The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Gordon Brown): The Economic and Financial Affairs Council will be held on 30 January in Brussels. The items on the agenda are as follows:
The German presidency will introduce their ECOFIN work programme for the next six months. This item will be a televised public debate and priorities are likely to focus on core Finance Minister responsibilities such as the quality of public finances, financial services and taxation.
Implementation of the Stability and Growth Pact
Ministers will be invited to adopt procedural conclusions abrogating Decision 2003/487/EC on the existence of an excessive deficit in France in accordance with article 104(12).
Frances EDP procedure was started in 2003 on the basis of a deficit of 3.1 per cent. in 2002. In January 2005, the Council concurred with the Commission view that 2005 was to be considered the relevant deadline for the correction of the excessive deficit. In November 2006, the Commission recommended that the Council abrogate the excessive deficit procedure concerning France, since the deficit fell to 2.9 per cent. of GDP in 2005 and is projected to decrease further.
Preparation of the European Council (8-9 March 2007)
ECOFIN will discuss a series of items in preparation for the spring European Council. These orientation debates will cover:
Ministers will hold an orientation report on the ECOFIN key issues paper, which is a set piece document that both responds to the Commissions annual progress report on implementation of the Lisbon agenda and sets out ECOFINs priorities on economic reform issues as a contribution to the spring European Council.
This discussion will inform the drafting of the paper, which ECOFIN expects to adopt at its February meeting.
Lisbon Strategy: Commission Progress Report
Ministers will also discuss the Commission annual progress report, which reports on the implementation of the Lisbon agenda. The Commission notes good progress across member states.
The Commissions 2007 reform priorities for the EU as a whole are based on the four priority areas identified by the 2006 spring European Council, which correspond closely to the Hampton Court workstreams: creating an innovation-friendly, modern Europe; unlocking business potential (particularly SMEs); increased adaptability of labour markets; and energy and climate change.
Updating the Broad Economic Policy Guidelines 2005-08
ECOFIN will also discuss the updating of the broad economic policy guidelines for 2005-08. Together with the employment guidelines these form the integrated guidelines, which recommend priority actions for member states. No conclusions will be adopted.
Reducing Administrative Burden: Commission Reports
An orientation debate is expected on the Commission reports on reducing administrative burdens in the EU. This will provide an opportunity for Finance Ministers to discuss the Commissions better regulation plans and emphasise the need to make concrete progress on reducing EU administrative burdens on business.
Convergence Reports by the Commission and the European Central Bank
The Commission and the ECB will present their December 2006 convergence reports. The reports outline the views of the ECB and the Commission on where nine countries stand against the five Maastricht criteria for euro entry. Sweden and all member states that joined in 2004 are covered, with the exception of Slovenia and Lithuania, whose assessment took place in May 2006. The UK and Denmark are not covered due to their opt-out status.
Discussion is likely to be limited, as the Commission has concluded that none of the member states assessed has met all the convergence criteria.
Enlargement of the Euro Area Current Status of Slovenias Adoption of the Euro
The Commission will deliver a presentation on Slovenias adoption of the euro. A related Commission paper considers that the introduction to the euro in Slovenia has been successful. This is expected to be a short agenda item and no conclusions are expected.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): My right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State and Lord Chancellor has made the following written ministerial statement:
The Government are continuing to look at ways to modernise our electoral system and to increase the opportunities that people have to vote. To test the effectiveness and robustness of these innovations and to build public confidence in them, we are continuing to conduct a programme of pilots in 2007 which maintains the momentum that was started in 2000.
With this aim in mind, in the middle of October 2006 we issued a prospectus in conjunction with the Electoral Commission, inviting expressions of interest from local authorities seeking to run electoral pilots at the May 2007 local elections in England.
Today I am pleased to announce that I have accepted 12 applications from local authorities to hold pilots at the May 2007 local elections. The names of the successful local authorities are attached at the end of this statement. A background paper providing further details on the pilots has been placed in the House Library.
