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Gas Suppliers

22. Ms Church: To ask the President of the Board of Trade what discussions his Department has had with gas companies about the methods they have used to persuade consumers to switch their custom from British Gas. [28379]

Mr. John M. Taylor: Marketing approaches are a matter for gas companies, subject to the provisions of their licences and normal contract and consumer law. The Office of Gas Supply has produced a range of leaflets for consumers, including one that explains cancellation rights under general law in relation to doorstep sales. Further cancellation rights are provided under the standard licence conditions for gas suppliers.

Ms Church: I thank the Minister for his answer and for the answers that he gave to my hon. Friends the Members for Plymouth, Devonport (Mr. Jamieson) and for Renfrew, West and Inverclyde (Mr. Graham). Will he give an undertaking that, where there have been proven instances of mis-selling of gas by gas companies which have not been fit and proper, compensation will be made available to the consumers who have suffered?

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Mr. Taylor: The correct approach for anybody who feels that there has been irregular negotiation of new contracts with alternative suppliers is to report the matter to the local trading standards officer or the Gas Consumers Council, where advice will be readily and sympathetically available.

Underground Mines

23. Mr. Skinner: To ask the President of the Board of Trade when he last met trade unions leaders from the mining industry to discuss the operation of underground mines. [28380]

Mr. Page: My ministerial colleagues and I meet representatives of the coal mining industry as necessary.

Mr. Skinner: Is the Minister aware that, in the first year since the massive pit closure programme in the early 1990s and the subsequent privatisation, the rate of notifiable accidents has risen by 50 per cent. and the rate of serious accidents--falls of roofs and so on--has increased by 80 per cent. in about 20 coal mines? At the same time, Richard Budge's salary has risen by 60 per cent. to £661,000, and his profits have gone up by £173 million. Does the Minister agree that that is blood money and the sooner that the pits are taken back into public ownership without compensation, the better?

Mr. Page: I regret any accidents or fatalities in pits, and I find it disgusting that the hon. Gentleman has tried to make a political point with the deaths of miners. I draw to his attention the fact that, in 1985-86, 27 people suffered fatalities. The number dropped to 15 in the next year, and to nine in the year after that. Fatalities then went up to 18. The hon. Gentleman was not in the House shouting about blood money then, and he should be ashamed of himself for doing so today.

Nuclear-related Materials Trade

25. Mr. Dalyell: To ask the President of the Board of Trade if he will make a statement on trade between the United Kingdom and Belarus and Kazakhstan in nuclear-related materials. [28384]

Mr. Oppenheim: All such goods of proliferation concern are controlled and require an export licence. In the past two years, the Department of Trade and Industry has issued only two licences for such goods to those destinations--for items to be used in oilfield exploration in Kazakhstan. In the same period, there have been no applications for import licences for nuclear-related goods that require such a licence.

Mr. Dalyell: On 1 May, during the debate on the draft order, I asked Foreign Office Ministers about any help that we could give in the matter of the crumbling sarcophaguses--particularly those covering the Chernobyl radioactive areas. The Ministers said that they would consider the matter. What are the British Government doing to help with the very dangerous sarcophagus problem at Chernobyl?

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Mr. Oppenheim: With respect to the hon. Gentleman, I do not think that that question relates directly to the main question he asked. I shall certainly write to him and explain exactly what the Government are doing. If he wants to come to the Department to discuss the matter, I shall be happy to organise that.

Madam Speaker: I now call Mr. Michael Brown to ask Question 45, which was incorrectly unstarred.

Manufacturing Industry

45. Mr. Michael Brown: To ask the President of the Board of Trade if he will make a statement about manufacturing industry in the Yorkshire and Humberside region. [28357]

Mr. Page: Manufacturing industry in Yorkshire and Humberside is now more competitive and better adapted to the demands of a modern economy than ever before, and it is well placed to take advantage of the continuing recovery and increasing opportunities in overseas markets. I know from my regular visits to the region that many of its manufacturing companies are among the best in the world.

Mr. Brown: My constituents will be delighted to have our own Question Time today--we should like to have one every day. May I tell my hon. Friend that that is excellent news? Does he agree that my constituency is in the vanguard of ensuring the statistics that he has just produced? Does he realise that, this week, we will have the opening of the new Grimsby fish docks, which will benefit Grimsby and my constituency? Is not that a tribute to how manufacturing industry in general has shown a renaissance in the old South Humberside area of Humberside? Will he take this opportunity to congratulate all those who are involved in manufacturing industry on the south bank of the river Humber?

