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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): My right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State and Lord Chancellor has made the following written ministerial statement:
The right to vote in the UK is considered by many to be a privilege as well as an entitlement, and that persons who are convicted of an offence serious enough to warrant a term in prison have cast aside that privilege and entitlement for the duration of their sentence. Successive UK Governments have held to the view that the right to vote forms part of the social contract between individuals and the State, and that loss of the right to vote, reflected in the current law, is a proper and proportionate punishment for breaches of the social contract that resulted in imprisonment. That remains this Governments position, and that of a number of other Council of Europe states.
On Thursday 2 February 2006, the Government committed to consult on the issue of voting rights for convicted UK prisoners, following the 6 October 2005 judgment of the European Court of Human Rights Grand Chamber in the case of Hirst. Today the Government have published a consultation document that considers the principles of prisoner enfranchisement and the options available to the UK following the judgment. The judgement decided that total disenfranchisement for all convicted prisoners was not within the terms of the convention.
The paper sets out the background to the case of Hirst v. UK, the conclusions reached by the Grand Chamber, and proposes a number of potential options on which the Government would welcome views.
This is a contentious issue. The Government are firm in their belief that individuals who have committed an offence serious enough to warrant a term of imprisonment, should not be able to vote while in prison. Nonetheless we recognise that we must decide how to respond to the Grand Chambers judgment.
The Government welcome responses from all sides of the debate. We encourage respondents to consider the background material provided, and each option, thoroughly before submitting a response. The final date for submitting a response is 7 March 2007. Following the results of this consultation, the Government will produce a second stage consultation document, exploring how any proposed change to current arrangements might work in practice.
Once the consultation process has concluded, and views considered, we will put proposals to Parliament, who must, ultimately, debate and decide upon an issue as significant as this.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): In March 2006 I announced to the House that following a number of developments, primarily the decision to extend the depth repair programme for the FV430 fleet of armoured vehicles, the previously contemplated rationalisation of four of ABROs business units, including the closure of ABROs armoured vehicle facility at Donnington, would need to be reconsidered.
Further work has reinforced the decision I made in March. A major rationalisation of ABROs operational capacity and capability on the scale previously
contemplated (including closure of the Donnington armoured vehicle facility) is not likely to be required in the short to medium term because of the volumes of repair, upgrade, maintenance and overhaul work. The market in which ABRO operates will continue to evolve in the medium to longer term, in line with the demands of the military customers and the potential introduction of new arrangements for supporting land-based military equipments.
This Government remain committed to modernising our armed forces. To this end, we must continually look for more efficient support solutions to enable us to invest more resource to support our men and women at the front line. To enhance the future prospects of the organisation ABRO, like all providers of equipment support, will therefore need to build on the improvements it has already made to its efficiency and effectiveness, in particular to the infrastructure supporting its operational capacity and capability. I have asked ABRO to pursue these further improvements with renewed vigour.
The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): When I announced the settlement package for the Royal Irish (Home Service) on 9 March this year, I advised the House that a bespoke Royal Irish after-care package would be provided to support former members of the UDR and the Royal Irish (Home Service) as well as their dependants.
I can announce today that we plan to maintain a publicly funded Royal Irish (Home Service) welfare organisation and, subject to trade union consultation on civilian staff appointments, will be recruiting the necessary personnel as soon as possible. The organisation will provide the vital interface needed between the regimental headquarters, ex-service personnel, their widows and their families.
We recognise that the disbandment of the Royal Irish (Home Service) and the civil service redundancy programme associated with security normalisation will result in particular challenges for ex-home service personnel: this was fully recognised in the settlement package announced earlier this year. Full-time soldiers of the Royal Irish (Home Service) leaving as a result of disbandment will be eligible for the normal tri-service resettlement package (seven weeks graduated resettlement training time, £534 towards costs), and fully funded access to the MODs career transition partnership (CTP) service for two years after discharge. Extended access to the CTP for a further five-year period is available through the regular forces employment association or officers association in cases of greater need. In addition to these provisions members of the Royal Irish (Home Service) discharged after 1 August 2005 will be eligible for a grant to fund further resettlement training. The Department of Employment and Learning (Northern Ireland) has also agreed exceptionally to waive the qualification period of six months for entry to the new deal programme for the Royal Irish (Home Service). This will allow immediate access to Government-funded employment
support. We will also be making additional provision for mental health and physical therapies to meet the particular needs of ex-Royal Irish (Home Service) and UDR personnel. Furthermore, we will be discussing with the trustees of the Royal Irish benevolent fund the need for some public support for the fund to take account of the disbandment of the home service element.
