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Written Ministerial Statements

Tuesday 22 January 2008

Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

Severn Tidal Power Feasibility Study

The Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Mr. John Hutton): In September last year I announced Government’s commitment to study the feasibility of generating electricity from the tidal range of the Severn estuary, which—as the recent report of the Sustainable Development Commission confirmed—has the potential to generate some 5 per cent. of UK electricity from a renewable indigenous resource. I am publishing today the terms of reference for the study. These are:

“Building on the work of the Sustainable Development Commission and earlier studies, the feasibility study will:

The work will be carried out by a cross-Whitehall team led from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, including representatives of the Welsh Assembly Government and the South West Regional Development Agency, taking external advice as necessary and engaging stakeholders and the wider public. The study is expected to last roughly two years.

The study will look at the range of options for power generation from the Severn estuary tidal range, including barrages, lagoons and other technologies. It will include a strategic environmental assessment of plans for generating electricity from the Severn estuary tidal range to ensure a detailed understanding of its environmental resource, recognising the nature conservation significance of the estuary.

The feasibility study team will report to the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform supported by ministers from DCLG, DEFRA, DfT, Treasury, Wales Office, the Welsh Assembly Government and the Minister for the South West.

If the outcome of the feasibility study is a decision to proceed, extensive and detailed further work would be
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needed to plan and implement a tidal power project, and secure the regulatory consents that would be required”.

A high level workplan showing the different strands of work and their timing is annexed at the end of this statement. These terms of reference and the workplan will be published on the BERR website.

I will be hosting a parliamentary forum for all interested MPs and Peers on 20 February—details of this will be deposited in the Libraries of both Houses nearer the time. Further details of external engagement plans will also be published on the BERR website shortly.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Agriculture and Fisheries Council (December 2007)

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): I represented the United Kingdom at the December 2007 Agriculture and Fisheries Council in Brussels. The Scottish Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Environment, Richard Lochhead, and the Northern Irish Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development, Michelle Gildernew, also attended.

The Council adopted by qualified majority, a regulation on the definition, description and labelling of spirit drinks. I voted in favour of this regulation but drew attention to the need to resolve a technical problem resulting from the omission of the term “cider brandy” from among permitted product descriptions in the new regulation.

The Council reached unanimous political agreement on a presidency compromise text on Total Allowable Catches (TACs) and quotas and related management measures for certain fish stocks for 2008. I voted in favour of the package on the basis that it represented a suitable balance between ensuring the long-term sustainability of the stocks in question, while at the same time, maintaining the economic viability of the respective UK and EU fishing fleets.

The Council also reached political agreement on a presidency compromise proposal to reform the EU wine sector. I voted in favour as the reform satisfied our main negotiating objectives, in particular the phasing out of restrictions on vineyard planting, including a derogation that will allow the continued development of the small UK wine production sector; the phasing out of EU schemes for disposing of surplus wine and wine products; satisfactory rules on wine making practices, in particular on enrichment; and provision for clearer, simpler labelling of EU wines. In addition it was important that the reform package did not result in an increase in the recent level of expenditure on wine.

The Council reached unanimous political agreement on a package of proposals on food improvement agents. The package of proposals simplifies and updates existing EU legislation on food additives and flavourings, introduces new controls on food enzymes and establishes a common procedure for authorising additives, flavourings and enzymes for use in food.

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The Council reached political agreement on a common position following its first reading of a proposal establishing the sustainable use of pesticides and also took note of the state of play of discussions on proposals covering the marketing of plant protection products.

The Council also adopted by qualified majority a proposal establishing the date for application of electronic identification in sheep and goats born after 31 December 2007, with the UK voting in favour. The UK supported by Germany, Ireland and the Slovak Republic, submitted a written statement calling on the Commission to revisit its impact assessment before 31 December 2009.

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

Under any other business, the Council took note without discussion of updates provided by the Commission on avian influenza, and on the Fisheries Partnership Agreement between the EU and Mauritania. The Council also took note without discussion of a presidency progress report on the negotiations on a proposal laying down Community procedures for the establishment of residue limits of pharmacologically active substances in foodstuffs of animal origin.

Sweden supported by a few member states, expressed concerns following European Court of Justice’s ruling concerning the eligibility criteria for the bovine slaughter premium and asked the Commission to consider how to re-establish the status quo. The Agriculture Commissioners said that the Commission could not bring forward a new proposal side-stepping the jurisprudence of the European Court of Justice.

