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Written Statements

Volume 542: debated on Thursday 22 March 2012

Written Ministerial Statements

Thursday 22 March 2012

Business, Innovation and Skills

EU Foreign Affairs Council (Trade)

The EU Foreign Affairs Council (Trade) took place in Brussels on 16 March 2012. I represented the UK on all the issues discussed at the meeting. A summary of those discussions follows.

Two legislative items were discussed: the regulation on transitional arrangements for bilateral investment treaties (BITs) and the regulation on the application of generalised system of preferences (GSR).

On the investment regulation, member states endorsed the residency compromise proposal as the basis of a deal. I intervened to support the presidency’s approach, but emphasised the need to maintain investor certainty in the interim period by ensuring that BITs remain in force until replaced by EU agreements and that the final regulation should be competence neutral.

The discussion on the GSP regulation was more difficult, but several member states supported the presidency compromise proposal. Some, however, indicated they still had some concerns. In the run-up to the Council, the UK had secured a number of changes to the proposal. As a result of these changes we were able to join the consensus, and I intervened to support the presidency proposal. The presidency concluded there was a large majority in favour of its compromise, and it would therefore proceed on that basis, with the addition of a wider review of impacts at the UK’s request.

There were three substantive “non-legislative” items: the EU-Singapore FTA, the EU agreement with Colombia and Peru, and the Council conclusions on trade and development.

On the EU-Singapore FTA, there was a debate on the state of play in the negotiations, focusing on the outstanding issues, including non-tariff barriers, rules of origin, and services, especially retail banking.

The Council reached a political agreement on the signature and provisional application of the EU-Andean (Columbia and Peru) FTA and adopted the conclusions on trade and development without member state comment.

Under AOB, the Council discussed the work of the EU-US high-level working group (HLWG) established by the last EU-US summit. The Commission reported good progress to date. I intervened to underline the strategic and political importance of the HLWG and the significance of this opportunity for strengthening trade and economic relations between the EU and the US.

There was also an AOB point on the anti-counterfeiting trade agreement (ACTA). The Commission informed the Council that in the wake of violent protests and rising opposition from the European Parliament, it had referred the agreement to the European Court of Justice (ECJ). The last AOB point was on the Russian ban on EU agricultural products. The Commission said it was tackling the issue. I intervened to express the UK’s concern and support for the Commission’s actions.

Over lunch, there were discussions on the Japan and India FTAs. There was a significant resistance among several member states to entering negotiations for an FTA without decisive actions by Japan to demonstrate a willingness to give up their market. I intervened to argue strongly for the launch of an FTA negotiation as soon as possible. By contrast, there was a general desire to conclude the India FTA. I led the calls for progress, while acknowledging the difficulties.

Industrial Development Advisory Board

We will shortly commence a “Triennial Review” of the Industrial Development Advisory Board, to Cabinet Office guidelines.

As part of the coalition agreement, all Government Departments are required to review all their non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs) at least every three years.

The Industrial Development Advisory Board has been selected by BIS as one of the NDPBs for which the review will commence during the first year of the programme (2011-12).

The review will be conducted as set out in Cabinet Office guidance, in two stages.

The first stage will

Identify and examine the key functions of the Industrial Development Advisory Board and assess how these functions contribute to the core business of BIS.

Assess the requirement for these to continue.

If continuing, then assess delivery options and where the conclusion is that a particular function is still needed examine how this function might best be delivered, including a cost and benefits analysis where appropriate.

If one of these options is continuing delivery through the Industrial Development Advisory Board, then make an assessment against the Government’s “three tests”: technical function; political impartiality; need for independence from Ministers.

If the outcome of stage 1 is that delivery should continue through the Industrial Development Advisory Board then the second stage of the project will be to ensure that it is operating in line with the recognised principles of good corporate governance, using the Cabinet Office “comply or explain” standard approach.

The report of the review will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

If you would like further information or wish to comment please e-mail triennialreviews@bis.gsi.gov.uk

Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service

As part of the coalition agreement, all Government Departments are required to review all their non-departmental public bodies (NDPBs) at least every three years. ACAS has been selected as one of the NDPBs for which the review will commence during the first year of the programme (2011-12).

