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Written Ministerial Statements

Tuesday 17 March 2009

Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

EU Competitiveness Council

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (Ian Pearson): The following statement provides information on the Competitiveness Council which took place in Brussels on 5 March 2009, at which I represented the UK. The meeting was chaired by Alexandra Vondra, Czech Deputy Prime Minister for European Affairs.

The meeting started with discussion of the Commission’s single market review progress report. Member states agreed conclusions on the single market as a source of competitiveness and engine of economic recovery and that protectionism should be avoided in all circumstances. Single market priorities included rapid implementation of the Services Directive and Small Business Act. I emphasised three key points: to protect the integrity of the single market; to continue to improve the functioning of the single market; and to identify priority areas for action through targeted reforms.

The Commission presented a key issues paper on the Lisbon strategy for EU competitiveness. In discussion, member states wanted short-term responses to the economic crisis to be consistent with long-term structural reforms. Industrial and economic support measures should be co-ordinated and respect single market rules. Member states agreed that priorities for competitiveness were SME access to finance, innovation and research, reducing administrative burdens and the energy internal market. I stressed the need for globally open markets, completing the Doha world trade round, reviewing the EU budget, active labour market policies and for low carbon investment. The key issues paper was formally adopted after some discussion on the text.

Over lunch, Ministers discussed the economic crisis and the automotive sector. This continued in the afternoon session where member states agreed conclusions on the single market, avoiding discrimination and protectionism, as well as access to finance. The importance of research and innovation and underpinning infrastructure to foster green products and technologies were highlighted.

I emphasised the need for co-ordination at EU level to respond to the crisis in the European automotive industry, to avoid national protectionist measures and for European Investment Bank funding to the EU automotive industry to be sectorally and geographically balanced. I also said that the UK had reservations about the viability and value for money of vehicle scrappage schemes, but welcomed flexibility for member states to implement schemes as appropriate. In discussion the Commission raised concerns about the impact of the EU-Korea free trade agreement and in response I highlighted the wider benefits for the EU. The draft Council conclusions on the automotive industry were
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adopted, with the presidency concluding that there will be a further debate on the sector at the next Council in May.

The presidency briefly introduced its progress report on better regulation, highlighting the fact that over half of burdens come from Europe. The Commission was supportive of the report and said that better regulation was a top priority to help overcome the economic crisis.

Under any other business, a brief update was provided on EU enlargement, which the presidency said has been beneficial for all, and the Internal Market and Consumer Market Scoreboards. The Commission said that member states would be involved in a mid to long-term strategy for the Transatlantic Economic Council before the EU-US summit in June. Regarding the external dimension of EU competitiveness, the Commission emphasised the need for regulatory convergence and the benefits of multilateral agreements. On the Small Business Act package of EU measures to support small businesses, the Commission stressed the importance of implementation in view of the current economic crisis.

Treasury

ECOFIN (10 March)

The Chancellor of the Exchequer (Mr. Alistair Darling): The Economic and Financial Affairs Council was held in Brussels on 10 March 2009. The following items were discussed:

Implementation of the Stability and Growth PactStability and Convergence programmes

The Commission presented its views on the stability or convergence programmes submitted by 21 member states under the terms of the Stability and Growth Pact. Ministers agreed Council opinions on all 21 programmes, and stressed the importance of ensuring fiscal stimuli remained temporary, timely and targeted. The UK supports a prudent interpretation of the stability and growth pact which takes into account the economic cycle, sustainability and the important role of public investment.

Preparation of the Spring European Council

a) Key Issues Paper

ECOFIN adopted the key issues paper, which will be put forward at the Spring European Council on 19 and 20 March. The paper focuses on the challenges facing the EU in 2009, the need for short-term action to stabilise the economy and long-term measures to prevent recurrence. The UK supports the paper and particularly welcomes the assurances from the European Investment Bank about its lending for the automotive industry.

b)Common messages to the G20 summit

Ministers discussed the EU common messages to feed into the London G20 summit. Discussion centred on the presidency’s proposed terms of reference, which were endorsed by the Council. The Government welcome the EU’s participation in a meeting of G20 Finance Ministers on 14 March that will prepare the London G20 summit’s discussions of the macro-financial response to the downturn, the reform of the international financial institutions and how to reshape the global financial regulatory system.

c)Country-Specific Integrated Recommendations

ECOFIN approved a report to the European Council regarding broad guidelines for economic policy. The
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report focuses on country-specific integrated recommendations to be made to individual member states within the framework of the European economic recovery plan. The UK believes that in the current economic climate the implementation of the Lisbon strategy, including these recommendations, should be a priority for member states.

d)Reduced VAT rates

Ministers discussed reduced rates of VAT and reached political agreement on a limited number of changes to Directive 2006/112/EC, allowing member states greater flexibility to apply reduced VAT rates to certain supplies of goods and services. The Council also declared its full support for the prolongation for another two years of the UK’s targeted reverse charge derogation aimed at combating intra-community VAT fraud. The UK welcomes the outcome of these discussions.

e)International financing of climate change

The Council discussed and agreed conclusions to form part of the EU’s overall strategic approach to global climate negotiations in Copenhagen in December 2009. The UK welcomes the conclusions, which demonstrate the Council’s commitment to tackling this issue.

