The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Kevan Jones): I am pleased to inform the House that with effect from 1 April 2009 there will be an increase in pensions paid through the Gurkha pension scheme of 14.1 per cent.
In addition, there will be significant increases of 20 per cent. and more to some 1,000 pensioners who are 80 years or over. This increase is in line with the tripartite agreement which established a linkage between Indian Army pensions and the Gurkhas pension scheme. This means the elderly who are the most vulnerable will get an overall increase of at least 34 per cent. on their pensions, a significant proportion of which will be backdated to January 2006.
It has always been our policy to ensure that the 26,500 Gurkha pensioners mainly living in Nepal are treated fairly. The Gurkha pension scheme currently costs some £47 million per year and it is calculated that these increases will add to the cost by a further £7 million per year.
This ensures that Gurkha pensions are kept at a fair and appropriate level and that the elderly who are the most vulnerable are helped. It demonstrates our continuing commitment to the retired Gurkha community in Nepal. This also reinforces the UKs long-standing links with the Government of Nepal which we greatly value and would wish to maintain.
Full details of A points adopted at the General Affairs Council can be found at: http://www.consilium. europa.eu/uedocs/cms_data/docs/pressdata/en/gena/106691.pdf
The Council resumed discussion from the February GAERC of potential means of financing the Commissions proposals for energy and broadband infrastructure projects. The presidency put forward a compromise package,
which I supported, on the condition that there would be no further changes to the energy project list, and that existing allocations for carbon capture and storage projects would be maintained. The presidency concluded that the European Council on 19 and 20 March would need to return to the issue.
The GAERC examined draft conclusions for the Spring European Council (SEC), which cover the economic and financial situation; climate change and energy; and external relations, in particular the eastern partnership. The Government support the presidencys priorities for the SEC.
On the economic and financial situation, there was broad support for the draft conclusions, although my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary noted the need to reflect the outcome of the G20 Finance Ministers meeting over the weekend. On climate change, he underlined the European Councils commitment to setting out a position on climate financing at the SEC and called for more detailed language on possible options. He also requested European Council text on the EU budget review, calling on the Commission to publish their white paper by the summer. He generally supported the energy part of the text.
On external relations, my right hon. the Foreign Secretary noted plans for Foreign Ministers to discuss Afghanistan and Pakistan, and stressed the importance of a detailed debate on Pakistan, given the gravity of the situation there.
The full text of Council conclusions (including A points) can be accessed at: http://www.consilium. europa. eu/uedocs/cmsdata/docs/pressdata/en/gena/106692.pdf
The Council reviewed progress towards meeting the conditionality for closure of the Office of the High Representative (OHR) and concluded that it had not been met. Recalling its conclusions of November, the Council urged BiH to engage with stronger determination on the necessary reform agenda and called on BiHs political leaders to refrain from nationalist rhetoric and actions. The Council also reconfirmed its readiness for a transition from the OHR to increasing local ownership, supported by a reinforced EU presence, once the conditionality is met. It reviewed progress of EU preparations for this reinforced presence. The Council also agreed to keep under review the possible evolution of EUFORALTHEA (the EUs military operation in BiH) in light of political developments.
The Foreign Secretary emphasised the importance of BiH meeting the conditionality for OHR closure and the need for the EU to remain firmly engaged in efforts to ensure that BiH political leaders took forward the necessary reform agenda. He welcomed the preparations for a future reinforced EU presence and underlined the importance of a strong mandate.
Ministers agreed to renew the common position on Belarus, which is the legal basis for travel restrictions and an asset freeze for another 12 months, but suspend the travel restrictions (except on those who failed to investigate the disappearance of opposition activists in 1999 and 2000, and the chair of the Central Election Committee) for a further nine months. A review of Belarus progress will take place at the end of the nine months, with the possibility either of re-imposition of sanctions, or their complete lifting. The Government broadly welcome this decision which reflects the mixed progress made by Belarus to date.
The Council adopted conclusions that: confirmed the above decision; welcomed positive steps taken by Belarus following the Councils decision on the temporary suspension of sanctions in October 2008; expressed concerns about the human rights situation and stressed that it was important for Belarus to address these.
High Representative Solana stressed the extent of the humanitarian problems caused by the expulsion of the 13 international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the need to ensure the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) did not suffer as a result. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary said that the EU needed to keep up the pressure on Sudan to reverse its decision; contacts with the African Union (AU) and the League of Arab States (LAS) were an important part of this; but we also needed to consider urgently what the consequences would be if our current precautionary measures failed and the NGOs were no longer able to operate in Sudan. We would need the AU and the LAS to step in to alleviate the situation; but we should also be aware that we could quickly find ourselves in a serious humanitarian crisis, extending well beyond Darfur.
The Council agreed conclusions, along the lines of UK proposals, recalling the presidencys declaration on behalf of the EU following the Government of Sudans decision to expel 13 international humanitarian NGOs and revoke the licenses of three local NGOs; and reiterating the presidencys call upon the Government of Sudan to reconsider their decision urgently, and ensure that humanitarian assistance to the most vulnerable people in Sudan be continuously guaranteed.
Ministers took stock of the situation in Gaza, the inter-Palestinian talks and the formation of a new Israeli Government. The Presidency, High Representative Solana and Commissioner Ferrero-Waldner briefed Ministers on their recent contacts with partners in the region including their meeting on 15 March with the Foreign Ministers of Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.
The presidency briefed on plans for the informal EU-US summit in Prague on 5 April. They envisaged that discussion would be organised around four main
themes: climate change, the global economy, energy and foreign policy. My right hon. Friend Foreign Secretary, with some support, called for Afghanistan to be the main focus of foreign policy discussions.
The Commission raised the deteriorating humanitarian situation; the Government of Sri Lanka had proposed evacuation passages in the remaining conflict area, but these had not been implemented and could not substitute for a ceasefire. They therefore urged the EU to hold a high-level troika with the Government of Sri Lanka and engage with India.
There was an inconclusive discussion of the EUs approach to the Durban review conference, the follow-up to the 2001 UN World Conference Against Racism, which will take place in Geneva in April. Negotiations are continuing in Geneva.
Conclusions on EUFOR Chad/RCA, welcoming the successful conclusion of the mission.
Conclusions contributing to the SEC debate on development and climate change.
Conclusions on Afghanistan which: offer substantial financial assistance to the August 2009 elections, including an electoral observation mission (subject to conditions); reaffirm EU commitment to EUPOL and the rule of law, including significantly enhancing capacity building; look towards a single EU representative; agree the need for more and better assistance; highlight the important regional dimension and the EUs intention to play a greater role in supporting Pakistan, including through an ad hoc summit. The conclusions also welcome the visit of Vice-President Biden and look forward to co-operation with the US in a renewed commitment to Afghanistan and the region.
The Highways Agencys Business Plan for 2009-10 has been published today. It sets out the agencys budgets for the financial year and how that funding will be spent. The plan contains 13 key performance targets against which the agencys performance during the year will be measured. Copies of the business plan have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.