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Written Ministerial Statements

Wednesday 29 April 2009

Children, Schools and Families

Lamb Inquiry

The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): I have welcomed today the report from Brian Lamb, Chair of the Special Educational Consortium, on information for parents of children with special educational needs and disabled children (SEND), and accepted his recommendations.

I asked Brian Lamb in December 2008 to consider improvements to information as part of his wider inquiry into parental confidence in the special educational needs system. I accept the report’s central recommendation that good engagement and communication with parents of children with SEND is something which we should expect of all those working in children’s services. We will require this as part of the £3 million “Achievement for All” pilots we are taking forward in ten areas.

I will set out details in July on how we will take forward recommendations on improving school and local authority compliance with requirements on producing information for parents.

We will also take forward the recommendation to use the major reforms we are planning to make schools and children's services responsive, personalised and accountable to all parents, work for parents of children with SEND.

I have asked Brian Lamb for further advice in July in two particular areas of concern that he has raised. First, on whether the Ofsted inspection provisions and the wider changes to the school improvement and accountability framework, give sufficient priority to SEN and disability or whether changes are necessary, including to legislation. Secondly, on whether statements of special educational needs are sufficiently clear; whether they are understood by parents; and how well they contribute to improving children’s outcomes.

I have placed a copy of a letter from Brian Lamb, his report, and my response in the House Libraries. They are also available on the Department's website at: www.dcsf.gov.uk/lambinquiry


Afghanistan Troops Levels (Election Support)

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. John Hutton): My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said in his statement to the House on Afghanistan today that our force levels in that country will increase to 9,000 over the course of the Afghan elections. They will then reduce to an enduring presence of 8,300 in 2010. The following units will be committed over the summer:

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854 Naval Air Squadron

Elements of 5(th) Regiment Royal Artillery

Elements of 16(th) Regiment Royal Artillery

Elements of 19(th) Regiment Royal Artillery

Elements of 32 Regiment Royal Artillery

Elements of 33 Engineer Regiment (Explosive Ordnance Disposal)

Elements of 38 Engineer Regiment

15 Field Support Squadron Royal Engineers

65 Field Support squadron Royal Engineers

Elements of 170 (Infrastructure Support) Engineer Group

Elements of 10(th) Signal Regiment

Elements of 4(th) Battalion, The Rifles

Elements of 11 Explosive Ordnance Disposal Regiment Royal Logistics Corps

Elements of 1 Military Intelligence Brigade

Elements of Joint Medical Command

Elements of 2 Medical Regiment

Elements of 4 Medical Regiment

Elements of the Queen’s Own Yeomanry

Elements of 5(Army Co-operation) Squadron, Royal Air Force

Elements of No.3 Royal Air Force Police Wing

Elements of 15 Squadron Royal Air Force Police Wing

The House will recall I announced on 16 December 2008 that elements of 2nd Battalion, The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers would deploy from April until August 2009. They will now serve throughout the election period.

A small number of volunteer and regular members of the reserve forces will deploy to Afghanistan as part of this integrated force package. The majority will serve on operations for six or so months, although some may have shorter tours.

These units will provide important additional capabilities for UK forces in Afghanistan. The reinforcement of two infantry companies will enable us to provide extra security during the Afghan elections. We shall also enhance our capability to counter Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs). These devices are a major threat to our troops, those of our allies and to the ordinary Afghan people. We are deploying personnel with a range of skills to detect, dispose and exploit IEDs and to prevent them being laid. Other personnel will improve our ability to defend our bases while we shall also reinforce our already significant reconnaissance capabilities. We shall increase the number of tactical unmanned aerial vehicles. We shall also deploy Sea King air surveillance and control helicopters and the new airborne stand-off radar. These complementary systems track use radar to track movements on the ground. They can help our forces to detect, follow and intercept insurgents before they can lay IEDs.

In addition, the UK will deploy the Headquarters of 6 (UK) Division to command the International Security Assistance Force’s Regional Command (South) from November 2009 to November 2010. Merlin Support Helicopters from 78 Squadron, Royal Air Force are also being prepared for service in Afghanistan. On current plans, they will be available to deploy by late 2009.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Ministerial Correction

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jane Kennedy): I regret that the written answer given to the hon. Member for North-West
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Leicestershire (David Taylor), on 4 February, Official Report, column 1197W, was incorrect. The correct information is as follows:

Veterinary Medicines Directorate

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): Following consultation on the future of the Veterinary Medicines Directorate (VMD) I have decided to retain the VMD as a DEFRA executive agency.

The VMD is one of the DEFRA regulators covered by the recommendation by Philip Hampton, in his review of regulatory inspections and enforcement, that they should be merged with one of seven thematic regulators. Having carried out a consultation on two options: either merger with another regulator or retention of VMD as an executive agency of DEFRA, I have concluded that there is no basis, or appetite amongst VMD’s customers and stakeholders, for merger.

VMD’s primary role is the regulation of veterinary medicinal products, in which it is one of the leading regulatory agencies in the EU, and it already complies with the Hampton principles in the way it operates. DEFRA will now consider the possibility of examining whether the flexibilities afforded by trading fund status would help the VMD increase its efficiency and improve its service delivery. Any consideration of trading fund status will be subject to a further consultation.


