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Mr. Hilary Benn: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions if he will make a statement on the adequacy of the supply of appropriately trained and qualified technical and inspection staff at the Health and Safety Executive; and if he will make a statement. 
Mr. Meacher: The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) regularly and systematically recruits a range of inspection and technical staff. HSE is satisfied with the adequacy of supply for the majority of the posts it seeks to fill. There have been problems filling some very specialist posts where the pool of likely candidates is small, eg Medical Inspectors (Doctors). HSE reviews the outcome of each recruitment exercise and takes whatever steps are necessary to meet its overall professional requirements.
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the standards laid down by the Construction Directorate, attainment of which is necessary for registration on the Constructionline UK Register of Qualified Construction Services. 
Ms Beverley Hughes [holding answer 8 November 2000]: Applicants to Constructionline must have three satisfactory technical references for each work category that they are applying to be registered under. They are also assessed for their financial strength, by means of their accounts or other financial documentation. This information is also used to calculate a recommended maximum contract size, or notation value. All applicants must have a valid tax certificate.
Constructionline has also been piloting in certain sectors a system of devolved technical assessment which is intended to raise the system's technical standards. This procedure is due to be opened up to the whole of Constructionline shortly.
Mr. Coleman: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions what the financial settlement for each London local authority would have been if the 1998 Index of Local Deprivation had been used as the key determinator of the allocation of resources under the Neighbourhood Revenue Fund. 
Ms Beverley Hughes: The proposed allocations for the Neighbourhood Renewal Fund cannot be calculated using the old 1998 Index of Local Deprivation in exactly the same way that they have been determined using the new Indices. The new Indices of Deprivation are very different from the old Index. The new Indices are based on ward level information whereas the old Index relied heavily on district level information and did not adequately capture pockets of deprivation. It would not therefore be appropriate to use the same method to calculate the NRF allocations if only the old Index was available.
Mr. Coleman: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions (1) what mechanisms his Department is using to monitor the changes to council tax regulations; and when he will publish the results of his review of the changes; 
Ms Beverley Hughes: We carried out a review of the council tax in preparation for our 1998 White Paper "Modern Local Government: In Touch with the People". In this we said that the council tax is working well as a local tax and that we have no plans to make major changes to the council tax during the course of this Parliament.
We also said that we would keep the operation of the council tax under review and have done this through liaison with key players such as local authorities, the Local Government Association and other interested parties. As a result we have made a number of minor changes to the council tax since the White Paper. The main ones extended relief under the reduction for disabilities scheme to occupiers of band A dwellings;
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exempted households comprising students and people with a severe mental impairment; restricted the exemption for empty dwellings in need of major repair works to 12 months; and introduced owner liability in respect of certain dwellings occupied by asylum seekers.
Mr. Cousins: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions if the Environment Agency has completed its investigations into the spreading of toxic ash from the Byker Heat station. 
Mr. Meacher: The Environment Agency has completed its investigation into the production and disposal of ash from Byker Combined Heat and Power Plant in Newcastle. A case file has been prepared for submission to the Agency's legal department. The file will be considered in accordance with the Agency's Scheme of Delegation and a decision on enforcement action is expected at the beginning of December.
Mrs. Ellman: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions what steps he is taking to minimise delays in the Merseyside Objective 1 programme as a result of rulings made by the Competition Directorate in the European Commission. 
Ms Beverley Hughes: There is no delay in implementing the Merseyside Objective One programme. It is proceeding well in line with the timetable agreed with the European Commission and the first projects to receive funding will be announced in the next couple of weeks.
Some of the projects intended to deliver part of the programme include substantial physical works involving identified private sector developers. Such projects must adhere to the EC's rules on state aid.
Proposals for securing approval of projects of this kind have been put to the European Commission. We are in constructive dialogue with the EC on this issue and we expect a positive response to our proposals shortly.
Mr. Hancock: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions what assessment he has made of the efficacy of ultrasonic technology in detecting gauge corner cracking defects; and if he will make a statement. 
Mr. Hill: The Health and Safety Executive's (HSE's) Railway Inspectorate has reviewed the relevant ultrasonic rail testing procedures, as described in Railtrack Line Specification RT/CE/S/055 Issue 1A, February 1998. These procedures are highly detailed and appear to be robust. Nevertheless, HSE intends to commission an independent third party review of these procedures as a matter of urgency.
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Mr. Hancock: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions what percentage of the funding provided to Railtrack by the Government, over what timescale, will be allocated to the further development and introduction of alternatives to ultrasound; and if he will make a statement. 
Mr. Hill: Since privatisation, no public money has been paid direct to Railtrack. I understand that Railtrack is considering the procurement of a scoping study to evaluate the suitability for rail inspection of all known forms of non-destructive testing (NDT). The study is to be undertaken by the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. Railtrack will fund development of any NDT technique with the potential to improve current techniques for testing rails.
Mr. Harvey: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions when he will publish the report, commissioned by his Department and the Welsh Office, concerning extraction of mineral aggregates from the Bristol Channel. 
Ms Beverley Hughes: The research report entitled "Bristol Channel Marine Aggregates: Resources and Constraints", commissioned by my Department and the National Assembly for Wales, was published by Posford Duvivier and ABP Research and Consultancy in October 2000. A copy has been placed in the Library of the House.
Mr. Horam: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions if he will take (a) environmental, (b) Green Belt and (c) conservation considerations into account in reaching his decision over Bromley council's request to him to bring into the normal planning regulations the application by Biggin Hill Airport to build a hangar under the permitted use rules. 
Miss McIntosh: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, pursuant to his oral statement of 31 October 2000, Official Report, columns 607-25, on severe weather disruption, when he will write to the hon. Member for the Vale of York on the impact of overhead transmission lines on global warming; and if he will make a statement. 
Mr. Prescott: There is no significant connection between global warming and electricity power lines. Some very minor effects on atmospheric particles have however been noted and I am writing to the hon. Member with further information.
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