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Written Ministerial Statements

Tuesday 7 October 2008

Children, Schools and Families

The Rights of the Child

The Minister for Children, Young People and Families (Beverley Hughes): On 3 October 2008 the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child published their Concluding Observations on the United Kingdom’s report on the implementation of the United Nations convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC). Publication of the Concluding Observations follows the submission of the UK Government’s written report to the Committee in July 2007 and an Oral Hearing with the Committee on 23 and 24 September 2008.

The United Kingdom’s delegation entered into a frank and open discussion with the Committee. This was recognised both in the Committee’s closing remarks at the Oral Hearing and the Concluding Observations. I am pleased that the Committee has also recognised the significant progress we have made in the implementation of the convention and the emphasis we have placed on improving the well-being of children and young people.

I broadly welcome the Concluding Observations and, while areas of difference with the Committee remain, we will give the Committee’s recommendations the careful consideration they deserve. This process will include a dialogue with non-governmental organisations and the four United Kingdom Children’s Commissioners. Our “Children’s Plan”, published in December 2007, sets out our ambitions and strategies to tackle many of the issues the UN Committee has highlighted. Later this year we will report on progress against the commitments made in the children’s plan.

Communities and Local Government

Local Government

The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): As I told the House on 20 May 2008, we have published a consultation document, inviting views on whether or not we should, subject to parliamentary approval, move the date of the English local elections from Thursday 7 May 2009 to Thursday 4 June 2009, the same day as the European parliamentary election. That consultation closed on 11 August and we have received 278 representations, including from the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Local Government Association, many of the councils that would be affected and a number of the political parties.

There was a large measure of support among consultees, including the Electoral Commission, for moving the date of the English local elections in 2009. A number of consultees also made representations about various practical measures they believe we should take if the date of the local elections is to be moved.

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I am today placing in the Library of the House a document summarising the representations we have received and setting out the Government’s response. This document is also available on the departmental website.

Having carefully considered all the representations received I am also today laying a draft Local Elections (Ordinary Day of Elections in 2009) Order 2008 which, if approved by Parliament and made no later than 7 November 2008, would move the local election day in England, in 2009, to the date of the European parliamentary election, planned for Thursday 4 June. The order also makes incidental, supplementary and consequential provisions as a consequence of that change of date, including provision for the European elections in England in 2009 to be administered on local government boundaries.

The local elections that would be affected by this change of date are the elections to all county councils in two-tier areas, the unitary Isle of Wight county council, Bristol city council and the new unitary councils of Bedford, Central Bedfordshire, Cornwall, Shropshire and Wiltshire; a limited number of parish councils and the mayoral elections in Doncaster, Hartlepool, North Tyneside and Stoke.

We believe that avoiding elections on two separate occasions within a month will be more convenient for voters, less costly for the taxpayer and more efficient for electoral administrators. As in 2004, holding the local elections alongside the European elections in 2009 could help boost voter turnout and improve the democratic process.


Defence Estate Stewardship Report

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): The “Stewardship Report on the Defence Estate 2007-08” will be published today. The publication of the report implements the commitment in “The Defence Estate Strategy 2006—In Trust & On Trust” to report annually performance across a range of estate-related strategic aims, and to demonstrate that the Department is discharging its obligations properly and acting responsibly in meeting the needs of the armed forces. The report attempts to balance:

The report continues to set out the progress against the aims and objectives in the Defence Estate Strategy 2006 and demonstrates how the estate is changing as a result. Copies will be placed in the Library of the House and on the internet.

Armed Forces Act 2006

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): I am today announcing that the timescale for implementation of the Armed Forces Act 2006 is being extended.

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When it is implemented, the Armed Forces Act 2006 will allow us to replace the three current Service Discipline Acts and other armed forces legislation with a single system of service law. The Service Discipline Acts, which have provided the legal basis for discipline in the armed forces since the 1950s, will be repealed in due course.

The transitional provisions that will provide the essential bridge between the three Service Discipline Acts and the Armed Forces Act 2006 have proved more difficult and complex than was envisaged in our original planning. The main reason for this is because the provisions contained in the older legislation have all been amended, often piecemeal, over a period of several decades. The result is a complex web of legislation that applies, sometimes in different ways, to each of the armed forces.

The legislation will be brought into effect in October 2009. We do, however, plan to maintain momentum by making the necessary legislative changes to enable the director of service prosecutions, created under the Armed Forces Act 2006, to prosecute all cases under the existing Service Discipline Acts from 1 January 2009. We will bring before Parliament in the autumn the necessary secondary legislation to achieve this.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Marine Bill

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): A Command Paper was laid before Parliament on 25 September 2008, providing the Government’s response to the pre-legislative scrutiny and public consultation on the draft Marine Bill.

The document responds to reports by two parliamentary Committees: the Ad Hoc Joint Committee on the draft Marine Bill, and the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee on the draft Marine Bill: Coastal Access Provisions. The Command Paper also responds to the feedback we received from the public consultation on the draft Bill, which ran from 3 April to 26 June 2008. I am grateful to the Committees which scrutinised the draft Bill and to members of the public for their comments and recommendations.

