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Written Ministerial Statements

Thursday 18 April 2013

Business, Innovation and Skills

Land Registry

The Minister of State, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Michael Fallon): I can announce that today I have appointed Ed Lester as the Land Registry chief executive. His appointment concludes a three-month open and transparent competition, overseen by the Civil Service Commission.

From day one he will be on payroll and his salary will be £135,000. He will also be eligible for a performance-related award package of up to 20% of base salary. This would be awarded for excellent performance against a clear set of specific objectives aligned with delivering Land Registry’s strategy.

Ed Lester’s previous role was chief executive of Student Loans Company where he led the organisation through a period of major transformation and where it became an early model of the Government’s “digital by default” programme.

This experience will be invaluable to the Land Registry as it moves into the implementation phase of its own transformation to become an exemplar of a highly efficient, digital and data-centric organisation. This includes digitising its core registration processes and developing a more strategic approach to data to support wider economic growth.

Treasury

UK Convergence Programme (2012-13)

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Greg Clark): 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, which has been prepared annually since 1994, currently comprises the Budget report and the Office for 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 121 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union.

Article 121, along with 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

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the UK is bound by the stability and growth pact, by virtue of its protocol to the treaty opting out of the euro, it is only required to “endeavour to avoid” excessive deficits. Unlike the euro area member states, the UK is not subject to sanctions at any stage of the European semester process.

Subject to the progress of Parliamentary business, debates will be held on 22 April for the House of Commons and 25 April for the House of Lords in order for both Houses to approve this assessment before the convergence programme is submitted to the Commission. While the convergence programme itself is not subject to parliamentary approval or amendment, I will deposit advanced copies of the document on 19 April that will be made available to Members through the Vote Office and Printed Paper Office.

The Budget report and the Office for Budget Responsibility’s economic and fiscal outlook were laid in Parliament on 20 March 2013. All of the information the convergence programme will contain has therefore already been published and made available to Members.

The UK’s convergence programme will be published in late April and will be available electronically via HM Treasury’s website after publication. It will be submitted to the EU by 30 April as required by the European Commission.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Sheep Industry (Severe Weather)

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr David Heath): I am today announcing details of additional support for those sheep farmers in England who have suffered devastating losses as a result of the severe weather last month.

Up to £250,000 will be available to reimburse farmers for the very specific problem of removing animals that have died on-farm through asphyxiation, starvation or hypothermia as a direct result of the March snowfall. This level of funding reflects the latest information on stock losses identified by the National Farmers Union. We will now be working with the NFU, the National Fallen Stock Company and other industry representatives to finalise arrangements for funding and to ensure that it is well targeted.

This funding will build on the programme of support which we have already put in place to help affected farmers. DEFRA has permitted the burial or burning of livestock on site if the conditions are too difficult to get carcases to a collection vehicle. We have relaxed the rules on drivers’ hours to allow extra time for essential deliveries of animal feed. Natural England has temporarily lifted some of the land management requirements that normally apply to environmental stewardship agreements, so that farmers and growers have more flexibility to deal with the impact of this extreme and unseasonable weather.

DEFRA has worked closely with the National Fallen Stock Company to encourage collectors to offer discounted rates for removing more than 10 sheep at a time. Farmers

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who have suffered heavy losses will be reimbursed in line with these discounted rates for the sheep they have paid to remove.

We also need to consider the longer term. In May, the Secretary of State will host a meeting of industry representatives, farming charities and banks to highlight the financial impact this exceptional weather is having on farm businesses and to see what more can be done to support farmers who are struggling financially.

As I saw on my recent visit to Cumbria and listening to those involved, the loss of sheep during some of the worst snow in living memory has taken a terrible emotional and financial toll on those farmers affected, which is why I am happy to announce this additional measure today. I am grateful to all those who have offered and provided assistance to them at a very difficult time. I call upon the public and food businesses to help our farmers by buying British lamb.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Consular Strategy 2013-16

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr William Hague): I have today launched a new consular strategy for 2013 to 2016 entitled “Consular Excellence”. This strategy will deliver better service for British people over the next three years.

Millions of British people travel abroad every year. Most have a journey free from trouble and do not need consular services. However sometimes things go wrong and British nationals can be victims of serious crime, require hospitalisation or be caught up in a major crisis. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has staff in 146 cities around the world able and ready to provide assistance when necessary, often in tragic circumstances. The FCO is committed to doing its utmost to assist British nationals in serious difficulties abroad.