This package, worth in the region of £2 million a year, reflects our commitment to treat the home service with fairness and dignity. We intend to ensure that it is kept under review to guarantee that it continues to meet the needs of ex-UDR and Royal Irish (Home Service) men and women, and their dependants, both as we move through this difficult period of change and in the longer term.
The report follows the review of the current organisational arrangements that support patient safety and was commissioned by the chief medical officer, Sir Liam Donaldson. It is a response to the issues raised in the National Audit Offices report on the patient safety programme for the national health service and the need to revisit these arrangements with a view to accelerating the pace of change in this area.
During the last five years, much has been done to raise awareness in our own health system of the human and financial toll that results from medical errors. There has been significant progress. All NHS trusts have established reporting systems and are beginning to learn from adverse events that affect the safety of patients.
The report makes a number of recommendations that aim to ensure responsibility for patient safety is adopted at all levels of the healthcare system. It recommends ways of developing organisational capacity at a local level and refocusing efforts to enable frontline managers and healthcare professionals to deliver safer healthcare. The recommendations aim to build on what has been achieved to improve patient safety in the national health service. Specifically, it recommends:
firmly embedding safety as a priority for the NHS at all levels of the healthcare system;
the establishment of a national forum to harness the skills and expertise of a number of stakeholders in delivering the patient safety agenda;
a national campaign to engage and motivate clinical staff to address patient safety issues;
the national patient safety agency to refocus on the national reporting and learning system and to re-engineer it to make it easier for frontline staff to use;
the establishment of patient safety action teams to provide support to frontline staff; and
the active involvement of patients and their families in promoting patient safety, and greater support to patients when things go wrong.
The Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality (Mr. Liam Byrne): The House will wish to know that I am publishing today a consultation document on the establishment of an independent inspectorate for immigration. Copies of this consultation document have been placed in the House Library.
At present there are a wide range of bodies that monitor, inspect or advise on specific parts of the immigration system. What is currently lacking is a clear and consistent view of the overall system in a way that can provide confidence to the public and to Parliament that the system is working efficiently and effectively and, where there are problems, that these are being addressed in a way that is consistent with the Governments policies and objectives.
In order to deliver this we believe there is a strong case for introducing a new independent inspectorate. The consultation paper sets out our thinking on the role such a new body might have to conduct an effective assessment of the immigration and nationality directorate including: overall effectiveness; quality of decision-making; enforcement powers; access to information ; and the treatment of individuals.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Joan Ryan): The Justice and Home Affairs Council was held on 4-5 December 2006 in Brussels. The Home Secretary, Baroness Ashton and I attended on behalf of the UK.
The Finnish presidency opened the Council with the A points list which was approved. These included general approaches on taking account of convictions in new criminal proceedings (an important measure that requires member states to ensure that judges can take into account previous convictions in other member states, when, for example, sentencing, in the same way that they would take into account previous domestic convictions) and the draft Council Regulation (a measure that applies only to Schengen member states) listing the third countries whose nationals must be in possession of visas when crossing the external borders of member states
The presidency presented its draft conclusions on the Hague programme review. Discussion focused on two elements of the conclusions: the passerelle and the wording with regard to the assessment of progress made in the areas of criminal and judicial co-operation. On the passerelle, there was robust discussion with some member states seeking to have reflected in the text the need for further work to explore the possibilities in the passerelle and a reference to the constitutional treaty. The UK opposed these suggestions strongly, noting that the majority of member states were against
further work on the passerelle. The Home Secretary made clear additionally that there should not be any link to the constitutional treaty and that, given the limited support for the proposed use of the passerelle, the current debate should be regarded as over. A number of other member states joined in opposing reference to possible European Council discussion of the passerelle. The final text states that
the subject of decision making would remain under consideration by the Council [for example, the JHA Council]. This would be brought to the attention of the European Council in December.
On the Hague programme review more generally, the agreed conclusions reflect the UK view that proposals or initiatives for new instruments at EU level should be based on a rigorous assessment of their potential impact, and welcome the progress made in implementing the programme to date.
The Council reached political agreement on the regulation establishing the fundamental rights agency on a basis that avoids any formal extension of the agencys remit to the areas covered by title VI and any reference to the charter of fundamental rights in the operative part of the regulation. Both of these elements were essential to enable the UK to agree the regulation. The text of the regulation will be formally adopted at a Council in January 2007. The commission is expected to implement the transitional arrangements from the existing European monitoring centre on racism and xenophobia.
No agreement was reached on the prisoner transfer framework decision. The presidency, with the support of the UK and a number of delegations, pushed hard for agreement on the latest text on the basis that it represented a compromise package for all. However, one member state maintained that the text did not go far enough to meet its concerns about the need for prisoner consent and the right of the executing state to determine whether transfer to its territory would facilitate social rehabilitation. Work will continue in the Council on the outstanding issues.