General budget of the European UnionCouncil priorities for the 2010 budget

ECOFIN adopted Council conclusions on its budgetary priorities for the EU financial year 2010. The Commission welcomed the conclusions, highlighting the importance of sound financial management, effective forecasting and good budget implementation as the guiding principles for the budget. ECOFIN will revisit the subject in June, after the Commission’s publication of the preliminary draft budget in May.

Other business

Convention on centralised customs clearance

Member states completed the signature of a convention on centralised customs clearance concerning the allocation of national collection costs retained when traditional own resources are made available from the EU budget. The Government welcome this step.

Defence

Service Family Accommodation

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): An asset survey of Service Family Accommodation (SFA) in England and Wales has been carried out as part of the Housing Prime Contract with Modern Housing Solutions. The survey was initially designed to compile an asset register (detailing for instance the make and model of boilers) but its scope was extended to collect “standard for condition” information and life cycle data for planning purposes. The results of the survey will provide improved management information to help us plan for the future and we will use the data from now on to inform reporting on the condition of SFA.

Of the 44,000 properties in England and Wales, to date we have analysed condition data for over 40,500 properties. The remaining properties will be surveyed between now and April 2010. Consideration is being given to undertaking similar surveys of SFA in Scotland
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and Northern Ireland, where the properties are maintained under Regional Prime Contracts. A survey of the overseas housing estate is already in progress.

The survey was visual and carried out by professionally qualified surveyors. Over 300 items of data were collected for each property and the improved information resulting has led to changes in the numbers of properties in each of the four standards for condition (standard 1 being the highest and standard 4 the lowest).

Previously reported figures reflected the results of a condition survey undertaken in 1996. The more detailed information collected in the present survey has changed the balance between standard 1 and 2 for condition. Overall, around 90 per cent. of SFA in England and Wales falls within these two standards but 32 per cent. are now assessed at standard 1 and 57 per cent. as being at standard 2, broadly reversing the previous position. Standard 2 properties are considered to be of a high standard, and both those and standard 1 properties have been assessed by the NAO as meeting or exceeding the Government’s decent homes standard.

The condition of each property is assessed against eight groupings of items (for example relating to the building fabric, or kitchen). Each grouping receives its own Standard for Condition and the lowest of these decides the overall standard of the property. Hence a property could be assessed as standard 2 (rather than 1) if seven of its groupings are at standard 1 but one is at standard 2.

The number of houses falling into standard 4 has increased, though remains fewer than 450. Service families are no longer required to live in such properties, although some choose to do so. From 2012 no families will have to live in properties at either of the two lowest Standards for Condition. We remain committed to housing our personnel in high quality accommodation and this survey will help us achieve that objective.

Innovation, Universities and Skills

EU Competitiveness Council

The Minister of State, Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (Mr. David Lammy): My right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Science and Innovation, Lord Drayson, has made the following written statement:

International Development

Gaza

The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Douglas Alexander): On 1 March I visited Gaza to see first hand the effect that the recent conflict has had on ordinary people. During my visit I pledged £30 million for the first phase of reconstruction in Gaza, known as “early recovery”. This will help restore basic services, and rebuild damaged and destroyed homes, schools and hospitals. The pledge includes a new £20 million provision and £10 million from the support announced in January, bringing the UK response to the recent conflict in Gaza to nearly £50 million.

The Foreign Secretary reiterated this pledge on 2 March at the Sharm el-Sheikh conference on Gazan reconstruction, and spoke of the need for a comprehensive peace between Israel and her neighbours. He made it clear that the Palestinian people need a single Government across the occupied Palestinian territories. Participants at the conference welcomed the Palestinian national early recovery and reconstruction plan presented at the conference, and confirmed it would form the basis for their support to Gaza. They said they would channel their assistance through existing international and regional mechanisms.

Access for much-needed materials will be critical for early recovery and reconstruction to take place. Following my visit to Gaza, I met with Isaac Herzog, the Israeli
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Minister responsible for co-ordinating aid to Gaza, and pressed for improved access and for a relaxation of restrictions on the type of goods that are allowed across the border. At the Sharm conference the following day, there was broad support for full opening of the crossings to Gaza to allow reconstruction to take place. In his speech, the Foreign Secretary endorsed principles for humanitarian access drawn up by the UN and other humanitarian agencies.

The current focus on humanitarian aid and early recovery does not diminish the need for full reconstruction. The World Bank, EC and UN will take the lead on a full needs assessment, working closely with the Palestinian Authority. Reviving the Gaza economy is also critical to the long-term recovery of Gaza. Jobs need to be created, large-scale public infrastructure needs to be repaired, and civil administration rebuilt.

Justice

Bailiff and Enforcement Law

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): Today, I am announcing measures to strengthen regulation of the enforcement industry and clarify the rights, responsibilities and legal limits of debtors, creditors and bailiffs.

The Tribunals, Courts and Enforcement Act received Royal Assent in July 2007. It goes a long way to codify over 800 years of bailiff and enforcement law, following 10 years of assessment, debate and consultation. Last year my right hon. Friend Secretary of State for Justice and Lord Chancellor asked for a reassessment to ensure that the enforcement provisions in the Act remain appropriate. Following a comprehensive review, I can confirm that the Government will not extend bailiffs’ powers of entry and the use of force by enforcement agents. In addition, the Government will not implement part 4 of the 2007 Act which would have made changes in the areas of:

We will, however, be offering help and support for people who need it now. We will be implementing the following measures in advance of full independent regulation:


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