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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Triesman): My right honourable friend the Minister for Europe (Mr Geoff Hoon) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.
The General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC) will be held on 11 and 12 December in Brussels. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mrs Margaret Beckett) and I will represent the UK. The agenda items are as follows:
Germany will present the council with a combined programme covering the German, Portuguese and Slovenian presidencies. This programme is divided into three parts: the strategic framework, specific priorities for each presidency and a comprehensive programme of issues expected to be covered during the 18-month period.
The council will discuss preparation of the accession conference with Croatia on 11 December. Ministers are also expected to discuss the Commission's 29 November recommendations on Turkey's accession negotiations.
The council will discuss the Commission's progress reports, published on 8 November. These review progress made by each of the western Balkans countries in meeting the conditions of the stabilisation and association process.
We expect the council to discuss a forward-leaning package of practical support that could be introduced if an acceptable national unity Government emerges, such as building Palestinian institutional capacity. Should Ministers discuss the situation in Lebanon, the Foreign Secretary may brief partners on her recent visit.
The council will discuss Afghanistan at a time of increasing EU activity. A European security and defence policy (ESDP) fact-finding mission is in Afghanistan examining the possibility for a full ESDP mission on policing and rule of law in 2007. This is intended to complement Italian and German efforts on justice sector reform and policing. The UK is a strong supporter of increased EU activity in Afghanistan and is working closely with partners to achieve this. We want the mission to take a strategic and co-ordinated approach, working closely with the Afghan Government and the other donors, and looking at links right across the justice sector, including counter-narcotic policing and justice institutions. At the NATO summit in Riga, France proposed the establishment of an international contact group on Afghanistan. Heads of Government agreed at Riga that the NATO Secretary-General should revert with a proposal for a contact group to the North Atlantic Council, but we expect this also to be raised at the GAERC.
I will attend the second Transport Council of the Finnish presidency, which takes place in Brussels on 11 and 12 December. The council will be asked to agree conclusions on the Commission communication, presented to the council in June, on its mid-term review of the programme for the promotion of short sea shipping (any maritime journey within or between member states or a close third country, e.g. Norway). This is a priority of the Finnish presidency. The programme was presented in 2003. It contains 14 different actions ranging from identifying bottlenecks that impede the smooth operation of short sea shipping to streamlining procedures through the setting up of short sea shipping promotion centres and legislative measures. The UK achieved all its negotiating objectives for inclusion in the draft conclusions.
The council will aim to reach a general approach on a directive amending the current EU provisions on port state control (examination of ships in port). This will bring about consolidation of the current directive and its subsequent amendments into a single text. The new directive will also ensure more precise targeting of ships for inspection, resulting in more effective use
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There will be a progress report on the regulation on liability of carriers of passengers by sea and inland waterways in the event of accidents. This aims to incorporate the Athens convention relating to the carriage of passengers and their luggage by sea of 1974, as amended by its protocol of 2002, into Community legislation. It also extends these provisions to the carriage by sea within the member states and to international and domestic carriage by inland waterways. We can accept this general aim, but we, like a number of other member states, oppose application to domestic sea journeys or to inland waterways.
As the final maritime item on its agenda, the council will aim to reach a general approach on a proposal for a decision concerning the ratification by EU member states of the 2006 consolidated maritime labour convention of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). The convention aims to promote decent living and working conditions for seafarers and fairer competition conditions for operators and ship owners. The UK supports the proposal.
The Commission will give a further report on progress in the PPP concession contract negotiations for the Galileo satellite navigation programme. We continue to examine the emerging deal very carefully for its justification in terms of value for money, affordability, and risk to the public sector. The Commission is also expected to report on the latest position in its consideration of the potential roles and the terms of any future relations with non-EU countries in the Galileo programme and on its new Green Paper on Galileo applications.
The council will aim to agree conclusions on the Commission's communication on freight transport logistics, entitled Freight Logistics in EuropeKey to Sustainable Mobility. The communication was presented to the council in October. The Commission plans to present an action plan for freight transport logistics in 2007. Logistics are Finland's central presidency priority in the transport field. The UK supports this initiative from the Commission and the proposal to develop an action plan.
The council will aim to reach a general approach on a directive on retrofitting of blind-spot mirrors to heavy goods vehicles larger than 3.5 tonnes registered in the Community. The UK supports the objectives of this proposal, which would extend the provisions of a type-approval directive adopted in 2003 (for new trucks) to the existing fleet. Approximately 30 per cent of current HGVs in the UK will be exempt on age grounds. The age of the affected fleet, together with the date of implementation, has to be agreed, as does the issue of the possible inclusion of front blind-spot mirrors for the largest of vehicles.
