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NHS: Patient Power

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

The department has set up a review group to consider the concerns that were set out in the case closure report from Ofcom, following its investigation into the price of telephone calls to hospital patients.

The group will be chaired by Ms Melanie Kay of the Department of Health. Its membership will include the providers of bedside communications and entertainment services, patient representation, and National Health Service trusts. The group will report later this year.

The terms of reference for the group are as follows:

Purpose

The patient power review group will be responsible for reviewing existing contracts with the NHS and service providers to identify ways of addressing the concerns expressed in the recent Ofcom investigation. In summary, these were to ensure that patients and the NHS get best value from the contracts while the service providers are not disadvantaged in the market place. The intention is to produce an agreed framework that would enable NHS trusts and the providers of the service to modify their existing agreements.

Terms of Reference

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Northern Ireland: Security

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Drayson): My right honourable friend the Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Adam Ingram) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

I have today placed in the Library of the House the structured plan for the phased reduction of troops to peacetime levels, assuming the continued maintenance of an enabling environment, which the Government agreed to produce as part of the programme for security normalisation in Northern Ireland announced last year.

Tranche 1 of the plan has been completed ahead of schedule, including the removal of the three hilltop observation posts, the dismantling of the military supersangar in Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Newtownhamilton and the removal of the military observation posts in Masonic Base and on Divis Tower. Forkhill has been vacated and closed, and the Army has withdrawn from the PSNI stations at Kinawley and Rosslea. The six-month roulement battalion known as Northern Ireland Battalion 1 (NIBAT 1) was withdrawn from Northern Ireland on 16 January. This marked the withdrawal of the last roulement battalion deployed in Northern Ireland.

We shall be consulting with the trades unions on the implementation of this plan once the full impact of the normalisation programme on civilian staff has been established.

Pensions: Local Government

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Baroness Andrews): My honourable friend the Minister for Local Government has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

My Statement to the House on 2 December 2005 set out the process by which the Government proposed to amend the local government pension scheme in England and Wales, subject to the outcome of the statutory consultation exercise which began on 5 December 2005 and which ended on 28 February 2006. A summary of the responses received will be placed on the ODPM/LGPS website.

The local government pension scheme is a guaranteed, final salary pension scheme open primarily to employees of local government but also to those who work in other organisations associated with local government, including, higher and further education institutions. It is also a funded scheme, with its pensions funds being managed and invested locally within the framework of regulations provided by government. In deciding on the regulations needed to ensure that all members' pensions are safe, and prudently funded, the Government have to take account of the advice of actuaries, as well as the views of representatives of employers and members, and other interested parties.
 
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My 2 December Statement made clear the Government's intention to secure the scheme's continued affordability and viability, without placing an unfair burden on taxpayers. The Government remain committed to that objective, and also to providing an equality-proofed scheme which is flexible and attractive in its provisions to employees and employers, both now and in the future.

To fulfil the Government's objective for the scheme, considerable efforts have been made to reform and to plan its future, within the framework provided by the tripartite committee. The Government, with the co-operation of the local authority employers and trades unions, want to see the provision of good quality pensions for all local authority workers. The tripartite committee provides the right framework for key interests to seek agreement, through analysis and transparent discussions, on the way ahead for the scheme and for any new benefit structure. However, in regulating the scheme, the Government are required by the scheme's governing regulations to secure its ongoing solvency and compliance with the law.

It is intended to place before Parliament the necessary amending regulations to implement what was outlined in my 2 December Statement. These will introduce significant and well supported flexibilities into the scheme's legal framework to reflect the simplified tax regime provided by the Finance Act 2004. It is the Government's wish also to strike a fair and proportionate balance between the extent and the cost of any affordable and legal safeguards for existing scheme members. To ensure compliance with European Union age discrimination legislation, set out in Council Directive 2000/78/EC, and to secure ongoing cost stability, the rule of 85 will be removed from the scheme with effect from 1 October 2006. We remain firmly committed to ensuring the protection of those members born before 31 March 1953 who would have satisfied the rule by their 60th birthday.

Such an approach, within the current scheme's framework, is seen as being both affordable and legal, and it maintains the consistent stance taken by the Government that no additional costs associated with these regulations should fall on taxpayers.

Looking ahead, the Government are committed to reforming the scheme to ensure that it meets the challenge of a changing workforce both within and around local government in England and Wales. Discussions with scheme interests are proceeding to support the preparation of a policy discussion paper on a new-look scheme for consultation later in the year. Any reforms of the scheme must recognise, of course, that it already has a normal retirement age of 65, that it is funded and financed in a specific way and, crucially, that any new arrangements must continue to be both affordable and legal.

A key element of these discussions, which have already begun within the framework provided by the tripartite committee, will be to address positively the concerns expressed about the position of existing scheme members who contrast their particular circumstances with the agreement reached in October
 
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2005 by other, but unfunded, public service pension schemes. The Government intend that these reforms can be guided by the principle that up to half of the savings achieved by the final removal of the rule of 85 can be recycled into the development of whatever benefit package is felt by the stakeholders and membership to be appropriate for the new-look 2008 scheme.

Going forward, the Government, given their regulatory responsibilities for the solvency and viability of the scheme, remain firmly committed to the provision of affordable and sustainable good-quality pension arrangements in the local government pension scheme; so too, they believe, are all the interested parties connected with its present and future.


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