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.
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.
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 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.
1. Policy measures to improve the attractiveness and quality of VET.
2. Continued development and implementation of voluntary common EU tools: the European Qualifications Framework; European Credit Transfer System; Europass and the European Network on Quality Assurance in VET.
3. More systematic, strengthened approach to mutual learning through the open method of co-ordination; and further development of statistical information so that progress can be evaluated.
4. Active involvement of stakeholders.
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:
progress in VET, following the Copenhagen declaration, was proceeding more quickly than in HE (the Bologna process);
there had been good progress on number of benchmarks but in others it was disappointing (e.g. early school leavers, low achievements in literacy, numbers achieving upper secondary level qualifications;
good progress on science and maths but had the benchmarks been set too low;
gender gap decreasing in maths and science but from a very low base;
concern that education and training systems were still not providing young people with the skills they need for life and work.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.