Written Ministerial Statements
Thursday 19 May 2011
Culture, Media and Sport
Education, Youth, Culture and Sport Council (19-20 May 2011)
The Education, Youth, Culture and Sport Council will be held on 19 and 20 May in Brussels. Culture and audiovisual issues will be taken on 18 May. Sport issues will be taken on 20 May. The Deputy UK Permanent Representative, Andy Lebrecht, will be representing the UK for the culture, audiovisual and sport sections of the Council.
The first item on the agenda will be the agreement on the proposal for a European Heritage Label (EHL). The EHL is a proposal that builds on an informal process launched independently by a group of member states in 2007. The designation is intended to focus on the promotion of sites that “symbolise and strengthen European history and heritage”, rather than conservation. Although the UK has not opposed the creation of the EHL in principle, the Government have reservations about the need for a new scheme that presents the potential for duplication of the UNESCO world heritage list. Throughout negotiations the UK actively supported the voluntary nature of the scheme; opposed any additional cost burdens; and supported changes to make the scheme as light touch as possible. As there is a risk that funding for the EHL in 2013 will be taken from the margins of the EU budget, the UK has maintained a reserve on financial provisions and intends to abstain in the final vote. It is expected that a formal agreement on the proposal will be reached at the Council meeting.
The presidency will seek the adoption of a decision on the selection of a city to host the European capital of culture event for 2015. Belgium and the Czech Republic are the EU member states eligible to nominate cities for 2015. Belgium’s nomination of the city of Mons for the title was agreed at the Council meeting last November. The Czech Republic has now nominated the city of Plzen for the title and the Council will be asked to adopt this decision. The UK will support this proposal.
The Council will be invited to adopt conclusions on the contribution of culture to the implementation of the Europe 2020 strategy. These conclusions highlight the contribution of culture to smart, sustainable and inclusive growth. They invite member states to consider the cross-cutting nature of culture when formulating relevant policies. The UK will support the adoption of these conclusions.
The Council is expected to adopt Council conclusions on mobility information services for artists and for culture professionals. These suggest possible measures to establish mobility information services and foster the flow of information on mobility issues such as taxation, social security, intellectual property rights, visas, work permits, insurance and customs. The conclusions respond to the need identified in several major EU culture policy documents such as the current Culture Programme, the European Agenda For Culture and the Council Work Plans for Culture covering the periods 2008-2010 and 2011-14. The UK will support the adoption of these conclusions.
Under the sport section of the meeting, the Council will be invited to adopt a resolution on a European work plan for sport. The resolution highlights three priority areas for action at EU level: integrity of sport, in particular the fight against doping, match-fixing and the promotion of good governance; social values of sport, in particular health, social inclusion, education and volunteering; and economic aspects of sport, in particular sustainable financing of grassroots sports and evidence-based policy-making. The UK is supportive of the aims of the work plan and intends to support its adoption.
There will then be a discussion of a presidency paper on sport related aspects of online betting. The paper asks questions on the impact recent growth in online betting has had on sport sectors in each member state and what measures have been taken in this respect. The paper also asks what kind of policy response is required at EU level. The deputy permanent representative will intervene to highlight how the UK as an engaged and responsible regulator, is aware of the issues from both the sporting and betting sides and the importance of maintaining an appropriate balance between the industries.
Under any other business there will be a presentation from the Commission on the report from the Comité des Sages on bringing Europe’s cultural heritage online. There will be an information point from the presidency on the Council Work Plan for Culture 2011-2014. The presidency will also raise an information point on EU structured dialogue with the sport movement.
The Polish delegation will inform the Council on the priorities for their forthcoming presidency. The Slovenian and French delegations will raise an information point on a proposed manifesto for culture in Europe. I do not foresee a need to intervene on either of these.
Report of the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill (Government Response)
The Ministry of Defence welcomes the Select Committee’s report on the Armed Forces Bill (HC 779). In this formal response, I will deal with each of the Committee’s conclusions and recommendations in turn.
I shall begin with the Committee’s recommendation that Select Committee scrutiny should continue to be the convention for Armed Forces Bills. I believe that the appointment of a Select Committee which was able to take evidence and conduct visits allowed Committee members an opportunity to visit armed forces units, to hear from members of the armed forces and their families, and to develop a better understanding of service life. These experiences helped Committee members in their role of scrutinising the legislation. I therefore welcome the Committee’s recommendation.
The Select Committee spent a significant amount of its time examining the provisions in the Bill that relate to the armed forces covenant report. There were differences of view on some issues, but Committee members were united in their support for service personnel, veterans and their families. I therefore strongly welcome the Committee’s conclusion that military service is unique and that individuals who serve in the armed forces should be recognised for the contribution they make.
