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Written Ministerial Statements

Thursday 2 April 2009

Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

Working Capital Scheme

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Ian Pearson): On 14 January 2009, I informed the House that the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform intended to introduce a Working Capital scheme as part of the Government measures to enhance financial stability and support increased lending to business. Its implementation was subject to EU state aid clearance which was granted by the Commission on 24 March.

I am pleased to inform the House that on 31 March the Department signed a guarantee agreement with Royal Bank of Scotland PLC (RBS) and National Westminster Bank PLC (NatWest) to provide guarantees in respect of portfolios of loans that will enable RBS and NatWest to increase their lending to UK businesses.

The agreement with RBS and NatWest is the first of its kind under the Working Capital scheme. It represents an important step towards achieving the Government’s aim of getting increased credit flowing to UK businesses during these difficult times.

RBS and NatWest have agreed that the capital released by their participation in the scheme will be redeployed in support of lending to credit-worthy SMEs and mid-corporates. This forms part of the £16 billion of additional lending to businesses they committed to on 26 February. This additional lending commitment took effect from 1 March.

Discussions are well advanced with two other banks in relation to their participation in the scheme.

The scheme runs until 31 March 2011.

Better Regulation

The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs (Mr. Pat McFadden): My noble Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform has made the following statement.

The Government have a wide-ranging regulatory reform programme which we began in 2005. Today the Government are setting out next steps to ensure future better regulation.

Given the economic situation, it is important that Government focus on delivering real help for business now. Following the consultation launched last year, the Government have therefore decided not to implement a system of regulatory budgets at this stage. Rather we will undertake a programme of better regulation measures tailored to the present exceptional economic circumstances.

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There is clearly a need for new regulation in some areas now—such as climate change, and financial services in response to the current banking crisis. Moreover, delaying measures which businesses have already planned for can be disruptive. But during the recession and recovery we have a particular reason to look very carefully at whether we should delay planned new regulation and avoid introducing new regulation which increases burdens on business except where there is a clear case for action now. For example, the Government have already delayed implementation of legislation on display of tobacco in small shops until 2013, to help this particular retail sector.

To provide greater rigour to this process of review during the present economic downturn and with a view to economic recovery my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has decided to establish a new better regulation sub committee of the National Economic Council. The new Committee will take on the responsibilities of the panel for regulatory accountability. This Committee will scrutinise planned regulation and proposals for new regulation that will impact on business. The new Committee will take account of the views of business in coming to its conclusions.

The Government will also be working closely with EU partners to further embed the EU better regulation agenda and to ensure the current pressures on business are taken into account when new European regulation is being considered.

From this summer, the Government will also publish a forward regulatory programme. Business will be able to plan better as the programme will include existing and possible future regulatory proposals.

In 2005, we announced that we would cut the administrative burdens of regulation by 25 per cent by May 2010—i.e. £3.4 billion. We have already delivered £1.9 billion and are on track to deliver on our promise. Looking forward, the Government will adopt new simplification targets for 2010-15 which will address all regulatory costs on business.

The Government will also set up a new external Regulatory Policy Committee whose role will be to advise Government on whether they are doing all they can to accurately assess the costs and benefits of regulation. Building on the work of Philip Hampton, this body will also advise Government on whether regulators are appropriately risk based in their work; however, it will not have the power to require changes in the behaviour of independent regulators.

Communities and Local Government

Building Control Charging Regime

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): I am today publishing a consultation document on proposed changes to the local authority (LA) building control charging regime in England and Wales.

The principle of empowering LAs to charge for carrying out their main building control functions related to building regulations has been Government policy since the late 1970s. It derives from the “user pays” principle and avoids putting further pressure on all those who pay council tax. The charge-setting process was devolved to individual LAs in 1999 through The Building (Local Authority Charges) Regulations 1998.

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Following representations from stakeholders, we carried out a review of the charging regime and developed a number of proposals to address the perceived deficiencies and modernise the charging system. We consulted on the broad principles of the proposed approach as part of the consultation on the “Future of Building Control” last year and received support from the majority of respondents.

