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Written Ministerial Statements

Tuesday 26 April 2011


UK Convergence Programme (2010-11)

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr Mark Hoban): Section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993 requires the Government to report to Parliament for its approval an assessment of the UK’s medium-term economic and budgetary position. This assessment is comprised of the Budget report and the Office of Budget Responsibility’s (OBR’s) “Economic and fiscal outlook”. This then forms the basis of the UK’s convergence programme, which is therefore based entirely on information already presented to Parliament. The UK is obliged to submit a convergence programme annually to the European Commission under article 126 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union (the “Lisbon” treaty).

Article 126 is the legal basis for the stability and growth pact, which is the co-ordination mechanism for EU fiscal policies and requires member states to avoid excessive Government deficits, although the UK, by virtue of its protocol to the treaty opting out of the euro, is only required to “endeavour to avoid” excessive deficits.

The Budget report and the Office for Budget Responsibility’s (OBR’s) “Economic and fiscal outlook” were deposited in the Library of the House on 23 March 2011. A small proportion of the content of the convergence programme may be drawn from other material that has already been presented to Parliament, such as last year’s spending review. All of the information it contains has therefore already been published and made available to Members.

A debate in this House has been scheduled for 27 April in order for the House to approve this assessment.

The UK’s convergence programme has been published today. Copies have been deposited in the Library of the House and the document is available electronically via the HM Treasury website. It will be submitted to the EU by 30 April as required by the European Commission. While the convergence programme itself is not subject to parliamentary approval or amendment, a small supply of advance copies was made available to Members through the Vote Office on 21 April.

Informal ECOFIN (8-9 April 2011)

The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr George Osborne): The informal Economic and Financial Affairs Council (ECOFIN) was held in Brussels on 8-9 April 2011. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury also represented the Treasury.

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The informal ECOFIN began with an extended session of the Eurogroup to discuss Portugal’s request for financial assistance. Ministers released the following statement:

Ministers acknowledged the Portuguese authorities’ request for financial assistance. Ministers invited the Commission, the ECB, the IMF and Portugal to set up a programme and take appropriate action to safeguard financial stability.

In the context of a joint EU/IMF programme, the financial assistance package to Portugal should be financed on the European side within the framework provided by the European financial stabilisation mechanism (EFSM) and the European financial stability facility (EFSF).

Euro-area and EU financial support will be provided on the basis of a policy programme which will be supported by strict conditionality and negotiated with the Portuguese authorities, duly involving the main political parties, by the Commission, in liaison with the ECB, and the IMF. The preparations will start immediately to reach a cross-party agreement ensuring that an adjustment programme can be adopted by mid-May and implemented swiftly after the formation of a new Government.

The programme will be based on three pillars:

An ambitious fiscal adjustment to restore fiscal sustainability.

Growth and competitiveness-enhancing reforms by removing rigidities in the product and labour markets and by encouraging entrepreneurship and innovation, allowing for a sustainable and balanced growth and unwinding internal and external macro-economic imbalances, while safeguarding the economic and social position of its citizens. This should include an ambitious privatisation programme.

Measures to maintain the liquidity and solvency of the financial sector.

The set of measures announced by the Portuguese authorities on 11 March is a starting point in this regard.

We call on all political parties in Portugal to conclude swiftly an agreement on the adjustment programme and form a new Government after the upcoming elections with the ability to fully adopt and implement the agreed fiscal consolidation and structural reform measures. After an agreement has been reached with the Portuguese authorities and supported by the main political parties, the programme will be endorsed by the ECOFIN Council and the Eurogroup, in line with national procedures, on the basis of a Commission and ECB assessment.

The Ministers of the Eurogroup and ECOFIN, the Commission and the ECB are looking forward to ambitious fiscal adjustment, comprehensive structural reforms and measures to safeguard financial stability that will address the fiscal and structural challenges of the Portuguese economy in a decisive manner. It will thereby also help restore confidence and safeguard financial stability in the euro area.

