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Mr. Meacher: Is the Minister aware that, in addition to the quarter of a billion pounds cost of preparing for privatisation that he quoted, it is also reported that the Secretary of State intends to write off £1.5 billion in debts as a sweetener in order to secure the sale of Railtrack? Is the Minister also aware that senior officers have been offered up to double their present salaries--up to six-figure levels, excluding additional share options--to secure their co-operation in the run-up to privatisation?

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Is it not the ultimate absurdity that the cost to the public purse of selling off British Rail is now likely to exceed the total revenues from that sale? Does it not speak volumes for the Government that they can suddenly find billions of pounds to subsidise the privatisation programme when they have starved British Rail of desperately needed cash investment for years?

Mr. Watts: Investment in railways is running at £1 billion this year, it is planned to be at £1 billion next year and it was at an all -time high of more than £1.5 billion very recently. I make £209 million rather less than a quarter of a billion pounds. As to the other figures which the hon. Gentleman adduced, we know how good he is at conjuring figures out of the air and how bad he is at substantiating any of them.

Mr. Duncan Smith: Does my hon. Friend agree that the purpose of privatisation is to remove burdens from the taxpayers so that the system will ultimately deliver benefits to them, as occurred with British Airways and with all of the other privatisations that have taken place? Instead of taking from the taxpayer, privatisation contributes benefits to the taxpayer.

Mr. Watts: My hon. Friend is right to say that we wish to remove unnecessary burdens from the taxpayer. However, I remind him that we are planning to give the Franchising Director a budget of £1,800 million to secure the socially necessary services which the Opposition claim, quite falsely, will be abolished under privatisation.

Low-floor Buses

13. Ms Lynne: To ask the Secretary of State for Transport what discussions he has had with the transport industry about the introduction of low-floor buses in the past 12 months.

Mr. Norris: My Department has had a number of discussions about the introduction of low-floor buses over the past 12 months with both the manufacturing and operating industries.

Ms Lynne: There is no mention in the Government's Disability Discrimination Bill about access to transport vehicles. What time scale does the Minister envisage for bringing forward legislation to make buses and trains accessible to disabled people? Does he accept that deregulation of buses and the proposed privatisation of the railways could set back that process?

Mr. Norris: As to the hon. Lady's latter point, I see privatisation as doing more to accelerate the provision of decent facilities for disabled people than anything that nationalisation has achieved over the past half century. On the hon. Lady's main point, we have concentrated on ensuring that European Community construction and use directives allow us to specify low-floor buses. That is exactly the right way to proceed, but that process will take time because the Commission must deliberate on the issue. Low- floor buses will bring significant advantages, which I welcome. Not only will they advantage the disabled and others but they can be financially profitable because they allow much faster loading times.

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Madam Speaker: I call Mr. Gordon Prentice. [Hon. Members:-- "Not here."] Perhaps the Opposition Whips will take note. I call Mrs. Jacqui Lait.

Public Services

31. Mrs. Lait: To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what plans he has for further devolution of public services close to the users of services.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service and Science (Mr. John Horam): Extensive plans--including the launch next week bymy right hon. Friend the Chancellor and by me of a campaign for customers to nominate excellent services for the charter mark. That is an important way of giving people influence over the services that they receive.

Mrs. Lait: I begin by expressing regret that my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes) has resigned from a post that he graced with skill and good humour. I welcome my hon. Friend the new Minister to the Dispatch Box and to duties that I know that he will undertake with great ability. I thank him for his information about the charter mark. Can he assure me that Liberal-led East Sussex county council will not receive a charter mark until it changes its policy and encourages schools to become grant-maintained? Does my hon. Friend agree that only through organisations such as grant-maintained schools and health trusts can public services be delivered closer to those who use them?

Mr. Horam: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for her kind remarks. I also pay tribute to the commitment and humour of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes), who will be much missed. My hon. Friend is right and makes well the point that grant-maintained schools are the epitome of the devolution that we are talking about. If East Sussex county council would pay more attention to that prospect, it would make much greater progress than clearly it has done.