The presidency asked whether the Council wished to pursue work on a binding framework decision on procedural rights in criminal proceedings, pointing out that it and a non-binding resolution on practical measures (which had been put forward by six member states) were not mutually exclusive. Several member states, including the UK, preferred the non-binding text, arguing that the framework decision added no value for the citizen and created legal uncertainty. A large majority of member states were in favour of a binding instrument or prepared to be flexible. However, within the majority there was disagreement on whether a binding text should contain explicit derogations so as to protect national law. The issue would be taken up by the German presidency who are making it a priority of their presidency to reach agreement on a binding text.
Commissioner Frattini presented the Commissions Communications on the global approach to migration and reinforcement of the southern maritime border. These were welcomed by the Council, though it was noted that there was more that needed to be done. The UK introduced a paper on behalf of the G6 and underlined our wish for succinct, practically focused
conclusions from the European Council. Work needed to be done to build partnerships with third countries and effectively planning the management of the southern maritime border.
The second generation Schengen evaluation system (SIS II) and interim solution to connect the new member states to SIS I (SISOne4all) were discussed at length. A majority of member states wished to proceed with SISOne4all given their view that the political implications of delaying the lifting of internal borders were serious. The UK stressed its support for measures to allow the new member states to join the Schengen area as soon as possible, but also reiterated its concerns about costs, timetable and technical feasibility. The presidency proposed a compromise text on the basis that only those member states connected to SIS I would be liable for the extra costs resulting from the extension of the network, thereby excluding the UK and some other states from liability. The Council conclusions were agreed on this basis.
The presidency called for agreement on the rapid response and preparedness instrument on the basis of a compromise text which would have seen the previous proposal for Community finance to be available for the hire of civil protection equipment removed from the instrument entirely. This represented a major move towards the UK position. Community finance would have remained within the scope of the Instrument for the transport of civil protection assistance to disasters inside and outside of the EU provided the member state sending the assistance met 50 per cent. of the costs. The amount of community expenditure available for transport would also have been capped at 60 per cent. of the total spend available through the instrument. There was support for this proposal from most other delegations. However the UK was not prepared to agree the instrument at the Council on this basis. The presidency agreed to send the item back to Coreper for further discussion. Following a further concession to the UK whereby the maximum amount of community expenditure available for transport was lowered to 50 per cent. agreement was reached at the General Affairs and External Relations Council on 11 December.
The Council conclusions on the future of Europol were agreed in principle with just one issue to be discussed at Ambassadorial level on the replacement of the Europol convention with a Council decision.
The EU counter-terrorism coordinator presented a stocktake report which noted good progress on developing EU counter-terrorism legislation, secure intelligence analyses from the EUs situation centre and international co-operation. The report also identified shortcomings identified in implementing the legislation and in national capabilities to respond to attacks. As such, it may be useful to note that the EU has recently begun to develop initiatives in the field of combating radiological and biological terrorism. The UK has been closely involved with this work since its inception, lending our considerable expertise in this field, and ensuring that this work progresses in a manner that adds value at the European level and is not detrimental to UK interests.
The presidency presented a progress report on the strategy for the external dimension of JHA, which had
been agreed under the UKs presidency. It was noted that implementation of the strategy was progressing, but that more time would be needed before a full evaluation of results would be possible.
There were a number of AOB items: whether the European evidence warrant should be adopted early in the German presidency; a discussion about European contract law, during which the Commission stressed that the project concerned better law-making, not a European code of contract law; progress on the PrĂ1/4m treaty was noted and the German presidency indicated that it intended to attach priority to bringing the treaty into the EU acquis during its presidency. This would be discussed further at the JHA informal Council in January.
At lunch on day one the Home Secretary took the opportunity to brief colleagues on the ongoing investigation into the death of Alexander Litvinenko. There was a brief exchange of views on violent video games where the Home Secretary emphasised the need to protect children, and others, from violent material and set out the UKs specific concerns about extreme pornographic material. Domestically, the UK is proposing to make illegal the possession of a limited range of violent and extreme pornographic material and would like other member states to consider how they control the publication and distribution of such material. The Home Secretary urged that this work be taken forward under the German presidency. Judge Vassilios Skouris, President of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), gave a presentation on the ECJs proposals for accelerated procedures for handling cases in the area of freedom, security and justice. Lunch items on day two included a presentation by Michel Barnier, diplomatic adviser to Nicolas Sarkozy, on disaster response and a presentation by Kristiina Kangaspunta, chief of the anti-human trafficking unit in the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, followed by discussion of the EU action plan to combat human trafficking.
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