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British Council: Annual Report

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Triesman): Copies of the British Council annual report, incorporating the trustees' annual report and accounts, for the year ended 31 March 2005 have been placed in the Library of the House. During the period the council received £172.065 million grant in aid from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

Cabinet Office: Autumn Performance Report

Lord Bassam of Brighton: I have today published the Cabinet Office 2005 autumn performance report (Cm 6725). Copies of the report have been placed in the Libraries of both Houses.

EU Competitiveness Council: REACH

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville): My right honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Science and Innovation has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

I chaired the extraordinary Competitiveness Council in Brussels on 13 December 2005 on the draft regulation for the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals (REACH),
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and establishing a European Chemicals Agency. This followed the constructive debate held at the 28–29 November Competitiveness Council.

The Competitiveness Council reached unanimous political agreement on the draft REACH regulation following a policy debate based on the UK presidency compromise text and additional proposals presented by the presidency directly to the council. The council will formally adopt its common position at a later session once the legal text has been finalised. The common position will be forwarded to the European Parliament for a second reading under the co-decision procedure.

EU Presidency: Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Lord Warner): My honourable friend the Minister of State (Rosie Winterton) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

The Employment, Social Policy, Health and Consumer Affairs Council met on 8 and 9 December. The Secretary of State for Health chaired the meeting and I represented the United Kingdom. Items on the agenda relating to health were covered on 9 December. Items for discussion were: human health aspects of pandemic flu; proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on medicinal products for paediatric use; and the European Commission's Green Paper: Improving the Mental Health of the Population: Towards a strategy on mental health for the European Union.

The policy discussion on the human health aspects of pandemic flu focused on areas of EU co-operation to complement existing work on this topic. Member states acknowledged that the first and most vital step was the completion of national contingency plans. On the issue of risk communication with the public, the council agreed that, while this was primarily a member state responsibility, there was a need for clear co-ordination between member states, the Commission and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control to avoid confusing messages. The Commission reported the experiences of the common ground simulation exercise on pandemic flu.

The council also discussed the issue of increasing production capacity for both antiviral drugs and vaccines. On vaccines, council stressed the importance of increasing the research effort into the development of new vaccines. On antivirals, Ministers agreed that building up production capacity was primarily for member states, but outlined that further consideration should be given to the available options for dealing with a pandemic influenza outbreak including the feasibility and added value of the EU holding a targeted strategic stockpile of antiviral drugs.

The presidency issued conclusions on the human health aspects of pandemic flu.
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There was a qualified majority in favour of a political agreement to the proposed regulation on paediatric medicines.

The council gave a supportive steer to the Commission on its recent green paper on improving mental health.

Ministers took note of presidency information on: a proposal for a decision of the European Parliament and of the council establishing a programme of community action in the field of public health and consumer protection; health inequalities and patient safety; and a council public health working party meeting at senior level.

Member states also took note of information from the Commission on: a co-ordinated approach to the fight against HIV/AIDS in the European Union and the neighbouring countries; a Commission high level group on health services and medical care; a framework convention on tobacco control; and international health regulations.

Ministers also had an informal discussion on promoting healthy diets and physical activity.

EU Presidency: Justice and Home Affairs Council

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

The Justice and Home Affairs Council was held on 1–2 December in Brussels. I chaired the meeting along with my right honourable and noble friend the Secretary of State for Constitutional Affairs and Lord Chancellor. My noble friend Lady Ashton of Upholland also represented the presidency.

I introduced the Counter-Terrorism Co-ordinator's six monthly report (doc 14734/1/05), the EU CT Strategy (doc 14469/4/05) and the EU Strategy and Action Plan to combat radicalisation and recruitment to terrorism (docs 14781/1/05 and 14782/05 RESTREINT). It was concluded that EU-level co-operation, including Europol and Eurojust, was an important component of member states' approaches to counter-terrorism. The six-monthly progress report and the EU Counter-Terrorism Strategy was sent to the European Council on 12 December. The Strategy and Action Plan on Radicalisation and Recruitment were also agreed.

Following on from discussions led by the Prime Minister at the Hampton Court summit, I emphasised that the presidency was very pleased that the issue of migration had been discussed, stressed its political importance and invited the Commission to present its communication Priority actions for responding to the challenges of migration: first follow-up to Hampton Court. The Commission set out the three main pillars of the communication: the need for a comprehensive approach covering all aspects of migration; the improvement of operational co-operation between
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member states, particularly in the Mediterranean; and the need to improve co-operation on migration with third countries of origin and transit, particularly Sub-Saharan African countries.