We are now seeking views on the detailed proposals which will build on the current devolved charge-setting process to LAs in order to:

The charging proposals also reflect the fundamental changes we propose to introduce to the building control system following the “Future of Building Control” consultation, in particular introducing a risk assessment approach to inspection of building work.

This consultation, which closes on 25 June 2009, is accompanied by an impact assessment. A copy has been placed in the Library of the House. It can also be accessed via the Communities and Local Government website at: http://www.communities.gov.uk/publications/planningandbuilding/lachargingregimeconsult

Energy and Climate Change

British Energy

The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Mr. Mike O'Brien): On 19 January, Official Report, column 19WS, I informed the House of the successful completion of the EDF takeover of British Energy. On 24 September last year, the then Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, my right hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Mr. Hutton), wrote to the Business and Enterprise Select Committee to inform members of EDF’s takeover offer for British Energy. I would now like to update the House regarding the sites undertaking, which was referred to in that letter, copies of which were placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

The European Commission as part of its clearance of the acquisition of British Energy received certain undertakings from EDF that are slightly different from those agreed in the sites undertaking entered into between EDF and HM Government and these are as set out in the announcement of the Commission’s decision on 22 December 2008. The sites undertaking has therefore been amended to reflect these developments.

The Commission asked EDF to offer further undertakings which have had the effect that the disposal of Dungeness or Heysham should happen unconditionally soon after EDF’s takeover of British Energy has completed, rather than making the sale conditional on EDF getting planning permission to build two EPRs at each of Sizewell and Hinkley Point as was the case under the sites agreement negotiated with the Government.

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Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Sri Lanka

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): Together with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development, I would like to update the House on the current situation in Sri Lanka, our continuing concern and the action we have been taking.

The fate of civilians caught up in the fighting in the north of Sri Lanka between the Government of Sri Lanka and the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) is the most pressing concern. It is vital that they are able to move away from danger to safety.

The last remaining territory held by the LTTE continues to shrink. Currently it measures less than 20 square kilometres. Since January more than 60,000 internally displaced persons (EDPs) have left the conflict area and moved into Government-controlled territory. Over 10,000 have moved within the last week. But credible reports suggest that well over 100,000 remain trapped within the conflict zone. These civilians have been displaced numerous times over the past 18 months and are living under constant threat from the continued heavy fighting. Despite the lack of verifiable reporting from the conflict area there are credible reports of civilians being killed and wounded every day, including in the ‘no fire zone’. We condemn the killings of civilians in the strongest possible terms and continue to urge all parties to take action to avoid further civilian casualties. Both the Government of Sri Lanka and the LTTE must abide by their obligations under international humanitarian law and ensure the protection of civilians at all times.

It was our concern for civilians that led my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to call for a ceasefire on 14 January. I have since repeated that call on numerous occasions: in phone calls with both the Sri Lankan President and Foreign Minister; in public statements; and in concert with other countries.

We renew that call today for an urgent humanitarian ceasefire. We call on the LTTE to allow the remaining civilians to leave the conflict area and to desist from enforced recruitment of civilians. But the actions of the LTTE cannot excuse any failings by the Sri Lankan Government to meet the higher standards naturally expected of democratic Governments in a conflict.

We have also been active with partners in the EU, the UN and the Commonwealth. Following discussions at the General Affairs and External Relations Council on 23 February, EU foreign ministers publicly called for a ceasefire and made clear their concern for civilians trapped by the fighting. Sri Lanka continues to be discussed within the EU and we support a proposed EU high-level troika to Sri Lanka at the earliest opportunity.

At the UN we have been working for some time to ensure that the Security Council is fully briefed on the situation in Sri Lanka. We supported the visit by the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, John Holmes, to Sri Lanka in February and his subsequent briefings to the Security Council. We also welcome the continued engagement by the UN Secretary-General who has made clear his views on the deteriorating situation. This involvement by the UN means that the Government of Sri Lanka can be in no doubt about the concerns felt by the international community over the humanitarian situation.

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At the recent meeting of the Commonwealth Ministerial Action Group, although Sri Lanka was not on the agenda, we nevertheless took the opportunity to raise our concerns over developments in Sri Lanka, particularly the humanitarian crisis.