The review will be conducted in two stages. The first stage will examine the key functions of ACAS. If the outcome of this stage is that delivery should continue, the second stage of the project will ensure that ACAS is operating in line with the recognised principles of good corporate governance.

The findings at both stages of the review will be examined by a challenge group with cross-Government representation.

Copies of the report of the review will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

Communities and Local Government

Fire Service College

The Government’s response to Fire Futures on 12 April 2011 said that the college can achieve its full potential only if there is greater involvement from other sectors (whether private, public or voluntary) in its ownership, operation and governance and that we would

“explore with the sector and other organisations options to secure the future of the Fire Service College”.

Using evidence gained from the pre-market engagement to better inform our view of market appetite and taking into account the review commissioned by the Local Government Association, we concluded disposal as a going concern to the private sector was the best option to secure the future of the college.

The Fire Service College is a trading fund and Executive agency of the Department. Since becoming a trading fund in 1992, it has never been able to pay a dividend out of operating profits. This situation cannot persist and the Government’s response to Fire Futures on 12 April 2011 concluded that the college could achieve its full potential only if there was greater involvement from other sectors in its ownership, operation and governance.

With the college freed from the constraints of Government ownership, a private sector owner can bring innovation and investment to the college, benefiting taxpayers, local residents, the fire and rescue service and, ultimately, strengthening national resilience.

The Future Options project considered four options for the future of the college:

The status quo—The college remains as a trading fund of the Department.

A Government owned contractor operated model—The assets remain under Government ownership but management of the college is taken over by a private sector company under a long-term contract, together with the staff.

Disposal as a going concern—The college is sold to a private sector company who would continue to operate the college as a training centre.

Closure—The college’s activities cease, staff are made redundant and the site is sold for an alternative use.

Analysis of the four options showed disposal as a going concern to be the best option. It is the only option which both fully removes from Government the ongoing financial risks of ownership of the college and preserves a national training college for the fire and rescue service.

Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre (Performance Targets)

My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government, Baroness Hanham, has made the following written ministerial statement:

I am today announcing that key performance targets have been agreed for the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre for the period 1 April 2012 to 31 March 2013.

The agency’s principal financial target for 2012-13 is to achieve a minimum dividend payment to the Department for Communities and Local Government of £2.25 million as proposed in the business plan for the year.

The agency also has the following targets to achieve:

A minimum 64% occupancy of its rooms based on a theoretical full occupancy revenue of £9,680,970;

Overall score for value for money satisfaction of greater than 90%;

The number of complaints received to be less than 2 per 100 events; and

An average response time when answering complaints of less than four working days.

Defence

EU Foreign Affairs Council (Defence)

The EU Foreign Affairs Council will meet in defence formation on 22 March 2012 in Brussels. I will represent the UK.

We have yet to receive a detailed formal agenda. However, we expect current operations, military capability and partnerships to be discussed. In the morning session, the European Defence Agency will hold a steering board.

European Defence Agency Steering Board

Ministers will discuss pooling and sharing initiatives with a view to preparing deliverables for the NATO Chicago summit. The UK will continue to work with the agency and its member states to develop and improve the agency’s effectiveness and performance, but will urge the EDA to be realistic about its work programme and budgetary requirements. The steering board will be invited to agree the following action points:

Joint procurement initiative on common acquisition of EU battle group logistic support be established as a category B project;

Second joint investment programme on innovative concepts and emerging technologies (ICET 2);

Category B “Go Green” project; and

Mandate to establish negotiations for an administrative arrangement between the EDA and the Republic of Serbia.

While the UK is content that the agency develops work on EU battle group logistic support and ICET 2 and for other nations to participate, we will not be participating in these projects. We note the desire of the agency to move into the energy arena, as demonstrated by the “Go Green” proposal. However, the UK has no plans to participate in this project. The UK is fully supportive of an EU and NATO future for all western Balkan countries and therefore will support an administrative arrangement which enhances co-operation and opens dialogue between the EDA and the Republic of Serbia.

In addition to the action points, the steering board will be provided with an update of the pooling and sharing opportunities which have been developed by the EDA, which includes a request that Ministers agree to a political declaration on air-to-air refuelling (AAR) capabilities, and sign a declaration of intent for the establishment of multinational modular medical units (M3U).

