The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Alistair Darling): The ECOFIN Council met on Tuesday 2 December 2008. The Chancellor and the Economic Secretary to the Treasury represented the UK. The following items were discussed:
Finance Ministers discussed and agreed ECOFINs input to the European Council. The contribution covers the Commissions European Economic Recovery Plan, which included recommendations regarding macroeconomic policies and structural reforms, and guidance regarding the implementation of SGP. Input on the response to the international financial crisis was discussed, following up on both the informal meeting of Heads Of State or Government on 7 November, and the Washington summit on 15 November. On both these workstreams, the Government are fully supportive of a Europe in favour of the need for economic reform and financial stability.
Following discussions at the September informal and meetings in October and November, Ministers held a brief discussion on reduced rates of VAT. Discussion was focused on a French presidency compromise text based on the Commissions July 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 presidency concluded that unanimity was not achievable at this meeting. Further discussion is expected to take place under the Czech presidency.
ECOFIN agreed a set of conclusions on the ongoing extension of the savings directive, in line with the Governments view to include a reasonable extension to the scope of the directive while seeking to minimise any unnecessary additional burdens placed on business as a result of changes to the directive. Ministers agreed that negotiations should continue with non-EU financial centres to apply equivalent measures. The Government believe that the directive is an important tool in fighting tax fraud and continue to support its extension.
The code of conduct group works to implement Finance Ministers political commitment (endorsed at the December 1997 ECOFIN) to tackle harmful tax competition. Following agreement at a recent code of conduct meeting, ECOFIN adopted the code groups future work package. The Government continue to support the work of the group to tackle harmful tax competition.
The European Court of Auditors presented ECOFIN with the annual report on the implementation of the EC Budget for the financial year 2007. While some progress had been made, the court was unable to provide a clean bill of health for the majority of expenditure. The Commission emphasised the responsibility of member states. Work by the UK and three other member states on national declarations was welcomed, and the Commission confirmed that a communication on tolerable risk would issue shortly. ECOFIN will hold a further discussion in February regarding the Councils recommendation to the European Parliament on discharging the Budget.
The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Stephen Timms): Following Cabinet Office guidance, the Valuation Office Agency will be reviewed by its parent Department, HM Revenue and Customs. Copies of the terms of reference have been placed in the Libraries of the House. The review will invite comments from interested stakeholders and more details can be found at www. hmrc.gov.uk/consult/voa.htm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Barbara Follett): A meeting of the Education, Youth and Culture Council was held on 20 and 21 November. The Welsh Assembly Government Minister for Heritage, Alun Ffred Jones, represented the UK for the cultural and audiovisual agenda items taken on the morning of 20 November.
The Council adopted the conclusions on a new European heritage label. A number of member states welcomed the new label as adding value to existing initiatives such as the UNESCO world heritage list. Initially the UK had some concerns about the European heritage label, but these were adequately addressed in the final text of the conclusions. The UK was able to support their adoption, in particular the voluntary nature of the scheme. The Commission will now bring forward a legislative proposal in 2010.
Council conclusions on the contribution of architecture to sustainable development were agreed. The UK supported the adoption of the conclusions as they reflect the UKs approach to architecture, sustainable design, and built environment education. The forthcoming Swedish presidency announced they would build on this with a conference towards the end of 2009.
The role of culture in the external relations of the EU was also discussed at the Council meeting. The member states that intervened agreed that culture was an important element of relations with third countries and that the UNESCO convention on the diversity of cultural expressions should be the basis for EU action. The UK
was content with this outcome and supported the adoption of the conclusions. However, some member states felt that more needed to be done to ensure equality of all EU languages and called for a declaration to this end. These countries were also critical of the Commission for the lack of translation of some documents they produce.
These issues were again raised during the discussion of section 4 of the resolution on multilingualism and translation. In particular, some member states wanted assurances that a presidency background note that called for new EU activity on translation (including a possible new centre for translation) was not binding. The UK intervened in Welsh to show its support for the multilingualism agenda, but also to support the scepticism expressed about a new European translation centre.
Ministers adopted conclusions on Europeana, the European digital library, and were supportive of this new cultural resource. The UK welcomed the aspiration to digitise European content and to increase accessibility to our shared cultural heritage and supported the adoption of these conclusions. During the discussion concerns were raised about the possible impact on the availability of content of Commission proposals to extend copyright term from 50 to 95 years.
The Council also adopted conclusions on legal offers of online cultural content and combating piracy. It was agreed that copyright protection was central to this process. The text of the conclusions is in line with UK national priorities.
Under any other business, the presidency and Commission presented the Council with updates on European archives and the safer internet programme. Sweden raised concerns about the Commission communication on state aid to public service broadcasting. Germany raised an information point on support for digitisation of cinemas. There were no discussions following any of these items.
The Czech Minister presented the priorities for the forthcoming Czech presidency in the fields of culture and audiovisual. Culture priorities included discussing the role of culture in achieving the Lisbon objectives; strengthening links with civil society; and celebrating the 2009 year of creativity and innovation and the 20th anniversary of the fall of the iron curtain. Audiovisual priorities included the digitisation of cultural content.
