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Written Ministerial Statements

Friday 3 March 2006


Education Maintenance Allowance

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Skills (Maria Eagle): I am pleased to announce an increase to the household income thresholds that are used to determine eligibility for receipt of the Education Maintenance Allowance (EMA). The upper household income threshold will increase to £30,810 (for applications using the 2005–06 tax year). These increases are in line with the Retail Prices Index, following the approach used for uprating other benefits.

The Learning and Skills Council has operational responsibility for EMA and is in the process of communicating the increase to partners, stakeholders and young people.


Asylum Seekers (Fingerprint Comparisons)

The Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality (Mr. Tony McNulty): I have reviewed the Race Relations (Immigration and Asylum) (Comparison of Fingerprints and Photographs) Authorisation 2004, which enabled the Immigration and Nationality Directorate (IND) to conduct additional checks on asylum seekers from the then "top five" nationalities subject to certification on safe third-country grounds (for example under Dublin arrangements).

Under this authorisation, IND officials could compare fingerprints of asylum applicants from Iraq, Turkey, Iran, Somalia and Sudan against other Governments' fingerprint databases of asylum seekers, failed asylum seekers and those granted some form of status. It also allowed IND to compare the details of asylum seekers from these countries with visa application forms completed by individuals from the same countries.

The planned quarterly review of this authorisation has been delayed until now. Since the authorisation came into force up until 18 November 2005, some 61 asylum applicants, excluding dependants, from these five countries whose fingerprints were checked entered the UK despite having an outstanding asylum claim, or status, in a safe third country.

I am today revoking the current authorisation and making a new one which lists the criteria for inclusion in a list of "top 10" third country nationalities, to which the authorisation will apply. The top 10 will be reviewed each quarter, but for the three months up to 3 February 2006 it comprised: Afghanistan, Eritrea, Iran, Somalia, India, Iraq, Sudan, Nigeria, China and Ethiopia. This
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authorisation will enable IND to check the fingerprints of asylum applicants from these countries with other Governments' databases.

This authorisation will help IND identify individuals who have claimed asylum, or enjoy some form of status, in a safe third country, and who subsequently claim asylum in the UK. This will improve our ability to identify fraudulent claimants and return them to the safe third country responsible for their initial claim.

I am not continuing the provision of the previous authorisation under which the Asylum Screening Unit compared the photographs of applicants from "top five" countries against visa application forms to identify any who travelled here on legitimate documents issued by a safe third country, as all nationalities are now subject to this examination.

I am placing copies of the authorisation in the Libraries of both Houses of Parliament.

Justice and Home Affairs Council

The Minister for Immigration, Citizenship and Nationality (Mr. Tony McNulty): A meeting of the Justice and Home Affairs Council was held on 21 February. My noble friend the parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs, Baroness Ashton of Upholland, Cathy Jamieson the Justice Minister for Scotland, and I represented the United Kingdom.

The Austrian presidency opened the Council with the adoption of the A points, including the European Order for Payment Procedure.

A constructive debate took place on the proposal for a regulation on the law applicable to non-contractual obligations (Rome II).

There was broad support for the presidency's aim of agreeing a package of measures on Rome II. Discussion focused on Article 6 (defamation) the Commission confirmed that its revised proposal, to issue imminently, would exclude defamation from the scope of the Regulation. But it would suggest including this issue in the review clause. The UK is one of a number of member states who support the Commission in preferring exclusion.

The Council also considered several other Articles: notably, Article 4 (product liability,) Article 23 (the relationship between ROME II and internal market measures such as the E.Commerce Directive), Article 22 (public policy) and Article 3A (Freedom of Choice.)

There is still further work to be done to conclude this proposal in the light of these discussions. However there is now cause for optimism that the difficult defamation issue will be resolved satisfactorily as part of a package which the presidency hopes to settle during its term of office.

The Directive on the Retention of Electronic Communications Data was adopted by a qualified majority, where the UK voted in favour. This was agreed during the UK presidency and was a real success in terms of delivering an important part of the EU's approach to tackling terrorism.

The Council confirmed agreement to the provisions on the competent authorities for issuing and executing a European Evidence Warrant (EEW), and the grounds for refusal based on privileges and immunities and lack
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of measures available for execution. Discussion then focused on the outstanding issue of whether and, if so how, to define the offences for which dual criminality would not be required as a prerequisite to execution of an EEW. The majority of member states, including the UK, supported a presidency compromise proposal to follow the model used in the European Arrest Warrant by attaching explanations of some of the offences in a non-binding Council Declaration. However, two member states argued instead that the definitions, in particular of terrorism, sabotage, racism and xenophobia and computer related crime, should be included in an annex to the Framework Decision. Negotiations will continue at expert level.

The Council took note of new arrangements for the handling of first pillar initiatives which contain criminal law provisions, introduced as a result of the Court's Judgment of 13 September 2005 (Case C-176/03 Commission v Council). The aim is to have in place a mechanism which allows for the immediate identification of any provisions on criminal law in Commission initiatives and for member state JHA experts to start analysis of those provisions as early as possible in the negotiation. They acknowledge the need to examine each initiative on a case-by-case basis but stress the role of COREPER II (ambassadors) in managing the process. The Commission confirmed its intention to bring forward new proposals for Directives on environmental crime, counterfeiting of intellectual property rights, and ship-source pollution.

Under AOB, member states were encouraged to participate fully in the Commission's study on the creation of a common format for the exchange of information on national criminal records. The importance of ensuring continued engagement between the Balkan countries and the EU in combating trafficking of human beings, organised crime and terrorism was also reiterated.

The Commission presented its Communication on strengthening practical cooperation on asylum through the establishment of structures involving the national asylum services of the member states. They set out the three core areas for activity: establishing a single procedure; developing a common approach to country of origin information; and providing assistance to relieve asylum pressure points. The UK welcomed the Commission's Communication but emphasised the need to take a practical rather than legislative approach as the ideas set out in the Communication were developed. The presidency clarified that the proposed "asylum cooperation network" should be a tool rather than a new structure.

The Commission advised that it proposed bringing forward a list of 11 countries to form the basis of a minimum list of safe countries of origin. An analysis of the country conditions was being prepared to help assess whether the countries fit the criteria for the safe list. Based on this analysis, the Commission would draw up a formal proposal for an initial minimum common list of safe third countries as provided for under Article 29 of the Asylum Procedures Directive.

The Commission briefly introduced its Green Paper on a European Migration Network, stressing that the aim was to improve upon existing structures rather than create new ones. Member states were urged to send their
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written responses to the Commission as soon as possible and to participate in an expert meeting planned for early April. These would help inform a Commission proposal which was expected by the end of 2006. The UK flagged up three issues of concern: the proposal to make national contact points independent of Government, which could inhibit efficient information exchange (e.g. confidential information); the role of the Commission, rather than member states, in appointing NCPs; and the need to ensure coherence between various information exchange mechanisms in order to avoid unnecessary duplication and administrative burdens.

During the Mixed Committee, the presidency introduced its note on Schengen Information System (SIS II), emphasising the positive response to the presidency's revised proposal for the draft legal instruments. The presidency also re-stated that it was important that the role of the Institutions in the governance of SIS II was clarified and that SIS II had comprehensive data protection standards.

The Council decision amending the administrative costs of processing visa applications seeks to increase the Schengen visa fee to €60 in order to cover the rising administrative costs resulting from the introduction of biometrics. Most member states and the Commission were able to agree that the visa fee should be increased to €60 by the beginning of 2007. However, they all stressed the need to put in place some system of exemptions to ease the impact of the fee increase on neighbouring countries.

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