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Eye-Tests (Drivers)

Mr. Pickles: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions what tests (a) train drivers and (b) drivers of public service vehicles are required to take to determine their ability to distinguish between colours; and how often they are required to take them. [101167]

Mr. Hill: Train drivers are required to pass a medical which includes a test for colour blindness, using the Ishihara Plates Test. Train drivers are also required to meet certain visual acuity requirements. The period between medical assessments is determined by the age of the train drivers; those aged less than 56 are medically assessed every five years, those aged 56 to 62 every two years, and train drivers over 62 every 12 months.

Drivers of passenger carrying vehicles (PCV's) are not tested specifically for colour blindness but do need to meet certain visual acuity requirements.

Local Authority Housing Finance

Mr. Coaker: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions what further consultations he proposes on the detail of his proposals to reform local authority housing finance. [101417]

Mr. Raynsford: Improving local authority financial accounting is an important part of our agenda to modernise local government. As part of our plan to introduce resource accounting to local authority housing finance, we intend to remove rent rebates from the Housing Revenue Account (HRA). Today I have published a consultation paper asking for views on the details of how this could be done. Removing rent rebates from the HRA will make councils housing finances simpler and more transparent. It will be easier for local residents to see how money is being spent, increasing openness and accountability. Copies of the new consultation paper have been placed in the Library of the House. We published two other consultation papers earlier in the month on other aspects of improving local authority housing finance.

Nitrate-vulnerable Zones

Mrs. Mahon: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions if he is proposing further designations of nitrate vulnerable zones in England; and if he will make a statement. [101592]

Mr. Mullin: Following a reference to the European Court of Justice, the Government have now widened their interpretation of the EU Nitrates Directive, beyond monitoring nitrate levels in drinking water sources, to include monitoring in non-drinking water freshwaters. It is expected that this extended testing will lead to the

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designation of new Nitrate-vulnerable Zones, in which Action Programme measures will help to reduce nitrate levels in water. Nitrate levels in non-drinking surface waters are already being monitored by the Environment Agency and parallel work will be undertaken to establish nitrate levels in groundwater not used as a source of drinking water.

Technical assessment of the extended monitoring as a result of this change is already under way, and completion of the associated mapping of areas proposed for designation is expected next year. The Government will then publish a consultation paper, detailing their designation proposals, which will set out the exact number and location of the new Nitrate-vulnerable Zones. It is expected that, as with existing Nitrate-vulnerable Zones, the majority of any new designations will be in central and eastern England.

River Thames (Safety)

Mr. Gardiner: To ask the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions when Lord Justice Clarke's interim report on safety on the River Thames will be published. [101593]

Mr. Hill: Lord Justice Clarke's interim report has been published today (CM 4530). The report deals with safety on the River Thames and is the first product of the Thames Safety Inquiry, which the Deputy Prime Minister announced on 18 August this year. I am glad to receive this welcome and thorough report, which is helpful as we approach the Millennium celebrations. Lord Justice Clarke has asked for any comments on the report by 10 December, and I will be very interested to see all the reactions to his recommendations.

I will, of course, review the report in detail and have already asked the Department for an action plan to be submitted to Ministers before Christmas. I have the following immediate announcements:

    I am grateful for the extensive planning already done to ensure safety on the River on Millennium night by the Port of London Authority (PLA), by the Government Office for London and by the emergency services. As Minister for London, I have been closely involved and fully concur with Lord Justice Clarke's conclusion that the emergency services are as prepared as they can reasonably be expected to be for the Millennium celebrations. This should reassure users of the river and its banks that they will be able to enjoy a spectacular evening in safety.

    In the past few months the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) has inspected every passenger ship operating between the Thames Barrier and Teddington Lock to make sure they continue to operate safely. Each vessel now carries a specific Search and Rescue (SAR) plan agreed with PLA, and those plans will also be approved by MCA before the Millennium.

    As to the important issue of alcohol controls:

    My Department has today issued a public consultation paper on the introduction of alcohol controls, considering options not only in relation to masters and crew of merchant shipping and fishing vessels, but also for those navigating other vessels (including privately owned pleasure craft). We will finalise our proposals next year in light of comments received.

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    As to the year 2000, when we expect peak use of the Thames:

    In the coming year, MCA will continue its enhanced programme of inspections of passenger ships on the Thames, to ensure continued operational safety.

    Riverbank authorities are urgently invited to review the provision of bankside life-saving equipment in light of Lord Justice Clarke's recommendation.

    We are studying urgently how we can improve search and rescue facilities on the river allowing for those already provided by the Port of London Authority, the River Police and the London Fire Brigade. We are considering, in collaboration with other relevant authorities, the provision on an experimental basis, of an inshore rescue craft service on the Thames. Any such provision would be reviewed later in 2000 to inform decisions on permanent provision on the river in the light of operational experience. I am glad to announce that the PLA would be willing to manage this experiment for the Department.

    The Department will also work closely with PLA to produce a formal assessment of the risks associated with navigation on the tidal Thames. This will include consideration of search and rescue arrangements, as recommended by Lord Justice Clarke. I have asked for the first results of this assessment to be sent to me personally as soon as possible so that it can influence further planning.

    As to subsequent years:

    I am attracted by the recommendation that a duty should be imposed upon an appropriate single authority to assess and ensure the provision and coordination of search and rescue facilities on the Thames. I have asked for urgent advice on what legislation would be needed to secure its legal and financial basis. This will underpin the progress on safety which Lord Justice Clarke acknowledges has already been made and is now further enhanced by his recommendations.

I am grateful for Sir Anthony Clarke's practical proposals for the Thames safety regime. I now look forward to receiving his final report, which will contain his recommendation on whether there is a case for a further investigation or inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the Marchioness disaster.


Crime Fighting Fund

Mr. Hope: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department when he intends to publish the bidding guidelines for forces to follow when bidding for a share of the Crime Fighting Fund for police recruits. [101472]

Mr. Straw: I have today placed a copy of the Bidding Guidelines, together with a copy of the form which forces and police authorities should use to apply for a share of the fund, in the Library.

Copies of the Guidelines and the form were sent to all Chief Constables and Chairmen of police authorities today. Those wishing to bid should complete the form and return it to the Home Office by 10 January 2000.

Immigration and Nationality Directorate

Mr. Hope: To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department when he expects to make available the latest revisions of the Immigration and Nationality Directorate's country assessments. [101473]

Mrs. Roche: Revised country assessments were made available to caseworkers during September 1999. They will be made publicly available on the Home Office internet site

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within the next few weeks and copies have been placed in the Library. The assessments are all sourced to information obtained from independent external sources and from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

A list of the countries for which assessments are prepared was previously set out in a reply from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department to my hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Twigg) on 13 May 1998, Official Report, columns 127-28W. They are revised at six-monthly intervals, previously in March and September. The schedule will change to April and October from 2000.

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