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Written Ministerial Statements

Tuesday 27 March 2007

Communities and Local Government

Local Government

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): On 30 January I announced that in response to our Invitation to Councils we had received 26 proposals from local authorities for the creation of unitary local government in their areas.

We have now completed our assessment of these proposals against the five criteria set out in the Invitation. These criteria are that change to future unitary structures must be affordable, and be supported by a broad cross section of partners and stakeholders; and the future structures must provide strong, effective and accountable strategic leadership, deliver genuine opportunities for neighbourhood flexibility and empowerment, and deliver value for money and equity on public services.

On the basis of this assessment my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has decided that the following unitary proposals will proceed to stakeholder consultation.

Councils Submitting ProposalsProposed unitary structure

Bedford Borough Council

A unitary authority for Bedford

Bedfordshire County Council

A unitary authority for Bedfordshire

Cheshire County Council

A unitary authority for Cheshire

Chester City Council

Two unitary authorities for Cheshire

Cornwall County Council

A unitary authority for Cornwall

Cumbria County Council

A unitary authority for Cumbria

Durham County Council

A unitary authority for Durham

Exeter City Council

A unitary authority for Exeter

Ipswich Borough Council

A unitary authority for Ipswich

Northumberland County Council

A unitary authority for Northumberland

The Northumberland District Councils

Two unitary authorities for Northumberland

Norwich City Council

A unitary authority for Norwich on existing boundaries

North Yorkshire County Council

A unitary authority for North Yorkshire

Shropshire County Council

A unitary authority for Shropshire

Somerset County Council

A unitary authority for Somerset

Wiltshire County Council

A unitary authority for Wiltshire

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In reaching her decision, my right hon. Friend has had regard to the submitted proposals, any supplementary material submitted by the proposers themselves, and other available relevant information. Her judgment is that there is at least a reasonable likelihood that these proposals, if implemented, would achieve the outcomes specified by the five criteria.

We are launching this consultation today, seeking the views of partners and stakeholders in the areas affected by the proposals. As the Invitation explains, partners and stakeholders include all local authorities, the wider public sector, the business community, and the voluntary and community sector. It is, however, open to anyone to respond to the consultation document that we are issuing today, copies of which are placed in the Library of the House.

We are in particular seeking views on the extent to which consultees believe the proposals would deliver the outcomes specified by the criteria, and in the case of the alternative proposals for Bedfordshire, Cheshire and Northumberland, which of the alternatives in each case would better deliver those outcomes.

The consultation will run until 22 June 2007.

After the stakeholder consultation, we will consider very carefully all the representations that we have received. Proposals will proceed to implementation if, and only if, when we take our final decisions, we remain satisfied that they meet the criteria, and that the overall use of reserves remains affordable, having regard to the prevailing fiscal position and the risks around the estimated costs of implementation.

As explained in our original Invitation, implementation of any proposals involving transitional costs financed by the use of reserves impacts on planned public expenditure totals. Any use of reserves must therefore in aggregate be within the limited envelope available.

It was because of this limited envelope that the Invitation stated that the Government think it unlikely that it would be able to implement more than eight proposals, but that this maximum number would not preclude the Government from deciding to implement more if they offered good value for money and were affordable.

If when we take our final decisions there are more proposals that meet the criteria than we can afford to implement, we will prioritise in order to decide which ones to implement. We will consult during our main stakeholder consultation on the proposed means of prioritising restructuring proposals in such circumstances.

If implemented, the proposals could, on the basis of current estimates, save up to around £200 million annually.

In those cases where there are alternative proposals, any decision on implementation will necessarily involve a decision as to which option should proceed. If we were to decide that Bedford Borough's proposal should proceed to implementation we may need to consider the future local government structures in the remaining county area, which might no longer be a viable two-tier area.

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The legislative provision necessary to implement unitary proposals is contained in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill which is currently before the House.

Finally, in respect of the following proposals, my right hon. Friend has decided that, having regard to the available relevant information, there is not a reasonable likelihood that, if implemented, they would achieve all the outcomes specified in the five criteria, and that accordingly they should not proceed to stakeholder consultation.

Councils submitting ProposalsProposed unitary structure

Mid and South Bedfordshire District Councils

A unitary authority covering mid and south Bedfordshire

The Cornwall District Councils

A unitary authority for Cornwall

The Durham District Councils

A unitary authority for Durham

Ellesmere Port and Neston Borough Council

Three unitary authorities for Cheshire

East Riding of Yorkshire District Council

A unitary authority covering East Rising and Selby

Lancaster City Council

A unitary authority for Lancaster

Oxford City Council

Three unitary authorities for Oxfordshire

Burnley Borough Council

A unitary authority for Burnley

Preston City Council

A unitary authority for Preston

South Somerset District Council

Two unitary authorities for Somerset

Constitutional Affairs

Compensation Act

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): The Compensation Act 2006 received Royal Assent on 25 July 2006. Part 2 of the Act provides the statutory framework for the regulation of claims management services.

In line with the Government's commitment to bring the Act into force as soon as possible a third commencement order has been made. This brings into force the prohibition and offences sections.

From 23 April 2007 providing a regulated claims management service without authorisation, an exemption, being subject to a waiver or an individual acting otherwise than in the course of business will be prohibited. Those providing claims management services will be required to give consumers clear advice about the validity of their claim, options for funding the costs and provide a complaints mechanism if things go wrong. The claims regulation website at www.claimsregulation.gov.uk provides a register of all authorised persons.

