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Written Ministerial Statements

Wednesday 4 March 2009

Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

EU Competitiveness Council (March 2009)

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Ian Pearson): On 5 March I shall be representing the UK at the EU Competitiveness Council.

There will be five main items being discussed and debated at the Council (as listed below), of which the two most high profile issues to be discussed will be the crisis in the automotive industry and the EU economic crisis/recovery plan, which will be discussed by Ministers over lunch.

Government aims for Council

Throughout these sessions the Government’s aim will be to:

The morning and lunch sessions will cover

Lunchtime discussion on economic crisis and recovery

Discussion points for the lunch have not been finalised and may be subject to change before 5 March but we understand that possible issues for discussion will include:

The afternoon session will cover

Any other business

In addition to the main Council items, there will be eight further items taken under “any other business” all of which fall under BERR’s responsibilities:

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Kosovo Draw-down

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Hutton): The Supreme Allied Commander Europe has decided that the specific capability, currently provided by the UK to the NATO force in Kosovo, is no longer required. Our current force of 167 personnel will draw-down to a small number of posts between the end of March 2009 and 1 September 2009.

Our draw-down reflects the changed circumstances in Kosovo, in particular the improved security situation. The key milestones in Kosovo’s independence have passed without major incident and the security situation in Kosovo is generally calm. The EU rule of law mission has recently rolled out across Kosovo. Against this backdrop, and with over 14,000 personnel still in theatre, NATO remains well placed to deal with any potential security incidents.

Aircraft (Available Support)

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Quentin Davies): I am pleased to announce that the Ministry of Defence has signed a five-year contract with BAE Systems, worth around £450 million, for the provision of an availability support service to the Typhoon fleet of aircraft.

This innovative partnering arrangement will create up to 150 highly skilled new jobs, mostly at RAF Coningsby and sustain a further 350 at its peak. The Typhoon programme directly employs some 16,000 aerospace and engineering staff at various locations across the UK, and many more throughout the supply chain. This new contract adds to and sustains this number. The programme is very important to the UK from both the military and industrial perspective.

This contract will see BAE Systems taking a major role in ensuring the availability of the Typhoon fleet to meet its standing and operational commitments and demonstrates the Ministry of Defence’s commitment to partnering British industry to get more efficient support for our front-line Typhoon fighter force.

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Service Complaints Commissioner's First Report

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Hutton): I have placed in the Library of the House today a copy of the Service Complaints Commissioner’s first annual report on the fairness, effectiveness and efficiency of the service complaints system.

The Government committed to the establishment of a Service Complaints Commissioner in its response to the Deepcut review which was published in June 2006. Provisions had already been proposed in the Armed Forces Bill then under consideration for an independent external reviewer who would examine the fairness and effectiveness of the service complaints system and report annually to Ministers. However, in the light of the Deepcut review the reviewer was given a wider role in relation to allegations of bullying, harassment and other improper behaviour. Recommendations made by the House of Commons Defence Committee (HCDC) in its Duty of Care Report 2004-5 also helped shape the role of the Commissioner and the complaints process.

The role of the Commissioner is to provide scrutiny and assurance that the complaints process is working effectively and that lessons learned are being implemented. The Commissioner offers an independent ear for the concerns of service personnel and their families, and can pursue their proper consideration by the chain of command. The Commissioner’s work will help us to maintain a complaints system that is fair and effective, and where necessary improve it. I am confident that the Commissioner provides the optimum arrangement for both service personnel and the chain of command responsible for their welfare and discipline.

I and the service chiefs are committed to the role of the Commissioner and welcome this first annual report. We are committed to continuously improving the service complaints process and take the Commissioner’s recommendations very seriously. I am pleased that the report states that the new complaints system is well designed and is working; it also makes a number of criticisms of current procedures, which we will need to consider carefully. I will provide a formal response to the Commissioner once we have had time to look at the report in detail.

Innovation, Universities and Skills

Capital Investment (Further Education Colleges)

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. John Denham): In 1997 there was no capital budget for Further Education (FE) Colleges and the National Audit Office (NAO) described FE college buildings as “ageing and their quality and fitness for purpose was often unsatisfactory, affecting the reputation of the sector.”