Mr. Henderson: I welcome the hon. Gentleman to the Dispatch Box. The last time that he held office, it was for a term of three years. The people of Gateshead were terribly disappointed when the Conservative party was removed from office and the hon. Gentleman had to switch sides. The people of Gateshead may be less disappointed on this occasion, if he holds office for fewer than three years. I do not expect the hon. Gentleman to have fully mastered his brief in the way that his predecessor did, but he told the hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Mrs. Lait) that the Government are intent on devolving power to local people and gave a couple of examples. Is that not a travesty of what is actually occurring in the delivery of public services? Is not ours the most quangoised and centralised society in Europe? Health services, training, economic development and, increasingly, education are delivered by quango. Is it not ironic that at a time when public support for the Government is so low, they have had to advertise for Tory worthies to serve on quangos, to do their dirty work?

Mr. Horam: The hon. Gentleman's remarks are absurd. The fact is that the number of quangos has declined by 36 per cent. Secondly, the actual services are

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delivered by grant-maintained schools and by GP

fundholders--precisely the sort of small organic organisations that we need to run services successfully, and infinitely preferable to the large bureaucratic organisations that flourished under the fiat of Opposition Members.

Ministers (Performance)

32. Mr. Dowd: To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what plans he has to impose minimum performance standards on Ministers with regard to replies to hon. Members' correspondence.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. David Hunt): Ministers always do their best to reply to all ministerial correspondence in as short a time as possible.

Mr. Dowd: I am sure that the Minister must be aware that all hon. Members have to deal with a wide variety of public sector organisations and departments, nearly all of which have set down some sort of minimum time in which we can expect a response of them. Lewisham council, for instance, will reply--this applies to any department--within 10 working days. The great exception is of course the Government, Ministers and the Departments for which they are immediately responsible. I do not doubt that people try their best, but is it not slightly hypocritical of the Government to refuse to impose on themselves standards that they freely inflict on everyone else?

Mr. Hunt: The hon. Gentleman appears to be unaware of the detailed targets, set out by Ministers and reported on to this House, covering the number of working days within which correspondence will be answered. All Departments have those ministerially agreed targets, and their performance against them is monitored centrally, the results being published in the Official Report .

Lady Olga Maitland: Does my right hon. Friend agree that improving response times is very much part of the citizens charter initiative?

Mr. Hunt: Yes, I completely agree. It has been part of the charter philosophy that people should be entitled to have their correspondence dealt with within a reasonable period. When I was Secretary of State for Employment, I took pride in the fact that the Employment Service met some testing targets for responding to correspondence. I applaud it for what it did and for what many other public organisations are now doing as a result.

Civil Service

33. Mr. Robathan: To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what progress has been made in encouraging individuals with relevant outside experience to apply for senior positions in the civil service.

Mr. Horam: We have doubled the number of recruits in two years.

Mr. Robathan: I join others in welcoming my hon. Friend back to the Dispatch Box. I also welcome his response. I welcome, too, the programme of cross-fertilisation of quality as between the civil service

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and the private sector; but will my hon. Friend ensure that it does not undermine the morale and high quality of our excellent civil service?

Mr. Horam: I know that my hon. Friend is familiar with the Army. I have no more wish to undermine the morale and high quality of the civil service than I have to harm the Army. I assure my hon. Friend that we have that at the forefront of our minds when implementing the measures that we have adopted, which are in other respects very valuable.

Mr. McNamara: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that I sympathise with his predicament? Having started off with such high hopes in this House, as a Member sponsored by the Transport and General Workers Union, he ends up as a junior Minister in the most discredited Government of this century.

The Minister will be aware of the convention, in the run-up to a general election, that it is usual to consult the Opposition about certain senior appointments in the civil service. That convention has always been honoured. Should it not now, however, be applied when senior appointments of persons outside the civil service are being made--even though a general election may not be immediately imminent? In particular, should it not also be applied to the appointment of senior civil service commissioners?

Mr. Horam: We shall always consider reasonable requests. The hon. Gentleman knows that the composition of the senior appointments selection board is open and known. We would certainly take account of any reflections that he may have on it.