This order follows the Compensation Act 2006 (Commencement No.1) (SI 2006/3005 (C. 107)) that came into force on 1 December 2006 allowing regulation to commence. The Compensation Act 2006 (Commencement No. 2) (SI 2007/94 (C.5)) came into force on 23 January 2007 formally establishing the Claims Management Services Tribunal.

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Chemical Protection Programme

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): The UK's chemical protection programme is designed to protect against the use of chemical weapons. Such a programme is permitted by the Chemical Weapons Convention, with which the United Kingdom is fully compliant. Under the terms of the Convention, we are required to provide information annually to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. In accordance with the Government's commitment to openness, I am placing in the Library of the House a copy of the summary that has been provided to the Organisation outlining the UK's chemical protection programme in 2006.

Defence Medical Services

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): Over the past 12 months the Ministry of Defence has undertaken a thorough review of the Defence Medical Services (DMS) manpower requirement. The aim of this review was to determine the number of uniformed, regular DMS personnel required to support operations consistent with overall Defence Planning Assumptions, provide full healthcare and allow for continued training and the provision of headquarters staff during deployment. The review has now been completed and I am now in a position to inform the House of the new DMS manpower requirement. I am convinced it provides a credible baseline on which the DMS can base its planning and ensure that the excellent level of healthcare which it provides both on operations and, in collaboration with the NHS, in the UK, is sustained into the future.

The last full review of the DMS uniformed regular manpower requirement took place at the time of the Strategic Defence Review (SDR) over eight years ago, and produced a requirement for a grand total of 8,970 posts (the 'SDR total'). This however exceeded the available medical manpower, and subsequent experience in support of deployed operations showed that a different balance of medical specialisms was more appropriate. Hence a lower overall figure was adopted as a pragmatic interim basis for funding a different mix of established posts (the 'established liability'). To ensure that the requirement was valid not just in the light of emerging practice on operations since SDR, but also to be consistent with current defence-wide planning assumptions, a formal review was undertaken, starting in January 2006. The review was carried out by the multi-disciplinary Medical Operational Capability (Med Op Cap) project team, drawing on previous studies, lessons learned work, high-level operational analysis and incorporating military judgment.

The overall result of this work is that the DMS baseline uniformed regular manning requirement (the ‘Med Op Cap requirement') has now been set at 7,573 posts plus an additional manning and training margin of 678, making a grand total of 8,251 posts.

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This compares to the previous established liability of 7,741 posts plus a manning and training margin of 543, making a grand total of 8,284 posts.

The SDR grand total of 8,970 posts did not separately specify within it a manning and training margin.

As at 1 January 2007, the uniformed regular manning was 6,497 (namely, the number of people we actually have, rather than the number of posts required).

There are also some significant changes within individual medical cadres between the SDR and the Med Op Cap requirement, with some cadres increasing and some decreasing. Some additional potential for civilianisation of up to 320 posts in the Med Op Cap total requirement was identified by the review, which will be investigated further.

I shall place full details of the new requirements against individual cadres in the Library of the House. It is a necessarily complex package, but one which provides an essential building-block for the DMS to focus its efforts on addressing the most critical shortfalls.

The impact of the new requirement on the individual career paths for personnel in the Royal Navy, Army and RAF Medical Services will be small. The review has validated the existing policy of maximising capability from staffing our Field Hospitals on a collaborative tri-Service basis.

The Government are committed to ensuring that the DMS continues to be sufficiently flexible to respond to future operational challenges. The recent review of the DMS uniformed regular manpower requirement is a necessary and positive step to achieving this.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Agriculture and Fisheries Council

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (David Miliband): I represented the United Kingdom at this month's Agriculture and Fisheries Council in Brussels.

The Council adopted conclusions on the Commission communication on employment in rural areas, stressing the development of job creation in rural areas.

The Council reached a unanimous political agreement on a Presidency compromise proposal, laying down rules for voluntary modulation (VM) in light of the December 2005 European Council future financing agreement for 2007-2013. I voted in favour of the compromise text, as it delivered the flexibility we had argued for with regards to applying voluntary modulation on a regional basis without a franchise applying. I also indicated that the UK will make a formal declaration at the time the regulation is adopted which states that: all four regions of the UK would use VM; the rate would be below 20 per cent.; and that in England we would spend 80 per cent. of VM receipts on environmental measures and would co-finance these at a significant level. A joint declaration was also made
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by the Council and Commission emphasising that VM and all pillar two funding arrangements should be reviewed in the context of the CAP Healthcheck.

The Presidency and Commission summed up the informal lunchtime discussion on implementation of controls in the food chain. The Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner urged all Member States to implement EU food law fully and effectively. The Presidency too called on all Member States to maintain Community standards, whilst acknowledging that EU food safety legislation needed to be kept under review with particular emphasis on reducing unnecessary administrative burdens.

There was a policy debate on the Commission's simplification proposal on the common organisation of agricultural markets, based on three Presidency questions: timing of inclusion of the fruit and vegetable and wine sectors; transfer of competence from Council to Commission; abolition of Pigmeat intervention. The proposal aims to consolidate the existing 21 sector-specific Common Market Organisations into a single Regulation, in an effort to streamline and simplify the legal framework. Along with other Member States, I broadly supported the Commission's proposal as an important step in the CAP simplification action plan and agreed that a case-by-case approach should be taken to the transfer of competence for implementing powers from the Council to the Commission. Some Member States did not agree to the inclusion of the fruit and vegetables and wine sectors in the Single Common Market Organisation in advance of the reform of those sectors, and opposed the abolition of pigmeat intervention.

A number of issues were raised under any other business, none of which required any intervention on behalf of the United Kingdom. These were as follows:

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