Thursday 5 February 2015
NATO Readiness Action Plan
At the NATO summit in Wales on 4 and 5 September 2014, the alliance approved the readiness action plan including the extension of the immediate assurance measures which had been put in place as part of NATO’s response to the Ukraine crisis.
As part of the continuation of the NATO assurance measures, I am pleased to announce that the United Kingdom will, once again, deploy four Typhoon aircraft to augment the Norwegian contribution to the NATO Baltic air policing mission for the duration of the their rotation between May and August 2015. The four Typhoons will operate at NATO’s request from Amari air base in Estonia.
Furthermore, as part of the NATO readiness action plan adaption measures, the UK will undertake the commitment made at the Wales summit to provide a brigade headquarters and a battlegroup to become the Very High Readiness Joint Task Force framework nation in 2017 and become part of the ongoing VJTF(L) framework nation roster.
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 9 February and I will attend the General Affairs Council on 10 February. The Foreign Affairs Council will be chaired by the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, and the General Affairs Council will be chaired by the Latvian presidency. The meetings will be held in Brussels.
Foreign Affairs Council
The FAC will be having its first strategic discussion on Africa for a number of years. To help structure the debate the EEAS has produced a paper entitled “Peace, prosperity and partnership”. The UK will use the discussion to focus on Boko Haram and Nigeria’s forthcoming presidential and regional elections. UK priorities will be to secure EU support for regional efforts, assisted by the AU, to tackle Boko Haram and to send a clear message on the importance of free, fair and peaceful elections. The UK will also reinforce the link between trade and development and peace and security, and underline the importance of the EU retaining its role as a serious player on the continent. We expect that there will be Council conclusions on this topic.
Discussions on Libya will focus on the further deterioration of the security situation and progress of the UN-led political talks. The UK’s priority will be to ensure the continued support of member states for the efforts of the special representative of the UN Secretary General for Libya, Bernardino Leon, to resolve the political crisis and pave the way for peaceful political dialogue.
Events in Yemen are fluid and volatile. We expect discussions to focus on the latest situation in the country, including the future leadership of the country. There will be Council conclusions on Yemen, condemning violence and urging restraint and dialogue by all parties in line with the GCC initiative and the peace and national partnership agreement signed by the Houthis and President Hadi in September 2014.
Iraq and Syria
The EEAS and Commission will present an update on the EU Syria/Iraq/ISIL strategy. The UK will urge the institutions to secure funding swiftly to enable the implementation of the strategy, ahead of the March FAC. The strategy should help focus EU efforts on areas where they can add value to the counter ISIL coalition and should ensure EU activity is better co-ordinated and aligned with other coalition efforts.
The attacks in Paris, and events in Belgium and elsewhere in Europe, underline that countering terrorism is at the top of our and our EU partners’ priorities. Much of the European direct response to these attacks will focus on internal EU justice and home affairs (JHA), as set out by EU JHA Ministers when they met on 29 January, but the EU needs to address terrorism issues outside its borders. We expect Council conclusions on 9 February that will set out how the EU intends to implement its foreign fighters and Syria/Iraq/ISIL strategy. Other UK priorities will be to press for EU action in priority countries in the middle east and Africa, to improve those countries’ aviation and border security, crisis-response capacity and management of the return of terrorist fighters, as well as to support their strategic communications and counter-radicalisation efforts.
General Affairs Council
The General Affairs Council (GAC) on 10 February is expected to focus on: the Latvian presidency work programme; the EU strategic agenda; preparation of the European Council on 19 and 20 March 2015; and EU structural funds.
Latvia presidency work programme
The GAC is expected to take note of the Latvian presidency programme which commenced on 1 January 2015. Three priorities have been identified for the Latvian presidency: a competitive Europe that creates growth and jobs and better responds to the needs of its people; a digital Europe which seizes the opportunities provided by digital technologies as the basis for the EU’s competitiveness and growth; and a global Europe encompassing EU-US relations, the Eastern Partnership and renewing the EU-central Asia strategy. There is a good degree of alignment between the UK’s priorities and those of the Latvian presidency, particularly based around supporting growth and making European economies more competitive.
EU strategic agenda—Union of freedom, security and justice
The GAC will discuss the EU’s response to the horrific attacks in Paris and Belgium last month. The UK wants to see action taken at a European level to deal with aspects of the current threat from terrorism in Syria and Iraq, including: on the movement of foreign fighters and weapons through Europe; improved aviation security; tackling terrorist and extremist propaganda on line; counter radicalisation and driving a strong counter narrative; data-sharing about people convicted of terrorist offences; and urgent publication of the EU’s strategies on foreign fighters and ISIL.
