The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Gordon Brown): I represented the UK at the Economic and Financial Affairs Council (ECOFIN) on 30 January 2007. The German Finance Minister, Peer Steinbruck, chaired the Council.
Ministers took note of a presentation by the German presidency on its ECOFIN work programme for the next six months. The presidency noted that Europe continued to face major challenges, for example from globalisation. ECOFINs work under the German presidency would reflect this, including through further integration of the internal market.
The UK added its support and stressed the importance of promoting an open and flexible single market, as set out in the HMT-DTI paper on single market reform published on the same day. This paper stresses the need for a Single Market which allows European businesses to compete in global markets, while fostering innovation and market dynamism. A revised strategy should therefore focus on driving up competition and take prioritised action where the potential economic benefits are greatest, based on clear evidence, and use a wider range of policy tools to achieve a well-functioning single market. The UK also said that enhancing EU-US economic relations and tackling unfair tax competition had a part to play.
Commissioner Almunia outlined the Commissions recommendation to abrogate Frances excessive deficit procedure, as the deficit was now sustainably below 3 per cent. Member states welcomed this recommendation and adopted a decision under article 104 (12) of the treaty abrogating decision 2003/487/EC on the existence of an excessive deficit in France.
Ministers took note of a brief presentation by the Commission and the European Central Bank on the December 2006 convergence report on the member states (excluding Lithuania, Slovenia and Sweden) with a derogation from euro membership. The report concluded that the nine member states assessed did not fulfil all the convergence criteria, however the Commission noted significant progress was being made on inflation, fiscal stability and exchange rates.
The Council was briefed by the Slovenian Finance Minister, Andrej Bajuk, the Commission and the European Central Bank on the introduction of the euro in Slovenia. The Commission applauded Slovenias handling of the introduction of the euro.
Ministers held an orientation debate on matters to feed into the spring European Council. This included the Commission annual progress report, the proposed update to the integrated guidelines with country specific recommendations and the draft ECOFIN key issues paper. Discussion centred on the ECOFIN priorities for the key issues paper, ahead of its formal adoption at the February ECOFIN.
The UK stressed the importance of opening up product and capital markets, especially financial services, utilities and energy and in reducing regulation in line with the HMT-DTI Paper on single market reform mentioned earlier. The UK also added that, in the field of tax, tackling unfair tax competition was important in improving economic performance. The German presidency agreed to reflect on the discussion and will subsequently return to this topic at the February ECOFIN.
The Commission presented a Communication and an action plan on efforts to reduce administrative burdens on businesses, which includes setting a target for reducing administrative burdens in the EU. The UK expressed the view that this was a key issue for the EU economic framework. Conclusions are expected to be adopted at the next ECOFIN Council meeting and will contribute to the spring European Council.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Angela E. Smith): The fire and rescue service has been undergoing a significant change programme over the past few years so that it is better equipped to meet the challenges of today's world. The way in which Government engage with the service has also been subject to review. As a consequence the role and function of HM Fire Service Inspectorate has changed and it no longer undertakes its original core role of inspecting all fire and rescue services in England. We have, therefore, decided that it is no longer appropriate to retain the Inspectorate in its current form and that a new professional advisory unit would be better placed to provide independent support to Ministers and officials.
The unit, which for normal day to day working purposes will be called the chief fire and rescue adviser's unit, will be headed by a chief fire and rescue adviser. The primary responsibility for the Unit will be to provide Ministers and officials with direct access to a source of authoritative independent professional advice on matters of structure, organisation, performance and future development of fire and rescue business. The unit will also have a number of other duties including advising Ministers, senior officials, COBR and other Government Departments during a major emergency and providing
professional advice on fire and rescue service matters to local authorities, professional bodies and other interested organisations on FRS matters.
The chief fire and rescue adviser will be a high profile position. We will be seeking to attract a candidate with proven experience and well developed skills who can demonstrate a strong record of performance across a broad range of criteria given the key role that the chief fire and rescue adviser will be expected to play.
Sir Graham Meldrum, HM Chief Inspector of Fire Services retired on 31 January 2007 after many years distinguished service as Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Fire Services. We have established, from 1 February 2007, a transition team within the fire and resilience directorate with a clear brief to manage the interim period and prepare for the formation of the new advisory unit.
The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): The general GLA grant for 2007-08 has been determined today by the Secretary for State for Communities and Local Government at £38,348,000, after consultation with the Mayor of London. The grant is a block grant paid for the purposes of the Greater London Authority and its functional bodies under section 100 of the Greater London Authority Act 1999.
The grant for 2007-08 is based on the three-year settlement for the grant announced by the Government in November 2004 following the outcome of the 2004 Spending Review, together with additional funding for the Mayor's new housing responsibilities following the outcome of the review of the GLA's powers in July 2006.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Bridget Prentice): I am pleased to announce to the House the publication of my Department's response to the consultation on the Co-ordinated Online Record of Electors. CORE will provide a national source of locally collected and maintained electoral registration data.
CORE will, in addition to reducing administrative burden on users, assist political parties and the Electoral Commission to meet their obligations under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 to ensure that donations to parties are from registered electors. It will also provide an important first step to systematically detecting any potential instances of absent voter fraud.
The Electoral Administration Act 2006 makes provision for the establishment of one or more Co-ordinated Online Record of Elector (CORE) schemes. The scheme will shortly be established by a secondary legislation order, a draft of which would first need to be actively approved by both Houses of Parliament.
The paper sets a clear vision for the operation of the CORE scheme and also highlights the importance of improving the quality of elector information held on local registers to ensure that it is complete and correct.
The Minister of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Ms Harriet Harman): My right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor made the following ministerial statement in the other place on Wednesday 7 February 2007.