Mr. Page: As sponsor Minister for Yorkshire and Humberside, I congratulate my hon. Friend on creating his own Question Time--I believe that he deserves nothing else, and on an on-going basis. I know that he has worked extremely hard to bring about the Grimsby port project. I also know that the Government have offered quite a few million pounds of taxpayers' money to help bring it to fruition. The project is another example of how that area is blossoming--which is due purely and simply to the way in which the Government have been offering and operating regional support. The only thing that will harm that part of our country is if the Labour party allows the deadly duo of the social contract and the minimum wage to be let loose on it.

Mr. Hardy: Does the Minister accept that the number of new jobs created in recent years does not begin to match the number that have been lost in our region? Does he accept that the antics and attitudes of a large section of the Conservative party seem likely to discourage and deter the inward investment that is so badly needed in our area?

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Mr. Page: While I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, I am afraid that his comments are not borne out by the facts. I can spend a considerable amount of time telling him that, in his constituency, Reflex Sound and Light Systems Ltd. has been given regional selective

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assistance--as have Waterstone Glassware Ltd., Pyronix Ltd., Fear Free Doors, Aquion Ltd. and Morphy Richards Ltd. Those are jobs that have been brought into the region by regional selective assistance from the Government.

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Forensic Explosives Laboratory

3.34 pm

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn) (by private notice) asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the problems arising from the use of contaminated equipment at the forensic explosives laboratory, Sevenoaks.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Michael Howard): As I explained yesterday in response to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Beckenham (Mr. Merchant), on 14 March 1996 a small amount of the explosive RDX, one of the main components of Semtex, was detected in a part of a centrifuge at the forensic explosive laboratory. The laboratory is part of the Ministry of Defence's Defence Evaluation and Research Agency but provides scientific support to the police and Crown Prosecution Service in cases involving the criminal use of explosives.

One of the services that the laboratory provides involves the laboratory analysis of swab samples taken to determine the presence of explosives and the type involved. That "trace" analysis involves a range of procedures, including the use in many cases of a centrifuge.

The contamination involved not more that 30 micrograms, or 30 millionths of a gram, of RDX. It was detected in a part of a laboratory centrifuge that was probably already contaminated on its arrival at the forensic explosives laboratory in 1989. By normal standards, the amount of explosive detected was tiny; nevertheless, it should not have been there.

The contamination was discovered following one of the laboratory's weekly quality assurance exercises. As soon as it was discovered, work was stopped and the centrifuge taken out of operational action. The forensic explosives laboratory then instigated an immediate investigation into the source of the contamination and any implications there might be for casework samples.

As I told the House yesterday, all the information from that preliminary investigation was laid before the Government in a formal report. A copy of it was placed in the Library yesterday.

There is a small theoretical possibility that casework samples showing RDX traces may have been affected by the centrifuge contamination. Regular quality assurance tests are undertaken by the laboratory. In addition, every time the laboratory examines a casework sample it also tests a control. Neither of those checks at any stage indicated RDX traces at a level that would suggest that casework samples are likely to have been contaminated. However, further investigations are required to determine precisely how the incident occurred and what the implications are for the criminal cases involving RDX in which evidence was submitted by the forensic explosives laboratory.

That is why my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence and I agreed that an independent review should be established to look into those matters. As I explained to the House yesterday, the terms of reference of that review will be to report on the general likelihood of contamination being spread from the centrifuge to samples in the laboratory; to examine FEL papers on all

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cases in which RDX traces were found and a criminal conviction resulted, and assess the likelihood of contamination; and to examine FEL procedures in the trace laboratory and make recommendations.

As the House knows, I have invited Professor Brian Caddy to undertake that review. Professor Caddy is Professor of Forensic Science at Strathclyde university and is a renowned expert in the field of trace explosives. He was involved in the appeal cases of the Birmingham Six on behalf of the appellants and advised the Maguire family for the May inquiry.

Professor Caddy will report to me in the first instance, but the results and recommendations of his review will be made public, and I will, of course, bring his findings to the House. In advance of that, as soon as a definitive list has been established, and agreed with Professor Caddy, the representatives of those whose cases involved an RDX trace and resulted in a conviction will be notified. As I said yesterday, on present information it is thought that about a dozen cases could be involved.

I will consider in the light of Professor Caddy's report whether particular cases should be referred to the Court of Appeal. If any case is referred to that court, it will then be for it to weigh the evidence and decide how to proceed.

From the information presently available to me, it would appear that the risk of contamination is small, but in a matter of this importance and sensitivity, I am determined to act only on the basis of the most rigorous and independent scientific assessment. As I have already said, I will keep the House fully informed of the outcome of Professor Caddy's review and the measures that flow from it. It would be wrong to leap to assumptions about any case until we have clear scientific evidence on which to base proper decisions. I hope that the House will recognise that in the regrettable circumstances of this incident, the Government have taken every proper measure to deal with the consequences.

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