give effective protection, balance cost and risk, are fair and command public confidence.
In accordance with this, we require Departments to produce and publish Impact Assessments for all regulatory proposals likely to have an impact on business, charities or voluntary bodies and the public sector.
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (David Miliband): The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will publish the 2006 Autumn Performance Report, which highlights progress since the publication of the departmental report in May towards the Departments outstanding public service agreement targets, on Friday 15 December. Copies will be placed in the Libraries of the House. The report will also be available on the DEFRA website at: http://www.defra.gov.uk/corporate/deprep/default.htm
The Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): I will be representing the United Kingdom at this months Agriculture and Fisheries Council in Brussels. The Scottish Environment and Rural Affairs Minister, Ross Finnie, will also attend.
The presidency will seek political agreements on the total allowable catches (TACS) and quotas and related measures fixing fishing opportunities for certain fish stocks for 2007 and on a management plan for plaice and sole in the North Sea.
The presidency will seek a general approach from Council on a proposal to simplify and improve the current regulation on organic farming, (general approach being the term for an agreement reached before the European Parliament has issued its opinion).
The Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner will give a progress report on the Commissions proposal on marketing of plant protection products and on the EC -Russian Federation veterinary and phytosanitary agreement negotiations. He will also provide an update on the developments on avian influenza H5N1.
The Minister for Europe (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary (Margaret Beckett), Sir John Grant (UK Permanent Representative to the EU) and I represented the UK at the General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC) in Brussels.
The priorities include: the future of the Union; the Lisbon strategy for jobs and growth; strengthening the EU's area of freedom, security and justice; and enhancing the role of the EU externally in the areas of security, development and economic relations.
Ministers discussed the draft European Council Conclusions covering EU enlargement; Justice and Home Affairs; Innovation, energy and climate change; and external relations with Africa, Afghanistan and the Middle East.
The Council agreed Conclusions on Turkey such that eight chapters of the negotiations would not be opened and no chapter would be provisionally closed until the Commission verifies that Turkey has fulfilled its commitments related to the Additional Protocol to the Association Agreement. It also invited the Commission to report on this in its forthcoming annual reports, in particular in 2007, 2008 and 2009, as appropriate.
The Council also adopted Conclusions on Bulgaria and Romania, welcoming their accession on 1 January 2007, and on Croatia, welcoming the recommendations contained in the Commission's report of 8 November 2006.
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