Written Ministerial Statements
Thursday 28 January 2010
2009 UK Convergence Programme
The “UK Convergence Programme” has been deposited in the Libraries of both Houses.
ECOFIN (19 January 2010)
The Economic and Financial Affairs Council was held in Brussels on 19 January 2010. The following items were discussed:
Ministers discussed and agreed a general approach on the recovery directive, aimed at strengthening mutual assistance between member states in the recovery of taxes. The Government support the directive, which provides an overhaul of existing provisions aimed at clamping down on tax evasion. The directive will be adopted at a forthcoming Council meeting, following consultation with the European Parliament.
Presentation of the Presidency Work Programme
The Spanish presidency presented its ECOFIN work programme for the first half of 2010.
Statistics: Eurostat report
ECOFIN agreed a set of conclusions on a report by the Commission’s statistics agency into the quality of official statistics in Greece. The Government support the conclusions, which urge Greece to ensure that outstanding issues are dealt with as a matter of priority and calls on the Commission to propose measures to bring the Greek statistical system in line with EU standards. ECOFIN will continue to monitor progress and return to the issue in February.
Energy and Climate Change
Parliamentary Answer (Correction)
The answer provided by the Department to PQ 311361 answered on 18 January was incorrect. It referred the hon. Member to an answer given to the hon. Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Grant Shapps) on 11 January 2010, Official Report, column 737W, which stated that Ministers had not received any media training since the creation of the Department in October 2008.
Between answering the two questions, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change received media training on Monday 11 January 2010.
Justice and Home Affairs (Post-Council Statement)
My noble Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, Lord Bach and I attended the Justice and Home Affairs Informal Council in Spain on 21 and 22 January.
Discussions on the interior day centred on three themes: an EU internal security strategy, counter-terrorism following the attempted bombing on Christmas day over Detroit, and legal migration following the entry into force of the Lisbon treaty.
During the first session all member states supported the presidency’s proposal for an internal security strategy, which the presidency said was intended to carry a simple message on shared threats and shared response. I welcomed the draft strategy but additionally called for an organised crime strategy which would identify priority issues and enhance co-operation at EU level. The Commission undertook to present a political communication which we will share with Parliament when received. The presidency concluded that the internal security strategy would be submitted to COREPER.
In the second session on counter-terrorism the presidency welcomed the US Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano to the informal Council. She gave a brief summary of the Detroit incident, stressed the importance of information exchange and in particular passenger name record data for collective security, and called for the work of the EU-US high level group on data protection to be formalised into a binding agreement. I said that the Detroit incident should serve as a wake-up call. Al-Qaeda’s capacity to carry out unimaginable acts was now known and we had a responsibility to close identified security gaps speedily. I identified a number of areas for EU action, including: the need to collect advanced passenger information on intra-EU flights; expedite an EU PNR agreement where we needed a clear legal framework that included intra-EU flights; proposals on allowing scanners as primary screening tools; targeted capacity-building to countries where there was an al-Qaeda threat and we should not forget the work currently being done to reduce radicalisation and recruitment. Other delegations also called for an EU PNR instrument, stressed the importance of work with third countries, and highlighted the need for research and analysis of information.
The presidency opened the final session on legal migration noting the opportunities offered by the Lisbon treaty in this area and their proposals for work on unaccompanied minors. The Commission said that new directives on intra-company transferees and seasonal workers would also be proposed, along with a Green Paper and change to family reunification rules. Other delegations said there was a need to take action to account for demographics, labour market needs and impact on social security systems. Some argued that it was not possible to separate illegal immigration from legal migration and integration and therefore stressed the importance of action on border management and the establishment of the EU entry/exit system in 2010. The presidency concluded by looking forward to the Stockholm action plan and the fourth Ministerial meeting on integration which was planned for 15-16 April.
Discussions on the justice day centred around three themes: looking at a common policy for justice after the Lisbon treaty, a Europe for the family, and property rights and thinking on victims.
