Written Ministerial Statements
Friday 16 June 2006
Communities and Local Government
Assistants for Political Groups (Remuneration)
I have today laid before the House a statutory instrument, the Local Government (Assistants for Political Groups) (Remuneration) (England) Order 2006, which provides for a rise in the maximum ceiling for the pay of political assistants employed by local authorities. The revised pay ceiling is £34,986. Local authorities have discretion to set their political assistants’ pay up to this limit.
The order restores the upper limit on what local authorities may pay their political assistants to the level on the local authority pay scale which is equivalent in real terms to the limit imposed by the Local Government and Housing Act 1989 and two subsequent orders.
The Government's intention to make this order was stated in our discussion paper, “Standards of Conduct in English Local Government”, which was published by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister on 15 December 2005. In future, we intend that primary legislation will fix permanently the ceiling on political assistants’ pay to the relevant local government pay scale.
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Pesticides Safety Directorate
The 2005-06 annual report and accounts for the pesticides safety directorate was laid before Parliament today.
Veterinary Medicines Directorate
The 2005-06 annual report and accounts for the veterinary medicines directorate was laid before Parliament today.
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
General Affairs and External Relations Council
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, Sir John Grant (UK Permanent Representative to the EU) and I represented the UK at the General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC) in Luxembourg on 12 June.
The agenda items covered were as follows:
Preparation of the European Council on 15-16 June: Draft Conclusions
The Council discussed the draft European Council conclusions. The main issues include enlargement, energy, sustainable development and migration.
A revised version of the draft conclusions will be presented to the European Council on 16 June.
The European Council is also expected to issue declarations on the Middle East Peace Process, Africa, the Western Balkans, Iraq, Lebanon and Iran.
The Council agreed a common position on the science and research chapters of Turkey and Croatia's accession negotiations, held in the margins of the meeting.
The presidency noted that Foreign Ministers would discuss this subject over dinner at the European Council.
European Agency for Fundamental Rights
The Council took note of the draft regulation to establish an EU agency for fundamental rights before forwarding it to COREPER (Committee of Permanent Representatives) with a view to reaching agreement as soon as possible.
World Trade Organisation/Doha Development Round
Commissioner Mandelson briefed the Council on the state of negotiations.
The Council agreed procedural conclusions noting that it would meet in special session as necessary at ministerial level in Geneva, to take stock of developments during the negotiations.
Gulf Co-operation Council Free Trade Agreement
Commissioner Mandelson briefed the Council on recent meetings with Gulf Co-operation Council Ministers.
The Council agreed conclusions: reiterating the need for full cooperation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia; recognising the decision of the Montenegrin and Serbian parliaments following the referendum on Montenegro's independence; and noting that the partners would recognise Montenegro in accordance with their national practice. The Council also adopted conclusions on the EU's military and policing operations in Bosnia.
In the margins of the Council, partners signed a stabilisation and association agreement with Albania.
The European Council is also expected to adopt a declaration on the Western Balkans.
The presidency updated the Council on preparations for the EU-US summit to be held in Vienna on 21 June. Areas for possible cooperation include: promoting peace, democracy and human rights in the world; confronting global challenges, including security; fostering prosperity and opportunity; and promoting cooperation on energy and energy security.
The Council agreed conclusions deploring the deterioration of the human rights situation and reaffirming the common position.
High Representative Solana briefed the Council on the E3+3 Foreign Ministers meeting in Vienna on 1 June, and HR Solana’s subsequent visit to Tehran.
The European Council is expected to adopt a declaration on Iran.
Middle East Peace Process
High Representative Solana briefed the Council on his recent visit.
External Relations Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner updated the Council on the preparations for the establishment of a temporary international mechanism to support Palestinian basic needs.
The European Council is expected to adopt a declaration on the Middle East Peace Process.
The Council together with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari discussed measures to enhance EU-Iraq relations and the situation in Iraq following the formation of a Government of national unity on 20 May.
The Council also adopted a joint action extending the mandate of the EUJUSTLEX Mission for Iraq under the European security and defence policy.
