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EU Presidency: Transport Council

The Secretary of State for Transport (Mr. Alistair Darling): The second Transport Council of the UK presidency takes place in Brussels on 5 December. I will again be in the chair, with the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Dr. Ladyman) in the UK national seat.

There is a fuller agenda than in October, which will include maritime items. The main items on the agenda include: a progress report from the Commission on the recent negotiations between the European Union and USA on a comprehensive liberalised aviation agreement; revision of the directive on driving licences; and three dossiers from the third rail package.

The latest round of EU-US negotiations for an air transport agreement took place in Washington from 14 to 18 November. There will be an exchange of views following the Commissioner's report, and my summing-up will be reflected in presidency conclusions. Progress was made during the talks with the USA, but will await the outcome of a US rule-making process on ownership and control of airlines, expected sometime in the first half of 2006, before evaluating the Stage One deal on the table.

The Council will consider a draft decision authorising the Commission to open negotiations on a comprehensive aviation agreement with China. The draft mandate sets out negotiating objectives for the first
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phase, primarily promoting "regulatory convergence" in competition and other fields. Negotiation of market access rights would in the main be left for later phases.

In regard to aviation security, I will present a report on progress in working group negotiations on a regulation to replace the existing regulation 2320/02. The existing regulation has proved open to divergent interpretations, has no security classification, and is subject to the full co-decision procedure with the European Parliament. This has meant that implementation across the 25 Member States has been uneven, that sensitive details of security measures are in the public domain, and that the regulation is difficult to amend quickly in response to rapidly evolving security circumstance. The new proposal would help to clarify, simplify, and further harmonise the legal requirements with the aim of enhancing the overall security in civil aviation.

Turning to land transport, we will table the draft recast directive on driving licences, with a view to political agreement. This is a compromise text that reflects the opinion of the European Parliament at its first reading and builds on the common position reached at the October 2004 Transport Council. Certain Member States have political difficulty with some of its provisions because of domestic concerns, which makes the outcome uncertain.

Three elements of the third rail package are on the agenda.

We will give Council the chance to achieve a political agreement on the liberalisation of international rail passenger services directive to amend Council Directive 91/440/EEC on the development of the Community s railways. This follows the useful exchange of views at the October Council. The proposed directive creates a presumption of open access and will extend liberalisation of the international passenger rail market to any licensed train operating company. This is currently only available to international groupings. The directive will also add the right of cabotage (carrying passengers between stations in the same country) on international services. The increased open access is, though, qualified. Member States may restrict access in particular markets which are already served by services which are the subject of a public service contract if the State's regulatory body confirms that this is strictly necessary to maintain the economic equilibrium of the public service contract. The proposal would have no significant effect on the competitive environment for Eurostar or domestic train operating companies in Great Britain. This directive is supported by a significant number of Member States, although there are some reservations which may mean an agreement is not possible.

Linked to the rail liberalisation directive is the draft Public Service Obligation (PSO) regulation for public passenger transport services by rail and by road. The Council will hear a progress report, in so far as discussions on the rail liberalisation directive have touched on the content of this proposed regulation. The draft regulation sets out to ensure harmonised rules for granting of contracts to passenger transport operators, including rail operators, to provide public services.
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The second element of the third rail package in which the Council will have the chance to reach a political agreement is the draft regulation on International Rail Passengers' Rights and Obligations. The regulation provides enhanced rights for passengers making international rail journeys, building on the existing provisions in the COTEF international rail convention. The enhanced rights concern, in particular, the provision of information and tickets, compensation and assistance in the event of delay to international services, and assistance for persons of reduced mobility.

The third dossier of the third rail package is the Certification of train crews operating locomotives and trains on the Community's rail network directive. This returns to the Council for political agreement, following the European Parliament's (EP) First Reading on 28 September and the general approach which was reached at the December 2004 Transport Council. The directive proposed for agreement is not materially changed from the general approach text. It includes a provision to allow Member States to exclude from the directive's applications—for a (renewable) period of up to 10 years—train drivers who exclusively operate on the territory of that Member State if it can be demonstrated that application of the directive's provisions would not be economically worthwhile.

