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EU: General Affairs and External Relations Council

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown): My honourable friend the Minister for Europe (Mr Jim Murphy) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary (Mr David Miliband) and Kim Darroch (UK permanent representative to the EU) represented the UK at the General Affairs and External Relations Council (GAERC) in Brussels.

The agenda items covered were as follows:

External Relations

Pakistan

The council discussed the situation in Pakistan ahead of elections on 18 February. Foreign Ministers underlined the importance of maintaining pressure on the Government of Pakistan to ensure free and fair elections, including through the deployment of an EU election observation mission to Pakistan. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary intervened to encourage further thought within the

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EU on what it could do to support Pakistan after the elections, including in the areas of institution building and economic development.

Middle East

The council discussed the grave humanitarian situation in Gaza and events on the Egyptian border. Foreign Ministers emphasised the EU’s commitment to helping Israel, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt find a solution to the current situation. The council highlighted the EU’s readiness to contribute to a peaceful solution, including through the resumption of the EU’s border monitoring mission at Rafah.

The council adopted conclusions encouraging the parties to honour their road map commitments, particularly on Israeli settlements and on Palestinian security, and welcoming the achievements of the Paris donors’ conference.

The council adopted conclusions on Lebanon condemning the recent terrorist attacks in Beirut and welcoming mediation efforts by the Arab League in resolving the political crisis.

Kenya

The council discussed the latest situation in Kenya following recent presidential elections. My right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary intervened to underline the seriousness of developments in Kenya and urge continued EU support for the African Union and Kofi Annan in their efforts to help Kenya’s political leaders reach agreement on resolving the crisis.

The council adopted conclusions condemning the violence, expressing concern about the seriousness of the humanitarian situation in Kenya and urging all parties to engage constructively in dialogue to find a sustainable political solution to the crisis.

Sudan/Darfur, Chad and the Central African Republic (CAR)

UN envoy to the Darfur political process Jan Eliasson briefed the council on the humanitarian and political situation in Darfur. He underlined that it was important the international community urged all parties to cease hostilities and engage in the peace process. In discussion, Foreign Ministers highlighted the need for continued EU pressure on the Government of Sudan to co-operate fully with the prompt deployment of an effective African Union-UN peacekeeping force to Darfur and to implement the comprehensive peace agreement as the basis for peace and development in Sudan.

The council adopted conclusions on Sudan welcoming the return of the parties to the comprehensive peace agreement to the Government of national unity. The council also highlighted the importance of humanitarian access to the people of Darfur, urging all parties in the conflict to cease hostilities, and to engage constructively with the peace process mediated by the UN and African Union envoys.

The council also underlined its concern at the deterioration of the security situation in neighbouring Chad and agreed to launch an EU military operation in Chad and the CAR, which will contribute towards an improved security situation in those countries by protecting displaced persons and facilitating the delivery of humanitarian aid.



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Iran

The high representative for the common foreign and security policy, Javier Solana, briefed the council on his recent contact with the Iranian authorities and on the decision by the E3+3 (Germany, France, UK, China, Russia and the US) to start consultations in New York on a further sanctions resolution given the lack of Iranian co-operation. The Government support discussion of a further resolution in New York, given the lack of progress and strengthening of the EU’s measures in support of action by the UN Security Council.

Western Balkans

Discussion of the western Balkans focused on Serbia. Foreign Ministers agreed to invite Serbia to sign a political agreement on co-operation with the EU and establish a task force to assist Serbia to meet the conditions which would enable it to make accelerated progress towards a stabilisation and association agreement. The Government support this political agreement, believing it sends a positive signal of the EU’s commitment to Serbia’s European future.

EU: Justice and Home Affairs Council

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Lord Hunt of Kings Heath): The Justice and Home Affairs Informal Council was held on 25 and 26 January 2008 in Ljubljana. My right honourable and noble friend the Attorney-General (Baroness Scotland), my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Maria Eagle), and my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Meg Hillier), attended on behalf of the United Kingdom. Since it was an informal council, no formal decisions were taken. The following main issues were discussed:

The first home affairs session opened with a report from the presidency on the work of the Future Group on EU Home Affairs Those not on the group were invited to give their views. All supported the work under way, stressing the need to prioritise data sharing, both within the EU and co-operation with third countries. In relation to other subject areas, there were suggestions that work might look at the further harmonisation of rules to manage the Schengen area, tighter border controls, measures to bring terrorists to justice and the strengthening of action in the area of civil protection and disaster response. Several delegations also raised the need to ensure that the work of the Home Affairs Group and that of the Justice Future Group were linked more closely. The new European Parliament’s civil liberties, justice and home affairs (LIBE) president, Gérard Deprez, gave a general introduction to the approach of LIBE, stressing its concern for privacy and individual rights.