Member states welcomed the communication emphasising its balanced and thorough approach. Member states who intervened strongly supported the focus on Africa and the Mediterranean, though some also noted that it was important not to forget the importance of other geographic regions such as Russia and the eastern neighbourhood. Adequate resources were considered particularly important for demonstrating real political will to implement actions.

The Mixed Committee was chaired by Iceland and they invited the presidency to bring forward a compromise proposal on the exchange of information and intelligence between law enforcement authorities, including a new recital on the application of Article 11(2) (indicating that it should be interpreted so as to allow for. the exchange of information on at least minor offences linked to terrorism and organised crime) and a council declaration (noting that Article 11 would be reviewed on the basis of a report from the Commission). I was pleased to note agreement to a general approach on the draft framework decision (as in document 13986/5/05 CRIMORG 124) with the two changes agreed.

The draft Directive on Data Retention was discussed throughout the second day of the council and I am pleased to be able to say that, on this vital piece of legislation for the EU's citizens, we were able to reach an agreement as to the council's position. The new text proposed: language on the retention for the purpose of serious crime, where that term was defined by national law; the inclusion of data on unsuccessful call attempts (connected unanswered calls) only where it is stored or logged for business purposes; the exclusion of unconnected calls; limited provisions on data protection, data security; and sanctions against abuse of powers to access retained data. The European Parliament held a debate on data retention on 13 December and voted on 14 December to adopt amendments identical to those of the council.

In the area of civil justice, the council reached a general agreement on the text of the draft regulation creating a European order for payment. Member states agreed that the proposal should be limited to cross-border cases. These are defined as being those in which at least one of the parties is domiciled or habitually resident in a member state other than the member state of the seized court. This is a significant decision with important implications for judicial co-operation in civil matters. It represents an emerging consensus among member states as to how "cross-border" should be defined. This will help to unblock progress on future measures. The European Parliament voted on 13 December to adopt amendments identical to those of the council. This is the first complete civil justice procedure to be agreed by the EU and will make it easier to obtain judgments on uncontested claims across EU borders and so help the internal market grow further.
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Following the consensus reached at the Informal JHA Council in September, member states agreed to a number of key principles essential to a simplified, accelerated and cost-effective procedure for resolving small claims across European borders. Among other things, the procedure will be conducted primarily in writing, with modern communications technology used when a hearing is necessary; legal representation will not be mandatory; and costs will be kept proportionate to the claim. Finally, the council agreed a common understanding on the draft directive on certain aspects of mediation in civil and commercial matters. Promoting access to justice has been a key theme of the UK presidency. Civil justice issues have rightly achieved a higher priority than ever before in recent years, and the achievements in council confirm the importance of their place in an agenda for citizens.

On the European Evidence Warrant, following a debate, member states were not able to remove all their reserves. The presidency concluded that it would not be possible to make further progress on the outstanding issues and remitted the dossier back to ambassadors. The incoming Austrian presidency said that it would give priority to completing work on the framework decision.

On procedural rights, the council took note of the state of play on negotiations as in documents 14642/05 DROIPEN 59 and 14248/05 DROIPEN 54 REV 1. I noted that there had been substantial work on the draft framework decision over the past year but that it had not been possible to complete this within the UK presidency. Discussions are underway with the incoming Austrian presidency on how to take forward the need for a political debate on this dossier.

The Commission gave a brief update on the state of play in the technical development of SIS II at a central level indicating there were difficulties concerning the overall timetable of the project but that the Commission was committed to meeting the timetable. The Commission also noted it was open to making the draft legal instruments on the SIS II more flexible, as some of the member states wished, and was committed to ensuring the EU7 had sufficient financial support from the Schengen facility until SIS II was running in 2007.

Following a Commission presentation on the interoperability of EU JHA databases it was noted that they had been brought forward to meet the council's timetable. The Commission considered both to be a contribution to making information available more widely with a view to implementing the principle of availability.

In the margins of the council member states also agreed intergovernmental conclusions on security standards on identity cards. As an A point the council also agreed the EU Action Plan on Human Trafficking. This is a focused plan which details the objectives, a timetable and assessment tools. It is aimed at establishing common standards, best practices and mechanisms to prevent and combat trafficking in human beings, and will drive forward practical action and co-operation in the EU.
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There was also agreement from JHA Ministers to commit to an additional €250 million for assistance and the provision of additional trainers and personnel to counter narcotics in Afghanistan. Ministers also agreed conclusions on the roll-out of biometrics under the visa information system to countries of high risk.

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