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The Minister for Europe (Mr. Jim Murphy): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs and Kim Darroch (UK permanent representative to the EU) represented the UK at the General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC) in Brussels.
The Council discussed the situation in Pakistan ahead of elections on 18 February. Foreign Ministers underlined the importance of maintaining pressure on the Government of Pakistan to ensure free and fair elections, including through the deployment of an EU election observation mission to Pakistan. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary intervened to encourage further thought within the EU on what it could do to support Pakistan after the elections, including in the areas of institution building and economic development.
The Council discussed the grave humanitarian situation in Gaza and events on the Egyptian border. Foreign Ministers emphasised the EUs commitment to helping Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt
find a solution to the current situation. The Council highlighted the EUs readiness to contribute to a peaceful solution, including through the resumption of the EUs border monitoring mission at Rafah.
The Council adopted conclusions encouraging the parties to honour their road map commitments, particularly on Israeli settlements and on Palestinian security, and welcoming the achievements of the Paris donors conference.
The Council discussed the latest situation in Kenya following recent presidential elections. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary intervened to underline the seriousness of developments in Kenya and urge continued EU support for the African Union and Kofi Annan in their efforts to help Kenyas political leaders reach agreement on resolving the crisis.
The Council adopted conclusions condemning the violence, expressing concern about the seriousness of the humanitarian situation in Kenya and urging all parties to engage constructively in dialogue to find a sustainable political solution to the crisis.
UN envoy to the Darfur political process Jan Eliasson briefed the Council on the humanitarian and political situation in Darfur. He underlined that it was important the international community urged all parties to cease hostilities and engage in the peace process. In discussion, Foreign Ministers highlighted the need for continued EU pressure on the Government of Sudan to co-operate fully with the prompt deployment of an effective African Union-UN peacekeeping force to Darfur and to implement the comprehensive peace agreement as the basis for peace and development in Sudan.
The Council adopted conclusions on Sudan welcoming the return of the parties to the comprehensive peace agreement to the Government of national unity. The Council also highlighted the importance of humanitarian access to the people of Darfur, urging all parties in the conflict to cease hostilities, and to engage constructively with the peace process mediated by the UN and African Union envoys.
The Council also underlined its concern at the deterioration of the security situation in neighbouring Chad and agreed to launch an EU military operation in Chad and the CAR, which will contribute towards an improved security situation in those countries by protecting displaced persons and facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid.
The High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy Javier Solana briefed the Council on his recent contact with the Iranian authorities and on the decision by the E3+3 (Germany, France, UK, China, Russia and the US) to start consultations in New York on a further sanctions resolution given the lack of Iranian co-operation. The Government support discussion of a further resolution in New York, given
the lack of progress and strengthening of the EUs measures in support of action by the UN Security Council.
Discussion of the Western Balkans focused on Serbia. Foreign Ministers agreed to invite Serbia to sign a political agreement on co-operation with the EU and establish a taskforce to assist Serbia to meet the conditions which would enable it to make accelerated progress towards a stabilisation and association agreement. The Government support this political agreement, believing it sends a positive signal of the EUs commitment to Serbias European future.
The Deputy Leader of the House of Commons (Helen Goodman): During the debate in the House on 25 October 2007 on the motion to renew the present method of appointment of European Standing Committees, the Government undertook to come back to the House with proposals for reform of European scrutiny within three months of the start of the current session. The Government have now tabled a motion proposing changes to the Standing Orders, with a number of related proposals. These reflect consultations across the House in recent months and also take into account the second report of the Select Committee on the Modernisation of the House of 2004-05 Scrutiny of European Business (HC paper 465, session 2004-05). Discussions have been held in particular with: the shadow Leader of the House; the hon. Member for North Southwark and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes); the Chairmen of the European Scrutiny, Liaison and Procedure Committees; the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee; the Chairman of Ways and Means; and the Chairman of the European Union Committee in the House of Lords as well as a number of hon. and right hon. Back-Bench Members of the House, and Members of the European Parliament.
The present scrutiny system is based on the work of the European Scrutiny Committee in referring selected documents for debate by European Standing Committees, in the context of the Houses scrutiny reserve resolution. This delivers real benefits to the House. In particular it ensures that all documents are considered and the major ones are debated. However, improvements are needed to make those debates more constructive and to ensure that Members are able to focus their work in areas where they have an interest and expertise to offer.
The Governments proposals accordingly build on the present system but seek to make the operation of the European Standing Committees to be renamed European Committeesmore effective. The Government proposes improvements:
to the way the members of European Standing Committees are selected, with the membership in future drawing in part, where possible, on the European Scrutiny Committee and on relevant departmental select committees
to the proceedings in European Standing Committees, with opportunities for a brief opening statement from a member of
the European Scrutiny Committee and for a more effective style of questioning of Ministers following their initial statements.
the alerting of the Scrutiny Committee by the Government at an early stage to consultation exercises on important EU proposals; and
improved opportunities for Members to receive directly EU documents in areas in which they have expressed a particular interest.
The Government are also grateful to Mr Speaker for authorising the inclusion in the Future Business section of the daily Order Paper of a list of forthcoming documents and motions for debate in European Committees following referral from the European Scrutiny Committee.
Taken together, the Government considers that the measures should be a positive step forward in helping Members to engage more effectively in scrutinising those proposals originating in the European Union which are significant and which it is important for this House to examine carefully.
