The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Ian Pearson): The following statement provides information on the Competitiveness Council which took place in Brussels on 1 December 2008, at which I represented the UK. The meeting was chaired by Mr. Hervé Novelli, French Minister of State responsible for Businesses and Foreign Trade, and Jean Pierre Jouyet, French Minister of State responsible for European Affairs.
The meeting started with consideration of intellectual property issues. The Commission emphasised the need for a better, more cost-effective patent system, and the role that the Competitiveness Council can play in boosting innovation, competitiveness, and economic recovery through agreement of the Community patent proposals during either the Czech or Swedish presidencies. Member states agreed on the principle, but remained divided on the substance. I emphasised the need for the Commission to undertake further economic analysis, particularly on the level of fees, and invited the Commission to present a negotiating mandate on the European patent court proposals at the earliest opportunity.
Following this the French presidency presented a report on gambling and betting policies in member states. They proposed further discussion of this issue in Council, with a particular focus on illegal gambling, addiction, crime prevention, including money laundering and consumer protection. I emphasised that the report should have gone further in setting out the potential benefits of effective regulation as opposed to prohibition, and questioned the appropriateness of further work in the Council, stressing that further clarity and improvement of standards could be achieved through the Commission continuing to enforce the treaty provisions, member states completing reviews of national legislation, and an improved dialogue between regulators and the sector itself. I tabled a minute statement (jointly with Malta) to this effect.
The main agenda item was a presentation by the European Commission on its communication on the response to the economic crisis. Member states were invited to respond during a discussion over lunch, although no formal conclusions were proposed or agreed. The main themes raised were the automotive industry, appropriate levels of state aid, the need for investment in infrastructure, and supporting the need to advance structural fund spend. Access to capital was highlighted as key to limiting the spread of the financial crisis.
The Commission went on to stress the important role of small and medium enterprises in the economic recovery of Europe. It highlighted the need to ensure access to finance and reducing administrative burdens, in particular an exemption for micro-companies from certain accounting
requirements. I took part in unanimous agreement to conclusions to put in place a Small Business Act for Europe.
The French presidency also tabled a progress report on the European private company statute, an area where discussions will continue under the Czech presidency in 2009. On European clusters, Council conclusions were agreed without discussion. The Commission emphasised that the recent Communication on clusters should enable member states own policies to be more effective.
Under any other business, the Commission stressed that consumers and particularly consumer confidence would be key in the economic recovery, and that the new consumer rights directive introduced a simplified framework to unlock retail markets and raise choice at competitive prices. The French presidency called for rapid agreement of the defence procurement directive and signalled its intention to make every effort to reach a deal. I supported a Dutch paper on better regulation covering a sectoral targets, and an overall net reduction of 25 per cent. There were also brief presentations from Estonia and Portugal on the use of e-signatures to establish companies online, a request from Spain for tourism to be included as a sector in the economic recovery package, a Commission presentation on its raw materials communication, and an update from the French presidency covering negotiations on toys and cosmetics, which have the potential for First Reading Deals in December 2008 and January 2009 respectively.
The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Angela Eagle): The Treasury has conducted its annual indexation exercise of the cost of oral and written parliamentary questions so as to ensure that these costs are increased in line with increases in underlying costs. The revised costs, which will apply from 3 December 2008, the first day of the 2008-09 session, are:
oral questions £410
written questions £149
The Minister for Housing (Margaret Beckett): For most people, buying or selling a home is the most important financial transaction they will undertake. It is often also one of the most stressful and difficult. Home information packs (HIPs) were introduced to give consumers more information from the outset of that transaction, making the process fairer, faster and more transparent. Existing regulations which allow for a delay in providing a HIP and for transitional insurance cover expire at the end of December. I propose to extend them until 6 April 2009.
This statement outlines the changes we propose to make to HIPs to make them work more effectively from that date, both by expanding the content and ensuring
they are available right from the start. The proposals give the industry and prospective sellers time to prepare for the changes.
