Friday 18 November 2016
Equitable Life Payment Scheme
The Equitable Life Payment Scheme (“the scheme”) started to make payments in 2011 and was due to close in 2014. The then Chancellor extended the scheme in 2014 to maximise the number of payments that could be made. He subsequently announced in the summer Budget 2015 that the scheme would close to new claims on 31 December 2015. From the beginning of 2016, the scheme began the process of winding down and completing all remaining claims. As the majority of these claims have now been paid, the scheme has today published its final progress report, which can be found at: www.gov.uk/equitable-life-payment-scheme.
The report gives an outline of the history of the scheme, details the significant efforts that have been made to trace and pay as many policyholders as possible, and provides a distributional analysis of the payments that the scheme has made over its four years of operation.
The report gives the final figures compiled by the scheme, which show that, as at 31 August 2016, the scheme has issued payments of over £1.12 billion to 932,805 policy-holders. This means the scheme has now issued payments to 90% of eligible policyholders. All the payments issued by the scheme have been free of tax.
It should be noted that the closure of the scheme to new claims will not affect the yearly payments made by the scheme to with-profits annuitants, which will continue for the duration of those annuities. The scheme has written individually to all with-profits annuitants to make them aware of this.
In the summer Budget 2015, the then Chancellor also announced that, as part of scheme closure, payments to non-with profit annuitant policyholders who were in receipt of pension credit would be doubled in early 2016. In fact the scheme succeeded in making the majority of these additional tax-free payments in December 2015, and all were completed by March 2016, providing additional help to this vulnerable group of policyholders.
UK Operations in Afghanistan: Reserves Call-Out Order
With the expiry of the call-out order made on 1 November 2015, a new order has been made under section 56(1B) of the Reserve Forces Act 1996 to enable reservists to be called into permanent service in support of United Kingdom operations in Afghanistan.
Under the call-out order made on 1 November 2015, 146 reservists have been called out for operations. We anticipate a continued requirement for reservists, with the right skills and experience, over the period the new order will be in force. This is fully in line with our policy of having more capable, usable, integrated and relevant reserve forces.
The order took effect from the beginning of 9 November 2016 and ceases to have effect at the end of 8 November 2017.
 Call-out order authorising the call out of reserve forces for operations in Afghanistan, signed 1 November 2015.
Exiting the European Union
General Affairs Council
I attended the General Affairs Council on 15 November. The meeting was chaired by the Slovak presidency and held in Brussels.
The General Affairs Council discussed: the mid-term review of the multiannual financial framework; rule of law; legislative programming—the Commission Work programme 2017 and joint declaration; follow up of the October European Council; preparation of the December European Council on 15/16 December and the European semester.
A provisional report of the meeting and the conclusions adopted can be found at: http://www.consilium.europa.eu/ en/meetings/gac/2016/11/15-16.
Multiannual financial framework
The presidency presented its proposed compromise text for the mid-term review of the multiannual financial framework. The presidency’s proposal allowed for some additional budget flexibility over the remaining years of the seven-year period, while respecting the principles of the original 2013 deal. Most member states agreed with the proposal and it was agreed that it would be used as the basis for a Council common position for discussions with the European Parliament. However, Italy expressed concerns on the level of support for migration and youth employment and placed a reserve on the agreement. The UK abstained.
Rule of law
This was the first evaluation of the rule of law at the General Affairs Council. The presidency presented conclusions which called for a more structured preparation of the discussions and more focused topics to ensure a coherent exchange of views. Most member states agreed with these conclusions. The presidency also suggested a further review in 2019 to consider turning the rule of law dialogue into an annual peer review process—this proposal divided member states and will require further discussion.
Legislative programming—Commission Work programme and joint declaration
First Vice-President of the Commission Frans Timmermans presented the Commission Work programme for 2017. A joint declaration of the EU institutions will outline the priorities and objectives for the year ahead for the EU based on the Commission Work programme. Themes for the joint declaration would be: jobs and growth, migration, energy and the digital single market. The presidency will now discuss the draft joint declaration with the Commission and European Parliament.
Follow-up to the European Council of 20 and 21 October 2016
The presidency said it would aim to make progress on migration and trade between now and the December European Council. The presidency stated they had been working to advance visa liberalisation (Georgia, Ukraine, Kosovo and Turkey), with a trilogue taking place on 16 November.
