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Written Statements

Wednesday 18 April 2007

EU: Justice and Home Affairs Council

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): The Justice and Home Affairs Council will be held on 19 to 20 April 2007 in Luxembourg. The Attorney-General, Joan Ryan (Home Office), the Lord Advocate of Scotland and I will represent the UK.

Four items in the field of civil legal co-operation feature on the agenda. The first is choice of law in divorce (Rome III). The UK did not opt into this proposal under the terms of the Title IV Protocol because of legal and practical issues relating to application of foreign law in this sensitive area. The presidency intends to seek agreement to various “guidelines” concerning the future of these negotiations. We understand that a number of other member states have serious misgivings about this proposal as a whole.

On the proposed regulation on maintenance obligations, the presidency has tabled a paper proposing, among other things, arrangements under which member states could continue to make bilateral agreements with third countries notwithstanding the position as regards external Community competence in this area. The Government support the overall aim but see no need for any cumbersome arrangements. The Government did not opt into this proposal largely because of concerns about its potential impact on external bilateral and multilateral agreements.

On choice of law in contracts (Rome I), the presidency is bringing forward an uncontentious package of “guidelines” for agreement. The Government did not opt into this proposal because of the likely economic impact of certain changes it would, as drafted, import to the 1980 Rome convention on the law applicable to contractual obligations. The contents of the presidency's package do not address key UK points which need to be resolved if the UK is to accept the measure. Those issues remain on the table for discussion at a future date.

The presidency has circulated a paper concerning the purpose, content and scope of the common frame of reference (CFR) in European contract law. Among other things, the presidency wishes to confirm the status of the CFR as a “toolbox” for the European legislator. The Government welcome the general direction taken by the presidency's paper.

The presidency is expected to seek to reach a general approach on the framework decision on racism and xenophobia. The revised text addresses longstanding UK concerns. In particular it now focuses on combating more serious forms of racism and xenophobia through the criminal law and does not require member states to criminalise conduct that does not incite violence or hatred and is not carried out in a threatening, abusive or insulting manner. The text does not require the UK to amend our criminal law or create new offences. There is no longer a

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provision on mutual legal assistance; instead the usual EU rules will apply to requests for evidence in relation to these crimes. The Government have explained to the presidency that this remains subject to parliamentary scrutiny.

There will be discussion of the scope of the framework decision on certain procedural rights in criminal proceedings. The presidency will seek support for a binding instrument with a broad scope, covering all domestic and cross-border proceedings. The UK cannot support a binding instrument that applies to domestic cases and has tabled (with five other member states) a wide-ranging non-binding resolution on practical measures. We have said that we could accept a compromise package including a binding measure clearly limited to some cross-border cases accompanied by the resolution.

The presidency will provide a report on negotiations on the council decision on the future of Europol. It will outline the progress of discussions so far and will highlight that it hopes to achieve agreement on the funding arrangements and staff regulations at the June Council. On the evidence available thus far the UK is yet to be persuaded that there are sufficient benefits to warrant the application of community financing and EC staff regulations.

The Commission will table a report on fighting the pull factors of illegal migration focusing on illegal employment, which will form the basis of the draft directive on illegal employment, which is due to be presented in May. The EU Commission has recently undertaken a survey of member states' measures to tackle illegal employment, within the framework of the Immigration and Asylum Committee. Views among member states do vary, with some seeking the ability to use both administrative and penal sanctions, others recommending the use of one, either penal or administrative, some in favour of a non-binding EU recommendation rather than a directive, and some recommending protective measures for illegally employed third-country nationals who wish to co-operate with the authorities. In its wide-ranging policy plan on illegal migration, which the JHA Council discussed in July 2006, the Commission noted with regard to illegal employment that the main priority should be the adoption of measures on employers' checks and certain penalties for employers by those member states that have not already taken such action, and effective implementation of these measures by all member states.

There will be an information point on progress with regard to the forthcoming communications on extending the global approach to migration to the east and south-east, and on better organising legal movements of people between the European Union and third countries. The UK is committed to the development of the global approach to the east and south-east border land countries, although this should be done without reducing the work we are doing with Africa.

In the mixed committee format there will be discussion on the Schengen information system, Frontex, the data protection framework decision and the visa information system.

