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Written Statements

Volume 516: debated on Friday 22 October 2010

Written Ministerial Statements

Friday 22 October 2010

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

General Affairs and Foreign Affairs Councils Agenda (25 October)

The Foreign Affairs Council and General Affairs Council will meet in Luxembourg on 25 October. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs will attend the Foreign Affairs Council. I will attend the General Affairs Council.

General Affairs Council

EU Summits with Third Countries

The Foreign Minister of Belgium (which holds the rotating EU presidency) will chair the GAC. The Council President Herman Van Rompuy will host a dinner the previous evening, at which he intends to focus on EU summits with third countries. Drawing on the experience of the recent summit with China, he will invite Ministers to look ahead to summits with the US, Ukraine and Russia later this year. The Government believe that the EU needs to focus these summits on a few key priorities, including advancing the EU’s trade relationships. This issue will be discussed further at the following day’s FAC (see below).

October European Council

Ministers will look ahead to the October European Council, which takes place in Brussels on 28-29 October and will be attended by the Prime Minister. The Council agenda includes economic governance, the Single Market Act, climate change, the Seoul G20 summit, and the EU-US summit. There may also be discussions on the EU-Russia summit, Pakistan (see below) and the EU budget review.

Serbia

Ministers will debate whether to take the next step on Serbia’s EU membership application. The Government support doing so, by referring Serbia’s application to the Commission for an assessment of its readiness to begin membership talks (an “avis”).

September European Council

Ministers will consider follow-up to the September Council. The key UK interest here is on Pakistan. The September Council invited the Commission to present in October a proposal for “immediate and time-limited reduction of duties on key imports from Pakistan, in conformity with WTO rules”. This would be part of an ambitious trade and development package for Pakistan. The Government support quick passage of the trade proposal adopted by the Commission on 7 October, providing Pakistan with significant trade concessions until 2014.

European External Action Service (EEAS)

The compromise texts for the Amending Staff and Financial Regulations for the EEAS have been agreed and should be adopted by November. Member states may take the opportunity of the GAC to congratulate the presidency and Baroness Ashton for their work in completing the procedures necessary to get the EEAS up and running. It is unlikely that there will be substantial discussion. We will stress the importance of budget neutrality and the need for progress on efficiency savings. We will also emphasise the need for recruitment to be meritocratic, and for the EEAS to support member states’ foreign policy objectives, complementing rather than replacing national diplomatic services.

foreign affairs council

EU Summits with Third Countries

Baroness Ashton will chair the FAC. Following the GAC discussion on EU third country summits (see above), we expect the FAC to focus on specific objectives for the US, Ukraine and Russia summits. The Government would like to see an agreement on the importance of support to Pakistan and a revitalised Transatlantic Economic Council with the US; a reaffirmation of the importance of the EU-Ukraine free trade agreement; and a push on Russian WTO accession with a view to finalising an ambitious EU-Russia New Agreement with trade provisions.

Cuba

Discussion on Cuba was deferred from the June FAC, to allow time for Cuba to make progress on an anticipated release of political prisoners. The EU will discuss how to respond to these recent developments in Cuba. The Government recognise that some progress has been made on prisoner releases, and believe that any EU response should be measured, and aimed at encouraging further progress.

Middle East Peace Process

Baroness Ashton will update Ministers on her recent visit to the region. Ministers will discuss developments in the latest talks and what the EU can do to support progress. The Government believe that the EU has a role to play, in supporting US-led efforts to broker peace in the region.

Sahel

Ministers will discuss Sahel on the basis of a recent joint paper by the Commission and the General Secretariat of the Council on security and development issues in that region. The discussion is likely to highlight increasing concerns about security in the Sahel and the importance of the EU’s political, security and development engagement.

Union for the Mediterranean

There will be a discussion of proposals from Baroness Ashton for a one-year transitional arrangement for the EU co-presidency of the Union for the Mediterranean. The Government have concerns regarding this proposal, including around the basis on which the Commission would represent the EU at this intergovernmental meeting. We would like a long-term solution to be found on a legal basis that is acceptable to all member states, and which respects national sovereignty.

The European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP)

We expect a brief discussion on the Commission’s consultation exercise on the ENP with member states and partner countries. The Government believe that the ENP needs to be more ambitious, with access to EU markets linked to demonstrable progress by partners on economic and political reforms. The application of this conditionality should be the basis of the EU’s engagement.

Georgia

We expect a short stocktake of bilateral EU-Georgia relations, following recent Georgian elections. Ministers may cover the EU’s role in continuing efforts to foster regional conflict resolution, and Georgia-Russia relations.