The European Council is expected to adopt a declaration on Iraq.
The Council adopted conclusions on Sudan reiterating its commitment to the implementation of the Darfur Peace Agreement, including through continuing to provide technical and financial support to the African Union Mission in Sudan and recalled its support for sanctions against those blocking the peace process, as set out in UN Security Council Resolution 1591 (2005).
The Council adopted conclusions expressing its commitment to contribute to put an end to the unacceptable activities of the Lords Resistance Army in Northern Uganda, as well as to assist in efforts to improve the humanitarian situation. The conclusions also called on the Ugandan Government to work actively for a peaceful resolution of the conflict.
The Council adopted conclusions expressing concern at the violence between armed groups in Mogadishu, which poses a serious threat to the democratic process.
The Council adopted conclusions calling on the parties to take urgently all the necessary measures for the implementation of the process of disarmament and identification.
Democratic Republic of Congo
The Council adopted conclusions expressing continued support to the process of political transition, particularly through the deployment of the military operation EUFOR RD Congo. The conclusions also called on all the political parties to pursue the path of peaceful and democratic change in the lead up to the elections.
The European Council is also expected to adopt conclusions on Africa.
Human Rights Defenders
The Council adopted conclusions paying tribute to the courage of human rights defenders, expressing admiration for their contribution to the advancement of the respect for human rights and welcoming the review of the implementation of the EU guidelines on human rights defenders.
The Dutch Foreign Minister, Bernard Bot, called for support for possible UN Security Council action on Burma.
The Portuguese Foreign Minister, Freitas do Amaral, briefed the Council on the deployment of Portuguese gendarmes. He also called for the support of possible UN Security Council initiatives in light of an assessment to be presented by UN Special Representative Ian Martin on 13 June.
International Facility for the Purchase of Medicine—AOB
French Foreign Minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy, briefed the Council on the proposal for an international facility for the purchase of medicines. He called for support for the initiative to improve access to medicines for the developing world.
Criminal Justice System
I have placed copies of the Criminal Justice System Northern Ireland's annual report for 2005-06 in the Libraries of both Houses, on behalf of my ministerial colleagues, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Lord Chancellor, the Attorney-General, the Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins) and the Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, East (Bridget Prentice), who sit with me on the Ministerial Criminal Justice and Policing Strategy and Delivery Group.
This year the report details progress against five themes: reducing crime; public confidence; tackling delay; diversity and equality; and reconviction rates.
The report demonstrates how the criminal justice agencies in Northern Ireland, working in partnership with one another, are striving to tackle these objectives. Key areas of success include:
the launch of the new Public Prosecution Service;
the establishment of a formal protocol between the Northern Ireland Court Service, Victim Support Northern Ireland and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children to ensure the effective support for victims and witnesses; and
Operation Clean-Up, which has overseen the removal of 4,309 untaxed vehicles in the 14 months to 31 March 2006.
The report demonstrates that all of us, from ministerial level through to front-line staff, are committed to ensuring that the criminal justice system serves the community effectively, in partnership and with integrity.
Trade and Industry
International Labour Conference
Tripartite discussions have recently taken place at the International Labour Conference convened in Geneva by the Governing Body of the International Labour Office to consider a draft recommendation relating to the employment relationship. The recommendation considered such issues as disguised employment relationships.
Unfortunately it was not possible to find an agreement, despite considerable efforts, that was acceptable to all parties—employers, workers and Governments. Throughout the discussions, it was stressed that the recommendation was meant to be a flexible instrument, containing options for consideration by member states. Clearly national conditions and law and practice differ considerably amongst ILO members and therefore a “one size fits all” approach was never the intention. However, the Government fully understood the concerns of the employers that the recommendation was overly prescriptive and detailed. Given that all three parties to it were not able to agree the recommendation, the UK Government abstained in the vote on the recommendation.
The UK Government value and support the work of the ILO. When considering the final recommendation we will take account of recent announcements of Government policy in this area as set out in “Success at work; protecting vulnerable workers, supporting good employers”, including on the issue of employment status—copies of which are in the Libraries of both Houses. A command paper will be laid in Parliament in due course.
