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Written Ministerial Statements

Tuesday 12 June 2007

Communities and Local Government

Bellwin Scheme (Babergh District Council)

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): I am satisfied that financial assistance under the Bellwin scheme is justified to cover costs incurred by the council following exceptionally severe storms in the area on 18 January 2007.

A scheme will therefore be established under section 155 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989. Grant will be paid to the authority to cover 85 per cent. of its eligible costs incurred above a threshold.

Discrimination Law Review

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Ruth Kelly): The Government are today publishing their consultation following the Discrimination Law Review. Along with the Equalities Review and the establishment of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights, the Discrimination Law Review is an important part of the Government's agenda for moving forward equality issues.

The task of the Discrimination Law Review has been to undertake a fundamental review of discrimination legislation in Great Britain and bring forward proposals for a clearer and more streamlined equality legislation framework which produces better outcomes for those who experience disadvantage.

The Review's three main objectives are to simplify, make more effective and modernise our framework of discrimination law. The consultation puts forward a package of proposals to achieve these objectives. The law needs to work alongside effective social policy measures and strong institutions to promote a culture of fairness, participation for all and respect for each other's rights. It needs to provide a framework of rights and responsibilities which is clearer and more consistent, while recognising that approaches need to be appropriate to the particular experiences of those facing discrimination, and proportionate to the size of the problem.

The response to the consultation will contribute to preparations for a Single Equality Bill which the Government are committed to introducing during this Parliament.

Copies of the consultation and relevant documents will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

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Oil Depot Explosion (Hemel Hempstead)

The Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Ruth Kelly): The House will recall the scale of the fire and explosions that took place at the Buncefield fuel depot on 11 December 2005. On the following day the Deputy Prime Minister made a statement to the House thanking the emergency services, the voluntary services, local authority staff, Government officials and local people for the magnificent way in which they had responded to the event. In response to a recent request (Business Questions 17 May 2007) from the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) the Leader of the House asked for a statement on progress.

Following on from earlier visits made by the Deputy Prime Minister and the then fire Minister, I visited the area in July last year and met with many of those who had been affected directly or had a role to play in facilitating the recovery process. I maintain a close interest in how matters are progressing and I am aware that more remains to be done.

The House will be aware that on 20 December 2005 the Health and Safety Commission (HSC) announced that it had asked the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Environment Agency to investigate the incident at the Buncefield oil depot and to appoint an Investigation Board with an independent chair. This reflected the Commission's view that an independent investigation offered the best prospect of ensuring early identification and sharing of lessons learned and for these reasons would be in the best interests of health and safety.

The establishment of an independent Investigation Board, under the chairmanship of the right hon. Lord Newton of Braintree, to oversee detailed investigation into key aspects of the Buncefield incident is ensuring that information is swiftly made available to the public, subject only to legal considerations. The Board is conducting its business openly, in close consultation with key stakeholders including members of the affected community. So far, five reports have been issued within a 15 month period, all of which are available from the official investigation website located at http://www.buncefieldinvestigation.gov.uk/.

The Board has been working on the four areas of concern it identified last July, and has already begun to issue recommendations. The first set of recommendations, relating to the design and operation of fuel storage sites, were published in March, and a further set on emergency planning, response and recovery, is currently in preparation.

I have written direct to the hon Member.


Veterans' Health

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Derek Twigg): The Government have been considering what more could be done to support veterans suffering from mental health problems which
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are related to their active service. As a first step to help these veterans, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) has decided to extend the scope of the Medical Assessment Programme (MAP), based at St Thomas's Hospital, London, to any veteran suffering mental health problems who has served in operations since 1982. This will include veterans of the Falklands Conflict. The MAP will not provide treatment but will offer an assessment by an expert in the mental health problems that arise from military service, including, where appropriate, a recommendation to the individual and their GP for treatment. Veterans who have concerns about their mental health should seek a referral to the MAP by their doctor; the cost of the assessment will be borne by the MOD. For the longer term, the MOD is working in partnership with four UK Health Departments and a number of Mental Health Trusts to pilot a new community-based model of mental health service for veterans. The intention is to provide a service for veterans, offering expertise in veterans' mental health problems across the UK. This scheme will be piloted in five or six locations across the UK, with the first expected to be launched in the summer.

The MOD has also decided that personnel, both Service and civilian, who have served in this theatre on Operation HERRICK and have wider concerns about the effect of their Service on their health can be referred to the MAP for examination; this extends the arrangement already available for veterans of the 1990-91 Gulf Conflict and the current Iraq deployment (Operation TELIC). GPs will be informed of the outcome of the medical assessment with recommendations for further action where necessary.

