7 Mar 2007 : Column 127WS

7 Mar 2007 : Column 127WS

Written Ministerial Statements

Wednesday 7 March 2007

Communities and Local Government

Improving Resilience

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Angela E. Smith): Today, I am pleased to announce that following an open competition and an extensive evaluation process undertaken by Communities and Local Government, members of the fire and rescue service, LGA and CFOA, Thales UK/EADS Defence and Security Systems Ltd. has been selected as the supplier for the FiReControl infrastructure services (technology). The contract, worth an estimated £200 million over eight years, underlines the Government’s commitment to invest in the nation’s resilience and supports a modern fire and rescue service which is equipped to deal with incidents of every size. Contract signature is expected to take place in the next few weeks.

At the heart of this project is the ability for the control centres to back each other up and to provide information direct to the Fire and Rescue Service, which some of the present systems cannot do. The choice of the right supplier for this project’s IT requirements is therefore vital.

Thales UK/EADS Defence and Security Systems Ltd. will be responsible for developing and running the IT systems that will deliver control services to the fire service—giving firefighters as much information as possible to help them tackle the incident they are attending—and ultimately aiming to further reduce deaths in fires. They and their partners have an excellent reputation for delivery and we are confident that they will provide a high-quality solution for the fire and rescue services. Many elements of the proposed IT solution are already being used in a range of applications in the UK and elsewhere. A phased transition to the new system will ensure that the FRS will continue to provide a high-quality service throughout.

New Growth Points and Zero Carbon Development

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Yvette Cooper): Local authorities have been making very encouraging progress in working up specific proposals in the new growth points scheme. Over 45 towns and cities have been included in the scheme, which we believe should make a major contribution to achieving sustainable long-term growth. We will be reviewing the growth points scheme, whose purpose is to provide additional funding for infrastructure and delivery support, to take account of the outcome of each regional spatial strategy (RSS), and to consider with local partners our future strategy on growth points.

7 Mar 2007 : Column 128WS

In addition, local partners are already developing proposals for small new settlements linked to larger towns and cities using high-quality public transport including at Cambridge (Northstowe), and the new growth point at Exeter, as well as proposals in other regions.

We must cut carbon emissions to tackle climate change—and housing has a major role to play. Building the new homes we need across the country is a prime opportunity to harness new technology and drive up environmental standards.

Therefore, the Government will be prepared to support proposals of this type as part of the new growth points scheme providing they are exemplar ‘green’ developments which meet the highest standards of sustainability in terms of the environment and climate change. They should also make use of brownfield and surplus public sector land. Proposals should focus on zero carbon or low carbon new developments of 5,000 to 10,000 homes—communities which should be big enough to support significant employment, a strong town centre and good public services. To help in the development of individual proposals and other preparatory work, we are making up to £2 million available through the growth points scheme in 2007-08. A decision on further funding for small new settlements will be made in the context of CSR 07.

As with other new growth points we will want to work closely with partners across Government including the Department for Transport and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Environment Agency and Natural England in assessing possible schemes and with English Partnerships on delivery. Proposals would also need to support mixed communities and affordable housing. In order to ensure we learn from the lessons of the past and draw on best practice here and overseas, we are asking Professor David Lock, chair of the TCPA, to provide further advice on the practical application of the key sustainability and development criteria for schemes of this kind, including carbon use, transport, services and community development, and to let us have a report on this later this year.

As with new growth points, any proposal of this type will need to be considered through the statutory planning system and be subject to consultation and testing by independent examination, and it is important that the RSS process gives a view on proposals of this type.

We expect schemes of this type to make an important contribution to helping to increase housing supply, particularly in the high pressure regions, as we indicated in the Government’s response to the Barker review on housing supply, published in December 2005. PPS 3, the Government’s statement of housing policy, which we announced in November 2006, gives local authorities greater flexibility in the planning and delivery of the homes needed for their areas, with a number of choices available at a regional and local level to accommodate growth. Where need and demand are high, new settlements are one of several important options for the future distribution of housing growth.

We will be making a further announcement later in the year about the detailed criteria for supporting proposals and how we can further encourage new
7 Mar 2007 : Column 129WS
thinking on highest quality in services, design, transport and environmental sustainability and, in particular, take an innovative approach to large-scale zero carbon development.

Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Ruth Kelly): I have today published the Government’s Response to the consultation “Getting Equal” and laid before Parliament the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007. The new Regulations will outlaw discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation in the provision of goods, facilities, services, education, the disposal and management of premises and in the exercise of public functions in Great Britain.

