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Mr. Roger Evans: As a result of the improved recoveries of social fund loans, I am pleased to announce that a further £13 million, funded from these additional recoveries, will be made available to the Benefits Agency's district offices on 23 November 1994. The whole of the additional allocation will be devoted to social fund loans. We believe that social fund loans offer excellent value for money. They enable us to target available resources on those in most need and to recycle funds to help more applicants.
Since the scheme started, we have been able to make £1.2 billion worth of loans for an outlay of only £280
Column 74million. This expansion of the social fund loans budget will ensure that more people receive help and that the fund continues to play a valuable role in complementing mainstream social security provision. Details of individual district allocations have been placed in the Library.
Mr. Rooker: To ask the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland if he will make a statement on the charging policy of his Department and the agencies for which he is responsible in respect of inquiries under the code of practice on access to government.
Sir John Wheeler: In line with guidance on charging produced by the Office of Public Service and Science, which recognises the diversity of cost and operational structure across the range of bodies implementing the code, the Northern Ireland Office, Northern Ireland Departments and agencies have developed the following schemes for charging for information under the code of practice on access to government information:
Department/Agency |Scheme ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------ Agriculture |First five hours free. Charges |above that on ready reckoner |basis. Economic Development |First five hours free. In excess of including Training and | five hours £20 per hour for the Employment Agency | full number of hours taken. Education |First five hours free. £20 per |hour after that. Environment including Driver |Requests costing under £100 free and Vehicle Testing Agency |Full additional cost after that. Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland Rate Collection Agency Finance and Personnel |First five hours free. Charges including Valuation and |above that will be determined Lands Agency | by Accountant. Health and Social Services |First five hours free; above that, including |marginal cost. Child Support Agency Social Security Agency Northern Ireland Office |First five hours free. £20 per hour including Compensation |or part thereof after that. Agency
Mr. Ian Taylor: Earlier this year, my Department consulted users of the copyright tribunal on how far they were satisfied with its performance and on how its proceedings might be improved. Around 40 per cent. of those consulted responded and, of those, the overwhelming majority considered that the tribunal proceedings were fair, flexible, unintimidating and thorough. However, concerns were expressed as to the cost and speed of the proceedings and some suggestions for improvement in these and other respects were made. My Department is currently analysing those suggestions, and will consult tribunal users further on any changes which appear desirable.
Mr. Jonathan Evans: The net book agreement is a voluntary agreement between publishers. It was considered by the restrictive practices court in 1962. The court declared that the restrictions in it were not contrary to the public interest and the agreement was permitted to continue. The Director General of Fair Trading announced in August that he would be asking the court to consider the agreement again.
Mr. Eggar: I am considering whether any changes in the arrangements governing the relationship with the Post Office may be possible. However, I have no immediate plans to change the current arrangements governing borrowing.
Mr. Barnes: To ask the President of the Board of Trade when he next expects to meet the chairman of the Post Office to discuss proposals for the commercial freedom of the Post Office; and if he will make a statement.
Mr. Tipping: To ask the President of the Board of Trade if it is his intention that the final price received for British Coal's regional packages and former collieries should match the bids made by the preferred buyers.
Mr. Eggar: The precise amounts bid for regional coal companies and care and maintenance collieries are commercially confidential and subject to further discussions with bidders. Proceeds will be announced when the sales are completed.
Mr. Byers: To ask the President of the Board of Trade if he will list for each occasion involving travel abroad at public expense mentioned in his answer of 2 November, Official Report , columns 1131 32, (i) the Minister whose spouse attended, (ii) the location abroad, (iii) the purpose of the Minister's visit and the activities taken part in by the spouse and (iv) the total cost of each trip.
Mr. Heseltine: The occasions on which DTI Minister's spouses travelled abroad at public expense during the past year are listed. Ministerial trips were undertaken for trade promotion and trade relations purposes. All accompanying spouses were involved in the official programmes as well as undertaking separate engagements.
