Select Committee on European Union Fortieth Report


WORKING TOGETHER, WORKING BETTER: EU SOCIAL PROTECTION AND INCLUSION POLICIES (5070/06)

Letter from the Chairman to James Plaskitt MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions

  Thank you for your Explanatory Memorandum dated 23 January. This was initially considered by Sub-Committee A (Economic and Financial Affairs and International Trade) and transferred to Sub-Committee G (Social Policy and Consumer Affairs) who considered it on 23 March.

  Although we accept, in principle, the Open Method of Coordination (OMC) we have developed the following criteria in examining previous proposals for OMC which we believe should be consistently applied as a yardstick:

    —    the objectives must be clearly-defined at the outset;

    —    the exercise should concentrate on adding significant practical value to the development of strategies on a given topic where a sufficient basis of common understanding has been agreed between Member States;

    —    it should be carried out with as light a touch as possible;

    —    it should not be over-burdened by indicators and should avoid causing duplication or nugatory work existing work; and

    —    it must not infringe on the competence of Member States or the principle of subsidiarity.

  We would be glad to know to what extent you consider these proposals meet our criteria.

  From your EM it appears that co-ordinating policies between Members States through OMC may help to add some value to the social dimension of the Lisbon Agenda. We also note that the Government supports the Commission's proposals to streamline the objectives for social inclusion, pensions, health and long-term care into a single more coherent framework and believes that learning from others in this way may help to inform national policy decisions and encourage Member States to modernize their social protection schemes in the Lisbon context.

  The Commission's proposal to simplify the required reporting process also appears welcome, although we support your aim of ensuring that the most appropriate indicators are chosen.

  We also strongly agree with you that it would not be appropriate for the Commission to set EU-level numerical targets for an OMC exercise in any of these policy areas.

  We also share your concern over the ambiguous references to the involvement of the European Parliament in this process, which must be clarified. We would not want to see any erosion of the essential informal, non-legislative nature of the OMC process for voluntary co-operation between Member State Governments in areas of national competence. We have serious doubts about the appropriateness of a formal role for the European Parliament in OMC and fear that greater involvement of the Parliament could add to the administrative burdens and weaken the incentives for co-operation by Member States.

  We note from your EM that the proposals were expected to feature in informal Ministerial discussions on 19-21 January, as well as at the March Employment and Social Policy Council, and would be glad to know whether there is anything of significance to report about either discussion and how you expect consideration of the proposals to proceed.

  The document will be kept under scrutiny pending your reply.

24 March 2006

Letter from James Plaskitt MP to the Chairman

  Thank you for your letter of 24 March. I apologise for the delay in responding but I am now able to give you a full update on progress.

  The Austrian Presidency put the streamlining proposal on the agenda of the Informal Meeting of social affairs Ministers in Villach on 20 January. As I reported to Parliament (Hansard 30 January 2006 Column: 6WS):

    "I called for practical discussion about real policies rather than theoretical debate of principles. I suggested that the aim should be to integrate social policy making within an overall reform strategy where it could contribute to the delivery of employment aims. There was a consensus that a visible social dimension to the Lisbon strategy must be maintained and that streamlining the open method of co-ordination would help."

  The Presidency Conclusions from this meeting which stress the importance of improved exchange of information.

  Following the Informal, officials attended meetings of the EU Social Protection Committee (SPC) and agreed an Opinion on the Commission Communication jointly with the EU Economic Policy Committee (EPC). The Opinion contained a slightly revised set of common objectives from those set out in the Commission Communication. This Opinion was transmitted to the 10 March Employment and Social Policy Council in Brussels which I also attended. This Opinion was endorsed by the Council but there was no substantive discussion. It contributed to a Key Messages paper sent to the Spring European Council.

  The Spring European Council Conclusions from 23 and 24 March (paragraph 70) welcomed the new common objectives and working methods in the area of social protection and social inclusion. Member States within the SPC have since agreed a set of guidelines for the preparation of the National Reports, based on a Commission proposal, which provide a balance between allowing Member States to report on the issues which are greatest importance to them, and maximising the scope for a consistent approach to maximise the opportunity for mutual learning.

  I attach a copy of the Presidency Conclusions from Villach, the Joint SPC/EPC Opinion endorsed by the Council, and the Guidelines for the National Reports for your information (not printed).

  Work under these objectives has now begun and member states are currently preparing their first National Report on Strategies for social protection and social inclusion which are due to be submitted to the Commission by 15 September. I shall, of course, ensure that a copy of the UK report is sent to your Committee.

  You asked whether the Commission's proposals met your criteria for OMC that:

    —  the objectives must be clearly defined at the outset;

    —  the exercise should concentrate on adding significant practical value to the development of strategies on a given topic where a sufficient basis of common understanding has been agreed between Member States;

    —  it should be carried out with as light a touch as possible;

    —  It should not be over-burdened by indicators and should avoid causing duplication or nugatory work; and

    —  it must not infringe on the competence of Member States or the principle of subsidiarity.

  I confirm that in the Government's view, these criteria are met. However, we will monitor progress to ensure that the streamlined process does indeed reduce the administrative burden.

  Early signs are reasonably encouraging. The indicators sub-group of the Social Protection Committee has produced a streamlined set of indicators for use in the National Reports. The synchronisation of the National Reform Programme for Growth and Jobs with the National Reports on social protection and inclusion have allowed for cross-referencing between the two documents to reduce duplication. In particular, the pensions and health care elements involve little more than a statement of Government policy to enable exchange of information. In addition, the change to a three yearly reporting cycle (from 2008) will enable more effective peer reviews and exchange of best practice in the intervening years.

  On your point about infringing competence, the joint Opinion of the EU Social Protection Committee and the Economic Policy Committee on this dossier, endorsed by ministers at the 10 March 2006 Employment and Social Policy Council, reiterated that the OMC is "to support Member States in their efforts to reform and modernise their systems on the basis of common agreed objectives, while respecting the competence and responsibility of the Member States for the organisation, design, financing and implementation of social protection policies, according to the principle of subsidiarity" (page 2).

  I am pleased to be able to inform you that the joint Opinion made it clear that Member States could set targets at national or sub-national level to monitor progress but there are no proposals for EU level targets.

  I can also reassure the Committee that in the final agreed working methods that there continues to be no formal role for the European Parliament in the open method of co-ordination.

19 July 2006



 
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