Tuesday 6 December 2016
Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
The Competitiveness Council met recently in Brussels. Baroness Neville-Rolfe represented the UK at the Council on 28 November (internal market) and I represented the UK on 29 November (research).
The Council on day one had a full agenda with key decisions concluded on geo-blocking, the single market strategy and the unified patent court.
The internal market day of the Council began with the approval of legislative and non-legislative A items. On the approval of the EU annual budget the UK abstained.
The first agenda item was a discussion on geo-blocking introduced by Commission Vice-President Andrus Ansip. Following a discussion, member states, including the UK, accepted the text of the proposed regulation and the Council agreed a general approach.
The next item was a debate on the single market strategy and start-up initiative introduced by the Commissioner for Internal Market, Industry, Entrepreneurship and SMEs Elzbiet Bienkowska. The UK intervened to strongly support the single market strategy and welcomed, alongside a number of member states, an Irish-sponsored like-minded letter calling for greater ambition on services—which we had also signed. A number of member states welcomed the Commission’s work on start-up and scale-up, highlighting in particular problems around access to finance.
In a change to the order of proceedings the Council then took two further items before lunch. Firstly, Commissioner Bienkowska presented the annual report on the work of the SME envoy network. She reported the work had been particularly useful in preparing for the Commission’s start-up and scale-up initiative published the previous week. The Council took note of the report.
The presidency then highlighted the outcome of a conference on the collaborative economy following the debate on the collaborative economy at the previous Competitiveness Council in September. Commissioner Bienkowska said the Commission was now considering various issues where national law might conflict with its recent guidance and might issue a series of pilot letters in the near future.
Over lunch, Ministers were joined by the President of the European Automobile Manufacturers’ Association (ACEA), Dieter Zetsche. Commissioners Bienkowska and Oettinger led a wide-ranging discussion on the future of the automotive industry. The UK highlighted the work being undertaken in the UK by the centre for connected and autonomous vehicles, and outlined the planned investment of £100 million which was announced by the Chancellor in the autumn statement.
The next agenda item concerned a discussion of the significance of industrial policy in the Commission’s work programme in 2017. Several member states called on the Commission to demonstrate support for European industry by producing a communication on an EU industrial strategy in 2017. The UK highlighted the importance of delivering the actions in the single market and digital single market strategies, and set out the approach being taken to deliver the UK’s own industrial strategy.
The Commission then introduced CPST check-up on skills. Member states largely agreed with the Commission on the challenges, in particular on digital skills.
The next item was a discussion on the unitary patent and unified patent court (UPC). The UK confirmed its intent to proceed with ratification, and anticipated this being completed according to the existing preparatory timetable. The UK was clear that this decision did not pre-empt our objectives in the forthcoming negotiations and is without prejudice to the UKs future position on the jurisdiction of the CJEU once we have left the EU. This news was welcomed by Commissioner Bienkowska and several member states, who all emphasised the importance of having the UK in the UPC and bringing the court into force as soon as possible in the first half of 2017.
The presidency then presented the state of play of the proposal to improve the type approval and market surveillance of motor vehicles. Commissioner Bienkowska said that further progress had not been made, despite the political commitments following the controversies around Volkswagen last year. The UK intervened to support the Commission and to push for a greater level of ambition from the Council.
The next item was a discussion on proposed regulation of consumer protection laws. The presidency highlighted the substantial work that had been undertaken on this file, and reiterated its aim to reach a negotiating mandate as soon as possible. The Commissioner for Justice Consumers and Gender equality Vera Jourová supported the presidency in seeking to reach a mandate. The UK intervened to stress that this was an important and complex file which needed to return to Competitiveness Council under the Maltese presidency for a political discussion.
The next item was a presentation of the Commission’s notice on the biotechnological directive introduced by Commissioner Bienkowska. The notice aimed to clarify the relationship between patents and plant breeders’ rights. The UK did not intervene.
Commissioner Oettinger opened a discussion of the Commission’s proposals for reforming EU copyright laws. The Commissioner explained the need to provide a modernised copyright framework for the digital age, reflecting the changes to storage, distribution and consumption of content in recent years. The UK welcomes efforts to modernise the EU copyright framework and is consulting with interested stakeholders.
The Hungarian delegation then presented information on the competitiveness aspects of the European pillar of social rights. The Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility Marianne Thyssen noted that balanced economic growth was necessary for social progress. Some member states intervened to emphasise that the pillar should not be legally binding on member states.