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There will be an update on the state of play of the SISone4all project, the Network and of SIS II. SISone4all remains important to the new member states and they are keen to keep abreast of developments in terms of implementation. They are also interested in having regular ministerial discussions on SIS, to ensure it remains a council priority, so the presidency has agreed to schedule discussion at this council.

The presidency will update on the approval by the European Parliament (EP) Civil Liberties Committee (LIBE) of the draft Rapid Border Intervention Teams (RABITs) Regulation on 11 April. There are plans for the EP first reading plenary vote on 25 April and we expect adoption of the measure at the Council in June. While the UK is excluded from the RABITs regulation (subject to the outcome of our current challenge before the European Court of Justice on exclusion from the Frontex regulation which the RABITs regulation in part amends) we would like UK immigration officers to be able to form part of the Rapid Pool for RABITs, and to take part in RABITs on a case-by-case basis, at the UK's request and with the agreement of the management board of Frontex. To this end the UK has proposed a council declaration, to be added to the protocols when the measure is adopted at the June Council, repeating the UK's support for Frontex, highlighting the participation of the UK in Frontex activities, and inviting the agency and its management board to explore ways in which the UK can likewise practically support the operations of RABITs.

The Commission and Frontex will update on progress to establish a centralised register of member states' technical equipment (tool box), as provided for in the Frontex regulation, to which member states are willing to donate for a temporary period, on a voluntary basis and on request from another member state, to ensure that Frontex has the necessary means available to carry out effective joint operations. While the UK is not bound by the provisions of the Frontex regulation, we have nevertheless made available to Frontex certain new detection technology and forgery detection equipment for use in land border checks.

The Commission and Frontex will also provide an update on measures to reinforce the monitoring and surveillance of the southern maritime border of the EU through a European surveillance system and European patrol network (EPN). There is likely to be some discussion on the initial EPN operation areas and clarity is still required on the remit of patrols (i.e. in whose waters) and what obligations and operational requirements adhere to each. The UK is supportive of these efforts to co-ordinate activity to deal with the challenges of illegal seaborne migration at the southern EU border. As it is for Frontex and the southern member states to reach agreement on exactly what they need to strengthen their border management in this region, our involvement has so far been in an observational capacity only.

The draft council decision concerning access to the visa information system (VIS) for law enforcement

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purposes is also included on the agenda and the presidency will update the council on progress. The presidency is keen to agree and adopt the council decision at the June council. They will present an updated council decision which will allow for the text to be agreed without the UK and Ireland initially but with a declaration to return to the issue once the outcome of an ECJ case is available. We will reaffirm our position that the UK and Ireland should have access to the database.

The presidency will also report back to the council on the outcome of the trilogue with the European Parliament and the Commission on 28 March with regard to the VIS regulation. The UK does not participate in the regulation.

Finally, I expect the presidency to circulate a council position on an EU response to the Iraqi refugee situation. This is likely to include a commitment to solidarity with those member states—in particular Sweden—under pressure (through technical support), a call on the Commission to analyse current statistics and grant rates in EU member states, plus a call for member states to step up resettlement of displaced Iraqis. The UK is in discussion with the UNHCR to explore ways in which the UK might be able to respond, within its existing Gateway resettlement programme, to the UNHCR's call to assist with the resettlement of displaced Iraqis.

Freedom of Information

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Constitutional Affairs (Baroness Ashton of Upholland): Today I have deposited copies of The Freedom of Information Act 2000—Statistics on Implementation in Central Government: October to December 2006 in the Libraries of both Houses. This is the eighth quarterly bulletin produced by the DCA monitoring the performance of central government and associated bodies under the Freedom of Information Act 2000.

Northern Ireland: Discretionary Social Fund

Lord Rooker: My right honourable friend the Minister of State for Northern Ireland (David Hanson) has made the following Ministerial Statement.

I am pleased to announce that the Northern Ireland Discretionary Social Fund budget for 2007-08 will be £64.57 million: £13.62 million will be allocated to grants, £50.85 million to loans and £0.1 million will be held as a contingency reserve. The total gross budget is made up of net Social Fund provision from Treasury of £20.99 million plus the amount of forecast loan recoveries for 2007-08, £43.58 million.

Details of the budget allocations, together with a note explaining the basis on which they have been made, have been placed in the Libraries of the House.

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