The Minister for Housing (Caroline Flint): I am publishing today a summary of responses to the Governments Housing Green Paper, Homes for the Future: More Affordable, More Sustainable. The document is being published on my Departments website as per the Governments commitment in the Green Paper and is at: http://www.communities.gov.uk/publications/housing/responsegreenpaper.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): The MODs responsibility for maintaining the UKs nuclear warhead capability is fulfilled through Atomic Weapons Establishment Management Limited (AWE ML) as the prime contractor. The Atomic Weapons Establishment, which was previously a directly employed business within the MOD, was contractorised in 1993 and affected MOD staff transferred to AWE plc under the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employees) Regulations.
AWE plc operate a final salary pension scheme for their employees. This is a funded scheme administered under a trust and, as such, is exposed to the volatility of financial markets. The latest valuation in 2005 revealed a deficit of £73 million against total liabilities of some £589 million. Since then, AWE ML have been developing and consulting staff and trade unions on a range of proposed amendments which would address this deficit. AWE ML are determined to maintain the existing final salary scheme for both existing and new employees but this will require an increase in pension contributions. The alternative would be the closure of the scheme. The present annual value of the required additional contributions to the scheme is estimated to be some £9 million.
During the Committee stages of the Atomic Weapons Establishment Bill in 1991 (Official Report, 14 February 1991, column 223), the then Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement made an undertaking that any increase in employee contributions would be offset by a compensating adjustment to pay.
This undertaking was made in a very different context to the one in which occupational pension schemes now operate. Pension schemes both in the public and private sectors have undergone major changes in response to improving health and healthcare, longevity and returns on investments. Even if AWE employees had remained as civil servants, they would not have been unaffected by these dynamics; new pension arrangements were introduced for the civil service last year and final salary schemes are now closed.
While AWE ML will continue to fund the bulk of the pension costs through their employer contributions, AWE employees will also need to increase their contributions in todays circumstances. AWE ML will only implement any changes to the pension scheme following proper consultation with the trade unions and scheme members.
This two-yearly progress report on implementing the Education and Training 2010 work programme was adopted. The report sets out areas where progress has been made against the five agreed benchmarks of the work programme, and highlights priority areas where further effort is needed, notably in the areas of literacy and early school leaving.
The Council adopted key messages to the spring European Council. These four messages included the UK proposal for a European skills review and a call for universities to be given the necessary autonomy to develop partnerships with the business community and attract private sector funding. I supported both of these messages.
As part of the discussion around these key messages, a Commission expert presented the initial conclusions arising from peer learning activity on early school leaving. The main points were: the importance of prevention, co-ordination between relevant agencies, quality assurance, teacher training and developing an ethos of respect in schools.
Ministers responses to this presentation included praise for the open method of co-ordination. I thanked the presidency for linking the Councils discussions to the outcomes of peer learning activities, and spoke of raising the age of participation in education and training in the UK, particularly through the expansion of vocational and workplace learning.
Ministers exchanged views on a post-2010 strategy for European co-operation in the field of education and training. I stressed that skills had to form a central part of Europes response to globalisation, and that value could be added to areas of national competence at European level through peer exchange and identifying best practice.
The Commission presented information on the European universities/businesses forum, taking place on 28-29 February and in which the UK is participating. They also gave information about the proposal for 2009 as the European year of creativity and innovation, and about a Euroskills competition which will be held in Rotterdam in September 2008.
The Prime Minister (Mr. Gordon Brown): I am pleased to announce that I have appointed Sir Derek Morris and Dame Denise Platt as members of the Committee on Standards in Public Life. The appointment of Sir Derek is effective from 1 March 2008 and the appointment of Dame Denise is effective from 1 July 2008. Both appointments are for three years in the first instance.
I have also appointed the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Oliver Heald) as the Conservative party nominee on the Committee with effect from 1 March 2008, also for a period of three years in the first instance.