The Minister for Europe (Chris Bryant): The General Affairs Council (GAC) and Foreign Affairs Council (FAC) were held on 25 January in Brussels. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and I represented the UK.
Spain (Moratinos) presented the priorities for their presidency, including economic recovery and sustainable growth, the post-Lisbon 2020 strategy, and climate change. We welcome the Spanish presidency's choice of priorities, in particular the focus on economic recovery with a low carbon, social agenda at its core.
High Representative Ashton and the Commission (De Gucht) debriefed Ministers on their respective visits to the US and Haiti, following the emergency Foreign Affairs Council on 18 January. The High Representative paid tribute to the large-scale and well co-ordinated response by member states and Commission, and noted that the EU needed to work closely with the UN on next steps.
The Commission reported that the aid effort appeared well ordered and well co-ordinated under UN leadership; an EU reconnaissance mission would travel to Haiti in the next week to assess governance needs; and the Commission had made available €100 million (£87.6 million) to respond to these non-humanitarian, immediate needs.
The Foreign Secretary welcomed these efforts to rebuild the Haitian Government and urged consideration of wider regional needs, particularly those of the Dominican Republic. In response to proposals from some member states to create a permanent EU body that could react quickly to disasters, the Foreign Minister suggested that the EU should analyse lessons learned from Haiti before drawing any conclusions on possible new permanent structures. The High Representative agreed. In the short-term, Ministers agreed to establish a small cell of officials in Brussels to co-ordinate military and civil deployments to Haiti, while leaving open the possibility of moving it to the field at a later date.
The Foreign Secretary presented the UK's aims for the London conference on 28 January-to align the international community behind a clear political strategy to help President Karzai deliver the ambitious agenda he set out at his inauguration last November. Discussion would focus on the key themes of security, development and governance and the regional framework/international architecture. He emphasised that EU support would be essential to secure a strong communiqué, and hoped that the EU would prioritise work to upgrade the delivery of its civilian effort, including through swift implementation of the EU action plan for Afghanistan and Pakistan. The Minister also stressed that Pakistan was a priority too: the upcoming summit would be key to EU-Pakistan relations and the EU should encourage Pakistan to work with it to develop a five-year engagement plan.
The High Representative praised the momentum that the London conference would create behind the EU's efforts in Afghanistan and promised that the EU would play a full part. She acknowledged member states' support for a quick decision on double-hatting and said that the EU would be ready in principle to contribute to a reintegration fund.
I briefed EU colleagues on the objectives of the high-level meeting in London on 27 January. Ministers agreed conclusions, which the Government support. The conclusions welcomed the London meeting; reaffirmed the EU's commitment to a unified, stable, democratic and prosperous Yemen, and recalled its commitment to support the Government of Yemen in confronting the challenges it faces through a comprehensive approach. The conclusions also called on the Government of Yemen to continue with political and economic reforms.
Ministers adopted conclusions on EUFOR Operation Althea, which the Government support. The Council decided to start providing non-executive capacity-building and training support, within the framework of the operation, noted that the executive mandate will continue in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 1895 (2009) and expressed the EU's readiness to maintain an executive military role beyond 2010, should the situation require it, under a UN mandate. The Council also declared strong support for the High Representative/EUSR Valentin Inzko.
Ministers also discussed the wider political situation. The Foreign Secretary argued that the EU needed to maintain a patient, strategic approach throughout 2010. The High Representative concluded that it was important not to do anything that damaged the current situation; that the EU should continue to work with the Bosnian authorities on visa liberalisation and prepare carefully for the elections, working to engage with ordinary people and making clear what the EU could offer.
Ministers discussed next steps on the nuclear issue and reviewed the Iranian response to engagement by the E3+3. The Foreign Secretary argued that, in view of Iran's continued non-compliance with UN resolutions, the EU should continue to pursue all aspects of the international community's dual-track approach. The
High Representative concluded that unless Iran complied with its obligations to the international community, the EU had to be prepared to act.
Ministers adopted conclusions, which the Government support, agreeing to set up a common defence and security policy (CSDP) mission to train the transitional federal Government's security forces in Uganda from spring 2010, while recognising the need to address key issues before the launch of the mission, such as vetting and monitoring of trainees, and payment of their salaries following completion of training.
On Operation Atalanta, the High Representative noted the need to reinforce regional capacity to prosecute suspected pirates, and said that she was working closely on this with regional partners. The Commission noted the possibility of further financial support for piracy-related capacity-building via the Africa Peace Facility and Stability Instrument.