The local authorities will pilot innovations including:
the re-commencement of e-voting pilots on a small and controlled scale, testing a number of avenues including internet, telephone voting and the use of centralised all-elections facilities at polling stations for advance and polling day voting which will enable us to explore the impact of this important part of the modernisation agenda.
electronic counting of ballot papers which will build on past work and test how this can be refined to ensure confidence and support future use of technology to gain efficiencies in the administration of elections. This will also enable us to identify how technology can support counting in different sized authorities and voting systems used in local authority and regional elections.
a number of pilots that will provide further evidence about the benefits of advance voting on a cumulative basis, including three local authorities (Sunderland, Gateshead and Broxbourne) that did this last year. That will enable us to see if advance voting shows increased use on a year-on-year basis and help inform decisions about the value of allowing advance voting as a general provision.
as part of these pilots we have asked local authorities if they would be willing to include signing in polling stations. All are happy to do so in the advance voting period, and Bedford and Sunderland are also willing to do so on polling day.
To support those pilots that will be utilising electronic services, we have undertaken a rigorous procurement exercise and have established a framework of suitable suppliers for the piloting authorities to use.
The next step will be for us, working in consultation with the Electoral Commission and the local authorities, to draw up the statutory orders authorising the pilots.
The Electoral Commission also has a statutory duty to evaluate every pilot scheme, and report its findings within three months of the election. The Commission will submit individual evaluation reports on each pilot scheme to the Secretary of State and the local authority concerned.
We are grateful to all local authorities that applied to pilot in May 2007 and are keen to continue to engage local authorities in looking at innovative ways to improve the elections process and take advantage of new technologies.
Bedford Borough Council
Borough of Broxbourne
Dover District Council
Rushmoor Borough Council
Sheffield City Council
Shrewsbury and Atcham Borough Council
South Bucks District Council
Stratford-on-Avon District Council and Warwick District Council (joint application)
Sunderland City Council
Swindon Borough Council
The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram):
I announce today the attachment of 1 Rifles to 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines, from 1 April 2008, as a fourth manoeuvre unit. The battalion is due
to form up in February 2007 following the merger of the Devonshire and Dorset Light Infantry (DDLI) and the Royal Gloucestershire, Berkshire and Wiltshire Light Infantry (RGBWLI).
The addition of a fourth manoeuvre unit will give 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines more robust organisational and structural depth to enable it to contribute units simultaneously to current operations and to tasks that might arise in relation to other defence objectives. The permanent nature of the fourth manoeuvre unit grouping will enable the development of common doctrine and procedures, thus allowing it to participate more fully in amphibious operations as a secondary assault wave. This move will enhance the capability of 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines and achieve increased delivery of military capability. It also reflects the desire to deepen joint relationships between the Royal Navy and Army. The Army already provides combat support within 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines in the form of 29 Commando Regiment Royal Artillery and 59 Independent Commando Squadron Royal Engineers, and contributes to the combat service support provided by Commando Logistic Regiment. There are clearly wider defence benefits as we balance operational capability across defence. The fourth manoeuvre unit role will provide challenging and varied opportunities for an Army light role infantry battalion in 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines.
1 Rifles will remain on the Army list under the full command of the Chief of the General Staff but serve under the operational command of the Commander-in-Chief Fleet and the Commander of 3 Commando Brigade Royal Marines. Regimental personnel will continue to wear the 1 Rifles cap badge.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Paul Goggins): On 4 September 2006, I launched a wide-ranging review of the effectiveness of the temporary provisions of the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000. This review formed part of the Secretary of States statutory duty to have regard to progress made towards securing that membership of the police and police support staff is representative of the community in Northern Ireland, and to consult with the policing board, when making a decision as to whether these provisions should be renewed. This consultation ended on 27 November 2006.
