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Written Ministerial Statements

Tuesday 18 December 2007

Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

Simplifying Business Support

The Minister for Competitiveness (Mr. Stephen Timms): Tomorrow my Department is publishing a formal response to the consultation on how Government Departments, Regional Development Agencies, local authorities and non-departmental public bodies should support business in the future. This looks not just at the support my Department provides, but much more broadly across the whole of government at a national, regional and local level.

The formal response document builds on the initial Government response to the “Simplifying Business Support” consultation. It summarises responses received and provides further information on the future, shared framework for publicly funded business support we are developing in the light of evidence and consultation feedback. This shared framework will enable Government and the broader public sector to implement our vision for business support in 2010.

It sets out the principles for making the delivery of business support more efficient and builds on decisions taken in the light of economic analysis and the consultation on “Simplifying Business Support” on access to business support and business support interventions referred to in paragraphs 4.43 to 4.46 of the pre-Budget report. Business Link will continue to be developed as the primary publicly funded access channel to business support. In the spirit of simplification, Business Link will aim to build on best practice partnership working with local authorities, business support providers, business membership organisations and other key partners.

We are also publishing an early stage impact assessment.

We have consulted businesses, including social enterprises, business representatives, local authorities, organisations that support business and other interested parties. The consultation ran from 22 June to 14 September. Copies of the response to the consultation document will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses on 19 December 2007 and the document will be on the DTI website at:

Communities and Local Government

Homes and Communities Agency

The Minister for Housing (Yvette Cooper): Sir Bob Kerslake has been appointed the first chief executive of the Homes and Communities Agency.

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The new agency will be key to delivering the 3 million new homes by 2020 pledged by the Prime Minister. The Homes and Communities Agency will bring together the current work and programmes of the Housing Corporation and English Partnerships. It will also take on delivery functions from Communities and Local Government. We will set out further detail on the Homes and Communities Agency functions to inform the Committee stage of the Housing and Regeneration Bill in January.

Sir Bob is currently chief executive of Sheffield city council and will initially take responsibility for overseeing the development and implementation of the agency. He will then become its first chief executive when the agency begins operating on 1 April 2009.

Sir Bob has shown throughout his career a strong record of delivery in housing and regeneration. He was selected from a strong field of applicants for the position and is ideally suited to leading the agency in delivering Government’s challenging housing and regeneration agenda.

Local Government

The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): On 5 December 2007, I announced to the House the five unitary proposals that the Secretary of State had decided to implement without modification, having considered all the information and representations available to her.

In the case of the unitary proposals for Cheshire, I announced on 5 December that there remained alternative proposals for the whole area concerned which, as I confirmed to the House in July, we judged reasonably likely to achieve the outcomes specified in the five criteria. I assured the House at the time that we would make final decisions as soon as we could.

Having now considered all the information and representations available to her, including the very large volume of additional material that she has received since July, the Secretary of State remains of the view that there is a reasonable likelihood that, if implemented, both proposals would meet the outcomes specified by each of the criteria set out in the invitation of 26 October 2006.

Overall, she has decided that it is more likely that the long-term outcomes around strategic leadership, neighbourhood empowerment and value for money and equity on public services would be delivered to the greater extent by the proposal for a two unitary Cheshire. This is the process that we set out in the consultation document “Means of Prioritising Proposals” issued in June 2007. She has therefore decided to confirm her earlier “minded to” decision, and accordingly intends to implement the proposal for two unitary authorities in Cheshire by order made under section 7 of the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007.

It is now for all the councils in Cheshire—their members and employees—to work constructively and imaginatively together to deliver two new unitary councils that will achieve their full potential for local residents. Local people will rightly expect nothing less than their successful delivery.

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In the case of the unitary proposals from Bedford borough council and Bedfordshire county council, I confirmed on 5 December that, on the basis of the information then available to her, the Secretary of State remained minded to implement Bedford borough council’s proposal subject to there being a satisfactory proposal for the rest of the county area. I notified the House on 19 November that the Secretary of State had invited the other councils in Bedfordshire by 17 December to make proposals for future unitary local government structures in the remainder of the county area.

