The Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council was held on 1 December in Brussels. My hon. Friend, the Minister for Pension Reform and the Minister with responsibility for employment relations and London, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick) represented the UK. Health and consumer affairs issues were taken on 30 November.
There was a debate on the Commission's recently adopted Green Paper on Labour Law. Commissioner Valdimir Spidla said member states had to reform their labour markets further to adapt to the challenges and opportunities of globalisation. The increased use of new forms of flexible contract had many advantages for both employees and employers, but could also lead to more vulnerability for workers and segmentation of the labour market. All member states welcomed the debate and my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town, emphasised the importance of subsidiarity in this area; there was no one labour model which could be universally applied to all member states, and reforms had to be carried out by member states themselves, although the EU could have added value by encouraging best practice.
A number of member states took the opportunity to raise the working time directive amending certain aspects of the organisation of working time. My hon. Friend highlighted the UK's priorities of a solution for member states with problems caused by the European Court of Justice rulings on SiMAP and Jaeger and the retention of the individual opt out without unnecessary restrictions.
The Finnish presidency introduced its progress report on the proposal for a directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on improving the portability of supplementary pension rights. The latest text provided for the vesting and preservation but not transfer of mobile workers' pension rights. There were limited exemptions for unstable schemes or rescue funds, and the possibility of up to 10 years for implementation. The Commission accepted the need for compromise, but if transfers were to be excluded then preservation of rights should receive more attention. Any exemptions must be very tightly drawn and the transposition period could be shorter. My hon. Friend the Minister for Pensions Reform said the United Kingdom could support the aim of improving worker mobility. However, this should not be achieved at the expense of damaging or deterring supplementary pensions, or hampering pension reforms. It made sense to remove transfers from the ambit of the directive, given the widespread problems and a light touch would be needed in on the preservation of dormant rights. Some restrictions of the kind foreseen would be essential for good financial management, but the criteria for opt-outs should be strict.
The presidency announced that it had been agreed during the lunchtime discussion that Vilnius (Lithuania) would host the seat of the European Gender Institute.
The Commission presented its recent communication on demography and the Social Protection Committee's opinion on it.
The presidency confirmed that agreement had been reached with the European Parliament on the Daphne programme on violence against children, young people and women, The UK supported the ideas to tackle the social causes and impacts of human trafficking, which are in line with the Commission's priorities.
The Council reached agreement on a partial general approach on the pensions chapter of a new implementing regulation for social security co-ordination regulation 883/04. The UK maintained its parliamentary scrutiny reserve. A partial general approach was also agreed on a corresponding set of amendments to Annex XI of regulation 883/04.
The Council adopted conclusions on decent work; the Beijing platform for action; and men and gender equality. There was a short presentation and discussion of the Employment Committee opinion on higher productivity and more and better jobs. The Council also noted an Opinion from the Social Protection Committee on Social Services of General Interest.
Specifically, it sets out:
the health and service priorities for the year ahead;
the next steps in reform and why these are important; and
the financial objectives.
The document also stresses the need for primary care trusts need to work with local authorities to improve health and well-being, reduce inequalities and achieve a shift towards prevention.