Minister -------------------------------------------- Mrs. Hamilton accompanied Mr. Hamilton, Minister for Corporate Affairs Lady Ferrers accompanied Earl Ferrers, Minister for Small Firms and Consumer Affairs Mrs. Taylor accompanied Mr. Taylor, PUSS for Trade and Technology Mrs. Eggar accompanied Mr. Eggar, Minister for Industry and Energy Mrs. Heseltine accompanied Mr. Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade Mrs Heseltine accompanied Mr. Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade
The CCTA recently announced an initiative on the wider use of Internet in Government. Departmental officials are in discussion with a number of institutions to establish how effective Internet would be for the distribution of departmental information.
Mr. Rooker: To ask the President of the Board of Trade what contribution is being made by Her Majesty's Government towards the cleaning up, and making safe, of nuclear installations in the former Soviet Union; and if he will make a statement.
Mr. Charles Wardle: At the Economic Summit in Munich, 1992, G7 heads of Government endorsed a multilateral programme of action to help improve the safety of Soviet-designed nuclear reactors in central and eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. For the latter, the Government's main contribution to this international effort is being channelled through the European Union's technology assistance to the Commonwealth of Independent States programme, to which we contribute around 16 per cent. of the total budget. Over the past four years, around 280 million ECU has been allocated by the EC for nuclear safety related projects in the FSU. Priorities are set in consultation with recipient countries. So far, the main emphasis has been on reactor safety, although a number of projects relating to waste management and clean-up operations have either been carried out or are under-way.
The United Kingdom has also contributed 11.5 mecu to the European bank for reconstruction and development--managed nuclear safety account, which was established last year to fund urgent safety upgrades at the higher risk reactors.
On a bilateral basis, the Government have supported a range of technical assistance projects in the FSU including a number under the know-how fund. Russia, Ukraine, Belarus Kazakhstan and Lithuania have been amongst the beneficiary countries. Projects include help to Ukraine for land remediation and measurement of radioactive contamination post-Chernobyl; DTI-funded collaboration on RBMK reactor safety between the Atomic Energy Authority and Russia's Research and Development Institute of Power Engineering; and training seminars on radioactive waste management regulation, the safeguarding of nuclear materials and nuclear site inspection techniques. At the Naples Summit in July, G7 Governments pledged support for an action plan to ensure early closure of the remaining units at Chernobyl within the framework of an energy sector strategy for Ukraine. The Government will make a contribution through the EU, which has pledged up to 100 mecu of grant finance for technical assistance through the TACIS programme and up to 400 million ECU thorough EURATOM loans. The Government will decide their bilateral contribution when detailed arrangements have been agreed with Ukraine.
Mr. Tipping: To ask the President of the Board of Trade what advice has been given to the unsuccessful bidders for British Coal's regional packages about the need to keep their financing in place to enable them to make a further bid.
Column 78people were employed full-time by British Telecom, (b) how many of these have been disabled, by number and as a percentage of the work force, (c) how many existing staff have become registered disabled, (d) how many disabled persons were recruited by number and as a percentage of all recruits, (e) how many disabled persons took early voluntary redundancy terms and (f) what is the current percentage of disabled employees of British Telecom.
Mr. Byers: To ask the President of the Board of Trade what steps he plans to take to maintain the levels of research carried out by British Gas; and if he will investigate the effect on research of the proposed closure of the engineering research station at Killingworth.
Mr. Ian Taylor: I have been asked to take responsibility for co- ordinating the DTI's interests in broadband communications and multimedia for the information society. I aim to encourage the public and private sectors to exploit the technology available and to take full advantage of the opportunities emerging. By spreading the benefits to businesses and households, we can boost our international competitiveness and improve the quality of life in the United Kingdom.
In taking this forward, I want to be able to draw on the best expert opinion from the private sector. My new role will require me to get to grips with the powerful technological and commercial changes now affecting the media, communications, information technology, and publishing industries. I have therefore asked a number of senior figures from those industries to join a group which will advise me on such matters. The group also includes individuals with experience in education and health-care, since these are two of the most important application areas for multimedia.
I see the group as a collection of expert individuals rather than a representative body. I envisage it acting both as a source of ideas and as a sounding-board for some of our own thinking.