EU-UN

Although not currently on the FAC agenda, some member states may raise the EU’s status at the UN following last month’s “no action” motion in the General Assembly.

NATO-EU

Following the NATO Defence and Foreign Ministers’ meeting of 14 October, there is the possibility of a FAC discussion on NATO-EU co-operation.

Home Department

Vetting and Barring Scheme

I announced on 15 June that further implementation of the Vetting and Barring Scheme would be halted pending a review of the scheme. Together with my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Education and for Health, I am today announcing the terms of reference for this review which we have collectively agreed.

The review will be thorough and consider afresh the principles and objectives of the scheme and recommend what, if any, scheme is now needed. The review will be developed by officials working jointly across our three Departments and recommendations are expected early in the new year.

The protection of children and vulnerable adults must be paramount. But we must also ensure that arrangements are proportionate and support a trusting, caring society where well-meaning people are encouraged rather than deterred.

In parallel, a review of the criminal records regime will take place, led by the independent Government Adviser for Criminality Information Management, Mrs Sunita Mason. This will be undertaken in two phases and will report firstly on employment vetting systems which involve the Criminal Records Bureau, followed by a report on the broader regime.

The terms of reference for these are below.

Vetting and Barring Scheme Remodelling: Terms of Reference

In order to meet the coalition’s commitment to scale back the vetting and barring regime to common-sense levels, the review will:

Consider the fundamental principles and objectives behind the vetting and barring regime, including;

Evaluating the scope of the scheme’s coverage;

The most appropriate function, role and structures of any relevant safeguarding bodies and appropriate governance arrangements;

Recommending what, if any, scheme is needed now; taking into account how to raise awareness and understanding of risk and responsibility for safeguarding in society more generally.

Criminal Records Review: Terms of Reference

The Criminal Records Review will examine whether the criminal records regime strikes the right balance between respecting civil liberties and protecting the public. It is expected to make proposals to scale back the use of systems involving criminal records to common-sense levels. The review will include consideration of the following issues:

In phase 1:

(i) Could the balance between civil liberties and public protection be improved by scaling back the employment vetting systems which involve the Criminal Records Bureau (CRB)?

(ii) Where Ministers decide such systems are necessary, could they be made more proportionate and less burdensome?

(iii) Should police intelligence form part of CRB disclosures?

In phase 2:

1. How should the content of a “criminal record” be defined?

2. Where should criminal records be kept and who should be responsible for managing them?

3. Who should have access to criminal records databases, for what purposes and subject to what controls and checks? To what extent should police intelligence be disclosed?

4. What capacity should individuals have to access, challenge and correct their own criminal records?

5. Could the administration of criminal records be made more straightforward, efficient and cost-effective?

6. Could guidance and information on the operation of the criminal records regime be improved?

7. How effective is the integration of overseas data into the criminal records regime?

Justice

Dr David Kelly

I have today placed copies of the post-mortem examination report and the toxicology report relating to the death of Dr David Kelly in July 2003 in the Libraries of both Houses and on the Ministry of Justice website at: http://www.justice.gov.uk/publications/ kelly-pm-toxicology-reports.htm

I am publishing these reports in the interests of maintaining public confidence in the inquiry into how Dr Kelly came by his death.

While I firmly believe that the publication of these documents is in the public interest, I am mindful that the contents may be distressing. I hope that the privacy of Dr Kelly’s family will be respected at this difficult time.

Transport

EU Transport Council (15 October)

The first Transport Council of the Belgian presidency was held in Luxembourg on 15 October. The United Kingdom was represented by the Deputy Permanent Representative.

The Council reached a political agreement on the directive amending Directive 1999/62 on charging of heavy goods vehicles (the Eurovignette directive). The political agreement was acceptable to the UK.

Neither the existing directive nor the proposed amendment require the use of tolls or user charges but where member states choose to apply them they must respect the rules. The presidency had tabled a compromise proposal, the main elements of which were: to remove all requirements for mandatory hypothecation of revenues to transport projects, to remove the possibility of adding a supplement for congestion, while allowing significant variation of charges within the overall revenue limit; and to allow member states the choice not to apply tolls and charges to lorries below 12 tonnes.

Further modifications made by the presidency at the Council, included provision that the cleanest vehicles would be exempt from any external cost charges for four years after dates of application; and that EURO V and EURO VI standard vehicles would have a zero charge for air pollution until the end of 2013 and 2017 respectively; on the key issues for the UK (mandatory hypothecation and inclusion of vehicles under 12 tonnes) the text was acceptable.