Preparation of the European Council of 15 and 16 December 2016
The draft agenda for the December European Council is migration, security, economic and social development and external relations. The Commission highlighted that they would like the agenda to cover external migration, with progress on reform of the common European asylum system, as well as strengthening external co-operation on security and defence.
European semester 2017
The European semester 2017 road map was presented and the annual growth survey was published on 16 November.
Italy presented its plans to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome in March 2017.
Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Foreign Affairs Council and Foreign Affairs Council (Defence)
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs attended the Foreign Affairs Council on 14 November. He and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence attended the joint session of the Foreign Affairs Council and Foreign Affairs Council (Defence) on 14 November. The UK Ambassador to the EU Political and Security Committee (PSC), Angus Lapsley represented my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence at the Foreign Affairs Council (Defence) on 15 November. The Foreign Affairs Council and Foreign Affairs Council (Defence) were chaired by the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini. The meetings were held in Brussels.
Foreign Affairs Council
A provisional report of the meeting and conclusions adopted can be found at:
The Council discussed Turkey in the light of recent developments in the country. The Council recalled the declaration by the High Representative on behalf of the EU of 8 November and agreed on the need to keep communications open with Turkey. No conclusions were adopted.
Ministers exchanged views on recent developments in the six Eastern Partnership States (Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, the Republic of Moldova, and Ukraine) and looked forward to the next EU-Eastern Partnership summit, to be held in November 2017 in Brussels. Conclusions were agreed. At the end of the discussion the Foreign Secretary debriefed Ministers on his recent visit to the Western Balkans noting that the EU and member states needed to be more visible and engaged in the region.
Ministers discussed the southern neighbourhood over lunch, focusing on Syria. Ms Mogherini informed the Council of her recent outreach efforts with key actors in the region, in line with the European Council mandate and in full support of the efforts of the UN Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura. The Council expressed its concern over the escalation of tensions in the region, and called for an end to the violence in Syria and support for the resumption of a political process. A further 18 Syria sanctions designations were agreed as a procedural point by the Council, bring the total to 28 since the October Foreign Affairs Council.
Foreign Ministers discussed Libya, and considered how to support the Government of National Accord and implementation of the Libyan political agreement. Ministers underlined that building a safe, secure and prosperous Libya that is able to tackle with confidence the challenges in the region is in our collective interest.
Security and Defence Implementation Plan (SDIP)
Member states agreed conclusions on the security and defence implementation plan (SDIP), which will increase the effectiveness of common security and defence policy. The Foreign and Defence Secretaries restated the UK’s guiding principle that nothing should undermine NATO as the cornerstone of European defence, and this was reflected in the conclusions. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg joined the EU Ministers for a discussion on EU-NATO co-operation, which the conclusions will help strengthen. The Foreign Affairs Council (Defence) also agreed on the need to keep the European defence industry open and competitive.
Ministers agreed without discussion a number of measures:
Council conclusions on Iran.
Council conclusions on security sector reform (SSR).
Council conclusions on the upcoming fifth review conference of the convention on prohibitions on restrictions on the use of certain conventional weapons which may be deemed to be excessively injurious or to a have indiscriminate effects (CCW).
The Council authorised the European Commission and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy to open negotiations on a comprehensive agreement between the European Union and Azerbaijan.
The Council agreed in principle on the enhanced partnership and co-operation agreement between the EU and Kazakhstan and requested the consent of the European Parliament.
Foreign Affairs Council (Defence)
Commissioner Bienkowska spoke about the European defence action plan (EDAP), which is due to be adopted by the College of Commissioners at the end of the month. The EDAP will focus on: funding defence research; fostering support for defence supply chains; joint financing of defence capabilities; and an internal market with a defence industry that is fit for purpose.
Member states agreed an increase to the European Defence Agency (EDA)’s budget in line with inflation, the first increase in six years. The UK agreed to maintain the level of the EDA budget in real terms because the EDA had made some progress on reform and performance, and, importantly, in recognition of the EDA’s future role in taking forward SDIP and EDAP issues that could benefit UK security and UK industry.