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Mr. Wallace: Will the Minister address the fact that several bodies, including those on which his officials have sat, have expressed great scepticism about the usefulness of the private finance initiative for some of the capital investment that higher education institutions require?

Mr. Robertson: Of course I acknowledge that. I have told various institutions that we consider the private finance initiative as the first option when possible, but in some cases it will not, for whatever reason, be an option. In such cases, more traditional funding is required. The Government have acknowledged that, and I am happy to acknowledge it to the hon. Gentleman.

The Scottish Office is proud of the achievements of our universities and colleges. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall continue to do everything that we can to help them to maintain their international standing.

It being one minute to Two o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Sitting suspended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 10 (Wednesday sittings), till half-past Two o'clock.


City of Edinburgh Council Order Confirmation Bill

Edinburgh Merchant Company Order

Confirmation Bill

Read the Third time, and passed.

6 Nov 1996 : Column 1221

Oral Answers to Questions


Firework Injuries

1. Mr. Jamieson: To ask the President of the Board of Trade what recent discussions he has had with his officials about the latest firework injury statistics. [522]

The Minister for Competition and Consumer Affairs (Mr. John M. Taylor): I discussed the 1995 firework injury statistics with my officials when formulating this year's extensive firework safety campaign.

I hope that it is in order for me to extend my condolences to the families of those killed and injured during the firework season. Nothing that I say can redeem those tragedies, and I will not trespass further on private grief.

Mr. Jamieson: Does the Minister now accept that the folly of deregulating the import controls on dangerous fireworks in 1993 has led to the doubling of firework injuries in the past few years, the serious injury of a man last night and the deaths of Steven Timcke and David Hattersley, a private primary school head teacher? Will the Minister now turn his condolences into action and ban those lethal bombs immediately?

Mr. Taylor: The import licensing regime was replaced in 1993, but the Health and Safety Executive has said that the single authorisation scheme that was put in its place in no way weakens safety controls. We have been running a thorough-going review of firework regulations since July, and nothing will be excluded from the consultation and analysis of the responses that we receive. If any constructive observations come from Opposition Members, I shall take them into account also.

Mr. Heppell: I thank the Minister for expressing his condolences--especially for one of my constituents, Dale Mitchell, a 10-year-old boy who died because of the misuse of fireworks--but consultation was no substitute for action in Dale's case. Will the Minister now take concrete action to ensure that only people aged over 18 are allowed to buy dangerous fireworks?

Mr. Taylor: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments, and for their tone. At risk of saying this twice, our review is thorough-going and extensive; nothing will be excluded from it. The review has been running since 31 July, and we will get it right.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths: May I express the condolences of the whole House to the relatives of those who have suffered death from fireworks? Is the Minister aware that the Health and Safety Executive got it wrong, and that aerial shell fireworks have killed three people since it expressed those views; that he was wrong to reject Labour's call in the House on 17 July to tackle those deadly items; that the Government's abolition of import controls on dangerous fireworks has been a deregulation disaster; and that action was needed before bonfire night,

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not after? Will the Minister now co-operate with Labour to speed legislation through the House to reinstate proper controls and reverse the disastrous deregulation?

Mr. Taylor: It is worth pointing out that we have run probably the most extensive safety campaign on record this year, with 5 million leaflets, 5,000 poster sites and more media communications than we could count. The system of authorisation that is operated by the Health and Safety Executive applies both to home-manufactured fireworks and to imports. Importers who do not seek authorisation, and who do not demonstrate that quality control systems are in place, break the law. That is a criminal offence. Trading standards officers, meanwhile, concentrate on wholesalers and retailers. We have a good system in operation, but we are prepared to review it root and branch.

Business Link

2. Mr. Spring: To ask the President of the Board of Trade what level of financial support business link will receive this year. [523]

The Minister for Small Business, Industry and Energy (Mr. Richard Page): My Department has made available a total of £130 million to business link this financial year, £81 million for business support services and £49 million for business link pump-priming.

Mr. Spring: Is my hon. Friend aware how valuable the services of business links are to many small and medium-sized businesses, especially in rural areas? Given the success of their services, will my hon. Friend assure the House that he is satisfied that the money expended is well spent?

Mr. Page: Without doubt, the creation of business link has provided a step change in the quality of support for the small business man and woman. Across the country, business links are helping to create many jobs, and I expect greater things from them in the future. With any success story, there are bound to be some setbacks, and I was disturbed to hear of the recent difficulties of Wirral business link. The board of directors recently identified evidence that indicated that there had been irregularities involving sums in the order of £600,000. The board has dismissed its managing director, begun civil proceedings to recover the money and appointed a major firm of independent accountants to conduct a thorough investigation.

Mr. Harvey: Will the Government reconsider their policy of cutting public funding for business links after three years? Cannot the Government see the obvious danger that business link will suffer badly if funding is taken away just as it is up and running and beginning to fulfil its potential? While the Government may be right that some private sector funding will be available, what evidence have they that it will be enough? Why, in principle, should not the public sector continue to contribute to that work?

Mr. Page: I do not wish to upset the hon. Gentleman, but the Government have no intention of cutting off funding for business link. As I said in my answer to my

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hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Spring), some £81 million will be provided for business support services. The pump-priming will come to an end after three years, but the business support services will remain. Business links will therefore have a firm base from which to carry out the rest of their operations, which will include charging for some of their services.

Sir John Cope: Will my hon. Friend send his good wishes to the south Gloucestershire business link, which is being launched tomorrow by the south Gloucestershire chamber of commerce of which I am the honorary president, because it will further extend the number of businesses that can benefit from that excellent service?

Mr. Page: As my right hon. Friend would expect, I do extend my best wishes to that latest addition to business link. Already the statistics emerging from business link are most encouraging. More than a million businesses are registered, and we are helping 8,000 to 9,000 businesses every week. The numbers are growing and the success is starting to show. I am now telling business link that the figures are good, but I want output figures and I want to see how profitable are the companies that it is helping, how many jobs have been created and the companies' export figures. I am looking for hard and practical results from business link.

Mrs. Roche: We all support the principle of the one-stop shop that lies behind business link--indeed, it was in our 1992 manifesto--but how can the Minister and the Government escape responsibility in connection with Wirral business link, when it was one of only three business links in the country accredited by a DTI-appointed board for systems, including its own financial accounting systems? The British taxpayer has lost £600,000. Does not that show that the DTI's internal auditors were right to criticise the Deputy Prime Minister for exposing both business link and the Department to financial embarrassment?

Mr. Page: I share the hon. Lady's concern about any business link that does not operate to the highest possible standards, but unlike her I shall not shoot from the hip until a full independent inquiry has taken place and I have the facts to hand. May I help her to understand how the accreditation process works? It is designed to ensure that the quality of service to the customer is up to standard and to examine financial procedures within the business link--but it is not an audit of those finances. There is a fundamental difference between the two.

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