Previous Section Index Home Page

Justice and Home Affairs Council

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Joan Ryan): The Justice and Home Affairs Council was held on 5-6 October 2006 in Luxembourg. Baroness Scotland attended the Council with the Home Secretary and Baroness Ashton, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Constitutional Affairs. I thought it would be useful to outline what was discussed and decided at the Council meeting.

The Finnish presidency opened the Council with the A points list which was approved. This included community strategic guidelines on cohesion and a framework decision on the mutual recognition of confiscation orders.

The presidency confirmed that a deal had been reached with the United States on an interim passenger
28 Nov 2006 : Column 100WS
name records agreement. Negotiations on a new permanent agreement will start shortly.

On the Hague Programme it was agreed that more co-operation was needed on immigration between member states, and between the EU and third countries. Countering terrorism and organised crime needed closer member state cooperation with Europol, Sitcen and between member state agencies. The UK emphasised that new legislation should be proposed only when it met a real need. It was important to focus on delivery of existing instruments and action plans. There was some emphasis on the challenges faced by some member states from illegal migration.

The presidency reported back on the discussion held at Tampere on the use of the passerelle in Article 42 TEU, noting that a significant number of member states had expressed concerns about the possibility of such use. The presidency is still reflecting on what its next steps should be, but we consider the current debate to be over and that we should instead focus on practical measures.

The presidency noted that they were still working to a European Council mandate to improve decision making in JHA, but the JHA Council was split on the use of the passerelle in Article 42 TEU. The Commission urged the presidency to reach agreement on the passerelle by the December European Council.

There had been a discussion about the future development of mutual recognition at the Tampere Informal Council in light of which the presidency planned to present draft Council Conclusions to the December JHA Council.

The Home Secretary thanked the presidency, member states and the Commission for the help and solidarity received in August, saying that the EU had done much good work to establish a political and legislative framework to deliver real benefits to citizens and that migration and counter terrorism were key priorities.

An in-depth discussion was held on the draft Framework Decision on the transfer of prisoners. No agreement was reached on the issues of prisoner consent or the treatment of third country nationals. The UK argued against watering down the text through the inclusion of broad grounds for refusal, such as a proposal that refusal should be possible where the aim of social rehabilitation would not be met. It was proposed however that concerns about meeting the social rehabilitation aim could be addressed through a definition of residence since it was arguable that social rehabilitation was dependent on the links to a member state that would have been created by five years, previous residence there. It was argued that this could also be used to determine whether or not there was an obligation on the executing state to take back the prisoner notwithstanding his or her nationality. The UK agrees that a solution might rest with this approach, although the presidency concluded that work would continue on the basis of a regime that did not include an obligation to accept third country nationals. Work will continue at expert level with a view to concluding negotiations in December.

The new member states were deeply disappointed by the delay to the SIS II timetable. There was some
28 Nov 2006 : Column 101WS
strong support for the Portuguese proposals to integrate the new member states into SIS I+. A number of member states underlined that an effective Task Force was critical to the SIS II implementation timetable; some stressed that work to explore the Portuguese proposal should not detract from continued focus on implementation of SIS II or result in further delays. The presidency achieved agreement to the Council Conclusions.

There was debate on the draft Framework Decision on taking account of convictions in new criminal proceedings. However it remained clear that the detail of Article 3 needed further work, in particular in relation to the exceptions to the obligation to assimilate foreign convictions into national systems. The presidency hopes to finalise the text at the December JHA Council.

The presidency called for political agreement to a compromise proposal on civil protection, which limited Community financing of transport and equipment to third country assistance and included the possibility of reimbursement to the Community budget. There was some agreement around the table, however the UK rejected the compromise because it blurred the clear member state responsibility for civil protection. The UK commented that the Commission's role in helping cooperation between member states was welcome, as was improving interoperability of member state assets, however we could not agree the Instrument with the contentious articles. The Government insisted that while all member states agreed that solidarity was critical and helped each other in practice, the proposed measures were not the way to strengthen our systems. The presidency agreed to send the item back to Coreper for further discussion.

