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Leader of the House

Oral Statements on the Order Paper

The Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Jack Straw): On 15 March 2007 I informed Members of improvements to the process by which notice is given to the House when Ministers plan to make an oral statement.

I set out plans that wherever notice had already been given to the House via a written ministerial statement, oral or written questions, or elsewhere on the floor of the House (for example, in debate or at business questions) that an oral statement will be made on a certain date, it
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would be helpful to the House for this to be recorded in the House’s business papers. This improvement has been welcomed on all sides of the House.

However, there have been occasions where it would have been convenient for the House to have been made aware of forthcoming oral statements, even though notice of such a statement had not been previously given as described above. Accordingly, I have asked for a written notice to be printed on the Order of Business on the day of the statement, in those circumstances where I think the House would appreciate prior notification, and only following notification to the House from my office.

The Government would retain the current freedom to make statements without prior notice having been given in this way and, if necessary, not to proceed with a statement of which prior notice had been given.

I am grateful to Mr. Speaker, for acknowledgement of his support for these proposals.

Prime Minister

Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): On 29 January 2007, I announced a way forward on the issue of faith-based adoption and fostering agencies and the Equality Act (Sexual Orientation) Regulations 2007. As I set out at that time, the interests of the child, and particularly the most vulnerable children, must come first. I confirmed that there would not be a specific exemption from the legislation for faith-based adoption and fostering agencies. However, there would be a transition period until the end of 2008, with a statutory duty for any faith-based agency which does not process applications from same sex couples to refer them to another agency. I am pleased that both Houses approved these Regulations, which provide a massive step forward in ending discrimination against gay people, and that the Regulations have now come into force.

In my announcement on 29 January 2007, I said that I would commission a regular independent assessment from adoption and child welfare experts on the impact of the Regulations on adoption in order to maintain the existing body of expertise. I have today asked Barbara Hutchinson, Executive Director of the British Association of Adoption and Fostering (BAAF), to chair the independent assessment process. As a body working across the UK, campaigning for better outcomes for children, BAAF is well-placed to engage with the whole sector and formulate workable recommendations for consideration by Government. Further details of the assessment team and its terms of reference have been placed in the Library of the House.

Faith-based adoption agencies provide an extremely valuable service, particularly for the most vulnerable children. It is very important that local authorities continue to work with and support these agencies given the vital work that they do. I am confident that proposals will be identified which ensure that all agencies comply with the Regulations and at the same time allow their services and expertise to be retained and developed.


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Trade and Industry

BSB/ITV

The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Alistair Darling): On 26 February 2007, I issued an intervention notice under section 42(2) of the Enterprise Act 2002 in respect of British Sky Broadcasting Group’s acquisition of a 17.9 per cent. stake in ITV plc. This meant that, in accordance with sections 44 and 44A of the Enterprise Act, on 27 April I received reports from the Office of Fair Trading on the competition effects of the transaction and from Ofcom on the effects of the transaction on the public interest consideration specified in the intervention notice. I am now required to take a decision under section 45 of the Enterprise Act on whether to refer the transaction to the Competition Commission for fuller investigation. I have decided to refer the transaction to the Competition Commission under section 45(2) of the Enterprise Act.

In reaching this decision I have had regard to the provisions of the relevant legislation and have given careful consideration to the reports I received from the Office of Fair Trading and Ofcom, including the summaries of the submissions made by the parties and by third parties that are contained in those reports. I have also considered carefully the additional representations my Department subsequently received from British Sky Broadcasting and have obtained advice from Ofcom under section 106B of the Enterprise Act on questions raised in those additional representations. In accordance with section 106B(3) of the Enterprise Act, Ofcom will publish this further advice to me.

The Office of Fair Trading’s report includes their decisions that:

I am bound by the Enterprise Act to accept these decisions.

The report from Ofcom includes their conclusion that, as a result of the relevant merger situation, there may not be a sufficient plurality of persons with control of the media enterprises serving the UK cross-media audience for national news and the UK TV audience for national news. They advise that this may be expected to operate against the public interest and that a fuller investigation of the matter by the Competition Commission is warranted. In accordance with sections 107(3)(b) and (ba) and 107(9)(a) of the Act, I am today publishing the reports I received from the Office of Fair Trading and Ofcom.

I consider the statutory thresholds for making a reference provided in section 45(2) of the Enterprise Act are met in this case in that I believe that it is or may be the case that:


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This decision to make a reference under section 45(2) of the Enterprise Act 2002 means the Competition Commission will, in accordance with section 47(2) of that Act, decide whether a relevant merger situation has been created, whether the creation of that situation has resulted or may be expected to result in a substantial lessening of competition and whether, taking account of the specified public interest consideration concerned, the situation operates or may be expected to operate against the public interest. Detailed investigation by the Competition Commission means the effect of the transaction on competition and media plurality will be examined in depth enabling substantive conclusions to be reached on the basis of all the relevant arguments and facts. Under section 51 of the Enterprise Act, the Competition Commission is required to provide a report to me within 24 weeks of the date of the reference, although it may extend this deadline by up to eight weeks if there are special reasons why this is necessary.

Competitiveness Council

The Minister for Science and Innovation (Malcolm Wicks): The following statement provides information on the Competitiveness Council in Brussels on 21 and 22 May 2007, at which I represented the UK.

Day 1 Monday 21 May

The Council opened with a progress report on better regulation under the German Presidency. There were also Progress Reports from the Presidency on the Mutual Recognition (Goods) Regulation and on a Common Framework for the marketing of products (The New Approach). The Council noted progress on these dossiers without discussion.

