The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Alistair Darling): The Economic and Financial Affairs Council was held in Luxembourg on 3 June 2008. The Chief Secretary to the Treasury attended for the UK. Items on the agenda were as follows:
Ministers agreed to the abrogation of the excessive deficit procedures for Italy, the Czech Republic, Portugal and Slovakia. The recommendations for the abrogation were based on the Commissions Spring 2008 economic forecasts which confirmed that the deficit to GDP ratio for these member states would fall below the 3 per cent. reference value and remain below it in future years.
The Council held an exchange of views on the basis of the recent Commission communication marking the tenth anniversary of European monetary union. The communication reflects on the success of the single currency over the past decade, including its contribution to macroeconomic stability, cross-border trade and investment, financial integration, and its role as a world currency. It also highlights future challenges, citing globalisation, climate change mitigation and financial market turbulence as particular examples.
Ministers exchanged views on the progress made against the convergence criteria by those member states seeking to join the Euro, with a particular focus on Slovakia. On the basis of the report Ministers noted that Slovakia had met the criteria for entry into the euro on 1 January 2009, pending a discussion by Heads Of State and Government at the European Council on 18-19 June 2008.
As formally requested by the UK at the May ECOFIN, member states held an exchange of views on the issue of food prices in the context of recent commodity price inflation. This debate, and the Council note which resulted, will prepare the forthcoming discussion at heads level at the June European Council. The UK welcomed the opportunity to discuss this important issue at European level, and looks forward to the European Council discussion producing a strong set of conclusions outlining short-term, mid-term and long-term measures at EU and international level.
i) Clearing and settlement
Ministers agreed a set of Council conclusions on the ongoing workstreams to improve the market infrastructure for clearing and settlement of equities, derivatives and bonds. The UK strongly supports this work.
ii) Solvency II
The Council noted and agreed to the progress report from the Commission on the state of play of the Solvency II directive on insurance and reinsurance. Further discussion of the directive will now take place under the French presidency. The UK supports work to ensure more effective supervision of pan-European insurance groups.
iii) Deposit guarantee scheme
Ministers held an orientation debate on deposit guarantee schemes, on the basis of an initial discussion at the April informal ECOFIN on the functioning of such schemes for cross-border firms. The debate gave a political steer for the official level work on guarantee schemes. The UK views this work as very important and has offered to share expertise with other member states based on our own experiences.
i) VAT on financial and insurance services
The Council took note of the state of play on Commission proposals for changes to the VAT treatment of financial services and insurance products on the basis of a presidency progress report. The UK welcomes the progress made under the Slovenian presidency on the modernisation on the VAT exemption for financial services.
ii) Excise duties: proposal for a directive concerning the general arrangements for excise duty
Ministers noted a progress report on the proposed directive on excise duty, which would update and simplify the arrangements for excisable goods in the EU and establish a legal base for a new computerised administration system. The French presidency will continue work on this dossier.
iii) Report of the code of Conduct Group (business taxation)
The Council took note of a report from the code of conduct group on business taxation on its work under the Slovenian presidency and agreed conclusions that underlined the importance of agreement on the groups future work programme and noted that ECOFIN would return to this issue under the French presidency. The code of conduct group is a group of high-level representatives, chaired by Mrs. Jane Kennedy, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, which works to identify and eliminate harmful tax practices. The UK is a strong supporter of the work of the group.
The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): I am today launching the National Challengea detailed strategy to make sure that parents and pupils experience good standards in all secondary schools, with the expectation that, by 2011, every school will have at least 30 per cent. of its pupils achieving five or more higher grade GCSEs, including both English and mathematics. This takes forward a key children's plan commitment. I have placed copies of the relevant documents in the Libraries of both Houses.
Every child deserves a school where there is effective leadership, with a strong focus on the basics: excellent teaching and learning with good discipline. Schools should have a strong ethos which promotes high aspiration and a love of learning. They must develop the talents of all their pupils and be resolute in raising standards, while supporting the needs of every child. The barriers to learning, both inside and out of schools, need to be overcome by excellent co-operation between schools and wider children's services, working seamlessly together.
