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Written Ministerial Statements

Thursday 21 January 2010


Afghanistan Roulement

The Secretary of State for Defence (Mr. Bob Ainsworth): In his statement to the House on 30 November 2009, Official Report, column 835, the Prime Minister announced the UK's conventional military forces in Afghanistan comprise 9,500 personnel. That will be maintained with the next roulement of UK forces in Afghanistan, due to take place in April 2010. Headquarters, 6 (UK) Division will remain as Headquarters, Regional Command (South) but the current lead formation in Helmand, 11 (Light) Brigade, will be replaced by 4th Mechanised Brigade, which will command the majority of the units serving in Afghanistan. The forces deploying include:

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Volunteer and regular members of the reserve forces will continue to deploy to Afghanistan as part of our integrated force package, and we expect to issue around 700 call-out notices to fill some 600 posts. On completion of their mobilisation procedures, the reservists will undertake a period of training and, where applicable, integration with their respective receiving units. The majority will serve on operations for six or so months. As part of this commitment, we expect up to 17 members of the sponsored reserves to be in theatre at any one time.

I shall make a further statement on the units we expect to serve under 4th Mechanised Brigade's planned replacement formation, 16 Air Assault Brigade, nearer the time of their deployment.

Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Agriculture Council

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Hilary Benn): The Minister responsible for marine and the natural environment, my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) and the Minister responsible for food, farming and environment, my hon. Friend the Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick) represented the United Kingdom at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council in Brussels on 20 November. Richard Lochhead MSP and Michelle Gildernew MLA also attended. Due to the European Council, the Agriculture and Fisheries Council was shortened to one day, with the majority of agriculture business now being taken in December.

On agriculture, the Council approved Poland's state aid application enabling farmers to purchase agricultural land. The UK, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Estonia, Spain, Netherlands, Austria, Germany all abstained, agreeing with the Commission that the application was not justified, and on the overriding of state aid rules, but stopped
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short of blocking the application. Latvia and Hungary would now bring similar applications for approval at the December Agriculture Council.

There was a brief discussion to clarify member states' voting intentions with regard to the authorisation of GM maize for use in the EU. There was no qualified majority in favour of the authorisation and the proposal will now revert to Commission competence and be adopted.

A number of issues were raised under any other agriculture business. Belgium and France requested that export refunds for the fresh and frozen pigmeat be reactivated. Only the UK and Malta expressed dissatisfaction with the use of such market management measures. The Commission sympathised with the request but also did not agree with reactivating export refunds.

France outlined its support for the Commission's forthcoming Green Paper on forest protection, emphasising the importance of taking a holistic approach-covering everything from the benefits that forests bring in respect of climate change to forest-based industries. A number of member states supported, including the UK, emphasising the importance of the EU forest action plan and a member state led-approach. The Commission agreed.

France requested more details about the parameters within which the Commission intended to prepare for and conduct the forthcoming WTO ministerial conference. The Commission emphasised that these were regular events, and that trade colleagues within the Council were informed of the Commission's approach.

Hungary, supported by the Czech Republic and Slovakia, presented a paper seeking to resurrect a proposal, previously rejected through comitology, that sheep and goats going direct to slaughter on intra-Community trade do not have to be electronically identified. The UK also intervened to sympathise, and while making it clear that it would not go back on its agreement not to seek further changes, urged the Commission to thoroughly review implementation of the regulation at the earliest opportunity.

With regard to fisheries, and the technical conservation measures regulation, Council reached political agreement (with the UK and Ireland voting against) on an interim compromise for 18 months only of the current annual provisions governing mesh sizes, gear types and catch composition, having failed to agree the main framework proposal. This was in the context of the impending entry into force of the Lisbon treaty which would require co-decision with the European Parliament on this aspect of fisheries. An absence of any decision would have left a legal gap on such technical measures from 1 January 2010 given current measures are in the annual fishing opportunities regulation which will remain as a Council only decision.

The UK and Ireland worked very hard in bilaterals with the presidency and the Commission to find an acceptable solution. The Commission was inflexible, claiming that the relaxation of the relevant catch composition measures would be detrimental to haddock stocks. The UK asserted that this had no effect on fishing mortality and merely led to increased discarding. Regrettably, the presidency was not able to accept UK and Irish requests and a final compromise was agreed with no concessions offered. Agreement was reached by qualified majority, with the final formal adoption by written procedure by 30 November.

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The Commission then updated the Council on the progress of the annual fisheries negotiations with Norway. They explained that the negotiations were particularly difficult this year after the Community's decision not to allow Norway to access mackerel in the North sea. It is therefore possible that the negotiations will carry on into 2010 or even fail completely with the danger of a precipitate rush to fish quotas and no access to each other's waters. The UK underlined the need for a balanced outcome on mackerel and the need for progress on the Danish discards initiative.

Next, the proposal fixing the 2010 total allowable catches (TACs) and quotas for the Black sea was agreed. The TAC for turbot was increased to 96 tonnes from the 76 proposed by the Commission (a 4 per cent. reduction, not 24 per cent.) on condition that Bulgaria and Romania developed by 15 February 2010 national plans to control the turbot fisheries and landings. The Commission also announced that it would speak to Turkey about its introducing similar measures for turbot.

Finally, there were two issues raised under any other fisheries business. The Commission had tabled a seven page statement outlining their plans to combat seabird by-catch. The UK underlined the importance, calling for the Commission to publish a formal action plan as this would give a chance for a full consultation with stakeholders including the European Parliament.

Italy called for the cut in bluefin tuna quota agreed at the recent International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (ICCAT) meeting to be phased in by 15 per cent. per year.

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