The Government have already made significant progress in rebuilding the armed forces covenant. The commitment to produce a report on the covenant will make the Secretary of State accountable to Parliament for this work. The Government’s announcement that they will table amendments to the Bill, so that the key principles of the covenant are written into law, will further strengthen that element of the legislation. I agree with the Committee’s recommendation that, in creating a tri-service document, we should use the term “armed forces covenant” to signify its inclusivity.
Committee members will be aware that we have used that title in the new version of the covenant which we published on 16 May 2011.
I welcome the Committee’s comments about the external reference group. The Government value the important contribution that the group has made and continues to make in driving forward our work on supporting the armed forces community. The group has proved its worth and at no time has its continued existence, or its vital role, been in doubt. Our aim is to strengthen the group rather than to sideline it. The Government agree that its terms of reference should be updated. Ultimately it is for the group to decide how its work will be taken forward, and we have asked its external members for their views on its future role, terms of reference and membership. This includes how they wish to engage with the process of preparing the Defence Secretary’s annual report to Parliament on the armed forces covenant.
I welcome the Committee’s support for the provisions in the Bill in relation to the independence and powers of service police; to drug and alcohol testing; and those which aim to provide greater independence of service complaints panels, where circumstances demand.
Following the Committee’s recommendation that the Ministry of Defence should review service complaints procedures and the powers of the Service Complaints Commissioner, the commissioner published her annual report on 31 March. In the response, I welcomed the commissioner’s acknowledgement of the real progress that the Ministry of Defence and the armed forces have made in relation to the handling of complaints. While I am pleased with this progress, I recognise the importance of the commissioner’s recommendations as to ways to improve the system further. A review of the service complaints system will be undertaken and will consider in full the recommendations made by the commissioner in her annual report, including those specifically related to the powers of her role.
The Committee concluded that the matter of a veterans’ ID card could usefully be explored further. In response, I should begin by saying that a veterans’ ID card which guarantees or provides a very high level of assurance of the identity of the bearer would be an expensive project and would require significant administration. There is no defence need for such a card and it would not provide good value for money. Nevertheless, we agree that there is value in developing a card which confirms the status of individuals as former servicemen or women and can be used in order to facilitate easier access to discounts and other privileges, including those arising from the armed forces community covenant initiative. This option would require a lower level of verification than an actual identification card. The Government announced their intention to introduce such a card on 16 May.
I welcome the Committee’s support for the existing policy in relation to the recruitment of under-18s. However, following a review of discharge policy I am pleased to announce that, for those under the age of 18, the ability to be discharged will in future be a right up to the age of 18, subject to an appropriate period of consideration or cooling off. My officials are currently finalising the policy details and these will be brought forward shortly in secondary legislation.
The Committee’s final recommendation was in relation to trials of service personnel. The Committee recommended that the Ministry of Defence should consider whether there might be a benefit in transferring the handling of some cases to the service courts and whether there might also be scope for the creation of a power in civilian courts to remit cases to the service courts for sentence. Proposals for changes in both of these areas were discussed at a meeting of the service justice board in January 2011, when it was agreed that staff in the central legal services directorate should lead further work to assess whether greater flexibility could be achieved in the transfer of cases between jurisdictions and the possibility of transferring cases to the court martial for sentencing. That work is in hand at present.
Energy and Climate Change
Ofgem Review: Summary of Conclusions
Today I am publishing the conclusions of the Ofgem review.
The coalition programme for Government committed to a review of the role of Ofgem. The annual energy statement last July announced the terms of the review, which focused on Ofgem’s role in regulating the gas and electricity markets, and that conclusions would be published in spring 2011.
The review has concluded that the current system should be strengthened to bring greater clarity and coherence to the distinct roles of Government and the regulator—
Ofgem will continue to regulate independently of Government;
Government will set out a strategic policy framework for the energy sector and will define those strategic goals to which Ofgem should contribute. The Government will seek legislative provision to require Ofgem to take its independent regulatory decisions within the context of these goals, which will be set out in a new statutory “Strategy and Policy Statement”. Approval from Parliament will be sought before the statement takes effect.
Ofgem will set out annually how it plans to deliver its contribution to the goals and how it will monitor progress, in order to increase transparency and accountability.
A summary of the conclusions is available on the DECC website and a full report will be published with the electricity market reform White Paper, before the summer recess.
I am also publishing today the conclusions of DECC’s delivery review, which will help DECC respond to future delivery challenges.
Governance of existing programmes has been reviewed and, where appropriate, changes introduced to improve it. For new programmes, unless there is a clear case for placing delivery with a specific third party, delivery will be led by DECC itself to ensure accountability to Ministers, but with aspects of delivery contracted out, where possible and appropriate, to provide maximum value-for-money.
For the Ofgem review conclusions see:
Further information on the delivery review can be found at: www.decc.gov.uk.
