The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (Vince Cable): Today the Government have announced the next steps in our comprehensive review of employment laws. We have launched a consultation on proposals to improve the way workplace disputes are resolved and published an "Employer's Charter" to give employers more confidence to take on workers and support growth.
In the consultation we are seeking views on measures to achieve more early resolution of workplace disputes so that parties can resolve their own problems, in a way that is fair and equitable for both sides, without having to go to an employment tribunal; ensure that, where parties do need to come to an employment tribunal, the process is as swift, user friendly and effective as possible; and help business feel more confident about hiring people (by increasing the qualifying period for employees to be able to bring a claim for unfair dismissal from one to two years).
The consultation will close after 12 weeks on 20 April 2011. During the consultation period we will seek views from a range of interested parties. Following consideration of the responses to the consultation, we will publish a Government response, setting out what we intend to take forward.
Hungarian Finance Minister Matolcsy presented the presidency work programme for ECOFIN for the first half of 2011. He identified his main priorities as the European semester, economic governance, financial services and the creation of the European stability mechanism.
The Council held an exchange of views on the Single Market Act which was published on 27 October 2010 and is out for consultation until 28 February 2011. Ministers had a positive discussion and agreed that it would be important for ECOFIN to continue to engage on those issues that are led by Finance Ministers. The Government support the single market and believe that future reforms should be strongly focused on measures that encourage growth. The Council agreed to re-examine the issue in due course.
The Council took note of the presidency's plans for the follow-up to the European Council's meeting on 16 and 17 December which called for work on legislative proposals aimed at strengthening EU economic governance to be accelerated, so that they can be adopted by June this year.
The Council held an exchange of views on a presentation by the Commission, which covered the main elements of its annual growth survey published on 12 January. The adoption by the European Commission of the annual growth survey will mark the beginning of the first cycle of the European semester. The Government are content with the Commission's focus on growth, in line with objectives for the single market. ECOFIN will agree Council conclusions on this in February.
Ministers discussed a review of member states' draft national reform programmes (NRPs) which set out member states' reform priorities and plans. The Government are content with the Commission's positive assessment of the UK draft NRPs and believe that the focus of all member states NRPs should be on tackling bottlenecks to growth. In March the spring European Council will provide guidance to member states for finalisation of their stability and convergence programmes (budgetary policies) and national reform programmes (structural reforms). Full NRPs are due in April.
The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mrs Caroline Spelman): I have today published a public consultation on the future of the public forest estate in England. A copy of the consultation document is available through the DEFRA website (www.defra.gov.uk/corporate/consult/index.htm) and the Forestry Commission website (www.forestry.gov.uk/england-pfe-consultation) and I have placed copies in the Libraries of both Houses.
The public forest estate in England is around 258,000 hectares of Government-owned land managed by the Forestry Commission. It represents less than one fifth
of the woodlands of England, with the majority of the remainder in private and voluntary sector ownership. The estate was started at a time of national crisis after the first world war, with severe shortages of timber and a woodland resource depleted to less than 5% of the land area in Great Britain.
In line with the Government's broad policy to effect a shift from big Government to big society, the consultation sets out the rationale for reducing state ownership and management of forest resources. The status quo is not an option. There is a fundamental conflict of interest in the Forestry Commission's role. It is the largest player in the commercial forestry sector, a sector it also regulates.
The Government's approach to looking at new models of ownership and management of the public forest estate in England will be underpinned by a set of key principles that are designed to protect public access and other public benefits that so many enjoy. The Government's proposals, on which the consultation seeks views, are for a mixed approach which includes:
recognising that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to the different types of woodland and forestry;
inviting new or existing charitable organisations to take on ownership or management of the heritage forests in order to secure their public benefits future generations to enjoy;
creating opportunities for community and civil society groups to buy or lease forests that they wish to own or manage; and
issuing long-term leases on the large-scale commercially valuable forests. By leasing rather than selling, it will be possible to ensure that the public can continue to enjoy their benefits.
The Government are committed to the ongoing provision and protection of the public benefits provided by the public forest estate. The policy we are consulting on shows how we intend to achieve this. We will ensure that the powers in the Public Bodies Bill reflect our policy objectives, so that the powers and duties within it are strengthened to safeguard the natural and social capital our forests provide now and for future generations. This would apply to the powers of sale, lease and management of the public forest estate. The consultation proposes that conditions will be attached to leases so that access and other public benefits are protected. We will consider:
introducing a general duty on the Government to have regard to the maintenance of public benefits when exercising the powers under the Bill;
exempting the most iconic heritage forests from the full range of options so that for example, the Forest of Dean or the New Forest could only be transferred to a charitable organisation or remain in public ownership, in line with the policy as set out in the consultation.