Council Conclusions on Industrial Policy were adopted. The main debate revolved around sectoral issues. Compromise wording regarding the financing of ship building was agreed. Text was also agreed on plans to reduce CO2 emissions from cars, where Member states called on the Commission to carry out a full impact assessment.

At the request of several Member States, the Commission then presented its Consumer Policy Strategy which was published earlier this year. Member States did not intervene. A Council resolution is expected to be agreed at the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs (EPSCO) Council on 30 May.

The next item on the agenda was the Consumer Credit Directive on which political agreement was reached. Discussion centered on the optional threshold below which those repaying a loan early should not have to pay compensation to lenders for the loss of agreed interest. Eventually, Member States agreed to a compromise level of 10,000 Euros, thus enabling
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Political Agreement on a Common Position to be reached. The Netherlands and Greece voted against, and Belgium and Luxembourg abstained. I intervened to enter a minutes statement regretting the failure to carry out an impact assessment on this proposal and stressing that it should not set a precedent for other work in the field of financial services.

Day 2 Tuesday 22 May

The second day was devoted to Research and Space business.

The fourth meeting of the “Space Council” was held between the Competitiveness Council and the Council of the European Space Agency (ESA). I, along with a number of Space Ministers, made brief statements about the importance of a European Space Policy (ESP). The Council Resolution on European Space Policy was unanimously adopted after Ministers' interventions.

Under the research items, the Presidency reported on progress on negotiations on the European Institute of Technology on which I, and other Member States, noted a number of outstanding issues which needed to be resolved, notably concerning financing.

The Commission presented its first two proposals for Council regulations to establish Joint Technology Initiatives, one on innovative medicines and the other on embedded computing systems.

A discussion took place on the European Research Area Green Paper, following the exchange at the informal meeting in W1/4rzburg in May. Member States emphasised the importance of the debate and welcomed the Commission's consultation process.

Linked to this discussion, Council Conclusions were adopted on research infrastructures, inviting Member States to take forward the work of the European Strategic Forum on Research Infrastructures (ESFRI).

Items covering other business were taken over the two days.

Luxembourg raised concerns about the impact of the proposal for a Regulation on the law applicable to contractual obligations (Rome 1), I, supported by a number of other Member States, echoed Luxembourg's concerns about its potential impact on the single market and regretted the lack of an impact assessment.

In addition, the Council noted, without debate, information provided by the Presidency on the following items:


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The Council noted the information provided by the Commission concerning the Regulation on a globally harmonised system of classification and labelling.

The Council also noted information from the Commission regarding forthcoming proposals to establish joint national research programmes under Article 169 of the Treaty, to be presented during 2007 and 2008.

At Poland's request, the Council took note of the information on Poland's proposal to organize the exhibition EXPO 2012 in Wroclaw.

The Council noted the information provided by the Italian delegation on Milan's candidacy to host Expo 2015 with the theme of “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life”.

The Council took note of the information provided by the Portuguese delegation on the work programme of the incoming Presidency.

Transport

Regional Funding Allocations

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Gillian Merron): The regional funding allocations (RFAs) process has, for the first time, given regions a say in decision-making about transport schemes that affect them at the regional and local levels. In July last year, the Government responded to the RFA advice submitted by regional bodies, welcoming the significant progress which each region had made. Following this, the Department for Transport launched a consultation inviting views on how the processes which were put in place to develop the transport aspects of the advice could be further improved. A summary of the responses to this consultation has been placed in the Libraries of the House and can also be found on the Department's website at: www.dft.gov.uk.

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The Government are considering the options for taking the RFA exercise forward as part of the wider sub-national review of economic development and regeneration, which will report to my right hon. Friend the Chief Secretary to the Treasury ahead of the Comprehensive Spending Review 2007.


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Trust Ports

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): I am today announcing the publication of a report on future reform of the trust port sector. More than 50 ports in England and Wales are trust ports; independent statutory bodies, governed by unique local legislation and controlled by an independent board rather than shareholders. While many trust ports are no longer commercially active, the many that are include Dover and Milford Haven, two ports of prominent national significance, as well as other major ports such as the Tyne, and the Port of London Authority with its vital conservancy duties in the Thames estuary.

The Department wished to understand better how to optimise the efficiency and accountability of the major trust ports, and to this end, in January 2007 appointed PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP (PwC) to carry out a study of the sector, including an analysis of the ports’ efficiency, accountability to stakeholders and options for voluntary corporate restructuring. While the study concerned primarily the six largest commercial trust ports, its findings will be of interest to all trust ports, and to the wider ports industry.

In broad terms, the report concludes that the trust model retains a legitimate role within a mixed ports sector but that, in the absence of shareholders, trust ports should do more to identify, and account for, the use of their profits—what the report terms their ‘stakeholder dividend’. The report also concludes that, while the largest trust ports operate on a sound commercial basis, in some cases their financial performance falls short of that of their private sector comparators, and recommends a series of measures to ensure that these important pieces of national infrastructure are able to meet their potential. Levels of accountability among trust ports are also found generally to be good, but with room for improvement, and the resultant recommendations point towards enhanced reporting and updated governance arrangements. PwC explored various voluntary options for structural change including the creation of an operating subsidiary below the level of the trust board, which could involve private sector participation.

The study represents a valuable contribution to the debate on the trust port sector. The various recommendations contained in the report have been considered and the Government will bring forward refreshed guidance for trust ports in England and Wales later this year, following further discussion with the industry based on these recommendations. Copies of the report are available in the Libraries of both Houses.


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