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Wild Animals in Circuses
In my statement to the House of 13 May 2011, Official Report, column 48WS, on the question of the protection of the welfare of performing wild animals in circuses, I indicated that the Austrian Government had recently been taken to court for introducing a ban on wild animals in circuses, as a European Circus Association press release stated. However, I now understand that the initiation of court proceedings has been delayed, although a case is in preparation. My understanding is that such proceedings are likely to be issued in the near future. I would like to avoid any misunderstanding.
This does not impact on the policy I announced to the House about this matter. Having taken advice on the legal implications and on the proportionality of all the possible courses of action, I remain convinced that a tough licensing regime which introduces additional safeguards to protect wild animals in circuses is the most effective and legally sound route for the estimated 39 animals concerned.
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Pre-Foreign Affairs Council and General Affairs Council (23-24 May 2011)
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will attend the Foreign Affairs Council (Foreign Ministers) on 23 May. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, the Minister with responsibility for international security strategy, the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr Howarth) will attend the Foreign Affairs Council (Defence) on 23 May. I will attend the General Affairs Council on 23 May. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development will attend the Foreign Affairs Council (Development) on 24 May.
Foreign Affairs Council (Foreign Ministers)
Ministers are expected to discuss developments in Libya since the contact group meeting in Rome of 5 May, where participants agreed to increase pressure on Gaddafi’s regime. Ministers are likely to agree conclusions referring to the recent announcements by the International Criminal Court (ICC)—see more below. And they may assess the humanitarian situation and discuss the possibility of setting up an EU office in Benghazi.
On 12 May, Mustafa Abdul-Jalil, chair of the Libyan national transitional council (NTC), visited the UK and met the Prime Minister, the Deputy Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary, the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of State for International Development. The Foreign Secretary updated Parliament in a written ministerial statement on 13 May.
On 16 May, the Foreign Secretary welcomed the announcement by the ICC that Prosecutor Luis Moreno Ocampo will apply for arrest warrants for Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, Saif al-Islam al Gaddafi and Abdullah Senussi.
The Foreign Secretary said:
“I welcome this announcement. The human rights situation in Western Libya and the behaviour of the Qadhafi regime remains of grave concern and the UK was at the forefront of efforts in the UN to adopt resolution 1970 which referred the situation in Libya to the ICC. The request for these warrants is a reminder to all in Qadhafi’s regime that crimes will not go unpunished and the reach of international justice will be long.”
“Those responsible for attacks on civilians must he held to account. The international community must fully support the ICC in thoroughly investigating all allegations. I call on all UN Member States, whether parties to the Rome Statute or not, to offer their full co-operation.”
We expect the Council to agree conclusions on Syria condemning the violence and ongoing repression of peaceful protesters and for release of detainees. It could also call for the UN/ICRC to be granted immediate humanitarian access to several towns in Syria; and to urge the Syrian Government to choose the path of reform and warn the Syrian leadership that the EU will work to agree sanctions unless the violence stops and detainees are released.
On 13 May, the FCO’s political director, Sir Geoffrey Adams, called in the Syrian ambassador Dr Sami Khiyami to the Foreign Office to express the UK’s strong concerns about the ongoing situation in Syria.
Sir Geoffrey emphasised the UK’s profound concern about the Syrian Government’s violent repression of their own citizens, and called on the Syrian authorities to respect universal human rights, including freedom of expression. Sir Geoffrey also expressed concern about the continued denial of access of international media into Syria.
The political director called on the Syrian Government to allow UN and other humanitarian organisations immediate and unhindered access to besieged Syrian cities, particularly the city of Deraa.
Sir Geoffrey said that unless the Syrian Government stopped the killing of protesters and released political prisoners, the UK along with its EU partners would take further measures to hold the regime to account. These measures would include further sanctions targeted at the highest levels of the regime, including travel bans and asset freezing.
This will be a further opportunity for the EU to demonstrate support for the Gulf Co-operation Council’s (GCC’s) initiative to resolve the current political deadlock to agree the transitional process. Further deterioration in Yemen’s economic and humanitarian situation, and a rise in violence between protesters and security forces, underpins the urgent need for a political settlement. The Government have remained in close contact with EU, US and Gulf counterparts on finding a peaceful solution. We expect there to be Council conclusions.
My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) discussed recent events when he met UN special envoy to Yemen Jamal Benomar in London on 12 May.
Speaking after the meeting my hon. Friend said:
“Mr Benomar’s insights into recent developments in Yemen reinforced my deep concern about what is happening. I condemn the actions taken by the security forces that have reportedly caused the death of several protestors and injured many more in Taiz, Sana’a, and cities across Yemen. Mr Benomar and I agreed that all parties should exercise the utmost restraint and take all steps necessary to defuse this situation.