As a result of these temporary provisions, tremendous progress has been made during the last few years towards a more representative Police Service for Northern Ireland with the proportion of Catholic officers in the regulars increasing from 8.3 per cent. in 1998 to 21.19 per cent. on 17 January 2007. The number of Catholic applications to the PSNI has also been encouraging, averaging 35 per cent. in each competition. Catholic representation among civilian staff also continues to rise. The percentage of directly recruited Catholic police support staff has increased
from 13.76 per cent. in January 2002 to 22.12 per cent. on 1 January 2007 with the overall composition now at 16.99 per cent. There are a number of initiatives ongoing which will continue to improve this over time. An example of this is the proposed introduction of Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) who will be civilians recruited under the 50:50 provisions.
The Government are committed in continuing to address the religious imbalance within the police service and the St. Andrews agreement makes it clear that the temporary 50:50 recruitment arrangements to the PSNI will lapse when the Governments target of 30 per cent. Catholic officers has been achieved. For these reasons, and after looking carefully at the responses to the consultation, the Secretary of State has now decided that those temporary provisions should be renewed for a further three years. This will enable the Government to reach their target of 30 per cent. Catholic representation in PSNI by 2010-11. That is why today I am laying before Parliament the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 (Renewal of Temporary Provisions) Order 2007. There will be an opportunity to debate the order in both Houses of Parliament.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): The Employment and Social Policy informal meeting was held on 18 to 20 January in Berlin, Germany.
My right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and my hon. Friend, the Under-Secretary for Employment Relations and Postal Services (Jim Fitzpatrick) represented the UK.
The theme of the informal was Good WorkMore and Better Jobs, which was discussed in two plenary sessions.
My hon. Friend participated in the morning plenary stressing that the real outsiders were the unemployed. He went on to say that if Europe is to remain competitive in a global market and continue to afford valued social protection systems, flexible labour markets are needed both for workers and employers to stimulate job creation and encourage more people into work. One size does not fit all and member states have to develop approaches that work for their own labour market structures and traditions. But overly restrictive
employment legislation risks a two-tier labour market and more jobs in the illegal sector. Effective, light-touch employment legislation is consistent with job creation, and more permanent jobs. For example in the UK, while we encourage choice in ways of working only 6 per cent. of the work force is on non-standard contracts; all workers have certain basic rights.
My right hon. Friend was one of eight keynote speakers in the afternoon session. He said that the best way to manage insecurities was to provide employment security through equipping people to manage and take advantage of change, rather than through protectionism and over-regulation. This could be done by providing insurance in the broadest sensethrough active labour market policies, skills and re-training, and the right labour law framework. Most of this work had to be done at member state level, but in the context of our shared European values. Even well functioning labour markets could have groups of vulnerable workers but it should not be assumed that this was due to their employment status alone.
All member states broadly agreed on the importance of high levels of health and safety at work. There was a strong emphasis on the social dimension of Europeincluding, from some quarters, calls for an EU minimum wage, minimum standards for workers on atypical contracts and a European definition of a workeralthough others continued to emphasise the primacy of meeting Lisbon targets and made it clear that social issues were for member states to decide. They also underlined the important role of social partners, of work-life balance, of life-long learning, and of a greater emphasis on skills and training, better childcare facilities, and promoting gender equality. Most member states agreed that it was up to them to lead on social issues, although the EU could provide added value by exchanging best practice and a general framework. The other recurring theme was that, with increased mobility of workers and free movement, member states had to co-operate more closely.
The German presidency concluded that we needed to look further at a number of issues, including the integration of ethnic groups and minorities into the labour market, grey areas such as bogus independent workers, and where the balance between rights and responsibilities was. Also, that part-time work could be positive when it was what the workers wanted, but there were concerns that increased temporary work created uncertainty for employees where this was at the expense of permanent regular contracts. Social policy was a national issue. The German presidency would continue to try and define what the social dimension of Lisbon should be.