The Commission will give further progress reports on two aspects of aviation external relations on which it has been given mandates to negotiate agreements: with the US on a comprehensive air transport treaty, and with Russia on payments for Siberian overflights.
The council will aim to reach a general approach on a regulation amending Regulation 1592/2002, which established a framework for aviation safety regulation built around the European Aviation Safety Agency. The amending proposals extend the regulation's scope to cover safety standards and licensing of operations and their personnel, and the safety oversight of third-country operators. We were concerned during negotiations to ensure that the extension of tasks to the agency matches its fitness to carry them out and that the proposals should not impose restrictions on non-EU airlines contrary to international obligations or member states' interests.
The provision for the Government Indemnity Scheme is made by the National Heritage Act 1980. The scheme facilitates public access to loans of works of art and other objects for public display made to museums, galleries and other such institutions by private owners and non-national institutions. It does this by indemnifying lenders against loss or damage to their loan. Loans covered by the scheme must be for public benefit. The scheme also covers loans of such objects for study purposes within borrowing institutions where this would contribute materially to the public's understanding or appreciation of the loan. Examples of this are enhancing interpretation or explanation to the public of objects or bringing into the public domain the conclusions of any study.
In the six-month period ending 30 September 2006, a total of 1,374 undertakings were given to indemnify objects on loan to national and non-national institutions under Section 16 by the relevant departments. The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (MLA), which manages the scheme on behalf of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, issued a total of 1,129 undertakings to national museums and 218 undertakings to non-national museums in England, the Scottish Executive Education Department issued six undertakings and the National Assembly for Wales issued two. Finally, the Government Art Collection issued 19 in the same period.
The value of contingent liabilities, in respect of undertakings given at any time under Section 16, and which remained outstanding as at 30 September
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The value of non-statutory undertakings given to Her Majesty in respect of loans from the Royal Collection, and which remained outstanding as at 30 September 2006, is £588,211,857; it is £36,821,000 for non-national museums issued by the MLA, £25,000 for the Government Art Collection and £15,000 for the Scottish Executive Education Department.
I have completed the annual review under Section 141 of the Social Security Administration Act 1992. I propose the following changes to take effect from 6 April 2007. These rates and limits will also apply to national insurance contributions in Northern Ireland.
In line with the Social Security Contributions and Benefits Act 1992, the lower earnings limit for primary class 1 contributions is to be raised to £87 a week. It is set at the level of the basic state pension for a single person from April 2007 and rounded down to the nearest pound. The primary and secondary thresholds for class 1 contributions will continue to be aligned with the weekly amount of the income tax personal allowance, which will be increased to £5,225 from April 2007. The primary and secondary thresholds will therefore be increased to £100 a week. This means that no tax or class 1 contributions will be paid on earnings below this level. The upper earnings limit for primary class 1 contributions will be raised to £670.
The rate of class 2 contributions will increase in line with prices by 10 pence to £2.20 a week. Self-employed people with earnings below the annual small earnings exception can apply to be exempted from paying class 2 contributions. This limit will be raised by £170 to £4,635 in line with prices. The annual lower profits limit for liability to class 4 contributions will increase to £5,225 a year, in line with the income tax personal allowance. The upper profits limit will increase by £1,300 to £34,840 to maintain the link with employees' earnings liable to class 1 contributions.
The special rate of class 2 contributions for share fishermen, which allows them to build entitlement to contributory jobseeker's allowance in addition to the
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The special rate of class 2 contributions for volunteer development workers, which entitles them to the full range of contributory benefits, will be increased by 15 pence to £4.35 in line with the statutory formula of 5 per cent of the primary class 1 lower earnings limit.
To ensure that the fund can maintain a prudent working balance throughout the coming year, and in accordance with Section 2(2) of the Social Security Act 1993, I propose to prescribe that the maximum Treasury grant that may be made available to the fund in 2007-08 shall not exceed 2 per cent of the estimated benefit expenditure for that year. Similar provision will be made in respect of the Northern Ireland National Insurance Fund.
I shall be laying a draft re-rating order before Parliament in due course. This will accompany a report by the Government Actuary to me and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, which we shall jointly present to Parliament. The following table sets out the rates, earnings limits and thresholds for national insurance contributions proposed for 2007-08.
|National insurance contributions, proposed re-rating, April 2007|
|1, 2 See the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions order, the Social Security (Reduced Rates of Class 1 Contributions, Rebates and Minimum Contributions) Order 2006.|
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