I urge the Yemeni authorities to demonstrate their commitment to an orderly and peaceful transition by respecting the right of peaceful protest and free speech. The rising violence we have witnessed risks undermining the efforts to secure the agreement brokered by the Gulf Co-operation Council. All parties need to come together urgently to confirm their commitment to this.”
Baroness Ashton may raise the incident at Camp Ashraf in Iraq on 8 April, in which 34 people died and some 70 were injured. The UK has supported calls for an independent inquiry.
On 8 April, my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), made the following statement:
“The UK Government has been disturbed to read reports that a number of civilian residents have been killed and many more wounded at Camp Ashraf yesterday. I absolutely deplore any loss of life and my sincere condolences go out to the families of those involved.
The Iraqi Government has provided us with assurances on several occasions that it will treat individual residents of camp Ashraf in a humane manner, act in accordance with Iraqi law, the Iraqi Constitution and its international obligations. We urge the Iraqi Government to uphold this commitment.
Our Ambassador in Baghdad has been expressing our concerns to the Iraqi Ministry of Foreign Affairs at the highest levels. We call on the Iraqi Government to cease violent operations in Camp Ashraf immediately and to ensure that the residents have full access to medical care. It is important that the Government of Iraq takes immediate steps to calm the situation and ensure that the human rights of the residents are respected. We are aware of a request by UNAMI to send a humanitarian monitoring mission to camp Ashraf as soon as possible. We fully support this request and therefore urge the Iraqi Government to quickly grant permission. We call on all sides to engage in a constructive dialogue that can lead to a lasting resolution to the situation.”
Middle East Peace Process (MEPP)
Ministers are likely to discuss recent developments in the MEPP, including the implications of the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation. There may also be conclusions. We will make clear our hope that the announcement of reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas will lead to the formation of a Government who reject violence and pursue a negotiated peace, and that we will judge a future Palestinian Government by their actions and their readiness to work for peace.
On 15 May, the Foreign Secretary called on all parties to exercise restraint after violence broke out on Israel’s borders as Palestinians marked Nakba day.
The Foreign Secretary said:
“I am deeply concerned by the violence on Israel’s borders today and saddened by the loss of life. I call on all parties to exercise restraint and ensure that civilian life is protected. These developments make clearer than ever that a lasting and comprehensive resolution to the conflicts in the region is urgently needed and will only be achieved through negotiation”.
We expect Ministers to discuss recent developments in the south Caucasus, and in particular to focus on the conflict in Nagorno-Karabakh.
Bosnia and Herzegovina
We expect Ministers to discuss the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) following Baroness Ashton’s visit there on 13 May. The Government are deeply concerned that a BiH state-level Government has not been formed over seven months after elections; that divisive nationalist rhetoric continues; and that there have been recent serious challenges to state-level institutions and to the Dayton agreement. We will urge the Council to remain fully engaged on this issue and to react as necessary to developments on the ground.
Ministers are expected to be briefed on the key elements of the EU’s comprehensive approach to Sudan, with a view to a possible substantive discussion and adoption of conclusions at the FAC in June. Given the lack of progress on key issues under the comprehensive peace agreement, and the ongoing violence in Darfur. the meeting on 23 May will be an important opportunity for Ministers to stress the importance of a continued focus on Sudan, both in the run-up to and following the secession of South Sudan on 9 July.
External Action Service (EAS)
This should be an opportunity to set out our view on the priorities for EAS action, and to underline that the EAS should limit its representation of the member states to agreed areas. It will also be an opportunity to voice our opposition to the proposed budget increase for the EAS of 5.8% (€27 million) in 2012 and press the EAS to produce a convincing plan for the savings that will lead to budget neutrality.
There should be an agreement, without discussion, to the designation of over 100 entities in order to strengthen EU sanctions and increase the pressure on Iran’s nuclear programme. In addition, Baroness Ashton may brief Ministers on the reply she recently received from the Iranian chief nuclear negotiator, Saeed Jalili. A spokesperson for Baroness Ashton commented to the press that the reply “does not seem to justify” organising another meeting between the E3+3 (UK, France, Germany, US, Russia and China) and Iran at this time.
EU Human Rights
Baroness Ashton will brief Ministers on her preliminary views on an EU overall strategy for human rights, followed by an exchange of views. The final strategy is due to be announced in June 2011.
Foreign Affairs Council (Defence)
The current agenda includes three main items: an informal discussion of military operations; a formal discussion of military capabilities; and the European Defence Agency (EDA) Steering Board.
Informal working session on operations
Ministers will be joined by the NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen for an informal discussion of military operations. The session is likely to focus on a potential extension to EU Training Mission Somalia. We do not expect the discussion to result in a decision; this is likely to be deferred to the June FAC. The session will also update progress on Operation Atalanta, Althea, and Eufor Libya.
