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Written Ministerial Statements

Wednesday 7 November 2007


United Kingdom/Saudi Arabia (Double Taxation Convention)

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Jane Kennedy): A new Double Taxation Convention with Saudi Arabia was signed on 31 October 2007. After signature, the text of the convention was deposited in the Libraries of both Houses and made available on HM Revenue and Customs’ website. The text of the convention will be scheduled to a draft Order in Council and laid before the House of Commons in due course.

Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

Landward (Onshore) Oil and Gas Licensing Round

The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks): I am pleased to inform the House that I am today inviting applications for Petroleum Exploration and Development Licences (PEDL) for unlicensed blocks in parts of England, Scotland and Wales which will form the 13th round of landward petroleum licensing.

Strategic Environmental Assessment (Sea)—Post Adoption Procedures

BERR’s draft plan to offer licences for onshore oil and gas exploration and production through a 13th licensing round has been the subject of a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA) initiated in 2005. The SEA is documented on the Department’s website at: www.og.berr.gov.uk/consultations/index.htm.

The SEA considered the alternatives to the draft plan and the potential implications of resultant activities in the context of the objective of the draft plan, the SEA objectives, the existing regulatory and other control mechanisms, the existing environmental problems and their likely evolution over time, and in the light of scoping feedback provided by consultation bodies and others. The conclusion of the SEA was to proceed with the licensing programme, but with some licensing conditions. It was recommended that BERR place an explicit expectation on licence applicants to demonstrate understanding of the environmental sensitivities and potential constraints on blocks both at the application stage and during any subsequent operations.

The assessment was documented in an environmental report which was subject to a three-month public consultation. The start of the consultation was widely advertised in newspapers and by email.

All responses received from statutory and other consultees on the draft plan and the environmental report have been considered by BERR and a post consultation report prepared and placed on the
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Department’s website (link above). This report summarises consultee comments and BERR responses to them.

In deciding to proceed with a 13th onshore licensing round, BERR has considered the conclusions and recommendations of the SEA environmental report together with feedback received from consultees.

Under the terms of a PEDL, licensees may not conduct activities such as the drilling of wells, installation of facilities or production of hydrocarbons without the authorisation of the Secretary of State and licensees are required to provide proof to BERR that the relevant planning and other permissions and consent(s) have been obtained.

Once block applications have been received, the Department will undertake a plan level appropriate assessment (AA) screening or full assessment (as appropriate) of the potential for likely resultant activities in the blocks to adversely affect the integrity of Natura 2000 conservation sites. This AA will consider specific blocks and provides BERR with a further opportunity to identify if there are overriding reasons not to offer a licence for a particular block.

In addition to the website above, a copy of the SEA environmental report and post consultation report can be reviewed at:

Arrangements to view these reports can be made by telephoning 02072155032.

Companies Act

The Minister for Competitiveness (Mr. Stephen Timms): The Companies Act 2006, which received Royal Assent on 8 November 2006, will bring major benefits to business by modernising and simplifying company law.

The Government set out the commencement timetable for the Act by written statement on 28 February 2007. There were three main phases to the implementation timetable, with most provisions being commenced on 1 October 2007, 6 April 2008 or 1 October 2008.

In line with this timetable, a major tranche of provisions was commenced on 1 October 2007, including provisions relating to directors' general duties, the business review and company resolutions and meetings. A further tranche of provisions will be commenced with effect from 6 April 2008, including the provisions relating to accounts and reports, audit and abolishing the obligation on private companies to have company secretaries.

The written statement of 28 February 2007 explained that we need to ensure that the registrar of companies has sufficient time to implement important changes to Companies House systems and processes in relation to areas such as company formation, and give appropriate notice to users of the new forms. For this reason, the Government decided that the commencement of provisions most closely relating to these changes should be commenced with effect from 1 October 2008.