Finally, reflecting the health concerns that have followed major operational deployments in the past, we have agreed a three-year extension to our original Operation TELIC health-monitoring research project being undertaken by the King's Centre for Military Health Research. It will also cover Service personnel deployed to Afghanistan.

Territorial Army (100th Anniversary)

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram): I am pleased to announce that the Centenary anniversary of the Territorial Army (TA), and the Reserve Forces and Cadets Association (RFCA) will be commemorated in the United Kingdom in 2008. The commemorations, which will be designated “TA100”, will commence from the anniversary on 1 April 2008. The main national level event will take place on Horse Guards Parade on Saturday 21 June 2008, and between April 2008 and Remembrance Day 2008 there will be a number of regional and local activities, with a broad emphasis on TA veterans and members of the TA currently deployed on operations. The Army will be working with the RFCAs, the Service Personnel and Veterans Agency, the National Army Museum, Regimental and Corps museums and Service charities to plan events throughout the United Kingdom. Further details will be made available in due course.

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Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Agriculture and Fisheries Council

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

The Presidency will seek political agreements on a multi-annual plan for cod stocks in the Baltic Sea and the conclusion of the Fisheries Partnership Agreement between the EC and the Government of Denmark and the Home Rule Government of Greenland.

The Council is expected to adopt conclusions on a policy to reduce unwanted by-catches and eliminate discards in European fisheries.

The Council is expected to adopt conclusions on the Commission's report on cross-compliance. The report forms the first stage of the Commission's review of cross compliance with planned implementation of at least some measures by the end of 2007. It deals with administrative issues such as inspection and enforcement arrangements.

The Presidency will seek political agreement on a number of agricultural items on the agenda: establishing a common organisation of agricultural markets which replaces the existing 21 sector-specific Common Market Organisations into a single Regulation; reform of the fruit and vegetable sector; and (possibly) organic production and labelling of organic products.

A number of issues, as follows, will be raised under any other business:

EU Environment Ministers

The Minister for Climate Change and the Environment (Ian Pearson): On 1-3 June, I met Environment Ministers from EU Member States, candidate countries, the EFTA countries and the European Commission, at an informal Ministerial meeting in Essen, Germany on the theme of “Environment-Innovation-Employment”. We discussed issues relating to the main challenges and opportunities in the field of eco-innovation. The discussions were productive and I attach the chair's conclusions for Members’ information.

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Ministers recognised that environmental technologies and eco-innovations are one of the strongest pillars of Europe's economy. If we are to maintain economic growth and European prosperity then simply continuing to operate in the way we have done is not an option. We must move to a more efficient, sustainable and low carbon economy. To achieve this, Ministers noted that we must create new solutions and technologies.

At Spring European Council, Member States called for the Commission to propose in 2008 an integrated strategy for the promotion of eco-innovation, and this discussion was a chance for Environment Ministers to offer guidance on what it should contain. In this regard, Ministers discussed the need for efficient and ambitious policies that support enterprise and eco-innovation. We discussed a potential review of the impact of key EU policies on eco-innovation, upcoming opportunities such as the review of the Lisbon strategy and the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, and the potential of economic instruments to promote eco-innovation. The Commission's work on lead (or priority) markets in innovation, green public procurement and the existing Environmental Technologies Action Plan, would all make a contribution to this. Such a comprehensive approach should lead to more sustainable patterns of consumption and production, while enabling the EU's businesses to take leadership in expanding global markets for green technologies.

Demand for low carbon and resource-efficient products and technologies is set to grow fast. Environmental performance will therefore play an increasingly important role when it comes to competitiveness. Ministers discussed a number of different policy instruments which could support the innovation process and which could contribute to the integrated strategy for the promotion of eco-innovation. Ministers therefore emphasised that the joint efforts of policy makers in all sectors, will be crucial to create the market conditions that will incentivise the increases in investment that will enable a transition to a low-carbon, resource-efficient economy.

I highlighted that any approach to eco-innovation and the transition to a low-carbon economy must work with market forces, where governments seek to intervene to address instances of market failure. It would also be important to work closely with industry to better understand the economic opportunities and what governments could do to help. We should use better regulation to create the right conditions for new technologies to compete on the mass market, and ensure a consistent long-term policy framework gives the private sector the security they need to make investments, citing the Climate Change Bill and Energy White Paper as examples of the UK approach to achieving this.

