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Written Ministerial Statements

Monday 11 June 2007

Foreign and Commonwealth Office

Government Website (EU Documents)

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): The Government have launched a website where Explanatory Memoranda (EMs) on EU documents submitted to Parliament under the long-established EU scrutiny arrangements can be consulted and downloaded.

Although Government EMs have previously been accessible in hard copy form through the British Library, the new website will help to promote a greater transparency of and access to the information submitted by the Government to Parliament on proposals for EU legislation and other EU documents.

The website can be found at http://european memorandum.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/search.aspx>

The site will enable users to:


NHS (Patient and Public Involvement)

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Ms Rosie Winterton): The House of Commons Health Select Committee published its report on Patient and Public Involvement in the NHS on 20 April 2007. The principal areas covered by the report were patient forums, the Commission for Patient and Public Involvement in Health, the proposed Local Involvement Networks and Section 11 of the Health and Social Care Act 200—the duty on the NHS to involve and consult patients and the public.

We welcome the recommendations of the Health Select Committee, and have today laid before Parliament the Government's response to the report (Cm 7128). Copies of the response are available for hon. Members in the Vote Office.

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Home Department

Refugees (Integration Loans Scheme)

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Joan Ryan): I am announcing that today “The Integration Loans for Refugees and Others Regulations” come into force. Integration loans, will be available to those granted refugee status or humanitarian protection and their respective dependants.

When status is granted, these individuals enter into a period of transition during which most will need to find accommodation, train or re-qualify and seek employment. As part of the integration process an interest free loan with moderate repayment terms will make a considerable impact on their ability to become established in the UK. Applications can be made for loans up to a maximum £1,000 and are designed to be spent on items that we believe will facilitate integration, particularly those related to housing, education and employment.

The scheme will be jointly administered by the Home Office and the Department for Work and Pensions. Only those granted leave to enter or remain after today will be eligible to apply for an integration loan.

With the introduction of integration loans we are now ending the ability of refugees to make a claim for a backdated payment of income related benefits. As well as being a more equitable replacement for the back payments system, we believe integration loans will be an important tool in assisting new refugees and those granted humanitarian protection to establish themselves in the UK.

Justice and Home Affairs Council

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Joan Ryan): The Justice and Home Affairs Council will be held on 12-13 June 2007 in Luxembourg. Baroness Scotland, the Lord Chancellor and I will attend on behalf of the UK.

The Council will start with the mixed committee items attended by Norway, Iceland and Switzerland. Among these will be reports on the state of play regarding the implementation of SISOne4all and SIS II. We expect these updates to confirm that both the SISone4all project and the development of SIS II are running in line with their respective time schedules

The draft Regulation establishing the Visa Information System (VIS) and the accompanying draft Council Decision on law enforcement access to VIS will be going to the Council for political agreement. The UK is not participating in the Regulation and has been excluded from the Council Decision. However, we have successfully negotiated the inclusion of a Council declaration which underlines Council support for UK and Ireland access and makes clear that this issue will be explored further following the outcome of the FRONTEX and Passports cases before the European Court of Justice which deal with the right of the UK and Ireland to participate in measures which build on those elements of Schengen into which we have not opted. Furthermore, the UK and Ireland will also make a joint declaration setting out our view of the issue in more detail.

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A state of play report is expected on the Data Protection Framework Decision as well as the adoption of Council conclusions on this item. Work on this is ongoing and an agreement is hoped for by the end of the year.

The Presidency has tabled a number of items upon which it is seeking a general approach. These will be on the exchange of criminal record information, procedural rights in criminal proceedings and uniform formats for residence permits.

The Government strongly support the Framework Decision on the exchange of criminal record information which we believe will help to improve the exchange of information on past convictions between EU Member States and lay the groundwork for the development of a common electronic format for the exchange of such information.

