The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Alistair Darling): The Economic and Financial Affairs Council was held in Brussels on 12 February 2008. The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury attended for the UK. The items on the agenda were as follows:
Ministers adopted Council opinions on the stability programmes of Germany, Italy, Finland, Luxembourg, France and the Netherlands and on the convergence programmes of the UK, Hungary, Sweden, Romania and Slovakia. The UK supports a prudent interpretation of the stability and growth pact (SGP) which takes into account the economic cycle, sustainability and the important role of public investment.
Ministers adopted a key issues paper ahead of the spring European Council. This paper is comprised of five sections: an overview of the economic situation; structural reform for growth and jobs; public finances; financial markets; and European monetary union. Annexed to the key issues paper is an opinion on the Community Lisbon programmethe proposed set of Community level actions to support the Lisbon strategy for jobs and growth. The UK endorses the paper and looks forward to discussion of these issues at spring Council.
Ministers agreed a set of conclusions stressing the importance of the efficiency of economic instruments for energy and climate change, based on a report from the EPC working group on climate change. The UK strongly supports these conclusions and believes that it is crucial for Finance Ministers to engage with this important agenda. Work on the economic dimension of energy and climate change and on the international financing aspects of global action will now continue at working group level with a view to providing an update to ECOFIN in autumn 2008.
Ministers exchanged views on better regulation in view of the recent publication of the European Commissions second strategic review. Ministers agreed that this was an important agenda that all Council formations should engage with. The UK supports the positive efforts of the Commission and welcomes the progress made both at member states and EU level towards reducing administrative burdens in the EU.
Ministers adopted a recommendation for discharge of the 2006 EU budget, on which the European Court of Auditors presented its report to ECOFIN in November 2007. The UK particularly supported the emphasis put on the need for all actors involved in the implementation of EU expenditure to continue to improve the functioning of supervisory and control systems in order to make further progress towards achieving a positive statement of assurance in all areas of the EC budget.
Ministers will be invited to adopt Council opinions on the stability programmes of Austria, Spain, Ireland, Portugal, Greece, Malta, Cyprus and Slovenia, and on the convergence programmes of the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Denmark, and Lithuania. The UK supports a prudent interpretation of the stability and growth pact (SGP) which takes into account the economic cycle, sustainability and the important role of public investment.
This discussion follows the orientation debate on these documents at the January ECOFIN and further drafting amendments in the Economic Policy Committee and Economic and Financial Committee. Following Ministers discussions, ECOFIN will send a report to the spring 2008 European Council with its reformulated draft texts for endorsement by heads, as part of the launch of the next three-year cycle of the Lisbon strategy.
Ministers will prepare the spring European Councils discussion on issues related to financial stability. Ministers will discuss the causes and possible policy responses to recent financial turbulence, and will prepare contribution for heads of state and Government on the matter.
Ministers will prepare the spring European Councils discussion on sovereign wealth funds. This follows the publication of a communication by the European Commission, which discusses the framework for investments made by sovereign wealth funds.
Ministers will be invited to adopt conclusions agreeing the Councils budget guidelines for the 2009 EC budget. These guidelines are a set of broad principles which are designed to inform the subsequent and more detailed discussions on the level of appropriations required for the different areas of the budget. The subsequent negotiations throughout 2008 will determine the amounts to be spent under each budget heading.
Following discussion of the issue at ECOFIN in December 2007, Ministers will be asked to agree conclusions on work to improve arrangements to combat tax fraud, which have been prepared on the basis of a report by the Commission. The UK is strongly supportive of work that will help in the fight against missing trader intra-community (MTIC) and other VAT fraud, while remaining committed to minimising the burdens on legitimate businesses.
Ministers will hear an update from the European Commission on progress made in extending the framework of the EU savings directive to third countries. The savings directive enshrines the principle of exchange of information on taxation of savings and extends beyond the EU through agreements with third countries and territories.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): I am pleased to announce that I have extended the appointment of Dr Anne Wright CBE as a member of the Armed Forces Pay Review Body for a period of one year, commencing on 1 March 2008. The extension has been approved by the Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments.
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): My noble Friend the Minister for Sustainable Food and Farming and Animal Health represented the United Kingdom at this months Agriculture and Fisheries Council in Brussels.
The Council held a policy debate, based on a presidency questionnaire, on the Commissions communication on the CAP health check. The questionnaire asked Ministers to identify their three priorities for the health check and to present their objectives for dairy reform. The UK called for full decoupling, the dismantling of all market instruments, an increase in compulsory modulation to fund environmental challenges and we opposed limits on higher farm payments, due to the distortion and bureaucracy which that would entail. Member states expressed a wide range of views.