The Forestry Commission will play an important role in supporting the wider forestry sector-through its regulatory, grant-giving, research and expert advisory roles-to provide a wide range of public benefits.
I am today publishing tightened criteria for those sales under the Forestry Commission's programme to deliver £100 million in gross receipts during 2011-15. During 2010, the Forestry Commission's asset disposal programme continued under criteria established by the previous Administration. At the end of 2010, pending review of the sales criteria, Ministers withdrew some sites from sale. The new criteria have been amended to
strengthen the protection of public benefits through the withdrawal from sale of woodlands with significant areas of unrestored plantations on ancient woodland sites.
The Minister for Europe (Mr David Lidington): The Foreign Affairs Council and General Affairs Council will meet in Brussels on 31 January. My Right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will attend the Foreign Affairs Council. I will attend the General Affairs Council.
The Hungarian Foreign Minister will formally introduce Hungary's presidency priorities (see link below). Hungary intends to focus on three economic issues: the need to conclude discussions regarding the design of the new "European Stability Mechanism"; the need to reach a general approach on the economic governance package; and to reach final agreement on EU 2020. Other topics expected to be highlighted include pushing for a Commission strategy on Roma; beginning discussions on the Danube strategy; working towards entry into Schengen by Bulgaria and Romania; enlargement; and creating concrete projects to promote the eastern partnership.
The presidency has invited the President of the Council, Herman Van Rompuy, to discuss preparations for the European Council of 4 February. The February European Council agenda covers energy and innovation. Discussions should focus on the "Energy 2020" strategy (further detail below) and how to increase levels of innovation in the private sector. There may also be some discussion of economic governance and the European stabilisation mechanism, although they are not officially on the February European Council agenda.
Ministers will consider the European semester. The European semester will put EU and member state discussions of economic priorities and structural reforms on a common timetable. There will also be a presentation by the presidency of the Annual Growth Survey (AGS) which covers key economic themes for the EU and national action over 2011, and identifies priorities to tackle. There will not be conclusions on the AGS, as the main work will be carried out by other Council formations: namely ECOFIN and EPSCO. We broadly support the
focus on growth. Alongside fiscal consolidation and a more competitive financial sector, a comprehensive structural reform programme will be essential to improving competitiveness.
The presidency is expected to initiate a procedural discussion on future work on the Roma ahead of an April Commission presentation of a framework strategy on Roma inclusion. The Government support this discussion and work in the EU to share best practice and assist member states in promoting Roma inclusion. However, we are also clear that primary responsibility for the Roma lies with member states and that there cannot be a one-size-fits-all approach.
The Danube region strategy is a complex sustainable development strategy for the regions in the catchment area of the Danube river. It covers: transport/economic/industrial issues; environmental/food supply; and cultural/heritage/education. The UK broadly welcomes the strategy, although a full evaluation of the projects is needed.
We expect conclusions welcoming the timely, credible and peaceful conduct of the southern Sudan referendum as a crucial step in implementing the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA). The conclusions should also look forward to the publication of the results of the referendum, and emphasise the need for resolution of the remaining CPA issues.
On Darfur. we believe that the conclusions should express concern about the increasing violence and poor security situation in Darfur, and the need for genuine engagement by all parties in the peace process. We support proposals for a Darfur-based political process when the conditions are right, and which complement the ongoing Doha process.
Ministers will discuss latest developments in Lebanon following the collapse of the Lebanese Government. The EU's support for the special tribunal in Lebanon was most recently expressed in the November 2010 conclusions (see link below). At this stage, new conclusions are not expected, though the position could change depending on events on the ground.
We expect conclusions expressing concern over the situation in Côte d'Ivoire. We would like the conclusions to call for the peaceful and swift transfer of power from the former President Gbagbo to the elected President Ouattara and to reiterate our support for the robust stance taken by ECOWAS (the Economic Community of West African States) and the African Union in upholding democracy in the region and throughout the continent. Ministers may also discuss EU support to UNOCI (United Nations Operation in Côte d'Ivoire) and African initiatives to facilitate reconciliation.