Responses to the draft Bill have largely been positive, reflecting the wide support for action to protect our marine resources now and for future generations. The reports by the two parliamentary Committees, and the views expressed during the public consultation, are helping us to improve our proposals in this area. Subject to the availability of parliamentary time, the Government now intend to introduce a Bill to:

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Copies of the Command Paper have been placed in the Library of the House. The document can also be found on the website of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs along with a summary of consultation responses.

North-East Flooding

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): Between Friday 5 and Sunday 7 September, severe flooding affected parts of England, with the most affected areas being Morpeth, Rothbury and Ponteland in Northumberland.

Following forecasts of exceptional rainfall in the area, the Environment Agency started to alert local authorities and the emergency services on the 4 September. Calls were made to prepare vulnerable people and areas, including an old people’s home in Ponteland, which was evacuated well before any flooding took place.

In the event 150mm of rain (6 inches) fell onto saturated ground and full river catchments in the North-East region over 48 hours. The average for this time of year is 50mm (2 inches) in a month.

Morpeth was the most severely affected area. The first flood watch alert was issued at 3.30am on Saturday morning, and warnings escalated throughout the day. A multi-agency Gold Command was established, led by Northumbria police, and a full evacuation was underway by 4pm, led by the local authority and supported by the emergency services.

Approximately 1,000 homes and businesses were affected by the flooding and around 250 families took advantage of rescue centres and temporary accommodation. By Sunday morning, the flood waters had almost completely receded. Roads were re-opened and the centre of Morpeth opened for business before Sunday lunchtime and the recovery operation began.

The local recovery and support operation will continue for some months yet. Specifically, Recovery and Restoration Groups in Castle Morpeth and Alnwick are offering guidance and support to local residents. Representatives
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of the councils, fire and rescue service and police have visited local residents to discuss the support available and the National Flood Forum is advising the Recovery and Restoration Groups on the likely issues they will face as the recovery effort continues.

One NorthEast, the Regional Development Agency, has made £500,000 available to help with immediate costs for affected businesses, and my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government has confirmed that the Bellwin scheme has been activated to cover the immediate local authority costs of responding to the floods. Applications for Bellwin assistance are being prepared by Northumberland county council, and Castle Morpeth borough council.

In addition, many donations have been made, including of furniture and household items. Voluntary agencies and supermarkets have provided food, goods and cleaning materials, and community groups continue to provide drop in centres to give affected families a break from the clean-up operation.

Following the flooding, the Environment Agency are immediately undertaking three emergency works in the area; a structural assessment of a damaged in-river weir upstream of Morpeth; structural assessments of various flood defences in the town; and designing a replacement floodwall demolished by the force of water pushing against it after the town had been inundated.

The Environment Agency are also developing a new scheme to protect Morpeth to the highest possible standard. The scheme is at the end of year one of its current four year programme and efforts will be made to explore a faster timescale for construction.

On behalf of the House, I would like to thank the emergency services who did a very good job dealing with the flooding and to congratulate the local councils, Environment Agency, voluntary organisations and all others who have come together to help communities get back to normal.


Unsustainable NHS Providers

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): On 10 September 2008 the Government launched a consultation exercise on the regime for unsustainable national health service providers.

The consultation sets out details for tackling poor performance in NHS hospitals and trusts while protecting services for patients. It follows the publication of “Developing the NHS Performance Regime” in June this year—which outlined the steps that would be taken if an organisation under-performed—and picks up at the point where an organisation has failed to turn its performance around.

The regime aims to:

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The regime is the last step for providers who are subject to previous recovery actions by Monitor or under the NHS performance regime. The consultation proposes that a ‘trust special administrator’ would be appointed to take control of the trust to ensure that it continues to provide safe and effective services for patients. The trust special administrator would also be required to produce a report and consult swiftly on proposals for the future of the trust.

The consultation will run until 3 December 2008.

A copy of the consultation document has been placed in the Library and copies are available to hon. Members from the Vote Office.

Dental Services

The Secretary of State for Health (Alan Johnson): The House of Commons Health Select Committee published its report on dental services on 2 July 2008. We are today laying before Parliament the Command Paper setting out the interim Government response to the conclusions and recommendations in the report.

We have carefully considered the Committee’s recommendations. The new contractual arrangements introduced in 2006 placed a legal duty on primary care trusts (PCTs) to commission dental services to meet local needs. We are confident that the new arrangements provide a better basis for the NHS to commission dental services. New services are opening all over the country and, according to latest figures, there were 655 more dentists working in the NHS in 2007-08 than in the previous year.

We acknowledge there remains work to be done. As well as an existing programme of work with PCTs to drive maximum benefits from the new arrangements in terms of access and quality of services, the Department has begun work with strategic health authorities to agree the changes that will most rapidly improve access to NHS dentistry.

This work will be complete later this autumn and we will then be in a position to make a fuller response setting out further actions.

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