The Minister of State, Department of Energy and Climate Change (Mr. Mike O'Brien): Further to the answer given on 5 November 2008 (Official Report, column 574), I wish to clarify that National Grid does publish a breakdown of electricity generation projects by generation type that have a connection offer of 2015 or earlier. This information is provided in t able 3.5 of National Grids seven year statement, available at http://www.nationalgrid.com/uk/Electricity/SYS/.
The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jane Kennedy): The National Contingency Plan for Exotic Animal Diseases has been laid before Parliament today in accordance with Section 14a of the Animal Health Act 2002, which came into force on 24 March 2003.
This plan is sets out the operational arrangements DEFRA will put in place to deal with any occurrence of foot and mouth disease, avian influenza or Newcastle disease. The plan also applicable to other exotic animal diseases. It is composed of two elements: DEFRAs framework response plan for exotic animal diseases, outlining the systems, and structures which are established and detailing the key roles and responsibilities of Ministers and officials during an outbreak of disease; and DEFRAs overview of emergency preparedness which provides details of our preparedness and operational response.
DEFRAs contingency plan is very much a living document. It will be subject to ongoing revision taking on the latest developments in science, research, and epidemiological modelling together with lessons identified from outbreaks.
The Secretary of State for Health (Alan Johnson): Smoking remains the single greatest cause of preventable death and is one of the primary causes of health inequality in the United Kingdom. The Government have an important responsibility to protect children and young people from smoking. We remain particularly concerned that in Great Britain, nearly seven in 10 adults who have ever smoked regularly say that they started smoking regularly before they were 18 years old.
Over the past decade, the Government have achieved a great deal in tobacco control. To build on this success in promoting public health, the Government have committed to develop a new national tobacco control strategy.
To guide the development of this new strategy, the Department published the consultation on the future of tobacco control in May 2008 to enable stakeholders and the wider public to provide input from the earliest stages. Today we published a report summarising the more than 96,000 responses the Department received. The report has been placed in the Library and copies are available to hon. Members from the Vote Office.
We will bring to an end the practice of exposing children to the ubiquitous promotion of tobacco products in retail environments by removing the display of tobacco at the point of sale. According to Cancer Research UK, since the ban on advertising of tobacco introduced by the Tobacco Advertising and Promotion Act 2002, display of tobacco in retail environments has become the primary source of tobacco marketing for young people. We believe that taking action on display of tobacco at the retail point of sale should not represent a significant financial burden on retailers.
We also plan further controls on the sale of tobacco from vending machines, by seeking powers to either remove machines or require age restrictions to limit the easy access young people have to this source of tobacco. Vending machines are one of the most common and easily accessible sources of cigarettes for young people.
Before bringing legislation on point of sale display and tobacco vending machines into force, the Government will work closely with retailers and other stakeholders to develop regulations setting out detailed requirements. We will aim to ensure requirements do not place unnecessary costs or burdens on the retail industry. We will also ensure ample lead-in time before any legislation is commenced to support businesses to prepare.
As part of their consultation, the Government also sought views on whether to bring forward innovative proposals on tobacco packaging. We believe that more needs to be done to develop our understanding of how the packaging of tobacco products influences smoking by both adults and young people. The Government will therefore keep tobacco packaging under close review.
The significant health risks associated with smoking are well documented. We believe these proposals are an important, effective and proportionate step in protecting children and young people from the dangers of tobacco use.
The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Phil Woolas):
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has today laid before Parliament the fifth and final annual report produced under section 19E of the Race Relations Act 1976 by Mary Coussey, the Independent Race Monitor. Copies of the report and her response are available in the Vote Office. The Independent Race Monitor has a statutory duty to report to Parliament through the Home Secretary on ministerial authorisations made under section 19D of the Race Relations Act enabling immigration staff to discriminate on the basis of nationality or ethnic or national origin in the exercise of their functions. The position of Race Monitor has now been abolished and its functions have been included in those of a new position of chief inspector. My right
hon. Friend and I would like to place on record our thanks to Mary Coussey for the work she carried out as the Race Monitor.
The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Phil Woolas): I have made an authorisation under section 19D of the Race Relations Act 1976, as amended, in the light of a sharp increase in applications to the Border and Immigration Agency from inadequately documented individuals who claim to be North Korean in 2007, and intelligence indicating that significant numbers of these may hold South Korean citizenship gained through the South Korean new settlers scheme, which provides citizenship to all North Koreans who request it within the South Korean territory.
The authorisation will enable the Secretary of State to forward to the South Korean authorities fingerprints of inadequately documented individuals who claim to be North Korean, for the purposes of checking against their national fingerprint database and ascertaining their citizenship.
With the valued co-operation from the South Korean Government, this authorisation will facilitate the return to South Korea of those individuals who come to the UK and falsely claim to only hold North Korean citizenship and who do in fact hold South Korean citizenship.
The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Phil Woolas): 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 nationals of Afghanistan submit to language analysis.
Language analysis carried out for some Somali and Eritrean asylum applicants demonstrates that significant proportions of those tested have claimed to be of a nationality, or from a region or grouping, that is not their own in order to try to gain residence in this country. We are aware that a proportion of Afghan claims also are from other nationalities. This new authorisation will assist the Secretary of State to make decisions in individual Afghan cases, and to ascertain the extent of abuse within this nationality.
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