The Government are also supportive of the Regulation for a uniform format for residence permits which increases document security and reduces the risk of identity fraud. The Regulation updates the requirements for residence permits to reflect advances in technology. It provides for residence permits for third country nationals to be on a polycarbonate card with a facial image engraved on the card and biometrics along with the facial image and other identification information encrypted and stored in a chip embedded in the card.

The Presidency is likely to make a final attempt to get all Member States to agree in principle to a Framework Decision on procedural rights in criminal law matters covering all cross-border and domestic proceedings. The UK and some other Member States have made clear that they could support a Framework Decision covering strictly cross-border cases, coupled with a strong Resolution on practical measures to enhance ECHR compliance, but cannot accept a binding measure covering purely domestic proceedings.

The Presidency will seek a steer from the Council on the question of dual criminality in relation to the Framework Decision on the recognition and enforcement of suspended sentences, conditional sentences and alternative sanctions, and endorsement of the objectives and scope of the draft instrument in broad terms. The Government will caution against reaching a final decision on any elements at such an early stage and will emphasise the importance of agreeing an instrument that is workable and proportionate.

Indications are that the Presidency will seek political agreement on the draft Council Decision on the stepping up of cross-border co-operation which brings the key elements of the PrĂ1/4m Treaty into the EU. The Government have secured a number of important amendments to the text during negotiations, such as the removal of articles which we were concerned might allow for cross-border hot pursuit. We are now content with the text as drafted. We consider the PrĂ1/4m Decision to be a measure which would be of such benefit to the UK that it should come into operation as soon as possible. In Austria and Germany where data have already begun to be exchanged under the PrĂ1/4m Convention, they have had a number of hits on serious crimes including rape and murder. More generally we know that effective information sharing is vital for the protection of public security.

The proposal to replace the Europol Convention with a more flexible legal instrument in the form of a
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Council Decision will be discussed. Negotiations thus far have centred on the first chapter of this proposal, articles 1-9. The Government are content with the revisions that have been made to this first section of the proposal. We have been successful in ensuring that the changes to Europol's mandate have been limited to cover situations where there is a very serious crime which would require a common approach owing to the scale, significance and consequences affecting several Member States.

The JHA Council is also expected to adopt Council Conclusions mapping the way forward for an agreement to replace the Europol Convention with a Council Decision. The Council Conclusions stress that satisfactory solutions must be found on a number of outstanding issues, such as clarification of the budgetary consequences and the lifting of immunity for Europol officials in Joint Investigation Teams (JITs), before a final decision can be made on whether Europol should be funded from the Community budget. Negotiations will continue on the remainder of the text with a view to agreeing the proposal as a whole by June 2008.

Other Council Conclusions on the agenda relate to the completion of negotiations on the Data Protection Framework Decision; the strengthening of integration policies through promoting unity in diversity; a procedure for future handling of legislative proposals with a first pillar Community, legal base which include provisions relating to criminal law, on which there will be a review of the effectiveness of procedural arrangements agreed at the February JHA Council—the Government welcome the Presidency paper; and E-Justice, where the work done by the Presidency is fully supported by the Government.

The UK is happy to support the draft Conclusions on the strengthening of integration policies through promoting unity in diversity. We see these Conclusions as representing a valuable additional dimension to the work of the National Integration Contact Points network by giving a sharper focus on participation of migrants in community life and on dialogue between cultures.

A report and Council conclusions will also be presented on violent video and computer games detailing Member States' responses to a questionnaire about how they each regulate the sale of computer games to children. In the UK, games featuring gross violence must be submitted to the British Board of Film Classification and are given an age-related classification. It is an offence to supply a game to someone who does not meet the age requirement.

There will be a state of play report on the protection of the environment through criminal law. The UK welcomes the Presidency paper as an accurate summary of points raised so far in the Substantive Criminal Law Working Group.

The Commission will make a number of presentations introducing their recent Communication on a strategy to tackle cyber-crime; a Green Paper on the future of the Common European Asylum System (CEAS); the Long Term Residents Directive, into which the UK is not opted in; the evaluation of the Dublin II and Eurodac Regulations and two Communications on the Global Approach to Migration on which we also expect Council Conclusions to be agreed.

