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NHS: Primary Care Trusts

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Lord Warner): My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

On 11 January 2006 the House of Commons Health Committee published its Second Report of Session 2005–06: Changes to Primary Care Trusts. The Government have today published their response to this report. Copies have been placed in the Library.

Northern Ireland: Public Service Commission

The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Rooker): My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Peter Hain) has made the following Ministerial Statement.

I am pleased to announce today the formation of the Public Service Commission for Northern Ireland. The Government's decisions on the review of public administration, which were announced on 22 November 2005, will require substantial transfers of staff to new organisations in the health, education and local government fields. I am very conscious of the major implications of these changes for staff working in these areas, including those in central government, and I wish therefore to repeat my earlier commitment that I will seek to avoid compulsory redundancies and to safeguard the interests of staff. I also repeat the commitment that government will work closely with the trade unions representing public service staff.

In November, I therefore announced my intention to establish a Public Service Commission. The proposed role of the Northern Ireland Public Service Commission will be,

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The commission will be independent of government. Although it is not a statutory body, I wish to make it clear that the Government attach the highest importance to the commission's role and the significance of its advice and recommendations. In establishing this independent commission, government are wholly committed to the implementation of the recommendations of the commission consistently across the public sector. All government departments and public bodies will be expected to co-operate with the commission in the provision of information and in the implementation of its advice and recommendations as approved by government. In the exceptional event that they could not accept a recommendation, the Government would publicly explain the policy reasons why they felt unable to accept the commission's advice.

I would expect the commission's advice to me to be in the public domain. In formulating its recommendations, the commission will be expected to develop direct links with employers, existing sectoral commissions and relevant trade unions.

The membership of the commission draws on the expertise of existing organisations across the various sectors. I am delighted that Sid McDowell has agreed to chair the commission and that the following have agreed to serve:

Sid McDowell Civil service commissioner, ex-chair of the Northern Ireland Housing Executive and retired trade union official.Brian Hanna, Chair Local Government Staff Commission and retired local government official. Professor Bernard Cullen, Chair Education and Library Board Staff Commission and Professor of Philosophy at Queen's University Belfast. Judith Eve, Chief Civil Service Commissioner and retired university academic. Dr Collim Patton, Retired HSS trust chief executive. Dessie Mitchell, Retired local government official and member of review of public administration panel. Jim McCusker, Retired trade union official.

Sudan: Darfur

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Triesman): Dr Rod Pullen has been appointed as UK special representative at the inter-Sudanese peace talks on Darfur. He took up his position on 6 March. This appointment is a further indication of our commitment on this issue. It is in addition to that of Dr Alan Goulty, HMA Tunis, who will also continue as the UK's special representative for Darfur. He will continue to focus primarily on pushing the parties and on getting key regional players (especially Eritrea, Libya) and international players on side. He will also continue to visit Sudan as necessary, in consultation with HMA Khartoum. We also expect him to pay occasional visits to the Abuja talks, in consultation with Rod Pullen, if there is a particular requirement.
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The Darfur peace talks are held under African Union (AU) mediation. The UK is a key international partner to the talks, and has maintained an observer at the talks in support of the AU since the beginning. However, in response to the unacceptably slow progress made by the parties, the UK has decided to appoint Dr Pullen, a senior grade diplomat, our former high commissioner to Ghana and our former ambassador to Zimbabwe, as the UK's special representative. This appointment signals the UK's commitment to a peace agreement and to work with all parties to the talks, in support of the AU mediation, to help push the parties towards a comprehensive and viable agreement.

My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary (Mr Jack Straw) expressed the UK's concern about the slow pace of progress when he addressed the talks on 14 February, and called upon the parties to rapidly increase momentum. He called on the movements' leaders to demonstrate their commitment to peace by attending the talks. He also announced that the UK had pledged a package of £1 million to the African Union in support of the talks.

Women: Criminal Justice System

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr Charles Clarke) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

I would like to make a Statement to mark the fact that today is International Women's Day. It is important to reflect on how women are treated in the criminal justice system and what still needs to be done to ensure that women are not disadvantaged in the way they have been in the past, in what is, after all, a system predominantly designed by men, for men.