Over lunch, Ministers discussed the economic governance package, with a focus on the set of indicators which will be used to monitor macro-economic imbalances. They also discussed the Romanian balance of payment assistance.

During the afternoon session, Ministers were joined by Central Bank governors. Discussions centred on financial stability and bank stress tests, where the Government believe that the EU needs rigorous tests with appropriate back-up plans. There was a clear signal that much had been achieved with the setting up of the new supervisory framework, but that momentum needed to be maintained to cement the roles of the European supervisory authorities and prevent future crises.

On the second day, discussions focused on commodity markets, a forward look to the G20, IMF and World Bank spring meetings, and the comprehensive response to the crisis.

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Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Animal Health and Welfare Board for England

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr James Paice): I am pleased to announce that the Government are setting up a new Animal Health and Welfare Board for England. This is an important step in sharing responsibility for animal health and welfare with animal keepers and other interested parties. The aim is to build trust between Government and animal keepers and strengthen arrangements for working together to develop a true partnership.

Animal diseases, whether outbreaks of foot and mouth disease, avian influenza, or bluetongue, or current ones such as bovine TB, or salmonella, can be costly to animal keepers and Government alike. It is in everyone’s interests to reduce the risk and costs of disease outbreaks relating to all kept animals, including farmed animals, horses and pets, and to maintain our reputation for high welfare standards.

Since the 2001 foot and mouth disease outbreak, industry and Government have worked more closely together to agree disease control strategies, and there has been a series of proposals and consultations about what respective responsibilities should be in future. Most recently the report of the independently chaired advisory group on responsibility and cost-sharing was published on 13 December 2010. I record here my thanks to the chair and all the members of the advisory group for their work.

In developing our proposals for the board we have carefully considered the group’s recommendations, and listened to the views expressed about them since the report’s publication.

The new board will have responsibility for strategic animal health and welfare policy and oversight of its delivery in relation to England. It will be composed of around 12 members, who will be the senior DEFRA officials with responsibility for animal health and welfare (currently five people including the chief veterinary officer in his England role) and around seven to eight external non-executive members. The board will be the principal source of departmental advice to DEFRA Ministers on strategic animal health and welfare policy in relation to England.

We will seek external members (including the chair) who between them, have the skills, knowledge and experience to understand the whole range of strategic policy matters. We are looking for individuals who have the trust and respect of animal keepers and all other stakeholders.

Each external member of the board will have responsibility for engaging with a set of stakeholder groups and ensuring that the views of those groups are articulated in the board’s decision-making processes. We will consult the NFU and other stakeholder groups on the best way to organise this to ensure effective two-way communication.

The external members of the board will serve in an individual capacity. Members will be appointed on merit in a transparent process. I will advertise the posts publicly and invite organisations to encourage suitable candidates,

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who can demonstrate the confidence and trust of stakeholders and their representative organisations, to put themselves forward.

I expect the board to be appointed in the second half of 2011, and its views will shape the way DEFRA does business in the future and how it manages key relationships with delivery bodies, particularly the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency.

This is an innovative and exciting approach to bringing those affected by Government decisions into the heart of the process in order to create a more direct link between those making DEFRA policy and those experiencing the delivery of that policy. Its success will depend on the support of animal keepers and stakeholder organisations for the board and its members. I look forward to continuing the constructive dialogue already evident in the responses to the advisory group report.

The board will not deliver results overnight. This is a new way of working for both Government and stakeholders. I expect it gradually to strengthen joint working and lead to a greater understanding by all of the practices that collectively and cost-effectively reduce disease risk and maintain high welfare. Agreement on how best to achieve them should lead to greater adherence to responsible practices and thence to reduced animal disease risk and improved standards of health and welfare. This will benefit the Government, the public and animal keepers.

The advisory group recommended that cost-sharing should be taken forward in a staged approach once responsibility sharing arrangements were in place. Once established I will look to the board for advice on funding arrangements as it develops animal health and welfare policy for the future.