They will tackle practical barriers and real everyday problems. For example, they will make it unlawful for a shopkeeper or a restaurant to refuse to serve someone because of their sexual orientation, or a school to discriminate against a student because of his or her parents’ sexual orientation.

Our consultation on these issues has been extensive and has provided evidence that this kind of unfair treatment takes place far too often. The goal of the new regulations is to make such discrimination illegal.

While the case for this new legislation was widely accepted, opinion was divided on the issue of how the Regulations ought to balance the competing rights of individuals to hold and manifest a religious belief against the rights of lesbian, gay and bisexual people to live free from discrimination.

It is exactly because of these complex issues about how to reconcile potentially competing rights and freedoms that the Government consulted so extensively on these measures.

I have listened carefully to the many points raised, and I believe that the balance we have reached—which is the same as that achieved in the Northern Ireland Regulations and endorsed by the Joint Committee on Human Rights—is the right one. Our approach will ensure that nobody will be required to act in a way that contravenes their core religious beliefs, but where religious organisations enter into an agreement to provide services to the wider community, on behalf of and under contract to a public authority, the rights of lesbian, gay and bisexual people to have equal access to those services comes to the fore. This is in line with the conclusions reached by the Joint Committee on Human Rights, in its recent Legislative Scrutiny report on the Sexual Orientation Regulations.

Specific concerns were expressed about the application of the Regulations to the adoption and fostering sector. The Prime Minister addressed these issues in his statement of 29 January 2007, when he acknowledged the excellent and valuable work undertaken by faith-based adoption agencies and announced that, in the interests of vulnerable children, the regulations will provide for a transition period for these agencies until the end of 2008. In the interim, any agency wishing to take advantage of the transitional arrangements will have to refer gay, lesbian and bi-sexual people to agencies who are able to assist. In addition, the Prime Minister announced that he would
7 Mar 2007 : Column 130WS
be commissioning an ongoing independent assessment of the issues agencies would need to address in the transition period, if much valued and needed services are to be retained and developed.

In a similar spirit, the Regulations will include an exemption in relation to insurance that will have the same effect as provisions in the Sex Discrimination Act and regulations made under the Disability Discrimination Act. It is our intention that this particular exemption will not apply beyond the end of 2008. We will work with the insurance industry and others to ensure that if any exemption is required beyond 2008, it reflects a genuine need in the industry and is in line with industry best practice, and we will legislate accordingly.

Subject to Parliamentary approval, the new Regulations will come into force on 30th April, 2007, at the same time as similar protections on grounds of Religion or Belief, set out in Part 2 of the Equality Act 2006.

The Government’s Response will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Consular Fees Order 2007

The Minister for the Middle East (Dr. Kim Howells): The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has recently undertaken a review of the fees charged for visa and consular services overseas. On 6 March 2007 Her Majesty in Council approved the Consular Fees Order 2007. This revokes and replaces the Consular Fees Order 2005. The Government are today announcing new fees to be charged under this Order with effect from 1 April 2007.

The Order increases fees for notarial services, estate administration, attendances, matters undertaken relating to legal proceedings and repatriation and financial assistance. It raises fees for consular assistance in births, deaths, marriages and shipping, seamen and kindred matters. The Order also increases fees for passports (issued overseas) and visas, and for certain searches undertaken by consular officials.

Overseas passport fees are raised from £91 to £119 (standard passport for those 16 years or over), from £59 to £76 (standard passports for those under 16) and from £109 to £144 (48-page passport). The fee for amending an existing passport abroad will be increased from £75.50 to £97.50. The Order also raises the fee for issuing emergency passports from £43.50 to £55.50 and temporary passport fees are increased from £55 to £70.50.

Some 60 per cent. of visa customers use commercial partners to handle their application. In addition to the basic visa fee there is an additional charge for this service, levied by the commercial partner, which varies from country to country. These fees range from £3.57 to £44.74 for each visa application, with an average fee of £11.60. From 1 April these applicants will no longer need to pay a separate fee to commercial partners: the cost of this service will be incorporated into the visa fee
7 Mar 2007 : Column 131WS
for the first time. Reflecting this, and other new costs, fees for six-month multiple entry visas have increased from £50 to £63, for students from £85 to £99 and for transit visas from £30 to £44. Applications for settlement and marriage visas have increased from £260 to £500, while applications for other visas and for a certificate of right of abode have increased from £85 to £200.