The UK and Sweden entered a minutes statement, stating that in our view the directive should have been taken on a fiscal legal base.

The Council adopted a mandate authorising the Commission to open negotiations with Brazil on a comprehensive air transport agreement, with the aim of opening up traffic rights between the EU and Brazil. The UK supports the opening of negotiations.

There was an exchange of views on strategy and the future of transport 2010-2020, in advance of publication of the European Commission’s White Paper on transport policy, expected in December or January.

In the debate, member states supported the need to develop a more sustainable transport network. There was wide support for a financial framework to support infrastructure developments and intelligent transport technology (ITS) implementation, although some member states pointed out that the EU must not undermine domestic efforts to cut deficits. The UK highlighted the need to focus on areas with proven EU added value and ensure long-term fiscal stability. Major EU projects such as SESAR and Galileo should be completed on time and budget. Long-term priorities should be the full liberalisation of the single market, transport safety and security, recognising trade opportunities, and moving to a low-carbon economy.

Under AOB, the Commission presented a draft Council decision on the public regulated service of the Galileo satellite navigation programme. This should be ready to put to the Council early next year.

The Commission also presented a proposal for a recast of the rail liberalisation package, on which discussions in the working group have already started.

England's Transport System in Winter

On 26 July 2010 I responded to the interim findings of the independent review panel examining the resilience of England’s transport systems in winter. The panel are publishing their final report today. I would like to thank David Quarmby CBE (chair) and his fellow panel members Brian Smith and Chris Green, for their further thoughtful analysis and recommendations. Copies of the review have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

As today’s report notes, much action has already been taken by local and national highway authorities, salt suppliers, Government and others to help keep our road network moving in the event of snow and ice this winter. But as the previous two winters have shown, we cannot be complacent.

Following July’s interim report, I immediately instructed the Highways Agency to build up a national strategic salt supply of last resort. I am pleased to report that the Highways Agency has made arrangements for the import of 250,000 tonnes of salt which is expected to start arriving this month. I am in full agreement with the panel’s view that this should be considered as a short-term reaction to current exceptional circumstances following two successive severe winters.

I therefore welcome the recommendations to improve resilience in salt supply in the longer term through: greater efficiencies in salt utilisation; increased throughput flexibility by suppliers; a new recommended standard of 12 days (48 runs) pre-season stockholding by local highway authorities; and regular monitoring of the national stock position. I urge all parties to take forward the recommendations that relate to them.

The Department for Transport has already been monitoring the national salt stock position in the run up to winter, in order to help highway authorities and suppliers to make better informed decisions. Working with the UK Roads Liaison Group the Department has also commissioned the production of technical guidance for local highway authorities on standards and methods to reduce the utilisation of salt without compromising effectiveness. This guidance, which will be available from the end of this month, will help to ensure that salt is spread at appropriate and effective levels, but not over-spread, thereby helping to conserve stock as well as reducing costs to local highway authorities. Today’s independent report also highlights the economic and social costs of winter disruption, which highway authorities and others will wish to consider when making their future local investment decisions.

I note the review panel’s conclusion that the rail industry had learnt valuable lessons from the winter of 2008-09 and overall coped well with the severe weather in 2009-10. I agree that the industry can improve performance further still by considering the additional measures around emergency timetables, technical improvements, and ensuring that the industry works closely with local highway authorities regarding responsibilities for de-icing key areas.

The report notes that the aviation industry generally anticipates and manages the effects of severe weather to a very high standard of resilience and is already pursuing measures, including additional resilience around the supply of de-icing materials. I welcome the recommendation that the Civil Aviation Authority should consider improving the availability of performance information for passengers and the market.

Across all modes of travel, the report acknowledges the importance of communications in extreme weather for the travelling public. I agree with the panel that those delivering transport services should continue to look to the opportunities that advances in technology may provide to improve communications with their customers.

Finally, in response to public concerns about the fear of litigation and following a recommendation in the panel’s interim report, the Government are today publishing brief guidance for households and traders who wish to clear snow and ice from paths in front of their property, pavements and other public spaces. I hope that this will empower those who wish to act in a neighbourly way.

Wales

Budget Responsibility and National Audit Bill

I am pleased to inform the House that the explanatory memorandum explaining the Government’s proposal for a framework power in the Budget Responsibility and National Audit Bill are available in the Vote Office, Library and the Printed Paper Office, and on the Wales Office website: (www.walesoffice.gov.uk).