Formal working session on military capabilities
There will be conclusions on pooling and sharing military capabilities and a broader dialogue on the Weimar initiative. Ministers are likely to discuss the High Representative’s interim report (yet to be released) on the progress of the Weimar initiative and implementation of provisions in the Lisbon treaty. We will support the principle of increased pooling and sharing among European and NATO partners but resist any calls for the creation of additional institutions or processes.
EDA Steering Board
The agenda for this meeting is currently being finalised. It will build from the session on capabilities, taking stock on key capability development projects and initiatives, including pooling and sharing and the European Air Transport Fleet (EATF) programme. We are broadly supportive of the EDA’s work in these areas.
General Affairs Council
The Commissioner for Enlargement, Stefan Fule, will brief Ministers on Croatia’s progress on its accession negotiations and the approaching closure of negotiations. He is likely to focus on progress within Chapter 23 (Judiciary and Fundamental Rights). This chapter was created to strengthen the accession process after the last EU enlargement. The Government will continue to monitor Croatia’s progress and ensure that this chapter is closed on the basis of a thorough technical assessment against the benchmarks, including establishing the necessary track records to ensure that reforms are sustainable. Beyond this, the Government will ensure that closure of negotiations as a whole takes place on the basis of rigorous conditionality.
Charter of Fundamental Rights
The presidency is seeking agreement to conclusions in response to the Commission’s annual report on the application of the Charter of Fundamental Rights. The Council conclusions set out the actions taken by the Council to ensure compliance with the charter, including the work of the fundamental rights working group to produce guidelines to help other formations of the Council identify and resolve fundamental rights issues. The Council conclusions may also describe the actions the Council has taken or announced under each of the six chapters of the charter.
Ministers will have an initial discussion of proposed European Council conclusions on the Commission’s communication of 5 April entitled “An EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies up to 2020”. The Commission’s communication can be found at the following link:
The conclusions are likely to call on member states to develop national strategies or policy approaches to improve the social and economic integration of Roma communities, specifically through access to education, employment, health care and housing. The UK already has a strong record on the integration of Roma, Gypsy and Traveller communities. We will argue for the eventual conclusions not to be overly prescriptive to allow us the flexibility to continue with these approaches. There will be a more substantive discussion at the 19 May Employment and Social Affairs Council, which will feed into the 24 June European Council, where we expect the adoption of formal conclusions.
Foreign Affairs Council (Development)
We expect the Development Commissioner, Andris Piebalgs, to debrief Development Ministers on his visit to Khartoum and Juba and to update them on the EU’s plans for joint programming in South Sudan. Additionally, a possible Council decision is expected on the use of €200 million of de-committed funds from European Development Fund (EDF) to support development efforts in South Sudan.
Accountability Report on EU Development Policy
Ministers will discuss the findings of the Commission’s accountability report on EU development policy. The report assesses progress against the EU’s financing for development commitments and covers official development assistance (ODA), innovative finance, domestic resource mobilisation, aid for trade, climate finance, co-operation with the private sector, and aid effectiveness. The discussion is likely to focus on how to achieve the EU aid commitment to spend 0.7% of gross national income on aid by 2015. Ministers will adopt a report on EU ODA performance in 2010, to be considered by the June European Council. This report is a welcome means of holding other member states to account. We will continue to press others to fulfil their aid commitments.
The Hungarian presidency is expected to deliver proposals on the role of water in EU development policy, for which Council conclusions are due to go through Environmental Council in June. The Government agree that water for growth and development as well as water supply and sanitation for human development need greater policy priority within the EU. We will therefore support proposals to update and renew the EU policy on water in EU development co-operation. This should support the efforts to redefine and revitalise the EU water initiative, set up in 2002 as part of the World Summit on Sustainable Development to mobilise and co-ordinate EU resources to achieve the water-related millennium development goals. We believe that water should be central in preparations for Rio+20 and that the EU should play a leading role in the preparatory processes and conferences. We will continue to insist on these points in negotiations with EU partners.
This is an opportunity to emphasise the need for firm international support for stabilisation, reconciliation, and justice under President Ouattara’s new Government. Close co-ordination of international community efforts, appropriately resourced and structured UN involvement; active and effective UN agencies; and a UN and EU sanctions regime that supports the goals of political, economic and social progress will be important.
I will deposit copies of this note in the Libraries of both Houses. And I will update Parliament on Foreign and General Affairs Councils after the meetings.
Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council (Luxembourg 6-7 June 2011)
The Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council will meet on 6 and 7 June.
The presidency is likely to ask Ministers to debate the sustainability of care systems and health issues related to migration.
