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Written Statements

Volume 564: debated on Tuesday 18 June 2013

Written Ministerial Statements

Tuesday 18 June 2013

Communities and Local Government

Tackling Aggressive Bailiffs

The coalition agreement committed the coalition Government to provide more protection against aggressive bailiffs and unreasonable charges. Further to this, last year, Ministers pledged to review the guidance given to local authorities on the use of bailiffs to collect council tax.

This was in the light of unacceptable practices by some local authorities; poor advice from the old Office of the Deputy Prime Minister guidance, and the failure of the last Administration to deliver on their 2009 pledge to publish new guidance on good collection practice.

My Department has published new guidance to local authorities: “Council Tax: guidance to local councils on good practice in the collection of Council Tax arrears”. A copy has been placed in the Library of the House and is available on my Department’s website at: https://www. gov.uk/government/publications/council-tax. It replaces the previous Office of the Deputy Prime Minister guidance.

Councils will rightly want to ensure they collect council tax as far as possible, as every penny that is unpaid means higher bills for law-abiding citizens. But this does not mean that shady or aggressive practices are acceptable.

The new guidance directly tackles such issues as “phantom visits”, excessive charges and kickbacks from bailiffs to local authorities. Contracts should not involve rewards or penalties which incentivise the use of bailiffs where it would not otherwise be justified.

It also provides clear guidance on:

bailiffs providing the debtor with a contact number should they wish to speak to the billing authority;

local councillors remaining responsible for the action of bailiffs they have contracted;

in-house bailiffs having to explicitly state that they are part of the local authority;

councils publishing their standard scale of fees on their website, to allow public scrutiny and highlight unreasonable practices; and

actively encouraging councils to sign up to the Citizens Advice Bureau good practice protocol.

This statement delivers on the commitment made by Ministers—12 January 2012, Official Report, column 385W —to report back to the House. It also delivers on the commitment made to the hon. Member for Harrow East (Bob Blackman)—15 September 2011, Official Report, column 1206W—to review the unacceptable practices in the London borough of Harrow.

Culture, Media and Sport

Telecommunications Council

The Telecommunications Council took place in Luxemburg on 6 June 2013. I represented the UK at this Council.

The first item was a full “tour de table” debate guided by questions from the presidency on the digital agenda for Europe—the role of the telecommunications and ICT sectors. The commissioner for the digital agenda, Vice-President Kroes, is planning to launch an initiative with the aim of achieving the goal of a further integrated European telecoms single market. It forms part of the goal to achieve a pan-European digital single market by 2015; though the telecoms single market measures may have a longer time scale before realisation.

This debate focused on two questions: garnering member states views on how to realise the ambition of a more integrated telecoms single market and views on further pan-European spectrum harmonisation. The commissioner for the digital agenda, opened the debate by urging member states to see the digital agenda as a vehicle for increasing growth and jobs, particularly for young people. She went on to say that the telecoms sector is too fragmented across member states and there are too many barriers that prevent cross-border trade in digital goods and services.

My intervention noted that the UK welcomed the idea of a further integrated single market in telecoms in principle, including the proposal for a telecoms passport which would allow telecoms providers the ability to be able to operate in any member state, along similar lines to the single European banking licence. However, I also suggested that that this proposal should not allow telecom companies the ability to base themselves in a member state with a weak regulator. I also stated that any proposals will need to strike the right balance between allowing consolidation in the telecoms market but still ensuring that there is vibrant competition.

On spectrum, I said that the UK had just carried out a successful spectrum auction and we would like to work together to develop guidelines that would produce a more joined-up approach towards spectrum management across the EU, but we would be cautious about uniform rules at European level.

The majority of member states broadly supported the principle of a single telecoms market. However, Germany, Belgium and Spain expressed scepticism on the need for any further telecoms regulation. Many member states also emphasized that one of the outcomes of these proposals should be that broadband is available to all citizens regardless of where they live in the EU. On spectrum, there was consensus among member states that there should be no changes that would reduce member states’ abilities to make their own decisions to how spectrum is allocated.

