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26 Jun 2007 : Column 51WHcontinued
The roots of protocol 3 can be found in the treaty of Rome 1957, which applies to European territories for whose external relations a member statein other words, usis responsible. That is how they got included. When we looked to membership of the EU, the islands saw three ways in which their relationship with the Community could develop: they could become part of it, become independent, or create this special relationship. Their primary concerns were to retain unchanged the link with the British Crown, which is 100 years old, and to protect their indigenous industries, which principally areor were thenhorticulture and agriculture. That led to the negotiated settlement that was unchanged by the treaty on European Union 1993 and the treaty of Amsterdam 1997 and so on.
I set out that relationship in order to emphasise the constitutional position and who is responsible for enforcement of the directives.
Dr. Gibson: Is it possible that the islands might go for self-rule?
Vera Baird: Well, I really do not know. That is a matter for them and not an issue on which the Ministry of Justice is actively engaged. But it was a very interesting question.
My hon. Friend raised more specific concerns about the medicinal claims, supplements and suppliers of food supplements. That is the thrust of it, although there is a question also about the impact of the Channel Islands VAT-free status on the UK food and medicinal products industry. I am sorry if he thinks that we have changed our minds. We have more full legal advice and, having seen Treasury solicitors communications, are satisfied that these EU directives apply.
Discussion continues between this Government and those of the Channel Islands, but I am told that we have been reassured through those discussions that Guernsey, in particular, which might not have been quite so receptive to our conversations, is committed to matching international standards in these products and to ensuring that they apply in Guernsey. Of course there is an internal issue that knocks on to us and which is highly relevant to its own good governance and people. There has been substantial recent dialogue between the Guernsey Government and UK officials to seek agreement on what the UK can expect to see in Guernseys legislation.
My hon. Friend referred to legislation on the quality of those products. The UK is negotiating to ensure that this legislation meets obligations to its own people and ours. Officials in my Department continue to talk to Guernsey representatives to ensure that our concerns are understood properly. I think that they can be relied upon to do that with considerable forcefulness. And there are grounds for optimism. Guernseys Parliament has approved the preparation of legislation to regulate the manufacture, supply, export, labelling and prescribing of medicines with the express twin aims of ensuring that the requirements of the MHRA are met and of safeguarding the reputation of the islands. That must be a very important tool in the whole issue. Legislation has been drafted and has gone out to consultation which closed recently. Guernseys authorities are currently
considering the results of that consultation process and remain committed to ensuring that all legitimate concerns are met.
To put it colloquially, clearly the Ministry of Justice is working with UK policy makers to persuade the Crown dependencies that not only is the export of unregulated products in the UK a problem for us, but is bad news for them as well, because their reputation and relationship with us, upon which much weight was laid at the time of the treaty of accession, as I have said already, remain hugely important to them. Of course, if they fail to meet international standards for regulation, supervision and governance, they stand to lose a huge amount of that reputation and good will.
Obviously, there is justification for ensuring that Crown dependencies are subject to the sort of constraints applied in the UK, and the Ministry of Justice is hoping to move the Crown dependency Governments to an acceptable position although also we need to have regard to the indigenous industries of those dependencies.
The Food Standards Agency and the Health Food Manufacturers Associationthe UK industry lobbyof which my hon. Friend has spoken, have recently met to talk about the two issues of quality and competitiveness, and the impact on the UK market. My officials were party to those discussions. I hope that that gives my hon. Friend some reassurance about my Departments determination to ensure that good quality and good standards are dealt with by legislation.
Low-value VAT-free imports from the Channel Islands, whether they are health food supplements or CDs and DVDsthat is the other big issue, but my hon. Friend is concerned about health food supplementsdo have or are capable of having negative effects on the UK economy, and the issue is kept under close scrutiny by the Treasury.
The current position is that all goods posted to the UK from outside the EU are normally subject to UK VAT, but for consignments under £18 in value, no VAT is charged. That applies to consignments from the Channel Islands because they are outside the EU. It is goods valued under £18 that cause a certain amount of difficulty. Although the goods are given a benefit in competing with indigenous UK goods, it is a perfectly legitimate position at law that those exports are not subject to VAT. The Governments of the Channel Islands are very aware of UK concerns about competition and, in particular, the medicinal products about which my hon. Friend is worried but, again, we have to strike a balance.
Are the Government in the Channel Islands, whether it is Guernsey, Jersey or whereveror the Isle of Man, for that matterconcerned about the products that are unregulated and in respect of which false claims are made about their effectiveness? In this country, we have an organisation called NICE that makes life very hard for many new products. Seemingly, for products from these other dependencies, anything
goes. The companies involved advertise widely in this country with their literature.
