The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Gordon Brown): On 6 December I chaired the Economic and Financial Affairs Council (ECOFIN) in Brussels. My right hon. Friend the Paymaster General represented the UK.
For the first time the Council agreed conclusions setting out the reforms necessary for Europe to respond successfully to the opportunities and challenges of globalisation. The Council also agreed conclusions on the implementation of the first Lisbon national reform programmes.
As part of its work in combating terrorist financing, the Council agreed a general approach, pending the European's Parliament opinion in first reading, on a draft regulation addressing payer information accompanying transfer of funds; and took note of progress in implementing the EU's action plan on combating terrorism.
The Secretary of State for Defence (John Reid): The United Kingdom keeps under constant review, in consultation with coalition partners, the troop numbers required to assist the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in Multi-National Division South-East.
We continue to work with the ISF, with training, mentoring and an equipment and infrastructure programme towards the conditions for formal transfer of security responsibilities. Until those conditions are achieved, it is important that we retain the operational flexibility to respond to any change in the security environment, and ensure that this important programme with the ISF is not disrupted.
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To ensure that this remains the case, the General Officer Commanding (SE) needs to retain forces to provide security along our principal lines of communication. At present the 1st Battalion, The Royal Irish Regiment provides the capability, and they will be replaced in January 2006 with the 1st Battalion, The Royal Scots Regiment (IRS).
The Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Ruth Kelly): In July 2005 I launched a consultation on the creation of a single inspectorate for children and learners. I am today publishing my conclusions in the light of the responses. I am grateful to everyone who responded to the consultation and I have taken careful consideration of the points made, developing my proposals significantly in the light of those comments.
I intend to proceed, as proposed in the consultation, to establish an enlarged Ofsted. This will be achieved by bringing together in Ofsted the children's social care remit of the Commission for Social Care Inspection (CSCI), the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service (CAFCASS) inspection remit of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Court Administration (HMICA) and the inspection remit of the Adult Learning Inspectorate (ALI). The enlarged organisation will have the formal title of the Office for Standards in Education, Children's Services and Skills.
ALI, CSCI and HMICA have played vital roles in driving up standards in their respective sectors. But I am convinced of the benefits to users and providers of services of an inspectorate that can look across a wide range of services as they affect children, young people, families and adult learners.
The enlarged Ofsted will be able to follow learning from early years through to adult and work-based settings. It will support the needs of employers and business whilst at the same time sustaining focused, high-quality inspections of standards in our schools and, building on existing activity, across wider services for children, including social care for vulnerable children and young people.
The changes also reflect the drive to integrate services around improving outcomes for the user, for example through the integration of local services for children as set out in the Green Paper, "Every Child Matters" and the bringing together of academic and vocational learning outlined in the 1419 White Paper. It is part of the wider reform of public service inspection to focus on needs of users, generate improvement in the services inspected, and help deliver better value for money.
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Inspection and regulation have been powerful levers for improvement in services for children and learners in recent years. As we move into the next stage of inspection reform it will be essential to build on the strengths of current arrangements and the expertise of existing inspectorates, but also to reflect current and planned changes in the pattern of services, new arrangements for performance management and accountability and our increasing knowledge about what makes for effective inspection and regulation.
The Minister for Schools (Jacqui Smith): I have today placed copies of the summary of the responses received to the consultation on the school admissions and school admission appeals codes of practice, and supporting regulations, in the Libraries of both Houses.
We consulted on the codes of practice with the intention of having new codes in place from January 2006 for effect from September 2007 admissions onward. The consultation ran from 26 July to 18 October 2005. There has been a wide range of views and some points on which we wish to reflect further, particularly on the respective roles of local authorities, schools, admission forums and the schools adjudicators. Therefore, we have decided not to lay the revised codes at this time. The existing codes of practice will remain in force. We will, however, take forward the regulations on subjects approved for new aptitude selection and giving priority to looked after children in admission arrangements. We remain fully committed to a system of fair admissions for all children.
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): I attended and chaired the second Environment Council under the UK Presidency in Brussels on 2 December. I was accompanied by the Minister for Climate Change and the Environment, Elliot Morley, in the UK seat.
