The following statement provides information on the competitiveness Council in Brussels on 29 May 2008, at which I represented the UK. The meeting was chaired by Andrej Vizjak, Slovenian Minister of Economy and Gregor Virant, Slovenian Minister of Public Administration.
The Council held a debate on competitiveness and innovation in European industry, and adopted conclusions agreeing on the goal of making the EU a more dynamic and competitive, knowledge-based, safe and sustainable low carbon economy, in order to achieve sustainable growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion. The conclusions emphasise the importance of removing barriers to innovation and reducing the fragmentation of European venture capital markets, the potential contribution of pre-commercial procurement, and the need to implement measures to fight climate change and to improve the competitiveness of the metals, forest-based and defence industries. I intervened to emphasise the importance of further work to reduce the regulatory burden on small firms, to improve access to venture capital in the EU, to achieve greater energy efficiency and achieve the transition to a low carbon economy, and to develop skills levels in the EU.
Following a presentation by the Commission on its second strategic review of the better regulation initiative, the Council adopted conclusions calling for further action on impact assessment, the reduction of administrative burdens, and the simplification of EU legislation. I intervened in the debate to stress the need for a net target for burden reductions and for ambitious company law simplification proposals, including exclusions for the smallest companies.
The Council took note of a progress report on the future development of an EU patent system, and held an exchange of views on progress on patent litigation and the Community patent. I intervened to note the much higher cost of patents in the EU than in Japan and the US, and to urge rapid progress to resolve outstanding concerns in order to achieve an efficient, cheap system as soon as possible, concentrating as a priority on efforts to improve the patent litigation system.
Under other business, the Commission gave brief progress reports on the draft toy safety directive, the small business act for Europe initiative, cohesion policy strategies and programmes for 2007-13, transposition of the services directive and the draft regulation on CO2 emissions from cars. The presidency gave a brief report on the outcome of the informal Competitiveness Council in April. Portugal made brief interventions about fees charged by the Office for Harmonisation in the Internal Market and the effect of rising oil prices on the EU economy.
I am pleased to confirm the agenda items for which BERR has responsibility at the forthcoming Transport, Telecommunications and Energy Council (Telecoms Council) in Luxembourg on 12 June 2008.
The first substantiative item on the agenda is a presidency progress report on the European Commission proposals to review the regulatory framework for electronic communication networks and services (telecoms). The Slovenian presidency is expected to pose three (written) questions in the debate:
whether the revised framework is able to incentivise investment in next generation access networks (NGN)the successor to broadband;
the extent to which regulatory bodies should be independent, and whether more consistency in the approach that National Regulatory Authorities (NRAs) take would be of benefit; and,
Ministers views on the best way to achieve a common vision on spectrum management in the EU.
In addition, we are envisaging a discussion over lunch on the Commissions proposal for a pan-EU Telecoms Authority.
In line with the views of both Committees, the Government have never been convinced of the case for a new pan-EU regulator. I noted with interest the output of the House of Commons debate on 18 March 2008 and the conclusions of the House of Lords debate on 14 March 2008 entitled The Single Market: Wallflower or Dancing Partner. You will be reassured to know that none of my opposite numbers in other member states, or indeed the views from the European Parliament, support the Commissions original proposals. Together with like-minded Ministers, I intend to use this discussion over lunch with Commissioner Reding to reiterate our views on the elements necessary for an independent advisory body to build upon existing arrangements and strengthen the application of the framework. My officials have been working closely with officials from the incoming French presidency, in developing their alternative to the Commissions agency proposals, on which the French Minister and I will looking to galvanise member state support. Essentially the French proposals address our concerns, and look to shape the advisory body as a much smaller entity comprising of the chairs of all 27 National Regulatory Authorities complemented by a small permanent secretariat appropriate only to undertake the revised remit. We shall also be clear that it must have a remit to act not only at the request of the Commission, but also on its own initiative, that it its roles and functions must be clearly defined, and that it must be politically independent and operate in a fully transparent manner.
Focusing on the three questions we expect the Slovenian presidency to pose, I intend to take the opportunity in response to the first of these to make an intervention on the need for this framework to be technologically neutral, and provide NRAs with the necessary power, including new powers of functional separation, to promote efficient infrastructure investment in those parts of the network which are replicable, and to ensure access on non-discriminatory terms to those elements which are likely to be enduring economic bottlenecks. What we do not want is an outcome which enables member states to unfairly favour incumbents deployment of fibre networks by excusing them of their obligations to ensure non-discriminatory access.
On the second question, I intend to take the opportunity to emphasise the importance the UK attaches to independent regulators separated from market participants and the day to day pressure of politics. However, I will also push for a higher level of ambition, so that rather than focusing on achieving
consistency (whether that be consistently good or consistently bad), we should be focusing on developing a process that continually raises the bar in terms of regulatory performance across the EU. During this intervention I will also reconfirm our commitment to work with other member states to find a satisfactory mechanism of constraining a Commission veto on national market remedies to target the laggards, without constraining regulatory innovation and causing unnecessary additional hurdles in those member states which are already applying the framework with considerable success.
In addressing the last of their questions, I intend to emphasise that whilst it is appropriate for member states to have sufficient flexibility to support clearly defined public policy purposes, we are strongly of the view that the market is best placed to manage spectrum. I share the views, which I expect to be expressed by several Ministers, that harmonisation can bring benefits through economies of scale and interoperability. However, I will make it clear that enforced (regulatory) harmonisation runs the risk of spectrum being underused if services do not develop as expected. For this reason I believe that market-led harmonisation, achieved through a technology and service neutral approach, is more appropriate as it can adapt to changing market conditions and avoid inefficient use of spectrum.