I am proud of the great work the FCO’s consular service does but it can be better; under this new strategy the FCO aims to have the best consular service in the world by 2016. The FCO will build on significant improvements made in the last six years, including greater investment in staff, better crisis response, building regional structures and the start of transferring passport work. By 2016, the FCO will have a modern, efficient service supporting British nationals overseas. We will do more to help those who need it most; those who are most at risk because of who they are, where they are or what has happened to them. We will deliver more services through expert partners, and where it is reasonable, ask people to help themselves. The FCO will also introduce a modern and streamlined notarial and documentary service. All these changes will help us respond better to changing needs and react faster to crisis situations.

The FCO is also responding to British nationals needs to be best informed about crisis and security situations when overseas. We are updating its systems to offer a wide array of ways to stay in touch on these issues, including email updates of the FCO’s country-specific travel advice or by following FCO on social media. Around 125 of our overseas posts have Facebook pages and over 100 posts have Twitter accounts that are used to communicate changes to travel advice. Not only will

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the public be able to access FCO travel advice online at any time but those who want to will be alerted when there are major updates. More specifically, the strategy will see:

Improvements to our services, so that we achieve consistently excellent standards, with our efforts focused more on helping the people who need it the most, and doing less where we can deliver a service differently or it is reasonable to ask people to help themselves.

Improvements to the customer experience, giving British nationals greater choice in how they access our services and how they can reach us. As a result, four contact centres will be created, offering a streamlined route to consular services.

Digital transformation, with more services available online and more use of technology to help us deliver services.

Engagement with customers and partners, improving our processes for gathering feedback and for carrying out consultations with special interest groups and British nationals.

Support for our networks and development of our people, helping to maintain and build greater professionalism amongst our staff and ensure that we have resilient structures in place to enable proper service delivery.

Improvements to our crisis response, embedding the major changes to our processes since the Arab spring, continuing regular exercising of our posts overseas and increasing engagement with other interested parties. In effect, the FCO is moving from a system where British nationals are encouraged to register when they travel in case there is a crisis, to one where we are using a number of channels to give British nationals the latest information and advice on what they should do if they need our help in a crisis. This faster and more practical system supersedes the locate system, which had been used by less than 1% of British nationals overseas, which did not offer what FCO needs to help support British nationals in a crisis. Those who have already registered with the FCO on locate will be contacted directly to make sure they are aware of how to stay informed and also how to communicate with FCO if they need help.

Transferring overseas passport production to the Identity and Passport Service in the UK, establishing a more consistent, secure, efficient and cost-effective service.

I am committed to ensuring FCO has the best crisis IT system in the world. The FCO will also continue to encourage the British public to take sensible precautions, read FCO travel advice and take responsibility for their own safety first, particularly if they are travelling to or living in high-risk locations.

The new consular strategy is available on GOV.UK at:

www.gov.uk/government/publications/consular-strategy in accordance with Government digital by default principles. I have placed a copy of the strategy in the Libraries of both Houses.

General Affairs, Foreign Affairs, and Defence Foreign Affairs Councils

The Minister for Europe (Mr David Lidington): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs will attend the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) and I will attend the General Affairs Council (GAC) on 22 April. My right hon. Friend the Minister for International Security Strategy will attend the Defence Foreign Affairs Council and the European Defence Agency steering board on 22 and 23 April. These meetings will be held in Luxembourg. The General

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Affairs Council will be chaired by the Irish presidency, and the Foreign Affairs Council and Defence Foreign Affairs Council will be chaired by the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Baroness Ashton of Upholland.

General Affairs Council

The GAC will focus on enlargement, preparation of the May European Council and EU fundamental values, specifically democracy and the rule of law. The Irish presidency will update the Council on the multiannual financial framework: no discussion of this is expected.

Enlargement reports for Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia

There will be discussion of Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia, on the basis of reports from the European external action service and European Commission, released ahead of the GAC, on those countries’ progress on the issues set out in the December GAC conclusions. On Serbia and Kosovo the focus will be on latest developments in the EU-facilitated dialogue between the Prime Ministers of Serbia and Kosovo: the UK welcomes the leadership of Baroness Ashton and is keen to see further improvement in the relations between the two sides. As for Macedonia, the focus will be on that country’s reform efforts, good neighbourly relations, and progress on resolving the name dispute with Greece. I expect any conclusions on the reports to be largely procedural, with more detailed discussion at the June GAC.

May European Council

The 22 May European Council will discuss the energy aspects of the single market; discuss tax policy focusing on improving tax collection and tackling tax evasion and fraud; will take stock of the deepening of economic and monetary union (EMU); and will consider foreign policy issues. I will take this opportunity to highlight the importance of making further progress on the single market and the need to improve tax policy and transparency in support of the priorities for the G8 summit in June.