Noting that there is a gap among other European nations in AAR capability and that the declaration on AAR is not for signature, is not legally binding, and carries no financial commitment, we are content to agree this agenda item. M3U has been identified as a critical shortfall in European nations capabilities, and it is the EDA’s intention to establish these units which should enhance and improve standards, procedures and inter-operability among member states. The UK does not wish to participate in the M3U project as the United Kingdom believes it duplicates activities currently being undertaken in NATO.

Foreign Affairs Council (Defence)

The three current EU operations, Operation Atalanta (counter-piracy). Operation Althea (Bosnia and Herzegovina) and EU training mission Somalia (military training mission) will be discussed in the Council with the respective Operation Commanders. I will be able to announce that the UK has cleared an extension to Operation Atalanta’s mandate through parliamentary scrutiny. Future common security and defence policy (CSDP) operations are also likely to be discussed, with a focus on the soon to be launched regional maritime capacity-building (RMCB) mission off the horn of Africa, but also including possible missions in the Sahel and Libya. Further to the Foreign Secretary’s agreement at the Foreign Affairs Council in December 2011 to the establishment of an operation centre specifically to co-ordinate the RCMB mission, a Council decision on the activation of the operations centre may be agreed. I also intend to indicate our support for ongoing operations. Finally, Ministers will discuss EU partnerships and how these can be enhanced during which I will emphasise the importance of improving EU-NATO relations.

Discussion on the US Strategic Defence Guidance

Discussions will focus on the changing strategic context, in particular the implications of US defence guidance and budget cuts for Europe and CSDP. The UK will continue to emphasise that European nations must invest their scarce resources in real military capability rather than wasteful institution building. It is also important to ensure that, wherever possible, military capability is inter-operable and coherent avoiding any duplication with NATO, which is and must remain the first and foremost pillar of European defence.

Education

Secondary School Applications

Today we are publishing data, based on returns from 151 local authorities, showing that across the country 85.3% of families received an offer at their first preference secondary school—compared with 84.6% last year. A further 7.8% of families were offered a place at their second preference school and 95.9% were offered a place at one of their three preferred schools. In total, 97.6% of families were offered a place at one of their preferred schools. I am placing a copy of these data in the Library of the House.

There is considerable variation in these figures nationally. Outside London, nearly 88.5% of parents were offered a place at their first preference school. The north-east continues to have the highest percentage of first preference offers with 95.1% and west midlands continues to have the lowest with 81.3%. For Greater London, this figure is 67.5%.

Parents have the right of appeal against any application that has been turned down; and over the summer, admission authorities will be hearing those appeals as well as dealing with late applications. Our priority is to get every child into school as quickly as possible.

All parents should have the opportunity to send their child to a good local school of their choice. Our school reforms will raise standards and create more good schools. We are working to increase the supply of good school places by the rapid expansion of the academies programme, establishing more free schools and giving all schools more freedom to expand the number of places they offer. We are encouraging the best and brightest into teaching and we are turning around underperforming schools that are failing their pupils.

In the White Paper, “The Importance of Teaching”, we announced our intention to review the school admissions code and the appeals code, with a view to delivering a simpler, more streamlined admissions process. The new codes which came into force on 1 February have removed many of the unnecessary and costly burdens on schools and local authorities making the system simpler for parents and admission authorities to understand, and more transparent.

Further details of the statistical release of “Applications and offers for entry to secondary schools in England in the academic year 2012/2013” can be viewed on the DFE Research and Statistics Gateway.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Habitats and Wild Birds Directive

I am pleased to announce that the Government have published their report on the habitats and wild birds directives implementation review.

The review was launched at the autumn statement. At that time I underlined our strong support for the aims of these directives, and clearly explained how we want to ensure that they continue to be effective in protecting our vital network of wildlife sites and species, some of our most valuable environmental assets.

The review has provided a timely opportunity to take a fresh look at the way the habitats and wild birds directives are being implemented in England and to find out how we can do things better, more simply, and more efficiently without compromising their fundamental objectives.

