Tuesday, 27 January 2004

Questions (900)

Charlie O'Connor

Question:

1021 Mr. O'Connor asked the Minister for Social and Family Affairs to report on her Department's activities in respect of Ireland's EU Presidency; if she will outline her plans for the next few months; and if she will make a statement on the matter. [1222/04]

View answer

Written answers (Question to Minister for Family)

My overall focus for the Irish Presidency will be to advance the EU social policy agenda generally and in particular, make progress in delivering on the ten year goals set by the Lisbon European Council in 2000.

One of the ambitious goals of the Lisbon agenda is to achieve greater social cohesion. Following the submission of the second round national action programmes on social inclusion 2003 — 2005 the Commission adopted its second report on social inclusion in December 2003. A joint Council-Commission inclusion report will be considered by the Council of Ministers in time for presentation to the spring European Council.

The Irish Presidency will further develop an initiative taken by previous Presidencies by hosting a third meeting of people experiencing poverty. Our aim is to further develop ways of promoting participation by, and consultation with, people experiencing poverty in the context of developing policies in this area.

A key policy area is "Making Work Pay", which explores how the interaction between social protection and employment policies affects peoples decisions to seek, take up, and remain in work. As part of our contribution to modernising social protection systems, this issue was chosen as the main theme for discussion at the Informal Council of Ministers for Employment and Social Policy, which was held in Galway earlier this month. The meeting considered three specific aspects, namely, prevention and activation measures; reconciling work and family life and prolonging working life.

Ministers and the Commissioner agreed that social protection systems need to strengthen the incentives and supports offered to people moving from benefits to work but that this should not call into question their primary role in providing adequate benefits to people who need them. Ministers also agreed to strengthen actions to improve incentives to work for older people and to minimise incentives for early retirement. The importance of striking a proper balance between employment and social protection policies in this area was also emphasised when my colleague, the Minister of State for labour, and I, in company with the Commissioner and our Dutch and Luxembourg colleagues, met with EU-level social partners and social platform at our Troika meeting.

The Irish Presidency will work to secure, for the first time, an agreed high level key messages paper for the spring European Council which will reflect in an integrated way the Council's work on social inclusion, pensions, demographic developments, making work pay, gender equality and the employment-related policy challenges addressed in the report of the European employment task force and elsewhere.

The issue of migration is another of our priorities for my Department during the Irish Presidency. We will be hosting a conference in April, the theme of which will be "Reconciling Mobility and Social Inclusion". Its main focus will be on the role of social and employment policies in achieving social inclusion for people moving within the EU.

A major priority in this context for the Irish Presidency will be to work for adoption by the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament of the proposals to simplify and modernise the EU regulations on social security of migrant workers. This will provide workers and their families moving within the EU with a more streamlined set of rules aimed at protecting their social security and health care rights.

Following the accession of the ten new member states in May next, we will host a special conference, in co-operation with the Hungarian Government and the Commission. The conference will address both the implications of the current reform of the regulations for all 25 states and the particular implementation challenges facing new member states in this field.

In the area of family policy and to mark the tenth anniversary of the UN International Year of the Family, the Irish Presidency will host a major international conference the title of which will be "Families, Change and Social Policy in Europe".

I am happy that these events represent a substantial Irish Presidency programme of work which will make a significant contribution to moving forward the EU social policy agenda.