Opening the first session, the presidency invited discussion on a range of issues concerning co-operation in the justice area after the Lisbon treaty. All delegations highlighted the importance of effective working with the European Parliament, given its enhanced role in relation to legislation in criminal justice matters. Many delegations highlighted the importance of proper evaluation of existing and new legislation, and saw no reason to assume this should be an obstacle to progress (the UK saw synergies between evaluation and progress). There was a discussion about member state initiatives under the former third pillar. The Commission argued that these should be prepared with as much care as their own proposals. Other delegations spoke up in favour of appropriate consultation and preparation of impact assessments. As to third-country agreements, many delegations highlighted the need for careful co-ordination and information, notably in areas where external competence was shared.
During a discussion on the use of enhanced co-operation, most member states, including the UK, urged caution and emphasised that such measures should be used only as a last resort. Provided that proper procedures were followed, most accepted that at the moment, the most likely area for enhanced co-operation was choice of law in divorce.
During the session on a Europe for the family and property rights, the presidency invited discussion on three areas: succession and wills, matrimonial property regimes and Brussels I. On succession and wills they asked whether work in this area should focus on cross-border matters without affecting member states substantive law. Nearly all those member states who spoke agreed that the proposal should not affect substantive law, many of those arguing that there was no competence to deal with substantive succession law. The UK expressed regret that it had been unable to opt in to this proposal, agreed that substantive law should not be affected and said that national procedural law should also be respected.
The presidency then asked whether there was an urgent need for an instrument that clarified the law applicable to matrimonial property regimes. Five member states agreed an instrument was needed soon but others were more cautious. Some thought there was no urgent need; others thought it would be best first to see how the negotiations on succession and wills progressed. The UK thought the emphasis should be less on the urgency of the proposal but instead on a thorough analysis of the evidence base.
With regard to Brussels I, the presidency asked whether it was necessary to present a proposal as soon as possible on the revision of Brussels I that, with adequate guarantees, abolished exequatur. All who intervened and saw the revision of Brussels I as a priority, including the UK, agreed that the abolition of exequatur needed to proceed with sufficient protection, especially to debtors.
There was a discussion over lunch focusing on what more the EU could do to support victims. Lord Bach noted that we had significant recent experience in the field and were content to exchange best practice. The Spanish presidency said that they wanted to make progress on the draft proposal on a European protection order.
Contingencies Fund: Northern Ireland Court Service
The Northern Ireland Court Service winter supplementary estimate for 2009-10 includes £84.5 million cash (£85.0 million resource) in respect of legal aid, intended to enable the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission (NILSC) to discharge legal costs and meet its administration costs during 2009-10. Expenditure on legal aid in 2009-10 is forecast to exceed existing provision significantly because the NILSC is not only dealing with a high volume of very high-cost criminal cases but also a higher level of civil and criminal business.
Accordingly, parliamentary approval for additional resources of £17 million will be sought in a spring supplementary estimate for the Northern Ireland Court Service. Pending that approval, urgent expenditure estimated at £17 million is being met by a repayable cash advance from the Contingencies Fund. The additional resources will enable the NILSC to discharge its statutory obligation to meet bills within the provision available to it.
Arrangements have been put in place to ensure that very high-cost cases are assessed and paid in a timely manner. There is a programme of reform aimed at reducing the cost of criminal legal aid and delivering reform to civil legal aid which will control cost and target funding on priority cases.
Northern Ireland Devolution
The Taoiseach and I met the political parties—both individually and together—and joined the plenary sessions of their negotiations at Hillsborough this week. I want to pay tribute to Brian Cowen for his patience and hard work.
We worked to establish common ground, to build dialogue between the parties and to re-establish the trust necessary to complete the devolution of policing and justice in Northern Ireland. This follows the agreement of an £800 million financial package in October 2009 that would be available for use upon successful completion of devolution.
As a result of these intensive discussions we believe that there is a clear pathway to an agreement that would achieve a settlement of all the outstanding issues.
First, we believe it is now possible for the parties to set an early date for the completion of the final stage of devolution. And we believe it is feasible for a cross-community vote in early March with the transfer of policing and justice powers around the beginning of May.
