My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (James Plaskitt) has made the following Statement.
The Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council was held on 30 May in Brussels. My honourable friend Anne McGuire, Minister for Disabled People, represented the UK. Health and consumer affairs issues were taken on 31 May.
For the first item, the council endorsed a joint Social Protection Committee and Employment Committee opinion on active ageing. The Employment Committee chair said the aim was to give member states practical guidance reflecting the successful initiatives that were being taken across the EU to boost the employment rates of older people.
The council adopted a resolution on a new EU strategy on health and safety at work. The Commission said that the previous strategy had achieved an increase in productivity and a 17 per cent reduction in accidents in the EU15, but that the current levels of accidents and illness were still too high. The UK said that an important element of achieving a good health and safety record was ensuring that employers and workers were focused on the sensible, practical management of health and safety risks, rather than getting tied up in pointless bureaucracy, and welcomed the clear link between good health and safety management and the achievement of the Lisbon employment agenda.
The council agreed a partial general approach on two chapters of the implementing regulation for Regulation 883/04, providing for the co-ordination of social security systems, which included sickness and health care benefits and the provisions for reimbursing healthcare costs. It agreed an explanatory note, instigated by the UK, saying that final agreement on the border healthcare aspects could not be given until the Commission proposals on health services had been considered. The council also agreed a general approach on the 2006 package of miscellaneous amendments to the regulation.
On the portability of supplementary pensions directive, the Netherlands said that the Dutch Parliament had called for the directive to be re-examined, as it felt that the text no longer met its aim of increasing worker mobility due to the narrowing of its scope and the numerous exemptions. The presidency suggested that the Portuguese might take up the dossier, but the next step was the imminent first reading opinion of the European Parliament.
A lunchtime discussion was held on migration and access to the labour market. After a presentation by Commissioner Frattini on the Commission's recent proposals, a number of Ministers spoke about their own different national situations and problems. All agreed that these were major issues that the Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council should return to.
The council adopted conclusions on the importance of family-friendly policies, an Alliance for Families and on the Beijing indicators on education and training. The presidency's Alliance for Families initiative was broadly welcomed, though most, including the UK, said it should not duplicate existing processes.
The Social Protection Committee chair presented the outcomes of the social services of general interest consultation. The social partners wanted a legal framework, though there was broad recognition of the important role that the open method of co-ordination could also play, and the Commission said it would bring forward a communication in November.
Portugal outlined its priorities on employment and social policy for the forthcoming Portuguese presidency starting in July, which would be evaluating the European employment strategy in its 10th anniversary year, renewing the European social model with particular attention to pensions, poverty and social exclusion. It also intended to take stock of the progress made in combating discrimination. For the December council it stated that flexicurity would be a key issue.