Following consultation, I am today laying an order amending the regulations so that from 6 April 2009 HIPs must include a property information questionnaire. This will give buyers more useful information to help them make decisions about whether to view a property, and ultimately, whether to make an offer. The forms have been designed to be quick, easy and straightforward for sellers to complete.
For leasehold properties, the property information questionnaire will include a summary of the leasehold arrangements, replacing previous requirements. I am also laying an order making the temporary leasehold information provision permanent from 1 January 2009. This means that a copy of the lease will continue to be the only extra information required for leasehold properties.
Although take-up of home condition reports has been disappointing, we know that people want to know about the condition of homes before they commit to buy them. I will establish a working group to explore options for making sure that consumers have appropriate information about a propertys condition. This will build on the work carried out by the stakeholder panel to develop market-led models that can be delivered by existing practitioners, including home inspectors.
It is essential that buyers are able to see the information in the HIP as soon as possible. However, with the temporary first day marketing provision, while sellers must order and pay for the HIP, agents may take up to 28 days before making it available.
As a result, some buyers looking to move quickly are making decisions about purchases without ever seeing the HIP. Some sellers are paying for a pack that they never receive. And some estate agents are said to be using this period to avoid complying with the relevant regulations on marketing properties. We are therefore ending this first day marketing provision from 6 April 2009 so that all buyers will get the information they need as soon as possible.
We recognise the present difficulties in the housing market. But that makes it even more important to remove uncertainties for buyers and sellers; speeding up and smoothing out the process. So this change will mean that sellers will not face unnecessary delays. A recent survey of 16,000 transactions showed that where a HIP was available, exchanges were, on average, actually completed six days quicker.
The information required for a basic HIP, which a seller will need to start marketing their property, is readily available in three to five days. Sellers will still have up to 28 days to provide certain information that may take longer to compile such as the property search. Nor will this mean extra burdens for estate agentsthey will still be able to advise potential clients about properties they expect to be coming onto the market soon. And independent research by Europe Economics has already concluded that HIPs do not have an impact on house prices or transactions.
This provision was intended to enable the private sector to conduct property searches in local authorities where access to relevant data were restricted. But in
practice, too many search providers are using this provision even where the data are readily available. Lacking the relevant information, in some cases buyers have had to pay for a second search to be carried out by the local authority. This is not acceptable. Wherever possible, consumers need information rather than insurance; and they should not have to pay for it twice.
The Under-Secretary, my hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Wright), has already laid provisions introducing a new charging regime for local authority property searches data. As charges become fairer, private sector searchers will have easier access and should therefore not need this insurance cover, which will end on 6 April 2009, coinciding with the introduction of the property information questionnaire.
I want to make sure that consumers find property searches as informative and helpful as possible. I have asked Ted Beardsall, former deputy chief executive of the Land Registry, to convene a working group to consider how these might be made simpler and more easy to use.
Consumers should be in no doubt that we will protect their rights and champion their interests where sellers or estate agents try to avoid or neglect their responsibilities and obligations. Estate agents who break the law face sanctions.
We also want to make sure that both buyers and sellers get a good service from professionals working in the industry. They should be clear about the standards of service they are entitled to, how the industry is regulated, and where to go if they have concerns or complaints. So I am pleased that the Office of Fair Trading will be conducting a comprehensive study of home buying and selling, looking at competition between service providers and how consumer interests are served. My Department will work closely with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to support this study, which should provide important evidence about how effectively the industry is working at present and whether further reform may be needed.
These changes will make sure that consumers are better protected, and better informed. They will get the vital information they need when they need it, with a copy of the HIP available up-front and a property search which is fit for purpose. This will give them greater value for money, and greater peace of mind. Industry bodies and property professionals will also benefit from greater certainty about how the process should work. The Department will be preparing and communicating advice to help consumers and industry understand and plan for the changes.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Hutton):
In July 2007, my right hon. Friend the Member for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (Mr. Ingram)
was asked to undertake a detailed study into the role of the Ministry of Defence in counter-terrorism and resilience. The then Secretary of State for Defence announced its completion in July. This statement sets out the Government response.