The Council concluded with a presentation by the Maltese on priorities for their upcoming presidency. In relation to the Competitiveness Council, these priorities primarily concern the deepening of the single market and making progress on the digital single market.
Day two began with a debate on the Commission’s recently published space strategy for Europe. The Commission is aiming for this to be broad and inclusive, reaffirming Europe’s place as a global space power. All member states welcomed the EU’s strategy. It is a good fit to UK priorities for growing the space sector.
A number of space issues where raised in the discussion. The Arianne 6 programme was highlighted as important, with some member states reminding the Commission of the need for cost-effectiveness to avoid unreasonable cost increases. It was felt important that the EU-ESA relationship takes advantage of their respective competences. There was also a call to assist those member states who currently have limited engagement with the sector.
The UK intervened to welcome the space strategy, recognising that EU systems could be used for defence and security objectives, but they had to remain civil systems under civilian control. The UK also highlighted the opportunities to our commercial sectors, and that space weather and the security of space systems were risk areas that needed to be properly understood.
Council conclusions on early-stage researchers were adopted without amendment.
The last substantive agenda item was the Commission’s report on the implementation of the strategy for international co-operation in research and innovation. The discussion highlighted examples of the benefits of international co-operation. The UK stressed three key points—the need for EU research funding to remain focused on excellence and open to the world; that the UK would continue to collaborate with the Commission on science diplomacy in countries where relations were strained; and third, called for the Commission to ensure that the rules were updated to address problems which had led to a reduction in third country participation—eg liability clauses. This message was echoed by several member states.
A number of member states were supportive of PRIMA, a €400 million programme that seeks to promote food security and water supply in the Mediterranean and is a priority for the incoming Maltese presidency. Bonus 2, a programme on marine research, was also raised as a positive example of potential multilateral collaboration over shared challenges.
For AOB items, the Commission discussed the launch of an open science policy platform, which will look at best practice, develop EU-wide guidelines for open science delivery and promote open science. This work may inform how the “open science” agenda is implemented in the FP9 programme—The successor to Horizon 2020. Many member states were supportive.
Next, the Commission gave an overview of their proposed €1 billion funding programme for quantum technologies. This was followed by an announcement that the “Accelerating Clean Energy” communication will be published on 1 December.
The presidency then gave a read out from a conference focused on the European bio-economy that took place in October in Bratislava.
Finally, the Commission welcomed the Portuguese delegation’s presentation on developing an infrastructure to promote north-south Atlantic research collaboration.
The meeting concluded with a presentation from the upcoming Maltese presidency on its priorities in research—including the PRIMA initiative.
ECOFIN: 6 December 2016
A meeting of the Economic and Financial Affairs Council (ECOFIN) will be held in Brussels on 6 December 2016. EU Finance Ministers will discuss the following items:
Early morning session
Ministers will be briefed on the outcomes of the 5 December meeting of the Eurogroup and the Commission will present an update on the current economic situation.
Investment plan for Europe
Ministers will discuss proposals for the investment plan for Europe and be asked to reach a general approach on the Commission’s proposal to amend the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI) legislation as part of the planned extension beyond its original 2015-18 lifetime. Ministers will also discuss draft Council conclusions on measures to tackle bottlenecks to investment identified under the third pillar of the investment plan for Europe.
Anti-tax avoidance directive 2
Ministers will be asked to agree a general approach to the EU Commission’s proposals on the anti-tax avoidance directive (ATAD2).
Enhanced co-operation in the area of financial transaction tax
Ministers will receive an update on the proposal for a council directive implementing enhanced co-operation in the area of financial transaction tax.
Banking union: risk reduction measures
The Council presidency will present its new proposals, published on November 23, to revise the capital and resolution frameworks for banks and large investment firms, which will be followed by an exchange of views.
Anti-money laundering directive
The Council presidency will provide an update on the discussions for proposal for a directive on the prevention of the use of the financial system for the purposes of money laundering or terrorist financing.
Current financial service legislative proposals
The Council presidency will provide an update on current legislative proposals in the field of financial services.
VAT digital package
The Commission will present on the digital single market VAT package.
Deepening the economic and monetary union: follow-up on the 5 Presidents’ report
The Commission will provide information on the 5 Presidents’ report.
Improving the predictability and transparency of the stability and growth pact
Minister will endorse draft Council conclusions on improving the predictability and transparency of the stability and growth pact.
Report on strategic issues in the area of customs by the high level group of customs directors general
Ministers will be informed about the outcome of the pilot meeting of the high level group of directors general for customs policy, taxation and customs co-operation on 25 October 2016.