The presidency is also expected to propose the adoption of Council conclusions on the following:
the European pact for mental health and well-being: results and future action;
successes and challenges of European childhood immunisation and the way forward;
towards modem, responsive and sustainable health systems; and
innovation in the medical device sector.
The UK supports the adoption of these Council conclusions.
Under any other business, information will be provided from the presidency on antimicrobial resistance and on a number of conferences that took place under their presidency. The Polish delegation will give information on the priorities for their forthcoming presidency, which will run from July 2011 until the end of the year.
Section 19 of the United Kingdom Borders Act 2007
Section 19 of the UK Borders Act 2007 will come into force on 23 May 2011. Section 19 restricts the evidence an appellant can rely on at such an appeal to that which is submitted to and considered by the UK Border Agency in support of an application.
Reforming the immigration system and reducing the level of immigration to a sustainable number is one of the big tasks of this Government. Our goal is an improved system that commands the confidence of the public and serves our economic interests. We have made it clear that we will take a robust approach, that we will tighten up our system, stop abuse and welcome only the most economically beneficial migrants. This Government have already delivered a new annual limit on non-EU economic migrants and have announced reforms to the student visa system to be implemented over the course of the next year. These measures are aimed at attracting the brightest and the best, while reducing the level of net migration and tackling abuse.
People wishing to remain in the UK under the points-based system are required to submit all relevant evidence in support of their application at the time that application is made. This enables caseworkers to make the right decision in the first instance, often avoiding unnecessary and expensive publicly funded appeals. It also protects the integrity of the immigration system, ensuring all necessary checks can be made and any deception identified.
But this system has been subject to misuse at the expense of the taxpayer. Individuals already in the UK but unsuccessful in their application to extend their time here have been using the appeals system as a free second application process—putting in evidence at the appeals stage which should have formed part of their application. Our management information shows that around two thirds of PBS appeals allowed by the tribunal are due to submission of further evidence at appeal.
It is not right that the taxpayer should foot the administrative and appeals bill where this information should have been put forward as part of the original application or where a second application including all the necessary information, for which we will charge, is the most appropriate route to securing a grant of leave. Section 19 will restrict the type of new evidence that can be taken into account by the tribunal. It will prevent circumvention of checks, helping restore public confidence in our immigration system and contribute to wider improvements to reduce the overall cost of the appeals system.
The commencement order will come into force on 23 May and will apply to all appeals heard for the first time against refusals of applications to remain in the UK under the points-based system, regardless of the date that appeal was lodged. Appeals that have been part or fully heard by the first-tier tribunal (immigration and asylum chamber) by this date will not be affected.
Equality and Human Rights Commission (Triennial Review)
The first triennial review of the Equality and Human Rights Commission “How Fair Is Britain?” was laid before the House on 11 October last year. A second printing which incorporates a small number of typographical changes has now been laid before the House. Copies will be made available in the Vote Office.
Justice and Home Affairs Council
The Extraordinary Council which focused on interior issues was held on 12 May in Brussels. I represented the United Kingdom.
The Council started with an EU ministerial breakfast with the Director of the Joint Situation Centre (SitCen) who presented his assessment of the situation following the death of Osama bin Laden and changes in north Africa. Gilles de Kerchove, EU Counter-terrorism Co-ordinator, highlighted that cargo security was a priority for the EU and engagement with north African countries was essential. The UK noted that the death of Osama bin Laden was a strategic blow but the risk remained serious including from reprisal attacks and the events in north Africa served to undermine the al-Qaeda narrative.
Next the Mixed Committee with Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland (non-EU Schengen states), received a state of play update on the Frontex regulation. The presidency said they would not be able to reach agreement with the European Parliament by June unless member states were flexible. Compromise would be necessary on several of the Parliament’s demands, including the precise name of its proposed “European Border Guard System”. The presidency stressed that the whole deal should not collapse because of disagreements over terminology. The UK is excluded from the Frontex regulation; however the UK can support activities on a case-by-case basis with the agreement of the Frontex management board.
Next there was a discussion on immigration, preparing the forthcoming June European Council discussion on migration and the Commission communication on migration. Commissioner Malmström introduced the communication and set out the Commission’s priorities across all aspects of EU immigration and asylum policy. She put particular emphasis on: an effective EU response to developments in north Africa; agreeing a package deal on asylum; building conditionality into the EU’s third-country agreements to deliver immigration results; and effectively combining mobility with security. On reintroducing intra-Schengen border controls, Commissioner Malmström underlined the fundamental importance of Schengen, highlighting that (based on existing legislation and an EU-level approach), the Commission’s proposals would reinforce, not undermine, the Schengen framework. Guidelines would address differing interpretation of the rules, and new co-decision proposals would strengthen Schengen monitoring and evaluation to better define when and how controls could be used; that is, in exceptional circumstances and through an EU-level procedure.