The National Challenge will help make this a reality for all schools. It will end a culture of failure and low attainment. It will confront complacency and provide incentives for every secondary school to improve.
The National Challenge is founded on the principle that schools themselves must lead the changes necessary to meet the 2011 goal by working effectively, and with
other schools, local partners, as well as parents, carers and communities, to make sure every child is supported in a way that secures educational success.
Local authorities will play a central role in the national challenge. Working with other Childrens Trust partners, they provide strategic leadership to the schools system locally and bring together all the wider services that enable children to succeed and achieve, and create the environment in which children and families can thrive. Each local authority will need to provide support and challenge to the efforts of schools and take bold steps where necessary to ensure success.
National Challenge schools will be strongly supported. The Government will now deploy £400 million of funding to secure extra support and, where needed, transformational strategies for the most vulnerable secondary schools, with solutions matched to schools individual needs and the level of risk that they will not meet the 2011 target. National Challenge schoolsthat is, the 638 currently below the 30 per cent. thresholdwill be able to draw additional resources, for example in English, maths or behaviour support, to meet their needs. National Challenge schools will also be among the first to benefit from our policies to make teaching a Masters level profession.
The National Challenge will draw on lessons we have learned from the success of the London challenge programme, which has already been extended to Greater Manchester and the Black Country. This has given us experience of working with large numbers of schools in challenging circumstances in some of the most deprived areas of the country. It will also be an opportunity for national leaders of education and other strong heads to play a key role in mentoring and in leading partnerships with weaker schools.
The National Challenge will involve the creation of more partnerships between schools, where a strong school may be funded to drive improvement in a weaker one, developing and sustaining a new culture of excellence. Experience shows that such partnerships usually cemented as trustscan deliver substantial and rapid improvements in weak schools. Some National Challenge trusts will involve closure of a weak school, linked to a plan to reopen as a new trust school. Alongside the closure plan, we envisage an improvement partnership led by a strong local school, to build capacity and share good practice. In many cases, a powerful external partner such as a local business or university will also add energy to the trust. National Challenge trusts will receive appropriate additional funding to enable the new school to make a fresh beginning.
In addition, the National Challenge will facilitate an acceleration of the academy programme in areas where it is most needed, and particularly in those schools where previous interventions and support have not worked.
The National Challenge will be supported by a panel of expert advisers, under the chairmanship of Sir Mike Tomlinson, formerly Her Majestys Chief Inspector of Schools. They will provide independent expertise in relation to the most significant problems faced by local authorities with National Challenge schools.
The National Challenge is a vital step towards the Governments ambitions to achieve world class standards in all our schools, to put an end to all low educational expectations and complacency, and to enable every child to achieve success and fulfil their potential.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Des Browne): Members of the armed forces who die on operations or in training are remembered on the new armed forces memorial in Staffordshire, which was dedicated by Her Majesty the Queen last October. For some months now, the military chiefs of staff have been giving careful consideration to how the nation might give additional recognition.
The chiefs have concluded that the time is now right to recommend a new national award for the families of those personnel who die on operations, or as a result of terrorist action whilst on duty. This award will recognise their terrible loss and the sacrifice made by their loved one whilst serving their country. The chiefs recommendations have been welcomed by MOD Ministers, endorsed by the cross-Government Committee on Honours and Awards and been approved by Her Majesty the Queen.
The recognition will be in the form of a memorial scroll and an emblem for wear. The scroll will be similar in concept to those that were issued to the families of those who died in the two world wars and in Korea in the early 1950s. The introduction of an emblem for the families of those killed is not something that we have done as a nation before, but similar recognition already exists, for example, in Canada and New Zealand. The chiefs of staff have also recommended that the award should be retrospective.