EU fundamental rights

Denmark, the Netherlands, Finland and Germany jointly sent a letter to President Barroso on 6 March 2013, emphasising the importance of the rule of law, human rights and democracy; the fundamental values of the Union. The letter called for an EU mechanism to protect these fundamental values, and suggested that the European Commission should play a greater role in this area. At the request of the signatories this issue will be discussed at the GAC. I will underline the importance of safeguarding the rule of law, human rights and democracy within the Union. I will also acknowledge the link between effective justice systems and economic growth, as identified in the letter. I will highlight the important role already played by the Council of Europe in relation to fundamental values and encourage the Council to bear this valuable contribution in mind. The letter did not go into detail on how any EU mechanism would work, therefore I will not be commenting on the specifics of any proposal at this stage. The UK remains keen to see that any future mechanism respects areas of member state competence.

Foreign Affairs Council

Energy

Ministers will discuss EU external relations on energy and the southern corridor pipeline. We welcome this discussion and support the development of a southern

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corridor, bringing Caspian gas to Europe via Turkey. The increasingly interconnected nature of the EU gas market means there will be indirect benefits to the UK of additional gas supplies to Europe, and a more stable and diverse European gas market.

Serbia and Kosovo

Baroness Ashton is likely to update Ministers on progress on the EU-facilitated Serbia and Kosovo dialogue. The UK welcomes the leadership of Baroness Ashton on this and is keen to see further improvement in the relations between the two sides. However we are clear that we must see progress on all of the Kosovo-related conditionality set out at the December GAC if we are to agree to open accession negotiations with Serbia at the June GAC.

Bosnia and Herzegovina

Ministers may also consider progress made by Bosnia and Herzegovina’s (BiH) leaders on agreeing changes to the constitution to bring it into line with the European Court of Human Rights judgment on Sejdic and Finci. We will reaffirm our continued commitment to BiH’s EU perspective but are clear that existing conditionality must be met and that continued inaction will not go unnoticed. The onus is on BiH’s leaders to demonstrate their commitment and willingness to work together so as to make progress on the EU agenda in the interests of its citizens.

Iran E3+3

Baroness Ashton will update Ministers on the latest round of E3+3 nuclear talks with Iran, which took place in Almaty, Kazakhstan, 5 and 6 April. Iran showed some willingness to engage on the substance, but its current position falls far short of what is needed for a diplomatic breakthrough. As a result, the E3+3 did not immediately agree to a further meeting but returned to capitals to consider how to move forward.

Eastern partnership

Ministers will have a discussion on the eastern partnership, looking ahead to November’s eastern partnership summit in Vilnius. We expect the discussion to focus in particular on Ukraine and Belarus. The UK remains committed to a closer relationship between the EU and Ukraine, and we will continue to make clear that progress is dependent on Ukraine making necessary reforms. On Belarus, we welcome the news that Sweden can re-establish a diplomatic presence in Minsk. We will continue to make clear that development of the relationship with Belarus is conditional upon improvements in human rights, democracy and the rule of law, including the release and rehabilitation of political prisoners.

Southern neighbourhood

On Syria, Ministers will discuss the deteriorating situation on the ground, including the humanitarian aspects and the EU response to it, and the need to provide support to the Syrian National Coalition. We will emphasise the need to consider amending the EU sanctions package.

On Lebanon, following the recent resignation of Prime Minister Mikati and the appointment of Mr Tamam Salara as Prime Minister designate, the discussion is likely to focus on the need to encourage the swift formation of a cabinet; for consensus over a new elections law; and for timely parliamentary elections. Ministers

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are also likely to discuss the effects of the conflict in Syria, with Lebanon now host to nearly 400,000 refugees, impacting on its security, stability and economy.

Baroness Ashton will report back from her recent visit to Egypt. The UK will voice backing for ongoing EU support of Egyptian political and economic reform, but emphasise also the importance of the “more for more” principle in EU engagement with Egypt.

Mali

The discussion on Mali will focus on the need for further progress to be made on national dialogue and reconciliation, leading to elections scheduled for July. Ministers will take stock of developments in New York, following the UN Security Council’s negotiations on a resolution authorising a UN operation in Mali. They will also consider the EU’s overall common security and defence policy (CSDP) response to Mali and the Sahel region, in the context of the EU’s strategy for security and development in the Sahel.