The presidency concluded that interoperability of databases and the needs of law enforcement should drive future EU policy on data sharing, coupled with thorough data protection. On migration, an integrated approach to management was needed based on Frontex (the EU’s border agency), operating across land and sea borders. Links with external policy should be

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stronger, as should data sharing, and work with and in third countries. In all these areas the EU should analyse what it already had, and then look at the next steps. The presidency noted that a final report should be prepared under the incoming French presidency, with a view to contributing to the successor to the Hague JHA work programme.

The second session discussed practical co-operation in the field of asylum, with the presidency stressing the need for joint practical projects and asking for views on a European Support Office (ESO) which would oversee all forms of co-operation between member states on the common European asylum system. The UK welcomed practical co-operation based on an assessment of why people moved. The Commission said that its proposals on the second stage of the common European asylum system were due in July and work on an ESO should start with a feasibility study. All member states agreed that practical co-operation should be strengthened, and that there was a need for more uniform country-of-origin information. All member states also supported the ESO, but views differed as to its role and staffing. The presidency concluded that work to unify the interpretation of existing instruments, common training, and shared interpretation pool should continue. There was wide support for an ESO, but further work was needed on its tasks and financing. The presidency looked forward to the Commission’s ESO study. The council would be invited to agree conclusions on this at a future session.

The home affairs session closed the official programme with a working lunch, during which Ministers considered the timetable for the implementation of the second generation of the Schengen information system (SIS II). The Commission and presidency argued that member states had to set and commit to a real timetable for SIS II. More time for testing was needed, but a formal decision had to be taken at the February JHA council. Ministers agreed with a presidency proposal to remodel the oversight of the SIS II project on similar grounds to that used for SISOne4All, setting up a ministerial-level steering group of various member states.

Ministers also had an exchange of views on the Commission's proposal on the use of the passenger name records (PNR) for law enforcement purposes. The Commission stressed the need to prevent terrorism, but protect the privacy and rights of honest travellers. At the presidency’s request, the Government presented the UK's experience of using PNR data, with concrete examples of their use, proportionality and success, with the conclusion that they should be used to detect all forms of crime. While generally favouring the proposal, member states noted that it raised difficult technical and substantive issues, including concerns about data protection. The presidency concluded that there was general support for the proposal, subject to further work on the scope and to ensure data protection.

Over lunch on the second day, Justice Ministers discussed the report on the Justice Future Group. There was no clear conclusion on whether to merge the Home Affairs and Justice Future Groups, though the presidency encouraged Ministers to co-ordinate better with their home affairs colleagues.



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After lunch, Justice Ministers discussed whether the e-justice portal should be opened to the public and if so how it should be co-ordinated and whether data should remain decentralised. My honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Justice (Maria Eagle), said that the portal should be opened up, but that issues around data protection and charges for access, if any, had to be carefully considered in each pilot.

The next justice session focused on the presidency’s paper (co-sponsored by the UK) on trials in absentia. The paper was unanimously welcomed as a step forward for EU criminal procedural rights. My right honourable and noble friend the Attorney-General (Baroness Scotland) congratulated the presidency on its achievement. The presidency aims to conclude agreement by the end of June.

During their final session, Justice Ministers discussed matters of family law and, in particular, their views in relation to the proposed regulation on maintenance obligations and the proposed regulation on divorce, also known as Rome III. The UK has not opted in to either proposal. In response to a question from the presidency, a majority of Ministers agreed that the recently agreed text on the Hague convention and protocol on maintenance obligations should be signed and ratified as soon as possible, reflecting the UK's position. Further discussions took place on the desirability of eliminating obstacles to the recognition and enforcement of maintenance decisions from other member states. On Rome III, a consensus view emerged that spouses ought to be able to choose the competent jurisdiction and law applicable to their divorce.

Iraq and Afghanistan: Casualties

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Taylor of Bolton): My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Defence (Mr Des Browne) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

Following a review of published operational casualty data to align current and historical methods of statistical recording, the number of casualties categorised as seriously injured (SI) (excluding natural cause) on Operation Herrick for 2006 has increased by one from 12 to 13. The number of Operation Telic casualties categorised as SI (excluding natural cause) for 2006 has increased by two from 19 to 21. There have been no changes to the number of very seriously injured (VSI) casualties in either operation. These changes bring the total number of SI casualties (excluding natural cause) for Op Herrick to 57 and Op Telic to 144 up to 31 December 2007.