Cabinet Committees

34. Mr. Mackinlay: To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster if he will list those Cabinet committees of which he is currently chairman.

Mr. David Hunt: A full list is in the Library of the House.

Mr. Mackinlay: Will the Chancellor tell us how many times the committee on women's issues has met in the past three months? Can he give us three examples of subject matters that the committee is examining?

Mr. Hunt: As the hon. Gentleman knows, it has never been the practice for Governments to publish details of the subjects discussed in Cabinet or in Cabinet committees, but we shall have an opportunity in the course of tomorrow's debate to outline the many successful initiatives that the Government have taken. I shall supply the usual information, but not the information that the hon. Gentleman requests, which has never been supplied.


35. Mr. John Marshall: To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster if he will make a statement about science week.

Mr. Horam: The national week of science, engineering and technology- -SET 95--will begin on Friday 17

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March. There will be more than 3,000 events in every part of the United Kingdom--twice as many as last year. I expect it to be a great success.

Mr. Marshall: I join with those who have congratulated my hon. Friend on his promotion. May I ask him in turn to congratulate Christ's college in my constituency on its ingenuity in finding a project that has won the support of the Sir John Cass foundation and local firms and at the same time has given children the excitement that comes with practical problem solving?

Mr. Horam: Yes, I am happy to congratulate Christ's college in my hon. Friend's constituency. I know from my experience in Orpington, where a similar week was held by the Priory school, of the sheer enthusiasm of young people when they are exposed to engineering, talent and people coming in from outside and arousing that instinct that we used to develop. That is the essence of the SET week.

Mr. Miller: I welcome the Minister to his position on the Government Front Bench. I hope that he now has some sympathy with those Government laboratories that are being market-tested. That is surely what is happening to him.

In the light of the national week of science, engineering and technology, does the Minister agree that while the British Association has done remarkably well in developing the programme, there has been a disappointing response from the private sector? Will he, in time for future years of national science weeks--that is, if the Government are in office--ensure that there are urgent consultations with the science-based private sector organisations that ought to have participated in this year's exercise?

Mr. Horam: I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but at the same time, I am slightly surprised. Why are there twice as many events as there were last year? I shall examine his point most carefully. We shall make every effort to encourage private sector organisations.

36. Mrs. Angela Knight: To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what proposals he has to increase public awareness of the importance of science.

Mr. David Hunt: I attach the greatest importance to increasing public awareness of science, engineering and technology.

Mrs. Knight: My right hon. Friend will know that my qualifications are in science. Does he agree that one of the reasons why young people are put off pursuing science as a career is that it is a harder subject than arts at school? An equal deterrent is the widespread and erroneous belief that the only career for scientists is in laboratories. With that in mind, will he tell me how much he proposes to spend in promoting science, and public awareness of it?

Mr. Hunt: First, I have much sympathy with the points that my hon. Friend has raised. We must ensure that we make the prospect of science education as exciting as possible so that youngsters can see the opportunities that lie ahead in science, engineering and technology.

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Secondly, we have decided to increase the public understanding budget within the science budget by 25 per cent. for the coming year, to £1.25 million.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: Given that flat-screen television technology has huge potential implications for the balance of payments of the United Kingdom, should its development be left to the marketplace?

Mr. Hunt: I have, on several occasions, referred to what I describe as the development gap, which I define as meaning a gap between a good research idea and a marketable product. We must find better ways of overcoming that gap.

A great deal of work has been done in our universities and research institutions on television technology. That work has been carried forward by many firms within the United Kingdom.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: Japanese.

Mr. Hunt: The hon. Gentleman shouts from a sedentary position, "Japanese." When I was Secretary of State for Wales, I took great pride in the fact that Sony had decided to establish its European headquarters for colour televisions within Wales.

Mr. Hawkins: Further to his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Erewash (Mrs. Knight), does my right hon. Friend agree that it is crucial for science education to be supported to the hilt? Does he agree in particular that steps should be taken to ensure that public awareness of science includes an escape from the so-called "mad professor" syndrome? Children should be encouraged to think of science as a serious career, and it should be promoted especially among girls, as there has been a disappointing tendency to reduce the number of girls studying science subjects at A-level and university. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the Government are committed to ensuring that science is promoted as a serious subject among schoolchildren of both sexes?