The Netherlands, supported by the UK, Denmark and Finland, called on the Commission to develop additional legislative options on illegal timber, to implement the Forest Law Enforcement, Governance and Trade (FLEGT) Action Plan.

France supported by a few member states, called for an EU strategy for the industrial use of renewable raw materials, to build upon the existing biomass action.

Germany expressed concerns with the Commission’s failure to adopt a Community plan of action to conserve shark stocks within EU waters. The Commission responded that they had just launched a consultation among member states, with a view to introducing such a plan by the end of 2008.

Winter Flood Risk (Update)

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): Further to my statement on 17 January I would like to update the House on the current winter flooding.

As at 12.45 today, there are in place 1 severe flood warning, 65 flood warnings and 126 flood watches. Significant rainfall in recent days, on already saturated catchments and flood plains, has caused river levels to rise sharply, including on the River Severn, the Rivers Yarrow and Darwen in Lancashire and the Rivers Colne, Calder and Aire in West Yorkshire. Reports are still coming in of the number of properties flooded from rivers and surface water but current indications are that this is of the order of 500. Some businesses have been
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affected and there have been a number of school closures, often because of transport problems rather than flooding of the school itself. Roads (including some motorways and trunk roads) and railways have been hit in the affected areas leading to delays. Before travelling, people are encouraged to check the weather forecast and travel information provided by local and national media, and if planning to use public transport, to check with the relevant transport operator. There have been no significant problems so far for essential services including water and power supplies.

The severe flood warning that remains is on the River Severn around Bewdley. However, with further heavy rain forecast for the north-west tomorrow, and as rivers continue to react to recent rainfall, further severe flood warnings cannot be ruled out. However, forecast rainfall totals in the days thereafter are less than over the past week and the overall situation is likely to ease. However, the Environment Agency continues to work closely with local authorities, fire and rescue services, the police and others, and all remain on high alert in at-risk areas. The House should be aware that catchments are saturated and floodplain storage is full in many areas making rivers very sensitive to further rainfall. The risk of further flooding therefore remains high in some areas.

The House will sympathise greatly with all those people whose homes have been flooded and will understand the anxiety of people who may be affected, especially those who were flooded last summer. For the country as a whole, the flooding we have seen in the past week equates approximately to the type of event we would expect to see every three to four years. While river levels have been very high in some areas, overall the flooding so far has been much less than last summer.

We urge people to remain vigilant and to keep away from flood waters, for their own safety. People should also have their electrics checked when returning to flooded homes. We also ask everyone to be good neighbours, especially where elderly or vulnerable people live nearby. Anyone concerned about flooding should call the Environment Agency’s floodline on: 0845 988 1188, or look at their website: www.environment-agency.gov.uk which gives the most up to date information and also offers advice on how to prepare for the possibility of floods.

I shall, of course, keep the House informed of any significant developments.

Work and Pensions

Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): The Child Maintenance and Other Payments Bill currently before Parliament provides for a non-departmental public body, the Child Maintenance and Enforcement Commission, to administer the statutory scheme of child maintenance in place of the Child Support Agency. The Commission will require a robust financial and human resources system, which will be created through modification of the system in use by the Department for Work and Pensions. In order to
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avoid delay in the establishment of the Commission, certain modifications to this system need to be made in advance of the Bill receiving Royal Assent. The cost of these modifications is estimated at £1,012,000, which will be met through repayable cash advances from the Contingencies Fund pending parliamentary approval of the Bill and of subsequent supply estimates.

Pension Service/Disability and Carers Service

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. Peter Hain): The extent to which two of my Department’s agencies—The Pension Service and the Disability and Carers Service—have a shared set of customers has been increasing over time to the point where, currently, more than half of all of the customers of the Disability and Carers Service are now over pension age and thus customers of both agencies.
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Current trends in longevity mean that this proportion will continue to increase in the future.

Against this background it has become increasingly evident that the separate management of the two agencies is no longer the best means of providing a more integrated and seamless service to their customers. Accordingly we have decided to establish, as from the beginning of 2008-09, a single agency, under a single chief executive, to take responsibility for the work of the two organisations.

The two existing organisations—The Pension Service and the Disability and Carers Service—will continue to operate under their existing names and their customers will continue to receive services from them as they do now. But, over time, the new agency will help us to provide a more cohesive service to its customers that will aim to meet more of their needs in a joined-up and seamless way.

The creation of the new agency will not change the way that DWP and DCS in particular, delivers services to its working age customers.

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