The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Liam Byrne): The Government are soon to introduce a single border force to deliver stronger policing of ports and airports. Along with these changes we will be equipping agency staff with a wide array of police powers, such as those set out in the UK Borders Act. These powers include powers of detention at ports, powers to arrest a person who has committed or is about to commit an offence of assaulting an immigration officer, and powers to enter and search premises for evidence of an arrested individuals nationality.
Before these powers are introduced it is important that effective oversight arrangements are in place. On the 26 July 2007 therefore, I announced the publication of a consultation document on matters related to the implementation of measures in the Police and Justice Act 2006 to extend the Independent Police Complaints Commissions jurisdiction to cover the Border and Immigration Agencys enforcement functions. I wish to inform the House that I am publishing today an analysis of responses, a Government policy statement setting out the Governments consideration of issues raised by respondents and regulations, subject to negative resolution, which will extend the Independent Police Complaints Commissions jurisdiction in this regard.
The IPCC will provide independent oversight of the most serious complaints, incidents and misconduct matters where police powers are used by immigration officers and officials. This oversight will be similar to that which the IPCC provides for the police and other law enforcement bodies such as Her Majestys Revenue and Customs and the Serious Organised Crime Agency.
The new chief inspector created by the UK Borders Act 2007 will monitor the efficiency and effectiveness of the agencys processes and practices as a whole. The IPCC will look at individual cases. The chief inspector will work closely with the IPCC to ensure comprehensive independent external scrutiny of our activities.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Meg Hillier): The Justice and Home Affairs Informal Council was held on 25 and 26 January 2008 in Ljubljana. My right hon. and noble Friend the Attorney-General, the Under-Secretary of State for Justice, my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Garston (Maria Eagle) and I attended on behalf of the United Kingdom. Since it was an informal Council, no formal decisions were taken. The following main issues were discussed:
The first Home Affairs session opened with a report from the presidency on the work of the Future Group on EU Home Affairs. Those not on the group were invited to give their views. All supported the work underway, stressing the need to prioritise data-sharing, both within the EU and co-operation with third countries. In relation to other subject areas, there were suggestions that work might look at the further harmonisation of rules to manage the Schengen area, tighter border controls, measures to bring terrorists to justice and the strengthening of action in the area of civil protection and disaster response. Several delegations also raised the need to ensure that the work of the home affairs group and that of the justice future group were linked more closely. The new European Parliaments civil liberties, Justice and Home Affairs (LIBE) President, Gérard Deprez, gave a general introduction to the approach of LIBE, stressing their concern for privacy and individual rights.
The presidency concluded that interoperability of databases and the needs of law enforcement should drive future EU policy on data-sharing, coupled with thorough data protection. On migration, an integrated approach to management was needed based on Frontex (the EUs border agency), operating across land and sea borders. Links with external policy should be stronger, as should data-sharing, and work with and in third countries. In all these areas the EU should analyse what it already had, and then look at the next steps. The presidency noted that a final report should be prepared under the incoming French presidency, with a view to contributing to the successor to the Hague JHA work programme.
The second session discussed practical co-operation in the field of asylum, with the presidency stressing the need for joint practical projects and asking for views on a European Support Office (ESO) which would oversee
all forms of co-operation between member states on the Common European Asylum System. The UK welcomed practical co-operation based on an assessment of why people moved. The Commission said that its proposals on the second stage of the Common European Asylum System were due in July and work on an ESO should start with a feasibility study. All member states agreed that practical cooperation should be strengthened, and that there was a need for more uniform country of origin information. All member states also supported the ESO, but views differed as to its role and staffing. The presidency concluded that work to unify the interpretation of existing instruments, common training, and shared interpretation pool should continue. There was wide support for an ESO, but further work was needed on its tasks and financing. The presidency looked forward to the Commissions ESO study. The Council would be invited to agree conclusions on this at a future session.
The home affairs session closed the official programme with a working lunch, during which Ministers considered the timetable for the implementation of the second generation of the Schengen information system (SIS II). The Commission and presidency argued that member states had to set and commit to a real timetable for SIS II. More time for testing was needed, but a formal decision had to be taken at the February JHA Council. Ministers agreed with a presidency proposal to remodel the oversight of the SIS II project on similar grounds to that used for SISOne4all, setting up a ministerial level steering group of various member states.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice):
I am today announcing an independent review of the Civil Justice Council in line with Cabinet Office Guidance for Public Bodies. The
Civil Justice Council was established in 1998 and has never been reviewed formally. The review is a timely opportunity to illustrate publicly the considerable achievements of the Council and to help it develop further. The review will be conducted by Dr. Jonathan Spencer CB and will seek the views of the members, those who work with the Council and the end users of the Civil Justice System.
the Councils strengths and weaknesses, the extent to which it has established itself as an authoritative influence in the civil justice world, the extent to which it has chosen important issues to address; and its success in doing so;
the effectiveness of its chosen ways of working, including the Council itself, its committees and the secretariat, and including the way in which it works and communicates with other organisations; and
the ways in which the Council and its work should be adjusted, if at all, to maximise its effectiveness in the future.
The Prime Minister (Mr. Gordon Brown): With effect from 1 April 2008, responsibility for Government Skills will be transferred from the Cabinet Office to the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills.
Government Skills is the Sector Skills Council tasked with working with central Government Departments and the armed forces to increase the skills of the workforce. With the creation of the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills this move will improve alignment with economy-wide skills policy.