Poland raised the need to send clear messages to Ukraine about the importance of high standards in the second round of polling in the presidential elections in February, and to engage with the new leadership thereafter. The High Representative noted that the FAC would return to this issue next month.
Conclusions on Bosnia and Herzegovina: Operation Althea.
Conclusions on Somalia Training Mission.
Conclusions on Yemen.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Bill Rammell), the Minister responsible for the armed forces, and I wish to make the latest in the series of quarterly statements to the House about the inquests of service personnel and others who have died overseas. We continue to hold in the highest possible regard all of our service personnel who are or have been involved in the military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our deepest sympathies lie, of course, with the families of those personnel who have made the ultimate sacrifice for their country. It is again a cause of particular sadness that since our last statement a further 28 service personnel have lost their lives in Afghanistan.
Today, we are announcing the progress that has been made since the written ministerial statement on 27 October 2009, Official Report, column 7WS, with information about the conduct of inquests by the Wiltshire and Swindon and other coroners. This statement gives the position at 25 January.
At the time of the last statement, we reported that up to 16 October 260 inquests had been held since June 2006: 246 into the overseas deaths of service personnel
and 14 into the deaths of civilians in Iraq whose bodies were repatriated via RAF Brize Norton or RAF Lyneham between March 2003 and July 2005.
Since operations commenced in 2001 there have been a total of 303 inquests into the deaths of service personnel who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, including five service personnel who died in the UK of their injuries. In two further cases, no formal inquest was held, but the deaths were taken into consideration during inquest proceedings for those who died in the same incident.
Our Departments continue to work closely together, and with the coroners, to review the way in which the system is working and to look for opportunities, prior to the implementation of the relevant provisions of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, to make improvements for the benefit of the bereaved families.
Since October 2007, additional resources have been provided by the Government to ensure that a backlog of inquests does not build up in the Wiltshire and Swindon district (since 1 April 2007 fatalities have been repatriated via RAF Lyneham). The coroner transfers inquests for service personnel to a coroner closer to the bereaved family, where possible. It is helpful that the district continues to benefit from the experience and expertise of David Masters, who retired as coroner on 31 March 2009 but has been appointed as an assistant deputy coroner by his successor, David Ridley.
There are 113 open inquests to be concluded into the deaths of service personnel who died in Iraq and Afghanistan whose bodies were repatriated after 1 April 2007 (55 involving deaths in the last six months). Of these, Mr. Ridley has retained 56 inquests, whilst 53 inquests are being conducted by coroners closer to the next of kin, and four inquest transfers are pending. At 25 January, two recent fatalities had been repatriated but the inquests were yet to be opened. Two recent fatalities awaited repatriation and inquest opening. Hearing dates have been set in 20 cases.
We shall continue to keep the House informed about progress with the remaining inquests. I have placed tables in the Library of the House which outline the status of all cases and the date of death in each case. Copies are also available in the Vote Office and the Printed Paper Office.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport (Paul Clark): The Department has today issued a consultation document on proposals to vary the motorway speed limits for certain classes of commercial vehicles. Under the proposals, the maximum speed limit for HGVs not exceeding 7.5 tonnes would be reduced from 70 mph to 60 mph. The change would also see the maximum speed limit for passenger carrying vehicles adapted to carry more than eight passengers (PCVs) and not exceeding 12 metres in length reduced from 70 mph to 65 mph; and, the limit for longer PCVs increased from 60 mph to 65 mph.
In July 2009, we published "Building a Society for All Ages", the Government's strategy for addressing the
opportunities and challenges of our ageing society. This sets out the changes we all need to make to adapt to the fact that we are all living longer and provides a co-ordinated package of strategic reforms to enable people to prepare for and live well in later life. The strategy was subject to a full formal public consultation, running from July to October 2009.
As part of the consultation process we organised events across the country to hear peoples' views and experiences as well as seeking feedback by online responses and via the post. We received 345 written responses and around 600 people participated in discussion events.
Today we are publishing a summary of what we have heard both in written responses to the consultation questions and at consultation events. It also provides an update on how the initiatives set out in the strategy have developed as a result of this feedback.
Key developments are aimed at driving changes in attitudes towards older people and improving service delivery. We have now co-produced A Good Place to Grow Older-a National Commitment with national bodies which represent a whole range of local service deliverers and key Government Departments. The Commitment sets out a number of specific pledges which its signatories have committed to adopt and translate into action to deliver the strategy at a local level.
In January, we launched the £2.9 million "Get Digital" programme which will soon provide around 7,800 people in sheltered housing with access to computers and the training they need to make the most of the new technology on offer.