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Written Ministerial Statements

Thursday 7 June 2007

Communities and Local Government

Local Government

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): On 27 March, I announced, following our assessment of responses to our Invitation to Councils, which unitary proposals would proceed to stakeholder consultation.

Sixteen proposals in 13 areas across England are currently out to consultation, after initial assessment against the Government's strict criteria which require that they are affordable and will provide stronger leadership, improve public services, empower local communities and have a broad cross-section of support.

No decisions have been made about which of these proposals may be implemented. However if more proposals are assessed as meeting the criteria than we consider are affordable under fiscal rules on the use of reserves to finance transitional costs, then as the Government propose to prioritise those proposals. I also announced on 27 March that we would consult during our main stakeholder consultation on the proposed means of prioritising restructuring proposals.

We are launching the consultation today, seeking the views of partners and stakeholders affected by the proposals. It is however, open to anyone to respond to the consultation document, copies of which are available in the Libraries of both Houses.

The consultation will run until 18 July.

Culture, Media and Sport

Education, Youth and Culture Council

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Shaun Woodward): A meeting of the Education, Youth and Culture Council was held on 24 and 25 May. I represented the UK for the Cultural and Audiovisual agenda items taken on 24 May.

The main agenda item discussed was the new Audiovisual Media Services Directive. The Council reached unanimous political agreement on this new directive, which revises and updates the current Television Without Frontiers Directive. The text that the Council agreed is the basis of a final deal with the European Parliament. The UK strongly supports the text, in which the country-of-origin principle has been preserved and the scope has been limited to television broadcasting and television-like on-demand services.

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The German presidency also introduced the Council conclusions on the contribution of the cultural and creative sectors to the achievement of the Lisbon objectives. The Council agreed to adopt these conclusions. The outcome of this agreement is that the member states (including the UK) have committed themselves to promoting evidence-based policy making; to strengthening the link between education, training, and the cultural and creative sectors; to maximising the potential of small/medium enterprises (SMEs) in these sectors; and to making better use of existing structures, programmes and initiatives.

These conclusions were supported by the UK and their adoption, together with the backing of the Council for assisting cultural SMEs and improving data on the economic benefits of the cultural and creative sectors, can be considered a real success.

Under AOB, Ireland and Greece were selected, by way of a draw, to nominate members of the selection panel for the European Capital of Culture events from 2011-15.

The presidency forwarded the draft modus operandi on the Work Plan for Culture to the incoming Portuguese presidency, with a view to continuing work on this issue in the context of the drafting of the new Work Plan for Culture in the second half of 2007.

The Commission presented its proposed communication on the role of Culture in a Globalizing World which examines the role of culture in Europe and how the European Union can add value.

The incoming Portuguese presidency announced it would host a Ministerial Cultural Forum from 24 to 26 September 2007.


Improved Support to Families

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): We are committed to supporting the families of UK service personnel who have died in service, including on operations overseas. A number of initiatives are being taken to improve the help we offer them.

When a service person dies, the service appoints a visiting officer to help the family cope with bereavement. The role of visiting officers is crucial in providing the liaison between families and the services; they are there for the family for as long as the family wishes. Each family has different needs and we strive to ensure that each family receives a personal service to meet their needs as far as possible. We continue to make improvements to the way that we select and train our visiting officers, and to the guidance that we give to help them in this demanding role, which is regularly updated. The Ministry of Defence (MOD) Casualty and Compassionate Policy and Procedures are kept under continual review to ensure current policy meets the expectations of bereaved families and guidance for visiting officers is regularly updated.

We have increased the number of family members (from five to seven) eligible to receive travel, accommodation and subsistence, at public expense, to attend the repatriation ceremony. We provide travel,
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accommodation and subsistence payments for two members of the family to attend the inquest at public expense, and we have extended this entitlement to enable two family members to attend any pre-inquest hearings.

In addition to existing arrangements for all three services through the Joint Casualty Compassionate Cell, a dedicated team has been established within the MOD to improve our liaison with local coroners dealing with inquests into Army casualties, and to ensure that there are no unnecessary delays in responding to the coroner’s requests that would delay the start of the inquest. The team oversees arrangements for the preparation of information for inquests, and ensures that appropriate MOD officials are made available to brief coroners on technical or specific military matters.

We have produced detailed guidance for the services on the disclosure of board of inquiry (BOI) reports. This includes instructions on how information from third parties should be presented to enable the family to more easily follow the narrative. This will in turn help families to identify any additional witnesses who they would like the coroner to invite to attend the inquest. Our guidance also makes it clear that the coroner is normally to be provided with a copy of the full BOI report for his own use.

Over the next few months we will make further improvements. We will provide better information for families on BOIs. Where a BOI is held, families will be briefed at the outset of the inquiry to ensure they understand the board’s purpose; they will be offered an early meeting to discuss specific issues or any questions they may have. Families will be kept informed of the board’s progress, in person where possible or by letter every four weeks or so, until a copy of the report is made available to the family, at which point they will be invited to receive another briefing if they wish.

We will publish a leaflet to help service families understand the nature and purpose of BOIs and coroners’ inquests and their role in the inquest as interested persons for example, the right to ask questions. This will build on information already made available by the Ministry of Justice on coroners’ work generally.

