The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Mr Edward Vaizey): My noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Baroness Wilcox) has today made the following statement:
"The Telecommunications Council took place in Brussels on 3 December and was chaired by the Belgian presidency.
I was unable to attend Council due to the travel disruption caused by the unseasonable weather conditions and I was represented at Council by Andy Lebrecht (UK's Deputy Permanent Representative to the EU-UKREP) for the formal agenda items and by Martin Jones (UKREP) for the lunch-time discussion on roaming. An official from BIS also attended.
Lunch-time discussion on mobile roaming.
In order to inform and shape the debate, Ministers were asked to consider three questions on this issue and I enclose the full text within annex A to this statement. In summary, they covered issues related to: stimulating competition; the impact of new technologies; and whether a cap on retail data prices was an appropriate course of action.
I understand that the discussion was positive in nature and below is a summary of the main points made during the debate:
The Commission and most member states see the introduction of greater competition in the EU roaming market as the way to decrease what are regarded as relatively high prices for consumers;
However, price regulation was seen by both the Commission and most member states as the least preferred option;
A recognition that the recently agreed telecommunications framework package would not be re-opened in respect of mobile roaming;
Technology was seen as one way that might allow for a diversity of approaches to tackle this issue and would, therefore, bring down prices over time for consumers; and
It was preferable to adopt a solution that was based on a multi-stakeholder approach.
The UK's contribution to the debate was as detailed in my pre-Council statement and confirmed the UK's views that a solution may not necessarily involve regulation featuring retail price controls and that the UK preferred a solution based on a multi-stakeholder approach. I am pleased to report that these points were noted by Commissioner Kroes during her summing up of the debate.
Following lunch, the formal business of Council took place.
Proposal for a Decision of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing the first Radio Spectrum-Policy Programme Radio Spectrum Policy Programme (RSPP): A Progress Report and Exchange of Views. (EM 13872/10).
This discussion item focused on four previously issued questions and is attached within annex A. In summary, these questions covered: the contribution of efficient spectrum management towards Europe 2020 goals; if an inventory of EU spectrum would also contribute towards these goals; a commonly agreed date for
release of certain spectrum bands and how to overcome problems associated with this; and the role of the EU in international spectrum negotiations.
The presidency began with a progress report on this item and was followed by Commissioner Kroes giving a short presentation of her views. The main points of which were:
She noted the importance of spectrum to both citizens and business-the main drivers being its contribution towards improving the EU's global competitiveness and the social and quality life improvements it could bring through applications such as e-health;
Thus, it was no longer sustainable to "do nothing" and that it was important that member states needed to agree the bold proposals within the RSPP;
She also noted that many member states have specific issues with the proposed deadlines for clearing and authorising specific spectrum bands;
However, she indicated that she regarded the clearance of the 800 MHz spectrum-that currently associated with analogue television broadcasting-as a key step in making the Commission's broadband strategy targets a reality (in particular the target associated with 30+Mbps-Ref: EM 13874/10) and she was keen not to see the stated deadline of 1 January 2013 slip;
She proposed that the Commission should have a greater role in international and bilateral negotiations regarding spectrum; and
Briefly covered the proposal to produce an inventory of spectrum currently used in the EU.
She concluded by stating the importance of reaching an early agreement on the RSPP.
Member states' interventions then followed. The main points of UK's intervention were:
Stressing the overall positive nature of the RSPP and its proposals;
We recognised that many member states, including UK, had issues regarding the deadline associated with the release of spectrum and that UK preferred an extension to the deadline associated with release of 800 MHz from January 2013 to January 2015;
UK also has concerns regarding the proposals covering "block sizes" of spectrum;
UK wished to review the Commission's proposal on a spectrum inventory before commenting further but proposed that any inventory should cover both public and private spectrum holdings; and
That we regarded that matters relating to international spectrum negotiations as mainly a member state competency and that should remain the case.
Other member states' interventions noted that the RSPP proposal was critical in making a positive contribution to the wider Europe 2020 strategy and generally shared UK's concerns and supported our position on both spectrum release deadlines (especially for member states who share borders with non-EU states) and an increased role for the EU in international negotiations. However, a number of member states requested Commission assistance with negotiations with non-EU neighbours.
There was general support for UK's call for local circumstances to be taken into account when considering spectrum release deadlines. Several member states indicated concerns regarding the necessary resource to undertake an inventory.
In her summing-up of the debate, Commissioner Kroes reiterated her preference for a January 2013 release date, but indicated the possibility of derogations for member states who share borders with non-EU states (a proposal that would not apply to nor resolve the UK's issues with the proposed deadline).
Finally, during a final intervention, the presidency expressed concern that the Commission may not fully appreciate the extent of concerns of, and problems for member states associated with the proposed spectrum release deadlines.