I am pleased to say that there have been significant improvements towards achieving gender equality and we are now taking forward a number of important initiatives to ensure that this progress continues across the criminal justice system.

I am glad that our commitment will soon be given a statutory footing, with the forthcoming introduction of the new positive duty that will require all public bodies to promote gender equality. I am determined to ensure that our policies and practices are prepared for the requirements of this new duty well in advance of its implementation next year.

I particularly welcome the Fawcett Commission on Women and the Criminal Justice System, launched in 2004 and, I am pleased to say, continued for a further year in 2005. The commission has provided some valuable insights into how women are treated, as offenders, as victims of crime and as practitioners in the criminal justice system, and I have been pleased to receive the commission's reports and recommendations on areas for improvement. I am very grateful to Vera Baird MP and her colleagues at the commission for continuing this important work, and I look forward to the publication of its next report later this month.
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For our part, we continue to take forward the Women's Offending Reduction Programme (WORP) which recognises the need for a distinct response to women's offending, particularly in view of the rising women's prison population in recent years. The WORP focuses on improving community-based services and interventions that are appropriate for women, to support greater use of community alternatives for women offenders and to reduce the numbers ending up in custody.

As part of that programme, I announced last year that we would devote £9.15 million to setting up new initiatives in the community which would provide women with a co-ordinated multi-agency approach to meeting their needs. We are now working towards getting these new projects set up in the two selected regions—the north-west and Yorkshire and Humberside.

The National Probation Service is also developing a strategy for dealing with women offenders, which will be launched later this year.

For women who do need to be held in custody, government investment in prisons in recent years has enabled improvements in provision to better meet the needs of female prisoners. We have developed gender-specific drug services, with links through to community treatment; offending behaviour programmes designed specifically for women; the introduction of in-reach community mental health teams; and, in partnership with voluntary agencies, the funding of various resettlement projects, such as accommodation advice and mentoring. The Prison Service continues to develop suicide and self-harm prevention strategies specifically for women, with a focus on dealing with some of the underlying factors that can lead women to harm themselves.

Following the tragic series of deaths at Styal prison, I decided to commission a review to make sure that there is appropriate provision for particularly vulnerable women on each occasion they come into contact with the criminal justice system. The review will profile the characteristics and histories of some of the women who have died in custody in recent years, looking at the pathway through the system that led them to that point. It will consider also the suitability of mainstream prisons for seriously mentally ill or substance abused vulnerable women and the awareness of sentencers of the limitations of prisons. A
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further Statement will be made to announce who will conduct the review and its terms of reference.

The Government take domestic violence very seriously, and in 2004 passed the Domestic Violence Crime and Victims Act, which brought about the biggest overhaul of domestic violence legislation in 30 years. Then, last year, we published the National Delivery Plan on Domestic Violence, which draws together resources and energy at national, regional and local level to deliver co-ordinated services. This will deliver more effective services for victims, especially women, inside the criminal justice system and in the community.

Between 2004 and 2007 we have placed £5.25 million in the new Victims Fund to develop services for victims of sexual crime. This has helped support a range of good quality services provided through the voluntary sector, and extended the network of sexual assault referral centres (SARCs) from six in 2003 to 14, with a further six to open in the coming year.

Since March 2003, we have provided over £2 million for the Poppy scheme, to provide safe shelter and support for women trafficked into prostitution in the UK. More than 100 women have been helped through the scheme and a significant number have been supported throughout the successful prosecution of the criminal gangs who trafficked them.

The recently published Prostitution Strategy was developed to challenge the existence of prostitution, which often puts women at serious risk of violence and sexual exploitation. The strategy provides a framework to effectively disrupt street markets, targeting those who exploit prostitutes, as well as tackling off-street prostitution. A key issue for women is finding routes out of prostitution, and the criminal justice system has a role to play here. The Prostitution Strategy proposes new rehabilitative penalties for women convicted of loitering and soliciting in order to support rather than hamper women from exiting prostitution and re-engaging in the community.

On International Women's Day it is important not only to celebrate the achievements of successful women in society but also to think about how we help and support those women who have experienced abuse and victimisation and those who are among the more disadvantaged and socially excluded. They are most often the women who come into contact with the criminal justice system and I hope that the work and initiatives I have described demonstrate our commitment and determination to ensure that the needs of those women are met.

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