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Written Ministerial Statements

Friday 19 January 2007

Communities and Local Government

Governance Arrangements (Stoke-on-Trent)

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): I am aware that for some time there has been significant concern that the current governance arrangements in Stoke-on-Trent are not best serving local people. Indeed the Local Government White Paper published in October 2006 at paragraph 3.25 uniquely mentions Stoke-on-Trent.

In December last year my Department published the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill. In the Bill Government set out the options for leadership governance models for all Councils: i) a directly elected Mayor and Cabinet, ii) a directly elected executive, iii) an indirectly elected leader with Cabinet. All Councils in England will have to choose one option.

The situation in Stoke fits none of these models.

Following consultations with Stoke-on-Trent, it is clear that a consensus exists for change. The elected Mayoralty was decided by the people through a referendum and the post-holder has been elected until 2009. My proposal is therefore that once the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill comes into force (subject to the will of Parliament) the opportunity can be taken for a referendum on the future governance, choosing one of the three models available. The elected Mayor will of course stay in office until 2009 when the new arrangements, chosen by the people of Stoke-on-Trent, can come into effect.

I am keen that the people of Stoke-on-Trent are served by the leadership model which best suits their community. For this reason Government will not be prescriptive as to which model should be used. However, the status quo is not an option. In practice this means that a referendum could be organised after the Bill receives Royal Assent, which depending on Parliament will be by October 2007. The elected Mayor will stay in office until May 2009, when the new arrangements will come into effect. Elections in 2009 will be based on the new model.

I am also minded to establish an independent Commission into governance arrangements in Stoke, and I will be talking to the council about this. The Commission would report by October and the remit would include public sector arrangements in Stoke-on-Trent. The Commission's report would therefore inform the public debate in Stoke-on-Trent prior to a referendum.

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Education and Skills

Informal Meeting of Education Ministers

The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Alan Johnson): I attended with the Scottish Executive Deputy Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning, Mr. Allan Wilson. The meeting was chaired by the Finnish Education Minister, Antti Kalliomäki.

The aim of the meeting was to give a further boost to EU work on vocational education and training (VET) by agreeing a Helsinki Communiqué.

The format was a dinner and presentation of Leonardo da Vinci awards on the first evening, followed by a half day's meeting. All EU member states were represented. Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Macedonia and Croatia, the EEA countries, the social partners (UNICE, ETUC, CEEP) as well as the European Training Foundation (ETF) and the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training (CEDEFOP) had also been invited and the majority attended.

The Helsinki Communiqué consolidates progress made so far in EU co-operation in vocational education and training (VET), and sets priorities in this area for the coming years. The main priorities identified in the Communiqué follow on from the Copenhagen (2002) and Maastricht (2004) declarations and were agreed in the form of Council Conclusions on VET at the formal Education Council attended by Bill Rammell on 14 November 2006.

The Communiqué highlights four priority areas:

The Council Conclusions and Helsinki Communiqué explicitly recognise the voluntary nature of co-operation in this area.

The Director of CEDEFOP gave a presentation, outlining the work that they had done to establish the basis on which progress could be measured. Commissioner Figél talked about progress on benchmarks and on the VET process generally. His main conclusions were that:

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In my intervention, I pointed out the links between welfare reform, pensions and VET. There has been a massive decrease in the numbers of unskilled jobs: there were no longer jobs for life but, with effective lifelong learning systems, it should be possible to offer employment for life. Training needs to be demand-led and vocational qualifications need to have real intellectual rigour and there is a big political imperative to tackle this agenda. There are important links with higher education, with research and development and science.

I also expressed my concern that the Education Council punches well below its weight in deliberations on the Lisbon Agenda: education and skills should be at its heart but other Councils seemed to have much more influence.

A number of delegates stressed the need to make the Helsinki Communiqué readable so that it could be understood by citizens. It was important to share experience of what worked and what did not so that member states could learn from one another.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

European Union

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC) will be held on 22 January in Brussels. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mrs. Margaret Beckett) and I will represent the UK.

The agenda items are as follows:

General Affairs

Lisbon Strategy: Commission Annual Progress Report

The Commission is expected to present its annual progress report on the Lisbon reform strategy. The UK supports the Commission's approach, which includes country specific recommendations.

External Relations

European Neighbourhood Policy

External Relations Commissioner, Ferrero-Waldner, is expected to present a Communication on the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), published on 4 December. The Presidency will brief the Council on a process for policy development. The UK supports the development of an ENP which offers good incentives for partner countries to reform.

Western Balkans

The Council is likely to focus on the previous day's elections in Serbia with possible conclusions on the conduct of elections.

Ministers are also expected to discuss Kosovo. The UK will want to ensure continued support for UN Status Envoy, Martti Ahtisaari, and his intention to present recommendations shortly after the elections.

The Council is also expected to adopt conclusions on Montenegro's European Partnership.

Middle East Peace Process

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We expect the Council to welcome the meeting between Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas and to look for ways to build on this positive momentum to reinvigorate the peace process.


President Bashir has shown a greater willingness to co-operate with the International Community since the end of December. We need to test his commitment, particularly on the full implementation of UN support, including the hybrid force. The Council will need to reinforce these messages.

We also expect the Council to discuss finding funding for the African Union Mission in Sudan.

Energy External Relations

The discussion will cover security of energy supply, energy efficiency and climate security. It will be an opportunity to discuss the importance of climate security to the EU's foreign policy priorities, given that an unstable climate could undermine the EU's ability to achieve its foreign policy objectives, from energy security to conflict prevention and poverty reduction.

Death Penalty

Italy is expected to raise EU strategy on the death penalty at the Council. We welcome further work in this area.


We expect the Council to adopt conclusions on the case of the Bulgarian and Palestinian medical workers convicted of intentionally infecting Libyan children with HIV and sentenced to death after a retrial.


Ministers will discuss the current situation in Somalia. The Council is expected to adopt conclusions highlighting that there is now an opportunity to advance international efforts to secure a sustainable solution in Somalia.


Ministers will discuss implementation of UN Security Council Resolution 1737. The Council is also expected to adopt conclusions.


Hospital Travel Costs Scheme

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Andy Burnham): In the Department's White Paper, “Our Health, Our Care, Our Say”, (Cm 6737), we made a commitment to expand the hospital travel costs scheme so that the scheme covers referrals by health care professionals in a primary care setting. This commitment will ensure that people who have difficulty affording travel to traditionally hospital-based care will remain eligible for travel expenses to receive that care, even though in future it may be delivered within a primary care setting.

We want to ensure that in delivering the change we take into account views from the NHS, organisations with expert knowledge and people who use the service. Today we are launching a consultation on the hospital travel costs scheme. The consultation will look at how patients can receive reimbursement for their travel
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expenses as more care is delivered out of hospital. It will also look at how awareness of the scheme can be raised amongst staff and patients. We are not looking at changing the financial eligibility requirement, which will remain the same.

The closing date for the consultation is Friday 13 April 2007. We intend for changes to the scheme to come in to force in October 2007.

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A copy of the consultation document has been placed in the Library.

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