Much detailed work will now be required to consider what the criteria for the award should be, how far the award should go back and who will receive it, along with other issues such as the design and production of the scroll and emblem. A team has been established and is pressing ahead with this work. This is a sensitive and complex subject and we must take time to get the details right. It will therefore be some months before the award will be ready for issue and I expect to be able to announce more details later this year.
I pay tribute to the bravery and courage that the families of all our serving men and women show and I hope that the new award will provide a more visible form of recognition from the nation for those who pay the ultimate sacrifice in the name of their country.
The Secretary of State for Health (Alan Johnson): The 2006 community White Paper Our health, our care, our say signalled the review of the Prime Ministers strategy on carers as part of the new deal for carers. In June 2007 we launched an extensive consultation process.
Today we are announcing our new 10-year carers strategy, Carers at the heart of 21(st) century families and communities. The strategy sets an ambitious vision focusing on providing greater services and support for carers over the next 10 years. Specifically, in the short
term to kick-start the process of improving support for carers, we are investing an additional £150 million in providing breaks for carers, up to £38 million in helping carers combine paid employment and caring and over £6 million in support for young carers. Furthermore, we are committed, in the longer term, to reviewing the structure of the benefits available to carers in the context of wider benefit reform and the fundamental review of the care and support system. In total, we are investing £255 million in the short-term commitments included in the strategy. This investment builds on the annual carers grant provided to local authorities to support carers (this stands at £224 million in 2008-09).
This process, although led by Department of Health, has involved work across a number of Government Departments, reflecting the fact that this strategy sets the agenda not simply for health and social care but across government.
The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Liam Byrne): I have made an authorisation under section 19D of the Race Relations Act 1976, as amended, to enable the Secretary of State to request that asylum applicants claiming to be a Somali or an Eritrean national submit to language analysis. This authorisation replaces the Race Relations (Immigration and Asylum) (Language Analysis) Authorisation 20084 February 4 Junewhich will expire on the latter date.
Language analysis carried out between February and June for some Somali and Eritrean asylum applicants demonstrated that significant proportions of those tested had claimed to be of a nationality, or from a region or grouping, that was not their own in order to try to gain residence in this country. This authorisation will assist the Secretary of State to make decisions in individual cases, and to ascertain the extent of this abuse.
The Secretary of State may take a refusal to submit to testing into account when determining whether an applicant has assisted in establishing the facts of his or her case. The authorisation will remain in place for 10 monthsuntil April 2009at which point we will review whether it is still necessary and appropriate.
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Paul Goggins): I have today published the Probation Board for Northern Ireland business plan for 2008-09. The plan sets out the boards key objectives and performance targets for the coming year.
The director of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) and I are today publishing a report from Jessica de Grazia, a former senior prosecutor in the USA, of her review of the working practices of the SFO. The review was commissioned in March 2007 by the former Attorney-General, Lord Goldsmith, and the former director of the Serious Fraud Office, Robert Wardle.
To support her review, Ms de Grazia compared the SFO with two prosecutors offices in the USA. Her analysis and recommendations cover the internal workings of the SFO in some detail, and she has also covered a number of external factors which she sees as having an impact on the SFOs effectiveness. We are very grateful to Ms de Grazia for the extensive work she has put into preparing this detailed report.
Tackling fraud effectively is a matter of the highest priority. The new director of the SFO, Richard Alderman, is taking forward a programme of significant reforms to the SFO, addressing issues of leadership, skills, structures and working practices. He is grateful to have Ms de Grazias detailed analysis of the internal workings of the SFO as background to his change programme.
Ms de Grazias recommendations about external factors affecting the prosecution of fraud go wider than the SFO, and provide an interesting perspective for the development of policy in this area, based on US experience.
Some of her recommendations can be accepted or are already in hand, for example the Crown Prosecution Service has now adopted the practice of speaking to witnesses in limited circumstances to clarify or assess the reliability of their evidence. The Government intend to extend means testing for legal aid to the Crown court, and agree that legal aid payments should be for outcomes not time spent.
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