The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Stephen Timms): The ECOFIN Council met on Tuesday 4 November 2008. The following items were discussed:
Follow-up to the European Council on 15-16 October: preparation of international initiatives in response to the financial crisis
ECOFIN Ministers held a discussion on the outcomes of the October European Council in preparation for the informal meeting of heads of state and Government in European Council formation on 7 November. The discussion at ECOFIN focused on the next steps for reform. On the basis of the discussion, the French presidency released on its own initiative a paper relating to international financial architecture.
Taxation: Reduced rates of VAT
Ministers held a discussion of a presidency compromise text based on a Commission proposal to allow reduced rates for a specified set of goods and services. The UK believes that member states should be allowed the flexibility to apply reduced rates of VAT where they do not materially affect the functioning of the single market. The issue will come back to the December ECOFIN following further work at technical level.
Combating VAT fraud
Ministers discussed the presidencys compromise proposal on measures to speed up the collection and exchange of data on intra-Community supplies between member states. The proposal will also be subject to further work at technical level.
General arrangements for excise duty
Ministers agreed in principle to a general approach to the directive on holding and movement of excise goods (92/12), subject to Slovenia lifting its scrutiny reserve. The proposal aims to simplify and liberalise the rules on intra-Community movements of goods (mainly alcohol) on which excise duty has already been paid in a member state.
Anti-fraud agreement with Liechtenstein
Ministers discussed the Commissions draft EU-Liechtenstein anti-fraud agreement. The Commission updated Ministers on the progress of the negotiation, which it has been conducting under a mandate from the Council.
Ministers agreed that the Commission should continue its discussions with the Liechtenstein Government.
Climate change and stabilisation of allowance prices under the emissions trading scheme
Poland gave a presentation to ECOFIN on the issue of potential price volatility in the emissions trading scheme. The presidency agreed to further discussion of the issue at the December ECOFIN.
The presidency updated ECOFIN Ministers about the multilateral surveillance work undertaken by the Economic Policy Committee on policies related to flexicurity that have been implemented in various member states.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Alistair Darling): I propose to present the pre-Budget report to the House of Commons on 24 November.
The Minister for Schools and Learners (Jim Knight): Last autumn the Government announced details of the biggest sustained programme of capital investment in schools for over 50 years. Annual capital investment in schools was just under £700 million in 1996-97. By 2011 it is set to rise to £8.2 billion; representing a sevenfold real-terms increase. This unprecedented investment has helped address a significant backlog of work going back over many decades as well as supporting hundreds of new-build schools, including 740 primary schools.
In recent years the emphasis has shifted towards a strategic approach which requires local authorities to consider their whole schools estate and take a long-term view about how capital investment can support wider transformation of teaching and learning; starting with those most in need. Building Schools for the Future was launched in 2004 with the long-term aim of rebuilding or refurbishing all secondary schools. The first completed new built schools came on stream in 2007-08.
Plans for an equally transformational approach to capital investment in primary schools were first announced in 2005. Following an overwhelmingly positive response to consultation in March 2006, the programme got under way with 23 pathfinder authorities in 2007. It will be rolled out nationally to all local authorities from 1 April 2009.
The Primary Capital Programme challenges local authorities to think long-term and strategically about teaching and learning in primary schools in the 21st century and how capital investment can support wider transformation. It commits to renewing at least half of all primary school buildings by 2022-23, creating primary schools that are equipped for 21st century learning, at the heart of their communities, with childrens services in reach of every family.
This marks the start of a £7 billion programme of investment in primary schools. It will be kick-started by £1.75 billion of new capital investment from April 2009. This represents a major injection of new capital investment that will not only benefit children and families but will also provide a welcome boost for the construction industry and local businesses who will be crucial to delivering the new and refurbished primary schools.
Local authorities were advised by the Department last autumn of their indicative share of this funding. To access funding, they were required to prepare and agree with the Department A Primary Strategy for Change. The Department issued comprehensive guidance on the content of these strategic plans in December 2007.
All strategies have now been rigorously assessed against the detailed requirements set out in the guidance. The overall picture is encouragingly positive, giving confidence that the transformational objectives of the programme will be delivered. Collectively, local authorities are planning to start projects at more than 1,500 schools over the next three years. Following assessment local authorities were placed in one of three categories;
Category 1Approved. Assessed as fully meeting the requirements set out in the guidance. Funding for 2009-10 and 2010-11 has been confirmed enabling the LA to plan and procure initial projects. There were 41 local authorities in this category:
Barnet, Bracknell Forest, Bradford, Bromley, Camden, Cornwall, Coventry, Darlington, Devon, Doncaster, Dorset, Ealing, Essex, Gateshead, Gloucestershire, Greenwich, Hackney, Hampshire, Harrow, Hartlepool, Hertfordshire, Kensington and Chelsea, Kingston upon Thames, Kirklees, Lambeth, Leicester, Lewisham, Lincolnshire, Luton, Middlesbrough, Newham, Portsmouth, Redbridge, Redcar and Cleveland, Richmond upon Thames, Rutland, Tameside, Walsall, Warwickshire, Wolverhampton, Worcestershire.