The members of this Multimedia Industry Advisory Group are: Mr. Hayden Abbott
Managing Director, Sony Professional Products,
Professor John Arbuthnott
Principal and Vice-Chancellor, University of Strathclyde Mr. Mark Burrell
Group Strategy Director, Pearson
Mr. David Clementi
Group Chief Executive, Kleinwort Benson
Column 79Mr. Don Cruickshank
Director General, Office of Telecommunications
Mr. Robert Devereux
Chairman, Virgin Communications
Mr. David Elstein
Director of Programming, BSkyB
Mr. John Greetham, CBE
Chairman, Yorkshire Regional Health Authority
Dr. Peter Horne
Managing Director, Apricot Computers
Mr. Peter Job
Chief Executive, Reuters
Mr. Tim Jones
Chief Executive, Mondex
Mr. Nick Kane
Group Managing Director, Videotron
Mr. Robert Phillis
Chairman, BBC Worldwide
Mr. Giles Pugh
Director, Corporate Strategy, W H Smith
Dr. Alan Rudge, OBE
Managing Director, Development and Procurement, BT.
Lord Astor, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Department of National Heritage, and Robert Hughes MP, Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service and Science have agreed to join the group. The membership of the group may be altered from time to time.
Separately, I will be receiving advice on multimedia and information highways from Mr. Peter Bonfield and Mr. Peter Davies, who were members of the High-Level Group formed by European Commissioner Martin Bangemann at the end of last year. I will also continue to benefit from the views of the many other individuals and organisations with which the DTI has contacts.
Within the DTI, a multimedia steering group has been established to bring together the wide range of multimedia interests inside the Department. This is chaired by Alistair Macdonald, the Deputy Secretary in charge of the DTI's industry command. Mr. Macdonald will be assisted by a new multimedia unit in telecommunications division of the DTI.
These various initiatives are referred to in the command paper, "Creating the Superhighways of the Future: Developing Broadband Communications in the United Kingdom", published today.
Mr. Heseltine: In the Command Paper, "Creating the Superhighways of the Future: Developing Broadband Communications in the United Kingdom", published today, I have set out the Government's vision for creating information super-highways in the United Kingdom. We need to build on the substantial investment in telecommunications networks and infrastructure which has been made by the private sector in recent years. Greater emphasis is now required in this country on developing a wide range of applications to be used on the super-highways. The opportunities--particularly in multimedia--are vast, and they need to be better appreciated if the United Kingdom is to gain maximum advantage.
The Command Paper incorporates the Government's response to the Trade and Industry Select Committee report on optical fibre networks and copies are available in the Libraries of both Houses and on the Internet.
Thanks to privatisation and deregulation, the United Kingdom is already a world leader in these new information infrastructures, which gives us an excellent platform to build on the earlier liberalisation of the telecommunications sector. The Government want to see the development of competitive and commercially successful broadband communications networks to bring new opportunities and benefits to business, individuals, and users of public services. Competition in telecommunications since 1991 has been the engine of rapid progress in both infrastructure and telecommunications services. Industry has responded to the challenge and has innovated to deliver new technologies and services. Customers now enjoy not only considerably more choice but significantly lower prices and better quality services.
In the future, the success of the digital super-highway will be even more customer driven. The winners will be the companies that deliver services and products that customers want, at a price they will pay.
The Government remain committed to the regulatory framework established in 1991. That framework has already provided an important foundation for substantial investment in infrastructure, leading to the creation of truly interactive broadband communications networks. As competition grows and technology advances, the broad regulatory framework is expected to evolve. The existing policy on national public telecommunications operators providing and conveying entertainment services over their national networks remains as set out in the 1991 telecommunications White Paper, and will not be reviewed prematurely.
The Government want to encourage all operators, including national PTOs like British Telecom and Mercury, to gain experience in offering a full range of new interactive services. All operators may do this by applying for new local delivery operator franchises, and the Government hope that this opportunity will be taken up. The intention is to seek to allow national PTOs who acquire such franchises to test new technologies alongside their existing services, making use of the same infrastructure where possible.
