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Written Ministerial Statements

Tuesday 23 January 2007


Government Procurement

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (John Healey): The Treasury report “Transforming Government Procurement” is published today.

Copies of the report are available in the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office.

Culture, Media and Sport

Alcohol Education and Research Council

The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Tessa Jowell): Following the Prime Minister's indication that he was content for the sponsorship of the Alcohol Education and Research Council to be transferred from my Department to the Department of Health, the transfer of responsibility took place on 2 January 2007.

Northern Ireland

Education (Strategy Review)

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Peter Hain): This statement sets out how the Government intend to take forward the recommendations from the independent Strategic review of Education in Northern Ireland which was led by Professor Sir George Bain. The review report was published on 4 December. Copies of the report have been placed in the Library.

If Northern Ireland is to maximise the skills, the talent and the commitment to rise to the challenges of improving the economy and be truly world class, it will require reform to the education system. That is why last year the Government asked Sir George Bain to carry out an independent review.

The review's focus was on the quality of education of children and has recommended overall an estate of fewer, larger schools characterised by greater collaboration and integration across sectors, and with better strategic planning of the schools' estate. The review sets out educational, social and economic arguments for change.

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The 61 recommendations in the review report—all of which the Government have accepted—taken together offer a strategy for how best to use resources to maximise their contribution towards delivering a world class education while remaining focussed on meeting the educational needs of young people. It will take time to realise the Ml benefits of change.

The review report recommends that the education system should move to a system of area based planning which would tackle the problems of over-provision and lack of co-ordination created by the current system. Strong, clear and coherent planning is crucial and the new Education and Skills Authority, to be established as part of the reforms of public administration in Northern Ireland, will play the central role in drawing up proposals for area plans for each of the seven coterminous new strategic local authorities. The further education and the schools sectors also need to work together on provision for the local area.

The review highlighted the benefits of having strong schools which are educationally and financially viable for the long term. The review recommended new minimum threshold enrolments for primary and post-primary schools and for sixth forms, below which the provision should be reviewed. Changes will be planned carefully and sensitively and will take time, with the educational interests of pupils remaining paramount. The Government are issuing a policy paper for consultation, incorporating the recommended minimum enrolments from the report.

It is important that investment in the schools' estate supports well-developed area plans which reflect local needs. No new school building projects will be announced unless they are compatible with area-based planning. Projects already underway will need to be reviewed so that they are consistent with the recommendations of the review.

In response to the review the Government will examine the way individual schools are funded. The factors that make up the Local Management of Schools Common Funding Formula will be reviewed to make sure that they reflect and are responsive to the main costs faced by schools. There should be a greater level of delegation to schools, giving power to school leaders.

Northern Ireland has, and will continue to have, a diverse education system which acknowledges the wishes of parents to have their children educated in settings that reflect their own individual values and beliefs. Many schools are already working tirelessly to foster and help nurture mutual understanding and mutual respect. The review recommended the provision of tangible support to schools that are actively engaged in sharing with other schools, or schools that are developing an inclusive environment in recognition of the diversity of their pupils' religious, cultural and ethnic backgrounds. The Government have decided that schools in all sectors will be able to apply for a new, shared future accreditation, developed with the sectors and a kite-mark for tolerance and sharing, which will bring with it some additional financial and other support.

The recommendations set out in the review report provide a solid foundation for shaping future policy. They will act as a catalyst to change the way Government plan and fund education. They will lead to a stronger and more coherent strategic framework
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for planning and developing the school estate. And they will promote greater collaboration and sharing, delivering educational and wider societal benefits in Northern Ireland.

Prime Minister

Council of Europe and Western European Union

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr Khalid Mahmood) has been appointed as a substitute member of the United Kingdom Delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the Assembly of Western European Union in place of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr Ian Gibson).

Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): My hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Sandra Osborne) has been appointed as a full member of the United Kingdom Delegation to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe in place of my hon. Friend the Member for the City of York (Hugh Bayley). My hon. Friend the Member for Stockton, South (Ms Dari Taylor) has been appointed as a substitute member in place of my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock.