I am aware of, and grateful for, both Committees interest in this important package. I can report that in addition to instructing my officials to work closely with their opposite numbers and the European Parliament, I have held successful bilateral meetings with the French, and in advance of this Council meeting will have meet with Commissioner Reding and my German and Finnish opposite numbers to prepare the ground. I will write to you again to report on these discussions, and as requested (in both the Commons scrutiny debate on 18 March 2008 and their previous correspondence on 12 December 2007, as well as in the Lords scrutiny clearance letter of 13 May 2008), will keep both Committees updated on the progress of these proposals.
Following the discussion on the framework review, there is the adoption of Council conclusions on a common approach to the use of the spectrum released by digital switchover. The Commission published its communication in November, and this included a proposal for a move towards a common spectrum plan in the UHF band at EU level. While it is recognised that there are benefits to harmonisation, I intend to intervene to argue that enforced harmonisation inhibits the development of the market and that consumer focused services are best allocated on a technology/service neutral basis. I will welcome the Council conclusions which through negotiation now reflect a non-mandatory approach to co-ordination between member states in the utilisation of the digital dividend.
This will be followed by the Council conclusions on preparing Europes digital future i2010 mid-term review. These conclusions invite member states to increase their efforts in taking forward the dossiers that are covered by the strategy, thereby enabling information society and audiovisual media services to contribute to the Lisbon strategy. I will be supporting this, but there is not expected to be any substantiative discussion.
The next item is a Commission proposal for political agreement on the duration of the European Network and Information Security Agency. Currently ENISAs mandate expires in 2009 and an extension is required to ensure its continued existence. I intend to support this proposal to ensure that there is continuity in EU network information security until final decisions have been made concerning the establishment of the European Electronic Communications Market Authority. As such, the extension of the ENISA mandate will need to be time-bounded.
The final item on the agenda concerning telecommunications relates to the recently published Commission communication on Advancing the Internet: Action Plan for the Deployment of Internet Protocol Version 6 (IPv6) in Europe. This is essentially about how the internet community can be encouraged to adopt IP6 addresses in place of the dwindling
supply of current IPv4 ones. The detail of this is currently being considered. However, I intend to intervene to say that such deployment should be an orderly, industry-led solution where the Commission and Governments are supportive, rather than the primary drivers.
The Minister for Local Government (John Healey): I am satisfied that financial assistance under the Bellwin scheme is justified to cover eligible costs incurred by six councils following flooding in England in January 2008.
A scheme will therefore be established under section 155 of the Local Government and Housing Act 1989. Grants will be paid to the authorities to cover 85 per cent. of their eligible costs incurred above a threshold.
Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council;
Newark and Sherwood District Council;
North Lincolnshire Council;
Oxford City Council;
Vale of White Horse District Council; and
West Oxfordshire District Council
The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Phil Woolas): My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced on 7 February 2008 (Col 79WS) the publication of draft statutory social and environmental guidance to the Water Services Regulation Authority (OFWAT) for consultation.
Copies of a report summarising the outcome of the consultation will be placed in the Libraries of the House. A copy is also available on the DEFRA website at http://www.defra.gov.uk/corporate/consult/natural environment.htm.
The Minister for Borders and Immigration (Mr. Liam Byrne):
Over the next year, the Government are bringing in the biggest shake-up of the immigration system for over 40 years. Today I am laying new immigration rules which complete the roll-out of Tier 1 of the points-based system, introducing provisions for
highly skilled migrants, entrepreneurs, investors and recent graduates from UK universities. Worldwide we will also be introducing the entrepreneur, investor and post study work categories. This meets the target I announced last year on time. Tier 1 replaces eight former immigration categories, in line with our commitment to simplifying the immigration system.
Tier 1 (General) is for highly skilled migrants who wish to seek work or become self-employed in the UK. The entry criteria are rigorous: applicants without qualifications at first degree level or above and a track record of highly skilled employment will not gain entry. But migrants who successfully apply will be able to seek work without being tied to a particular employer for three years. At the end of that time they will be able to extend their stay if they can show they have been successful in a highly skilled capacity.
Tier 1 (Post Study Work) provides a bridge for international graduates from their studies to work in the UK. Eligible migrants may stay on after graduation to seek work for up to two years, after which they have to switch into either a skilled or highly skilled immigration category. We believe this to be one of the most attractive staying on schemes in the world; it will boost our economy both by enabling these graduates to remain in the UK and by making studying in the UK a more attractive prospect.
Tier 1 (Entrepreneur) will encourage migrants to bring their business skills and ideas to the UK. While applicants will not need to have a minimum level of qualifications, they will be required to invest £200,000 in new or existing businesses and create at least 2 new jobs for workers settled in the UK.
Tier 1 (Investor) is for high net worth individuals making a substantial financial investment (£750,000) in the UK.
The Secretary of State for International Development (Mr. Douglas Alexander): I am today announcing the Governments position on the reports of the International Assessment of Agricultural Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD). The UK Government approve the global summary for decision makers, the North America and European regional summary for decision makers, and the executive summary of the synthesis of the global and regional reports, and accept the chapters of the synthesis report. We would note these reports, and the background IAASTD reports, provide a valuable contribution to our understanding on agricultural knowledge, science and technology for development, and while presenting an overall consensus they also provide a diversity of views.
The IAASTD has produced a series of options for governments and other stakeholders to consider to help ensure that agricultural knowledge, science and technology fulfils its potential to the reduction of hunger and poverty. The Government will be considering these options in their support of agricultural knowledge, science and research for developing countries.