Written Ministerial Statements
Thursday 19 April 2012
UK Convergence Programme (2011-12)
Following my statement of 27 March, Official Report, 107WS, I have today made available in the Vote Office and Printed Paper Office advanced copies of the UK’s convergence programme ahead of next week’s debates under section 5 of the European Communities (Amendment) Act 1993. This requires the Government to report to Parliament for their approval an assessment of the UK’s medium-term economic and budgetary position. This assessment comprises the Budget report and the Office for Budget Responsibility’s (OBR’s) economic and fiscal outlook. This then forms the basis of the UK’s convergence programme, which is therefore based entirely on information already presented to Parliament. The UK is obliged to submit a convergence programme annually to the European Commission under article 121 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union (the “Lisbon” treaty).
The debates are scheduled for 24 April in the House of Commons and 25 April in the House of Lords. The convergence programme will be submitted to the EU by 30 April.
A copy of the published programme will be deposited in the Libraries of both Houses and the document will be available electronically via the HM Treasury website following the debate.
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 on 23 April. I will attend the General Affairs Council on 24 April. Both meetings will be held in Luxembourg.
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.
We expect conclusions that recognise positive progress in Burma against the EU benchmarks agreed at the Foreign Affairs Council of 23 January. These benchmarks include the release of political prisoners, a number of initial ceasefire agreements with some ethnic groups, and the generally positive conduct of by-elections on 1 April. We will also push for the suspension of EU sanctions except those relating to export of military equipment. The Prime Minister set out our approach during his visit to Burma of 13 April.
The conclusions may make reference to remaining issues, such as the lack of humanitarian access to conflict areas and a number of remaining political prisoners. We would also like the conclusions to stress that any commercial engagement by EU companies should promote the highest standards of integrity and corporate social responsibility.
We are working for conclusions that give the EU’s full support to the UN advance monitoring mission to Syria and to UN Security Council Resolution 2042. Agreed on 14 April, the resolution authorises an advance monitoring mission and calls on the Syrian Government to implement urgently and comprehensively Kofi Annan’s six-point plan. We may also work for a further round of EU sanctions on the regime to be adopted at the FAC should we decide further pressure on the regime is appropriate
We expect Ministers to discuss EU support for Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) ahead of the NATO Chicago summit and the Tokyo conference on development in Afghanistan. We want the EU to make a significant contribution to the ANSF and Afghanistan’s development needs.
We expect Ministers to be presented with conclusions reiterating the EU’s support for the economic community of west African states-led (ECOWAS) response to last month’s coup d’état in Mali. The conclusions should also reiterate the importance of implementing the EU’s strategy for security and development in the Sahel, including the common security and defence policy (CSDP) mission to Niger. We want the EU to reaffirm its support for the prompt regional response to the coup that led to the inauguration of an interim civilian President on 12 April. We also want to record our concerns about the deteriorating security situation in the north of the country where, in the absence of state control, Tuareg insurgents, some with links to al-Qaeda, have taken control of key cities.
Middle East Peace Process
We expect a substantive discussion on the middle east peace process, with a particular focus on the settlements and area C. Baroness Ashton is likely to brief on the recent Quartet Principals’ meeting.
Baroness Ashton will brief Ministers following E3+3 (UK, France, Germany, US, China and Russia) talks with Iran in Istanbul on 14 April. We will underline that we welcome this new round of engagement and that Iran must urgently take concrete and practical steps to restore international confidence in the nature of their nuclear programme.
General Affairs Council (GAC)
The GAC will be chaired by the Danish EU presidency.
There are two main items on the GAC agenda in April: the multi-annual financial framework (MFF) and cohesion policy. The first will be a discussion on resources for structural and cohesion funds and the common agricultural policy (CAP), and text for the negotiating box in headings 1 and 2 of the budget. The presidency intend for the negotiating box to establish parameters for the 2014-20 multi-annual financial framework discussions at June European Council. The second will be on cohesion policy. The presidency seek agreement of a partial general approach on elements of the package of regulations published by the Commission in October. The package of regulations establishes how cohesion funding is allocated, how the funds are used and the rules that govern their use.
My overriding objective for the discussions on the MFF will be for the negotiating box to reflect the UK’s objective of delivering a restrained EU budget, limited to a real-terms freeze. Within a restrained budget, a greater share should be seen in priority areas (such as external action, research and climate change).
On structural and cohesion funds, we have a principled position that supports targeting of funds to poorer member states and regions where they are needed most and can offer the most value for money. We oppose any extension of macro-economic conditionality (the proposal for which allows the Commission to suspend all or part of structural and cohesion fund payment if effective action to meet macro-economic goals is not taken). There should also be a very substantial reduction in the size of the CAP budget with a higher proportion of CAP for projects which offer benefits to the wider society such as climate change reduction and away from market distorting subsidies.
On cohesion policy, the partial general approach should cover aspects of how the funds are used, including ex-ante conditionality, which establish requirements to be met before member states can receive structural and cohesion funds; and monitoring and evaluation, which ensure that the funds have been used as intended.
Yesterday, the European Court of Human Rights informed the Government that late on Tuesday evening, Abu Qatada applied for a referral of the judgment in his case to the Court’s Grand Chamber. He did so on the grounds that he would be at risk of torture if he returned to Jordan. The British courts and the European Court itself have already found that, because of the assurances we have received from the Jordanian Government, there is no such risk.
The Government are clear that Abu Qatada has no right to refer the case to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights, since the three-month deadline to do so lapsed at midnight on Monday.
Article 43 of the European Convention on Human Rights explains that a request for referral to the Grand Chamber must be made
“within a period of three months from the date of the judgment of the Chamber”.
The letter that communicated the European Court’s judgment, dated 17 January, confirmed this, saying
“any request for the referral of this judgment to the Grand Chamber must be duly reasoned and reach the registry within three months of today’s date”.
Therefore the deadline was midnight, Monday 16 April.
Because the European Court has no automatic mechanism to rule out an application for a referral based on the deadline, Abu Qatada’s application will be considered by a panel of five judges from the Grand Chamber. They will take into account the deadline, as set out in article 43 of the convention, as part of their consideration. The Government have written to the European Court to make clear our case that the application should be rejected because it is out of time.
Instead, the Government believe that the case should be heard in the Special Immigration Appeals Commission Court (SIAC), as I outlined in the House of Commons on Tuesday. Until the panel of the Grand Chamber makes its decision, however, a rule 39 injunction preventing the deportation of Abu Qatada remains in place. This means that the deportation process and any potential SIAC appeal is put on hold, but we will resume the process as soon as the injunction is lifted. In the meantime, we will continue to build our case, based on the assurances and information we have received from the Jordanian Government. Abu Qatada remains in detention, and the Government will resist vigorously any application he might make to be released on bail.
As I said in the House of Commons on Tuesday, despite the progress we have made, the process of deporting Abu Qatada is likely to take many months. That he has sought to delay that process by applying for a referral to the Grand Chamber after the deadline had passed and after he had heard our case in SIAC is evidence of the strength of our arguments and the likelihood of our eventual success in removing him from Britain for good.
Highways Agency and Network Rail (Fire Risk Audit Reports)
Progress is being made with considering these reports, and I will make a statement shortly.