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National Weights and Measures Laboratory

Mr. Ennis: To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry if he will now make a statement about his plans for the National Weights and Measures Laboratory. [133933]

Dr. Howells: Further to the reply I gave to the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on 28 June 2000, Official Report, column 518W about the review of the National Weights and Measures Laboratory, Ministers have now considered the reviewer's report. The reviewer has recommended that the policy part of NWML should be taken back into the Department organisationally and that the operational part should be contractorised by merger with the National Physical Laboratory, which is already contractorised. However, he accepted the view of the Review Steering Board that this option should not be pursued until a business plan for the merger could be prepared and until Ministers had assessed its value for money and feasibility. Ministers recognise that the recommended course of action has disadvantages as well as advantages. Nothing will be decided until further studies are complete. The reviewer's report will be published shortly. A copy will be placed in the Library of the House and on the Department's internet website.

Bridge Tolls

Mrs. Gilroy: To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what assessment he has made of the impact on competitiveness for new and current businesses which may be affected by the application of VAT on bridge tolls with particular regard to the Tamar Bridge; and what representations he has made to the Chancellor of the Exchequer about this matter. [133094]

Mr. Caborn: The Tamar Bridge is owned and operated jointly by Plymouth City Council and Cornwall County Council. It would be for them, in the first instance, to make such an assessment in setting toll charges. This Department has supported the Government's vigorous defence of its policy of not levying VAT on toll charges, in the proceedings before the European Court of Justice.

Venture Capital Companies

Mr. Love: To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what steps he is taking to increase the level of investment of pension funds in venture capital companies; and if he will make a statement. [133241]

Ms Hewitt: The Government share the concern about the level of investment that pension funds are currently making in venture capital.

In order to demonstrate to the investment community, including the pension funds, that good commercial returns can be made from investment in venture capital, the Government have established the UK High Technology Fund. The Government's commitment to invest £20 million into this fund has, to date, resulted in co-investment of £62 million from institutional co-investors, including

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pension funds, that are currently otherwise not investing in venture capital. The UK High Technology Fund is still raising money from institutional investors.

The Government have also demonstrated their concerns in this area by recently commissioning a review by Paul Myners, the Chairman of Gartmore Investment Managers, into any possible underlying structural factors which may deter institutional investment.

Payment of Bills

Mr. Miller: To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry what proportion of bills were paid on time by Government Departments and their Agencies during the financial year 1999-2000. [133786]

Ms Hewitt: I am pleased to announce that there has been a further improvement in the payment performance of central Government as a whole. The overall payment performance shows that 97.8 per cent. of suppliers' bills were paid on time and Departments are making good progress towards meeting the 100 per cent. target set for this financial year.

There is no room for complacency. It is particularly important that the public sector sets an example to business and is seen to pay its bills on time. I am disappointed to see that a number of Departments and Agencies failed to meet this year's target of 100 per cent. I have taken steps to remind all Departments and Agencies of the importance of paying suppliers' bills on time and meeting the target.

I am particularly disappointed at my own Department's failure to meet the target. It is unacceptable that the Department which has overall responsibility for the Government's policy on prompt payment should itself fail to meet the target. My officials are introducing new measures designed to ensure that the DTI meets the target as soon as possible next year.

The Government are committed to improving the UK's payment culture. Late payment is a serious problem, particularly for small businesses. Not knowing when customers' bills will be paid means uncertain cashflow, increased borrowings, higher costs and reduced profits.

Government Departments and their Agencies are required to monitor their payment performance and to publish the results in their departmental or annual reports. The following table lists, by Department, the proportion of bills paid within 30 days, or other agreed credit period, of receipt of a valid invoice for the financial year 1999-2000.