The statistics on casualty severity which are published on the MoD internet site exclude those individuals whose condition was recorded as due to a natural cause. In a very small number of cases, however, it is not possible to confirm whether individuals are suffering from injury or disease. When casualty reporting on the MoD internet site was first established in early 2006, cases where there was uncertainty over the cause were excluded from the published statistics. However, during

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an exercise last year to validate and publish retrospective data for the period 2001 to 2005 for the first time, it was decided that such cases, where there is uncertainty over the cause, should be included. This ensures that all those who have suffered an injury are reported. To ensure consistency of the statistical approach, we have now added such cases into the published statistics for January 2006 onwards.

These revised statistics supersede information previously released by the department into the public domain.

The revised data have now been published on the MoD website at

http://www.mod.uk/DefenceInternet/FactSheets/OperationsFactsheets/OperationsInlraqBritish Casualties.htm and

http://www.mod.uk/DefenceInternet/FactSheets/OperationsFactsheets/OperationsInAfghanistan BritishCasualties.htm.

Local Government

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My honourable friend the Minister for Local Government (John Healey) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

On 7 January 2008, the department published a statement on its website about the local authority business growth incentives scheme (www.local. communities.gov.uk/finance/labgi/statemtyr3pay.pdf).

This indicated that, following further consideration of the new legal challenges that have been made against the current LABGI scheme and the inherent uncertainty this causes to the remaining LABGI pot, the Government intended to reconsider all aspects of the approach used to distribute resources available for year 3 of the LABGI scheme.

Alongside our reconsideration of the year 3 scheme, the Government have reconsidered the payments for years 1 and 2 of LABGI, which were made on the basis of a number of Valuation Office Agency rateable value “change codes”. We have taken the view that there are a number of Valuation Office Agency change codes that have not previously been used in LABGI calculations, which could contain elements of business growth. In light of this, and to avoid the additional delay and uncertainty caused by further legal challenge, the Government propose to reward authorities on the basis of a wider set of codes than has so far been the case for years 1 and 2. I will set out the details shortly.

The Government are still finalising their analysis of options for allocating the resources available for year 3 of the scheme. We continue to be convinced of the value of providing incentives to encourage business growth, a view echoed by the great majority of the responses to our recent issues paper on the reform of the LABGI scheme (Building Better Incentives for Local Economic Growth: Reforms to the Local Authority Business Growth Incentives Scheme). We also remain determined to try to achieve this policy

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aim for LABGI. However, the inclination of a small number of authorities to pursue legal action has created greater complexity, uncertainty and delay. Given this, it will be necessary to retain a portion of the year 3 funding as a contingency in this final year of the current scheme. I will make an announcement on year 3 methodology and the size of the contingency retained as soon as possible.

NHS: Foundation Trusts

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Lord Darzi of Denham): My honourable friend the Minister of State, Department of Health (Ben Bradshaw), made the following Written Ministerial Statement on 1 February.

The chairman of Monitor (the statutory name of which is the Independent Regulator of NHS Foundation Trusts) announced this week that, in accordance with Section 35 of the National Health Service Act 2006, Monitor has decided to authorise the following NHS acute and mental health trusts as NHS foundation trusts from 1 February:

Mid Staffordshire General Hospitals NHS Trust;Norfolk and Waveney Mental Health Partnership NHS Trust;Bolton, Salford and Trafford Mental Health NHS Trust;Tameside and Glossop NHS Trust; andBirmingham Women’s Health Care NHS Trust.

Monitor’s announcement brings the total number of NHS foundation trusts to 88. A copy of Monitor’s press notice has been placed in the Library.

The Government remain committed to offering all NHS acute and mental health trusts the opportunity to apply for foundation status as soon as practicable. Monitor is now authorising trusts on a monthly basis, and further waves of NHS foundation trusts are set to follow.

Supporting People

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Communities and Local Government (Baroness Andrews): My right honourable friend the Minister for Housing and Planning (Caroline Flint) has made the following Written Ministerial Statement.

The Government are today confirming final programme grant allocations to administering authorities for the Supporting People programme in 2008-09. The programme funds housing-related support services for over 1 million vulnerable people—including victims of domestic violence, teenage parents, older people and those with mental health problems—enabling them to live independently in their accommodation. The Government have invested £8.7 billion since the Supporting People programme began in 2003 and announced a further £4.9 billion of funding for the next three years.

Final allocations for 2009-10 and 2010-11 will be confirmed by a further Statement to this House closer to the beginning of those financial years. In line with the Government's policy on three-year settlements, it is not intended that the 2009-10 and 2010-11

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indicative allocations will be changed from those published on 6 December, other than in exceptional circumstances.

The refreshed consultation on the Supporting People distribution formula closed in January 2008. Following consideration of the responses, we are today confirming final allocations for 2008-09 and publishing our response to that consultation on the department’s website.

This three-year settlement, alongside a radically slimmed-down performance framework, will provide

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authorities with stability for the future and greater flexibility to budget and plan realistic delivery of housing support services.


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