Low Pathogenic Avian Influenza

The Minister for Local Environment, Marine and Animal Welfare (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): My hon. Friend the Minister of State with responsibility for Public Health and I would like to update the House on events since the recent case of low pathogenic avian influenza near Corwen in North Wales. On 17 May, a private veterinary surgeon contacted the Veterinary Laboratories Agency (VLA) in Shrewsbury, as well as
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Animal Health (formerly the State Veterinary Service) in Caernarfon and Defra, following the deaths of 10 chickens over a number of days on a farm near Corwen. Late that day he sent three chickens to Shrewsbury for testing and samples were then sent to VLA headquarters in Weybridge, Surrey for further tests. This was treated as a routine investigation due to the lack of any suspicion of an avian notifiable disease.

On the morning of 23 May, VLA notified Defra that preliminary results indicated the presence of the H7 strain of avian influenza. Veterinary officers from Caernarfon immediately visited the farm in Corwen and placed restrictions on the premises. Animal Health also began tracing the birds back to Chelford market in Cheshire on 7 May and investigating premises that had also received birds from that day's market.

From the first preliminary notification of H7 avian influenza, it was agreed that a strict public health protocol be applied to limit the exposure of persons to possible infection. Pre-exposure prophylactic antiviral Oseltamivir (otherwise known as Tamiflu) was offered to those who would potentially be exposed during the outbreak investigation and control operations. Immediate treatment was provided to anyone who had been exposed to infected birds since the onset of symptoms of disease. The National Public Health Service for Wales (NPHS Wales) led the public health response in collaboration with the Health Protection Agency (HPA).

That afternoon, the Chief Veterinary Officers for the United Kingdom and for Wales decided that the remaining birds on the premises should be slaughtered on suspicion of avian influenza. Tracing of possible human contacts with birds at the infected premises and through the supplying Chelford market was immediately put in place. By 24 May, seven people were under investigation, having reported flu-like illness and associated with contact with two premises with sick birds. Four of these tested positive for either influenza A or H7 infection. All four were presumed confirmed cases of infection associated with this outbreak and three had been hospitalised and were recovering. Given the serious nature of illness seen in three of the four confirmed cases, and because the possibility of person to person transmission could not be ruled out, a precautionary approach was taken with respect to antiviral prophylaxis. Overall, over 360 people were identified as possible contacts or cases associated with this incident, though only four cases of infection were confirmed. The Food Standards Agency re-stated their advice that there is no risk in eating any sort of properly-cooked poultry or eggs.

On 24 May the VLA confirmed the results as low pathogenic H7N2 avian influenza. The CVO Wales then confirmed disease and the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) rapidly made an announcement and put their contingency plans into action. The WAG immediately imposed a 1km restricted zone around the infected premises which was judged proportionate for a case of low pathogenic disease.

The CVO UK notified the European Commission and the International Animal Health Organisation. The Department of Health briefed the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, alerted the World Health Organisation and disseminated an alert through the EU Early Warning and Response System.
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Animal Health issued a text alert to all poultry keepers on the Great Britain poultry register and established a Local Disease Control Centre in Caernarfon and a National Disease Control Centre to co-ordinate the response. The WAG also established a Co-ordination Centre to co-ordinate the human and animal health issues in Wales. On 25 May the Cabinet Office convened an official-level meeting of the Civil Contingencies Committee (known as COBR) to ensure cross-Government co-ordination.

By the afternoon of 24 May, Animal Health had completed the humane culling of all remaining birds on the infected premises. Based on expert advice, all bird gatherings involving chickens and ducks were banned in England, Wales and Scotland due to the uncertainties around the movement of those species through Chelford market.

Animal Health has now investigated over 200 tracings and taken samples from birds on all the premises identified apart from one. The majority of those tracings have proved negative and the rest are still awaiting results and are under restrictions. One of those premises, in St Helens, Lancashire, proved positive from low pathogenic H7 on 7 June and almost all the birds involved have been culled and a further 1 km restriction zone placed around those premises.

HPA and NPHS Wales have not found any further confirmed human cases of disease. For these reasons, all bird gatherings were permitted again on 1 June. The HPA and NPHS Wales will continue to actively review any human case of influenza-like illness that might be linked to this incident but tests on suspect cases to date (apart from the original four cases) have all been negative.

The WAG intend to lift the restricted zone around the infected premises in Corwen on 15 June, which is the required period of 21 days following the completion of preliminary cleansing and disinfection.

Once we have completed our tracings and testing, we intend to publish an epidemiological report into the origins of this disease in the next month. We are also conducting a lessons learned exercise which we hope to publish in September. We are committed to learning any lessons.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank our partners both in Wales and those working on human health, as well as Defra, VLA and Animal Health staff, who all worked tirelessly throughout the bank holiday weekend to contain the disease and for a well co-ordinated and successful response.

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