We have now received a response to this further invitation from the remaining district councils in Bedfordshire—Mid and South Bedfordshire district councils. In accordance with section 7(3) of the 2007 Act, we will tomorrow be launching a consultation seeking the views of partners and stakeholders in the areas affected by the proposals for Bedfordshire. Partners and stakeholders includes all local authorities, the wider public sector, the business community, and the voluntary and community sector. It will, however, be open to anyone to respond to the consultation document that we are issuing, copies of which will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

After the stakeholder consultation, we will consider very carefully all the representations that we have received. Any proposal or proposals will proceed to implementation if, and only if, when we take our final decisions, we remain satisfied that they meet all of the criteria set out in the invitation.

Culture, Media and Sport

Correction to Written PQ 165260

The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Margaret Hodge): An error has been identified in the written answer given to the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), 26 November 2007, Official Report, column 12W.

The full answer given was as follows:

The correct answer should have been:

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Chinook Mk3 Reversion Announcement

The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): I announced in March our intention to convert the eight Chinook Mark 3 helicopters to a support helicopter role, in order to make them available to operations as quickly as possible. I am pleased to report that the Ministry of Defence has now signed a contract with Boeing to carry out the modification work. The most likely overall cost to the defence budget to modify the helicopters is £90.1 million, of which £62 million is taken up by the contract with Boeing.

We expect the first aircraft to be available for operations in 2009. These eight additional helicopters will represent a significant uplift to the UK’s heavy lift helicopter fleet. As the Chinook fleet has proven on numerous occasions, these helicopters are a key battle-winning capability. The eight converted Chinook will join the existing fleet of 40 RAF Chinook helicopters and will be based at RAF Odiham.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Single Farm Payment Scheme

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): In my statement of 2 July (Official Report, column 41WS), I reported that the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) had met its formal target of making 96.14 per cent. of payments under the 2006 Single Payment Scheme (SPS) by 30 June.

Outstanding cases continue to be processed and there now remain about 60 claimants who have received a partial payment and await the balancing sum. Work has also to be completed in respect of a further 80 claims, mainly small ones and those affected by legal issues such as probate. Starting in the new year, interest will be paid to claimants on sums paid after 30 June 2007 on the same basis as for the 2005 scheme.

I also reported in July that a review was underway of 2005 cases where entitlement values have been identified for review and possible adjustment, upwards or downwards, to 2005 and 2006 payments. Further investigation led to a total of some 38,250 cases for review. The review has been completed in all but 1,150 cases, mostly those identified for possible correction subsequent to July. Where appropriate, additional payments are being made on the reviewed cases. Work is also underway to recover overpayments.

Alongside those activities, RPA has been processing the 106,000 or so claims that have been submitted under the 2007 SPS. The necessary system and process updates have progressed to plan, allowing a pilot run of full payments to be made on 10 December. Having evaluated the results of that pilot, the RPA chief executive has now authorised a series of full payment runs with the first payments expected to be with claimants this week. With payments having been initiated a month earlier than for the last scheme year, the agency is currently on track to meet its targets for 2007 SPS of making 75 per cent. of the total value of payments by the end of March 2008 and 90 per cent. by the end of June 2008.

I will continue to update the House on progress.

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Agriculture and Fisheries Council

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw): I represented the United Kingdom at the November Agriculture and Fisheries Council in Brussels. The Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment, Richard Lochhead, and the Welsh Minister for Rural Affairs, Elin Jones, also attended.

The Council reached unanimous political agreement, with the UK voting in favour, on a proposal establishing a multi-annual recovery plan for Bluefin tuna in the eastern Atlantic and Mediterranean. The plan transposes into EU legislation the recommendation agreed in November 2006 by the International Commission for the Conservation of the Atlantic Tunas (ICCAT).

The Agriculture Commissioner presented the Commission Communication “Preparing for the Health Check” of the common agriculture policy (CAP) reform. The communication will build on the approach that began with the 2003 reforms, improve the way the policy operates based on the experience gathered since 2003 and make it fit for the new challenges and opportunities in an EU of 27 member states in 2007. I welcomed the Commission’s initiative as an important opportunity further to cut the trade distorting nature of the CAP, reduce regulatory burdens, give farmers greater control over their business decisions, and direct more public spending towards delivery of targeted public benefits.

