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Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council

Volume 520: debated on Tuesday 14 December 2010

The Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council was held on 6 December 2010 in Brussels. I represented the United Kingdom.

The main item on the agenda was a policy debate on the pregnant workers directive. Ahead of Council, the UK with the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Netherlands, Slovakia and Sweden circulated a joint minute statement. This underlined the importance of subsidiarity and member state competence in setting social security systems; criticised the EP’s First Reading position; questioned the value of further negotiations; and called for a “pause for reflection” involving a Council impact assessment and consultation with social partners. In my intervention, I argued that the negotiations may be at the “end of the road” and while Council should at the very least have a pause for reflection, I see little point in further negotiations given the gulf between the co-legislators. We will continue to argue for these proposals to be abandoned. Despite the opposition of many member states to the proposal, the presidency intends to consult with the incoming Hungarian and Polish presidencies and table a roadmap for further discussions.

The other main agenda item was on pensions. The Council adopted conclusions and in the ensuing debate, the presidency asked the member states what measures they were taking to ensure the provision of adequate pensions, and asked for their initial reactions to the Green Paper on pensions. I outlined the UK’s reforms to improve state pensions, to encourage earlier saving for retirement and to extend working lives. In reaction to the Green Paper, I acknowledged the value added through sharing of best practice at a European level but stressed that there could be no “one size fits all” solution. In particular, I argued there was no evidence for why Solvency II capital requirements should be applied to pensions, which, far from being in consumers’ interests, could seriously weaken defined benefit schemes.

The Commission presented its EU 2020 flagship “New Skills and Jobs”. Council took note of presidency conclusions on the Commission’s flagship initiatives “Youth On the Move” and “New Skills and Jobs”; of Employment Committee opinions on employment and environment and the examination of countries’ employment policies; and of a joint Employment Committee and Social Policy Committee opinion on a monitoring framework for employment policies. It also adopted Council conclusions on employment policies and the green economy, adapting to an ageing workforce, the social elements of the Europe 2020 strategy, social services of general interest and gender.

Ministers adopted a progress report on the Directive on Equal Treatment—the anti-discrimination directive and a declaration on the European year for combating poverty and social exclusion 2010. They also agreed a general approach on the decision to create a European year for active ageing 2012.

On the “A” points, the UK submitted a minute statement on the Council decision on the EU-Switzerland agreement extending social security rights to non-active persons moving between the EU and Switzerland. This explained our decision not to opt in to the decision, our intention to seek a reciprocal exemption for non-active persons, and our disagreement with the interpretation given by the Council Legal Services to how the duty of sincere co-operation applied in these circumstances.