Council adopted conclusions on the Climate Change Impact of Aviation, by consensus. The Conclusions support the aim of including aviation emissions in the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) and request that the Commission bring forward a legislative proposal before the end of 2006. The Conclusions also state that a comprehensive and consistent approach to tackling climate change is needed and that existing policies and actions should continue and be strengthened. This outcome is a major achievement and one of our key Presidency priorities on climate change. All Member States were ultimately able to agree on the conclusions, after various textual amendments were made to address specific points made by delegations, particularly in relation to the impact of the inclusion of aviation on industries already covered by the EU ETS and on islands and remote regions within the EU.
The Council reached partial political agreement on the Regulation on the Financial Instrument for the Environment (LIFE+), covering all aspects of the
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dossier except those relating directly to the overall budget, which are dependent on the wider future financing negotiations. The UK Presidency had done a great deal of preparatory work on this dossier at working level, in order to balance the needs of different Member States and to protect funding for biodiversity protection. The main issue outstanding at Council was the apportionment of funding between Member States, and between Member States and the Commission. After a lengthy discussion and a number of further changes to the Presidency's proposed text, the proportion of the budget to be delegated to Member States was increased from 75 per cent. to 80 per cent. to which the Commission agreed, subject to the ultimate size of the budget. The final stages of the negotiation concerned the weighting to be given to population density within the allocation formula, and in particular how to integrate Malta without unduly distorting the calculations. The Netherlands and Belgium were unable to support the partial political agreement following inclusion of this final adjustment, but with all other Member States and the Commission in support the Council was able to adopt the partial political agreement by QMV.
Council also adopted Conclusions in preparation for the International Conference on Chemicals Management to be held in Dubai in February 2006, and scheduled to adopt the Strategic Approach to International Chemicals Management (SAICM). The Conclusions confirm the EU's unanimous support for SAICM.
The Commission proposal to approve the placing on the market of a genetically modified maize product, MON 863 x MON 810 was unable to attract a qualified majority either for or against the proposal, and under the agreed procedure for such approvals now returns to the Commission for a final decision.
There was also an initial Council discussion on next steps on GMOs. A number of delegations were critical of the regulatory process in which the Commission, in the absence of a qualified majority in Council either for or against approval, is subsequently required to authorise GMO products for placing on the market. The Danes, supported by other delegations, called for a further debate which recognising the potential advantages of GMOs for the developing world. The Netherlands indicated that it was satisfied with the existing regulatory system.
Council also held the first debate on the Thematic Strategy on Air Pollution and the associated proposal for a new Directive on Ambient Air Quality, which made a valuable contribution to the UK Presidency Better Regulation priority. The Thematic Strategy was broadly welcomed by most Member States. A large majority called for detailed examination of the legislation under consideration by the Commission to deal with source-related pollution at Community level. This included a requirement for Impact Assessments to be carried out on all new proposals and for cost-benefit considerations to be taken into account during negotiations on any new legislation. The Netherlands, Germany and Belgium called for the quick adoption of the Euro 5 and NECD legislation. A number of Member
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States, including Cyprus and Spain, stressed that the varying geographical factors across the EU had a significant effect on compliance and this should be reflected in the proposed text. There was wide support for the flexibility of the Ambient Air Quality Directive and some discussion of future standards for fine particles, in particular support for these to be non-binding.
At lunch, I updated delegations on progress on REACH, and raised the importance of Ministers going to the Montreal Conference of the Parties to the UN Climate Change Convention with sufficient pledges to support the Kyoto mechanisms. Ministers also discussed the forthcoming meetings of the UNEP Governing Council and the Commission on Sustainable Development. We heard a presentation from Professor Jacqueline McGlade of the European Environment Agency on its recently published State and Outlook for the Environment Report 2005. The general reaction was that the report was very useful and demonstrated the benefits of action at EU level in delivering better environmental performance.
AOB items included information from the Commission on its plans to publish its long-awaited Biodiversity Strategy and from the Presidency on the Nanotechnology Action Plan and on Green Public Procurement. Sweden called for urgent action on the Baltic marine environment, following an informal Ministerial Meeting on 23 November. Belgium raised the subject of the importation of wild birds into the EU and urged the Council to agree to discuss and adopt tough restrictions, were supported by Hungary, Portugal, Germany, Spain and Poland. The Commission agreed to a Presidency request to undertake an option study on the issues involved. Finally, the Dutch made a statement about progress on their Clean, Clever and Competitive initiative.
In conclusion I thanked the Ministers present, the Commission and the Council Secretariat for their constructive approach and support, noting the substantial successes on the environment achieved during the UK Presidency. I passed the traditional green baton to my successor as President for the first half of 2006, the Austrian Minister Josef Proll.
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