The next item was a progress report from the presidency, followed by an orientation debate on the proposal for a directive of the European Parliament and of the Council concerning measures to ensure a high level of network and information security across the Union (First Reading—EM6342/13). My intervention supported the high-level principles of the strategy but expressed concern that the current proposal was too prescriptive. I also said that voluntary data-sharing arrangements were very valuable and should not be threatened by mandatory reporting requirements. Finland, France, Sweden and Germany also shared my view that the regulation was too prescriptive. However, most member states believed that legislation was necessary but only in respect of sectors that were considered “critical” national infrastructure.

The presidency then provided a progress report on the proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on electronic identification and trust services for electronic transactions in the internal market (First Reading—EM10977/12). There was not a major debate on this item and I did not intervene.

The Council then looked at two proposals under the “banner” of digital infrastructure and services. The first item was the proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on guidelines for trans-European telecommunications networks and repealing decision No. 1336/97/EC (First Reading—EM16006/11). The second item was a progress report on the proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on measures to reduce the costs of deploying high-speed electronic communications networks (First Reading—EM7999/13). The Council and Commission noted both these items without any comment.

There then followed a progress report on the proposal for a directive of the European Parliament and the Council on the accessibility of public sector bodies’ websites (First reading—EM17344/12). The Council and Commission noted this report without any comment.

Any Other Business

Finally, the Lithuanian delegation informed the Council of their priorities for their forthcoming presidency. I did not intervene on this item.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Agriculture and Fisheries Council

The next Agriculture and Fisheries Council is on Monday 24 and Tuesday 25 June in Luxembourg. I will be representing the UK, accompanied by Richard Lochhead MSP, Alun Davies AM and Michelle O’Neill MLA.

Monday and Tuesday will concentrate on the common agricultural policy (CAP) reform package. There are no fishery items scheduled for this Council.

Council negotiations will centre on the four regulations that make up the CAP reform package. The Irish presidency will be looking to obtain a full political agreement on the CAP reform package during this Council.

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Foreign Affairs/General Affairs Councils

I will attend the Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) on 24 June and the General Affairs Council (GAC) on 25 June. The Foreign Affairs Council will be chaired by the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Baroness Ashton of Upholland, and the General Affairs Council will be chaired by the Irish presidency. The meetings will be held in Luxembourg.

Foreign Affairs Council

Western Balkans

At the FAC Ministers will discuss the western Balkans and the Serbia/Kosovo dialogue. Our views are set out in more detail below for the GAC, which will also discuss western Balkans issues.

Eastern Partnership

Ministers will discuss the eastern partnership, looking ahead to November’s eastern partnership summit in Vilnius. We expect the discussion to focus on expectations for the summit, particularly on whether the EU will be able to offer signature of the association agreement with Ukraine, and initialling of association agreements with Moldova, Georgia and Armenia. The UK remains committed to supporting these agreements on the basis of continued irreversible reform.

Southern Neighbourhood

Ministers will discuss the EU’s work in the southern Mediterranean, based on an evaluation paper to be produced by the European External Action Service/Commission, which should be released shortly before the FAC. I plan to use this opportunity to reaffirm the need for EU support to be responsive to progress made against a country’s commitments and actions towards pursuing political and economic reform; to press for strategic, country-level discussions and collective assessment of individual states’ reform progress at future FACs; and to reiterate the need for more effective co-ordination of the EU’s activities both internally and in consultation with member states, including through better use of strategic communications.

Syria

Within the context of the southern neighbourhood discussion, I expect Ministers also to discuss the latest developments in Syria, including G8 outcomes and progress on the Geneva II political settlement process.

Middle East Peace Process (MEPP)

Ministers will address the deteriorating prospects for a two-state solution, and the importance of supporting US efforts. This discussion will be an opportunity to agree the focus of EU policy and engagement on the MEPP for the coming months. I will focus on how the EU can support and contribute actively, alongside other regional and international partners, to efforts led by the United States to drive progress on the MEPP. This will include the incentives the EU could offer the parties to reach a negotiated solution, particularly on the economic and security tracks. I will press for conclusions which outline the EU’s approach and support to the US.

