The Minister for Employment Relations and Postal Affairs (Mr. Pat McFadden): The Low Pay Commission (LPC) has asked for the Governments agreement to delay making recommendations on the national minimum wage (NMW) this year. The recommendations were due to be made by the end of February; the request is to extend this to 1 May. The Government have agreed.
The Low Pay Commission made this request to allow them to take account of two further months of data, including the Bank of Englands inflation report, employee job figures for December, GDP figures for the fourth quarter of 2008, and updates on average earnings.. The Government agree that the LPC recommendations should be based on the best available evidence.
The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Stephen Timms): A new Tax Information Exchange Agreement with Guernsey was signed on 20 January 2009, alongside an arrangement amending the 1952 arrangement with Guernsey for the avoidance of double taxation and the prevention of fiscal evasion with respect to taxes on income. After signature, the text of the agreement and the arrangement were deposited in the Libraries of both Houses and made available on HM Revenue and Customs website. The texts will be scheduled to a draft Order in Council and laid before the House of Commons in due course.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): I wish to announce today that the Government have selected Chatham Historic Dockyard to be the host for the 2009 Armed Forces Day national event.
We announced our plans to hold an Armed Forces Day when we published our response to the Report of Inquiry into National Recognition of our Armed Forces in October last year(1). The intent is to provide an occasion during which the whole nation has the opportunity to show its appreciation for the contribution made to society by all those who serve and have served in Her Majestys Armed Forces.
The title Armed Forces Day has been chosen to reflect the wider armed forces family of serving personnel (both regular and reserve), veterans and the cadet forces. This sense of inclusiveness is reflected in the strapline for the Day: Honouring Britains Armed Forces, Past, Present and Future.
Building on the success of previous Veterans Day celebrations, we plan to mark the occasion with a wide range of community-led events taking place in towns and cities around the country. Last year, we supported over 100 such events and we expect a similar level of activity this year. To provide a focus for the national recognition, we also intend to support a national event and a number of local authorities and other organisations have also submitted bids to be the national event host. There were a number of compelling bids that offered excellent prospects to host a prestigious and fitting event, but against stiff competition, we have selected Chatham Historic Dockyard to be the host for the 2009 national event.
(1)The Governments Response to the Report of Inquiry into National Recognition of our Armed Forces, October 2008.
The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jane Kennedy): Powers in the Climate Change Act allow up to five local authorities in England to pilot household waste incentives schemes.
The Under-Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, my hon. Friend the Member for Lewisham, Deptford (Joan Ruddock), wrote to authorities in June 2008 asking for expressions of interest in piloting a scheme to be sent in within eight weeks after Royal Assent. That date fell yesterday.
No local authorities have so far expressed an interest in taking up these powers. The powers are of course voluntary and were introduced in response to requests from local government. As with all local issues, decisions on waste management are best taken by local government.
There are a range of tools available to local authorities to help them manage their waste more sustainably. Local authorities are working hard to reduce the amount of waste thrown away and increase the amount recycled, and we have seen great progress, with recycling quadrupling in the last 10 years.
The Minister for Europe (Caroline Flint): The General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC) will be held on 26 January in Brussels. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will represent the UK.
The presidency will outline their priorities: Economy, Energy and Europe in the World. In practice, this is likely to mean a focus on enlargement, the Eastern Partnership, energy security, single market, economic recovery, post-2013 Lisbon strategy and better regulation, which the Government support.
We also expect the presidency to present their plans for the Eastern Partnership, which they have said will be a key agenda item for the spring European Council on 19 and 20 March. We support the Eastern Partnership, and will work closely with the presidency, Commission and EU partners to develop the initiative. The presidency plans a Summit of Heads of State from the EU 27 and Eastern partner countries on 7 May to launch the partnership.