Secondly, we believe the parties have a sound basis for how the devolution of policing and justice will work in practice: in particular, that a solution is available for the creation of a new Justice Department and for the definition of the relationship between the Justice Minister and the Executive.
Thirdly, on the issue of parades there is a reasonable basis for agreement, including dealing more effectively with contentious parades, learning lessons from successful local models, and for enhancing the framework governing parades and related public assemblies in a way that guarantees respect, dialogue, transparency and independence.
In addition we have also put forward proposals for the Executive to move ahead on other outstanding St. Andrew’s issues.
It is right that the parties themselves now focus on working together, in a spirit of trust and mutual understanding, to agree and take ownership of the solutions.
The Taoiseach and I look forward to receiving an update on progress from the First and Deputy First Ministers on 29 January. If it proves impossible for the parties to resolve the outstanding issues, we are prepared to publish our specific proposals for wider debate and discussion. We have listened to the views of Northern Ireland’s political leaders—we have asked them to reach agreement on outstanding issues and move quickly to the cross-community vote in the Assembly necessary to achieve the completion of devolution.
Dartford - Thurrock Crossing Charging Scheme
The “Dartford—Thurrock Crossing Charging Scheme Account for 2008-09” is published today under section 3 (1) (d) of the Trunk Road Charging Schemes (Bridges and Tunnels) (Keeping of Accounts) (England) Regulations 2003. A copy of the accounts will be placed in the House Library.
Work and Pensions
Pension Schemes and Equality
In the Barber judgment of May 1990 the European Court of Justice ruled that, as occupational pensions are a form of deferred pay, scheme rules must treat men and women equally. The UK Government incorporated this obligation into domestic law in the Pensions Act 1995. A similar obligation was placed on the Pension Protection Fund in the Pensions Act 2004 in relation to PPF compensation. In line with the understanding of the ECJ judgment at the time, these provisions apply only where there is a comparator– that is, where more favourable treatment has been afforded to an individual of the opposite sex engaged in comparable work.
As part of the work relating to the draft Financial Assistance Scheme (Miscellaneous Amendment) Regulations recently laid before the House, the—Government have been preparing guidance for trustees who are preparing to transfer their scheme assets to Government. As part of that work, the Government have considered whether further practical guidance on equalisation for these transferring schemes is desirable, to ensure that payments of assistance do not discriminate between men and women.
The examination of the relevant legislation and case law has led the Government to conclude that where a scheme member has accrued entitlement to a guaranteed minimum pension after May 1990, European law requires that any inequality in scheme rules which results from the legislative provisions governing GMPs should be removed, whether or not a person can show that a comparator exists.
The Government intend to bring forward amending legislation when Parliamentary time allows. However, in the meantime, it is the Government’s opinion that, in order to ensure full compliance with European law, trustees and others should act as if existing domestic legislation requires equalisation in respect of differences resulting from GMPs whether or not real comparators exist.
Workers Memorial Day
I am pleased to announce the publication of the Government’s response to the consultation exercise proposing the official recognition of Workers Memorial Day.
The Government’s response (Cm 7789) has been laid before Parliament and will be published later today.
The consultation exercise attracted a large number of responses, the overwhelming majority of which were strongly supportive of the proposal. I am therefore delighted to announce that the UK will officially recognise Workers Memorial Day, and that this recognition will take formal effect this year on 28 April, the international day of action for safety and health at work. The day is already widely commemorated in the UK and official recognition will reinforce its significance and raise awareness of the workers who are killed, disabled, injured or made unwell each year by their work.
Commemorations will continue to be led by individuals, employers, trade unions and community organisations. In keeping with the outcome of the consultation, the Government will encourage commemorations to be held on the day itself throughout the UK. The Government and Ministers will help support and promote these commemorations.
Official recognition is a tribute to all those who have campaigned long and hard for such recognition, including bereaved families, trade unions, campaign groups, and many other organisations and individuals. It is also recognition of the importance of work to improve health and safety among the working population.
Copies of the response are available in the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office. It is also available on the DWP website at: www.dwp.gov.uk/publications/policy-publications/fatal-accidents-inquiry.shtml.