We will provide additional guidance to presidents of BOIs which will complement current single service guidance and provide advice to board presidents on matters which affect the families. This will include understanding the wider uses to which BOI findings will be put, particularly in supporting the inquest process.

The majority of BOIs are conducted by the Army, so we are planning the appointment of permanent presidents for Army BOIs to deliver a more consistent approach to the conduct of their inquiries and to prevent unnecessary delay.

In the longer term the Armed Forces Act 2006 will introduce a harmonised service inquiry system which will provide a single form of statutory inquiry to replace BOIs and some of the lower level inquiries. As now, the new provisions will give the services the power to investigate any matter internally to find out what happened and to reduce the risk of it happening again. Training will be given and detailed guidance will
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accompany the introduction of the new service inquiries by 2009. This will bring a more coherent approach to the way in which circumstances surrounding serious incidents are examined in the future.

It is MOD policy to arrange a funeral at public expense or to provide funding towards the cost of a private funeral dependent upon the family’s wish. We are committed to helping families defray the costs of the funeral and we are increasing by £1,000 the funeral grant for private funerals. The new rates range from £2,190 to £2,760. For those who choose a service funeral, we are expanding the items covered to include expenses associated with such things as books of condolence, transport and notices in the press. In addition, for service funerals, we plan to give the next of kin of deceased service personnel a grant of £500 to contribute towards any personal costs they might incur as a result of their bereavement.

Under current legislation, an inquest may be transferred from one coroner to another within England and Wales with the agreement of the other coroner. The law requires that the body should still be lying in the first coroner’s district when the request is made. Since late December 2006 the practice of the Oxfordshire coroner was to transfer single death inquests where possible to the coroner with jurisdiction closer to the next of kin. Local inquests should be more convenient for families and will enable them to have the support of family and friends who may wish to attend the inquest. With effect from 1 April 2007 the facilities at RAF Brize Norton in the Oxfordshire coroner’s jurisdiction have not been available for repatriation ceremonies and bodies of service personnel are currently being repatriated via RAF Lyneham in the Wiltshire and Swindon coroner's jurisdiction. The Wiltshire and Swindon coroner is continuing the practice of transferring single deaths to other coroner’s jurisdiction.

There is no provision for inquests in Scotland. A fatal accident inquiry will be heard in certain circumstances but as the law currently stands there is no provision for a fatal accident inquiry to be held on any death occurring outside Scotland. A coroner may only transfer an inquest to another coroner within England and Wales so there is no provision for the inquest to be transferred to Scotland. The coroner may, however, transfer jurisdiction to a coroner in the north of England if this suited the family. We have written to the Scottish Executive to explore whether inquiries into the deaths of service personnel can take place in Scotland.

We continue to work closely with the Ministry of Justice to improve our support to coroners, which in turn will help families during the inquest process. We have agreed arrangements to support the Oxfordshire coroner to deal with the backlog of inquests of servicemen and women who have died overseas which fall within his jurisdiction and ministerial statements have been made to the House on 5 June, 12 June and 18 December 2006 and on 29 March 2007 with information about the progress of these inquests.

We owe a huge debt of gratitude to all our service personnel who have died on operations and we will continue to provide our best possible support to their families through very difficult times.

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Education and Skills

Education and Youth Council

The Minister for Higher Education and Lifelong Learning (Bill Rammell): I attended the Education Council on behalf on the UK; Anne Lambert (Deputy Permanent Representative to the EU) attended the Youth Council.

Ministers discussed the following issues:


Conclusions on a coherent framework of indicators and benchmarks for monitoring progress towards the Lisbon objectives in education and training

Evidence-based policy-making in the field of education


Resolution on creating equal opportunities for all young people

Conclusions on future perspectives for European cooperation in the field of youth policy



Medicines Development

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Caroline Flint): The Government are sponsoring a leaflet on medicines development. The leaflet has been placed in the Library and copies are available to hon. Members from the Vote Office.

The leaflet has been produced by the Coalition for Medical Progress (CMP) to raise general public awareness about how medicines are developed, and covers the use of animals in medicines research and testing, through to clinical trials and licensing. The CMP will make the leaflet available for six months in around 60 per cent. of GP practices in England.

Prime Minister

House of Lords Appointments Commission

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): I have today placed copies of the House of Lords Appointments Commission Annual Report 2006-07 in the Libraries of both Houses. I am grateful to the members of the Commission for the report and their valuable work.


Traffic Management Act 2004

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Gillian Merron): The Department for Transport has today published a revised timetable for delivery of the Traffic Management Act 2004 regulations. The Act gives local authorities additional tools to tackle congestion and reduce disruption on the road network for the benefit of the travelling public.

In recent months, the Department has made considerable progress on the delivery of these regulations. We have held public consultations on the draft guidance on intervention criteria, on regulations for street works, on regulations for permits and the civil enforcement of parking, These regulations are all nearing implementation, or have been implemented having considered the responses raised in the consultations.

It is important to take the time to get the regulations and associated codes of practices right, as rushing the project risks creating regulations that are unworkable or will not stand the test of time.

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The timetable has been updated to reflect:

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