Proposal for a Regulation amending Regulation (EC) No 460/2004 establishing the European Network and Information Security Agency (ENISA) as regards its duration-A Progress Report
Proposal for a Regulation concerning the European Network and Information Security Agency (ENISA)-A Progress Report
These two items were progress reports from the Commission on the progress regarding these proposals. (Ref: EM 14322/10)
There was little discussion covering this item. However, the Commission stated that the modernisation of ENISA was essential and that the fight against cybercrime was a top priority. The only substantive intervention was from Greece-though supported by Cyprus and Bulgaria-who indicated a view that ENISA should have a permanent mandate, as opposed to the five years proposed. In response, the Commission indicated that the EU needed the flexibility of a time-limited mandate, given the rapidly changing nature of issues related to ENISA's work. The UK did not intervene on this item.
Cross-fertilisation between the Europe 2020 flagship initiatives "A Digital Agenda for Europe" and "Innovation Union"-Adoption of Council Conclusions; and
European Broadband: investing in digitally driven growth-Adoption of Council Conclusions
These two Council conclusions were adopted without comment from any member states.
This item was followed by the "any other business" items, which were:
Report on the state of development of roaming services within the European Union-Presentation by the Commission;
Commissioner Kroes summarised the lunch-time discussion and stated that a dialogue with all stakeholders was necessary (a point made by the UK during lunch);
Internet Governance Forum (IGF)-Briefing by the Commission and the Presidency;
The Commission noted the positive outcome of the recent renewal of the mandate of the IGF by the United Nations and thanked Lithuania for hosting the most recent IGF;
The next Presidency's programme and events-Briefing by the Hungarian delegation;
It was noted that the incoming presidency were planning an informal Ministerial meeting on infrastructure protection and that the next TTE Council would take place on 27 May 2011.
Other than noted above, there were no substantive points made on these three items and Council concluded following them.
ANNEX A-Questions for Discussion at Telecoms Council (Dec 2010)
1. Do the Ministers believe that spectrum should contribute to achieve the goals of EU 2020? In particular, should spectrum contribute to economic growth and to secure a competitive advantage in innovative wireless technologies, not only in the telecom sector but also in other sectors such as transport, the environment, energy or research and development?
2. In order to contribute fully to the goals of the digital agenda and of EU 2020, should the Commission be asked to produce, in collaboration with the member states, an inventory of the different uses made of the spectrum in Europe? Are their some types of spectrum that should be addressed more carefully in such inventory?
3. With regard to (harmonized) spectrum used for electronic communications services, do the member states wish to agree on early common deadlines for making spectrum available for wireless broadband? How should possible obstacles be addressed?
4. Should the Union play a broader role in order to better defend and promote the EU spectrum policies in international negotiations?
1. What is the best way to stimulate competition in roaming services and achieve a well-functioning single market for the benefit of European consumers?
2. What impact will medium to long-term market developments, e.g. the transition to next generation mobile networks (LTE) and the use of all-IP technologies, have on the roaming market?
3. In the short term, should the roaming regulation be adapted to add a retail price cap for data, similar to what is foreseen for voice and SMS?"
The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr Mark Hoban): Today the Government are publishing a consultation on developing a new category of simple financial products. The consultation sets out the Government's proposals in this area, and provides an opportunity for interested parties to respond. Copies of the document are available on the HM Treasury website.
The Government are committed to helping consumers to take responsibility for their finances and are already taking forward the coalition commitment to develop Britain's first free national financial advice service. This consultation proposes a new regime of simple products that will complement current work on advice and education, giving consumers a simple alternative when they reach the market.
These products will ensure that people understand the products they need, help people make better choices and encourage competition in the market. The Government expect that these proposals will be taken forward on a voluntary basis by the industry, in collaboration with consumer representatives, and that once introduced, will have a positive impact on consumer engagement in the market.
The Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury (Mr David Gauke): Tax information exchange agreements (TIEAs) were signed with Liberia in London on 1 November 2010 and with Aruba in The Hague on 5 November 2010.
The texts of the TIEAs have been deposited in the Libraries of both Houses and made available on HM Revenue and Custom's website. The texts will be scheduled to draft Orders in Council and laid before the House of Commons in due course.
The Secretary of State for Defence (Dr Liam Fox): The next roulement of UK forces in Afghanistan is due to take place in April 2011. The UK's current framework brigade in Helmand, 16 Air Assault Brigade, will be replaced by 3 Commando Brigade. The forces deploying include:
Volunteer and ex-regular members of the reserve forces will continue to deploy to Afghanistan as part of this integrated force package, and we expect to issue around 786 call-out notices to fill some 676 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 around six months. As part of this commitment, we expect up to 19 members of the sponsored reserves to be in theatre at any one time.
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr William Hague): I wish to inform the House that today, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, together with the Ministry of Defence and the Department for International Development, is publishing the first progress report on developments in Afghanistan, which I announced we would publish every month in my statement to the House on 27 October.