Preparation of the March European Council
The GAC will prepare the 19 and 20 March European Council, which the Prime Minister will attend. The March European Council agenda has not yet been released but we expect it to include: economic issues including the review of the Europe 2020 strategy; energy union; and external relations issues—likely to include Ukraine.
EU structural funds
Ministers will discuss measures to ensure the timely adoption of the 2014-20 EU structural funds programmes which are awaiting approval.
Marriage and Civil Partnership Notice Fee
I am pleased to inform the House of an increase in marriage and civil partnership notice fees to support the implementation of the referral and investigation scheme for proposed marriages and civil partnerships and related provisions under the Immigration Act 2014. I announced the revised fees in Parliament on 19 January 2015.
Under the new scheme all proposed marriages and civil partnerships involving a non-European economic area national with limited or no immigration status in the UK, or who does not provide specified evidence that they are exempt from the scheme, will be referred to the Home Office.
This introduces additional costs for registration officers, who will be required to ask couples for additional information and evidence. They will also provide relevant couples with information about the scheme and refer them to the Home Office. The marriage and civil partnership notice fee in England and Wales for couples subject to referral to the Home Office under the scheme will be increased from £35 to £47 per person from 2 March 2015, subject to the commencement of the scheme from that date. This will fund the additional administrative costs for the designated register offices required to perform these functions, in line with the new burdens doctrine.
Justice and Home Affairs Council
The Informal Justice and Home Affairs (JHA) Council was held on 29 and 30 January in Riga. I and a senior Ministry of Justice official attended on behalf of the United Kingdom. The following items were discussed.
In the context of the attacks in Paris in January, the presidency focused the morning of interior day on the issue of counter-terrorism and, in particular, foreign fighters. Member states, along with the Commission and the EU counter-terrorism co-ordinator, discussed how best to tackle the threat posed by those returning from Syria and Iraq, as well as efforts to tackle radicalisation. Member states, including the UK, agreed a joint statement which emphasised a number of issues including: the need for a strong and effective passenger name records framework; the importance of effective action against illegal firearms; and the need to tackle terrorist content on the internet.
The UK urged other EU states to do more to improve the exchange of information about known criminals to keep the public safe. We highlighted that existing EU mechanisms are not fully utilised by other member states to identify released offenders who continue to pose a public protection risk and who may try to travel across Europe and stressed that, to be able to refuse such offenders entry, member states need to be told about them in advance. The UK also stressed the need for all member states to retain and share information about “spent” convictions for serious offences for appropriate lengths of time. We welcomed the continued focus on this important issue and on working together at the European level to tackle the threat but reiterated the importance of all member states working to make progress in this area quickly.
Over lunch there was a discussion of EU migration pressures based on reporting from Frontex and EASO, where discussion covered the situation in Syria, the handling of asylum claims in member states, and legal routes into the EU. The UK stressed the need to enhance co-operation with source and transit countries, in order to disrupt irregular migration flows.
After lunch, the presidency held a joint session of Interior and Justice Ministers along with their counterparts from the Eastern Partnership (EaP) countries—Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine—during which the EaP countries highlighted their progress on domestic reforms. In a common theme for many EU member state interventions, the Commission underlined the importance of rule of law, and in particular the independence of the judiciary. Many EaP countries had made progress, but there was more to do.
Eurojust wanted to see more co-operation with EaP based on the model of their network of judicial contact points, noting that it was in talks with Ukraine and Georgia to establish them there, and hoped to see a greater level of co-operation.
On justice day, ministers returned to the issue of counter-terrorism to look at the judicial response, including radicalisation in prison and the implementation of the UN Security Council resolution on foreign fighters.
The presidency then introduced its discussion paper on the scope of the data protection package, which consists of a regulation covering the processing of personal data in most civil and commercial circumstances, and a directive covering the processing of personal data in the context of criminal investigations and prosecution. Ministers were asked to consider whether the scope of the draft directive should remain as proposed by the Commission or be extended to also cover processing of personal data when “maintaining law and order and the safeguarding of public security”.