The Council failed to reach a qualified majority for or against on the five proposals to authorise the importation, processing and marketing of four types of GM maize for use in food and animal feed and also for the use of one type of GM potato for use in animal feed. The Commission will now take a decision under its own authority.
Under any other business, the Netherlands suggested the use of CITESConvention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Floraas an additional legislative option to combat the illegal timber trade. The UK intervened to support the
principle but called for all possible tools to be used, as CITES was not the most effective instrument to combat illegal logging.
Sweden, supported by a few member states, expressed concerns following the European Court of Justices ruling concerning the eligibility criteria for the bovine slaughter premium and asked the Commission to bring forward a proposal rectifying the situation. The Agriculture Commissioner said that a proposal was currently being drafted that would prevent the problem from 2008 onwards.
Germany, supported by a few member states, called for further relief measures in the form of private storage aid and export refunds to alleviate the difficulties currently being experienced in the pigmeat sector. The Agriculture Commissioner said that a proposal to extend private storage by a further three months would be submitted to the Pigmeat Management Committee on 21 February.
The Minister for the South West (Mr. Ben Bradshaw): The chairman of Monitorthe statutory name of which is the Independent Regulator of NHS Foundation Trustsannounced last week that, in accordance with section 35 of the National Health Service Act 2006, Monitor has decided to authorise Camden and Islington mental health and social care trust as an NHS foundation trust from 1 March 2008.
The Government remain committed to offering all NHS acute and mental health trusts the opportunity to apply for foundation status as soon as practicable. Monitor is now authorising trusts on a monthly basis, and further waves of NHS foundation trusts are set to follow.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Jim Fitzpatrick):
I am pleased to announce that light dues rates and the tonnage threshold will remain the same for 2008-09. As a result of continuing efficiency gains made by the general lighthouse authorities we were able to cut dues by 10 per cent. in 2006, which we
held down at that level in 2007 and now will hold again in 2008. We shall continue to work closely with the general lighthouse authorities to streamline and improve services further to reduce costs where we can, while maintaining prudent funding to meet their liabilities and high standards of safety.
I also welcome the publication of the Irish lights evidence study today. The study sets out evidence on the funding of the provision of aids to navigation in the Republic of Ireland. It will provide the basis for negotiations between the UK and Irish Governments to find a long term funding solution for the Commissioners of Irish Lights. I am placing copies of the study in the Libraries of the House.
The Secretary of State for Transport (Ruth Kelly): I am today announcing plans for my Department to take forward work to consider the long-term capacity of the M11 motorway and the West Anglia main line. This is in recognition of the proposed growth in the draft East of England plan and the need to support this with effective and sustainable transport links. This work would also need to take account of potential expansion of Stansted airport.
Last year my predecessor announced publication of the Highways Agencys consultation on plans to widen the M11 between junction 6 and junction 8, and to improve the junction access from the M11 and the A120 to Stansted airport.
I consider that the form of capacity improvements to the M11 in the period before 2030 requires further assessment and as a result I have asked the Highways Agency to carry out further work to look into this. This work will take account of the forecast growth in the region and ensure that, in seeking to exploit the regions economic opportunities, we do so in a socially and environmentally sustainable way, considering a range of ways to provide the additional capacity that is needed.
If this work determines that widening the M11 is needed, it has been agreed that BAA would contribute to the overall costs, subject to the necessary referral to the economic regulator. My Department will announce shortly the results of the consultation on the schemes required to provide access from the M11 and A120 to an expanded Stansted airport, which BAA has agreed to fund in full.
Therefore, to complement the Highways Agencys further work on the M11, I am also asking Network Rail to develop and bring forward proposals for enhancing the West Anglia main line. This work should examine the case for further enhancements, to provide for longer term capacity and service improvements, in the context of Network Rails recent Greater Anglia route utilisation strategy (RUS).
Following recent feasibility work led by my Department, I confirm that this assessment should incorporate consideration of line and route improvements including a potential four-tracking option from Tottenham Hale to south of Cheshunt, and an assessment of what commitments would be needed to deliver this solution.
The anticipated timescales for this assessment are for necessary development work and powers to be completed within railway control period 4 (2009-14), with a view to targeting delivery in control period 5 (2014-19).
This would be in addition to the more immediate capacity enhancements I announced in my White Paper Delivering a Sustainable Railway, and the High Level Output Specification (HLOS), which were published last year.
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