Burma

Ministers will discuss the situation in Burma in the context of reviewing EU restrictive measures, which are currently suspended apart from the arms embargo and restrictions on the supply of equipment which could be used for internal repression. We expect conclusions to welcome the significant reforms and highlight the challenges that remain, including the situation in Rakhine state and the plight of the Rohingya; the need to reach a ceasefire with the Kachin, and move towards political dialogue with all Burma’s ethnic groups; and to release remaining political prisoners. We will emphasise the importance of a more comprehensive approach to future EU engagement with Burma in the run up to and beyond national elections in 2015.

European Defence Agency steering board

The European Defence Agency (EDA) steering board on 23 April will focus on preparations for the agency’s input to the December 2013 European Council on defence, concentrating on increasing the effectiveness, visibility and impact of the common security and defence policy (CSDP); enhancing the development of defence capabilities; and strengthening Europe’s defence industry. The steering board will consider the EDA’s proposals to explore possibilities to expand pooling demand to cover the whole life-cycle; to intensify its efforts to support battlegroups and EU operations; and identify with member states co-operative projects to improve the pooling demand concept. To enhance the development of defence capabilities, the EDA will invite the steering board to endorse actions to increase co-operation between member states.

The EDA will invite the steering board to endorse proposals to launch “pioneer projects” in remote piloted aircraft systems, cyber defence and secure telecom by satellite. The board will note the progress made in the air-to-air refuelling project and will be invited to endorse the establishment of a category A programme on the military implementation of single European sky ATM research (SESAR). The UK is supportive of the EDA’s air-to-air refuelling project, and has offered unallocated UK Voyager flying hours to interested nations on a “pool and charge” basis. We will invite member states interested in clearing aircraft to declare their interest in the UK project with the EDA as soon as possible.

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Defence Foreign Affairs Council

EU training mission Mali

Ministers will discuss current EU CSDP operations, focusing on EU training mission (EUTM) Mali, over dinner on Monday 22 April. General Lecointre, head of mission EUTM Mali, will provide an update on progress on training the Malian armed forces. Discussion is likely to cover developments on the future of the African-led international support mission to Mali, AFISMA, the provision of equipment for the Malian armed forces, and a possible UN peacekeeping role. The chair of the EU Military Committee will provide an update on other military missions. We will reiterate ongoing UK support for the EU CSDP missions and operations.

December European Council

Ministers will discuss preparations for the December 2013 European Council on defence. We will set out the UK aims, which are to ensure that there is a focus on the comprehensive approach and complementarity with NATO; to improve cost-effectiveness and operational delivery; to enhance capabilities that benefit both NATO and the EU; and for this to be underpinned by a strengthened defence industrial base that will help boost longer-term competitiveness and economic growth.

Battlegroups

The UK will lead the EU battlegroup (EUBG) in the second half of 2013 with Lithuania, Latvia, Sweden and the Netherlands. Preparing for this role not only demonstrates our commitment to the concept but also provides training and transformational benefits, including for our partners. We will set out our view on the possible closer integration of the battlegroup into the EU’s wider tools and strategies, making it clear that we are not looking to alter the level of ambition, nor to reopen the battlegroup concept. We will continue to push for the battlegroup to be a more credible, usable and deployable entity, working closely with civilian actors, to make a positive contribution to international crisis management. Future UK offers to act as a framework nation for the EUBG will be kept under review.

Justice

Courts and Tribunals (Fee Remissions)

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mrs Helen Grant): I am today publishing a consultation on the system of fee remissions for courts and tribunals. The proposals in this consultation paper (Cm 8608) will ensure that access to justice is maintained for those who cannot afford a court or tribunal fee. They will also provide a better targeted system of fee remissions so that those who can afford to pay a fee do so.

The proposals set out in this consultation paper represent a wide-ranging reform of the fee remissions system. A fee remission is a full or partial waiver of the fees that become payable when an individual uses certain court or tribunal services.

The remission system ensures that access to justice is maintained for those individuals on lower incomes who would otherwise have difficulty paying a fee by providing access to that service free of charge or at a reduced rate.

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Our aim is to produce a remissions system which is better targeted, fairer, easy for users to understand and more coherent. To achieve this, the consultation paper proposes three key changes:

The introduction of a unified system of remissions across courts and tribunals.

The introduction of a disposable capital test to assess eligibility for a remission.

The introduction of a simplified income test, with a greater level of contribution required from those who receive a partial remission.

Implementation of these proposals will mean that the taxpayer contribution towards fee remissions will be

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targeted towards those who need it most. The proposals also ensure that the system of remissions takes into account the introduction of universal credit which replaces several benefits that currently determine eligibility for a remission.

The consultation will be open for a period of four weeks. We plan to implement an amended remissions system for the start of October 2013, in time for the introduction of the universal credit.

The consultation will be available in the Vote Office, the Printed Paper Office and on the Ministry of Justice website.