Column 81Investment in the development of information super-highways, both in terms of infrastructure and the services and applications they will carry, will be led by the private sector. The Government are, nevertheless, committed to being more proactive and innovative in offering public services by these means. The command paper underlines the importance for education and healthcare of developing interactive broadband technologies. As an important beginning, the Command Paper published today is the first ever to be made available electronically on the Internet. In the future, the Government will make an increasingly wide rang of information available in a similar fashion.
It will be vital to match the emerging broadband technologies with the content being developed for the super-highways. My Department will be encouraging the growing convergence of telecommunications, information technology and broadcasting. Building the super-highways and exploiting the whole range of multimedia services that they can deliver is essential for both the economic and cultural development of the United Kingdom into the next century. To drive this work forward, I have asked my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Technology to take responsibility for co-ordinating the DTI's multimedia interests for the information society.
(2) if it is his intention to create British Coal Property plc; (3) if he will ensure that the disposal of British Coal land which has job creation potential is transferred to local authorities for regeneration use.
Mr. Charles Wardle [holding answer 21 November 1994]: The various options for the future of British Coal's non-operational property portfolio are being considered by British Coal in consultation with the Government. No decisions have been taken.
Mrs. Roche: To ask the President of the Board of Trade during how many of the overseas visits made by Ministers in his Department between 1 January and 30 June those Ministers participated in fund-raising activities for the Conservative party; and if he will list the Ministers and the countries in which those activities took place.
Mr. Heseltine [holding answer 21 November 1994]: Between 1 January and 30 June 1994, Ministers in my Department made 28 overseas visits in their official capacity. Fundraising activities for the Conservative party are not part of our official duties.
Column 82licensing, an optimum number to enable companies to consider all options in a wide range of different areas.
I expect applicants to be committed to the future of the United Kingdom continental shelf by being competitive, innovative and continuing to cut costs.
The largest proportion of the blocks--over 60--are to the west of the Shetlands, where I want to encourage companies to build on the impetus of the Foinaven announcement earlier this month. This area has the potential for further significant discoveries and to develop into an exciting new oil province.
Following that announcement and the success of the "fast-track" 15th round in August, I intend to "fast-track" applications for west of Shetlands blocks so that those can be awarded in advance of the other areas and work can start in the summer of 1995.
The objective of this round, as of previous rounds, is to encourage exploration--particularly in new areas where there has been little drilling to date--and to continue the development of our oil and gas resources well into the next century.
I want the present momentum to be maintained, so I am calling for nominations from companies for the next round, the 17th, which will cover frontier areas to the far west of Britain where there has been little exploration so far.
Blocks offered in the 16th round include relatively new basins such as Cardigan bay and the East Irish sea, and in the English channel, as well as on the fringes of the more established areas of the North sea. The range of blocks offered illustrates the diversity of opportunities available on the UKCS.
A number of the blocks are in areas where there are particular environmental concerns. Special conditions will be attached to the award of licences in those areas in order to safeguard the environment. Those conditions have been agreed following consultation with the Joint Nature Conservation Committee, and also cover restrictions to protect the interests of other users of the sea such as fishing, transport and defence.
We have conducted a wide-ranging consultation exercise on the 329 blocks which were nominated, involving other Government Departments, local authorities and environmental groups. In all, over 100 organisations have advised us.
It is vital that oil and gas exploration activities take account of environment concerns. In July, the Minister for Industry and Energy launched a joint initiative between JNCC and the United Kingdom Offshore Operators Association. UKOOA is making a major contribution to the funding of a series of United Kingdom coastal directories and regional reports setting out the environmental resources of each coastal area. I expect companies applying for blocks in sensitive areas to demonstrate that they have taken the draft reports into account when preparing their applications and environmental management systems.
I am committed to protecting the environment, but this does not mean that there are "no go areas" where oil and gas activity is excluded for ever. As information on environmental resources improves and oil and gas technology develops, there may be increased scope for exploring areas in sensitive areas while still protecting the environment. The main factor in determining the selection