European semester 2017
The Commission will present to Ministers on the publication of the 2017 annual growth survey (AGS) and alert mechanism report (AMR), followed by an exchange of views.
Implementation of the banking union
Ministers discussed the current state of play regarding implementation of banking union within the eurozone.
Fight against the financing of terrorism
The Commission will give a presentation on the fight against the financing of terrorism.
Capital markets union
The Commission will provide information on the capital markets union.
Chemical Weapons Convention: Protective Programme
My right hon. Friend the Minister of State in the House of Lords (Earl Howe) has made the following written statement:
The UK’s chemical protection programme is designed to protect against the use of chemical weapons. Such a programme is permitted by the chemical weapons convention, with which the United Kingdom is fully compliant. Under the terms of the convention, we are required to provide information annually to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons. In accordance with the Government’s commitment to openness, a copy of the summary that has been provided to the organisation outlining the UK’s chemical protection programme in 2015 has been placed in the Library of the House.
Security Situation: Northern Ireland
This is the 10th statement on the security situation in Northern Ireland and my first statement to Parliament as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. It covers the threat from Northern Ireland-related terrorism, rather than from international terrorism, which Members will be aware is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department, who updates the House separately.
In the six months since my predecessor’s last statement, the same small number of dissident republican terrorist groupings have continued their campaign of violence. Their support remains limited, despite their attempts to seek legitimacy in a wider society which continues to reject their use of violence. Dissident republican terrorists reject the peace process and the progress and benefits which it has brought to Northern Ireland.
The terrorist threat level in Northern Ireland from Northern Ireland-related terrorism remains unchanged at severe (an attack is highly likely). Most people are not affected by this threat, but where terrorism, paramilitary-style attacks and community attacks endure, so too will our efforts to tackle them. There will be no let-up in our efforts to ensure that terrorism never succeeds.
In Northern Ireland, these terrorists have targeted the brave people who serve the community day in, day out, including the police, prison officers and the military. Dissident republicans are relatively small, disparate and factional groupings, but they are also determined and have lethal intent. The last statement to this House highlighted the tragic death of prison officer Adrian Ismay, who was attacked and killed by dissident republicans. These attacks often also have potential to injure members of the public who live and work alongside the intended victims. There have been three further attempted attacks on security personnel since then in which, thankfully, no one was seriously injured.
Our strategic response
PSNI and MI5 are unstinting in their work to counter the threat of violence. Numerous dissident republican attacks have been prevented, often through vital support provided by members of the community. Since my predecessor last reported, PSNI has recovered a large amount of terrorist matériel in Northern Ireland including firearms, high explosives, chemicals and a range of improvised explosive devices. Continued close working with security partners in Ireland has resulted in further significant disruptions and I pay tribute to An Garda Síochána who have diligently pursued terrorists in Ireland with impressive effect. We are all safer for their efforts and because of the strong cross-border working relationship that exists on all security matters.
Similar joint working between PSNI and police in Great Britain led to the arrest and charge of an individual, living in Great Britain, with offences connected to dissident republican terrorism. This enabled the recovery of a significant amount of terrorist matériel in England linked to Northern Ireland-related terrorism. Legal proceedings are now under way. So far in Northern Ireland this year, there have been 103 arrests, 17 individuals charged under the Terrorism Act and five recent convictions linked to terrorist activity. There have been four national security attacks in comparison to 16 attacks in 2015 and 40 in 2010. Although there has been a reduction in the overall number of national security incidents so far this year, terrorist attack planning continues with lethal intent and capability as the murder of Adrian Ismay underlines. Vigilance in the face of this continuing threat remains essential.
This Government’s commitment to tackling Northern Ireland-related terrorism remains a high priority. This is supported through the provision of £160 million in this Parliament, of additional security funding to the Police Service of Northern Ireland to tackle the severe and enduring threat. On top of this, cross-Government spending on counter-terrorism will increase by 30% in real terms over this Parliament.
Great Britain threat level
The threat level to Great Britain from Northern Ireland-related terrorism was raised in May to substantial (an attack is a strong possibility). Although dissident republicans are overwhelmingly focused on carrying out attacks in Northern Ireland, there remains a need to be alert, aware and vigilant.