The EU Sahel strategy is currently being developed by the European External Action Service in conjunction with the EU Commission. We are supportive of this
strategy in principle; a comprehensive EU approach on security and development strands in the Sahel is worthwhile, as underlined by the kidnap and murder of two French nationals in Niamey on 7/8 January. However, any UK final support would depend on a detailed analysis of the strategy-which we have not yet seen in full-and its resource implications.
In response to the recent attacks against religious communities in a number of countries, we expect conclusions to be adopted on the issue of "Intolerance, discrimination and violence on the basis of religion or belief". We believe these conclusions should send a strong statement of the Council's condemnation of these events and its commitment to upholding the right to freedom of religion or belief. We also believe that the conclusions should signal the European Union's determination to promote freedom of religious belief through a clear commitment to undertake further practical measures in this area.
We expect conclusions to: reiterate EU statements to date on the flawed December elections; to announce the FAC's decision to impose travel restrictions and asset freezes on those responsible for the fraudulent elections and for the subsequent violent crackdown on the opposition, civil society and representatives of the independent media; and to set out the EU's intention to support the Belarusian people and civil society. The Government's aim is to focus the discussion on the need to develop a coherent, long-term strategy for Belarus. Baroness Ashton made a statement on Belarus to the European Parliament on 19 January:
Baroness Ashton is expected to provide a short debrief on her presentation to the December European Council on the EU's relations with its strategic partners, setting out next steps in this work programme.
We expect Ministers to discuss the formation of a more balanced partnership between the EU and Russia; one which promotes and strengthens mutual prosperity and is underpinned by a legally-binding, ambitious new EU-Russia agreement. It is likely that frozen conflicts in the former Soviet Union will be discussed, including the need for pressure on Russia to deliver on Transnistria. Climate change and energy, and rule of law and modernisation in Russia are also likely to be raised. Ministers will address the human rights situation in Russia, following a number of recent, well-publicised cases of concern. There will also be discussion of how to deliver progress on the EU-Russia agreement, improve the architecture of EU-Russia co-operation, and improve internal EU working methods on Russia policies.
Baroness Ashton is likely to provide an update on the E3 plus 3 talks with Iran in Istanbul on 21-22 January. Due to Iran's insistence on unacceptable pre-conditions, no further talks are scheduled. Following the talks in Istanbul, Baroness Ashton released a statement on behalf of the E3 plus 3 on 21 January:
Ministers will discuss EU support for Tunisia following recent events. We expect conclusions to be adopted which call for a stable and inclusive transition to elections as soon as practicable, and restate the EU's support for political and economic reform in Tunisia. The Government consider that free and fair elections, as promised by Tunisia's interim Government, are essential for Tunisia's stability; and we firmly support EU assistance in this area.
Baroness Ashton will report back from her recent trip to the middle east (see link), and outline preparations for the 5 February Quartet meeting in Munich. We also expect her to update Ministers on progress for proposals to improve the humanitarian situation in Gaza that were agreed at the FAC in December 2010.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (James Brokenshire): I am today announcing a review, led by the Home Office chief scientific adviser, Professor Bernard Silverman, of research and development in forensic science.
The purpose of the review is to consider the current and likely future status of research and development relevant to forensic services for the criminal justice system within England and Wales. The scope will include, but not be limited to, fingerprints, DNA profiling, digital forensics (e-forensics) and more specialist aspects of forensic science.
The review will consult widely with forensic service providers and related organisations in the public and private sectors, academia and research funders, as well as issuing an open call for submissions of evidence. The review will also work closely with the National Policing Improvement Agency and police service customers. It is expected that the review will conclude in April 2011.
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mrs Theresa May): My right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice and I attended the informal Justice and Home Affairs Council on 20 and 21 January in Gödöllo.
The Commission opened the item on organised crime by highlighting cybercrime and asset recovery; they felt there was a need to focus on the exchange of best practice. The Chair of the European Parliament LIBE Committee suggested that proving the effectiveness of the EU in the security field was one of the biggest challenges for the EU. The Europol director gave a preview of their organised crime threat assessment noting an increasing risk in particular in relation to the infiltration of the legal economy and facilitation of illegal activity by the internet. There was an increasing use of aircraft and helicopters for smuggling of goods, use of minors for petty crime and sexual exploitation, an upsurge in counterfeiting and a largely unnoticed trade in endangered species. Interpol highlighted the ability of organised crime to destabilise whole countries and gave the example of cocaine trafficking via West Africa.