Vera Baird: My hon. Friend makes a very strong point. NICE has been very influential and powerful in this regard, and I can see what he means about advertisements. What I can refer to is limited to what I have said here already, which is that my Department is trying to drive the Guernsey Government into legislating, as they now seem to be doing, to ensure that both quality and the way in which the goods are promoted are controlled. I hope that in due course a bundle of legislation emerges from the current consultation, which we will then have further input into. As I have said, we are talking to the UK trade and industrial representatives about the issue. I hope that we can ensure that there is protection of a kind that we would wish to have for all people in our country.
A fairly obvious point, although a pretty easy one to miss because we are the victims, in heavily inverted commas, of the exportsimports, to usis that there is, none the less, an impact on the people of the Channel Islands. That is a very important point and one that we have to make to those Governments. It is not the case that two different qualities of product are being produced and marketed. Exactly the same damageif damage is being donewill be inflicted on Channel islanders as will be inflicted on the UK. That is a powerful piece of leverage.
The enormous amount of publicity in which my hon. Friend has played a role and the parliamentary questions that have been raised recently about these issues must have had an impact on UK public opinion, but presumably also on Channel Islands public opinion about the way in which the relevant businesses have historically been conducted. That is probably a reasonable deduction by me, but I can assure my hon. Friend that the Channel Islands Governments are apprised of our concern. In all the negotiations, we have to strike a balance, because we do not want to spoil indigenous, established, local businesses in the Channel Islands, but there has to be a very strict limit on our tolerance. Indirect tax advantages and access to UK markets, if they become increasingly detrimental to the UK economy, have to be revisited.
Returning to the crux of the debate, I am told that, today, GuernseyI think that Guernsey is the important one in this regardhas reiterated that its underlying policy is that it is essential that the island has similar legal provision to that of the UK. In particular, provision is to be made to ensure regulation to UK standards of the quality of medicinal products throughout the entire supply chain.
I was sufficiently taken by surprise when I read in my note that today the Guernsey authorities had reiterated that underlying policy that I asked those who advise me whether the imminence of my hon. Friends debate here today had played any role in recent contacts. I am pleased to say that it has been confirmed to me that it is almost certainly the case that initiating this debate today has brought that reaffirmation. It is a clear and up-to-date reaffirmation of the policy, which I hope goes some way towards alleviating his concerns.
Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch) (Con): I am delighted that the Minister is in his place and that we are starting this very important debate early. May I put the issue in context? It is one of the hottest local issues in my constituency. On 19 June, Christchurch borough council, which has recently been voted the most improved district council in the countryI am delighted that the leader of that council is coming along to follow the debate todaypassed a resolution in the following terms:
This Council is appalled at the proposal to close the Jobcentre Plus Christchurch office as contained in the Jobcentre Plus District Managers letter dated 17 May 2007. This Council objects most strongly to the proposals which would lead to the loss of a vital local service causing unnecessary distress and inconvenience to some of the Boroughs most vulnerable and needy residents especially those who would have to travel to the Bournemouth Jobcentre Plus office.
On Thursday 21 June, there was a public meeting at the Grange school in Christchurch, which is in the heart of the most deprived area of the Christchurch constituency and one of the most deprived wards of any borough in the whole of south-west England. I think that it is fair to say that many customers of the Jobcentre plus office come from that area. At the meeting, which was very well attended, there was a unanimous vote of all those present, other than members of the civil service, in support of that resolution. As a further indication of how strongly the issue is running in the local community, a petition that will be presented to Parliament before the end of the consultation period has already gathered more than 4,000 signatures. This is a big local issue.
I am somewhat perplexed about the Ministers role in the proposal to close the Jobcentre Plus office. He wrote to me on 15 May, saying:
Since the original Service Delivery Plan was developed we have seen significant reductions in our running costs budgets in relation to both salaries and non-salary funding. This is linked to reductions in staff numbers and a pressure on the size of our estate and the continued low levels of customers in the catchment area.
The area manager, who came to the public meeting last Thursday, said that his department had to shed 30,000 jobs in the three years to March 2008. The Minister wrote that letter as though the reductions in running costs budgets were not his responsibility, but if he is not responsible for the requirement, who is? Is it the Chancellor of the Exchequer, perhaps? Is the Minister not also responsible, not for the administration of those reductions but for ensuring that the implementation of any budget cuts is rational, fair and puts the customer or client first?
The Ministers letter of 15 May further states:
These combined pressures on resources
it does not say, of course, that they are self-inflicted
and relatively low numbers of customers lead us to believe that closure of this site is a reasonable way forward.
Yet, I am not even sure whether the Minister knows how many customers there are. Following his letter, I tabled a series of questions for answer on 23 May. In one, I asked
how many people obtained advice on benefits from the Christchurch office of Jobcentre Plus in each of the last six months[Official Report, 14 July 2007; Vol. 461, c. 1292W.]