The Council will discuss the presidencys priority of Energy Security with particular reference to the Russia-Ukraine gas dispute and its impact on the EU. We support the presidency and Commissions handling of this dispute and agree with President Barroso that it has done long-term damage to both parties reputations as reliable energy partners. We welcome the recently announced agreement by the two parties, and the resumption of gas flow through Ukraine, and hope this will prove to be a long-term, sustainable solution. The situation of the last few weeks cannot be allowed to happen again.
In the longer-term the dispute has highlighted the need to tackle EU energy security as a whole. We therefore expect Ministers to discuss the EU Strategic Energy Review (SEER2), released on 13 November 2008, and look ahead to the adoption of an ambitious action plan at the spring European Council on 19 and 20 March. This will be an important step in ensuring a more coherent EU energy policy. The action plan needs to focus on increasing diversification of energy supplies for the EU and interconnection within the EU, greater transparency of gas flows and improving our ability to respond to supply disruptions. At the same time, the EU needs to increase its energy efficiency and continue to work towards the creation of a fully functioning internal energy market. The SEER2 identifies six strategic energy infrastructure projects. The UK particularly welcomes concrete actions to develop the southern gas corridor, which would bring Caspian gas into the EU via Turkey thereby diversifying both the sources and routes of energy supply.
The Middle East Peace Process, and more specifically Gaza, will be high on the Councils agenda. The GAERC will follow two other EU ministerial meetings which the
presidency has convened at short notice to discuss Gaza: an EU-Israel Foreign Ministers meeting on Wednesday 21 January and a meeting between the EU and the Egyptian, Turkish, Palestinian and Jordanian Foreign Ministers on Sunday 25 January.
The outcome of the GAERC will depend in part on developments this week, and the outcomes of these other meetings. But we hope that the Council will welcome the cessation of hostilities in Gaza and call for all parties to make the current ceasefire permanent through the full implementation of UNSCR 1860.
We also expect Ministers to discuss the EUs specific contribution to the peace process, including a focus on: the provision of urgent humanitarian assistance; efforts to reopen the Gaza crossings, including exploring the EUs readiness to relaunch EUBAM Rafah, its border monitoring mission; and efforts to tackle arms smuggling into Gaza. Ministers are also likely to discuss how best to support inter-Palestinian reconciliation and galvanise the international community behind the wider MEPP and the Arab Peace Initiative.
We expect conclusions to express serious concern at the failure of the regime to respond to the deepening humanitarian crisis in Zimbabwe. We anticipate inclusion of a call for regional states to pave the way for the establishment of an equitable power-sharing agreement in Zimbabwe. We expect a call for investigations into links between illicit diamond trading in Zimbabwe and the regime. Conclusions should also note the extension and renewal of targeted measures against individuals and entities associated with the Mugabe regimes violence and human rights violations. The EU will also reaffirm its commitment to the alleviation of suffering through the provision of aid.
We expect Ministers to welcome President Obamas commitment to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, in line with the EUs long standing position. We also expect Ministers to discuss the issues surrounding closure, including any requests by the US for assistance and whether the EU might consider a collective response.
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (David Miliband): The Government today are launching The UK and China: A Framework for Engagement. This document sets out our policy towards China over the next four years.
The paper states that, while China is already one of the worlds top four economies, we are probably still only in the early stages of its re-emergence. Chinas impact on UK interests is already critical, and it is growing. Chinese markets and investments are increasingly important for UK business. More broadly, Chinese policies are enormously significant for our global agenda: addressing the need for economic, financial and institutional reform through mechanisms such as the G20, managing
global pressure on resources, promoting lower carbon growth and sustainable development, achieving the millennium development goals (MDGs), and reducing conflict and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. On security issues, China is a pivotal member of the UN Security Council and its regional relations will be key to Asian stability.
The framework offers three pillars for the UKs response to this challenge and sets out the series of outcomes we are working for under each. The outcomes are in places aspirational and by necessity subject to review. In a period of economic uncertainty, achieving our targets in trade and economic co-operation will be particularly challenging.