At the NATO Lisbon summit, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF)'s 48 contributing nations reaffirmed their enduring commitment to Afghanistan's security and stability. NATO and Afghanistan also agreed the framework of a long-term partnership that looks beyond the end of ISAF's current mission. The summit set out the timetable for transition of lead responsibility for security from international to Afghan forces by the end of 2014.
Transition to Afghan lead security responsibility will be dependent on the conditions in each district and province. It will see ISAF's role evolve away from combat towards increased training, mentoring and support. In Lisbon, ISAF partners joined the UK in pledging additional trainers to help Afghan security forces build capacity and prepare to assume lead responsibility for security, as set out at the summit.
Pressure on the insurgency is increasing due to ISAF's operations. The significant uplift in troop numbers has corresponded to an increase in military operations, particularly in those areas where insurgent activity is still strong, although this has not caused a significant increase in civilian casualties.
Progress continues to be made in developing the Afghan national army and the Afghan national police, both of which are on track to meet the targets for trained soldiers and police officers, agreed at the London conference in January this year, by November 2011. Investment continues in the training of both the army and the police, particularly their leadership.
The results of September's parliamentary elections were declared. While by no means free of irregularities or fraud, they were broadly credible, given the circumstances. Approximately 60% of Parliamentarians are new to the National Assembly. Female candidates have done well.
Both of the two seats in Nimroz province were won by women-the first time any Afghan woman has won a seat not reserved for a female candidate.
An important example of the region's commitment to supporting Afghanistan was the fourth regional economic co-operation conference on Afghanistan (RECCA), held in Istanbul, Turkey on 2-3 November. The UK was central to establishing the RECCA process in 2005, and this year funded the establishment of a centre for regional co-operation at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Kabul.
A long awaited Afghan-Pakistan transit trade agreement was finally signed by Afghanistan and Pakistan on 29 October, enabling cargo trucks to reach Pakistani ports and the border with India. This will provide a significant boost for Afghan trade.
I am placing the report in the Library of the House. It will also be published on the Foreign and Commonwealth Office website (www.fco.gov.uk) and the HMG UK and Afghanistan website (http://afghanistan.hmg.gov.uk/).
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Anne Milton): The Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council met on 6 and 7 December in Brussels. The health and consumer affairs part of the Council was taken on 7 December. I represented the UK.
At the meeting, following an exchange of views on the draft regulation on provision of food information to consumers, political agreement between member states was reached by qualified majority. The United Kingdom voted in favour of the proposal. The text will now be forwarded to the European Parliament for their consideration.
Council conclusions were adopted on: investing in Europe's health work force of tomorrow-scope for innovation and collaboration; innovation and solidarity in pharmaceuticals and on innovative approaches for chronic diseases in public health and health care systems.
The Commission provided an update on progress of the proposals on information to the general public on medicinal products, and the presidency provided information on a number of conferences and international events organised during their presidency.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (James Brokenshire):
The Forensic Science Service (FSS) was an Executive agency which was granted trading fund status in 1999, a step designed
to increase its financial flexibility. Then, following the McFarland review in 2002, FSS Ltd was established as a GovCo, wholly owned by the Government, in December 2005. The intention was that this be a transitional step towards a "public-private partnership".
In the event, however, no further progress was made. This lack of progress has led in our view to opportunities for reform being missed, and continuing reductions in the value of publicly owned assets.
The previous Government did not reform the Forensic Science Service when they had the chance, and instead allowed it to maintain a cost base far higher than its commercial rivals. This meant that FSS continued operating uncompetitive terms and conditions and expanded its employment levels between 1999 and 2003. This was undertaken without bringing down the cost base towards a level where FSS would be able to compete.
Despite this intervention and the commitment of the current management team, the current challenging forensics market has put the FSS back into serious financial difficulty. FSS is currently making operating losses of around £2 million per month. Its cash is due to run out as early as January next year. It is vital that we take clear and decisive action to sort this out.
The police have advised us that their spend on external forensic suppliers will continue to fall over the next few years, as forces seek to maximise efficiencies in this area. HMIC concurs with this assessment.
We have therefore decided to support the wind down of FSS, transferring or selling off as much of its operations as possible. We will work with FSS management and staff, ACPO, and other suppliers to ensure an orderly transition, but our firm ambition is that there will be no continuing state interest in a forensics provider by March 2012.
We will ensure the orderly wind down of FSS does not impact on police service customers or the wider criminal justice system. With ACPO, we will put in place a central team to ensure work is transferred in a controlled way and that arrangements are put in place to ensure security of supply in future. The continued provision of effective forensics is our priority.
We know that there are real challenges ahead for FSS staff whose skills and contribution will be important as we move through the transition. We will be working hard with the company to ensure that staff are kept fully informed of developments.
