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 Commissions 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
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.
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.
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.
Ministers discussed the EU common messages to feed into the London G20 summit. Discussion centred on the presidencys proposed terms of reference, which were endorsed by the Council. The Government welcome the EUs participation in a meeting of G20 Finance Ministers on 14 March that will prepare the London G20 summits 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.
ECOFIN approved a report to the European Council regarding broad guidelines for economic policy. The
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.
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 UKs targeted reverse charge derogation aimed at combating intra-community VAT fraud. The UK welcomes the outcome of these discussions.
The Council discussed and agreed conclusions to form part of the EUs overall strategic approach to global climate negotiations in Copenhagen in December 2009. The UK welcomes the conclusions, which demonstrate the Councils commitment to tackling this issue.
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 Commissions publication of the preliminary draft budget in May.
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.
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
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 Governments 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.
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:
The following statement provides information on the Competitiveness Council that took place in Brussels on 5 and 6 March. The research session of the Council was held on 6 March and was chaired by Ondrej Liska, Czech Minister of Education, Youth and Sports. The UK was represented by the Deputy Permanent Representative to the European Union.
Research Ministers agreed the importance of maintaining the drive to increase investment in R&D during the current economic crisis. The UK argued that R&D investment needed to contribute to creating the low carbon, highly skilled, and digital economy Europe needed. The Council agreed that there was a need to strengthen the knowledge trianglethe links between education, research and innovationto ensure investments in R&D made the maximum contribution possible to economic recovery.
The Council discussed large-scale research facilities and their role in facilitating economic development. Council conclusions are expected on this at the May Competitiveness Council. During
the debate on the location of research facilities, the UK argued that decisions should be made on the basis of sciencewhere the facility would best contribute to excellent research, and that these infrastructures were important in promoting the mobility of researchers across Europe. The Council also took note of a presentation from the chair of the European Strategic Forum for Research Infrastructures (ESFRI) on ESFRIs 2009 priority list of large-scale research facilities in Europe.
Over lunch, Ministers discussed the Commissions proposal for a new legal status for European research infrastructures providing VAT and excise duty exemptions. On the basis of my letter to the Czech presidency, the Commission has been tasked with bringing the issue to the VAT Committee quickly for a decision on the proposed VAT exemptions. The Committees decision would need to be agreed by ECOFIN Ministers. The UK noted that whilst its initial view was that these research infrastructures did meet the criteria in the VAT directive to be exempt from VAT, an acceptable solution on this could only be found in the VAT legislation or its implementing guidelines. The UK also stressed that it could not agree to substantive VAT wording in the research infrastructure regulation itself. Ministers also discussed how to facilitate a decision on the location of the European Spallation Source (ESS). Member states with an interest in ESS would discuss this further with the view for a decision to be taken before summer 2009.
Under any other business, the Council took note of an update from the Commission on the request from Russia to sign an association agreement by paying to allow its researchers to compete for funds under the EC seventh framework programme. Member states had flagged up a number of questions on this issue which the Commission was currently considering. The Council also took note of the progress made on negotiating a draft decision of the European Parliament and of the Council on a European Metrology Research Programme (EMRP) article 169 initiative; first reading agreement with the European Parliament is expected to be reached within the current legislative term. The Commission also introduced a new communication setting out the value of ICT facilities for science. The presidency informed the Council that conclusions on the evaluation of R&D activities including a recent evaluation of the sixth Framework Programme were being developed. A progress report on the seventh framework programme is also expected.
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
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.
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:
attachment of earnings fixed tables;
attachment of earnings tracing;
charging order reforms; and
information requests and orders.
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