Mr. Hunt: I agree that it is very important to highlight the opportunities for both boys and girls not only to obtain science education at school but to pursue science as a career. We have established a special unit in the Office of Science and Technology to promote greater opportunity for women in science, engineering and technology. It is important to ensure that the opportunity of a career in science is available to young women, and we are determined to achieve that.

Funding Priorities

37. Ms Lynne: To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what recent discussions he has had with the Office of Science and Technology about its funding priorities.

Mr. Horam: Many and continuing.

Ms Lynne: I am delighted to hear that, because the Minister's predecessor said that it was no responsibility of his to discuss funding with the Office of Science and Technology or with the Medical Research Council. Perhaps the Minister will now look at my previous

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questions about breast cancer research and research into aids for disabled people, and perhaps I can be given a fuller answer than his predecessor gave me.

Mr. Horam: I am aware of the hon. Lady's continuing interest in those matters, and I well understand her sincere concern. I shall study her questions carefully. Let me repeat that, as the hon. Lady knows, such issues are decided on merit; but I shall take into account what she has said.

Mrs. Anne Campbell: A moment ago, the Chancellor referred to the development gap that appears to have mysteriously evolved between basic science and what is industrially applicable. Is that not the same as something called "near-market research", funds for which were slashed by Lady Thatcher in the last Conservative Government?

Mr. Horam: That is a matter for the President of the Board of Trade.

Next Steps Agencies

38. Mr. Couchman: To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what proportion of civil servants are now employed in next steps agencies; and what the figure was two years ago.

Mr. David Hunt: Sixty-two per cent., whereas it was 51 per cent. two years ago.

Mr. Couchman: My right hon. Friend will be aware of the Public Accounts Committee's concern that the high standards of service and probity that have always been symbolic of our civil service should be maintained in the next steps agencies and other non-departmental public bodies. Will he assure the House that he will keep a close watch on probity and integrity in the public service, whether in the civil service itself or in the next steps agencies?

Mr. Hunt: Yes, I will. I was very pleased not only by the point made by the Public Accounts Committee, but by what was said in the recent report of the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee. That Committee said:

"We share the Government's view that the Next Steps reforms are in principle compatible with the maintenance of the traditional values of the Civil Service."

Those traditional values--impartiality, integrity, selection and promotion on merit and accountability--are extremely valuable. We are arranging for a new handbook to be issued to all agency chief executives, to ensure that service-wide rules on conduct and financial propriety are always available in readily accessible form.

Ms Eagle: Would the Chancellor care to comment on stories that the chief executive of the Prison Service agency was not the first choice for the job? That would not have happened if the traditions of the civil service had been upheld. Would the right hon. Gentleman care to tell us precisely how the appointment was made?

Mr. Hunt: The hon. Lady should refrain from peddling scurrilous stories in the Chamber. She should concentrate on the fact that the next steps agencies have been a remarkable success, and on the fact that we have been able to find some extremely good people to lead them, not only in the civil service but outside it.

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Information Super-highway

39. Mr. Ian Bruce: To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what steps his Department is taking to help with the introduction and use of the information super-highway.

Mr. Horam: We are leading and co-ordinating its use by Government Departments, stimulating public discussion on super-highway issues and, at an international level, leading a G7 pilot project on "Government on-line".

Mr. Bruce: I congratulate my hon. Friend on his journey from highways to super-highways and thank him

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for his answer about the Government's involvement in the Internet and on using that technology. Has he seen the report that came out of the G7 conference? The first two points that it suggested were dynamic competition and private investment in the Internet. Does he feel that the Government's role is to be an enthusiastic customer of that technology so that they give the encouragement for the investment that we need from private industry to get in and provide the networks?

Mr. Horam: Yes, I entirely take the point that my hon. Friend made. The Government should be a demonstrator of the value of the Internet. My hon. Friend will be pleased to know that, when I walked into my office this morning, I noticed that I could call up the Internet on my PC. I was also pleased by that.

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