Tuesday 30 June 2015
Business, Innovation and Skills
Hatfield Colliery Partnership Limited
I want to update the House on matters concerning Hatfield Colliery Partnership Ltd (HCPL).
The previous Minister of State for Business, Enterprise and Energy, my right hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Matthew Hancock), informed Parliament on 7 January 2015 that the Government have provided HCPL with a short-term commercial loan of £8 million to avert the company’s imminent insolvency at that time. The intention was to provide time for HMG to secure the appropriate legal basis for longer-term support which would allow HCPL to continue operating until 2016.
In May 2015, the Government announced they had agreed to provide HCPL with a longer-term, repayable grant of up to £20 million to enable the colliery to continue operating until its planned closure in August 2016. This support was state aid for which Government have secured approval from the European Commission, a strict condition of which was that the mine does not remain open beyond August 2016.
The directors managed closure plan assumed that replacement contracts from June 2015 onwards would be secured for all their coal output at pricing similar to what had been achieved before. In June 2015 the directors of HCPL approached the Government to advise that the current UK demand for coal was weak with UK power companies already largely fully stocked for 2015.
Since being advised of this position, the Government have done all they can to assist the directors of Hatfield, including reiterating their earlier commitment to provide up to £20 million towards the costs covered by the state aid approval to help the company achieve an orderly and safe closure.
Despite this the directors have concluded it is not economically viable to continue mining and so took the decision to stop coal production on 30 June 2015.
Our priority now is to support the workforce and to close the mine safely.
I understand this is a very difficult time for the individuals affected. The Jobcentre Plus rapid response service will be available to help support Hatfield’s workers into new employment, and to arrange re-training where needed.
UK Justice and Home Affairs Opt-in
I wish to inform the House that the UK has opted in to a proposal from the European Commission for a regulation protecting against the effects of the extra-territorial application of legislation adopted by a third country.
The proposed regulation consolidates existing EU legislation (regulation (EC) No. 2271/96 and its subsequent amendments); it does not contain any new and/or substantive material and does not change the existing measure in substance. It can therefore be supported.
Although the proposal does not cite a legal base in title V of Part 3 of the treaty on the functioning of the European Union, the Government consider that there are Justice and Home Affairs obligations in Articles 4 and 6 of the draft EU regulation. Article 4 prevents certain judgments from outside the EU being recognised and enforced within the EU. Article 6 provides that the Brussels I (recast) regulation applies to proceedings brought under that article to recover damages.
These JHA obligations triggered the UK’s opt-in. The Government communicated their decision to the president of the Council on 15 May.
Summer Finance Bill 2015
The summer Finance Bill 2015 will be published on 15 July. Explanatory notes on the Bill will be available in the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office and placed in the Libraries of both Houses on that day. Copies of the explanatory notes will be available on gov.uk.
Energy and Climate Change
My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Rory Stewart) and I attended the EU Environment Council in Luxembourg on 15 June. Dr Aileen McLeod, Scottish Minister for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform also attended.
Ministers held a policy debate on the national emissions ceilings directive. The UK expressed support for the Commission’s ambition to halve the number of premature deaths caused by air pollution. Other member states expressed similar support. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary, however, noted proposed 2030 targets needed to be realistic given uncertainty around some of the assumptions underpinning them. The UK supported the deletion of methane from the Council’s text. Regarding other pollutants, the UK was among other member states that raised concerns about specific targets including ammonia, nitrous oxides and particulate matter. Some suggested the 2030 targets should be indicative while most called for firm binding targets.
The Commission welcomed the broad support for the headline health improvement target and reiterated that it was open to addressing specific national concerns about the 2030 targets, but strongly opposed the suggestion for indicative targets. The Commission were hopeful that a first reading agreement would be possible.
Ministers expressed views on the road to the United Nations framework convention on climate change, 21st conference of the parties in Paris this year (UNFCCC CoP 21). The Commission and some member states raised the importance of further outreach to allies, the legal form, agreeing a five-year cycle of review of mitigation commitments and a long-term goal, developing a finance package and moving towards parity between mitigation and adaptation elements of the deal. I emphasised the importance of ensuring the EU had flexibility to negotiate on both adaptation and finance, and pursuit of a robust review process both to ensure the adequacy of the agreement and public confidence. All member states called for more parties to present their mitigation pledges, or intended nationally determined contributions (INDCs), as quickly as possible. Some member states indicated concern regarding specific dates or numbers within a long-term goal and that parity between mitigation and adaptation would create false expectations.
The presidency concluded that draft Council conclusions would be prepared shortly for adoption at the additional Environment Council on 18 September.
Under any other business the presidency and Commission noted the successful negotiation of a provisional agreement in the European Parliament on the EU emissions trading system (EU ETS) market stability reserve decision, a first step in putting the carbon market back on track. The Council noted information provided by the Commission on recent international meetings, on the European fund for strategic investments and by Portugal on the Lisbon charter on drinking water. Luxembourg as the in-coming presidency presented its priorities.
Over lunch, Ministers discussed further detail on the preparations for the Paris summit.
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
Agriculture and Fisheries Council
I represented the UK at The Eu Agriculture And Fisheries Council on 16 June in Luxembourg. Aileen McLeod MSP was also present.
Organic production and labelling of organic products
The Council discussed the presidency’s latest compromise text on the organic proposal with some member states continuing to call for further changes. On the issue of the presence of non-authorised substances on organic produce, Belgium and a few other member states argued for the ability to apply a strict decertification threshold to all produce. However, I supported the presidency’s text, with some minor modifications proposed by Germany, so that those member states that already use thresholds could continue to do so but for a limited time period. This means that the UK will not be bound by the need to apply a specific decertification threshold and by the end of 2020 this will be the approach that applies across the whole of the EU. Belgium, Bulgaria, Slovakia and the Czech Republic, all of whom agreed with the threshold, voted against the proposal. Denmark also voted against it as it disagreed with the move away from mandatory annual inspections to a risk-based approach. I, along with the remaining member states, voted in favour of the proposal which secured a general approach. Trilogues will begin after the summer, once the European Parliament reaches its first reading position.