Today’s report sets out the findings from this important piece of work. It includes a strong, practical set of measures designed to make it easier for people who need to work with the regulations to understand them and comply, thereby enhancing the reputation and environmental integrity of the directives. Designed to facilitate major infrastructure, improve guidance, data and the customer experience, key measures include:

Establishing a cross-Government major infrastructure and environment unit to start in April 2012 to improve pre-application identification and support resolution of issues associated with the directives for nationally significant infrastructure projects.

Publishing by November 2012 a draft of new simplified overarching guidance manual which will clarify key legal terms involved in the development authorisation process. This will ensure that guidance is more accessible and easily understandable by both large and small developers.

Action to tackle data gaps to reduce delays and higher costs, particularly for marine developments, by requiring statutory nature conservation bodies to agree an evidence plan with developers upfront for nationally significant infrastructure projects, and by new data collection and sharing arrangements—including a new habitats and wild birds directives marine evidence group.

Holding all relevant public bodies to account for a more customer-focused culture which will support sustainable development.

I am grateful for the strong contributions to the work of the review from a wide cross section of stakeholders. I look forward to continuing to work closely together with them as we deliver the important set of measures in today’s package.

The full response and terms of reference for the major infrastructure and environment unit are available on the DEFRA website www.defra.gov.uk.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Foreign Affairs Council and General Affairs Council

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs will attend the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) on 23 March. I will attend the General Affairs Council (GAC) on 26 March.

Meeting with EU candidate countries

Ahead of the FAC, on the 22 March, EU Ministers are due to meet their counterparts from EU candidate countries: Macedonia, Iceland, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey. They are scheduled to discuss Afghanistan, Pakistan and the southern neighbourhood.

On Afghanistan, we want the EU and its partners to send a strong message of the international community’s enduring commitment to Afghanistan’s security and economic viability beyond 2014 in build up to the forthcoming NATO Chicago summit and Tokyo development conference.

On Pakistan, we will want to stress the important role it has to play in bringing stability to Afghanistan as the importance of the EU’s relationship with Pakistan in its own right.

The discussion on the southern neighbourhood is likely to be broad. It comes soon after the UN Security Council debate of 12 March, “The Situation in the Middle East: Challenges and Opportunities”, where the Foreign Secretary sought to refocus efforts on transition and the Arab spring. The discussion may also cover Libya and the issue of mistreatment of detainees and Egypt where there are concerns about the pace of transition to civilian government.

Foreign Affairs Council (FAC)

The High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Baroness Ashton of Upholland, will chair the Foreign Affairs Council on 23 March.

Belarus

We expect Ministers to consider further sanctions against Belarus in response to the continued detention of political prisoners. Formal conclusions may also be agreed, and Ministers may discuss the political and human rights situation in Belarus.

Syria

We are seeking a thirteenth-round of EU sanctions against Syria. Ministers may also consider conclusions reinforcing our messages on humanitarian assistance and on support to the UN Secretary-General’s special representative, Kofi Annan. Ministers are also likely to discuss the next Friends of Syria meeting in Istanbul, in the first week of April.

Sahel

Ministers are likely to be to be presented with draft conclusions on the Sahel and proposals for a Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) mission to be launched in Niger in 2012. Recent developments in the Sahel—including violence in northern Mali, proliferation of weapons, increasing terrorist activity and a deteriorating humanitarian situation—underline the scope and scale of the challenges faced by countries in the region and the importance of helping to build their institutional capacity.

Iran

Although Iran is not yet a formal agenda item, we expect Ashton to update Ministers on the E3 (UK, France and Germany) +3 (US, China and Russia) response to the latest Iranian letter on nuclear negotiations.

Ministers may also discuss the disturbing human rights situation in Iran following the 8 March report of the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Iran to the Human Rights Council. EU member states are expected to review and agree to new designations of human rights violators in Iran.

Lunch with Turkish Foreign Minister

The Turkish Foreign Minister is scheduled to attend the FAC lunch where we expect Ministers to discuss a range of regional issues, including Syria. Baroness Ashton may also provide an update on recent developments in the middle east peace process, including informal Quartet consultations. This discussion is not expected to lead to formal conclusions—which are instead expected at the subsequent FAC in April.

General Affairs Council (GAG)

The GAC will be chaired by the Danish EU presidency.

There are two main items on the GAC agenda in March. The first is follow-up to the March European Council.

