Select Committee on European Union Forty-Ninth Report


Letter from the Chairman to Margaret Hodge MBE MP Minister of State for Lifelong Learning, Further and Higher Education

  Sub-Committee F (Social Affairs, Education and Home Affairs) of the Select Committee on the European Union considered this Communication at a meeting on 12 February.

  The Government are opposed to the Commission's proposals on the ground that the five "benchmarks" are not benchmarks but targets. We endorse that view. Benchmarking is a system of sharing good practice and comparing progress rather than setting targets. Indeed, with hindsight it might have been better for the Council's work programme to have referred to benchmarking rather than to "setting European-wide benchmarks". We are reassured by the categorical statement in your EM that you will not agree these benchmarks as proposed.

  However, we were not entirely clear from your Explanatory Memorandum about the Government's position on targets in this area. You say that you have "consistently opposed the setting of such targets" but the Communication points out (paragraph 19) that targets have been set in other areas of education and training, such as e-learning, educational mobility and mastering foreign languages; and that the Lisbon conclusions contained quantified objectives for education and training, which led to the inclusion in the 2001 Employment Guidelines of the goal of halving by 2010 the number of 18-24 year olds with only lower secondary education who are not in education and training (which equates to the first benchmark). If the Government are opposed to targets, why did they sign up to these targets?

  In view of the fundamental disagreement about the nature of the Commission's proposals, we would be grateful to be kept informed of developments in further negotiation. In the meantime we will keep the document under scrutiny.

Letter from Margaret Hodge to the Chairman

  Thank you for your letter of 14 February, seeking further clarification of the Government's position on European targets in education and training.

  As you point out, a number of European targets exist already. However, these generally relate to areas which member states have agreed are priorities across Europe and which contribute, for example, to the Lisbon goals. I was concerned by the approach taken by the Commission in its communication on European benchmarks in education and training as the "benchmarks" as drafted have no clear direct link with existing agreed targets or goals and could have a direct bearing on national policy.

  These concerns were shared by a number of my European colleagues at the recent Education Council on 6 February, at which the Commission communication was discussed. A considerable number of Ministers expressed reservations about the approach adopted by the Commission and stressed that any "benchmarks" agreed should: take into account the different starting points of member states; consider average EU performance; and respect national policies and priorities.

  The Greek Presidency, on behalf of the Council, has now drafted a revised paper, taking into account the views expressed by Ministers on 6 February and recognising that European benchmarks should not prescribe decisions taken by national governments. I shall write to you again once I have had the chance to consider fully the implications of this new proposal for the UK.

3 March 2003

Letter from Margaret Hodge to the Chairman

  Further to my letter to you of 3 March, I am writing to update you on the progress of this initiative ahead of the EU Education Council on 5 May.

  I explained in my earlier letter my key concerns about this issue, namely: the potential impact on national policy; and the lack of clear linkages between the "benchmarks" proposed in the Commission Communication and the Lisbon agenda. These concerns were shared by a number of my European counterparts at our meeting of 6 February.

  In the meantime, discussion has continued at official level within the Education Committee and officials have explained these concerns in detail. In addition, they have explored in depth the technical feasibility of the "benchmarks" proposed in the Commission's Communication and have stressed the importance of clarity of definition, as well as the need for consistent terminology which is understood by all.

  We hope that the current Greek Presidency, on behalf of the Council, will address these concerns in drafting Council conclusions which will be tabled on 5 May. In particular, there has been wide-spread acknowledgement among Member States that any "benchmarks" agreed must not define national targets, nor prescribe policy decisions to be taken by national governments. However, action at national level would contribute to the achievement of the "benchmarks" at EU level.

  It has become clear in the course of negotiations that, were the UK to oppose such "benchmarks", not only would we be isolated at the Council but these benchmarks would be agreed through alternative means, such as the adoption of a Recommendation agreed by Qualified Majority Voting. For that reason I hope to be in a position to be positive about the draft conclusions on 5 May, providing that our key concerns are addressed. These are:

    —  that any benchmarks should be at EU level and should not define national targets nor policy decisions to be taken by national governments;

    —  that the "benchmarks" proposed are clearly defined, technically feasible and based on comparable data; and

    —  that the "benchmarks" proposed are consistent with the Lisbon agenda.

10 April 2003

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