The rise in visa fees reflects the full cost of providing an effective visa service which not only protects the UK from illegal working, organised crime, extremism and terrorism, but which also provides the best service to the travellers and migrants the UK wants to attract. In addition to recovering our costs, we have set the visa fees to ensure we maintain UK competitiveness and our prime place as a destination of choice for students, business, workers and visitors alike, reflecting the policy on a new charging regime announced with the Home Office today and itself the subject of a written ministerial statement. This has enabled us to set visa fees below cost for categories which are relatively sensitive. UK visas has carried out extensive research to underpin the decision-making process.

It is right that those who benefit from consular services should help meet the cost of them, rather than the UK taxpayer. The new fees represent the full economic cost of what we do, and will ensure that British missions overseas continue to provide a high standard of service to visa and consular customers. They will also enable further improvements to service delivery as set out in the 2004 Consular Strategy—updated July 2005 and presently undergoing revision prior to publication late this year.

A table of the new fees has been placed in the Library of the House.


Modernising Medical Careers

The Secretary of State for Health (Ms Patricia Hewitt): Following discussion with the medical Royal Colleges and the British Medical Association, I should like to set out the Department of Health's plan for an immediate review of the first round of the new national recruitment and selection process for doctors in postgraduate training.

As part of the Modernising Medical Careers (MMC) reforms of postgraduate medical training, new specialty training programmes will be introduced in August 2007. To support this, a new national recruitment and selection process was introduced this year, facilitated by the on-line Medical Training Application Service (MTAS). This process sets out national recruitment and selection criteria, documentation and standards—replacing the countless local appointment processes that had previously been in place.

The new arrangements were developed with the help of stakeholders, including the medical Royal Colleges and trainee doctors. We will continue to work with them to ensure that trainee doctors are properly supported and fairly treated, and that the NHS is able to train and recruit the best doctors for the future.

7 Mar 2007 : Column 132WS

Doctors have been applying for their preferred specialist training programme since 22 January 2007. The first round of interviews began last week. A large number of jobs will not be filled in the first round and we have stressed to those interviewing in round one that they should not appoint unless they are absolutely satisfied with the calibre of candidates.

While the Department believes this will deliver a fair and transparent appointments process, it is clear that there have been a number of problems with MTAS, and that the process as a whole has created a high degree of insecurity amongst applicants and, indeed, more widely in the profession. Although it needs to be recognised that we are only part way through the first stage of a two stage process, the Department accepts that further action is required to establish greater confidence in the system.

The Department proposes, therefore, to initiate immediately an independent review of the first round of the 2007 process to ensure that appropriate lessons are learned and to take remedial action to ensure the second round of the process which begins on 28 April 2007 runs effectively. The terms of reference are to:

immediately (or before completion of round one);

before commencement of round two;

before any subsequent rounds.

The review will be led by Professor Neil Douglas, vice-president of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges. It will take evidence widely, including from the British Medical Association (and the Junior Doctors Committee) and from a sample of junior doctors and consultants engaged in the process.

The review will be completed by the end of March, and the findings published as soon as possible in order for lessons to be learned and changes to be made ahead of the second round.

In the meantime, round one will continue as planned.

Home Department

Bilaterally Negotiated Arrangements for Asylum and Immigration

The Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality (Mr. Liam Byrne): We put migration at the heart of our bilateral relations. We have good long-standing migration relationships with many countries. We have signed Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) that include arrangements for the return of failed asylum seekers and illegal migrants. We have these arrangements with Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, China, India, Iran, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan, Somaliland, United Arab Emirates (Dubai) and Vietnam. We have not been able to implement our
7 Mar 2007 : Column 133WS
MoU with Iran as the arrangements originally negotiated are no longer appropriate or practical. In addition to the European Community Readmission Agreements to which the UK is party, we have bilateral readmission agreements with Albania, Bulgaria, Romania and Switzerland. We have concluded negotiations with Serbia and Montenegro, but texts have not yet been signed with those countries. An agreement has been signed with Algeria and is currently in the process of ratification. The content of MoU negotiations is confidential for operational reasons; however the text of a bilateral readmission agreement becomes publicly available once it has been signed and laid before Parliament. Broadly, MoUs cover the mechanics of arranging returns of immigration offenders between the UK and the relevant country.

Next Section Index Home Page