The Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council met on 7 March 2011 in Brussels. I represented the United Kingdom.
The first debate focused on Europe 2020 and the European semester. The presidency asked member states for views on social and employment measures that needed tackling urgently. The Commission reiterated the need for national targets in meeting the Europe 2020 headline targets and highlighted that not all member states had set a national employment or a poverty target. Some member states’ responses included setting a high level of ambition in the employment and social inclusion targets, while others argued for more realism. For the UK, I stressed that actions to remove obstacles to employment should be at the heart of policies to promote growth and that addressing the EU’s relatively low labour market participation required a mix of measures, including improvements to welfare policies, education systems and regulatory policies. The EU should focus on growth and reducing regulatory burdens, particularly for small and medium-sized companies. I explained the UK approach, prioritising welfare reforms aimed at helping people break the cycle of benefit dependency and ensuring that work was a better option than welfare. I also stressed that the UK was investing heavily in targeted interventions and in improving skills.
In the second debate, the Commission presented results of the Green Paper consultation on adequate, sustainable and safe European pension systems. Most member states agreed with the need for reforms, but many pointed to the need for subsidiarity, recalling the very different national situations and conditions across the European Union. There was broad support for continued use of the open method of co-ordination. For the UK, I explained the recent pension reforms in the UK and also argued against unnecessary changes such as the revised solvency rules which could cause employers to close their occupational pension schemes. This was an issue on which all UK stakeholders were in agreement.
The Council adopted a number of Council conclusions. These covered the joint employment report in the context of the annual growth survey 2011, the European platform against poverty and social exclusion, the further development of an electronic exchange system facilitating the administrative co-operation in the framework of the posting of workers directive, and the European pact for gender equality (2011- 2020). The UK abstained on the joint employment report as it had not cleared parliamentary scrutiny.
The Council also took note of the annual report on progress towards equality between women and men 2010. The report acknowledges areas where progress has been made, both at national and European level.
Under any other business, the presidency reported on the informal meeting of the Ministers for Employment, and provided an update on two legislative areas, “seasonal workers” and “intra-corporate transferees”. The Employment Committee and Social Protection Committee chairs provided information on their work programmes for 2011, and there was a presentation from the French delegation on plans for their G20 Labour and Employment Ministers’ meeting, which will take place in September 2011.