The Commission argued strongly for maintaining the directive’s original scope and noted that the regulation had already been amended to provide greater flexibility for the public sector. The European Parliament set out its firm support for the Commission position. While a few member states supported the existing Commission proposal, the majority of member states supported the presidency’s proposal for an extension of the scope of the directive. The UK, along with another member state, did not support either proposal. The UK understood the concerns of most member states, and recognised this was an important and difficult issue. The UK put forward a compromise proposal, to limit the scope of the directive to activities falling within those chapters of the treaty dealing with police and judicial co-operation—that is, chapters 4 and 5 of title V of part three of the TFEU. The meeting did not allow for a substantive discussion of the proposal, which the UK proposed should take place at expert level.
There followed a discussion on the promotion of digital solutions and tools for justice. The Commission argued that legal fragmentation across member states was a major obstacle to a functioning digital single market, with significant resultant costs suffered by businesses, in particular SMEs. This was a top priority for the Commission, and it would bring forward a package of proposals this year to supplement the data protection reforms already under way. This would include withdrawing its proposal for a common European sales law and bringing forward a new measure to harmonise rules for online purchases. There was also a need to make further progress on the e-justice agenda. Many member states called for a more ambitious e-justice agenda for both criminal and civil law.
The UK highlighted its recent paper on “The UK vision for the EU’s digital economy”. On the common European sales law, the UK had joined a number of other member states in calling for the Commission to withdraw the proposal. Any modified proposal needed to be based on a proper impact assessment and consultation. There was a need for a new focus on more effective enforcement of consumer law as well as new cross-EU consumer rights specifically for digital content. The UK argued there was scope for the Commission to consider online sales issues when reviewing the Rome I regulation.
Under AOB, Romania spoke to its joint letter with Italy calling upon the commission to provide EU funding to support improvements in prison conditions. They argued this was an important objective with implications for EU co-operation, in particular the European arrest warrant and the EU framework on prisoner transfers. Finally, Spain drew attention to its conference on 25 March which would include the signing of the convention on trafficking in human organs.
Violence against Women and Girls Overseas
I would like to update the House on my work as the ministerial champion for tackling violence against women and girls (VAWG) overseas.
Since moving back to the Home Office as the Minister for Crime Prevention, I have been able to strengthen my ministerial champion role by ensuring the Government continue to take a coherent approach across international and domestic work to tackle violence against women and girls.
The scale of the challenge of ending violence against women and girls continues to be considerable.
Since my appointment as the international champion, I have made a series of overseas visits, including to South Sudan, Somalia, Bangladesh, United Arab Emirates, India and Burma, working in partnership to encourage and drive action to address VAWG in these countries. I have also represented the UK at a number of key international forums such as the Commission on the Status of Women, making the case for VAWG to be recognised in the post-2015 millennium development framework. I have also met, and built up strong alliances, with many in the wider community working on these issues including passionate activists and campaigners from non-governmental organisations and grassroots organisations, and diaspora communities in the UK.
In January, I undertook my final overseas visit—to India and Burma. I first visited India in my role as ministerial champion in 2011 and the progress that has been made since my last visit was encouraging. I was pleased to be able to secure Ministers’ agreement to sending written support for the Girl Summit charter to end female genital mutilation (FGM) and child, early and forced marriage (CEFM) in a generation.
In Burma, I met Government Ministers, civil society groups, women’s rights campaigners, and Aung San Suu Kyi, to discuss how violence against women and girls can be tackled, and how they could gain an equal voice in the peace process and political reforms. One thing was clear to me. They are all dedicated to making their country a better place for all Burmese people. Much of the violence against women and girls in Burma is as a result of conflict. I was encouraged to hear of the work under way to tackle this, and saw a preventing sexual violence initiative-linked training session for the Burmese Army, supported by the UK’s Defence Academy, on the UNSC 1325 commitments on women, peace and security.
I am proud of the role the UK has taken in supporting Burma, India and so many other countries to address violence against women and girls. I am also extremely proud of the achievements we have made since 2010. The UK is now positioned as a true world leader on tackling violence against women and girls. I would like to outline just a small selection of these achievements:
We have hosted three ground-breaking global summits on addressing VAWG: (1) the “call to action” to tackle violence against women and girls in humanitarian emergencies; (2) “ending sexual violence in conflict”, and (3) the “Girl Summit” focused on tackling child, early and forced marriage, and ending female genital mutilation (FGM) both in the UK and worldwide.
These summits galvanised a huge range of financial and political commitments to act, including a groundbreaking communiqué to agree that early action to protect girls and women in emergencies saves lives—signed by 50 Governments and organisations; an international protocol on the investigation and documentation of sexual violence; and a Girl Summit charter on FGM and child, early and forced marriage (with 470 signatories, including 36 Governments).