Paramilitary activity continues to undermine communities in Northern Ireland. Both republican and loyalist paramilitary organisations carry out violent criminal attacks against people in their own communities. So far this year there have been six paramilitary-related deaths, 17 casualties of paramilitary-style shootings and 57 casualties of paramilitary-style assaults. These acts are cowardly, unjustified and damage communities. It is this Government’s clear view that paramilitary activity was never justified in the past and cannot be justified today.
Tackling paramilitary activity
This Government are strongly supporting efforts to tackle paramilitarism and organised crime in Northern Ireland. PSNI invests significant resources into both the prevention and investigation of paramilitary activity and we have pledged £25 million of funding through the Fresh Start agreement to help ensure that the relevant agencies are appropriately resourced to fulfil that commitment. Tackling paramilitary activity is an important step in terms of delivering Fresh Start agreement commitments and provides an opportunity to make a real difference to people’s lives.
The Northern Ireland Executive published an action plan on tackling paramilitary activity, criminality and organised crime in July 2016. This follows the paramilitary panel’s recommendations which provide for a strategic approach to the disbandment of paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland, including improving criminal justice outcomes in terrorist cases. The Government are working closely with the Northern Ireland Executive to promote progress towards ending paramilitary activity through a range of measures and securing faster and more effective outcomes in terrorism cases.
A joint agency taskforce, established under the Fresh Start agreement to enhance law enforcement co-operation, aimed at tackling organised crime and criminality including that linked to paramilitarism, brings together the expertise of law enforcement agencies involved in tackling organised crime gangs who seek to exploit the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. UK and Irish Governments’ Ministers have recently held positive talks to discuss co-operation between the An Garda Síochána and the PSNI in relation to the progress made by the joint agency taskforce.
The Independent Reporting Commission will be charged with reporting on progress towards ending paramilitary activity, including on implementation of measures taken by the UK Government, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government. The treaty between the UK Government and the Irish Government, formally establishing the IRC, was signed on 13 September 2016. We aim to have the IRC established by early 2017.
The severe level of threat from violent dissident republicans remains. Good progress has been made but there are still those who wish to attack police, prison and military officers, and some of Northern Ireland’s communities live under the constant threat of paramilitarism. Through the excellent work of PSNI, MI5 and security partners including An Garda Síochána, we will continue to bring those who would damage our society to justice, and protect our infrastructure and people from harm. I would like to thank them for their service to the people of Northern Ireland. There never has been, and there never will be any place for terrorism or paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland. We must all play our part in ensuring that Northern Ireland continues to flourish, free of any such pernicious activity.
Britain’s railways are crucial to our economic future, and we have seen significant growth in passenger numbers in the 20 years since privatisation. This growth brings challenges, and the impact of disruption can be immediate, significant and wide-ranging.
Our railways need to adapt and change in order to be able to cope with the growth that they have already experienced, and that which lies ahead. We are spending huge amounts trying to tackle the challenge—with new and longer trains and more capacity being introduced across the country. The Shaw report made a series of recommendations for change, including that Network Rail devolve responsibility to the route level. I support the principles of the Shaw report, and I support Network Rail’s reform programme, but there is much more to do.
I intend to press ahead with a recommendation put to the Department five years ago by Sir Roy McNulty, when he reported to Philip Hammond on how to make the railways run better and more cost-effectively. I will do this initially at an operational level. In order for all those involved to be incentivised to deliver the best possible service for the passenger, I expect the new franchises—starting with South Eastern and East Midlands—to have integrated operating teams between train services and infrastructure. I will also be inviting Transport for London (TfL) to be more closely involved in developing the next South Eastern franchise, through seconding a TfL representative to the franchise specification team.
We will continue to develop the model for greater alignment of track and train as further franchises are renewed—including the option of joint ventures. In the meantime, my Department is also publishing an update to the rail franchising schedule which I am placing in the Libraries of both Houses.
I also want to bring new skills into the challenge of upgrading our railways. I will begin by looking at the reopening of the link from Oxford to Cambridge, to support a range of opportunities including housing, science, technology and innovation. I am going to establish East West Rail as a new and separate organisation, to accelerate the permissions needed to reopen the route, and to secure private sector involvement to design, build and operate the route as an integrated organisation. This East West Rail organisation will be established early in the new year and chaired by the former Chief Executive of Chiltern Rail, Rob Brighouse.
Along with reform of the investment planning process to take better account of the needs of passengers and freight shippers, and extensive work across the industry to improve skills and diversity, these reforms will set the railway on a firmer footing for the future. We can and we will make sure our rail network plays its part in making this a country that works for everyone. I will bring forward a new strategy for rail in due course which will provide greater detail on our plans.