On 14 Junethree weeks lateMel Groves, the acting chief executive of Jobcentre Plus, told me that information about customer usage is not recorded. Then, however, I was told that customers who visited the office would be asked to complete a questionnaire as part of the consultation so that usage could be analysed. Surely, that survey should have been done before the Minister accepted the proposal to close the jobcentre for consultation. How could he assert in his letter to me that the number of customers was relatively low when he did not even know the number? Surely, the business case for closure must have been submitted to the Minister once it had been approved by the Jobcentre Plus board. That was certainly the information that I was given, so why does the Minister refuse to disclose the details? Is it because that would reveal that the basic information needed to justify the closure is not available?
The issue of numbers was much discussed at the public meeting. The area manager said that there were 1,440 sickness and disability benefit claimants, but that is 15 per cent. less than the 1,720 referred to in Mel Grovess letter of 14 June, which was annexed to the Ministers written answer of the same date. That is a 15 per cent. reduction in one week. Which of those figures is correct? How do we know? Does the Minister also realise that only pre-booked customers are being given questionnaires and that those who use the jobpoints, telephones or interview rooms do not receive them?
Last October, the jobcentre manager did an exercise, which showed that there were
over 1,200 visits by customers to the Christchurch office to use the jobpoints or the free telephones[Official Report, 14 December 2006; Vol. 454, c. 1338W.]
The Minister shared that information with me in a written answer late last year, but it appears not to have been updated. Is it in the business plan for closure? What is proposed for the users of jobpoints and free telephone services in the event of closure? At last Thursdays public meeting, the area manager could say only that he would be interested in proposals to relocate those services locally. Surely, specific proposals along those lines, together with the costs of implementation, should form part of the business plan. If the Government are serious about maintaining that service, and it cannot be maintained in the office because the office is closed, why have they not engaged in discussions and reached conclusions on a hypothetical basis? Part of any normal business planning arrangement would be to ask how one would replicate the essential elements of a local service that was to be closed down so that local people could access them.
What about the valuable work of some of the other specialist services at the jobcentre? The jobcentre employs seven full-time and three or four part-time staff. We are told that there are too many staff in the service, and the number of staff at the managerial level could be reduced if that was the Ministers decision. However, there is no evidence that the staff at Christchurch are under-employed, although if there was evidence to that effect, the numbers could be reduced accordingly.
One member of staff who certainly could not be removed, however, is the disability employment adviser. That officerI hope that the Minister will pay heed to
thisnot only gets people who are out of work into work, but works closely with local employers to ensure that disabled people who are already in work stay in work. Let me give one example. The local B&Q store has a policy of referring disabled employees to the disability employment adviser if there is a problem at work. B&Q does that to ensure that it can continue to employ those disabled people, so the adviser plays an important role. Is the Minister saying that those people should have to go all the way down to Bournemouth to have contact with a disability employment adviser? The arrangement with B&Q shows the close way in which the local office works with local employers.
What about the work of Connexionsthe organisation whose name is not spelled correctly, but which adds to the advice that is available to young people? That organisation comes to the jobcentre every Thursday and arranges things in such a way that it can interview young people about job prospects at the same time as they are being interviewed about benefits. That takes place in one of the interview rooms, but how will it be replicated if the jobcentre is closed?
A whole host of other activities take place in the jobcentre, although I am not sure whether the Minister is aware of them. If he is, what alternative proposals have been made in the event of closure? I assume that he would want to be satisfied that the activities that I have outlined had been drawn to his attention and were part of the business case for closure before he was prepared to accept it.
Another issue, which was raised by the former mayor, who is disabled and a former user of the jobcentres services, was whether a social cost-benefit analysis had been done on the proposals. Those present also asked whether an environmental cost-benefit analysis had been done. There is much talk about the need to reduce travel, but does the Minister have before him in the business plan any indication of the extra travel that customers and staff would need to undertake? At the meeting, it was said that certain categories of customer would be able to have their travel costs paid, but that does not alter the fact that there would be additional travel as a result of the closure, which would have environmental consequences, or that many people who use the jobcentre would not have their travel costs paid when they went to an alternative location. In essence, therefore, my question is whether the Minister has been given a full picture of what happens in the jobcentre and what will happen in the future.
In his letter of 15 May, the Minister said:
I particularly want to assure you that this arrangement i.e. closure, will enable us to provide a better service to your constituents than we have been able to provide up until now.
You will understand, Mr. Martlew, that that raised an eyebrow or two on the part of myself and everybody else to whom I spoke. How can closing the jobcentre improve the service for my constituents?
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