Autism Strategy (Adults)

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Phil Hope): I am today launching a consultation on the development of an autism strategy for adults.

We are committed to delivering real change for adults with autism through this strategy but, before deciding on the final content, we are inviting contributions via the consultation from people whose lives are affected by Autistic Spectrum Conditions including Aspergers (autism), whether personally or professionally.

The consultation strategy document has benefited from input from an external reference group comprising people with autism, family, carers and health and social
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care professionals involved in front line delivery of services. Together, we have identified five key themes—health, choice and control, social inclusion, employment, and raising awareness and training. These themes were chosen as representative of the main concerns that we hear from people with autism, and as such, are the areas that we believe can deliver the greatest change. However, there is general recognition that these themes do not cover all the issues and we are using the opportunity afforded by the consultation to invite people to inform the developing strategy by letting us know about their own direct experience and identify their priority areas for action.

We have made clear our determination to drive improvements in the national health service and local authority services so that people with autism experience real improvements to their everyday lives. We believe that this action is best taken without recourse to legislation, which risks restricting the flexibility of service commissioning and provision. Our priority is to ensure the strategy on adults with autism takes account of the views of people with autism and their families, alongside those of professionals and practitioners in the field.

In addition to the consultation and subsequent strategy we are spearheading activity in a number of areas that will enable us to understand and meet the needs of adults with autism; and drive service improvement. These include:

We are also taking forward a range of initiatives aimed at children which are designed to benefit the way services are commissioned and delivered for everyone. These include:

This Government believe that people with autism have a right to live life as full and equal citizens. We are committed to developing a strategy that supports the delivery of real change for adults with autism. To support delivery of the commitments in the strategy we will issue statutory guidance, subject to consultation and assessment of benefits.

The consultation period will run from 29 April until 15 September; a total of 20 weeks. This extended consultation period will maximise people’s opportunity
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to consider, discuss and respond and will help us gather a range of examples and evidence about existing good practice and local delivery approaches to inform the proposals to be contained in the final strategy and assess the likely benefits and costs.

International Development

Sri Lanka

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Michael Foster): I would like to update the House on my recent visit to Sri Lanka to assess the humanitarian situation. I urged the Government of Sri Lanka to support a ceasefire to allow the civilians still held in the conflict area to leave, to improve the conditions for the internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the Government controlled areas by dramatically increasing access for humanitarian agencies; and to focus the Government’s mind on the need for the early return and resettlement of the IDPs. There are two distinct humanitarian groups of concern.

The first is the fate of the civilians caught up in the conflict area in north-eastern Sri Lanka. There is still uncertainty about the exact number of civilians who remain in the conflict area with estimates ranging from 20,000 to 70,000 civilians. However, the UN estimates that up to 50,000 civilians remain caught in an area measuring less than five square miles. Since September 2008, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has been the only humanitarian agency allowed to have a presence in the conflict area by the Government of Sri Lanka. Approximately three times a week the ICRC ships food and emergency items such as blankets and medical supplies into the conflict area, and evacuates the wounded and their carers out of the conflict area. The fate of these remaining civilians is our most pressing concern. It is vital that they are able to move away from danger to safety under UN oversight, and that, in the meantime, humanitarian agencies have access to the conflict area to deliver humanitarian assistance.

The second is the 180,000 or more IDPs who have escaped the conflict area to camps under Government of Sri Lanka control; including the 113,000 who have arrived in the last ten days. I spoke with some of the IDPs in the camps. Many were traumatised by their experiences in the conflict area and concerned at being separated from members of their families. It is essential that these camps meet international standards and that the Government of Sri Lanka allows unrestricted access by humanitarian agencies to undertake their life saving work.

During my trip I urged the Government of Sri Lanka to abide by its public commitment to return 80 per cent. of the IDP population to their homes by the end of the year. It is vital that the camps are temporary in nature and that the IDPs are allowed to return home as quickly and safely as possible. The Government of Sri Lanka asked for UK help to respond to the humanitarian crisis and to return the IDPs back to their homes.

The UK will continue to provide support to mitigate the humanitarian crisis. During my visit I announced a further £2.5 million of humanitarian funding for Sri Lanka, bringing the total to £7.5 million. I would like to
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assure the House that all UK funding is provided directly to neutral and impartial international humanitarian agencies to save lives and reduce suffering. For example, on the 27 April, the UK contributed £500,000 to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees to airlift 5,000 tents to provide temporary shelter for the IDPs; £3.1 million remains on hand to respond rapidly to needs on the ground.

The overriding imperative is for both sides to take all steps to safeguard civilian lives. The UK has repeatedly made clear that there can be no military solution and called again and again for a ceasefire. The Government of Sri Lanka’s announcement, of an end of offensive operations using heavy weapons, made during my trip is a welcome first step. The LTTE must allow the civilians to leave the conflict area. Lasting peace in Sri Lanka can only come about through a fully inclusive political process that takes into account the legitimate aspirations of all Sri Lanka’s communities—Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. The Sri Lankan Government must make a concerted drive to achieve a political solution. The UK Government will continue to press for urgent progress in all of these areas. To this end, the Foreign Secretary is in Sri Lanka today to meet President Rajapakse.

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