The presidency outlined the progress made in the proposal to establish a European Union Fundamental Rights Agency and, unexpectedly, pressed for political agreement. As a result, several member states stated their positions and concerns with the proposal. The UK made it clear that the agency should be focused solely on Community law and with no third pillar remit. The presidency confirmed that discussions on the proposal would continue at Coreper level.

In considering the management of future negotiations on the draft directive proposing criminal penalties to enforce intellectual property rights, member states were split as to whether there was a need for further legislation at this time and whether it was appropriate to continue discussions on the directive pending the ECJ judgment on maritime pollution, which should address the scope for Community action in relation to criminal matters. There was agreement that the scope of any instrument should however be limited to those intellectual property rights harmonised at Community level. The presidency concluded that work would continue on that basis at expert level both on the need for legislation and on the substance of the proposed directive, but without prejudice to a final decision on the legal base.

The draft council conclusions on reinforcing the southern external maritime borders were agreed without discussion.

There was discussion about visa waiver reciprocity and the Commission highlighted their successes with South African countries. The US was not abiding by an
28 Nov 2006 : Column 102WS
undertaking made during the Austrian presidency and there was some call for taking the first punitive steps, however other member states called for a more measured response.

There was no substantive discussion on visa facilitation and readmission agreements with Moldova. The presidency invited the Commission to draw up mandates.

Finally the European conference on active participation of ethnic minority youth in society was highlighted with requests for opinions on what more could be done to fight radicalisation, how politicians could learn from the young and how integration could be further promoted. This item will feature on future Council agendas.

International Development

Horn of Africa (Flooding)

The Secretary of State for International Development (Hilary Benn): Having suffered severe drought, parts of the Horn of Africa are now experiencing exceptionally high rainfall resulting in severe flooding in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. The UK has responded swiftly, committing £6 million to the humanitarian relief effort over the past few weeks. This brings our total humanitarian contribution in these countries since April 2005 to £50.8 million.

The worst affected areas are south eastern Ethiopia, southern Somalia and northern and eastern Kenya. Although there has been some respite in the past few days, the forecast is for the rains to continue at above normal levels for the next two or three months. The UN currently estimates that the floods are affecting nearly 1.5 million people—360,000 in Ethiopia (80 deaths), 902,000 in Somalia (52 deaths), and 207,000 in Kenya (45 deaths).

Since August DFID has committed £6 million to UN, Red Cross and Non Governmental Organisations (NGO's) operations in Ethiopia (£2 million), Somalia (£2 million), and Kenya (£2 million). This money is funding relief flights, distributions of relief kits (containing items such as plastic sheeting for shelter, jerry cans, blankets, soap), provision of water and sanitation supplies, and nutrition and health supplies and services. The flooding in Ethiopia has been affecting that country since July and the UK contributions were made at the end of August (£l million) and in October (£l million—to address the diarrhoea epidemic which was a consequence of the flooding).

The UN has released funds from the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF). There was an initial $3 million for the floods response in Ethiopia in October, and two further contributions last week for Somalia ($3.3 million), and Kenya ($11.8 million). In Ethiopia, an additional $2.6 million is being requested, and the Somalia contribution from the CERF is expected to rise to above $10.3 million as additional requests from UN agencies are considered. The total funding from the CERF is therefore likely to amount to $28 million. The UK is the largest
28 Nov 2006 : Column 103WS
contributor to this mechanism, providing 26 per cent. of current paid contributions. I welcome this full and speedy response.

National authorities, Red Cross, UN and international non-governmental organisations (INGOs) are all responding. Access to the affected areas is of course difficult. Roads are blocked by the flood waters, and unmade roads are turning to mud and becoming impassable. Bridges and culverts have been destroyed. Aircraft, including helicopters, are being deployed to achieve access where this is impossible by road. In Ethiopia and Somalia insecurity is also a factor.