The UK stated that, in order to achieve tangible results, the immediate priorities had to be border security, returns and practical support to member states. The UK wanted to see a border control taskforce sent to Tunisia to support capacity-building, provide technical assistance and support Frontex’s efforts against people smuggling. On returns, the EU should do more to help return third-country nationals in north Africa back to their countries of origin. We were seeing increased numbers of asylum claims already; the Support Office should help responsible member states deal with them. Relocation was not the answer. The UK said that co-operation on migration should be an integral part of the EU’s partnerships with third countries. Building stability and prosperity was in everyone’s interests, and would help relieve migratory pressure. But the EU had to reinforce the principle that each country must readmit its own nationals—that was not dependent on financial incentives or visa liberalisation. The UK would not want to see a single system of European border guards, but did support greater co-ordination and co-operation. We were surprised to see proposals for further harmonisation given current high-levels of unemployment within Europe. On asylum, the UK was clear that any talk of invoking the temporary protection directive was premature and that it did not support relocation proposals as they carry a risk of acting as a pull factor to the UK. The UK was supportive of any reforms decided on by the Schengen countries that would help combat illegal immigration and strengthen the external border. Free movement was an ideal at the heart of the EU, but it was an ideal that was jeopardised when abused. Every action had to ensure that member states could maintain fair and robust immigration systems, and do nothing to create an incentive for illegal immigration into Europe.
The main Council commenced with the Commission outlining its proposals for a revised strategy on EU readmission agreements. The Commission defended increased references to human rights provisions and the introduction of a post-returns monitoring mechanism for returnees. If member states wanted the European Parliament to agree to future negotiating mandates, they would have to accept an enhanced profile for human rights. The UK believed that readmission agreements were operational instruments for facilitating returns and protection needs were already carefully considered before a return decision is reached. Therefore it was not necessary to include additional references to human rights in the agreements. Any decision on whether it is safe to return, an individual should be made on a case-by-case basis and the Commission’s proposed blanket approach to suspending returns was misguided. The UK added that the Commission’s proposal for a post-return monitoring mechanism was inappropriate as it could put returnees at risk. The UK stated that the starting point for any readmission strategy should be a country’s obligation to readmit their own nationals and co-operation should not be solely dependent on incentives such as visa facilitation. The UK supported the Commission’s proposal to refocus its readmission strategy on key countries, but noted that objective criteria would be needed as member states would have different geographical priorities. The presidency said they would draft Council conclusions (which would make reference to the importance of human rights) for consideration at the June JHA Council.
The Council received an update on the situation in Japan at the request of Belgium. The Commission said that member states had made an impressive contribution to the effort in Japan, but that this had been a wake-up call. The Commission had developed an action plan and had already started to implement the communication on strengthening disaster response. There was a need to prioritise scenario development, and they would be developing legislative proposals by the end of the year. The presidency said that the subject should be further discussed at the working level.
The Commission presented its evaluation report on the data retention directive. Most member states seem to be happy with the current directive, but it was a flexible instrument and there were large differences in how it is implemented. Member states had the opportunity to revise the directive and the Commission would submit a proposal later this year. The UK said that retained communications data were a critical tool. Ninety-five per cent of serious crime investigations used retained data, as had all major counter-terrorism investigations. It was also used on a daily basis to secure convictions and alibis. The UK did not wish to see changes made in the name of harmonisation since it should not undermine operational effectiveness.
Finally, over lunch Ministers discussed the asylum aspects of the Commission’s communication on migration. The presidency and Commission tried to set up a political deal on asylum at the June European Council. The Commission said it was time to compromise; technical meetings could go on for years a package deal was needed to break the deadlock of red lines that included an emergency mechanism in Dublin in return for law enforcement access to Eurodac. Recognising that they were the most difficult directives, Commissioner Malmström set out the features of the forthcoming amended proposals on procedures and reception conditions (simplification, clarification and reduction of financial and administrative burdens). The scope for using accelerated procedures would be extended and it would be easier to reject repeated abusive claims.
There would be more flexibility on border procedures to address national security and public order concerns and a lower reporting burden. Access to the labour market could be delayed if applicants did not co-operate. The UK opened the discussion: the goals of the EU’s engagement in asylum had to be practical, not legislative—both in relation to the current situation, and looking to the long-term. Refugees had to be protected, but protected where they were—they should not be expected to move around the EU. The Asylum Support Office would help member states do that (as with the Greece action plan), but further legislation to meet an artificial deadline was a distraction. The UK could not support an emergency mechanism under Dublin—it would undermine the very principle of member state responsibility for asylum claims, remove the incentive to make necessary reforms, move the problem from one place to another, and would encourage asylum seekers to target particular member states (knowing they could then move to their destination of choice). The presidency would ask COREPER to try to prepare a package for political agreement at the European Council.