The UK said that it recognised organised crime as a real threat alongside counter-terrorism and would be developing a new strategy. In particular the UK acknowledged cybercrime as requiring particular attention, although it was often old crimes committed by new methods. The UK welcomed practical co-operation, rather than legislation, and agreed with the presidency that we needed to look imaginatively at ways of tackling crime, including seizure of assets. Most member states thought further work on asset-freezing, confiscation and sharing was a priority and welcomed the Commission's commitment to bring forward a report on the issues in the second half of 2011.
The Commission opened the second session by highlighting action they were taking. They would forward a border package over the next year, including looking at an EU electronic system for travel authorisation (ESTA) and a proposal on a European border surveillance system (EUROSUR). They also saw a need to finalise discussion on the new Frontex regulation and to reform the Schengen evaluation mechanism. Frontex, the EU's External Borders Agency, felt that priorities were better inter-agency co-operation, situational awareness and targeted co-operation at the border. Frontex also needed to be able to do more on capacity building and returns with third countries.
The UK stated that it was correct to focus on integrated management of the border and supported the Greek action plan, which was critical to the EU's collective success. For the UK modern technologies were a key part of a 21st century response to maintain border security while facilitating legitimate travel. For that reason the UK supported the philosophy behind EU proposals for registered travellers and an entry-exit scheme and, given our experience, the introduction of biometric visas. We were concerned about the UK's exclusion from the proposal for the Schengen evaluation
mechanism. The e-borders system allowed the UK to focus resources and evidence suggested that intra-EU flights were important and hoped that would be covered by the new EU passenger name records measure. In subsequent discussion many member states highlighted the use of technology as important and in particular interoperability of technologies. Many welcomed the Commission proposals for amendment to the Schengen evaluation mechanism and thought that greater use needed to be made of Frontex.
The Justice day began with a discussion on a Communication published by the Commission entitled "EU Citizenship: how to dismantle the obstacles to EU citizens' rights?" This sets out what the Commission considers to be the obstacles EU citizens face when trying to exercise their rights across national borders and suggests actions to tackle them. Among other things, the presidency invited discussion about whether the Justice and Home Affairs Council should adopt an oversight role over the actions suggested in the report, but this gained little support. The UK welcomed the overview the Commission report provided and highlighted criminal justice as an area where we needed absolute confidence in others' systems. The UK suggested that the Commission should also focus on making it easier for individuals and businesses to enforce civil debts across borders.
Ministers were also asked what they considered to be the key elements of the proposal on Succession and Wills in simplifying citizens' rights. This gave rise to a substantial debate. The UK reiterated its concerns with this proposal.
Over lunch, the presidency held a discussion on the role of the Council in ensuring the effective implementation of the charter of fundamental rights in the legislative process. Their paper raised the question whether there was a need for further Council processes to verify member states' compliance with the charter. The UK, together with a number of other member states, questioned whether there was sufficient support for the presidency's proposal to be taken forward.
Next, there was a discussion on "Judicial training: how to improve training of legal professionals in the EU". The Stockholm programme stressed the importance
of judicial training and the Commission has committed to producing a communication on training of legal practitioners in September 2011. The majority of member states, including the UK, did not favour creation of a new training institution, preferring to build on existing structures including the European Judicial Training Network. The UK welcomed the intention of improving judges' knowledge of EU law and each others' systems and particularly the Commission's recognition that it would have to accommodate very different systems.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Mr Jonathan Djanogly): My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Lord McNally, has made the following written ministerial statement:
Tomorrow, I will publish the Government's response to the Call for Evidence on current data protection law which was held between July and October 2010.
The Call for Evidence sought evidence about areas of the European Data Protection Directive 95/46/EC and the Data Protection Act 1998 that may be out of date or could be improved, and also those areas that are working well and should be retained. Over 160 responses were received from across the public, private and third sectors, consumer groups and members of the public. The evidence received will help to inform the UK's position for the forthcoming negotiations on a new comprehensive EU instrument for data protection. A proposal for this instrument is expected from the European Commission in mid-2011.
At the same time as publishing this response, the Government will publish a post-implementation review impact assessment of the Data Protection Act 1998, having received comments on the provisional document published alongside the Call for Evidence. The post-implementation review primarily aimed to assess the costs and benefits the Act has generated, but findings from the review will also contribute to the UK's evidence base for negotiations on a revised EU legal instrument.
Copies of the response to the Call for Evidence paper and the post-implementation review impact assessment will be placed in the Libraries of both Houses and on the Department's website at: www.justice.gov.uk.