In addition to calling for a ceasefire we continue to call for unhindered access for humanitarian agencies to the civilians displaced by the fighting, including those still trapped in the conflict area. There is an urgent need to increase the quantity and frequency of food and medical shipments to those affected by the fighting. Humanitarian agencies—specifically the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the International Committee of the Red Cross—also need unhindered access to enable independent observation of the security screening of civilians and the running of the IDP camps. It is vital that these camps are temporary and that the IDPs are returned to their homes as early as is safely possible. We urge the Government of Sri Lanka to abide by its public commitment to return 80 per cent of IDPs by the end of the year.

The appointment by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, of my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Des Browne) as his Special Envoy to Sri Lanka was a measure of the UK’s commitment to contribute to an improvement in the humanitarian situation and to the search for a sustainable political solution to the conflict. It should be seen as such. We have been disappointed that the Government of Sri Lanka continues to reject the appointment, despite earlier assurances from the President that his Government would engage with an envoy. We will continue to press the Sri Lankan Government to reconsider. In the meantime my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun will engage with representatives of other countries, UN agencies, non-governmental organisations, parliamentarians and community representatives with an interest in Sri Lanka.

As well as upping our diplomatic efforts we have also been taking practical steps to contribute to an improvement in the situation. Since September 2008 the Department for International Development (DFID) has committed £5 million of humanitarian assistance to Sri Lanka. Of this sum, more than £4 million has already been allocated in support of agencies providing protection and assistance work for IDPs. This includes £835,000 that DFID has transferred this week to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and to the International Organisation for Migration. A sum of £915,000 pounds is being held in reserve so that we can continue to respond immediately to further needs as they arise.

We recognise that the LITE is a terrorist organisation and that the Government of Sri Lanka has a need to root out the threat from terrorism. But the over-riding need is for an immediate end to the tragic humanitarian crisis. We want to see an end to the conflict and a serious drive to achieve a sustainable political settlement that takes fully into account the legitimate concerns of all Sri Lanka’s communities—Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. As part of this process the Government of Sri Lanka needs to tackle seriously the problem of human rights violations and the culture of impunity that underpins it. We urge the Government to ensure that all violations, including recent attacks on the media, are thoroughly investigated so that those responsible
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are brought to justice. The Government will continue to engage with political parties across all communities in Sri Lanka to support progress in all of these areas.

Home Department

Justice and Home Affairs Council

The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Phil Woolas): The Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) Council will be held in Luxembourg on 6 April 2009. My noble Friend Lord Bach, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, the Scottish Minister for Community Safety (Fergus Ewing) and I will attend on behalf of the United Kingdom. The following issues will be discussed at the Council:

Justice Ministers will be asked to reach a general approach on the draft framework decision on the prevention and settlement of conflicts of jurisdiction. This instrument is intended to promote dialogue and closer co-operation between member states’ competent authorities with a view to preventing double jeopardy situations.

The Commission will present a proposal to amend the 2003 Council framework decision on combating the sexual exploitation of children and child pornography. The revised proposal aims to tackle the challenges to the criminal law across Europe posed by the speed of change of internet related child abuse, and issues around the management of sex offenders who travel to commit offences. The UK supports work on combating the sexual exploitation of children including the distribution of images of child sexual abuse, and measures that further enable member states to tackle sex offenders who cross borders.

The Commission will present a proposal to amend a 2002 framework decision on combating human trafficking. The original framework decision introduced an obligation on member states to have in their national laws some common minimum offences and penalties for this conduct. The Commission’s proposal will revise and update that framework decision and will need to be negotiated at working group level before it can be presented to the JHA Council for agreement. To be fully effective this instrument will need to achieve the right balance between prevention, enforcement and victim care.

The presidency will inform Justice Ministers about the conclusions of a conference that took place in Prague on 17 and 18 March on the standing of vulnerable victims in criminal proceedings.

The Council will revisit the discussion on the appointment of the new Europol director since an agreement was not reached at the last Council.

The presidency will seek political agreement on the directive for a single application procedure for third-country nationals. The proposed directive comprises two parts. The first would prescribe a single application procedure for a single permit for third-country nationals to reside and work in the territory of a member state. The second part would prescribe a common set of rights for third-country workers legally residing in a member state. The UK has not opted into the draft directive.

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