I have today published the Government response to the consultation paper Increasing penalties for deliberate and wilful misuse of personal data (C/P 9/06) which was published on 24 July 2006. Copies have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses. It will also be made available on the Department for Constitutional Affairs' website.
The response sets out how we will reform section 60 of the Data Protection Act 1998 to ensure that there is robust protection for personal data, and to strengthen individuals rights to privacy.
The consultation paper sought views on whether the proposed custodial penalties a maximum sentence of six months imprisonment on summary conviction and two years on indictmentwould act as an effective deterrent to those who deliberately or recklessly misuse personal information. The Information Commissioner's report What Price Privacy?. The unlawful trade in confidential personal information highlighted the extent of the illegal trade in personal information and recommended custodial sentences for offences relating to the misuse of personal data. The Government believe that the existing financial penalties are not sufficiently protecting people's personal data.
The consultation period closed on 30 October 2006. The majority of responses welcomed the introduction of custodial penalties to provide a larger deterrence to potential offenders, to provide public reassurance that offenders would receive the appropriate sentence and to achieve parity with a number of disparate pieces of legislation which, deal with similar types of offences.
Our reforms to the Data Protection Act fit squarely within the Government's wider strategy on data sharing. As the Government move to an era of greater data sharingto deliver better, more customer-focused services and to protect the security of both individuals and society as a wholeit is essential for people to be confident that their personal data will not be wilfully or recklessly abused.
Greater data sharing and proper respect for individual privacy is compatible. One of the essential ways of maintaining that compatibility is to ensure the security and integrity of personal data once it has been shared.
In summary, following careful consideration of the responses received, we are proceeding with the proposals to introduce custodial penalties to section 60 of the Data Protection Act. The Government are clear that custodial penalties will be reserved for the most serious breaches of the Act. We will seek to introduce an amendment to the Act as soon as parliamentary time allows.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs (Vera Baird): My right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor has made the following ministerial statement:.
On Monday 12 February 2007, Land Registry will launch a formal consultation exercise to seek views on the first part of the proposed secondary legislation required to enable professional conveyancers and others to have access to the electronic conveyancing network, which Land Registry will establish. Under the Land Registration Act 2002, a person must enter into a network access agreement with the Chief Land Registrar (who is the head of Land Registry) before he or she can carry out conveyancing transactions electronically. The consultation document includes draft network access rules dealing with the types of agreement there will be, the criteria a person must meet before he or she can obtain an agreement, those terms that must be included in an agreement, and the grounds, and procedure, for termination of an agreement by the registrar. The consultation document also includes a draft order, which it is proposed should be made under the Electronic Communications Act 2000, to provide for electronic contracts for registered land. The consultation document will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses.
The Minister for Trade (Mr. Ian McCartney): The Government are deeply concerned about the reported cruelty during the Canadian seal hunt. They have undertaken a review of policy on this issue and have concluded that the UK should press the European Commission to propose EU-wide measures to ban the import of listed harp and hooded seal products. This would establish a harmonised EU approach.
It is the Governments view that action taken at EU level would be more effective than national measures alone, avoiding distortions in the operation of the single market and allowing for effective enforcement by customs authorities. The UK is committed to pursuing EU action and ensuring that any resulting EU Commission proposal will be effective. We are writing to Commissioner Dimas requesting urgent action.
Meanwhile, the EU proposal for an EU-wide ban on the domestic cat and dog fur trade is under active discussion within the Council of the European Union and European Parliament and we hope to be able to agree this proposal as quickly as possible.
The Minister for Europe (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC) will be held on 12 February in Brussels. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs will represent the UK.
The Council is expected to approve the draft annotated agenda for the spring European Council including the Lisbon economic reform process, Better regulation and climate/energy. External issues will be covered as appropriate.
Discussion is likely to focus on Kosovo. We hope that the Council will give its full support to UN Status Envoy Martti Ahtisaari and his draft proposals and urges engagement by the parties. The Council is expected to adopt conclusions on Serbia and Kosovo.
The Council is likely to adopt conclusions on Sudan keeping up the pressure on the parties to commit to a political process and to co-operate with the UN and African Union in enhancing the African Union Mission in Sudan (AMIS) and deploying a hybrid AU-UN force. The Council is likely to condemn the continued violence on the ground, particularly attacks on AMIS and humanitarian personnel and the Government of Sudan airforce bombing in North Darfur and reiterate its readiness to consider further measures.
The Council is expected to adopt conclusions welcoming the Transitional Federal Governments commitment to launch an inter-Somali dialogue and reaffirming illingness to assist the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and reconstruction efforts in Somalia.
High Representative for Common and Foreign Security Policy Javier Solana is expected to outline plans for a civilian policing mission under the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP). The presidency will brief the Council on the Foreign Ministerial Troika with Afghan Foreign Minister Spanta on 29 January. The Council is also expected to adopt conclusions approving a concept for a possible ESDP mission to Afghanistan in the field of policing with links to the wider rule of law. Ministers will also welcome the renewed international expressions of support for the Afghan Governments reconstruction work which emerged from a series of meetings in Berlin on 30 and 31 January 2006.
The presidency is planning a discussion of EU policy on Iran, covering the nuclear issue, efforts to support reform and Irans role in the region. Ministers will also be updated on progress with work to implement the sanctions in UN Security Council Resolution 1737.
The Council is expected to welcome the 2 February Quartet statement. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs may also brief partners on her recent visit to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (5-7 February).
On Lebanon, the Council is expected to adopt Conclusions, welcoming the success of the Paris III conference, including the EUs contribution to it, and supporting mediation efforts to resolve the political crisis in Lebanon.
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