We continue to monitor the situation closely. We are particularly concerned about likely increases in water borne disease and malaria. Shelter is also a major concern. There are also risks to animal health, which may affect livelihood security in the region. In the medium term, when the flood waters recede a consequence may be improved water availability, improved pasture, and improved soil moisture creating better farming conditions.

Prime Minister

Abolition of the Slave Trade (Bicentenary)

The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair): The transatlantic slave trade stands as one of the most inhuman enterprises in history. At a time when the capitals of Europe and America championed the enlightenment of man, their merchants were enslaving a continent. Racism, not the rights of man, drove the horrors of the triangular trade. Some 12 million were transported. Some 3 million died.

Slavery's impact upon Africa, the Caribbean, the Americas and Europe was profound. Britain was the first country to abolish the trade. As we approach the commemoration for the 200th anniversary of that abolition, it is only right we also recognise the active role Britain played until then in the slave trade. British industry and ports were intimately intertwined in it. Britain's rise to global pre-eminence was partially dependent on a system of colonial slave labour and, as we recall its abolition, we should also recall our place in its practice. It is hard to believe that what would now be a crime against humanity was legal at the time. The bicentenary offers us a chance not just to say how profoundly shameful the slave trade was and how we condemn its existence utterly and praise those who fought for its abolition, but also to express our deep sorrow that it ever happened, that it ever could have happened and to rejoice at the different and better times we live in today.

The people who fought against slavery came from all walks of life. They included slaves and former slaves such as Olaudah Equiano, church leaders and statesmen such as William Wilberforce and countless ordinary citizens who signed petitions, marched, lobbied and prayed for change. The bicentenary is an opportunity for us all to remember those who were bought and sold into slavery and those who struggled against its injustices.

28 Nov 2006 : Column 104WS

Community, faith and cultural organisations, with the support in many cases of the Heritage Lottery Fund, are already planning events to mark the bicentenary. The Government, with local authorities, will be playing a full part. And the UK is co-sponsoring a resolution in the UN General Assembly, put forward by Caribbean countries, which calls for special commemorative activities to be held by the United Nations to mark the occasion.

We also need, while reflecting on the past, to acknowledge the unspeakable cruelty that persists in the form of modern day slavery. Today slavery comes in many guises around the world—such as bonded labour, forced recruitment of child soldiers and human trafficking—and at its root is poverty and social exclusion.

We also need to respond to the problems of Africa and the challenges facing the African and Caribbean diaspora today. Africa is a place of great beauty, fantastic diversity and a resilient and talented people with enormous potential. It is also the only continent getting poorer and where, in many places, life expectancy is falling.

But the world is now focusing on how we can help Africa tackle its problems, not least because of the G8 summit and the Make Poverty History campaign. Agreement was reached to double aid to Africa by 2010, to write off the debts of the poorest countries and massively to increase funding to tackle AIDS and improve healthcare and education.

Britain is playing its full part both through increasing bilateral aid and through international leadership. The International Finance Facility for Immunisation, which we have launched, should save 5 million children a year.

All this is making a difference. Debt relief is already beginning to flow. It has, for example, enabled Zambia to scrap charges for health care. This is taking place in partnership with African Governments and their people. But there is a great deal more to do.

At home, the bicentenary is also an opportunity for us to pause and consider the enormous contribution today of Black African and Caribbean communities to our nation. Britain is richer in every way, for example, in business, politics, sport, the arts and science because of the part played by these communities in every aspect of our national life. But even 30 years after the Race Relations Act and the creation of the Commission for Racial Equality, there are still barriers to overcome before everyone can make the most of their talents and potential.

Across Government, we are investing in tackling inequality in education, health, employment, housing and the criminal justice system in order to ensure a future in which everyone can achieve their full potential.

This bicentenary must also be a spur for us to redouble our efforts to stop human trafficking and all forms of modern slavery.

Above all, this 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade is a chance for all of us to increase understanding of our heritage, celebrate the richness of our diversity and increase our determination to shape the world with the values we share.

    Index Home Page