The full terms of reference for the board are published alongside this announcement (at http://www.defra.gov.uk/food-farm/animals/diseases/sharing/) which fulfils one of the commitments in the Government’s structural reform plan and the Department’s business plan.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

International Criminal Tribunals (Special Court for Sierra Leone)

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr Henry Bellingham): The Special Court for Sierra Leone is the first international criminal tribunal to be funded entirely from voluntary contributions from Governments. Since its creation in 2002, the United Kingdom has been a strong and steady contributor of funds to the Special Court. As a demonstration of our continued support, I am informing the House that the Government have recently contributed an additional £3 million; the United Kingdom has now contributed around £27 million overall. Our contributions have helped the Special Court successfully to investigate and prosecute eight of those who bore the greatest responsibility for serious violations of international humanitarian law and Sierra Leonean law committed during its bloody civil war. The Government’s latest donation will also help allow the Special Court to complete the trial of Charles Taylor, former President of Liberia, the first former head of state to be brought

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to trial on charges of war crimes for actions he took while in office. We look forward to the verdict from the court this summer.

Furthermore, the Government support and promote international justice widely as a key pillar of their foreign policy. The United Kingdom is active in all six existing international criminal tribunals and I can inform the House that, in addition to its support for the Special Court for Sierra Leone, the Government have recently contributed a further £1 million to the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia and a further £l million to the special tribunal for Lebanon.

The Government are fully committed to the principle that there should be no impunity for the most serious crimes at the international level. The effective prosecution of those who commit these crimes is fundamental to suppressing such crimes, which in turn is vital in the development of communities which are more stable and prosperous. I applaud the important work of all of the international tribunals.

Home Department

Immigration Policy (Marriage of non-EEA Nationals)

The Minister for Immigration (Damian Green): Tackling abuse of the system is a significant element of the Government’s immigration policy. This includes preventing marriage in the UK being used solely to gain an immigration advantage. The Government have been working with partners to look at ways in which the problem of sham marriages can be addressed.

I am therefore pleased to welcome procedural changes which have been made by the Church of England which will afford closer scrutiny and help to deter or prevent those seeking to marry in order to gain an immigration advantage. The Church of England has issued new guidance to allow for greater scrutiny for applications for marriage where one or both parties is a non-EEA national (that is, not a national of a country that belongs to the European economic area or a British citizen).

This will allow the clergy greater opportunity to satisfy themselves, prior to the ceremony, that the marriage is a genuine one and, where they have concerns, to refer the matter to the UK Border Agency.

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In order to enable the Church of England to introduce its new procedures in respect of non-EEA nationals, I have agreed that use can be made of an exception under the Equality Act 2010 for differential treatment on the basis of nationality.

These measures took effect from 11 April and a copy of the ministerial approval and guidance have been placed in the Library of the House.

Work and Pensions

Welfare Reform Bill (Universal Credit Contingency Fund Advance)

The Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr Iain Duncan Smith): The Department for Work and Pensions has obtained approval for an advance from the Contingencies Fund of £18 million to allow for the development of IT for universal credit before Royal Assent. This amount is part of the proposed investment in universal credit of £2 billion agreed at the time of the spending review.

Universal credit is to replace a range of existing means-tested benefits and tax credits for people of working age, rolling out in 2013. It will improve work incentives, simplify the benefits system and tackle administrative complexity.

The Department is using a flexible approach to IT development where the build of IT components is brought forward to allow for early customer testing. The advance from the Contingencies Fund will enable an earlier move to the new simplified benefit than could be achieved without it. This enables the Department to achieve better value for money by enabling a more rapid take-up of online claims with lower operational delivery costs. Parliamentary approval for additional resource and capital of £50 million for this new service will be sought in the main estimate for the Department for Work and Pensions. Pending that approval, urgent expenditure estimated at £18 million will be met by repayable cash advances from the Contingencies Fund.