Government Departments Payment Performance 1999-2000

Main DepartmentsPaid on time (Percentage)
National Weights and Measures Laboratory(1)100.00
National Investment and Loans Office100.00
Privy Council Office100.00
Radiocommunications Agency(1)99.98
Registry of Friendly Societies99.90
Ministry of Defence99.77
Department for Culture, Media and Sport99.59
Land Registry99.26
Patent Office(1)99.13
Office of Water Services99.07
Public Records Office99.06
Ordnance Survey98.90
Government Actuary's Department98.84
Export Credit Guarantee Department98.60
Insolvency Service(1)98.56
HM Treasury98.51
Office for National Statistics98.51
Office of Fair Trading98.49
Office for Standards in Education98.40
Office of the Rail Regulator98.20
HM Customs and Excise98.06
Inland Revenue97.98
NI Department. Health Estates97.95
Foreign and Commonwealth Office97.90
Intervention Board for Agricultural Produce97.81
Office of Telecommunications97.68
Health and Safety Executive97.58
Northern Ireland Office97.56
Crown Prosecution Service97.50
Lord Chancellor's Department97.42
Charitable Commission97.39
Department for Education and Employment97.31
Forestry Commission97.30
NI Department of Education97.28
Government Communications HQ97.14
PFO (GCHQ)97.14
Department for National Savings97.10
Department for International Development96.82
Office of the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration and Health Service Commissioners96.48
Home Office96.34
NI Court Service96.32
Cabinet Office (OPS)96.24
Department of Health95.28
Department of Social Security95.14
Shadow Strategic Rail Authority94.78
Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions94.70
Serious Fraud Office94.49
Royal Parks Agency(1)94.00
NI Department. Environment inc. agencies93.05
Treasury Solicitors Department93.05
Department of Trade and Industry93.00
Employment Tribunal Service(1)93.00
NI Department of Agriculture and Rural Development92.83
Companies House(1)92.34
Royal Mint91.00
NI Department of Finance and Personnel90.22
Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food89.51
Overall total97.89

(1) Agencies of the Department of Trade and Industry

(1) Agency in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport

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Competitive Mail Delivery

Mr. Mitchell: To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (1) what financial interests the Royal Mail holds in mail or parcel services in member states of the European Union; how much was received in respect of such interests in the last financial year; and if it counted toward any payment from the Royal Mail to the Chancellor of the Exchequer; [132666]

Mr. Alan Johnson: The Royal Mail holds no subsidiaries or financial interests in mail or parcel services in member states (outside of the UK). However the Post Office interests are as follows.

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Company Member stateStatus (share holding)
CityMail Sweden ABSweden(1)67
Citipost US based but with offices in Europe including France and Germany(1)100
Crie GroupFrance(1)100
Der KurierGermany(1)100
Extand S.A.France(1)100
German ParcelGermany(1)100
General Parcel AustriaAustria(1)100
Nederlandse Paket DienstThe Netherlands(1)100

(1) Majority ownership.

(1) Fully owned.

The contributions of overseas interests to profits is reported in the Report and Accounts.

Mr. Mitchell: To ask the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, pursuant to his answers of 13 June 2000, Official Report, columns 595-96W, and 10 July 2000, Official Report, columns 372-73W, concerning successive reductions in the lower limit authorising competitive mail delivery, what treaty article was used as the basis for Directive 96/97; when he expects to receive the advice of the Postal Services Commission concerning the further reduction to the limit; if he will list its members and who appointed them; what monopoly limits were in force in the United Kingdom for such Crown monopolies prior to and immediately after accession to the European Community for letters and packets; and when they were reduced or eliminated. [132664]

Mr. Alan Johnson: As stated in the answer of 13 June 2000, Official Report, columns 595-96W, Directive 96/97 was made under Articles 57(2), 66 and 100a of the Treaty establishing the European Community (now Articles 47(2), 55 and 95 in the consolidated version of the EU Treaty and the EC Treaty made by the Treaty of Amsterdam).

The advice of the Postal Services Commission concerning the minimum reserved area necessary to maintain the universal service is expected to be available during the first half of 2001.

I refer my hon. Friend to the answer given to my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) on 4 June 2000, Official Report, columns 186-87W, which gave details of the appointment of members and chairman of the advisory Postal Services Commission which took up its functions under the Postal Services Regulations (S.I.1999/2107). They were appointed by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

The UK joined the European Communities on 1 January 1973. The postal privilege of the Post Office before and after entry to the European Community was as defined in the Post Office Act 1969 where it was limited to the conveyance of letters (regardless of weight or price). The Postal Privilege (Suspension) Order (S.I.1981/1483) suspended the postal privilege in relation to the conveyance of a letter which is conveyed in consideration of a payment of not less than £1. The Order came into operation on 7 November 1981. It followed the introduction of the British Telecommunications Act 1981. The Postal Services Regulations (S.I.1999/2107) which

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also introduced the 350 gram element came into effect on 1 September 1999 but the pricing structure meant that this did not make any material change.

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