The maritime part of the agenda has one substantive item—Maritime Employment. The Council will be asked to agree Council Conclusions, which we have promoted, under the heading "Boosting employment prospects in the Community maritime sector and attracting young people to the seafaring profession". This will fulfil the UK promise to undertake this issue which was initiated during the Greek Presidency in 2003. This voluntary agreement, an example of better regulation, will help to build up a skills base of qualified and experienced people for the future of the shipping industry. Encouraging recruitment, especially among young people, is a vital part of that process.

The Commission will report on the current situation in the Galileo satellite navigation project. The Commission hopes to present a possible resolution for the recent delays to the project. As presidency, we will continue to stress that a continuing delay would increase the costs and risks of the proposed PPP concession for the deployment phase. We. will also recall Council's previous statements on sound financial management of the project, and the need for a robust deal which benefits the Community as a whole.

The most significant of the Any Other Business items are:

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Office for Disability Issues

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mrs. Anne McGuire): I am pleased to inform Members today of the launch of a new unit, the Office for Disability Issues (ODI), which fulfils a key recommendation of the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit report, "Improving the Life Chances of Disabled People", published in January of this year.

The Office for Disability Issues will lead cross-government work to drive forward the report's vision of substantive equality for disabled people by 2025.

Despite great advances in civil rights and services since 1997, outcomes for disabled people have remained disappointing in a range of areas including employment, income, and education. Therefore it is vital that steps are taken now to minimise the barriers presently preventing an individual's full participation in their community and the economy. All Departments committed to the 20-year agenda set out in the Life Chances report, which will be progressed through the new Office for Disability Issues.

The ODI will provide leadership as the focal point within for key partners working to promote improved outcomes for disabled individuals throughout their lives. As a cross-government unit, it will both influence and challenge from within, foster policy and programme coherence and integration across Departments. Working with key Government Departments, the ODI will ensure prompt implementation of the Life Chances set of recommendations for achieving full substantive equality for disabled people by 2025 as well as developing a broader and more inclusive strategy.

The ODI will become an exemplar in equal opportunities, a model public sector organisation in internal practices, external relations and activities. It will ensure that the views and aspirations of disabled people are at the centre of policymaking, by reaching out to organisations and individuals at every step, and bringing external expertise into the ODI itself. We will, for example, be advertising externally for a senior ODI
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post in the New Year. It will change the way Government communicate with disabled people and organisations, embedding stakeholder engagement in its day-to-day work. Using these networks, and analytical resources, the ODI will become a source of information and expertise on disability and support to Government Departments, and work to influence public perception and build awareness of disability issues.

A core team is already in place taking this work forward, and is engaging with a wide range of individuals and organisations, and sought views specifically on the ODI earlier this year. Feedback from this exercise informed our thinking on the role and remit of the Office, and is available on the ODI website, which is also being launched today.

While individual departments retain responsibility for delivery and outcomes, the ODI will take forward some specific recommendations from the Life Chances report. This includes facilitating the cross-departmental Ministerial and supporting Officials steering Groups (these groups were established at the beginning of this year). I am very grateful to my Ministerial colleagues for their valuable work so far on the Ministerial steering group.

The ODI will also collate and edit an annual report on progress towards the vision for substantive equality for disabled people by 2025; and will develop a set of outcome-based measures to track this progress. An independent advisory group is currently being appointed to scope out the role and remit of a National Forum for Organisations of Disabled People. The ODI will also be setting up a Task Force on Independent Living.

In addition to fulfilling recommendations in the Life Chances report, the ODI will take a broader view of disability, encompassing areas not covered in the Life Chances report. This will include supporting other Government Departments in the effective implementation of the 2005 Disability Discrimination Act's public sector duty to promote equality for disabled people. As well as being a collective resource for, the ODI will also specifically support the Minister with responsibility for disabled people.