The conclusions of the March European Council meeting can be found at: http://www.european-council. europa.eu/council-meetings/conclusions.aspx

The second substantive item is the multi-annual financial framework, where there will be a stock-take of progress made in technical working groups and a discussion on:

Heading One A: Competitiveness for growth and employment, consisting of research and innovation programmes, education, training, trans-European networks, social policy programmes economic integration and accompanying policies.

Heading Three: Citizenship, freedom, security and justice, which includes programmes such as training for legal professionals; strengthening networks, cross-border co-operation on enforcement; information and raising public awareness.

Heading Four: EU as a global player which helps to deliver on global poverty reduction, building stability and security beyond the borders of the EU, specifically in the European neighbourhood and fragile states, supporting the EU’s prosperity agenda with emerging economies and tackling global climate change.

Heading Five: Administration; which mostly constitutes staff salaries and the upkeep of the EU institutions’ estates.

This discussion will inform the drafting of the ‘negotiating box’ which will help to establish the ceilings for all of the headings in the multi-annual financial framework. The negotiating box is like a set of Council conclusions, and though this document is not binding it seeks to establish a set of parameters for the negotiation. My overriding objective will be to ensure that the negotiating box reflects restraint and leads to a final budget that reflects the fiscal consolidation that is being undertaken at home.

FCO Services (Performance Targets)

FCO Services operates as a trading fund of the FCO. I have set the following performance targets for 2012-13:

1. An in-year surplus before interest and tax producing a net margin of between 1% and 5%

2. A return on capital employed of at least 3.5% (weighted average)

3. Cost of corporate functions as a % of revenue of no more than 10%

4. A utilisation rate for revenue earning staff of between 75-80%

5. Customer satisfaction rating to be within or above the 2nd quartile in the UK Customer Satisfaction Index, as produced by the Institute of Customer Service

6. Employee engagement in FCO Services using civil service survey of at least 56%

FCO Services will report to Parliament on its success against these targets through its annual report for 2012-13.

Home Department

UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disabilities

I have reviewed the reservation for immigration functions which the UK lodged to the UN convention on the rights of people with disabilities when the UK ratified that convention in 2009, in line with a commitment provided by my predecessor.

After consideration of all relevant factors, and of the views expressed by corporate partners in response to the consultation that was a part of the review, I have decided the reservation should be retained. A summary of the responses to the consultation will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

This decision was made because it was considered that the reservation remains necessary to safeguard our ability to apply immigration policies in accordance with existing immigration and equality legislation. The Equality Act permits differential treatment for specified immigration decisions if it is necessary for the public good.

I am aware this will not be welcome to all parties, and so I would like to explain the reasons. The reservation has been kept in order to retain the right to apply immigration rules, to avoid creating an unnecessary new avenue to challenge immigration decisions due to the optional protocol, and to preserve the right to safeguard the public purse from excessive demands which may be placed on it.

Justice

Justice Programme

The Government on 16 March decided not to opt in to the European Commission’s proposed regulation establishing for the period 2014-20 the justice programme.

The stated objectives of the Commission’s proposal are to promote judicial co-operation in civil and criminal matters, to facilitate access to justice and to prevent and reduce drug supply and demand.

Funding schemes have been operated by the EU for many years, and are an established non-legislative mechanism to promote cross-border cooperation on specific issues. The Government support such instruments in principle, and particularly action which leads to more effective implementation and to effective evaluation of EU law, providing they add value and fill a gap which is not met either through other EU work or by the member states.

Although there are some aspects of the proposal that could be welcomed, the Government are not satisfied on the value for money of the programme as a whole.

The Government recognise that this decision will have an impact on organisations that have received funding under the predecessors of this scheme. They intend to participate in the negotiations so that a post-adoption opt-in could be considered if it transpired that the focus of the activities to be funded truly added value and was worthwhile.

If we do not opt in to a programme, the UK would make its contributions to the EU budget as a whole, including to the fund which is the subject of the opt-in decision, for the year in question in the normal way. Then, in the following year we would receive a refund based on the actual level of expenditure from that fund and our gross national income (GNI) share. There would also be an impact on the abatement, as we would not receive an abatement on funds where we had not opted in.