Companies House has made considerable progress with the necessary changes to its systems and processes. However, there remains a great deal of work to be done
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and the Registrar of Companies has advised that he cannot be absolutely confident that the necessary changes can be completed on time. The Government recognise that business needs certainty about the implementation timetable, and has therefore decided that the commencement date for most of the provisions due to be commenced on 1 October 2008 should be put back to 1 October 2009. This includes provisions relating to company formation, share capital, company and business names and directors' residential addresses.

There are some provisions due to be commenced on 1 October 2008 which do not necessitate changes to Companies House systems and processes. These could still be commenced on 1 October 2008, but we recognise the need to balance the timing of the commencement of deregulatory provisions against the complexity of phased implementation. The Government therefore intends to consult key stakeholders about the commencement date for the following provisions:

I will make a further statement in December setting out the final commencement timetable in the light of these discussions.

Children, Schools and Families

Free Early Education Entitlement

The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Beverley Hughes): I am announcing today plans to implement the Government’s commitment to extension of the free early education entitlement for three and four-year-olds to 15 hours each week for 38 weeks a year.

A longer entitlement, delivered more flexibly, will give children an even better start in life than the current arrangements and will give parents greater choice in balancing their work and family life. That is why over the next CSR period we are making funding available to enable every local authority to deliver 15 hours free early education a week to all 3 and 4 year olds for 38 weeks of the year, and to ensure the options available for using it are more flexible.

The extension will be phased in over the three years of the CSR period. Twenty pathfinder local authorities have been delivering the extended flexible entitlement since April 2007, assessing the demand for different patterns of provision, and exploring ways of working that enable greater flexibility in a diverse childcare market. Another 14 local authorities have been selected to join this group as a second wave of pathfinders, starting in September 2008. These authorities are: the London boroughs
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of Hackney, Lambeth and Brent, Wolverhampton, Liverpool, Salford, Kirklees, Middlesbrough, North-East Lincolnshire, Luton, Durham, Southampton, Nottingham City and Cornwall.

All local authorities not involved in the pathfinder phase will be funded to deliver 15 hours more flexible provision to their most disadvantaged children from September 2009. A year later the rollout will be completed, with every three and four-year-old eligible to receive 15 hours free per week, to be delivered as flexibly as possible in response to parental demand from September 2010.

The extension of the free entitlement and more flexible delivery will be funded through a new investment of £80 million/£170 million/£340 million over 2008-11, which will be made available through the standards fund.

This funding is over and above the amount already provided for the free early education entitlement as part of the dedicated schools grant. This large injection of additional funding emphasises the Government’s commitment to ensure that every child gets the best possible start in life and to help as many families as possible escape poverty and balance work and family life effectively.


Service Complaints Commissioner

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): A number of improvements have been made to the Service redress of individual grievance process (the Service complaints process) under the Armed Forces Act 2006 in light of recommendations made by Nicholas Blake QC. One of these is the establishment of the post of Service Complaints Commissioner, which will introduce an element of independence to the system and provide assurance that the system is working fairly and effectively. I am pleased to announce that Dr Susan Atkins has been appointed to the post of Commissioner. She will have a comprehensive induction prior to taking up full duties when the new Service complaints process comes into effect in January 2008.

As Commissioner, Dr Atkins can receive complaints directly from Service personnel, or allegations made on their behalf by family members or other third parties, about any wrong against a Service person in relation to harassment, bullying or other improper behaviour, and will have the power to refer them to the chain of command for action. She will be notified of the outcome. The Commissioner will also provide an annual report to the Secretary of State for Defence on the fairness, effectiveness and timeliness of the Service complaints process which will be laid before Parliament and published.

The appointment of the Commissioner is an important step towards the full implementation of the new Service complaints process which is due to come into effect in January 2008.

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Afghanistan: Operational Command and Control

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): As part of our ongoing support to current operations, I am today announcing the formation of a temporary brigade headquarters to command UK forces in Afghanistan over the period October 2009 to April 2010. The brigade, which will be known as 11 Light Brigade, will be formed from existing service personnel and will be based in Aldershot.