Arbuthnott Report (Government Response)

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Douglas Alexander): This statement sets out the Government's final response to the recommendations of the Commission on Boundary Differences and Voting Systems under the chairmanship of Sir John Arbuthnott. Their report —“Putting Citizens First: Boundaries, Voting and Representation in Scotland”—was presented on 19 January 2006 to my predecessor as Secretary of State for Scotland my right hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh South-West, (Mr. Darlings) and the First Minister. The Scottish Executive are today issuing separately their response to the recommendations which relate to their responsibilities.

The Commission was set up in the middle of 2004 following the decisions taken by Parliament regarding the reduction in the numbers of Scottish MPs and subsequently the retention of the original size of the Scottish Parliament. Its establishment took into account also the decision by the Scottish Parliament to introduce the Single Transferable Vote (STV) for the next Scottish local government elections in May 2007.

Its remit was to examine the consequences of having four different voting systems in local and Parliamentary
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elections in Scotland and different boundaries between the Westminster and Scottish Parliament constituencies

The Commission was asked in particular to make recommendations on whether any action needed to be taken in respect of

Its wide-ranging report is a thorough piece of work and shows careful attention to the issues and raises a number of important concerns, which have been debated in this House on a number of occasions since publication.

We are now in a position to respond to the recommendations made in the report. Not all of these were for the Government to consider—some being for the Scottish Executive, the Scottish Parliament or the Electoral Commission.

I note that the Commission confirmed that having different boundaries between the constituencies of this House and those of the Scottish Parliament is not a matter which requires further action and should not drive change at this time to the electoral system for the Scottish Parliament.

The Commission recommended that there should be greater alignment between the Scottish Parliament constituencies and local authority areas in Scotland. Any action which might need to be taken by the Government will depend on the outcome of work being taken forward by the Executive. Consideration of possible new structures for the regions for Scottish Parliament elections and the future review of constituency boundaries would also follow from this.

The Government are pleased that the Commission's conclusions generally support the operation of the Additional Member System (AMS) for electing members to the Scottish Parliament, which will remain the system to be used in the next elections in May 2007.

The Scotland Office consulted in June 2006 on the Commission's recommendation that the ballot papers for Scottish Parliament elections should be redesigned in order to improve voter understanding of AMS. I announced on 22 November 2006 that the two separate ballot papers used in previous Scottish Parliament elections would be replaced for the elections in May 2007 by a single paper—with the left side listing the parties standing for election as regional MSPs and the right side the candidates standing as constituency MSPs.

We do not propose to replace the present method of electing regional members with open lists, believing that this would over-complicate the voting system.

We note the Commission’s recommendation strongly in favour of allowing a candidate both to stand in a constituency and be on a regional list, and following this have no plans to introduce any change in this area for elections to the Scottish Parliament.

The coupling of the Scottish local government elections with those for the Scottish Parliament is a matter for Scottish Ministers and that Parliament.

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Introducing the single transferable vote for European Parliamentary elections for Scotland would not be novel, since this is the system already used in Northern Ireland. However, we do not at this time believe that there is a strong enough case for changing the voting system in Scotland for elections to the European Parliament. There would need to be strong reasons to diverge from the system used in the rest of Great Britain. None is immediately apparent.

The recommendation on electronic counting and electronic voting is in line with the modernising process of the electoral system which the Government is pursuing. E-counting is already being planned for the Holyrood and Scottish local government elections in May 2007.

The recommendations on the conduct and functions of constituency and regional MSPs are matters for the Scottish Parliament to consider.

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The recommendation that young people leaving school should have a good understanding of voting and parliamentary democracy is a matter for the Scottish Executive.

We support the intention behind the recommendations regarding providing further public information on voting arrangements before each election and on the elected representatives after them. However, these are matters for the Electoral Commission to take forward in the first instance. Its public awareness campaign for the 2007 elections will provide information on these elections and the voting systems which will be used.

The text of each of the 24 recommendations made by the Arbuthnott Commission, with the Government's responses to these, is available on the Scotland Office website.

In conclusion, I must thank the Commission on Boundary Differences and Voting Systems for its work and report.

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