The Agriculture Commissioner presented a proposal to reform the EU support scheme in the cotton sector. This proposal will introduce a revised reform of the EU cotton regime following the annulment by the European Court of Justice of the cotton reforms agreed in 2004. She also presented a proposal to temporarily suspend the import duties on certain cereals until 30 June 2008, with the exclusion of oats. I intervened to enter a parliamentary scrutiny reserve and queried why oats was excluded from the scope of the proposal, as it was inconsistent with the Healthcheck paper that says that all cereals should be dealt with in the same way.

The Fisheries Commissioner presented a proposal on combating illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing (IUU) and updated Council on the outcome of a recent conference held in Lisbon. I welcomed the Commission’s initiative as an opportunity to reduce the regulatory burden of the necessary controls. I also stressed the importance of dealing with the problem and the crucial role that the trade network will play in this regard.

The Commission also updated the Council on the conclusion of the annual EU/Norway consultations for 2008 and the 2006-08 action plan for simplifying and improving the common fisheries policy. On EU/Norway, I warmly welcomed the Community commitment to reduce discarding in fisheries which catch cod and reducing whiting discards in all fisheries and was pleased with a cod TAC increase of 11 per cent. I regretted the fact that Norway was unable to accept the unanimous pelagic regional advisory council advice on the herring TAC but overall felt it was a fair agreement for the UK and the Community.

Under any other business, Greece supported by a few member states, called on the Commission to introduce measures (such as income support, intervention measures or transport aids) to support its livestock industry due to the steep rise in costs of animal feed.

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Latvia called on the Commission to use intervention funds to compensate livestock producers for the high cereals prices and to come forward with proposals for “long-term systematic solutions and crisis management” in the context of the Healthcheck.

France, supported by a few member states, called for further relief measures in the form of export refunds to alleviate the difficulties currently being experienced in the pigmeat sector. The Agriculture Commissioner announced her intentions to submit a proposal to introduce export refunds in the pigmeat sector to the pigmeat management committee on 29 November.

The Agriculture Commissioner also updated Council on the state of play in the WTO negotiations.

Over lunch, Ministers had an exchange of views on the Commission’s paper analysing the economic impacts of unapproved GMOs on EU feed imports and livestock production. In common with some other member states I argued that while there must be no compromise on maintaining a rigorous assessment and approvals regime for new GM products entering the EU, we should explore the scope for overcoming difficulties in this area and improving the speed with which GM applications are processed.

In the margins of Council, the presidency and the Commission held trilateral meetings with Agriculture Ministers from the various member states to discuss the Commission’s wine reform proposals.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw): I will be representing the United Kingdom at this month’s Agriculture and Fisheries Council in Brussels. The Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and the Environment, Richard Lochhead, and the Northern Irish Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development, Michelle Gildernew, will also attend.

The presidency will seek political agreements on a Commission proposal to reform the wine sector and on a package of proposals on food improvement agents. The presidency will also seek political agreement on the total allowable catches (TACS) and quotas and related measures fixing fishing opportunities for certain fish stocks for 2008 and on associated conditions for certain fishing stocks, applicable in Community waters.

The Council hopes to adopt a proposal on the definition, description, presentation and labelling of spirit drinks and a proposal establishing the date for application of electronic identification in sheep and goats born after 31 December 2007.

The Agriculture and Rural Development Commissioner will present the Commission’s report on the dairy market sector and a proposal to increase milk quotas by 2 per cent.

The Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner will report on the progress of a proposal covering the marketing of plant protection products. Following this, the presidency will seek political agreement on a proposal establishing the sustainable use of pesticides.

A number of issues, as follows, will be raised under any other business: the Netherlands has asked for an update from the Commission on illegal timber imports. Germany has asked for a discussion on the common action plan on shark fishing; and Sweden has asked for a discussion on the eligibility criteria for the slaughter premium for bovine animals.

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