The Commission introduced its policy statement on setting fishing opportunities in 2016, which was generally welcomed by all member states. Commissioner Vella emphasised the good progress made towards reaching the maximum sustainable yield (MSY) targets under the reformed common fisheries policy. I agreed that we should continue to build on this, aiming to reach MSY by 2016 wherever possible. However, exceptions may be necessary, including the need to minimise discards of by-catch. Some member states, particularly those fishing in the Mediterranean and Black sea, argued for a gradual transition to MSY, with a final deadline of 2020. I also stressed the importance of the demersal landing obligation, including the need to adjust catch limits for those species covered next year, and the need to progress multi-annual management plans for the North sea and western waters.
Any other business items
Country of Origin Labelling
The Commission presented its reports on possible mandatory country of origin labelling for a range of foods including dairy and certain meats. The Commission concluded that consumer interest was not strong enough to justify the likely extra costs. I, along with France, Italy and several other member states, stressed that the issue required further consideration, especially for milk and dairy products. Luxembourg, Poland and Ireland, however, stated that they were not in favour of further discussion as the Commission’s reports highlighted that the costs outweighed the benefits.
The presidency confirmed that a final position on the animal health regulation had been reached following trilogue discussions. I congratulated the presidency on reaching agreement on the proposal but explained that we had been unable to fully support it, specifically the areas where delegated acts will be used to define technical detail such as the list of diseases to which the regulation applies. This was an important point of principle because the list is a technical issue rather than a political one, which should be determined by member states experts.
Russian import restrictions on fishing sector
Estonia provided an update on the unjustified export ban on all fish products originating from Estonia and Latvia that was imposed by Russia on 4 June, following a recent Russian official audit on their control systems. It called on the Commission to raise the issue in meetings with Russia and also to change the rules to allow for increased carrying over of 2015 fisheries quotas into 2016 and urgent assistance under the European maritime and fisheries fund (EMFF). I, along with Finland, Poland, France and Lithuania, supported Estonia and Latvia, arguing that it was crucial to maintain unity in the face of unjustified trade restrictions from Russia, that current actions were clearly disproportionate and that we needed to stand up to such aggression. The Commission stated that it would endeavour to do all it could to ease the impacts of the ban, including supporting the sector from the EMFF and considering the option of carrying over 2015 fishing quotas into 2016 on the basis of scientific advice.
Outcome of the Visegrad meeting
Slovenia presented the outcome of a recent meeting of the Visegrad Agriculture Ministers and those Ministers from Bulgaria, Romania and Slovenia at which they discussed trading practices in the food supply chain, Forest Europe and CAP simplification. Several member states intervened to support the concerns about unfair trading practices in the food chain which the Commission stressed it was an issue it would look at further.
Extension of eligibility period of expenditure for 2007-13 Rural Development
The Commission confirmed that it would not be extending the eligibility for 2007-13 rural development expenditure for an additional six months, despite further calls from Romania and several other members states to do so. The Commission explained that it had not been possible due to a lack of legal provisions and limited financial and political flexibility.
Extension of eligibility period of expenditure under the European Fisheries Fund
Similarly to the item on rural development expenditure, the Commission also confirmed that it would not be extending the eligibility period for 2007-13 fisheries funding. Instead, it would look at existing flexibilities within the current legislation to assist member states.
International Year of Plant Health 2020
The presidency reported back from the food and agriculture organisation conference on 9 June, which had approved the initiative to declare 2020 the international year of plant health.
Work and Pensions
The Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council took place on 18 June 2015 in Luxembourg. Lord Freud, Minister for welfare reform, represented the UK.
There was a policy debate on the European semester 2015. As part of the discussion, the Council sought approval of draft Council recommendations on the national reform programmes 2015 to each member state; sought endorsement of the opinions of the Employment Committee (EMCO) and the Social Protection Committee (SPC) for the assessment of the 2015 country-specific. Most Ministers welcomed the streamlined process and outlined their acceptance for their respective CSRs and endorsed the EMCO report on employment performance monitor and benchmarks. Lord Freud highlighted the progress made domestically on issues such as childcare and skills.
The Council agreed a general approach on the proposals for a Council decision on guidelines for the employment policies of the member states.
The Council adopted draft Council conclusions on European Court of Auditors’ special report No. 3/2015 “EU Youth Guarantee: first steps taken, but implementation risk ahead”; and draft Council conclusions on “Equal income opportunities for women and men: Closing the gender gap on pensions”.
The Council received progress reports on the proposal for a directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on improving the gender balance among non-executive directors of companies listed on stock exchanges and related measures; and the proposal for a Council directive on implementing the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of religion or belief, disability, age or sexual orientation. On women on boards in particular, the Commission hoped for a general approach at the October EPSCO Council in order for the file to be adopted by the end of the year.
Under any other business, the Latvian presidency informed the Council on current legislative proposals, and outcomes of the conferences organised by the Latvian presidency. The Commission provided information on the national Roma integration strategy—annual implementation report; and the report on the functioning of the transitional arrangements on free movement of workers from Croatia and accompanying Commission staff working document. The Luxembourg delegation provided information on the work programme of the incoming presidency, stating that it intended to make progress on the platform on undeclared work and the anti-discrimination directive and wanted to focus on inclusive growth. It also wanted to explore the challenges arising from technological developments in the workplace and the skills needed for young people to successfully enter the labour market.