We will also be working with ACPO to seek to maximise the level of competition in the market including through opportunities created by FSS leaving the field. This will help to ensure that police forces benefit from cost-effective use of forensics.
We want to see the UK forensic science industry operating as a genuine market, with private sector providers competing to provide innovative services at the lowest cost. This will preserve police resources and maximise the positive impact forensic sciences can have on tackling crime. A competitive market can help to drive down prices and improve turnaround times, meaning serious crimes can be cleared up more quickly and efficiently. Ultimately, that is what everyone in the criminal justice system wants to see.
The Prime Minister (Mr David Cameron): The Cabinet Secretary, Sir Gus O'Donnell, has published today the draft Cabinet Manual on the Cabinet Office website: www.cabinetoffice.gov.uk/resource-library/cabinet-manual.
The Minister of State, Department for Transport (Mrs Theresa Villiers): I wish to update the House on Crossrail progress since my annual update on 15 July 2010, Official Report, columns 43-44WS, in which I undertook to report later in the year on progress made by Crossrail Ltd on their value-for-money programme.
As I indicated in July, Crossrail Ltd has been undertaking a programme of value engineering, risk avoidance and mitigation, alongside indirect cost reduction to ensure that the scheme is delivered in the most efficient way possible. In line with this approach, the Government accepted an engineering-led solution to delivering the central section which has enabled substantial savings of around £1 billion to the Crossrail funding package to be identified. While the construction programme for the central section will be lengthened by around a year, this has enabled the Government to confirm that funding is available for the whole project.
We now expect that Crossrail services will commence from 2018. However, the detailed timetable for the phased introduction of Crossrail services requires additional work in a number of areas. For example, further work needs to take place on:
(i) the transfer of services from existing franchises to the future Crossrail operations; and
(ii) the development of detailed plans on the commissioning of services.
It should be noted that Crossrail services were always planned to be phased into operation over some months and it remains a priority for the Government to ensure services are commissioned in the most efficient possible way.
In addition, I wish to inform the House that Crossrail Ltd has issued its notice of intention to award the tunnelling contracts for the central section tunnels. These contracts mark a further milestone in Crossrail's progress towards the start of tunnelling in late 2011.
The Minister of State, Department for Work and Pensions (Chris Grayling): The Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council was held on 6 December 2010 in Brussels. I represented the United Kingdom.
The main item on the agenda was a policy debate on the pregnant workers directive. Ahead of Council, the UK with the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Netherlands, Slovakia and Sweden circulated a joint minute statement. This underlined the importance of subsidiarity and member state competence in setting social security systems; criticised the EP's First Reading position; questioned the value of further negotiations; and called for a "pause for reflection" involving a Council impact assessment and consultation with social partners. In my intervention, I argued that the negotiations may be at the "end of the road" and while Council should at the very least have a pause for reflection, I see little point in further negotiations given the gulf between the co-legislators. We will continue to argue for these proposals to be abandoned. Despite the opposition of many member states to the proposal, the presidency
intends to consult with the incoming Hungarian and Polish presidencies and table a roadmap for further discussions.
The other main agenda item was on pensions. The Council adopted conclusions and in the ensuing debate, the presidency asked the member states what measures they were taking to ensure the provision of adequate pensions, and asked for their initial reactions to the Green Paper on pensions. I outlined the UK's reforms to improve state pensions, to encourage earlier saving for retirement and to extend working lives. In reaction to the Green Paper, I acknowledged the value added through sharing of best practice at a European level but stressed that there could be no "one size fits all" solution. In particular, I argued there was no evidence for why Solvency II capital requirements should be applied to pensions, which, far from being in consumers' interests, could seriously weaken defined benefit schemes.
The Commission presented its EU 2020 flagship "New Skills and Jobs". Council took note of presidency conclusions on the Commission's flagship initiatives "Youth On the Move" and "New Skills and Jobs"; of Employment Committee opinions on employment and environment and the examination of countries' employment policies; and of a joint Employment Committee and Social Policy Committee opinion on a monitoring framework for employment policies. It also adopted Council conclusions on employment policies and the green economy, adapting to an ageing workforce, the social elements of the Europe 2020 strategy, social services of general interest and gender.
Ministers adopted a progress report on the Directive on Equal Treatment-the anti-discrimination directive and a declaration on the European year for combating poverty and social exclusion 2010. They also agreed a general approach on the decision to create a European year for active ageing 2012.
On the "A" points, the UK submitted a minute statement on the Council decision on the EU-Switzerland agreement extending social security rights to non-active persons moving between the EU and Switzerland. This explained our decision not to opt in to the decision, our intention to seek a reciprocal exemption for non-active persons, and our disagreement with the interpretation given by the Council Legal Services to how the duty of sincere co-operation applied in these circumstances.