Transport, Telecommunications and Energy Council
I attended the transport session of the Transport, Telecommunications and Energy Council, held in Luxembourg on 9 June. The Austrian Minister for Transport, Innovation and Technology, Mr. Hubert Gorbach, was in the chair.
Political agreement was reached on the revised proposal for a regulation on public passenger transport services by rail and road, establishing new rules for the payment of subsidy and the award of exclusive rights. Most of the final UK positions were adopted but we agreed to a longer transition period as part of the compromise. I was able to agree to the final compromise text, which does offer a satisfactory balance. An important consequence of the regulation will be that much needed transparency will be introduced into the process of awarding contracts. The agreed text is expected to go to the European Parliament for second reading under the German presidency early next year.
The Council adopted conclusions on the mid-term review of the EU road safety action programme. Among other things, the conclusions noted that the number of fatalities on European roads had fallen by 17.5 per cent. between 2001 and 2005, welcomed the positive effects of the member states’ national campaigns, and agreed on the need to strengthen road safety measures and initiatives at community or member state level.
The Council also adopted conclusions on the NAIADES action programme to promote the use of inland waterways for freight transport. The conclusions agreed to the strategic areas for action set out in the Commission Communication and invited the Commission to produce detailed proposals on its recommendations.
The presidency called for a Council decision on the signature of the transport protocol to the Alpine Convention. While the UK is prepared in principle to support the signature, I supported the view expressed by a number of Ministers that the Council should take account of the views of a member state which is directly affected and has yet to take a view on signature, following the recent appointment of a new Government. The presidency postponed a decision.
The Commissioner reported to the Council on a number of aspects of the Galileo satellite navigation project. He reported that the main elements of the concession contract would be in place by the end of this year, ahead of signature at the start of 2007. Further consideration of the financial details and due diligence by lenders would then take place in 2007. During a discussion, I called for the Commission to speed up decision making so we could make faster progress on the participation of third countries in Galileo. Member states were agreed that it would be desirable to have a transparent process to decide the future location of the Galileo Supervisory Authority (GSA). I put forward the case for Cardiff, the UK bid, on which the Welsh Assembly Government are leading.
The Commissioner reported to the Council on priorities for the transport Trans-European Network. Responses from Ministers were generally supportive.
The Council reached a general approach on the regulation establishing a joint undertaking to develop the new generation European air traffic management system (SESAR), which is the technological implementation of the European single sky. I set out the UK's one outstanding concern—on the need for air navigation service providers to be given voting rights in the administrative board. It was agreed that this issue would be considered within the review of the joint undertaking to be carried out in accordance with article 1 of the regulation. The current text of the regulation was acceptable to the UK.
The Commissioner reported on the latest situation in two areas of aviation external relations. On EU-US air services, the presidency and the Commission outlined the state of play in negotiations, and hoped that a final agreement would be possible in the autumn. I stressed the need for a balanced deal. The Commissioner also gave a progress report on negotiations with Russia on Siberian overflights. The negotiations were ongoing and were taking place in a constructive atmosphere in an effort to reach a solution.
In maritime transport, the Council reached a general approach on the draft directive on vessel traffic monitoring. I joined other Ministers in accepting a threshold of 15 metres for the fitting of automated identification systems (AIS) to fishing vessels; a reasonable phase-in period was achieved. The current text is acceptable to the UK.
The Council took note of progress on the recast directive on port state control.
Under AOB there were brief updates from the presidency and the Commission on: implementation of the first rail package, the European aviation safety agency (EASA), status of ratification of international maritime conventions in the International Labour Organisation (ILO); list of air carriers subject to bans in the EU; liner shipping block exemption—repeal of regulation (EEC) No. 4056/86; and passenger name records (PNR) in aviation. There was no substantive discussion on these points.
During the Council I took part in the signing of the agreement on the European common aviation area. As a result of this agreement, the common aviation market now applies to a total of 35 countries.