Afghanistan

This will be the first EU ministerial discussion on Afghanistan in over a year. It will be an opportunity to reaffirm EU commitment to Afghanistan post-transition, complementing the G8 summit discussion the previous week. I will press for further progress against the Tokyo mutual accountability framework, highlight the importance of elections in 2014 and note the achievement made on transition of security to the Afghan National Security Forces.

Climate Change

Ministers will discuss EU climate diplomacy, building on and reviewing progress since the previous discussion of this issue by the FAC in July 2011. We expect that conclusions will be adopted, which will reaffirm the EU’s commitment to addressing climate change as a strategic foreign policy issue, and as a threat to economic resilience and security. I will support the European External Action Service in calling for renewed climate diplomacy efforts by all EU actors, particularly with a view to the deadline under the UN climate negotiations to adopt a new global, legally binding agreement by 2015.

General Affairs Council

The 25 June GAC will focus on EU enlargement and preparation for the 27-28 June European Council. There will also be a discussion on the multi-annual financial framework, following the agreement reached at the February European Council.

In addition, there will be a meeting with the President of the European Council, Herman van Rompuy, which is expected to focus on them June European Council.

Enlargement

The GAC will look at enlargement. Key decisions on Serbia and Kosovo are due to be taken, following the December 2012 GAC conclusions. Ministers will discuss the Commission’s proposal to open negotiations on a stabilisation and association agreement between the EU and Kosovo. Discussion on Serbia will be focused on preparing for a possible decision on opening EU accession negotiations at the June European Council. Serbia and Kosovo reached an historic agreement in April 2013 which included some autonomy for Serb-majority municipalities in Kosovo and acceptance of Kosovo’s state institutions for the first time. The UK’s position on whether to support opening accession negotiations will depend on the progress Serbia makes on implementing this and existing agreements, and in normalising relations with Kosovo, by the time of the European Council. There may be brief discussion of Macedonia (former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia) where the UK continues to support the Commission’s recommendation to open accession negotiations.

Preparation of the 27-28 June European Council

The GAC will prepare the 27-28 June European Council. The June European Council has an extensive agenda covering economic policy: including concluding the European semester, which gives macro-economic and fiscal guidance to member states, assessing implementation of the compact for growth and jobs agreed by the June 2012 European Council, industrial competitiveness and smart regulation; economic and monetary union; enlargement; strategic partners and possibly other foreign policy issues.

We will be clear that the best means to create jobs and growth and tackle youth unemployment is through structural reform and more flexible labour markets, opening up single market opportunities and pursuing ambitious trade deals. We will also seek to secure further progress in reducing burdens for small and medium enterprises. On economic and monetary union, we will make the case that strengthened governance must be voluntary for euro outs and continue to safeguard the single market.

The Multi-annual Financial Framework (MFF)

The GAC will discuss the legal architecture putting into effect the February European Council agreement on the 2014-20 MFF: the draft MFF regulation and inter-institutional agreement. The Irish presidency intends to secure a mandate from the European Council to approach the European Parliament, which may vote on the MFF at the 1-4 July plenary. Should the European Parliament vote in favour of the proposal through the consent procedure, the MFF texts will then return to the European Council for a final decision by unanimity.

It is important that we make progress on this important dossier, and the February European Council conclusions on the MFF must be translated faithfully into the legal documents. Recent informal discussions have focused on issues such as increased flexibility in managing the budget and for a mid-term review of the MFF, both possibilities which the February deal allowed for. I will argue strongly that the agreement must respect the MFF ceilings, that any revision of the MFF must respect the treaty provisions for unanimity in Council, and that our abatement be preserved.

Health

Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council

The Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council will meet on 20-21 June in Luxembourg. The health and consumer affairs part of the Council will be taken 21 June.

The main agenda items will be the following legislative proposals:

the tobacco products directive—it is expected that the presidency will aim to agree a general approach;

clinical trials regulation—where the presidency will report progress on negotiations;

medical devices regulations—where the presidency will report progress on negotiations.

Under any other business, the presidency is likely to provide information on the serious cross-border threats decision and matters relating to the import of active pharmaceutical ingredients in accordance with the falsified medicines directive; the transparency directive; and the EU drugs action plan.

The Lithuanian delegation will also give information on the priorities for their forthcoming presidency, which will run from July until December 2013.