Between 1997-98 and 2006-07, more than £2 billion has been invested in modernising FE facilities. My Department will spend another £2.3 billion in the current spending review period. We have brought forward £220 million of this funding, £110 million from 2009-10
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to 2008-09 and a further £110 million from 2010-11 to 2009-10, as part of our response to boost the economy. Nearly 700 projects in 330 colleges throughout England have been agreed, and 253 schemes are under way or fully approved. Only 42 colleges have yet to receive any investment. Last summer the NAO reported the programme as making good progress with the renewal and modernisation of the FE estate with the great majority of projects coming in on budget and delivering great improvement for learners.

I previously informed the House that the demand for funding by colleges has risen. The size of projects and the scale of Government funding required has increased. In December, the Learning and Skills Council (LSC), which administers the programme, decided to defer further approvals of projects in principle and in detail while assessing the programme overall. As I said in the House on 3 February, this decision did not affect projects that have already received agreement in detail and are in progress and we anticipate spending the full £2.3 billion allocated in this spending review period.

Today the council met to discuss the results of its assessment of the programme. It has decided to give detailed approval to eight schemes at colleges in Stoke-on-Trent, Coulsdon (Surrey), West Kent, Liverpool, Solihull, Northampton and two in Bolton.

These colleges had all been recommended for approval by the national Capital Committee of the council and decisions to approve their applications in detail had been deferred from the December meeting.

The total cost of these schemes is nearly £400 million. The council will provide more than £300 million in Government funding over the next five years. Following the Council’s decision today, the LSC will be working with the colleges involved on the phasing and funding requirements of these projects and how they are now taken forward. Their benefits will be felt by students and their local communities for years to come.

However, the LSC has now completed its assessment of other colleges seeking approval in principle or detail. I am informed that the council has already given 79 colleges the first stage of approval in principle. Government funding of nearly £2.7 billion would be needed for them to proceed. A further 65 colleges have submitted bids to the national LSC for approval in principle with an assumed funding contribution from Government of a further £3 billion.

As a consequence, there are many more schemes currently in preparation than can be funded in this spending round. For that reason, I agreed with the council that they would appoint an independent reviewer—Sir Andrew Foster—to find out how this situation arose and what lessons must be learnt for the future. It is clear that even at current record levels of funding not all schemes can be implemented on the timescales originally envisaged. I have therefore asked the council to consult with the Association of Colleges and the FE sector to advise me on ways of prioritising schemes in the future programme.

I have asked the council to keep interested Members informed on the progress and status of schemes in their area.

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Northern Ireland

Application for Advance from Contingencies Fund (2008-09)

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Shaun Woodward): Subject to parliamentary approval, the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) will be taking a 2008-09 Spring Supplementary Estimate. This will increase the NIO’s Net Cash Requirement by £1,387,681,000 from £11,546,811,000 to £12,934,492,000. £1,285,000,000 of the increase relates to Request for Resources 2 in respect of the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund. Given the estimated date of parliamentary approval for 2008-09 Spring Supplementary Estimates, the Northern Ireland Block requires an advance from the contingencies fund to meet urgent cash requirements in advance of Parliament’s approval for public expenditure commitments that cannot be deferred.

Parliamentary approval for additional resources of £340,309,000 will be sought in a Supplementary Estimate for the Northern Ireland Office. Pending that approval, urgent expenditure estimated at £340,309,000 will be met by repayable cash advances from the contingencies fund.

Women and Equality

Women and the Global Economic Downturn

The Minister for Women and Equality (Ms Harriet Harman): Sunday 8 March marks International Women’s Day. This year the theme chosen for this event is Women and the Global Economic Downturn. To mark it, the Government are publishing today:

I am placing copies of both these publications in the Vote Office. I have also placed copies of them together with the main opinion polling report in the Libraries of the House. Copies will also be available on the Government Equalities Office website www.equalities.gov.uk. They are intended to inform a number of events this week to mark International Women’s Day, during which we will discuss the concerns women have about the effect of the downturn on them and their families and the action we are taking to provide real help now as well as real hope for the future. In particular:

We are discussing with our international partners how we can best work together this week and next in New York as part of Commission on the Status of Women. In Europe the UK is co-chairing a Working Group of the European Commission Advisory Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men, and will draft an “Opinion on Gender Perspectives on the Response to the Economic and Financial Crisis.”

These events and debates take place in the context of the national and international efforts to address the global financial crisis. The road to the London summit points to the importance of “ensuring that the UK workforce has the skills it will need to take advantage of the opportunities of an increasingly globalised world, through the education system and lifelong learning including support for part-time and flexible work for men and women.”

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