Getting the best for the UK from Chinas growth: this is about encouraging China to see the UK as a global hub, and boosting our business, educational, scientific and cultural gains from the bilateral relationship. It is also about ensuring the UK has the right domestic policies in place to benefit from Chinas growth.
Fostering Chinas emergence as a responsible global player: this is about encouraging an approach of responsible sovereignty on international and global issues, from proliferation and international security to sustainable development and climate change. It is also about helping China to define its interests increasingly broadly.
Promoting sustainable development, modernisation and internal reform in China: this is about influencing Chinas evolving domestic policies, helping China manage the risks of its rapid development and, over time, narrowing differences between us. Greater respect for human rights is crucial to this.
Our strategy also sets out the tools at our disposal to pursue these aims: regular interaction with our Chinese counterparts from the Prime Minister down, our growing network of diplomatic posts, the European Union, and our co-operation with other partners within the EU, with the US and with others. Working towards the outcomes we want will require patience, persistence and effective partnership. We will be candid where we disagree but we will ensure that the relationship remains characterised by co-operation, not confrontation. Building a progressive, comprehensive relationship with China will be a major priority in the years ahead.
The Minister for Europe (Caroline Flint): The UK is committed to supporting the settlement negotiations ongoing in Cyprus aimed at reunifying the island. The current negotiations offer the best chance there has ever been at finding a solution to the Cyprus problem.
The UK Government believe the key work done by UN development programme staff in removing land mines in the buffer zone in Cyprus is important in supporting the settlement negotiations. The work has been a highly successful confidence building measure and was vital in enabling the Ledra street crossing point to open.
I expressed my concern about the shortfall in funding for the Mine Action Centre in 2009 during the House of Commons Adjournment debate on Cyprus on 15 January 2009, Official Report, column 454 and underlined my
belief that its important work should continue. Therefore I am today announcing a UK donation of €50,000 to the UN Mine Action Centre in Cyprus.
The work to remove landmines in the buffer zone has been largely funded by the EU to the sum of €9 million along with donations from Slovenia, Canada and Hungary. The UK donation of €50,000 will cover the running costs of the Mine Action Centre for February and March while the longer-term, sustainable funding is secured to enable this vital work to continue.
I am delighted that we have been able to lend financial support at a critical time to such a high profile confidence building measure with a proven track record of success. I look forward to seeing the centres work at first hand during my next visit to the island in February.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Meg Hillier): The Justice and Home Affairs informal Council was held on 15 and 16 January 2009 in Prague. My right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice and I attended on behalf of the United Kingdom. The first day of the informal Council focused on interior items, whilst the second day dealt with justice issues. A planned debate on EU drug policy did not take place but will be added to the agenda of the next JHA Council on 26 and 27 February 2009.
On the implementation of the second generation Schengen Information System (SIS II), the Commission noted that while significant problems remained, consultants had concluded that the architecture of the system did not need to be fundamentally revised. However, a four-month time period is needed to fix the current problems and provide sufficient stability in the central system for testing to resume. The Commission proposed a new, more focused programme management structure to help deliver this test/repair approach, which involved member state experts.
Delegations expressed frustration at the delays and costs incurred and recommended a thorough analysis of what could be repaired and what was beyond repair. Analysis of what had taken place needed to begin in parallel with a full examination of the alternatives with clear timescales in place. It was also argued that any alternative scenarios needed to take into account the investments already made, something upon which the presidency gave assurances. The UK noted that everyone needed to pull together to solve the current situation.
Delegations were divided on when a decision should be taken on the options available, with some, including the UK, arguing for April, and others, including the Commission, suggesting that June was more viable. The presidency brought the debate to a close by noting that an alternative solution should be scoped in parallel to the ongoing work to test and analyse the current system, and a taskforce approach to testing would be implemented to offer greater scrutiny by member states experts. The February JHA Council will be asked to confirm this approach.
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