The current deployment of UK troops in Afghanistan as part of the NATO-led international security assistance force is planned until 2009, although we have always made clear that our commitment to Afghanistan is a long-term one. The precise size and duration of the UK military in Afghanistan will depend on a number of factors, including the ability of Afghan security forces to take greater responsibility for the security of their own country. However, to ensure that any forces we might deploy are properly prepared and commanded, it is necessary for the brigade headquarters to be established now. We will keep our planning assumption under review but currently we assess that this HQ would disband on its return from Afghanistan.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Visit of Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Jim Murphy): The Prime Minister of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan. visited the UK on 22 to 23 October. This visit provided a good opportunity to discuss not only issues relating to Turkey’s EU accession negotiations, but also the broad range of shared interests.

During his meeting with Mr. Erdogan on 23 October, the Prime Minister reiterated the UK’s strong support for Turkish accession to the European Union, and encouraged the Turkish Government to continue with its programme of reforms, and implementing its obligations to the European Union. In the context of a series of separatist Kurdish PKK attacks on Turkey in recent weeks, the Prime Minister condemned the indefensible terrorist violence, welcomed Turkey’s restraint in the face of severe provocation, and urged continued dialogue with international partners to resolve the issue.

The meeting also covered the launch of the Turkey/United Kingdom Strategic Partnership 2007-08. This document draws together into one jointly agreed high-level bilateral document the breadth of co-operation across the two Governments on a wide range of issues.

These include work to further Turkey’s EU accession process; improve our co-operation on global security (in particular the fight against terrorism, weapons proliferation, and organised crime); promote regional stability; deepen the defence relationship; tackle climate change and co-operate on developing secure energy supplies; increase our bilateral trade and investment; and increase our ties in education and culture.

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In addition, the strategic partnership covered Cyprus settlement issues. It emphasised the primary importance of supporting the UN’s efforts to reunify the island. The leaders of the two communities in Cyprus reached agreement on 8 July 2006 on steps designed to lead to a resumption of settlement negotiations. That agreement, which has the full support of the UK, UN Security Council and the international community, has yet to be implemented. During his meeting with Mr. Erdogan, the Prime Minister underlined the importance of all parties seizing the opportunity for progress next year.

The strategic partnership also described a number of measures designed to bring the Turkish Cypriot community closer to Europe in order to prepare for reunification.

Home Department

Justice and Home Affairs Council

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Meg Hillier): The Justice and Home Affairs Council will be held on 8 and 9 November 2007 in Brussels. My right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, the Solicitor General of Scotland, Frank Mulholland, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham East (Bridget Prentice), and I will attend on behalf of the UK.

There will be a lunch before the start of the Council on 8 November for Interior Ministers, where the presidency is expected to report on the current work of the future group on home affairs. The Government would like to ascertain Slovenian plans for the group as the incoming presidency. My right hon. and noble Friend Baroness Scotland represents the Common Law Group of countries including the UK on this group.

The Council will start with the Mixed Committee items also attended by Norway, Iceland and Switzerland. Among these will be reports on the state of play regarding biometric visas, common standards on returning illegally staying third country nationals, and the implementation of SISOne4all, SIS II and the SIS Communication Network. The Government remain keen for implementation of the Schengen Information System II to stay on timetable.

The presidency is likely to put the data protection framework decision to a general approach on the articles and certain recitals. The Government support the proposed general approach.

The main agenda will open with a discussion of chapters 2 and 3 of the draft Council decision on Europol. The Government support the proposed conclusion of negotiations of these two chapters, which deal with information processing systems and common provisions on information processing. The text offers a balance of giving Europol added flexibility enabling it to establish new data systems while at the same time providing limits on what can be stored and safeguards for the protection of personal data. The Government also support the proposal for the implementation plan, which has been developed at the request of the June JHA Council to set out the steps and timescales for the introduction of Community Financing for Europol from January 2010.

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