The report reinforces a central theme of the national security strategythat there can be no simple distinction between defence and wider security or domestic and overseas considerations. Counter-terrorism and resilience require an integrated approach. Government Departments must work ever more closely together and with other stakeholders to overcome institutional barriers, including in respect of funding. This includes Defence.
My right hon. Friend has looked at the full range of defence capabilities and at all of our linkages with other organisations. In outline, the report endorses the approach that the primary focus for Defences counter-terrorism contribution should continue to be overseas, with any role in the UK restricted to the provision of niche capabilities to the civil authorities or augmentation in times of emergency. The emphasis is on the increasing use of smart power to gain strategic insight and intelligence and to develop relationships which enable work across all strands of the Governments counter-terrorism strategy. Within the UK the report concludes that Defence should continue to provide specialist support to police forces, and that it should be strengthened including through an enhanced exercise programme.
The study has found that we could make more of some of our strengths, such as in strategic planning, education and research and development. In that context, we may have more to offer on protective security and planning support on security for the 2012 Olympic games.
I welcome and agree in principle the 29 recommendations outlined in the report. They complement the development of a classified defence capabilities compendium which we have provided to those who may call upon support from Defence. The recommendations will be implemented across Government, co-ordinated and developed where necessary by the national security secretariat. The security classification prevents us from publishing the report in full, but the Defence Committee has been given access to the report as part of their inquiry into national security and resilience.
The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): My statement to the House on 25 July 2007, Official Report, column 73WS announced the cessation of Operation Banner. Since then we have continued to refine our military structures in Northern Ireland commensurate with normalisation and I now judge that we can remove the post of General Officer Commanding (GOC) in Northern Ireland.
The current GOC will complete his tour at the end of the year and we do not expect to replace him. The Commander of 38 (Irish) Brigade and Northern Ireland Garrison will thereafter become the senior officer based in Northern Ireland. The change shall result in a small reduction in military posts which will be reabsorbed into other areas across Defence. We aim to have command in Northern Ireland fully normalised by January 2009.
This step reflects our commitment towards security normalisation in Northern Ireland. The armed forces will continue to provide support to the PSNI, and contribute to civil contingencies where required through the normal procedures for military aid to the civil authorities in the UK.
The Minister for Europe (Caroline Flint): The General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC) will be held on 8 December in Brussels. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will represent the UK.
The Council will discuss the Presidency's draft agenda for the December European Council, which will be dominated by the EUs response to the next stage of the economic downturn and the financial crisis. We can also expect substantial discussions on the 2020 climate change package. Other agenda items include the Lisbon Treaty ratification process, the Common Agricultural Policy, the European Security and Defence Policy and the Eastern Partnership.
The Government broadly support the presidencys priorities for the December European Council. We welcome a continued co-ordinated response to the economic and financial crisis; and remain fully committed to reaching an ambitious agreement on the 2020 climate change package by the end of 2008. On the Common Agricultural Policy, we would not support any language that pre-empts the EU budget review.
We expect Ministers to agree Conclusions on EU enlargement that reconfirm the Councils consensus in support of enlargement on the basis that the EU should stick to its commitments, apply conditionality fairly and rigorously, and improve communication. We expect Ministers to welcome the European Commission Communication of 5 November on enlargement strategy and progress reports for candidates and potential candidates. They will take stock of the progress of accession negotiations with Turkey and Croatia, urging both countries to redouble their efforts to implement the necessary reforms, given that the pace of the negotiations depends on this. In the case of Croatia the Commission has proposed a conditional road map for the conclusion of negotiations in 2009. We expect Ministers to express support for the forthcoming Czech Presidencys plans for an event to mark the anniversary of the fifth wave of enlargement in 2004.