I launched a flagship FGM programme in 2013—for which the UK is the largest donor in the world—working in 17 countries to support the Africa-led movement to end FGM, aiming to see a 30% reduction of FGM in 10 countries over the next five years. The momentum this generated led to the Girl Summit being held in London the following year.
The UK has significantly scaled up its work to tackle VAWG overseas. For example, the Department for International Development has seen a 63% increase in programmes addressing these issues since 2012. We now have bilateral VAWG programmes in 29 countries.
We have committed up to £25 million for a new programme to end child, early and forced marriage in 12 countries.
We have seen a six-fold increase in programmes addressing VAWG in humanitarian situations. For example, the UK is now supporting a programme working across the DRC, Ethiopia, and Pakistan called “Protecting Adolescent Girls against Violence in Humanitarian Settings”, which will directly benefit 8,615 adolescent girls.
We are investing £25 million over five years in a flagship research and innovation programme that will find out what works to prevent violence in developing countries, with a component focused on conflict and humanitarian contexts.
I am committed to continuing to address these issues here and around the world. The Government are committed to publishing a review of our VAWG action plan this session, which will set out the progress we have made, domestically and internationally, over the course of this Parliament.
We are making progress at home too. Since we launched our strategy, “A Call to End Violence Against Women and Girls”, in 2010 we have criminalised forced marriage in England and Wales; introduced new stalking offences; rolled out Clare’s law and domestic violence protection orders to protect victims of domestic violence and announced a new offence of domestic abuse of controlling and coercive behaviour; and driven a step change in our efforts to end female genital mutilation. Our national prevention campaign—“This is Abuse”—encourages teenagers to rethink their views about rape, consent, violence and abuse, contributing to the wider cultural awareness that violence is unacceptable.
But there is still more to do. I am continuing to drive progress. Since the Girl Summit we have issued a consultation on mandatory reporting of FGM and we are now considering the responses with a view to bringing forward legislation this session. We have also established the FGM unit to drive a step change in nationwide outreach on FGM with criminal justice partners, children’s services, health care professionals and affected communities.
Police Advisory Board Triennial Review
I am today announcing the start of the triennial review of the Police Advisory Board for England and Wales. Triennial reviews are part of the Government’s commitment to ensuring that non-departmental public bodies continue to have regular independent challenge.
The review will examine whether there is a continuing need for the Police Advisory Board’s function and its form and whether it should continue to exist at arm’s length from Government. Should the review conclude there is a continuing need for the body, it will go on to examine whether the body is operating efficiently and whether the body’s control and governance arrangements continue to meet the recognised principles of good corporate governance. I will inform the House of the outcome of the review when it is completed.
Bus Service Operators
My noble Friend, the Minister of State for Transport (Baroness Kramer), has made the following ministerial statement: in March 2014 the Government consulted on their implementation of the four remedies proposed by the Competition Commission recommending changes to the existing rules for the registration of local bus services with the Traffic Commissioner. The four remedies formed part of a much wider series of recommendations made by the Competition Commission following its two year “Local bus services market investigation”, which concluded in December 2011.
I am today, 5 February 2015, announcing that following a review of the responses to the consultation I have decided to progress only one of the four remedies—the 14-day pre-notification period for local transport authorities. While this only constitutes a partial implementation of the Competition Commission’s recommendations in this particular area, this follows full consideration of the consultation responses and the cost-benefit analysis undertaken as part of the legislative process.
The implementation of the 14-day pre-notification period for local authorities makes a material contribution towards meeting the Competition Commission’s concerns in a way that builds on Government policy to promote partnership working between operators and local authorities. New entrants would have at least 14 days to operate before a reaction from the incumbent(s) as the information would be kept confidential. As identified by the Competition Commission, the extra visibility to local authorities should also discourage anti-competitive reactions by an incumbent.
The consultation also sought views on the Department’s ambition to move to a fully electronic bus registration system over the next 2-3 years and invited views on how to make this happen. This will bring benefits not only to operators and local authorities in terms of reduced administrative costs and ease of updating local travel information, but also to passengers in terms of an improvement in completeness and timeliness of bus route/timetable information. There was broad support for this aim and so a move to a fully digital bus registration system will be progressed. We will be engaging with key players over the next few months to establish the best way to make this happen.
A summary of responses and the Government position has been published on http://www.parliament.uk/writtenstatements and has been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.