Category 2Approved with some modification. Strategies in this category were judged to be generally sound, but with some areas upon which we would welcome further information/reassurance. For local authorities in this category we have confirmed funding for 2009-10, but future funding will be dependent upon confirmation that issues identified have been resolved. There were 92 authorities in this category:
Barking and Dagenham, Barnsley, Bath and North East Somerset, Bedfordshire, Bexley, Birmingham, Blackburn with Darwen, Blackpool, Bolton, Bournemouth, Brent, Brighton and Hove, Buckinghamshire, Bury, Calderdale, Cambridgeshire, Cheshire, Croydon, Cumbria, Derby, Derbyshire, Dudley, Durham, East Riding of Yorkshire, East Sussex, Enfield, Haringey, Havering, Hillingdon, Hounslow, Isle of Wight, Islington, Kent, Kingston upon Hull, Knowsley, Lancashire, Leeds, Manchester, Merton, Milton Keynes, Newcastle upon Tyne, Norfolk, North East Lincolnshire, North Somerset, North Tyneside, North Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Oldham, Oxfordshire, Peterborough, Plymouth, Poole, Reading, Rochdale, Rotherham, Salford, Sandwell, Sefton, Slough, Solihull, Somerset, South Gloucestershire ,South Tyneside, Southampton, Southwark, St. Helens, Staffordshire, Stockport, Stockton-on-Tees, Stoke-on-Trent, Suffolk, Sunderland, Surrey, Sutton, Swindon, Telford and Wrekin, Torbay, Tower Hamlets, Trafford, Wakefield, Waltham Forest, Wandsworth, Warrington, West Berkshire, West Sussex, Westminster, Wigan, Wiltshire, Windsor and Maidenhead, Wirral, Wokingham, York.
Category 3Further work needed before funding can be released. Strategies in this category had specific issues that must be addressed before funding can be confirmed. There were 15 local authorities in this category:
Bristol, Halton, Hammersmith and Fulham, Herefordshire, Leicestershire, Liverpool, Medway, North Lincolnshire, Northamptonshire, Northumberland, Nottingham, Sheffield, Shropshire, Southend-on-Sea, Thurrock
Authorities in category 3 have been advised that their plans did not match sufficiently well the detailed guidance provided and the Department is unable to confirm funding at this stage. The Department is providing tailored professional advice and support to help them improve their strategies.
Further details about the programme, together with key programme documentation, are available on the Teachernet website.
The Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families (Ed Balls): The death of Baby P in Haringey is a very tragic case that will have shocked and appalled the country. It makes all of us question how someone could do such a terrible thing to a child and set out to deceive the very people trying to help.
Safeguarding children is Governments top priority and we expect it to be the top priority for local agencies too. In response to Lord Lamings report following the
death of Victoria Climbié we introduced fundamental reforms to help keep children safe. Local areas are also now required to review every case where a child is harmed or killed, and neglect or abuse is suspected. We will be considering carefully the serious case review in this case and whether there needs to be a further investigation of child protection procedures and practices amongst local agencies in Haringey.
The reforms put in place by Government in response to Lord Lamings recommendations set a very clear direction and have significantly strengthened the framework for safeguarding children. In order to ensure that these reforms are being implemented systematically, I have asked Lord Laming to prepare an independent report of progress being made, identifying any barriers to effective, consistent implementation, and recommending whether additional action is needed to overcome them. Lord Laming expects to submit his findings early next year.
Safeguarding children is the responsibility of us all. It is vital that we strive for the best possible practice so that vulnerable children receive the protection they need. Government are determined to strengthen the system for safeguarding and we look forward to Lord Lamings report and his recommendations.
The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Mr. Mike O'Brien): After thorough consideration of 193 applications made in the 25th offshore oil and gas licensing round, I have decided to offer 171 production licences. This makes the 25th offshore oil and gas licensing round one of the most successful since offshore licensing began in 1964. This demonstrates the continuing attractiveness both of the UK continental shelf as an oil and gas producing province and of DECCs licensing system.
In addition to the strategic environmental assessment (SEA), which I described in my statement to the House when I invited applications for the 25th licensing round, my officials have carried out a screening assessment on the blocks for which applications were received.
The screening exercise found that significant effects on protected nature conservation areas could not be excluded in relation to 46 blocks. Detailed environmental assessments will be required before a decision can be reached in relation to licensing of these blocks. These assessments will examine the implications for the protected nature conservation areas of awarding oil and gas licences. Accordingly, I will not be offering licences for these blocks at this time.
The Minister for Europe (Caroline Flint): My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary represented the UK at the informal meeting of EU Foreign MinistersGymnichin Marseille, France on 3 November 2008.
The main purpose of the meeting was to agree priorities for EU-US dialogue, following EU Foreign Ministers discussion at their informal meeting on 5 and 6 September. Ministers worked towards agreement of a common platform for member states when engaging with the US, based on a French presidency paper that could be shared with the incoming US Administration.
As a first priority, EU Foreign Ministers discussed reform of international institutions, considering the need for the United States and Europe to work together to enhance the effectiveness of multilateral institutions in managing crises and global imbalances, fully involving the major emerging countries.
They identified the situation in the Middle East as a priority for EU-US dialogue, in order to encourage progress on the middle east peace process (MEPP), Iraq, relations with Syria and Lebanon, and Iran, which remained a major source of concern. High Representative Solana underlined the importance of a comprehensive regional approach to the MEPP. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary stressed the need for tougher sanctions on Iran.
Ministers also considered the situation in Afghanistan, where the United States and European countries are working alongside the Afghans for peace and the reconstruction of their country. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary argued that the EU needed to set out more clearly what it could offer Afghanistan alongside current and future US efforts, rather than simply asking the US to take more action. He suggested that it should look at doing more on both Afghanistan and Pakistan, including meeting our commitments to the EU police mission (EUPOL); holding an EU-Pakistan summit and improving bilateral trade; and enhancing EU/NATO relations more generally.
The final theme of the common platform' was relations with Russia. Ministers agreed that a concerted approach was needed, based on dialogue and compliance with international rules.
AOB: Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and the French presidency briefed Ministers on their joint visit to the DRC on 1 November. Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner gave an update on humanitarian aid. Ministers decided to wait for the UN Secretary-Generals special representative to the DRC to report to the UN Security Council before deciding whether to send an EU military mission with a humanitarian mandate in support of UN peacekeepers.