Draft Charter for the Coroner Service for Consultation
The Government are today publishing a draft charter for the coroner service for public consultation. This is part of the Government’s work to drive improvement in the current coroner service to address current inconsistencies and inefficiencies in the delivery of services across England and Wales.
The draft charter for the coroner service sets out the minimum standards expected from coroners. The charter will apply to all bereaved people, witnesses and other interested persons who come into contact with the coroner service.
The charter will for the first time provide a national framework that sets out the standards of service that bereaved family members, witnesses and other properly interested persons in a coroner’s investigation can expect to receive from the coroner service in England and Wales. It will ensure that all coroner offices in England and Wales know the standards they should already be meeting, and that bereaved people and other service users know their rights and responsibilities throughout the investigation process. The charter will also clarify what options are available if someone wishes to make a complaint against the level of service received or against a coroner. I must stress that we are not imposing any new obligations on coroners. We are merely setting out for the first time, in an accessible and transparent format, what the current standards are.
I propose to publish the draft charter alongside the Ministry of Justice’s current “Guide to Coroners and Inquests”, which sets out the role of a coroner and the investigation process. This is so that people can access information about the process, and the standards that should be met, in one booklet. No major changes have been proposed to the guide and therefore I am not consulting on the guide itself. The guide and the charter will be updated as and when changes to the coroner system are introduced.
This publication marks the latest in a number of steps that the Government plan to undertake to bring about much-needed improvements to the coroner system. The charter will be followed by a review of coroners’ rules and regulations, development of guidance for coroners and their officers and implementation of key provisions in the Coroners and Justice Act 2009.
In taking this work forward I am also considering how best we achieve, maintain and monitor those changes in the absence of a chief coroner. I continue to have positive discussions with Parliamentarians, the judiciary and representatives from civil society groups about the transfer functions of the chief coroner, including the leadership role, and we will be making a statement setting out the Government’s plans in more detail in the near future.
Copies of the consultation paper have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses, in the Vote Office and in the Printed Paper Office. The document is also available online, at: http://www.justice.gov.uk/consultations/consultations. htm. The consultation on the draft charter will run until 5 September 2011. A response paper and the final version of the charter will be published in December 2011.
Leader of the House
During the debate on 21 March 2011, I endorsed the principle of ensuring the fully independent determination and administration of MPs’ salaries. This position received support on both sides of the House.
On Tuesday I signed an order to commence section 29 of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 and related consequential provisions. This order has the effect of transferring to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority responsibility for the determination of Members’ salaries, finally removing from the House any role in setting the level of Members’ pay. The order will commence the relevant provisions on Tuesday 24 May 2011.
Copies of the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 (Commencement No. 5) Order 2011 (SI 2011 No. 1274 (C. 52)) will be made available in the Vote Office.
Review of Investigation/Closure Procedures for Motorway Incidents
Today, I am publishing the preliminary report on investigation and closure procedures for motorway incidents. The joint review carried out by my Department, the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), the Highways Agency (HA), and the Home Office, looked at what needs to be done to reduce the duration of motorway closure incidents and help keep our motorways moving. The report can be found on my Department’s website, www.dft.gov.uk, and an electronic copy has been lodged with the House Library.
As set out within my Department’s business plan, the review supports this Government’s vision for a transport system, which is an engine for economic growth, and their commitment to tackling the causes of congestion and unreliability on the strategic road network.
Motorway closures in England cost the economy around £1 billion a year which is an unacceptable brake on the country’s economic recovery. Tackling the causes of congestion and keeping traffic moving is a vital element in securing the UK’s prosperity.
As such, we completed a review of motorway closure incidents to identify what improvements could be made to achieve the shortest timeline possible for managing such incidents.
The review led by this Department makes 10 recommendations, the delivery of which will ensure that there is overall improvement in the time taken to reopen motorways following an incident. The recommendations are contained within the report.
I am also announcing DFT funding of around £3 million for laser scanning technology that can be used by the police for surveying incident scenes. Recent trials by the police and HA have demonstrated that this can make a real difference in speeding up the investigation process. The £3 million will be used to set up a fund which police forces can bid from to put towards the purchase of this technology. The fund will take a match funding approach thereby potentially enabling a larger number of forces to purchase and use this equipment across the strategic road network and local road network.
Later today, I will be chairing a national summit with representatives from all key incident management parties to discuss the review’s findings, and to formally agree the high-level action plan on the way forward. The majority of the review’s recommendations are expected to be completed by the end of the year, and we remain on track to deliver on a further business plan commitment to set up and implement measures to reduce congestion caused by incidents by December 2012. I am confident that by having open dialogue and by continuing to work closely with the emergency services and colleagues across Government in this collaborative manner, we can manage incidents effectively, efficiently and consistently.