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The UK is in the final stages of implementing the first phase of the CEAS which is based on setting minimum standards and has a role to play in helping us manage domestic asylum pressures whilst reducing differences across the EU. The Green Paper launches a comprehensive consultation process on the form the second phase of CEAS should take. The Government are in the process of drawing up their strategy in response.

The Dublin II and Eurodac evaluation will report on the implementation of both Regulations. We see Dublin II and Eurodac as vital aspects of a common asylum system and strongly support the approach to determining responsibility for asylum applicants enshrined in this system. We will consider carefully any proposals from the Commission that seek to enhance implementation and increase the effect of the Regulations.

The first Communication on the Global Approach to Migration deals with its expansion to the Eastern and South-Eastern borders of the EU. The Government support the expansion, which demonstrates the value of the Global Approach to Migration agreed under the UK presidency. We are however concerned that the expansion of the Global Approach does not detract from the ongoing work with Africa and the Mediterranean, which needs to be intensified. The Government are also concerned that some elements are included in the Communication which have not yet been agreed by Member States and feels that expansion should be based on the elements in the existing Global Approach.

The second Communication deals with the legal migration element of the Global Approach, in particular circular migration and the new concept of 'mobility partnerships'. The Government are interested in exploring the concept of circular migration; however we are cautious about the value of mobility partnerships. In the first instance, Member States should have the opportunity to carefully consider the partnership concept, and how they might function. The Commission should not be in a position to approach potentially interested third countries before this has happened and Member States signal their willingness to proceed.

The Commission will also present an item on sanctions against employers of illegally staying third country nationals. The Government welcome the proposal for EU measures to combat illegal working and are carefully considering the Commission's proposal.

The Commission will present an item on the refugee situation in Iraq and the surrounding areas. This may lead to a reiteration of calls for Member States to step up resettlement of displaced Iraqis. The UK is in discussion with the UNHCR on this and is expected to decide its position shortly.

The Presidency has also scheduled lunch discussions on the appointment of a new EU Counter Terrorism Co-ordinator and the progress on negotiations to replace the existing Agreement between the EU and US on the provision of passenger name records.

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Drivers' Hours (Derogation for Reservists)

The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Dr. Stephen Ladyman): I am today announcing that I have written to the European Commission requesting an exemption from Regulation (EC) 561/2006 on drivers' hours for professional drivers when undertaking military training with the volunteer reserve forces or acting as instructors in the cadet corps at the weekend. This request, which has been agreed with the Ministry of Defence, has been made in accordance with the provisions in Article 14.1 of Regulation (EC) 561/2006 which provide for exceptions in exceptional circumstances.

I have specifically asked that the exemption apply to the weekly rest requirements in Article 8.6. This would enable a driver who finishes his normal driving duties on a Friday to complete a 36 hour period of training as a volunteer reservist or as an instructor in the cadet corps during the weekend and then resume his normal driving duties again on a Monday morning.

To ensure that these drivers are adequately rested before they return to their normal driving duties, I have stipulated that the drivers would still be required to take at least nine consecutive hours rest (the equivalent of a reduced daily rest period) between the end of their military training or duties as an instructor and start of work for their regular employer. I do not consider this to be unduly onerous given that this is already common practice within the volunteer reserve forces.

I am satisfied that such an exemption will not in any way jeopardise the objectives of Regulation (EC) 561/2006. But it may take some time for the European Commission to respond to my request. So in the interim, the Ministry of Defence has developed guidelines that outline how drivers can manage their volunteer reserve service in accordance with Regulation (EC) 561/2006.

Work and Pensions

Social Fund Guide

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Mr. James Plaskitt): The Secretary of State will be making a minor change to the discretionary social fund, with effect from 11 June 2007. This is in response to the introduction of the Home Office Refugee Integration Loan.

The effect of the change will be to ensure that any capital held as a result of an award of an integration loan is disregarded for social fund purposes.

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